Promises: Part Eight

Part Eight

Wednesday evening….

As she sat across from him at the chess table contemplating her next move, Stephen surreptitiously studied his granddaughter, finding her intelligence and strong, competitive spirit fascinating.

Dressed in her robe and pajamas, she was supposed to be upstairs and in the bed, allowing the cold medicine her mother insisted she take before she left, to do its work. Instead, shortly after her parents’ departure, she crept back down to him, complaining about being both left behind and bored to tears. He had been no match for the pitiful look on her face or her plea to be allowed to remain down there in the study with him. Truth be told, he hadn’t put up much of a fight.

He didn’t say it to her, but she was the reason he opted to stay home rather than go with Jennifer, Jonathan, and Marnie to meet Bill’s son and his family when they arrived. He had already seen the new place, and there would be time enough for him to become acquainted with the newcomers. Even though Walter and Rosa would have been there with her, the idea of leaving Justine on her own, at home and ill, didn’t quite sit well with him. Faced with this delightful opponent, he was glad that he followed his mind.

Tentatively, as if not quite sure she should, her slender fingers slowly slid her king. His eyes followed the piece as it moved from one square to another, and he shook his head; it was the wrong action for her to have taken.

“Checkmate.”

When he captured her king, she dropped back in her chair with a heavy sigh, rolling her eyes with an exasperation he could see was strictly limited to herself. Then she smiled. “Okay, Pa. Where did I go wrong?”

He loved that about her. She seldom won against him, but when she lost, she took it in stride, usually asking to be shown where she made her mistakes. He noticed; however, that as she was getting older, when she visited and they played together, it was taking a bit more maneuvering and time to defeat her. She was a smart one, no doubt about it.

“Here,” he said, replacing some pieces on the board. “Watch. When you…”

She leaned forward, closely following what he said and did as he step-by-step replayed their moves.

When he finished, she sat back again, slowly shaking her head. “I’ll never be as good as you. I can beat Daddy more often than I do you, but I kind of think Daddy lets me win, though.”

“I doubt that.” Stephen  began removing the remaining ebony pieces from the marble board, fitting them into the velvet-lined drawer underneath. “Your father does not strike me as the type to allow someone to best him in competition simply to appease an ego, not even your ego, as much as he loves you and tries to appease you. Give yourself the credit you are due. You are simply improving.”

“But not enough to beat you.”

He raised his eyes from what he was doing and winked at her. “No, darling. Not yet.”

Sliding the drawer closed, he gestured to the humidor on the side table. She got up, headed in the direction he indicated, and returned to him with a cigar, which she lit for him once he had it ready. “Want a brandy, too, Pa?”

“No, I think I’ll pass this time. Sit back down, Justine. I want to ask you something.”

Backing up to the chair across from him, she drew up one leg to sit on it, before giving him her full attention.

“About this Theodore fellow.”

Without missing a beat, she came right back. “You know, I’m glad you brought him up, Pa. I’ve been wanting to speak with you about him, too.”

_____________________________________________________________

Pat and Bill’s game room seemed to have swallowed the kids whole, but Jonathan couldn’t blame them for going in there and not coming out. Under different circumstances, he might have been right in there with them. Aside from coming out to speak when he and Jennifer arrived and to meet Marnie, who they scooped up and took back with them, the four young men hadn’t been seen or heard.

No expense had been spared in that well-appointed room. There was an eight foot pool table, a 62″ television with “surround-sound”, and state-of-the-art computer and game systems. In planning for it, Bill had consulted with his son, Peter. A computer geek at heart and a longtime gamer himself, Peter knew just what his boys- and Marnie’s brother, Kyle, would need to keep them happy and occupied while visiting Hamilton-McDowell Farms.

They had come down from Briarwood after dinner, bringing Marnie with them to allow J.J. to rest. They found Peter and Lisa eagerly waiting for them, hoping to learn more about Pat and Bill who still hadn’t turned up. Comparing notes, it seemed nobody had heard from either of them since earlier in the day when Peter spoke with his Dad. Jennifer and Lisa had since gone into the library to review, in Pat’s absence, the final arrangements for the wedding ceremony and the reception.

In Bill’s comfortable den, or “man cave” as Lisa termed it, he and Peter were seated at the bar where they had mostly surfed channels while talking sports and technology, seemingly avoiding delving too deeply into the possible reasons for the conspicuous absence of the principal pair. It was just as well, Jonathan figured; he only had his own speculations to go on. Jennifer hadn’t been able to shed a lot of light on what Pat’s problem might be, not that there had been much time for them to really talk about it. All that he had gotten from her was that Bill’s showing up cut Pat off from possibly telling her, a detail he noticed she hadn’t shared with Peter and Lisa. In fact, she hadn’t mentioned to them being with Pat in Long Island at all. Jennifer’s ability to synopsize a complicated story was beyond impressive.

Thinking it unwise to share them with Jennifer or Peter , he’d kept his own thoughts about Pat’s problems to himself. After all, they were only suppositions on his part. But the longer he entertained them, the more plausible to him they were becoming.

Above and beyond all of that; however, and indirectly because of it, he was dog-tired. It had been over twenty-four hours since he’d had any real sleep, and his bed had been lonely for days, making even his more restful nights less than satisfying. Jennifer, despite her congenial facade, had to also be worn out, if not physically then emotionally. Most likely, it was both.

He leaned back on the bar stool, stretching his arms over his head. “Well, young man, I think this old man is going to have to call it a night. I am bushed.”

“It’s got nothing to do with old or young, Uncle Jonathan. I’d be tired, too, if I’d been tearing about like you have today.”  Peter was stubbing out what remained of the skinny cigar he had been smoking. “Sure wish we could hear something from Dad and Pat. I guess if something had happened to them, we’d have heard by now, being who they are. Whatever the situation, at least they’re together. One thing I can be sure of is they’re good for each other.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said through a yawn. “I agree with you on that.”

He rose from the barstool and smoothed this slacks. Then he stretched one more time while Peter went around to the other side of the bar where he turned on the tap and began clearing the countertop. “You go ahead on, Uncle Jonathan. I know you have to pack the bags you brought here and collect your family before you go back to Briarwood. I’ll clean up in here.”

Leaving Peter in the den, Jonathan’s first thought was to check on Marnie, but he just as quickly decided against it. The game room was too far out of the way of his ultimate destination. He opted instead to go directly upstairs.

_____________________________________________________________

“You know, I’m glad you brought him up, Pa. I’ve been wanting to speak with you about him, too.”

It wasn’t the response Stephen expected from her, but he wasn’t really surprised by it. Justine had never been predictable. “You first.”

“No, you, Pa. Please. You introduced the topic, and really, what I want to say actually depends on what you say.”

“It would seem you have been anticipating this.”

“Well, I kind of figured with Teddy coming here, to your house, to see me that you would have an opinion about it.”

“And you were right. So what is your affiliation with this young man?”

“No affiliation in the boy-girl sense, Pa. We are strictly friends. That’s all. Just two people who enjoy each other’s company.”

Stephen took a deep drag off his cigar and lifted his chin to send a thick, aromatic cloud billowing toward the ceiling before focusing his attention back on his granddaughter.

“Justine, that boy has been criss-crossing the map to get to you ever since he met you. That is due to more than his mere enjoyment of your company.”

“But that doesn’t mean that he’s my boyfriend or anything. I don’t have a boyfriend, Pa, and I don’t want one. It takes two people to make that kind of relationship, and one of those two people is not me. I admit, I was attracted to him a lot in the beginning, and I still think he’s quite handsome and very nice, but it’s not like that for me. Not yet, at least. Boys are okay, but-”

“But?”

“Well, see, there’s just too much drama involved in getting all wrapped up in somebody. Both of you trying to keep up with each other, all up in each other’s business. The guy acting all immature, cheating on you, lying, telling you how special you are while at the same time he’s saying the same thing to some other girl he’s trying to get with.”

“Get with?”

“Be with. Take out. You know, date.”

He nodded. “I see.”

“Then you have those people who have nothing better to do than carry stories back and forth, trying to start up some jealousy or some controversy. Not to mention the possessiveness; boys can get carried away, thinking they own the girl or something once they start dating her. No boys is going to make any claims on me. At this point, only Daddy can: he pays my bills and he is my father, so he’s entitled to that.”

Stephen smiled at that, thinking to himself how she had that part of it right.

She continued with her explanation. “Then you have other girls wanting to fight you over your boyfriend. You and your boyfriend watching each other like hawks all the time because you don’t really, truly trust each other. It’s- it’s just too limiting, too distracting, and too- I don’t know. I just don’t have that kind of time right now, and I don’t want to spend that kind of energy on one person. I’m doing good just trying to take care of me.”

“Well.”

She tipped her head. “Well, what?”

“You’re doing well just taking care of you.”

“Oh, yes, well. I’m doing well taking care of me.”

As he studied her and the language of her body, he could see that she was completely serious, not just selling him a bill of goods to get him to back off the topic, and he was pleased with her.

Just keep doing well for a while longer, my darling.

Maintaining his outer seriousness, that face and her candor had him smiling on the inside. She might look like her predecessors, but their Justine was definitely her own person. He rested his head against the back of the chair and brought the cigar to his lips again.

“So now, tell me about this boy.”

_____________________________________________________________

Jonathan was surprised to find Jennifer already in the bedroom. His suitcase was open on the bed, and she was folding his pajamas into it on top of the other items that evidently, she had already placed inside.

“You have a button missing on this pajama top and two pairs of your socks don’t match.”

“I don’t do too well packing for trips on my own.”

“So I see.”

She continued working, sliding his slippers into the built-in shoe bag. “Well, I haven’t gathered up your toiletries yet. You can do that while I finish here.”

Even though they had been in two different areas of the house, apparently they had both been on the same wavelength about being ready to leave, thus affirming that absolute bond they shared.

“You in some sort of hurry, Mrs. Hart?”

“I’m dead on my feet, Mr. Hart.”

He picked up the small bag from the chair and headed for the bathroom. “I figured you had to be, with all you went through last night and all you’ve done today. Did you and Lisa get everything worked out?”

“There was nothing to work out. As always, Pat has the details plotted right down to who sets what where; she doesn’t make extra work for people nor does she leave anything to chance. There isn’t really anything Lisa and I need to do other than be here. The people from Structure will arrive at the crack of dawn on Friday to erect the tents, the covered walkway from the house, and get the generators for the heat and electricity started. The materials are already here; all they have to do is assemble them.Then Design Palace shows up around noon to get the furnishings installed and set else everything up. It will be non-stop after that with caterers and all in and out. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and there’s that to get through even before Friday gets here. For now, I just need to get back to Pa’s, soak in a tub, and get into a bed. And that’s after I check on my congested child, who I’ll bet you ten to one hasn’t done a thing I told her to do in terms of letting that medicine I gave her work.”

Still packing the travel bag, Jonathan was tickled by her take on J.J.’s actions in their absence. J.J. had been none too happy about being made to stay in and be still yet another time, and he had no doubt that Jennifer’s assessment was anything less than accurate, but he had to ask. “Now how much can she get away with, darling? We left her with the best babysitter she could have.”

“Jonathan, my father’s stern demeanor is all show when it comes to her. He may be a more rigid brand of putty than you, but in J.J. Hart’s warm little hands, her grandfather breaks down into a malleable lump, too.”

When he returned to the bedroom, she was still at the side of the bed, but bent from the waist as she closed and fastened the suitcase. The view was attractive and highly tempting.

“I can feel your eyes on me, Jonathan.”

“As good as you look right now, in that position, if I had more energy, you’d be feeling more than my eyes on you.”

“And you would be on your own in the act.”

Finished with the suitcase, she stood upright again and turned around, tossing back her hair from her eyes. “Like you, I don’t have the energy. You could do whatever you wanted; I’d only be there in mind- if that.”

First dropping the bag in his hand onto the bed, he took her in his arms and pulled her to him. “Whatever I want, you say? Ooh, in light of that, I might have to tap into some residual vigor from my inner resource tank.”

Resting her arms on his shoulders, she locked her fingers behind his head and rose on her toes to give him a quick peck on the lips. “Um-hmm, and from what I’m feeling down there, that inner resource tank of yours must be pretty easily accessed.”

“When it’s being called upon for you.” He kissed both her cheeks, and then the tip of her nose. “I have missed you sooo much.”

She smiled, lowering her arms to hug him about the waist. “And I’ve missed you. This is such a nice place Bill and Pat have made for themselves; I wish I could have spent time here with you. Not in a million years would I have thought that Farrell’s old rustic horse farm could be made this lovely. How well does the bed sleep?”

Now busy with her neck, he didn’t raise his head to answer her. “Can’t say. Missing variables. My assessment wouldn’t be accurate at this time.”

“Missing variables?”

“You weren’t in it with me. I haven’t been in it with you. We haven’t been in the bed together, so I wouldn’t know how well it sleeps. My evaluation wouldn’t be valid at this time.”

Her laughter was soothing to his ears, like morning rain or soft music as he continued to nibble at hers. “Oh, Jonathan. You’re horrible.”

“But I’m honest. I’m horribly reliable when it comes to reporting on collected data, especially data of an intimate, you and me, nature.”

“So I’ve noticed. I like the housekeeper, Sarah. What did you think of her?”

“Nice enough, I guess. But again, it didn’t matter. You weren’t here, so I really couldn’t concentrate on any of that.”

He moved his hands down to massage her lower back, mindful of how it tended to stiffen on her when she was tired or stressed. There was something he could sense in the way she was holding him. A faint hint of tension. He pulled back a little to be able to see into her face, her eyes. It was there, flickering faintly, but enough for him to be able to detect it.

“Jennifer, what’s wrong?”

Immediately, she shifted her gaze downward, a protective maneuver she employed when she felt her eyes might give her thoughts away, which they often did. It was a move he was quick enough to outfox her on most of the time, but he had never been able to discern when she was using it to safeguard herself or when she was trying to shield him.

“Nothing, darling. Just my mind working overtime. Tired and need to rest. There are still a couple of things I need to do once we get back to Briarwood before I can call it a night. I’d like to get them out of the way.”

Concluding from her evasive tone that it wasn’t a good time, or perhaps not the right time, to press her for what he felt was something deeper and more important that was bothering her, he leaned in, ducking his head to catch her lips with his own. They shared a brief, but intense kiss before ending the embrace.

“I’ll take the bags down and let Marnie know that we’re ready to go,” he said as he stepped around her to get to the luggage on the bed.

She was already conducting a visual scan of the room. “Well, I guess if we’ve missed anything, it won’t be too hard to retrieve it. It’s not as if we’re leaving a hotel room and-”

Their eyes met again, and she instantly blushed while he leered. “Now that was wonderful. You and that sable.”

Her hands shot to her hips as her foot patted the carpet. “Jonathan Hart, where in the world are my things?”

He could hardly contain his devilish grin. “What things?”

“Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be?” Raising that one eyebrow to him, she turned and began walking away. “We will talk about it later.”

As he followed her to the door, checking her out from that rear angle again, he was picturing her in her “things”, that ankle bracelet with those high-heeled pumps, all wrapped up in that sumptuous fur.

My body might be tired, but I’m not brain dead…umh, umh,uummh….

_____________________________________________________________

At the same time, Jennifer was thinking of the sable, too, but in relation to someone else.

I guess you did catch a cold ….

That was yet another something on her “To do” list, or in this case yet another someone to do. But that little matter could wait.

_____________________________________________________________

Stephen had been mostly listening as Justine told him about the boy she met at her mother’s reunion the previous summer, that Teddy.

He was a Brookfield Prep student, a senior, who resided in Boston with his father between semesters because his parents were divorced. The youngest of his father’s four children, he was the only son in the brood. Currently, he was in Virginia visiting with his mother and two of his sisters, where he would be spending Thanksgiving. His oldest sister, Justine said, a half-sister, lived in New York where her mother also made her home.

How complicated and messy that is. Perhaps that explains the boy being boarded at school when his father lives so close by. That would be the proper thing to do; allow the son to grow without bearing burdens that are not his to carry.

“Teddy loves theatre, Pa. He’s very talented. He writes and directs plays. He also performs in them. He can dance, and he has a marvelous singing voice.”

Stephen took another long pull from the cigar and slowly exhaled. “What kind of student is he? What are his marks, and what of his standing in his class?”

“He makes decent grades. I don’t know his academic standing.”

“Top ten?”

“I don’t know.”

But the way her eyes shifted away from his said she had a pretty good idea the boy was not in the top ten. “What is his grade point average?”

By that time, the conversation had her squirming in the chair. She switched to sitting on the other leg before she answered.

“Three-something.”

