Promises: Part Eleven

Part Eleven

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With the highway, then the landscape spinning in a terrifying blur before and around her, Pat focused on the one large hand gripped to the steering wheel. In the periphery, Bill seemed to be yanking at something with his other. The car jerked, pitched, and then tipped hard to one side, sending her harnessed body toward the door.

Blackness snuffed out her scream.

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Early Friday Afternoon

Turkey salad, glad that’s over with.

After placing the laptop and the camera Duncan said he needed on the table near the door, J.J. kicked off her boots and yanked the sweater off over her head to toss it onto the bed. She wiggled her jeans to the floor and with her foot, sent them to join the sweater.

She suspected turkey would be the fare for lunch that day. After all, something had to be done with the remnants of that huge bird they had for Thanksgiving dinner on the night before. There hadn’t been a whole lot left of it, but Rosa didn’t believe in throwing away food, and neither did Stephen Edwards. Thankfully, tired turkey salad for lunch surely meant something entirely fresh and different on the menu for dinner. Leftovers at the mid-day meal was one thing, but repeats being served up for dinner would be downright wrong.

The Duchess said she would feel differently about recycled food once she was the party responsible for paying the grocery bills.

… yeah well, I’ll wait ’til then to change my mind about it, but I seriously doubt that happening.

As soon as lunch was over, she had come back up to her bedroom to change into an outfit more suited to refurbishing a doll house and to get the equipment Duncan requested for their new project.

Uncle Benjamin- well, technically he was her cousin, but the huge age difference elevated him to “uncle” status in her book- and Ms. Smythe? An item?

Kind of cute, but mildly disturbing at the same time. Weren’t they too old for that? But once again, did age really matter with that sort of thing?

That thought brought her back around to her grandfather and Dean Marchand. Pa disappeared right before lunch. Was that only to take Uncle Benjamin out to the guest house? Or was Pa checking his own traps?

There you go again, J., conjuring up scenarios without any concrete proof.

Well, Dean Marchand hadn’t gotten in the car and come back with him; obviously they weren’t that attached. Pa said that the Dean and Ms. Smythe invited Uncle Benjamin to stay out there with them for lunch.

A geriatric ménage a trois?

Ooh, J., you are truly getting carried away. Good that nobody can see the depraved things that go on inside your crazy head.

Whatever the case, Betsy didn’t appear to be bothered at all by her father being out in the guest house with his friends. In fact, she seemed happy with his established a relationship with Ms. Smythe. After all, it was Betsy who brought the whole thing up, asking Pa, right in front of her, what he thought of it.

Talk about a revelation and the effort it took to not react or to ask questions about it with Pa sitting there at the table with them.

Save all that for later when you get Bets off to herself again. She’s got one coming for real for springing something like that on me without warning.

Betsy being with them for lunch; however, proved a blessing. She did most of the talking, directing the bulk of her chatter to Pa, who it turned out she hadn’t seen or spoken with directly in a good while. In turn, Pa’s occupation with Betsy and her professorial pursuits kept him from asking any potentially embarrassing questions of either of the two younger males present, and that was just fine with the younger female in the bunch. Seated at the end of the morning room table, opposite her grandfather, every now and then she caught him taking sidelong peeks at Teddy and Duncan, checking them out.

He did manage to get one query in, though, but it was to Duncan, which meant that Pa had to have been processing it all along.

“Excuse me, young man. But you say your surname is Sinclair, and you are from Manhattan. Would your father, by any chance, be Lawrence Sinclair?”

Small world.

It turned out Duncan wasn’t a neglected, overindulged, poor little rich kid after all. His parents owned several art galleries around the world, thus their frequent international travels, and the likely reason for Duncan’s talent and interest in that area. His parents were also artists- his mother a painter, his father a sculptor, but both of them were now more into the business of art.

In the course of his work as an art dealer and now a consultant in the field, Pa had supervised some of their early exhibitions and had indirectly overseen a few of their more recent commissions and acquisitions.

Via that brief interchange, she found out something else. The shop Duncan had taken her to was his. He owned that coffee house and another over in the Village, which was the reason for his remaining in New York on his own when his parents were away and his ability to travel at will. At seventeen, Duncan Sinclair was already well on his way to being his own man. He said his father set him up in business when he was fifteen.

So, how far behind was she in becoming her own woman? Boys had it made.

However, she admired how Duncan kept it on the low. All the while they were together that day in the city, or in their conversations since, not one word he said indicated to her anything along those lines. And that was as it should have been: don’t tell if the question isn’t asked, and she hadn’t asked.

Her grandfather, on the other hand, had.

“And I take it from your interest in the dollhouse that you are an artist of sorts as well. Do you paint?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is your work exhibited anywhere yet?”

“Yes, sir.”

“In one of your father’s galleries, I take it.”

“No sir, my own.”

That’s when it came out that the coffee houses were actually showcases for Duncan’s work and for the work of other aspiring, unknown artists of all kinds, painters, sculptors, jewelers, and performers. All of it confirmed what Duncan said to her that day in the lobby of Pat’s building; a book truly could not be judged by its cover. As evidenced by Duncan Sinclair himself, book jackets could be easily changed without affecting the contents or the integrity of the manuscript.

And second reads often revealed even more layers to the basic plot.

Then there was Betsy kicking her underneath the table, that foot attempting to tell her she had her eye on the wrong one.

I’ll be the judge of that, Elizabeth Rebecca Bach. I’m running the J.J. Hart show. And for your information, I don’t have either one of my eyes or my cap set on either one of them.