Stephen did not let up on her, despite her obvious discomfort with the topic. “Upper or lower ‘three-something’, Justine?”

“I don’t know, Pa. For real. We don’t really dwell on that kind of thing. When we talk, it’s more about what we’re doing and what’s going in our lives. Not school.”

“Justine Jennifer Hart, you are my only grandchild and you are first seat in your class, so you know full well I am going to have something to say about you associating with dullards. I don’t care how handsome or talented or amusing they might be or how marvelously they can sing.”

“He’s not a dullard; it’s just that boys aren’t always as motivated as girls to do well in school, but-”

“Well, I say he needs to be motivated to do well in his studies if he thinks he is going to keep company with my granddaughter on any lev-”

“- he holds his own in his classes. His father isn’t going to let him slack and be too dumb. Mr. Baxter is pretty tough on him when it comes to school. That’s how Teddy ended up having to tend the horses at Gresham last summer and having to go to summer school. He let his grades slip some during the school year, so his father made him do that job as punishment and take summer courses to make up for the ones he messed up on.”

“Hmph, good man.”

“So, are you still going to make him come in here and talk with you?”

“Probably.”

Watching her fingers as they worked at that emerald ring, he was reminded of her mother. Jennifer’s teen-aged hands had been just as animated during the more intense conversations he was forced to conduct with her over some transgression she had committed at school. With Jennifer, it had been an only parent desperately trying to properly rein in his spirited daughter. But this was Justine, and with her, the pressure on him wasn’t as great; it wasn’t really his. Thus, he had to concentrate hard on staying in character, the uncompromising, concerned grandfather, but the struggle was proving awfully difficult. She reminded him too much of someone else.

“So, what does your father think of him?”

“Daddy likes him, I guess. As much as he’s going to like any boy that comes to see me. See, Daddy’s kind of paranoid about that; boys, I mean. I keep telling him there’s no need, but he hems up my guy friends anyway every time they come around trying to take me somewhere, even if it’s just to the arcade or skating at the pier. He says he needs to make sure they understand just whose daughter I am, as if there were some question about that. You know, if I did want to have a boyfriend, I’d be out of luck. My daddy would scare the poor guy off before we ever stood even a ghost of a chance at a relationship.”

Stephen frowned with suppressing the urge to laugh, stifling it with the release of another fragrant cloud. “That is exactly as it should be, my dear.”

Turnabout is fair play, son-in-law. This one, sent here with your eyes, is quite pretty, too. I’ll wager she is going to be just as attractive, if not even more so, to the young men darkening your doorstep.

Her body abruptly twitched, as if startled by something, which drew his focus back to her. He watched as she reached into her robe pocket and pulled out her cell phone, holding it up for him to see. “Scared me. I forgot I had it on vibrate. Someone’s calling me.”

“At this hour?”

“It’s not all that late, at least not for me to get a call. Excuse me.”

As she clicked in, he sat back to reflect.

Modern teenagers. On the phone at all hours of the night. Gone are the days when one could simply take the damn thing off the hook in another room until after the girl was asleep. Now the phone is with her all the time, and there is no longer a hook from which to remove it.

Caught up in his own thoughts, he hadn’t really been paying attention to her exchange, so it surprised him when she held the tiny gadget out to him, nudging it against his arm. “Telephone, Pa. It’s for you.”

“For me? Who would be phoning me from your pocket?”

She didn’t answer him, but he thought he detected mischief twitching at her lips; she appeared to be trying not to smile. He took the phone from her and held it to his ear.

“Stephen Edwards here.”

Between the plea coming from the phone and the one in the blue eyes staring at him, his usual resolve, much like the smoke from his cigar, slowly rose from his person and dissipated into the air.

_____________________________________________________________

An ESPN commercial was playing on the television. Partially filled glasses with ice cubes that hadn’t melted, stood in the cup holders of two of the theatre chairs, one of which remained partially reclined even though there was nobody in it. Playing cards had been pushed in a jumbled heap to the middle of the table, but he could tell there had been at least three hands going during the game. A jumbo bag of potato chips, a partially filled bowl of pretzels, an almost empty two-liter bottle of Coke and three used glasses were also there. Three of the four chairs had been pushed back, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Jonathan concluded that the room had been hastily, and very recently, departed.

“Oh,” a voice behind him said. “I thought the children were in here. I was coming to see if there was anything else they needed.”

Jonathan turned around to address Bill’s housekeeper, Sarah. “And I was coming to get the young lady that my wife and I brought with us. Have you seen her?”

“No sir, she was in here with the grandsons when last I saw her. She was sitting right there at the table, playing cards with the youngest boys. I’ve been all over the house getting it ready for the young Mr. and Mrs., and I haven’t seen her or the boys. They couldn’t have gone outside, I don’t guess; not as cold as it is. But perhaps they went out to the stable to look at the horses.”

Sarah picked up the house phone on a side table and pressed a button. After a few moments, without having said anything to anyone, she clicked one button, then pushed another, holding her hand over the end of the receiver to report in a low voice, “No answer at the stable. I’m trying the bunkhouse.”

The bunkhouse had been converted into a guesthouse for the boys. Those boys knew better than to have taken her there, even if only to show her around.

By that time, though, other possible scenarios were forming in his head. Going to the back of the room, he opened a door, and walked a short corridor to enter the garage. The gleaming new matching Cadillacs were both parked inside as was Bill’s Range Rover. He breathed sigh of relief.

At least they’re not that crazy…

When he made it back to the game room, Peter was with Sarah. Before he could even open his mouth, the look on the younger man’s face said it all. “They got me for the rental car, Uncle Jonathan; it’s gone. All four of them and Marnie, it seems. Four damn cell phones, for which I pay the bills, and not one of them is picking up.”

For a moment all Jonathan could do was stand there shaking his head, not quite sure if he should be irritated at having been circumvented or impressed by the stealth of movement. Evidently nobody had seen them make their departure.

Five phones. Six, if I count that other one that will be conveniently placed out of earshot. I know better than to try to call those last two.

Jennifer appeared at the door, arranging her scarf around her shoulders with one hand, working at fastening the top button on her coat with the other. “Does Marnie already have her jacket? I didn’t see it in-” Her eyes scanned the room and then the adult occupants, stopping on Jonathan. “Where is she? Where are the boys?”

Jonathan took her by the arm, turned her around, and began moving her back through the door.

“Jonathan?”

“Just come on, darling.”

_____________________________________________________________

From a discreet distance, standing in the front hall in a spot where he would be undetected by the young people in the room, Stephen was able to observe the activity in his parlor. His heart was fuller than it had been in a very long time. The youthful exuberance, the lively chatter, the laughter; it had been decades since Briarwood- since that room- had seen such activity. Although he was not a part of it, he delighted in the part of himself that was, the part that was bringing life back to a place that had so long been dormant and still.

She happily sat in the middle of it all, flashing that hereditary smile. Who ever would have known? Could have guessed?

Working with the architects on the design of their proposed new home, Suzanne dreamily envisioned that room one day being used by her yet-to-be children for the purpose of entertaining their guests. When Jennifer was born, Suzanne would sit in there with her infant daughter to enjoy the sunlight. Jennifer had been a November baby and an early baby, at that. Thus, the weather had been too cold for her mother to walk with her outside. As he stood in that hall, he could envision them, the sunlight glinting off Suzanne’s lush dark copper hair as she told their baby girl stories, speaking to Jennifer as if she could understand what was being said to her.

…French. Suzanne usually spoke to Jennifer in her native tongue.

Much to his consternation, in that parlor, she would sit and tell baby Jennifer of the young men who would one day come to visit with her in that room to try to talk her into loving them…

Such a romantic, that girl was.

… and she also would warn her daughter of the need to be careful about who she chose to let into her life because she was going to be such a pretty girl. Pretty girls, Suzanne told her, had to be able to discern who wanted them for their face and who really loved them for their spirit and their heart.

As fate would have it, he and Suzanne would only have that one girl. That one smart, strong-willed, determined, very pretty girl.

But Jennifer left Briarwood well before she was old enough to use that room for the purpose her mother intended. By the time she was of age, the young men with whom she kept company had been largely her own business. A private girl, she had been very careful to keep that part of her life to herself. Being that they were often apart from each other, even though by that time they had developed a close, trusting relationship, it was rare that she had occasion to bring anyone around for him to meet. She included him and consulted with him on most matters pertaining to her life and her conducting of it, so being excluded from that more personal area had been puzzling and a little… painful, for lack of a better word. When he once asked her about it, she matter-of-factly informed him that he had met the ones worth meeting.

“The others are or were inconsequential and not worth wasting your time, Pa.”

Or hers, he figured.

In that and many other things, Jennifer had been, as Suzanne predicted, very much like him- too busy with her many interests and pursuits to waste undue time on the opposite sex and on building relationships she knew from the outset weren’t going anywhere. However, when the right one did come along, she immediately recognized that he had. When she phoned to tell him about her Jonathan, and he demanded to be introduced to the impertinent rascal, something told him to fly home to Maryland for that meeting. It seemed the fitting place for Suzanne’s child to bring her intended and the right arena in which said intended should face Jennifer’s father for the first time.

Now there was Justine, who was beginning to gradually, gracefully come into her own. Perhaps it was because she was his granddaughter and a little more removed than his daughter had been, but in ways, he could appreciate her person even better than he had Jennifer’s at her age. Where he had once been nervous and unsure about Jennifer at sixteen, he had come to have few doubts or reservations at all about sixteen-year-old Justine.

Surrounded by Bill’s strapping young grandsons, Justine and Marnie were holding court in the parlor. Sodas and snacks had been arranged to be brought in to them. Even though for all practical purposes, given Jonathan and Bill’s close and longstanding friendship, the boys and Justine were considered cousins, he hadn’t met Bill’s grandsons before tonight. In fact, he hadn’t seen Bill’s son, Peter since the day of Jonathan and Jennifer’s wedding. Then, both of Bill’s sons had been alive, both of them very young children. Now there was only Peter, the younger of the two and from whom Bill had gained that foursome.

According to the conversation he could hear, it had been a while since the boys and Justine had been together, so the reunion was mutually joyous. Marnie had only just been introduced to them that evening when she accompanied Jonathan and Jennifer, but from the way it appeared, she was already nicely meshed into that branch of the family, too.

The similarities in the relationships between Justine and Marnie to Jennifer and Patricia had not escaped his attention. Nor had the similarities in the resulting developments. In both cases, it was easy for him to see the parallels in himself and his own child. That and thoughts of the one who originally brought that reality to his attention further warmed his heart. She said that was how it would be, and indeed it had come to pass.

I’ve done my best, darling, by you and by Jennifer and Justine.

“So Finn, J.J. said that I should wait until we were all together before I ask how you got that nickname.”

There were snorts, guffaws, and a couple of feminine snickers before a male voice answered Marnie’s question.

“Somebody who shall remain nameless, but who’s currently present in this room, started talking way earlier than she was supposed to, so there were some sounds she had a problem with. For a long time, she had a speech impediment.”

He must have been speaking of Justine; it was she who put up protest.

“I did not. It was developmental.”

“A speech impediment just the same. Anyway, like I was saying, Marnie, she knew a lot of words, but they didn’t get said correctly most of the time. Anything more than three syllables got reduced to two with her. Certain letters got mispronounced, just all sorts of wrong stuff. Like, for example, if you asked her, her father’s name was ‘Jon-fin’. Her mother’s name was ‘Jen-fer’.”

“Is it really necessary for you to go into all of that, Don-a-van? Just answer the girl’s question.”

“I’m getting there, J., just hold on. So, when it came to my name, Donavan naturally got cut down to ‘Dah-fin’. Of course, her being little, kind of smart for her age-”

“Kind of?”

“- and a first girl after a whole bunch of boys, everybody thought she was real cute. She and I were the closest in age, so she hung around me all the time. I’d tell her not to, but she’d get into all kinds of stuff, and then when we got in trouble over it and somebody asked who did it, she was real quick to point to me and say, ‘Dah-fin did it.’ Kinda sounded like ‘dolphin’. It would be her who did it, but Dah-fin would be the one catching a case. Next thing you know everybody’s calling me ‘Dah-fin’. Then, when I started swimming real young, and it was clear I was going to be pretty good at it, and I started competing, that was when the name got shortened to just ‘Fin’, and that really took hold. Then, I guess when it came to putting it on jerseys and tanks, it got spelled with two ‘n’s’ because we’re Irish. At any rate, Marnie, all these years later, ‘Finn’ I remain; it’s etched in stone. I expect, when I croak, that’s what they’ll have on my headstone, ‘Finn’ McDowell and she’s who I’ll have to thank for it.”

The youngest boy pointed his finger straight to Justine who was sitting on the couch. She crossed her arms and lifted her chin, her appearance from that distance, very much like a defiant Jennifer at sixteen, but with a lot more hair. By Justine’s age, Jennifer had lopped hers off, all the way up to her ears, without asking permission of anyone.

That painful image flashed in his mind. Called by the school to come in for a conference about Patricia and the boy in the stable loft and Jennifer nearly setting the stable on fire with a cigarette as she played lookout for them, he had been caught absolutely off guard. All of her beautiful hair, gone, and she had the audacity to be defiant about it.

So stubborn and independent. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Suzanne said the apple….

Justine’s voice brought him back from Gresham Hall and returned him to the moment at hand. “Aw boy, quit crying. When somebody bothers to nickname you, it’s proof positive that you’re loved. Trust me, I should know.”

Stephen snickered to himself, thinking how true his grandchild’s assertion was. Justine Jennifer had been ‘J.J.’ almost all of her life, tagged with that name by her doting father. As for himself, he had always been “Etienne” to Suzanne’s twin sister, Sabrina, never Stephen.

But Suzanne had also called him by that name. In their most intimate, primal moments together, nature overriding learned behavior, Suzanne reverted to French, and at those times he became her “Etienne” alone.

“Mr. Edwards.”

Walter calling his name in a tone just above a whisper intruded on those pleasant thoughts that were once again easing him away. He turned around and then went to the man standing in the arched entrance to the living room.

“Car coming in from the road, Mr. Edwards. I didn’t know you were up here already. I thought you were in the study; I was coming to let you know and to bring the snacks in to the young people.”

“Who is it now?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Hart.”

He told Walter he would take care of admitting them, releasing the other man to continue into the parlor. Then he took the lock off the front door and started in the direction of his study. Hearing his daughter was on her way brought back to his mind that odd look she had given him when she first arrived from New York. It was only a moment, a flash in time, but she did it when she saw him come out of the music room, assisting Agnes with walking after waking her from a nap that left her a bit stiff and groggy.

Surely Jennifer-

She hadn’t been very talkative at dinner, but at the time, he had attributed that quiet to fatigue from traveling and perhaps her unspoken, at least to him, concern over Patricia. But thinking on it further, maybe there had been something more to it. If so, if it came to that, he would have to twist it out of her; she wouldn’t be forthcoming with it on her own. She was much too respectful a daughter to insert herself in a matter she would consider so private and personal. But that misconception, should that be what it was, would definitely need sorting out. Jennifer might be a grown woman with a child of her own, but she was still the only child of Stephen and Suzanne Edwards, and one of the two main reasons he had chosen to remain a widower.

Then, too, there was that heavy, brown paper-wrapped package on his desk that she had given him just before leaving. He had yet to open it.

As he was passing the parlor, he heard one of the boys asking an interesting question of Justine. Although he didn’t hang back to hear Justine’s response, he was left thinking to himself, “and what of Patricia?”, as he entered the hall.

_____________________________________________________________

J.J. was delighted that Marnie had brought the boys to see her. She was even more pleased that her grandfather allowed them to come despite the unconventional hour. The gesture spoke of his understanding as well as his feelings for her. It was obvious he was listening when she said she was bored, and that he understood it to be true. Being cooped up inside had always been hard for her, and it had been made more unbearable when her mother took Marnie, but made her stay behind due to her cold and the medication she had been given for it. She said the stuff would make her sleep. It would only do that if she let it, which of course, she hadn’t. Cordelia’s herb tea- now that was another matter entirely; who knew what all was in that? She hadn’t stood a chance against the herb tea, but over-the-counter meds, that was like soda pop and candy.

Originally, it was Shane and Finn who conspired over a card game to steal away from their grandfather’s place with Marnie and come down to Briarwood. But it was as the three of them were sneaking out that Billy and Tom caught on to them, cutting them off at the car. When told where they were headed, the older boys decided to come, too. On the way, Marnie had the presence of mind to phone ahead and get proper permission to visit. That, J.J. figured, had been a very good move on her part. Caught off guard and imposed upon in his own home, her grandfather might not have been so accommodating. Asking his permission had afforded the proper measure of respect a man like him expected to be paid, and in turn, he had graciously acquiesced to the request.

One who believed in getting what she wanted by any means necessary, Marnie caprisiously studied the rules of proper etiquette, wielding them to her advantage like burglar’s tools. When tears, a tantrum, or profane ranting weren’t likely to work, the girl was a genius at schmoozing and networking for personal benefit or for the good of the order. She had a heck of way of ingratiating herself to the ‘right’ people. The older ladies at the country club, the influential ones who could do the most for her, simply adored her. Apparently, Pa liked her, too.

It had been almost a year since she and the boys had all been together. As she scanned the room, taking all four of them in, J.J. could see a little of her Uncle Bill in each of his grandsons. They were all tall and had that dark hair and those dark features like Uncle Bill and Peter, their father.

“So what’s your take on Pop and Pat, J.?”

At twenty-two, Billy was the oldest of the brothers, and even though she got along well with them all and they with her, J.J. respected Billy the most. It wasn’t so much his position as the oldest, but more so that he had always looked out for her and treated her well. He talked to her like she had a brain, never treating her differently because she was the lone female among males. Billy, a gifted engineering student, could be nerve-wrecking at times in how he constantly pushed his brothers and her to go beyond what they felt were their limits. But when they branched out or they made valiant attempts, he would be on the phone, cheerleading and congratulating. Billy was the big brother she would have liked to have had at another time in her life.

“Billy, your guess is as good as mine,” she answered. “I was hoping you guys would have an inside track.”

Finn, now sprawled out on carpet by Marnie’s feet, his thumbs furiously working at the Game Boy, spoke without looking away from what he was doing. “You and Marnie have been in New York with Pat all this time. I’d have thought that one of you would have peeped out what’s up with her.”

J.J. could see Marnie bristle a bit as she sat forward to look directly down to the floor at the back of Finn’s head. “Who says something’s wrong. And if it is, why does it have to be Pat? How come it can’t be your grandfather with the issues?”

“Yeah,” J.J. seconded, even though she knew the real deal. “It could be Uncle Bill.”

All four boys made sucking sounds of dismissal, complete with waving hands, rolling eyes, and the lone muttered, “Please.”

“No way,” Tom and Shane said at the same time.

It was Tom who elaborated. “Are you kidding? He’s crazy about her. Bought a place way out east, over here where she lives and works just to keep her happy. And why else would he have bought her a plane as a wedding present?”

Marnie’s eyes widened, her wonder and admiration sounding in her hushed words. “She’s getting a whole plane for a wedding gift?”

Billy nodded. “Yep. A small jet. It’s a beaut, too. I kept telling him to make his move and put the pressure on her, but he kept letting Pat call the shots on the wedding date, the details and all of that. Women like her-”

This time it was J.J. who bristled and sat forward. “Women like her? Oh, this better be good.”

Billy held up his hand up to stop her and allow him to finish. “I was going to say, women like her, who’ve been so independent for so long, might get nervous at the idea of being tied down to one man.”

J.J., apparently pacified by the clarification, sat back, nodding her head to let Billy know he had redeemed himself as he continued with his explanation.

“Maybe, with it all getting down to the wire like it is, she’s having second thoughts. Maybe that’s what’s going on with them and why they aren’t here even though all of us are. It just seems weird they’re getting married in three days, but nobody’s heard from them. They knew we were coming. Why aren’t they here?”

Tom dropped back in his chair and sighed. “I sure hope cold feet isn’t the case. I think she’s good for Pop. Heck, I know she’s good for me. I never would have made it through my undergrad Lit classes without her.”

Finn put the game down and rolled over onto his back. “She called me on the cell last Friday morning, before school, to ask me if I had finished reading that Keillor book she sent me that I had to write the report for. I couldn’t believe she remembered I had it due. It had been almost a month since we last talked about it. I’m standing there in my jockey shorts wondering how, with all she has to do in her day, she was thinking about me first thing in the morning. She even had the time change right.”

“That’s how she is with me, too,” Marnie said. “She’s at work, in and out of meetings, talking to people on the phone, brokering multi-million dollar deals, working up contracts and what-have-you, and she stops in the middle of it all to phone home and see if I’m okay, if I need anything, or to see if I’m giving Haversham, the tutor, the blues. And to check me hard, if I am.”

Shane was sitting in the chair across from Billy, but with his arms resting on his thighs and his head down as if thinking while the others were talking. When he looked up, J.J. could see the worry in his eyes. “Do you guys think she might call off the wedding?”

Before anyone could answer him, the room’s doorway filled with adults, four of them, three of the faces sporting peeved expressions.

_____________________________________________________________

“The Duchess say anything to you yet, J?”

“Nope. Haven’t seen her since Peter made the guys go back with him and Lisa even though Pa said they didn’t have to, and we came upstairs to our rooms. So how’d you like Finn?”

“He’s cute, but Billy’s way cuter.”

“And he’s way too old for you.”

“That might be what makes him cuter. I like older guys.”

“I told you about flirting and acting hot. This is only for the weekend, keep that in mind. Besides, they’re practically cousins.”

“To you, maybe. I was trying to picture Finn in his jockey shorts when he said he was talking on the phone to Pat. I’ll bet he has good buns and thighs. Swimmers usually do.”

“What did I just say to you about being hot?”

“Don’t worry. I came up here and made my nightly filthy phone call to Chance, just to keep myself- and him- in check. I think I was fantasizing about Finn and Billy, though, while I was heating up Chance.”

“Good looking out. A little fantasizing never hurt anyone, at least not like doing the actual thing can.”

“Think she’s mad at us, J.?”

“Who?”

“The Duchess, who do you think? Who was I talking about before you went there about Finn and Billy?”

“You took us there about Billy, not me.”

“About the Duchess, J.”

“Marnie, I don’t know. I’m really not trying to think about it. Right now I’m in the bed, and if you hadn’t phoned me, I’d have the light off and be on my way to sleep. But then, since you’ve brought her up, how could she be mad about the boys being here? You called ahead and asked if they could come. Pa said it was okay. In this house, what Pa says weighs more than what my mother says.”

“Does she know that? And does that apply when it’s about you and me? The guys and I did take off with the car without asking. She did tell you to go to bed before she left, and obviously, you didn’t. Then too, there’s still that other thing.”

“What other thing?”

“The camera card. I know you haven’t forgotten about that damn camera card. That’s still hanging over our heads. I can’t believe she hasn’t called us out about it yet. I’m more bent out of shape about that now than I was when I was traveling alone with her. What do you think she’s doing with the card? You think she saw the shots of us in the fur closet?”

“Look, I can’t worry about any of that now, Marn. So far she hasn’t said anything to either of us about anything. Getting grilled by her over any of it hasn’t happened, and until it does, I’m not claiming that it will. Besides, she knows I’m on meds, and that I need my sleep. And she knows that I didn’t have anything to do with the guys and the car. As for me not going to bed. I was keeping my grandfather company; surely she can’t hold that against me. So, I doubt she’s coming in here messing with me over a memory card tonight while I’m on the drugs that she gave me. That buys us a little time, if indeed that’s what’s on her mind.”

“Don’t even try it. She gave you those meds hours ago. If they haven’t knocked you out by now, she has to have some idea they aren’t going to. You didn’t go to sleep when she told you to, you’ve been hardheaded, entertained stolen-car-company, and everything else since then. Surely you don’t think she’s going to care about your cold now. Go to sleep, if you want to, but if it turns out that she is gunning for you, being asleep is not going to stop her.”

“Yeah, well, you hold onto that thought, too, while you’re over there all by yourself in that room that’s closer to hers than mine is.”

“Hmph, you’re hers by blood. She’ll do you first if she’s going to do somebody.”

“I might be genetically hers, but experience has her very much aware that  you crack way easier, so if it turns out she is on a fact-finding mission, she’s going to start with you.”

“Da-a-a-amn, J., you’re probably right. Um, somebody’s trying to click in. I’ll bet it’s Chance, back for some nasty, hot seconds.”

“G’head and take your little filthy, hot call, Marn. I’m out.”

_____________________________________________________________

When Marnie clicked over, there was no greeting, only a very direct question that sent her barrel-rolling across the bed while still holding the phone to her ear. She snatched the softly glowing Hello Kitty out of the wall socket before she answered.

“No, I don’t have the night light on… I promise, it’s not o- yes, okay. But wher- Okay, okay, I’m shutting up. Okay, I’m listening.”

_____________________________________________________________

Jonathan lie on his back with his eyes closed, waiting for Jennifer to come to bed. The sound of the water draining from her bath had stopped a short while before, and he could hear her moving about the bathroom. He was anxious for her to finish what she was doing and come to bed. Although it was his desire to have her next to him when he went to sleep, he was more concerned with how fatigued he could sense she was. When she had taken so long in the bath, he went in to check on her, only to find she had drifted off to sleep while still in the water. After waking her, he helped her out and tried to stay while she dried off, but she insisted he return to the bedroom.

I’ll be right there, Jonathan. You look tired. Darling, go ahead and lie down.

Something was bothering her. She had been sort of quiet since they returned. When they were in their bedroom at Bill and Pat’s, she mentioned having had a couple of things to do once she got back to Briarwood. Then they discovered the kids had taken off. With Peter and Lisa, who had come along to retrieve their brood and their pilfered vehicle, they found them all lounging in Stephen’s parlor visiting with J.J.

As far as he could tell, he had been the only one amused by it. The kids were good; they pulled the caper off without a hitch, all five of them on the lam without any one of the adults they left behind the wiser. It tickled his own adventurous nature to think how happy J.J. must have been to have them come see her. He found it equally amusing how completely those two girls had steamrolled Stephen.

“He may be a more rigid brand of putty than you, but in J.J. Hart’s warm little hands, her grandfather breaks down into a malleable lump, too.”

Jennifer knew her child only too well. And then there were Marnie’s tiny warm palms to also consider.

It was Marnie who made the call to Stephen seeking his permission for the visit. The poor man hadn’t stood a chance. One in his ear, and the other in his face. When Jennifer and the girls had gone up once Peter left with his family, Stephen had admitted as much to him.

I don’t know how you do it on a regular basis, my boy. Those two are completely irresistible.

That they were. They would smooze their way past him most of the time, too, but fortunately he had Jennifer there with him to balance things out. That evening, Stephen had been completely on his own with them, his heart completely at their mercy.

…he could not imagine…..

…on his own with his daughter, trying to raise her, keeping her honest, trying to get her to mind him because her mother, her constant, had been taken from them. Every time he thought about Stephen in that role, he hurt for him, but he hurt for Jennifer even more. How lonely and confused a little girl had she been? How abandoned had she felt?

He thought about J.J. at twelve, how small and vulnerable she had been, and he could not begin to imagine what that must have been like for Jennifer and her father. He could only envision Stephen and how hurt and non-functional he must have been, at least for those first few years after the accident. And then to have to appear strong for those bewildered, frightened young eyes seeking answers and security from the only parent she had left.

In the rare times she went into any detail about it, Jennifer always made light of that time in her life, losing her mother so suddenly, being sent to boarding school afterward, being separated and for a time, somewhat estranged from her father. But that was her way; she didn’t dwell on negativity. She had gone on to make a full life for herself, but it didn’t mean some vestiges of negativity didn’t still dwell somewhere inside of her. On their last visit to Briarwood, after discovering her mother’s private garret above the guest house, Jennifer had purged herself of a lot of the old baggage. But there was still a subtle something troubling her usual calm waters. He could feel it. In fact, he had seen a flash of it in her face earlier that afternoon when she was in the front hall, greeting her father and Dean Marchand upon her and Marnie’s arrival from New York. That clouding of her eyes didn’t have anything at all to do with Pat or being tired from the trip in. That look had something to do with her father.

“You didn’t go to sleep without me, did you?”

Despite his determination not to, upon hearing her voice he realized he must have dozed off for a moment. He hadn’t heard her come in, but when he opened his eyes, Jennifer was standing right over him, taking off her robe. She tossed the garment onto the footboard of the bed, and instead of going around, she crawled in from his side. “Sorry darling, but you have no idea how ready I am for these sheets.”

He didn’t mind. As she passed over him in her thin, silky nightie, he took the opportunity to give her shapely backside and firm thigh an appreciative squeeze. She slid in under the covers, immediately backing her body into his and filling that void of the past few nights. Automatically turning onto his side, he used the arm he placed around her to bring her even closer. “And you have no idea how much I missed your being right here. You, my love, are an absolute addiction.”

“A bad one?”

“Raging. Out of control. The worst.”

“Well, I guess that’s all right then.” She snuggled her head into pillows as she situated her body for resting. “I believe in excelling at whatever I am or whatever I do.”

The feel of her supple warmth as she entwined her long legs with his was deliciously enticing, but he didn’t get the from her sense that she was up for that, and truth told, neither was he, even if basic instinct blatantly ignored how tired his physical person was.

“Your daughter is a mess, Jonathan. Even when she isn’t feeling well, she’s scheming.”

The topic was one he anticipated. When they arrived at Briarwood and discovered the missing kids and J.J. together, Stephen hadn’t allowed much opportunity for scolding the youthful rogues.

“Jennifer, your father told you he didn’t have anything to do with it. He said she was playing chess with him when Marnie called to ask if they could come down to see J.J. According to Stephen, my child was innocent in it. And he said he granted the others permission to be here.”

“And I told her to go to bed when I left here. I did not tell her to be in the study, playing chess with her grandfather. I did not tell Marnie to sweet talk my father into overlooking the fact that she left Pat’s place without permission in a misappropriated car full of boys. The lone girl in a car full of boys- doesn’t that bother you in this instance? If I’m recalling correctly, it has in the past, .”

She was recalling correctly, and she knew full well she was. That was also her way- to call him on being inconsistent with standards as they related to J.J., or in this case, Marnie. The “lone girl in a car full of boys” was one of those sticky points of contention between them, an issue upon which they finally had to agree to disagree. He held the position that being the only girl in a car with boys didn’t look good for the girl; her assertion was that boys should be better taught how not act like animals, and that people should be taught to mind their own business and not be so judgmental when it came to girls. Even though Marnie was definitely swift when it came to boys, and Jennifer herself probably wasn’t all that confident about that particular female being in the car by herself with so many males, it was just like her to try to turn his own argument against him.

“No,” he answered. “Not those boys. They know Uncle Jonathan will have their heads over her. All eight heads.”

It only took a second for her to catch his full meaning, and when he felt her silent chuckle, he had to laugh at it, too.

“And regardless of the circumstances of the kids’ arrival,” he managed to say after a moment, “I think your father outranks you in this house. If Stephen let it happen, who were J.J. and Marnie to not go with it?”

“Putty,” she muttered. “Both you and Pa.”

There was his inroad. He took the shot. “Speaking of Pa.”

He was trying keep the move brief and the moment light, but she momentarily stiffened in his arms just the same. “Pa?”

“Yes, Pa. What was with that look you gave your father this afternoon? You know, when he came around that corner into the foyer with Agnes to meet you and Marnie when you got here.”

The eventual subdued response in no way surprised him. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

He pushed himself up on one elbow and used the other arm to her ease her onto her back. She was too funny; not only could they read each other, but they could also anticipate each other. Apparently she had anticipated him, and shut him off from the conversation her eyes would have been having with him even as her lips remained silent.

“Come on, Jennifer none of that. Open up and look at me.”

She took her time doing what he asked, and just as he knew it would be, her hot embarrassment was right there, radiating up to him. “I really am transparent, aren’t I?”

“Only to me, and that’s only because I have my sights set on you all the time. What’s going on? You said earlier that you had some things on your mind. Other than Pat and Bill, what else is it?”

“Well, J.J. is sick, and with all that’s coming up, I don’t have time for her to-”

“J.J. and her cold have nothing to do with what’s going on with you, Jennifer; you- and I- know that. J.J. has a cold. She’s been susceptible to them all of her life, and she gets over them as quickly as they come. Typically, I get more bent out of shape when she has them than you do. That’s not what’s bothering you. You can’t fool me, Red, and you know it.”

With a finger to her chin, he tipped her face and pressed a kiss to the tip of her nose then her lips before gently urging, “Talk to me.”

“It’s silly, Jonathan. There are far more pressing things going on than this. And don’t call me ‘Red’.”

“If it’s bothering you, then it’s not trivial to me. It’s not anything about Pat as it relates to your father?”

She shook her head.

“Bill and Pat?”

She shook her head again.

“Your father and Agnes, then.”

Bingo.

Her cheeks colored, and she turned her face away from his. “How did you know? You always know.”

“When it comes to you, I pay very close attention. I just told you that.”

“Well, I am far too old for this kind of insecurity, Jonathan. My father deserves better from me than this.”

“Regardless of how old you might be, he’s still your father. You’re still his daughter and no doubt, territorial about him. You feel what you feel, Jennifer.”`

“But I’ve never really been territorial about Pa. I’ve never had this feeling before.”

As she spoke to him of it, the difficulty she was having in sharing her feelings on the matter made it painful for him to listen, but he was intent upon helping her to get it out. It was probably her first attempt at fully admitting, even to herself, harboring such feelings about her father, as well as it being the first time having those sentiments tested in such a very real way.

“I own up to not having a lot of warm and fuzzy memories of Dean Marchand, but I never disliked her. I mean, I’m not saying that I dislike her in any way now; I just don’t really know her as a person. And I honestly don’t mind that she’s living on the grounds here. I just- I-”

She was lying down, but still her shoulders slumped with her frustration. “I don’t know what I’m feeling right now, or what I was feeling at that moment you mentioned. I had so much on my mind then. I should be happy for him. He looks so good. Much better than he has in a long while. She and Ms. Smythe must be good company for him. I really should be happy for them.”

Oddly amused by her reaction, at the same time Jonathan was concerned about her. He brushed some of the hair off her distressed brow and eyes to get a better look into her face and to let her see how much he was there for her. Jennifer wasn’t normally so conflicted about articulating how she felt, but this was a different matter for her altogether. It was almost as if she were a young girl again, and for a moment, in his mind he pictured J.J. going through what Jennifer was experiencing.

But his daughter, in such a scenario, would be over there in her bed plotting, not agonizing.

Brushing  his lips against each lid of those eyes Jennifer had closed again, he whispered into her ear, “Darling, I really think your romantic nature is leading you in the wrong direction.”

When she turned her face to him in question, seemingly searching his for further clarification of what he said, he winked in answer. Then he sat up and took her hands in his to pull her up, too.

“Why don’t you come for a little walk with me. You’ve been so busy since you arrived; you haven’t really had time to look around. There are some things you need to see. I think they’ll put your mind at ease.”

_____________________________________________________________

Enjoying what she recognized would only be a temporary respite from her stuffy nose and head, J.J. thought she could finally feel herself drifting toward sleep. If only she could turn her mind off completely. Stuck in the spin cycle, it stubbornly whirled and wrung all that had happened in such a short span of time.

It felt more like two or three days had gone by since her arrival at Briarwood rather than the few hours it had actually been. In less than a day, her locales had changed, as had some of the players in her immediate world. People had been moving around, in and out, coming or going or not showing up at all. The feel at her grandfather’s home had changed since her last visit, along with some of its features, not to mention the man himself. As much as she wanted to know her mother’s impressions about the more obvious alterations, the Duchess hadn’t been available for a long enough block of time that such a talk between them would have required. Nor had her mother been relaxed enough for it.

Ever since she and Marnie arrived from New York- without Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill- her mother had been on the go. With Pat and Bill missing, that left the wedding preparations to her, Daddy, Peter, and Lisa, which was one of the main reasons her parents had gone over to her godparents’ new home. Her only real interaction with her mother that day had been when she came in to her room, right before leaving, to give her that cold medicine she and Pa had delivered from the local “apothecary”.

Pa had such a wonderful way with words.

In a way, though, her mother’s continued preoccupation wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Taking care of those last minute wedding details would probably keep her mind off that memory card, hopefully divert her from bringing up the escapade with the boys and Marnie, as well as deflect most her maternal attentions from her daughter. At sixteen, J.J. felt she was closer to being grown than being little, but when she wasn’t feeling well her mother was just as attentive to helping her daughter get better as she had been when she was a six-year-old child. But having to take primary control of Aunt Pat’s nuptials, and thinking about Aunt Pat in general, should keep Jennifer Hart plenty occupied, for the time being anyway. That would be a very good thing- for the daughter.

In his phone call earlier that evening, Teddy said his mother was giving him the blues about not spending the weekend with her, but he said he was still coming to Maryland anyway. Another good thing. With all the recent developments, he would need to be brought up to speed, which would require their being able to get away from everyone else for a time to get things done.

Her cell vibrated on the nightstand. Assuming it was Marnie calling her again, she started to ignore it. On the third buzz, however, she peeked over her shoulder just to be sure and noticed the area code before the number itself registered with her. Snatching up the phone, she clicked in.

_____________________________________________________________

The sounds over his head broke Stephen’s intense focus. A naturally observant man, noises in the night at Briarwood always drew his attention. With only himself, Walter and Rosa in residence there, the house was usually pretty quiet. But this night his family was home- well, all but Patricia, so such distractions were to be expected.

But he did not wish to be disturbed from what he was doing; his desire was to remain in that peaceful, comforting realm spread out before him.

Closing the pages, he gathered all of it up in his arms and left the study. Just as he heard footsteps descending the front staircase, the elevator doors opened. He stepped in, immediately pressing the button for the second floor. As the car rose, he held the brown paper wrapped sheaves to his breast and sent up a silent prayer of heartfelt gratitude.

_____________________________________________________________

“I cannot believe I didn’t see all of this.”

Jennifer was floored by how so much had gotten past her notice. They were in the living room, but had passed through the front hall to get there. The candlesticks that were a wedding gift to her grandparents, but had since been passed down, and the floral arrangement placed before the mirror and the front door.

“… a nice greeting for guests to our home. Fresh flowers, always very nice, a very welcoming visual. Remember this, Cherie, for your own home one day….” 

She had. There were always fresh flowers in the foyer at Willow Pond.

The hammered brass umbrella stand in this foyer- still hideous, but it had been one of her mother’s favorite pieces. While on a trip to Italy, she had come across it at some quaint little shop and fallen in love with it. She purchased it, and then made Pa carry it as they traveled home. There was the Cezanne once again hanging in the parlor that she hadn’t noticed before, despite having been in there earlier when they came from Pat’s in search of the kids. The Louis XIV occasional chair and side table returned to the corner under the staircase, looking almost brand new. The two small Monets on either side of the arched door to the living room- all of it, details from a long-ago, nearly forgotten life.

“I simply cannot believe I didn’t see this when I came through the door. Twice.”

The two of them, her mother and herself, seated above the mantelpiece. The painting was perfect in that spot, a station far superior to its previous position: hidden in the room above the guest house for past forty years.

“You were preoccupied at the time, darling. You had just arrived, and you were trying to get into the house with your bags,  checking out J.J., greeting Walter and Rosa, your father.”

So engrossed in her amazement, it wasn’t until she heard his voice, that she realized she had almost forgotten that Jonathan was there. Instinctively, without looking, she moved backward to restore their physical contact. When his arms encircled her waist she lay her head on his shoulder while she kept her eyes locked on the painting.

“It’s a wonder it’s in such good condition. When we uncovered it last summer, it still looked freshly painted. One would think with the temperature fluctuations in that attic, the canvas would have buckled, warped, or cracked, the paint would have chipped, something. But it didn’t. From looking at it up there, one would never know that wasn’t where it had always been.”

“I know. When your father first showed it to me, he said he had it checked out for restoration purposes. Aside from burnishing the frame to bring out the gilt’s original luster, there was nothing else required. Even his people from the Smithsonian didn’t have an explanation for how it held up so well. Maybe because it was covered up the way it was, it was protected from the elements and that kept it from deteriorating. After all, it was your father who wrapped it up when he left it up in the garret.”

Art had always been an integral part of her life, studying and learning about it, collecting it. From her father, she had been educated in the technical aspects of preserving it. What Jonathan said made sense. It was the only plausible explanation for how the colors didn’t even appear to have faded.

“Your mother was a very beautiful woman. It’s so clear where you and J.J. get it from.”

Jennifer studied the rendition of her mother’s face. She had been quite lovely at that point in her life, but she thought it odd how the mother she now pictured in her head was much older and even more dignified and striking than the woman in that portrait.

“You know, when I was a child, when I sat for that painting with her, she was just my mother. When you’re young, you don’t really think about how your mother looks; she’s just your mother. And then, once she’s gone, there’s the tendency to romanticize. But now, seeing her up there, viewing her with a more objective eye, I can honestly say that she was a good looking woman.”

His arms held her closer as he lowered his head to speak near her ear. “J.J.’s a kid, but she’s very aware that her mother is a good looking woman. She always has been, even when she was very little.”

His words were touching, but she offered no reply; there was nothing to say. J.J. Hart, old soul that she was, had never been the typical child; her opinions, perceptions, and perspectives had always been beyond her years.  Instead she moved the conversation in another direction.

“I wonder what made Pa decide to bring it down after all this time? He knew where it was. After all, he was responsible for where it’s been all this time.”

She felt Jonathan shrug. “I don’t know. He didn’t say. When he showed it to me, of course, he already knew I was aware of where it had been. He only talked about how well it’s held up all these years. ”

Jennifer eyes remained trained on the painting, but her mind had moved onto another, more poignant track. “What I really wish, is that she could have known you, Jonathan. She would have loved you. I so wish you could have known her.”

His fingers were warm and gentle as he moved her hair, his lips soft and loving as they brushed her cheek. “I feel I do know her, Jennifer. She’s a part of you. For so many reasons, in so many roundabout ways, your mother is the reason you came into my life.”

Oddly, that was as true as it got. The years had considerably dulled its edge, but that harsh reality was based upon painful fact. Had her mother lived, the circumstances of her own life would have been different, putting her in other places, other situations, with other people, most likely on another path entirely, one that might not have led her to London and to Jonathan. It certainly wouldn’t have taken her to Gresham Hall and to Pat.

Pat.

Where in the world? What in the world are you doing? What are you thinking?

This is so unlike you. None of this is like you.

Jonathan’s arms left her waist creating a momentary disconnect, erased when he took her hand in his to lead her out of the living room. “Come on, There are a couple more things you need to see.”

Without protest or looking back, she went with him, feeling her mother’s eyes on both of them as she did.

_____________________________________________________________

“Jeeeeeeeeeeez, the things I have to do….”

J.J. clicked off and lay the cell back on the nightstand.

Grumbling to herself about being plucked from the path to slumber and ordered to get out of the bed, she snatched up her robe and yanked it on. She slid across the hardwood, using the movement to push her feet securely into her house slippers as she made her way to the door. Once she opened it, like preparing to cross the street, she peeked both ways to check her surroundings before venturing out. It was quiet and dark save for the weak glow made by the lamp near the main staircase.

Why am I even looking? Who but me would be out here, hanging around, at this time of night? I wouldn’t even be if it weren’t for this.

She crept down the hall, past the closed door of the room her parents were occupying, and crossed over to Marnie’s door. She opened it just enough to see the room was completely dark and was about to close it back when she heard someone coming up the front stairs. In a flash, she was inside the room and on her knees, peeking through the keyhole. As her parents passed by, dressed in their robes and slippers, she got up and eased the door open again. Peeking, she watched them go all the way to the end of the main hall and after a slight hesitation on her mother’s part, turn that corner.

Scurrying back to her own room, J.J. threw off the robe, kicked off her slippers and dove back into the bed, but it would now be a very long time before she got to sleep. She was wide awake and her mind was going full speed again. What made Marnie turn off that night light? She had said she didn’t need it any longer, but that last night at Aunt Pat’s, she had started using it again. Now, she was in a strange house, in a bed and a room that weren’t hers, and in the dark- all of which should surely warrant using a night light on Marnie’s part. For what reason had she been sent across to check on Marnie? And why had she been so abruptly cut off from asking any questions about it or about anything?

Then there was also her stomach working to keep her up. Lying there in the dark, it was tightening and twisting with a weird kind of dread mixed with morbid, guilt-ridden curiosity and wonder. What would her mother’s reaction be to what awaited her? Could she see it from where she was and that was what made her hesitate before continuing down there? Had Daddy told her about it before taking her there? Surely that was what he doing just then. Would she go in once she saw what Pa had done? Had Pa changed anything inside the room?

Good thing Daddy is with her. I guess. I hope.

He must know what he’s doing; he’s taking her there.

I thought we came east for a wedding. So far, it’s been straight-up drama.

When Marnie asked her about it earlier, she didn’t admit to seeing the strange look her mother gave Pa and Dean Marchand when they came out of the music room into the front hall, but she did see it. Walking out behind the two older people, she could see right into her mother’s face and had caught what appeared to be momentary disapproval in her eyes.

Did her mother not care for Dean Marchand? If she didn’t, why not? What it personal or was it because she didn’t want him with Pa? Or did any of it even matter? That afternoon in the music room, even she had been distrustful of the old lady at first, especially when it came to thinking about her being with Pa.

What if, just what if it was Daddy who had turned that corner with another woman on his arm? What if at the time it happened, she was a grown woman and it was Daddy and the lady who were in their eighties; would it matter? If she and the lady were acquainted would she care about her being with Daddy?

Hell, yes, I would care, and it would matter.

If it was Willow Pond, and they were coming out of the great room where her mother once had her office- her personal space- that would most certainly be a problem. Maybe that was what she had seen in her mother’s eyes. Maybe it was that they were coming out of that room and not so much Pa’s being with Dean Marchand. That made perfect sense. Or did it?

The confusion, the rushing jumble of thoughts and the feelings they stirred up had her dizzy. Rubbing her forehead, she eased her head back on the pillows.

Tommy, why, oh why do you have to be so far away and out of immediate touch?

These were the times that she most missed him most, when she couldn’t sleep because she had a lot on her mind. Tommy never cared what time of night she called, and since he was a light sleeper, he always heard the phone. Once they switched to cells, allowing them to bypass the house phones that drew their parents into it, they could talk with each other whenever they wanted and for as long as they wanted- that is until someone actually barged into the room in the middle of the night, caught them, and made them click off. She wouldn’t always tell Tommy that something was bothering her. Or if she did tell him she had a problem, she didn’t always let him in on all the details of the matter, but Tommy had a way of listening, not intruding, of reasoning, of putting her mind at ease that allowed her to relax and let her world slowly fall back into place so that she could get to sleep, which she sometimes inadvertently did on him. Even when she did, he didn’t complain a lot about it. He understood how she was.

Teddy didn’t mind getting or making nocturnal phone calls either, but he didn’t quite fill that confidant role in her life. He was nice, and he was fun to talk with, but he was too new to the scene to be let in all the way like that. She and Tommy went way back. Teddy, although fun and a friend, was not Tommy.

Feeling her nose and her head becoming congested again, she reached under the other pillows, pulled out her book light and switched it on. The book light wouldn’t cast enough glow to be seen under the door and attract undue attention like the lamp might, but it did provide enough light for her to read or to write. Reaching under the pillows again, she pulled out her journal and pen. If breathing was going to be a problem on top of everything else, sleep would be totally out of the question. Since it was obvious she was going to be up for a while, she figured the tossing and turning time could be better used moving some things from her mind and onto the page.

11:52 P.M.

Can somebody please tell me how it is that I always manage to be where I shouldn’t be at the exact time that I shouldn’t be there, seeing things that I shouldn’t be seeing? Even when I’m not trying to be nosy, when I’m in the bed and minding my own business, something will happen that has me ending up with my nose stuck smack where it shouldn’t be. Then I wind up having to worry about something that isn’t even my business to begin with.

I swear, sometimes I can be the biggest victim of circumstance. We came here for Pat’s wedding. Now we don’t even know where she and Uncle Bill are. I think my grandmother might be pissed off at not being invited, but she’s coming anyway. She’s all over this place; I can feel her. Even stronger than the last time I was here.

After all, Grandmama, it is your house, and after all this time, I’m sure you consider Aunt Pat to be one of your girls, too- and Marnie. I don’t blame you for crashing the gate on this wedding. I would, too, in your place. And, like I said, it is your place.

Would you please, if you can, keep an eye on Aunt Pat. I think she’s sick, and if she is, she’s scared, and she doesn’t know what to do. In a funny kind of way, she can be kind of like a man when it comes to things like that. You know how guys whine, get all weak and scary and stuff when they’re sick? Like Daddy did that time….

_____________________________________________________________

As she went around to her side of the bed, Jonathan tried not to be obvious in keeping his eye on his wife. All the way back to their bedroom, she hadn’t said a word, and she was probably now even more tired than before they left. It had him wondering if he had been wrong to initiate that excursion to view the changes made to the house, especially that last alteration- or reversal of alteration, as it were.

He had stopped a short distance away from her in that back hall, allowing her to proceed on her own. Mindful of her startled reaction when they turned that corner, he maintained a protective watch over her as she crept up to those doors. For a moment she simply stood before them, as if she were assuring herself what she was seeing was real. Then she pressed her palms to the wood, and he thought for a moment she might reach for one of the handles and try to go in. Instead, turning her face in the direction opposite him, she lay her cheek against one of the panels. Mired in his own apprehension, it felt like forever that she remained in that position. Then using her hands to push herself away, she turned around and started back in his direction, silently passing him to return to the main hall. They were almost back to their bedroom when, everything around them began to swirl before his eyes. That was when he realized that he really should start breathing again.

Now she was sitting, taking off her robe. As he got in on his side, that disturbing image was forming in his mind, the one of her inside that bedroom…a little over three months back….

In July, that room in the back hall had been sealed off by a wall built in front of those doors. The only way to access it had been from that hidden passage the girls discovered or via the cedar closet in Stephen’s bedroom. From that hall, nobody would have known that Suzanne’s completely intact bedroom was on the other side. Jennifer, her memory jogged by a set of blueprints she came across in the attic of the guest house and startled by how she had completely erased her mother’s room from her mind, used the passage connecting the two houses to make her way back to it. Once inside, emotionally overwhelmed and physically exhausted by her find, she collapsed at the foot of her mother’s bed, which was where he found her when he realized where she had gone and alerted Stephen, who let him in.

But now that wall, in place for the better part of a half century, was gone. Why Stephen had it taken down after all that time was anybody’s guess. He had to at least suspect J.J. having noticed it in the hours she had been there, yet he hadn’t said a word about it. Since he was responsible for closing the room off, what had Stephen’s motivation been in reversing his decision? Had he done it for Jennifer? After all, on their last, very eventful visit, Stephen and Jennifer had resolved some old tensions between them. Maybe her father thought it was time. Or had he done it for himself? If so, what in his life had changed that would make him do it?

Stephen had recently amended his will, bequeathing the estate to J.J. upon his death. Could that be another avenue for consideration in the matter of bringing back public access to that bedroom?

Her robe was back on the footboard, but Jennifer had no attempt to get in. With her back to him, he could only guess what was going through her mind. Was she wondering about it all, too? Maybe with the continuing uncertainty over Pat, with J.J. being under the weather, and with all that would be coming up in the next couple of days, he had overloaded her with this last thing. She was a stalwart woman, but even the strongest people had limits. He wanted to reach across and touch her, to stroke her hair, to make her lie back so that he could reassure her- and himself; but would the overture be accepted? At that moment, he couldn’t see her face, her eyes.

But then, as if she were reading his mind, her head slowly turned. The voice said, “Thank you, darling,” but it was her eyes that told him she understood the reason behind what he had done.

With the lights switched off and both of them underneath the covers, they met in the middle of the bed where he wrapped an arm around her to hold her close as she lay her head on his chest.

“Jonathan, you think I’m pretty silly and that I was being childish, don’t you?”

“What I think is you’re your father’s daughter, and as such, you’re entitled to be protective of him.”

“And selfish about him? That’s what I was being. He’s an old man. He’s entitled to his happiness.”

“If it were my daughter in that situation, she would be selfish about me no matter how old I was. If it’s not you that I’m with, she’s not going to have it.”

“Your daughter would act hers out, though, not sit around and wonder. You would know how she felt. She’d make sure that you did.”

“Probably. But then, she isn’t being raised by a Welshman, under the stiff upper lip principle.”

“A Cymro.”

“Cymro?”

“A bloke from Wales.”

Her vast knowledge of languages and culture- the nuances, the details- was phenomenal. The accent she affected was spot-on for her father’s, and as always when she imitated Stephen, it made him laugh. “It’s kind of hard to see your father as a bloke.”

As her naughty giggle at her own impudence rippled up through her body it tickled his side. “Pa probably would take offense at being called one.”

Without a doubt. In his mind, Stephen Harrison Edwards likely considered himself much too elegant a gentleman for that classification. Jennifer’s deeply ingrained graciousness, poise, and sense of style were reflective of her father’s influence and his expectations of her once he took over that latter part of her upbringing. As a father himself now, he held those same high expectations for his own daughter.

But being a grown-up didn’t mean a person’s sentiments concerning her parent would change.

“Darling, it’s okay to feel what you feel, even when it’s about your father.”

In response, she wound up sighing one of her heavier sighs. Having no verbal response for that, he just kissed the top of her head.

“Jonathan, I guess I still have some deep-seated… issues, for lack of a better word. Even I don’t know what they are at this point. But since it appears that Pa is letting go of his, perhaps I should try to as well.”

“I don’t think he’s letting go, darling. On the contrary, I believe he’s finally embracing them.”

The prolonged silence that followed had him thinking she had gone to sleep until he felt her hand slowly glide across his chest, smoothing at the hair. “Have I told you lately how smart I think you are, Mr. Hart?”

“No, but if you hum a few bars, I’ll-” She poked him in the ribs. “Jonathan, I’m serious.”

The throaty chuckle; however, said otherwise, and that encouraged him to ask. “Jennifer?”

“Yes.”

“Sweetheart, why didn’t you try the doors?”

The side-to-side movement of her head against his cheek nixed the notion before she spoke.

“That’s for another time. I- I just can’t do that again. Not right now. Not on this visit. Just seeing, touching those doors in that hall again was enough for now. And it really wasn’t the same. You see, they were never closed to me when- even when my- and anyway, I don’t know Pa’s reasoning for removing that wall. It couldn’t have been for my benefit. As far as he knows, I would think it was still there if he hadn’t told me otherwise, which he hasn’t. What reason would he have to suspect that I would venture back there on my own and see what he’s done?”

Jonathan was glad for the bedroom’s darkness. It prevented her from seeing how tightly his lips were pressed together to prevent the image darting through his mind from getting past the tip of his tongue.

Maybe not you, but Stephen was certain that your daughter would.

“Any thoughts about Pat?” he asked instead.

Again, she slowly shook her head. “I just hope she isn’t giving Bill too hard a time.”

Then, obviously finished with talking about anything, Jennifer moved to shift positions, and he relaxed his hold on her. She rolled off his chest, turning her back to him to lie on her side. When she seemed settled, he followed, using the arm he placed over her to bring them back together physically.

The scent of her hair, the familiar way she molded her body into his, soft neck and full breasts, her firm belly and backside, the warm reality of her returned to the bed with him erased the restless void of the past few nights. He inhaled deeply then exhaled, pushing everything except Jennifer from his mind onto the other side of the closed door before surrendering to full slumber as it gently, but snugly enfolded itself around them.

_____________________________________________________________

Thursday: Thanksgiving evening….

“So Teddy, you checked, and your flight still gets in at the same time tomorrow?”

“Yeah, J, I checked. As of an hour ago, my flight schedule hasn’t been changed. There’s just a little snow projected for here and a dusting for Maryland; I should make out okay. I went online and got my boarding pass printed it out. My father arranged for me to have a car to use while I’m there. Bill went to the airport and signed for it already. All I have to do is pick it up when I get there and drive in. Pays to know somebody; the rental place never would have allowed me to do that on my own.”

“I know. You have to be older. So, you have the directions to get to here?”

“Yeah, I Mapquested it. I’ve been to Bill and Pat’s a few times to take Kyle, so I kind of had an idea, but I wanted to be sure since I’m driving this time, not coming in a cab. I also got the directions from that house to your grandfather’s.”

“Cool. We’ll be able to get around on our own since you’ll have a car. That was good looking out on your father’s part. He’s still not coming to the wedding?”

“No. He said he’s going on to New York to see my older sister, Vic, and her mother instead. He came with me here to Virginia to spend some time with my mother and my sisters. The girls have to be back at school on Monday, so it was better time-wise for him to come here. He’ll leave for New York tomorrow when I leave here for Maryland.”

“Sounds kind of polygamous to me, Teddy. Your father going between wives and kids like that.”

“You are crazy, J.J. Only you would come up with that. It’s ex-wives, and I can’t speak for Vic’s mom, but I’m pretty sure he isn’t getting anything from my mother. He’s staying out in the guest house, and both of them had dates last night- with other people. He had Thanksgiving dinner with us today, and everyone got along, but he’s already back out at the guest house. He and my sisters are watching movies or something.”

“That’s way too complicated for this kid. I have enough trouble keeping up with my two parents living in the same house with me. Have you seen the game room at Pat and Bill’s?”

“Yeah, it’s great. It’s got everything.”

“When I get off the phone from you, I’m going down to see it. I haven’t been over there yet. I can’t wait for you to arrive so that we can all be in there together. You’ll love the guys.”

“That’s if your mother lets you out, J. She might not want you riding around in the cold air; you aren’t really used to it. That’s probably how you got sick in the first place. I can hear it in your voice. You’re kind of nasal.”

“No big deal. I get these when I’m home in LA, too; I’ve always gotten them. The congestion is mostly in my head now, that’s why I might sound like that. My throat was kind of sore earlier, but it’s easing up some. I didn’t have any trouble getting down all that scrumptious turkey and dressing and everything else we had for dinner; it wasn’t too sore for that. I’m still stuffed. I’ll probably be completely okay by Saturday, but just in case I’m not, you and I have to get together tomorrow. And as for my mother, she’s preoccupied. Too preoccupied to be  fussing over me. She’s got a lot facing her with Aunt Pat still away with Uncle Bill and everything. My mother has to take over setting up for the wedding.”

“What’s up with that? It would seem that Pat and Bill would have at least shown up for Thanksgiving dinner. You say you guys didn’t hear from them at all? Nobody tried to contact them?”

“All I know is they didn’t show for dinner, and it was the bomb; Pat and Bill definitely missed out. All the family was here except them, Peter, Lisa, the guys, Marnie- all of us, even Dean Marchand and Ms. Smythe. Dean Marchand asked about you. Pa must have told her you were coming.”

“I’d almost forgotten about her and Ms. Smythe living there.”

“She asked me about you at dinner. I was too busy eating, so I didn’t tell her much. Walter, Rosa and their crew outdid themselves with cooking and setting everything up, but I could tell that my mother was bummed. She was putting up a good front, but I can always tell when something is bothering her, no matter how hard she’s trying to play it off. Her being upset like she is distracts my father and my grandfather, so that takes a lot of the focus off of me. Unfortunate for my mother, father and grandfather that they’re worried about Pat, but it works out for me and you and what we need to do.”

“With all that going on, I mean with Pat, your mother and all, do you still think my coming to Maryland is a good idea?”

“Look Teddy, we aren’t second guessing anything. Besides, you’d lose the money you paid for the flight if you cancelled now. Forget that. Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill invited you, the guys and Marnie are expecting you, and so am I. Be on the plane and in Hillhaven tomorrow, or you’ll have me to answer to.”

“I’d rather face a firing squad than an angry, stood-up redhead.”

“Don’t go there.”

“I won’t then. Don’t want to have you upset with me before I can even get there. You go ahead and do what you’re going to do. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Marnie came into the parlor, pulling on her coat just as J.J. was clicking off her call. “Finn just pulled up; I already told your mother when he called and said he was on his way that I’d be leaving. Too bad you can’t go to Pat and Bill’s with us.”

“Who said I can’t?”

J.J. stood up and stuck the phone into the back pocket of the jeans she changed back into after dinner. Then she kneeled on the couch, reached behind it, and pulled out her jacket which she immediately began to put on. “I’m right with you.”

“You’re sneaking out?”

“I don’t sneak out; you know that. I’m just not setting myself up to be turned down about going out. They said you could go, so I’m going to assume that was a blanket ‘okay’ that covered both of us. I’m sick of being closed up. I’m out of here.”

Flipping her hood up on her head, J.J. crossed the room and entered the hall.

Marnie still fussing with her coat buttons, followed closely behind J.J. as she headed for the front door. “I don’t know, J. This doesn’t sound right to me. I think you should get it cleared first.”

“Look, if I don’t ask, nobody can say “no” to me, and if I wasn’t specifically told that I couldn’t go, then who can hold going over there against me?”

“The Duchess can. You know she doesn’t have a problem with tracking you down to wherever you went. You leave here like this and she’s subject to show up at Pat and Bill’s like a bounty hunter, only she’ll be hunting for you and your ass.”

“At which time, my ass and I will calmly explain to her that I thought she meant all three of us could go.”

Marnie snickered at J.J.’s answer despite her own anxiety. “And then you know she’ll get me, too, for conspiracy.”

“Whatever. We’ll deal with that if it happens.”

Opening the front door, holding her breath to brace herself against the rush of frigid air, J.J. pulled Marnie outside. She took her time easing the door quietly closed after them before hustling Marnie off the porch and into the driveway to where Finn was behind the wheel with the engine running. He had come back expecting to pick up Marnie,  but his eyes widened as J.J. opened the door and deposited Marnie into the front seat before sliding into the back herself, greeting him with, “Don-fin. Good seeing you again.”

He peeked over his shoulder at her, grinning in conspiratorial mischief. “Girl, I know you’re sneaking, with that hood pulled all up on your head like that. No way, Aunt Jen let you out tonight, and she needs for you to be well for the weekend. You can’t hide from her.”

J.J. tugged the hood even further over her darting eyes and slumped way down in the seat. “Just drive, Jeeves, and mind your own business. The hood is because it’s cold out, I have permission to be out- well, sort of, and I’m here because I need to get my Final Fantasy on. I heard Billy say Uncle Bill has the latest parental advisory version down there. Why should you guys be the only ones who’re happy?”

“Your fantasy will be here tomorrow,” Marnie grumbled. “And this trip here might be final for us if we don’t live to see tomorrow. You just keep pushing and pushing.”

“Quit whining and being negative, Marn. I haven’t done anything, really. I keep telling you, don’t claim it, and it won’t be. That’s how I look at things.”

“Me, too, J. ” Finn said with a single jaunty nod of the head as he put the car in reverse and swung it around so that he could turn and head back down the drive.

_____________________________________________________________

Her phone had been buzzing non-stop. Even though it was Thanksgiving and folks should have been enjoying their families, the inquiries about Pat kept coming. Screening those phone calls before answering had been standard practice from the start, but it had fast gotten to where she was allowing voicemail to pick them up. After all, Cordelia, Dora, and Marcia, the only ones she wished to speak to directly, knew to use her father’s private number to reach her.

She and Pat had always been popular and well-liked, so it wasn’t surprising that the story had gotten out there so fast. Their friends with them at the party at the club, her cousin, Betsy, the girls on Pat’s executive staff, and some others who weren’t there that night, but who had gotten word from someone else that there might be something amiss; they were all wondering. For them, it was atypical of Pat to just duck out like that and then not pick up her phone. So they were calling her, the one they figured would know, all of them asking and saying the same things.

“Jen, what happened?”

“Is she okay?”

“I couldn’t reach her by phone.”

“Is there going to be a wedding?”

How would she know? Pat wasn’t picking up for her either. The only thing that kept her from worrying that something might have happened to her or Bill was the text message waiting for her when she woke that morning, their secret coded message to  relay to one that the other was at least still breathing, a simple “P/OK”. Although she hadn’t mentioned that to anyone, it did allow her some peace of mind. So, to get away from the worrisome ringing, buzzing, and resultant aggravation, she just left. Down to the mud room for her gear, out to the stable for Legs, her father’s horse, and off in search of some fresh air before it got too dark and before there wouldn’t be time to fit in such an unfettered indulgence. Headed for the back end of her father’s land, her mind was still on her friends.

According to the whispered pre-dinner conversation, Pat and Bill weren’t picking up for anyone. The whispers were to keep that detail from Pa, but he hadn’t so much as asked about them, which seemed a little odd, but since he hadn’t, it worked out that nobody had to cover for them. Pa wouldn’t have liked it at all that they, particularly “his Patricia” were basically incommunicado.

But the reality was that Pat and Bill were wherever they were, doing whatever they were doing, and the rest of them would just have to operate on the faith that they would show up before Saturday afternoon.

As always, Walter, Rosa, and their helpers had done a wonderful job with the Thanksgiving feast. But it was the presence of those helpers that added to the dull ache building in her chest. Walter was getting up there in age. What would happen once he was no longer able to run the house the way that he had for as far back as she could remember? Who would, who could replace him? What if Walter went before Pa? Who would take care of Pa then? Who could manage the personal affairs of someone so stubborn, strong-willed, and who had the potential to be so aggravatingly cantankerous? If something happened to Walter, even if Rosa stayed on, she wouldn’t be able to attend to Pa the way that Walter could.

Pa could be intimidating if one didn’t really know him. By virtue of their lifelong friendship, Walter understood him. He knew how to ignore the more negative behavior and impose his will where it was to Pa’s benefit, as with Pa’s medications. Pa hated that stuff, but Walter got him to take it at the designated times, every single time. Quietly disregarding the fussing and complaining, Walter would remain by Pa’s side until each pill was consumed and the water glass was empty. He patiently worked through Pa’s darker moods and jovially engaged with him in his lighter ones. He knew the house inside and out, he understood how the estate operated; Walter knew things about her father and Briarwood that even she didn’t know.

I certainly hope he has things written down somewhere.

But then, knowing Walter and how methodical and businesslike he tended to be, she figured he probably did. Like Pat, Walter didn’t make undue difficulties for anyone when it came to work he should have done. In his absence, Walter would make it as easy as he possibly could for the person stepping into his shoes.

Morbid, morbid, morbid, Jennifer. We’re all getting older, but everyone seems fine for now. You saw how they were at dinner. Stop worrying about things that haven’t happened. Move on.

For a while, she was able to blank everything out and just enjoy being on a fine horse, exploring the grounds of her parents’ home again. She hadn’t ridden since the last visit to her father, but that time didn’t allow for peaceful stretches of time, not even one as small as this present bit she’d managed to make for herself. Despite the brittle cold, maybe even because of it, she could feel her usual alertness, her customary high energy returning to her, and she urged Legs into a trot toward her favorite spot by the pond.

Jonathan and J.J. had been on the telephone when she slipped out. Marnie had been preparing to leave with Finn, who was coming back for her, and Pa had shut himself up in his study. It was rare that Pa closed the door to that room while he was inside, especially when she was visiting. But, he had been sequestered there most of the day, coming out for dinner with the family, and then returning almost as soon as he finished his meal. If it hadn’t been Pa doing it, his departure from the table might have been considered somewhat rude. With him; however, it translated more into preoccupation.

With what, she wondered.

Dean Marchand had been very much taken with Peter’s boys, as well as Marnie and J.J., engaging them in conversation about their schools, their interests, their aspirations. It hadn’t been just an old lady making small talk and the kids being polite out of respect for an elder. Her questions were interesting, of the type that had the youngsters going back and forth with her and in turn asking her questions. They seemed amused and fascinated by her knowledge of things that attracted the attention of young people, their music, the media, and their pastimes. All of the young people at the table seemed to enjoy her, even J.J., although that one hadn’t said very much, which was typical. Jonathan hadn’t said a whole lot either. The two of them interjected here or there, answered when asked a question, but for the most part they had played their usual roles as observers of the action on the field. Observers with note pads and busy pencils- mental ones, that is.

They, too, had her wondering. Of late, there had been that added, attention-drawing dimension to their customary camaraderie, just the tiniest whiff of collusion. Hanging out together a lot in the past couple of weeks, shopping all day, and then dining out that night when the reporter came up on them and set Jonathan off. Jonathan’s going to New York with Bill and he and J.J. splitting from Bill and Marnie to come to Briarwood together, the trip affording them a last uninterrupted block of time alone, without witnesses to- to- to do what?

You’re over the top, Jennifer, with the fretting and the suspicions. This isn’t like you. Hormones raging? Nerves frayed? Lack of-

… there was that. It had been a while.

Now that’s one detail that I can very easily rectify… and I will.

A delicious shiver that had nothing to do with the frigid air, shot from the very base of her spine to the nape of her neck where the tickle had her her tailbone tingling, her shoulders shuddering, and her laughing at herself. Despite all the craziness and questions, life was good as long Jonathan Hart and thoughts of him were part of it.

Arriving at the pond, she dismounted, and holding the horse’s reins, she slowly walked the bank, savoring the ambiance of that special place. It never changed. The grass,  gray and stiff with cold, crunched under her feet and as she came upon it, the sycamore, her sycamore, naked of leaves and starkly striking against the darkening winter sky, took her back to the past summer when she had come there with her mother’s journal. Confused, distressed, and frightened, it was where her legs carried her to seek solace. Sixteen years before that night, she had come there in frustration at being confined and restricted due to her advanced pregnancy. That time, too, there was an element of fear in her being there, a quietly suffocating uncertainty about that child growing inside her that would soon be seeking its way out and insinuating itself into her life.

Insinuated indeed. That baby came, immediately established her residency, and made herself completely at home… in my heart… my little Hart.

The naughty minx..

You aren’t off the hook, J.J. Hart. Not off the hook at all.

Then there those other nights, so very long ago, that she had come there… too many people, always too many people at the house… have to get away… riding, riding, riding… so cold and so dark….

I don’t care. Nobody cares. I don’t care anymore. Don’t care about anything. Just ride, Jenny. Just ride until you find her. Ride….

Not a stranger, no need to fear. It was Pa. Off to the side. Just a shadow, but definitely his unmistakable, prominent silhouette… Off to the far side of the trees, astride the Arabian that matched Aladdin, her mother’s…

That one strong hand held out to her… the thick fingers gesturing… gesturing for her to come home with him… Her father. Even then, even through his pain and suffering, he held to his position as her father and did not give in to her moods and emotions, but he didn’t force her either. Instead he waited, patiently watched and waited, continuing to silently insist that she come to him and take that hand…

…then all by themselves, just the two of them…riding back to what was left of them, the Edwards family, Stephen Harrison and his daughter, Jennifer… left alone, but together for the rest of time… a long, long time ago.

When all was said and done, looking back on it all, it really hadn’t been so bad. The rough, twisted, hard to maneuver places on that road had eventually smoothed and straightened themselves out, eventually leading her to Jonathan and all of them right back to Briarwood and this weekend.

Vigorously shaking out her hair, she rid herself of that last set of sepia shadows. Then with positive purpose, she stuck her foot in the stirrup and in one lithe movement, lifted herself onto Legs’ broad back. He was an excellent mount; as if he recognized that she was his daughter and so very much like him, her father’s horse always seemed to anticipate her wishes. When she was settled, he started off on his own, taking them back in the direction of the main house. Soothed by his smooth, confident gait, she inclined her upper body forward to rest her cheek against his mane, working her fingers through it so that he could feel them caressing his head as she whispered her thanks to him for his constant graciousness toward her.

_____________________________________________________________

Damn.

In frustration, Jonathan clicked off the cell and stuck it back down into this pocket.

Leaving Jennifer downstairs in the living room with the others where they had all been talking together after dinner, he’d used the excuse of needing to make some calls to come up to the bedroom. His real reason for taking off, though, had been to make sure his ducks were still in the row he’d left them in and to check on the whereabouts of the two of whom he’d lost track. Although he trusted wholeheartedly in his customary attention to detail and order, he saw nothing wrong in double-checking that everything already set in place was as it should be.

Satisfied that there were no ends of any kind left untied in his own plans, he tried to place the one real phone call he intended to make, yet another one to Bill. It would be his third and final attempt of the day to reach him and find out what in hell he and Pat were into that had them so locked up and cut off.

But again, there was no answer. It wasn’t that he was worried about them; his gut instincts weren’t telling him that anything bad had happened to them, but still….

With the phone put away, he remained in the chair by the window. What in the world had Bill and Pat so occupied that they missed Peter and Lisa’s arrival to their home as well as Thanksgiving dinner with Jennifer’s father? The old man hadn’t said anything about them; he hadn’t even asked about them, but surely he had to be wondering. And because her father was likely troubled, Jennifer probably was as well, although she, too, hadn’t said very much about them.

Gathered together in the parlor before being called in for dinner and before Stephen made his entrance, it was decided that Pat and Bill wouldn’t be brought up at the table unless Stephen or Agnes introduced the topic. He found it curious that neither his father-in-law nor his tenant-friend made any mention whatsoever during the meal of the two empty places. In fact, Agnes, and her sister, Belinda were surprisingly congenial and talkative while Stephen, although pleasant and welcoming on the surface, seemed to be keeping a strange eye on Jennifer. Perhaps, he thought, what he’d seen and sensed in Stephen was his concern over Jennifer’s thoughts of Pat.

Maybe.

Stephen was a hard one to figure out. Always had been. The only sure thing about him, the only assumption one could make about what he thought about anything, was his love for his daughter- and her best friend, Pat. And now, his granddaughter. At one time, though, even that last one wasn’t an absolute given. In those early years of J.J.’s existence, although he certainly loved her and had always treated her well, Stephen had been very vocal in his skepticism over what he considered to be the inappropriate, “west coast” manner in which hisgrandchild was being raised and the observable, unconventional outcome of it. However, as J.J. was getting older, as she was increasingly coming into who she was going be, her grandfather’s words and his actions were clearly expressing how much he had come around to appreciating her person.

Despite your high expectations and deliberate efforts to make things what you thought they should be, you didn’t turn out a snooty, spoiled, society debutante, andbecause of my high expectations and deliberate efforts with my daughter, neither am I.

There was nothing at all wrong with his girl; in fact, so far, in his book, she was doing fine. Despite all she was born into that might have had her turn out otherwise, as far as her father was concerned, J.J. was a normal, red-blooded, teen-aged American girl. A smart one, a cute one, and most importantly, his only one, born from his love affair with the love of his life. It didn’t get better than that.

And when one considered that the love of his life had been borne by the love of her father’s life, his own kid seemed that much more special….

Forming the decision to seek Jennifer out for an evening drink and a little alone time, he stood up from the chair and raised his arms to stretch his entire body out. After this night, there would be precious few moments for alone time with her, at least not in the next couple of days.

About to walk away from it, movement outside the window drew his attention. He sensed and then saw in the distance the intimately familiar, graceful and confident figure riding toward the house. Grabbing his jacket and gloves, pulling them on as he went, he headed for the door.

_____________________________________________________________

“This is us.”

Marnie led the way into the pastel-hued room, one of the six bedrooms in Pat and Bill’s country home. The room was spacious enough to comfortably accommodate two full-sized beds along with the rest of the furniture. J.J. headed right for the bed decked out in plush sky blue and ivory where she plopped down to bounce the mattress a couple of times, trying it out.

“I take it this is my side. I’m hoping the prissy Pepto-Bismol hook-up over there is yours.”

Picking up the Hello Kitty doll resting on the pillows, Marnie sat down on the bed with the baby pink comforter edged in white lace. “I had to go with this. When she first asked me how I wanted the room, I told Pat that I wanted it done up in red, but she said it would clash with your blue and then she was like, ‘I’m not running a cathouse.’ ”

“A c-cathouse?” J.J. sputtered through her laughter. “Ooooh, only Aunt Pat would come up with that one.”

Marnie, hugging the doll under her chin, grinned at the recollection and at J.J.’s reaction. “Yeah, she was like ‘Marnie Elaine Benson, there will be no red-light district going on in here, lest you get the wrong idea about what this room is for.’ I don’t know why she always goes there with me, J. It just happens that red is my favorite color.  She knows that, and she knows full well that I’m a virgin, so I don’t know where she got that cat house st-.” But when J.J. stopped laughing and gave her the eye, she grudgingly added, “Well okay then, technical virgin.”

J.J. nodded at the clarification. “Yeah, let’s just get that out on the table. Called to the stand in a court of law I wouldn’t be able to vouch for the integrity of your unblemished status, not from the inside track I happen to have on you. And I’m sure there’s been some low-life behavior between you and Chance that you haven’t even let me in on because it’s so hot and foul.”

Marnie shook her head. “Unh-uh, no there hasn’t. Remember what Aunt Pat told me that night in the den at your house? I listened to her and did what she said.”

“Yeah, well what about before she said that? You were seeing Chance all summer, before Aunt Pat told you that. What about then?”

“We hadn’t gotten to that base yet, and I haven’t been there with anybody else either. I’m fast, but I’m not that swift. We all agreed, seventeen or a senior in high school. Well, you all said it. I just had to go along with it ’cause I was outvoted. Then Pat had to go and say that about it all being sex, so that put a damper on anything that might have happened with me and Chance that night, not to say that anything was going to.”

“Harlot.”

J.J. allowed her body to fall backward on the bed.

“Whatever, ” which Marnie punctuated with a one finger salute in J.J.’s direction that J.J. saw, but ignored.

“This is a really nice place, Marn. Even Aunt Pat should be comfortable here on weekends. So, what do you think of Dean Marchand?”

“Dean Marchand? I guess she’s okay in my book. I like both of them, her and Ms. Smythe. I mean, I wouldn’t seek them out on my own or anything; they’re old. But for old people, they’re okay. Why?”

“I don’t know. I knew Ms. Smythe was okay from last summer. I had more contact with her while we were at the reunion, and then when I hurt myself, she did a pretty good job of looking out for me even if she did get on my nerves trying to keep me so close and making me be still. But the Dean, I wasn’t so sure about her. I mean, the only real interaction I had with her was when she almost caught Teddy in the room with me, so there wasn’t any real time to form an unbiased opinion about her.”

Marnie tipped her head, as if trying to get a sense of where J.J. was heading. “You’re saying all this to say?”

“I guess I was prepared to not like her, but-”

The “but” lingered on the air longer than Marnie could take it. “But what?”

The words came slowly, as if each one was being closely examined before being allowed to leave J.J.’s tongue. “Well, she seems okay. Not at all like-”

Sucking her teeth in frustration, Marnie was close to yelling. “Why do you keep stopping, J.? You’re driving me crazy with that. Just say it! You know I’m nosy as hell.”

“Not like a gold-digger or anything.”

When Marnie didn’t laugh as expected, J.J. partially sat up and rolled onto her side. Marnie wasn’t even smiling. Instead her face was a question mark. “Were you worried about that?”

J.J. sighed. “I don’t know. It’s all been weird. The things my grandfather’s done with the house, how much better and happier he seems, the atmosphere at Briarwood, just so much change.” J.J. rolled over onto her back again. “At first, I think it was on my nerves that she was there, in my grandmother’s house, with my grandmother’s husband. She came into the music room with me. She asked my permission before she did it, but at the time, it was one of those moments when being polite takes precedence over what you really want to say or do. You know, when your upbringing gets in the way of you being your true self.”

“I got you. You know I know about that, even though the majority of the time my true self gets the upper hand on any manners I might have developed over the years. So, have you since changed your mind about her?”

“She’s…. interesting. Almost cool… for an old lady. She knows a lot about things you wouldn’t expect someone of her age and background to know. She actually seems to like kids, to take in interest in the things we find interesting; I really find that side of her kind of refreshing. My throat was hurting at the time, and I’ve been trying to save my voice, but at dinner there was so much I wanted to ask her about teaching, the responsibility involved in running a school, how things have changed since she first started, and all of that. What I’d really like to talk with her about is what it was like with my mother and Aunt Pat, but I’m not sure if the Duchess would like me doing that.”

“Speaking of the Duchess…”

“What?”

“You never did answer me. I haven’t forgotten.”

J.J. grinned, surprised that Marnie hadn’t. Neither had she. “The look.”

“Yes, the look. What do you think that was about? Jen gave the Dean the fisheye for real.”

“Yeah, she did.”

“So you did see it. I thought you did. No way you could have missed something like that. I asked you what you thought about it first. You never answered me, so you owe me.”

Waving her hand in the air, J.J. turned her face away from Marnie. “I just saw it. I didn’t really think anything about it.”

“Don’t lie. Tell that to somebody else. I keep telling you, I know you, J.J. Hart.”

“Okay. okay. I didn’t know what to make of it. My mother isn’t always the easiest read in the world as it relates to her father. They have a kind of- not weird or strange, but intense, I guess is the word- relationship. Like they’re extremely protective of each other. Sometimes like they have a separate world all to themselves that the rest of us aren’t a part of.”

“They do, J.” Marnie got up, still holding the kitty doll, and crossed the room to sit on the side of J.J.’s bed, right next to where she was lying. “It’s been just the two of them in that part of their lives for all this time. I’m not old or anything, but sometimes I really do feel like I am. I’ve been there, J.- where your mother is, I mean. My father isn’t dead, but you do get protective when it’s like that. No matter what the circumstances are of the reason for your parents not being together, you don’t want anybody else in that empty spot that your mother or father should be in. I imagine that never gets better or changes, even if you’re pretty sure there’s no chance of your parents hooking back up. The Duchess and your grandfather have had each other to themselves for a very long time, so she’s had a lot of time to build up her defenses. I bet she saw gold-digger, too. Or maybe trespasser.”

“You think?”

Marnie nodded.

“Do you think the Dean could have designs on Pa?”

“Who knows? But then they’re 80. How the hell much getting busy can they do? I’d have to say, though, that if your grandfather has stayed single this long, and he’s known Dean Marchand all these years like you found out he has, why wait until now to get with her? And why at Briarwood, of all places? Girl, your grandmother is all over that, even more so now. I saw all the stuff. I think I even felt her a couple of times, especially in that music room. She sure was pretty.”

J.J. smiled at the compliment, but shrugged her shoulders. “Pa’s a guy. Even though he’s my grandfather, bottom-line, he’s still a guy, and you know how clueless they can be at times. Who can tell? Maybe he’s dressing the house back up to impress the Dean. Boy, my mother must have been having a moment. She’s never rude to people, at least not without provocation, but she was at that moment. I’m sure Dean Marchand saw her face, too. That makes me feel kinda bad for her.”

“For who? Your mother or the Dean?”

“Maybe both of them, I don’t know.”

Marnie allowed herself to fall backward so that she and J.J. were lying side-by-side, staring up at the ceiling. “Stop stressing, J. I thought we came here for a wedding.”

“I thought we did, too, Marn. But the different scenarios just keep unfolding, the plot keeps on developing, thickening, drawing me in like the pages in a very good book.”

“Yeah, well. I’ve always told you that you read too much.”

“Or like quicksand.”

Marnie pushed the doll off her chest and sat up, reaching for J.J.’s hand. “Come on, they have Grand Theft downstairs, and I need to get my game on.” She slid off the bed pulling J.J. up with her. “Lets’ leave this grown people’s crap to the grown-ups.”

J.J. didn’t offer any resistance to her friend’s tugging, but she did manage to snag onto one of Hello Kitty’s furry feet. As they were leaving the room to return downstairs, she tossed the stuffed animal back onto Marnie’s bed.

Where it belonged.

_____________________________________________________________

After leaving the pond, her intention had been to return to the main house, to Jonathan, and spend a quiet evening with him. Parted since the weekend before, they only managed to snatch moments for themselves here and there since her arrival at Briarwood the previous day. But for most of the previous evening and Thanksgiving Day, they had either been in the company of others, in completely different areas of the house, or when they did manage to be completely alone together for a longer stretch of time, they were too tired to do much more than than sleep. Somehow, though, like it sometimes happened with one of those glassy-eyed rides home in the car after a very long and taxing day, when she and Legs arrived in the driveway leading up to the guest house, she had no idea at all how they got there.

The house looked quite different from the last time she’d seen it, when it was undergoing a massive and intense renovation. Completely refurbished, it was a lot more substantial and certainly more inviting. Back in the summer, when Pa first commissioned the work on it, thick emerald green ivy still clung to the flaking, curling white clapboard. There were ladders all over and workers climbing and descending like agitated spiders. Hammering, buzzing, trees falling as the landscapers did their part, everything out here had been a whirl of activity and noise. Then, once the Dean and Ms. Smythe began moving in, and it became apparent that they would need more room, Pa had the work continued, adding rooms onto the original structure.

By that time, though, she and her family had returned to Los Angeles, while it was still a work in progress. The finished product was new to her. From what she could see, the additions had been done so thoroughly that only if a person had been familiar with the original structure would it be obvious that the house hadn’t always looked as it did.  Nobody would guess the condition of the original house as it had been back in July after standing unused for so long, or that it had once been a much smaller dwelling meant for temporary stays, not permanent residence as it was now being used.

Through the drawn sheer curtains, the interior lights glowed soft and yellow. She could not clearly see into the living room itself, but movement could be detected in the form of shadows.

Shadows…

She would be there on the doorstep or on the porch. Just the two of them back there, away from the housekeepers and gardeners and cooks… when Pa was away and school was out and Sabrina was back in France… just the two of them in that little house… warm summer days, cool nights… stories, “Il était une fois….”….always a story…

She would be there, looking like herself, not like how she looked with Pa. All of her lovely hair bunched on top of her head, she’d be wiping her smooth, well-cared for hands on her apron. Pa called it a pinny, and he disliked seeing her in them. “It is beneath your station, my darling. Leave that garment to the cook.” Or her hair pinned up as she preferred it.

Despite his protests, she still occasionally cooked when Pa was home. And wore her pinny. And bunched up her hair. She was her own boss, her own woman, had her own style ….

Mama was always the cook when Pa was away and they were alone in that house. It was what she wanted to be, the mother ….

Jenny! Jenny! Où êtes-vous ? Il est temps de venir à la maison, ma cherie.

Dirty feet, wet hair, grass-stained clothing, and an armful of books, breathless from running to get there.

I hear you, Mama. Je viens.  I’m coming.

“Jennifer!”

She was jerked back to the present with that unexpected voice calling her name.

“Are you all right, girl?”

Welsh accent, not French.

She forced a stuttered reply. “Ah, y- yes… yes, Dean Marchand. I’m fine.”

Blinking open her eyes, the white-haired figure of the Dean slowly came into focus, staring out at her from the doorway. She had an oversized cable knit sweater clutched around her tiny body.

“I thought I heard something out here.” She stepped out onto the small porch, fussing as she did so. “Jennifer, what in the world are you doing riding in the cold like this? But then, you always were one for taking off on a horse, no matter the weather of the time of day. Are you here for a visit? If so, do come in and warm up before the fire. Belinda has just put the kettle on. Come see what your father has done for us.”

Her intention might have been to return to the main house, but she found herself climbing down off the horse and leading him to the old hitching post at the end of the cobbled walkway. There was another reason for Pa adding onto that house as he had. Being the methodical man that he was, surely he had already taken care of it, but…

Patting Legs’ side, she offered him whispered reassurance. “I won’t be long, boy. There’s a little something I need to see for myself. As soon as I do, we can go back.”

Then she started toward Dean Marchand who was waiting for her… on the front porch of her home.

_____________________________________________________________

When he didn’t find her in the stable as expected, Jonathan concluded that he must have misjudged Jennifer’s actions. Rather than returning, she must have been leaving, or perhaps she had just been going past the house.

Saddling Star, one of the other two horses in the stalls, he was soon on his way out of the paddock and across the back field. Detesting the biting cold, the thought of an early evening ride, alone with his wife took most of the sting out of it. Horseback was his second favorite type of riding activity with her. The first, well….

They had ridden together all over the world. Thank God that by the time she entered his life he had learned to do it so well and could keep up with her.

He was still smiling at the mental double-entendre when he reached the pond. But that amusement soon faded when it became apparent that there wasn’t a soul- or a horse- in sight. At almost sixteen hands, Legs was a hard one to miss, even from a distance. Riding all the way into the clearing and looking around just to be sure, he stopped along the water’s edge to allow Star to refresh himself while he tried to think where else Jennifer might have gone. Briarwood’s grounds were extensive, but Jennifer usually rode in the same sections. The pond area was her favorite place to come, but judging from the direction she was moving when he saw her, she might have continued on around the house and gone down to the lake.

Or to the west end of the estate? Out on the main road? Around to Pat and Bill’s maybe?

Nah, I really doubt that last one. She’s been kind of introspective all afternoon; too much conversation she’d have to have down there. To many people with questions. Too many things waiting to be done. She’s on that horse in search of something. Quiet? Perhaps. Peace of mind? Most likely.

Jennifer was a natural on the back of a horse, and when there was one available to her, that was where she could usually be found. Even back when she was nearly full term with J.J….

Kate allowed her a visit to her father before restricting her from travel until the baby’s birth. Restless, bored, and smothered to frustration by his and her father’s protective vigilance and their efforts to ensure her comfort, the first chance she got, she slipped away from them and  took off. Never in his life had he been so scared- and so infuriated with her. The risk to her and to the baby- it seemed so reckless, so uncharacteristically thoughtless of her.

But he should have known.

Riding out to this spot, once he discovered her and a horse missing, he found her resting underneath that big tree with the horse idly grazing nearby. Somehow, the sight of her there, absolutely fine, content, and oblivious to the alarms she set off in him made it even worse. He gave it to her full blast, telling her in no uncertain terms how careless and thoughtless she had been, how dangerous it was for her to be riding a horse in her condition.

She didn’t say anything to him in answer, but the look on her face and in her eyes clearly telegraphed her feelings on the matter.

What is your problem? Center of balance? Shifting? I have been riding horses all of my life. My center of balance finds me; I don’t have to worry about that just because I’m having a baby- and neither do you.

And as usually happened with them when they disagreed, especially when it was him doing the disagreeing, the tension quickly passed. Somehow he wound up underneath the tree, too, with his head resting in her lap.

He hadn’t really been angry with Jennifer. It was just that in him, fear and anxiety had a tendency to take the form of aggravation and anger. With a pregnancy, too many things could go wrong on their own, and they had gotten too close to bringing in that new life without a hitch. As it was, they were taking a shot at their last minute miracle. There was no reason to tempt fate, to invite complications, or to risk an accident that might have taken both of them, and in that case, all of them.

With Jennifer’s hand cradling his head, his cheek pressed against her full, busy belly, he took absolute delight in the delicate rolling and bumping inside her. When he spoke, the movements hesitated as if their little owner paused to listen. At that point, they didn’t know the baby’s sex- his money (literally) was on it being a girl, but the sure thing was that it was his first, and likely his only, child growing inside the woman he loved.

Later that evening, after dinner when Jennifer had gone upstairs to write for a bit, Stephen took him into the study. Over brandy and cigars, his father-in-law told him a little about his late wife. Nearly ten years had gone by since he’d joined the family, but it was the first time that Stephen had talked at length about Suzanne. He spoke of her love and devotion to her child. Of how Jennifer had inherited her mother’s charm, spirit, and vitality as well as her stubbornness and determination to do the things she wanted to do. Her fearlessness, all of it, Stephen said, she got from her mother.

From Suzanne?

Stephen couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

That sycamore he had been fixated upon slowly came back into immediate focus, its reaching branches stark white against the slate gray sky. The entire area suddenly felt desolate and abandoned and for some reason it entered his mind how peculiar t was that  he could almost see and hear Suzanne in his mind, but couldn’t form the first image of his own mother.

“Not going there,” he whispered to himself as he used his heels to get the horse started. “Damn, it’s cold.”

Emerging from that last brace of trees on the back path, the smaller white house on the estate came into view. Then he spotted the horse out in front of it.

_____________________________________________________________

Playing the video game proved less than satisfying. She lost at the card table on the second hand and had to relinquish her chair. Nothing in the magazines she pulled from the rack caught her interest. Accepting her inability to concentrate, J.J. eventually wandered out of the game room and away from the others.

Meandering through the first floor, taking in the rooms, the furnishings, the color choices, the artwork, she wondered what the interior of the house looked like the first time her Aunt Pat set eyes on it, before she put her people to work on making it suit her. The Duchess always said that Aunt Pat could easily have had a second career as an architect or a contractor, and a third as an interior designer.

Prior to her godparents purchasing the place, Mr. Farrell had raised five sons and who knew how many horses there. Mrs. Farrell died decades ago, before her last son was out of grade school. Since then, Farrell’s horse farm had been a place lived in and primarily operated by men. Tagging along with her father and her grandfather, she had visited the stables on horse business, but she had never been inside the house. But even from the outside, in her estimation, it clearly had been a guy’s world.

The Duchess said that walls had been removed and some rooms combined to make larger spaces. Aunt Pat was notorious for that. In Manhattan, she had done the same thing with her co-op. Strict building codes in her district set a certain time of the year for construction, and Aunt Pat usually took full advantage of it to have work done on her place or on one of the units she owned in the building. Hers wasn’t one of the so-called ‘good’ buildings, but she said she preferred where she lived because it afforded her a type of privacy and freedom that one didn’t always get in the places that people were climbing over themselves to get into just to say they lived there. And, because she owned a large chunk of it, she had a say in what went on where she lived, rather than being dictated to by the “arbitrary, pretentious a–holes that sit on some of those boards”.

Admiring the floor plan, she likened the open feel to her own home on Willow Pond, and maybe even to the house in Malibu. Her parents, especially her father liked big rooms, high ceilings, and fireplaces. Although it had the high ceilings and fireplaces, Briarwood didn’t have that same flow. Each room there was to itself, accessed by connecting doors that were usually closed. Rooms were reached via long hallways that snaked through the house. The openness, she decided was a lot better.

She had worked her way back to the kitchen where she found Sarah, the housekeeper. Someone had obviously filled her in; she had some chocolate chip cookies with macadamias waiting for her. She’d baked them herself, she said.

On her way back up front, J.J. over being polite and accepting only two when the full jar was offered.

Listening to my mother. I should have taken six. These are the bomb.

Peter and Lisa were in Uncle Bill’s “man cave”, talking and watching television. That room was a lot like Uncle Bill’s den in Reno, but larger and better equipped, making it very obvious that he meant to spend a great deal of time there and that he intended to be comfortable while doing so. Uncle Bill had always lived out west, but since Pat was definitely an east coast girl with firmly established east coast commitments, he must have been willing to compromise.

Guess that’s what love does for a person. Shoot, I don’t love anybody that much that I’d spend whole winters on this side of the country. Snow and what-have-you is for Vail or Tahoe or Aspen or somewhere.

She lingered there just long enough for Lisa to start inquiring about her cold, and at that point, she graciously made her exit. The last thing she wanted or needed was someone fawning over her about some sniffles or mentioning to the Duchess, even in passing, that she was there and that she sounded or looked anything other than fine.

In the great room, over the fireplace, was an oil painting that stopped her in her tracks. It was one she had never seen before, and it was stunning. It was Pat, in the present and at her best. She was standing with her head turned so that her face was full on and the white streak could be seen in her shiny dark hair, but her slim body, dressed in a form fitting rose-colored gown was turned so that it was almost in profile, as if she were looking over her shoulder. The artist had definitely captured her essence: regal, majestic, no-nonsense, for sure the mistress of this house.”

“Pop had that commissioned for her. It’s a composite.”

Billy walked up next to her, joining her in looking up at the portrait.

“A composite? You mean she didn’t sit for that? It’s gorgeous. It looks just like her.”

Billy shook his head. “Nope. Pop provided the artist different photos of her, and the guy went from there. He’s been working on it for a while. Even before Pop proposed to her.”

“No stuff?”

“No stuff, J. He was originally having it done for his den in Reno. Then when he asked her to marry him, and she said she would, he went back and made arrangements for it to be redone to fit this room. It does, doesn’t it?”

J.J. was impressed with both the story and the painting. “I’ll say. Look at the eyes. That’s her all the way.”

“Your folks say anything about them, about what’s going on with them? Have they heard anything?”

When she turned to look at him, the expression on Billy’s face conveyed his deep concern. Billy was the closest of the four boys to his grandfather. J.J. suspected it wasn’t only because he was the first grandson; Billy was also a seasoned pilot who loved planes and anything that had to do with flying.

“I haven’t heard anything,” she said. “But you shouldn’t worry about that. The wedding is going to happen.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I know Aunt Pat. She does what she says she’s going to do. If it was being called off for some reason, we’d know that by now.”

“But I can’t help worrying, what if something’s happened to them?”

“Someone would have alerted us by now if that were the case. Billy, you know how they’ve taught us to communicate with each other so that each of us knows the other is okay? The phone signals and all?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, if they’ve taught us to use them, then don’t you think it’s something they do, too? Why else hasn’t an APB been put out for them? They’ve been off the scene since yesterday. They missed you guys coming here, Thanksgiving dinner with everybody, and it’s looking as if they aren’t going to make it in tonight, but you’ll notice that nobody’s panicking about where they are. That tells me that somebody’s heard from them, and knows they’re all right even if they might not know where they are or what the particulars are.”

For a few long moments, Billy stared down at her until he nearly made her uncomfortable, then he slowly shook his head again. “You amaze me. You always have. You’re a smart one, J.J. Hart. Level-headed, calm, and always thinking.”

Winking once at him and grinning, hoping that the blushing she felt didn’t show, she didn’t tell him that it was really her own personal reassurances that allowed her to maintain her cool over the missing party. But is was always an honor to get a compliment from him.

But then he clamped his hand around her upper arm and he began moving her toward the couch, “But now we need to talk.”

Through her half hearted attempts to resist being dragged across the room, she raised protest. “Wait! Wait! About what?”

“About this Teddy fellow that’s supposed to show up here tomorrow. What’s up with you and him? I don’t recall you calling me to ask if you could start dating.”

Digging her heels into the carpet, she stopped and pulled out of his grasp. “Aw man, not you, too. Since when do I have to clear anything by you, Billy McDowell. You’re only six years older than me, and you’re not my father.”

Billy folded his arms across his chest and pulled himself up to his full height. “Maybe not your father, but I am the closest thing you have to an oldest brother. I always have been, and I’m playing the role out to the max. You should have seen this coming; you’re the only girl we have in this family, and you’re the youngest, so any guy coming to see you is going to get the third degree. Why do you think Pop arranged for him to stay down here with us?”

“Not so you could hassle him.”

“Pop knew. So did our dad, and so did Uncle Jonathan.”

Despite her aggravation at being treated ‘like a girl’ yet another time by the males in her family, J.J. couldn’t help but be amused by the look on Billy’s face. Something in his eyes was so like what she witnessed in her father’s and her grandfather’s eyes when the topic of conversation was a boy interested in her. It wasn’t necessary, but they simply couldn’t help themselves. For the grown men, overly protective was who they were, and obviously the boys were being conditioned to think the same way. As annoying and frustrating as she found it to be, deep down she had to admit that it was kind of nice knowing that at least they cared… as long as they didn’t get too carried away with it.

With a sigh, rubbing the tension from her forehead with the back of her hand, she gave in.

“Look, just play nice with him, Billy. That’s all I ask. I don’t want him traumatized. Keep in mind, there are four of you, Peter and Uncle Bill. There’s my father he has to deal with, and then he still has to jump through Pa’s hoops, which I’m sure aren’t going to have very wide openings, so Teddy will have to be real accurate and steady when he takes his leaps. He won’t be able to do that if he’s all wired and fried from being down here with you guys.”

“Oooh,” Billy crooned through his laughter. “I had forgotten about your grandfather. On second thought, maybe we will take it a little easier on him.”

J.J. turned away from Billy and started toward the door leading into the front hall. “Yeah, well, I’m trying to tell you Teddy has got his hands full with just that. Listen. would you mind running me back to Pa’s? I have some studying I need to do.”

“Studying? Over the break? You’re ready to go back already? You just got here.”

“Just because we’re on break doesn’t mean that everything else gets neglected. Besides, I probably need to get some meds in me for this cold. It’s better, but I want it gone.”

Billy followed her out to the closet under the main staircase, turning on the light out there. “I guess that’s why you’re the scholar you are, J. What about Marnie?”

“I’m sure she’s okay. She’d be mad about having to go so soon. Finn can bring her later.”

Billy held her jacket out and she slipped her arms into the sleeves. Then he pulled his own jacket off a hanger and began putting it on while she zipped hers up to her neck.

“I’ll drop you off, J. But we’re going to talk about this Teddy guy some more in the car.”

“Whatever, Billy.”

Billy got the keys, used the intercom to let his father know that he was taking the car and why, then he met J.J where she waited for him at the front door. His next question, posed in a slightly lower tone, caught her a bit off guard.

“And tell me this, J., what’s up with your grandfather and the Dean? Anything?”

But it didn’t surprise her. Billy had always been one to pay attention; it was one of the things she admired most about him. However, it was Pa he was asking about.

“What makes you ask?”

“Nothing, really. She’s just kinda cute for a little old lady. Real smart. Lots of personality.” Billy shrugged, holding up his hands. “I mean, she’s single. He’s single.”

“They’re eighty, Billy.”

When he held open the door for her, J.J. flipped up her hood and stepped out onto the porch and into the cold. Billy followed her out, closing the door and hustling to keep up with her as she kept walking out to the car.

“Real old people need love, too, J.”

“Look, I’m not going there with you, William McDowell the Second. Pa and the Dean are beyond grown, and I’ve been warned too many times in my sixteen years about putting myself in grown people’s affairs-”

“Yeah, affair, that’s what I’m talking about.”

“You’re talking about it, not me. I’m not touching that. Now you just take me home like you said you would.”

Opening the passenger door, he bowed low, gesturing toward the inside of the car with his hand.  “Your carriage awaits, Your Majesty. I am but your humble servant.”

She rolled her eyes at him as she slid into the front seat.

_____________________________________________________________

As she followed Belinda Smythe out of the common room, Jennifer took a last quick peek at the spot where the door to the attic had been. In its place was a wall hung with a full length mirror set inside an elaborate frame and positioned in a way to make the hall appear longer and to afford people inside the house a view of anyone coming through the front door. If they didn’t already know what was hidden behind all of that, nobody would, a fact which brought an odd measure of calm, almost like closure. Perhaps closure really was what she was feeling, but the certain thing in all of it was she was ready to leave.

Dean Marchand was still in the chair in the living room where they left her when Ms. Smythe offered to show her around the rest of the house. Looking at her sitting there, Jennifer marveled to herself at how such diminutive, soft-spoken woman once seemed so powerful, so huge and menacing. There was a flicker of question that the sight sparked in her mind.

“Will I one day look this way to J.J.? Will she think of me in this way?”

“Your father has been very generous to us, Jennifer.”

She knew that Pa had been; she knew that her father was basically a generous person, but she didn’t think it polite to voice her agreement, especially not in this instance. She didn’t want the Dean or Ms. Smythe to misinterpret her take on it. Instead, she merely smiled as she approached her old headmistress.

“You and Ms. Smythe have done a wonderful job of decorating. It looks as if you’ve lived here for years rather than only a few months. Are you comfortable? Is there anything else that you need?”

“No, we are in need of nothing at this point. We have Patricia to thank for some of the decorating. She’s been here a few times, making suggestions, adding a touch here and there, sending people out. And then, too, my sister here is quite the planner and decorator herself. She’s done most of this and sees to things being kept up between the service Stephen has arranged to have come in every other week. I only exist here.”

“When she’s here,” Ms. Smythe said in a accusing, but politely so, tone. “I am surprised that with the holiday done, she isn’t in her room packing a suitcase for another conference or consultation.”

“There is Patricia’s wedding. That is keeping me in place for this weekend. I cannot say what might come up for the next weekend. I am one who believes that to stay still is to stagnate. As long as I have my good mind and legs that will carry me and people who want to hear what I might have to say, I am going to be thinking, and going, and communicating.”

Pat hadn’t mentioned anything about helping the Dean decorate the place. But then, too, it was only that past summer that Pat revealed to her how she had kept in contact with the Dean ever since they graduated from Gresham Hall. That last thing came as a bit of a surprise, but when she thought about it, that was understandable on Pat’s part. While at Gresham Hall, Pat wound up forming a relationship with the Dean that she had not. But this last thing, why hadn’t Pat mentioned coming to Briarwood? Why hadn’t she said anything about helping to decorate the guest house, talking with the Dean, even mentioning anything about any of it?

Stay focused, Jen.

“I think that’s a wonderful perspective to have, Dean Marchand. I believe in maintaining a positive attitude. It nurtures the spirit.”

When she was finished putting her hat back on to keep out the impending cold, the Dean reached for her hand, curling her fingers around it.

“I have to say, Jennifer, if that is the case with you, it has not done you any harm, not that your spirit ever needed much nurturing. You look wonderful, not just outwardly attractive, but you simply radiate health and vitality, which adds to your entire person. For a little girl who came to me so small, thin, and unhappy, you certainly have pulled it all together and made a wonderful life for yourself. A handsome, charming, and successful husband; it’s in his eyes that he adores you. A pretty and promising daughter, who I have found for myself is quite personable and very talented. Your own stellar career as a writer- of course, I never had any doubts about your writing, or about you for that matter. You have done your father proud, and I am proud of you, as well. And please, we are both women now. I would like it very much if you called me Agnes.”

“And I am not your house mother anymore,” Ms. Smythe said from somewhere close behind her. “Please call me Belinda.”

Suddenly very uncomfortable, Jennifer found herself blushing as she managed to utter her gratitude for the compliments and to let the ladies know that as it was getting late, she really should be on her way.

Giving her hand a final squeeze, the Dean released her, and Ms. Smythe accompanied her to the door. When she stepped out onto the porch, she pulled her gloves from her pocket and began pulling them on. It wasn’t until she stepped out onto the walkway that she noticed the second horse and the rider with his hunched shoulders and head tucked down into his chest.

“Jonathan!”

“I told you he adored you.” The sing-song voice came from way inside the house before the door closed behind her.

By the time she reached him, he had corrected his posture, putting on his usual confident front, but she could tell from his deeply rouged cheeks that he was cold through and through.

“Jonathan, how long have you been out here?”

“Not long.”

A lie, but there wasn’t any point in pursuing that line of debate; he wasn’t going to admit to more. She untied Legs from the post and in seconds was up on his back.

“If you thought I was here, then why didn’t you just come on up to the house?”

“D-didn’t want to interfere,” he answered through gritted teeth.

“Interfere? I just stopped in because I was passing by. You wouldn’t have been interfering.”

“H-how was I to know that? I-I f-figured you’d be out any minute. I-I just didn’t know w-which minute.”

“Jonathan.”

Briefly closing her eyes, she expelled the exasperation through her nose where it rolled out into the night air and disappeared.  She gathered the reins in her hands and urged Legs in the direction of the main house. “Come on, then, let’s get both of you back inside.”

As she rode off with Jonathan trotting alongside on Star, she had already begun thinking of ways to quickly warm her husband up while at the same taking care of her own nagging tensions.

_____________________________________________________________

At Briarwood’s front gatepost, Billy entered the code J.J. dictated to him; “That way Walter will know it’s me and not have to answer the intercom or be hurrying to get to the door”, and then pulled off, taking the long driveway leading to the house.

“So, how long has Walter been with your grandfather, J.? Seems like we’ve always heard his name connected with your grandfather.”

“All their lives. Walter is from Wales, too. His people have been associated with my grandfather’s people for three or four generations. They were raised together, he and my grandfather, so I’m told.”

“That’s interesting. Might make a nice piece of research for you one day. You know, to find out how a black family ended up in that part of the world back in those times.”

“Never thought about that, but it just might.” Billy’s suggestion immediately off all kinds of sparks in her head. Interesting? Indeed, but that was simply one more possible avenue to explore in the ever-expanding maze that was her intriguing family history. There was an item more pressing on her mind at the moment, but she didn’t want to leave Billy’s proposition just hanging there. That would only lead to more discussion or questions along that line, which she didn’t want.

“As well as some other things I have mapped out to investigate down the line. But look, Billy, I have one more thing I need you to do for me.”

“What? Look, I’m not Finn. I’m not going along with any under the table crap you might have schemed up on.”

“No scheme. Just something I want to do while I have time to do it. After tonight, there might not be a lot of time to do anything I want to do.”

“It better be stuff you want to do. I haven’t forgotten about your little male guest. He better not be trying to make you-”

“Billy, stop playing the daddy role, and hear me out, will you?”

“I’m just saying, J.J.”

_____________________________________________________________

With the tack put away, Jonathan and Jennifer made comfortable the two horses they had taken out. While he finished up with Star, he noticed Jennifer leaving Legs’ after closing him in and going over to the other occupied stall.

Traditionally, Legs was the only horse Stephen kept on the grounds year round. Star might now be there during the winter months for use by Dean Marchand or Belinda, both of whom still occasionally rode. The third was there because it was that particular holiday weekend. Stephen employed a small crew, headed by a guy who had been with him for ages. Mike Henderson arrived daily at the crack of dawn to make sure that Stephen’s horses, the paddock, and the stable were  in top order. The stable was meticulously well-kept.; neat, clean, warm, and well-lit, definitely reflective of the deep appreciation the Edwards family had for its animals.

Jennifer had gone inside that other stall, so he couldn’t see her and couldn’t make out what she was saying, but he could hear her moving around, gently speaking to the horse the whole time. That girl had such a way with all animals of all kinds, the wild ones as well as the more domesticated. There was something about her aura that seemed to draw them to her, that made them automatically trust her. But then, that attraction wasn’t limited to animals of the four-legged variety, the more domesticated ones, or the not so ….

Closing the door behind him, he leaned against it to wait for her, rubbing the huge head that placed itself on his shoulder. She came back out after a few minutes, wiping her hands on a towel she attempted to hang  just outside the stall door. It didn’t appear at first that she saw him standing there. Somehow, she missed the hook and had to bend to pick  the towel up.  She was still wearing that western hat dipped low over her eyes with her hair tucked up inside it. The short fringed jacket and tall black boots only showcased and accentuated the curves inside those tight olive drab jeans. He loved looking at her, watching her; she was stunning. No matter what she wore, bathrobe or ball gown, cocktail dress or jodhpurs, hell, in nothing at all, she was even lovelier and sexier than when they met.

Securing the towel in its spot, Jennifer turned around to face him, but didn’t immediately start toward him. The jacket that was fastened earlier was now open, as were the top three or four buttons of the blouse underneath, which afforded him a tempting view of freckled cleavage edged in delicate peach-colored  lace. Her smoky eyes held his as she slowly pulled the hat from her head and with a few languid movements of her head, she shook that thick auburn mane back down to her shoulders. The radiating air of uncertainty and anxiety of the night before was gone. There was only his Jennifer standing there, staring him down. Her confident stance and her sultry expression said that she knew all that time that he was there, had probably anticipated him, and as its done with one who’s been starving, she intended to reintroduce him to his favorite dish a little at a time.

But neither of them were very good at holding out, not when it came to feeding each other.

There weren’t any words; they didn’t need them. They were in a stable, but it didn’t matter; they were back to where they should be. When she came to him, he enfolded her and she clung to him, their lips, then their tongues reuniting in a way that they hadn’t since she left Los Angeles the week before. It had been much too long. Using his hands on her lower back to pull her body tightly to his, he could feel that the earlier apprehensions and stress he’d sensed in her, the distractions, seemed to have left her, and for a fleeting moment he wondered what happened with her at the Dean’s place. What made her go there in the first place?

But then he felt her tugging at the tail of his shirt, pulling it and his undershirt out to slide her hands up his back, and he deepened the kiss, urging her on. That flesh to flesh contact combined with the mouth to mouth sent a hard shudder up through his body that surely she felt as strongly as he.

“Still cold?” Her fingers lightly scratched, soothing but not quite eradicating the itch coursing through him.

“Yeah, but I won’t be in a minute.”

He slid around to her earlobe, nibbling as he worked at unfastening the rest of the buttons on her blouse.

“I love when you wear these that fasten in the front.” His nimble fingers made quick work of the tiny hook on her bra. “Just need to warm my hands.”

“Be my guest. I want you to be comfortable.”

She was soft and warm and dewy in all the right places from riding and then putting away the horses. He delighted in her tiny gasp as he dipped his head low to feast on the sumptuous banquet in his palms. But doing that took the rest of his body away from hers, and he immediately missed that connection . Although he loved what he was doing, and was sure that she enjoyed it, too, she was no longer able to satisfy herself- or him- by moving against him as she had been. Frustrated, he could feel her reaching for and loosening the buckle on his belt.

In the stable? Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Jennifer was already undoing the snap on his jeans.

If this was going to happen, they needed a better, more comfortable location. They were horses, but he didn’t need an audience of any kind. Jennifer was his alone.

In frustrated aggravation, she sucked her teeth when he removed his mouth from her flesh and her hands from his fly.

“Wait.”

“For what? Why?”

“Just hold on a minute, darling,”

“A minute?”

“Just.”

Taking her by the hand, he led her to the loft ladder. A naughty smile formed on her lips and she was quickly on her way up with him following closely behind.

_____________________________________________________________

Billy was still fussing as J.J. opened the car door and got out.

“I don’t know about this, J. If something happens to you, and your father finds out that I’m the one who didn’t bring you straight home, he’ll kill me.”

“So nothing will happen to me, and if it does, you just keep it to yourself about being the one who dropped me off. Nobody knows about this except you and me, and I’m not telling anybody anything.”

“At least let me come with you.”

“No, I’ll be fine, I promise you. You can head back home. If Marnie is ready to come back. Finn will need the car to bring her.”

“There are plenty of cars there for Finn to bring her back in. I really don’t want to leave you by yourself.”

“I’m not by myself. I’ll have all the company I need in just a second. Don’t worry. Just go on.”

She closed the door and began walking away, turning once to wave at the anxious face behind her. He’d sit there until she went inside, of that she was certain, but after that, she hoped he’d do as she asked. This was the only time she might get to be out there alone. Tomorrow Teddy would be with her, and the next day, she’d be tied up all day with the wedding. Then on Sunday, they’d be busy getting packed to go home, having dinner, spending time with Pa and probably doing some last minute entertaining. Come Monday morning, they would be heading back to LA. This was it, her only chance to see him and spend some time alone with him. After all, Pa had gone to all the trouble to have him there….

She opened the stable door and headed straight for the stall, calling out to her horse.

“Hey, Trip, it’s me! Bet you thought I wasn’t ever coming out here to see you.”

Triple J. snorted and tossed his head as if happily greeting her. She patted his face and rubbed noses with him.

“Um, hope you’re not susceptible. See, I’ve got a little cold, so they’ve been holding me prisoner up at the house. But as soon as I got my chance, you know I busted out.”

Her eyes traveled to the saddle hanging on the wall just outside his door, the saddle with her initials “JHJ” burned into it.

Pursing her lips, she nodded her head, and turned back to the horse. “You up for a quickie? I sure as hell am.”

Pulling down the saddle, she entered the stall. “This’ll take some of the edge off. Fast ride down to the lake and back, and no one will be the wiser. This’ll just be between us, all right?”

Continue to Part Nine

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s