But if that were the case, why was she in such a hurry to get back down the stairs to the boy with all that lovely, curly hair and the cinnamon toast eyes that made her stomach dance when he looked at her across the lunch table? Was it only to try to keep Pa from snatching him up in her absence and closing up with him in the study? And if so, why did she care so much about that? Teddy had proven himself to be no slouch in that department.

Could it be true that absence made the heart grow fonder? And if that were true, then why had her heart been slowly cooling, only to flame right back up once she and Teddy were again in each other’s immediate company?

And was that a reaction to be trusted?

Genuine affection or just plain old lust?

How in the hell would I know?

I’m so confu-u-u-sed

After yanking the older, softer, more broken-in jeans up over her slim hips, J.J. gave in to her agitation. Like a frenzied marionette suddenly released from its operator’s hold, she collapsed backward onto the bed in a limp heap. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deep into her chest and then slowly released it, concentrating on blowing the bad air out. So many thoughts, images, sensations, all swirling behind her eyelids, bombarding her fragile psyche like missiles, but with the rest of the world shut out for the moment, they weren’t quite so dizzying as they continued crazily weaving themselves in and out, under and over, and all around each other.

When the cell phone buzzed next to her head, it was a more than welcome diversion. She snatched it up and clicked in to take the call without even looking to see who it was.

“J.J. Hart.”

J., it’s me, Marnie. You guys have lunch already?

“Yeah. You?”

Just got up from it. Look, who’s there with you?

“Nobody. I’m in my room, changing clothes.”

 Girl, I’m talking about your company. Who’s there?

“Betsy? My cousin?”

J., you know good and damn well I’m not wasting my time calling you up to ask about any female. Tell me who came with Teddy. Your parents said “guys”, but they were acting all cagey and stuff, teasing me with it. Wouldn’t come out and say, and I was not the least bit amused.  So who is it that showed up with your boy?

“Oh, you mean Duncan.”

Duncan? Sinclair? Duncan Sinclair?

“The one and same. Seems he and Teddy have been hanging out together since they came back from working that rehearsal in Boston. Duncan went with Teddy to Teddy’s mother’s house in Virginia for Thanksgiving, then he was going back to New York and be by himself for the weekend. However, when Teddy found out Duncan’s parents were invited to the wedding, but they’re out of the country and couldn’t attend, he talked Duncan into coming to Maryland in their place.”

Umph, Pat will be real thrilled about that. Imagine, him and that eyeliner showing up in the background of the candid wedding pictures. I can just see Pat relegating his gothic ass to the far corners of the reception room.

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see. I take it she and Bill aren’t back?”

Nope, they haven’t shown up yet. Cordelia and Dora are here, though, handling everything. Look, Shane and Finn want to come down to Briarwood with me. Your father was going to bring me, but I’m coming with the guys if your grandfather says it’s okay for them to visit for a while.

“I’m sure it’s fine, Marn. In fact, I think Pa was anticipating them being here. Tell them to come on and to bring the game console. We’re going to be in the solarium. Pa has it fixed up for us to hang out there. And all of you should put on some old clothes, or whatever you have that you won’t mind getting messed up.”

I don’t own that sort of thing, J.J. Hart.

“Well, you’ll probably be okay in whatever; just tell that to the guys. Hey, you mean to tell me Daddy’s letting you ride down here with Shane and Finn by yourself? Lone girl in a car full of boys?”

It’s just two of them, but you can believe when they asked him about it at lunch, Daddy Hart gave them the eye just the same while saying it was okay. Shane and Finn know what’s up. Or what creek they’ll be up should I have any problems out of either one of them on the ride over there. Sure wish Billy was coming, but he got a call, and he and Tom headed out. Probably a booty call or something. Dang, I wish I was eighteen, or better yet, twenty-one. I’d definitely talk to Billy. For sure, I’d have been at the apartment all set up to be his boot-

“You’re a total skank, Marn. I’ll see you when you get here. I gotta go. Teddy’s downstairs, all out in the open and vulnerable, right in my grandfather’s line of fire.”

And what do you think you’re going to be able to do about it should Pa Edwards decide to take his shot? Look, Teddy managed to hold his own with Jonathan ‘pistol packing’ Hart, twice, if I’m recalling correctly. I’m sure he can handle a tête-à-tête with a kindly, old grandfather.

“I don’t know about that ‘kindly’ thing, Marn. I can’t make a call on this one. I’m sure Teddy hasn’t had to deal with many grandfathers. He certainly hasn’t met up with one quite like mine, and I don’t have any past experience of this kind with Pa to gauge this situation.”

Well one thing’s for sure. You don’t want to risk pissing him off in your effort to protect Teddy from him and then having his daughter get wind of it. The Duchess will go there with you for real if she so much as suspects the slightest hint of disrespect toward her father.

“Hmmmm, yes, there is that to consider. I guess Teddy’s on his own for real if that’s how it starts looking like it’s going to be. Get here, Marn. I might need you for emotional support.”

Bet, J. In a minute.

J.J. clicked off and turned over just enough to stick the phone down in her back pocket before rolling off the bed altogether.

In the closet, she pulled a folded tee shirt from the shelf, put it on, and then slipped her feet into a pair of canvas mules. On her way out of the room, she grabbed the electronic equipment from the table.

At the head of the stairs, those photographs on the table snagged her attention, stopping her in place. Shifting the laptop and camera to one arm, she snatched her phone out of her pocket.

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Stephen Edwards poured himself a brandy and took to his favorite chair by the study windows. Under normal circumstances, this would have been his time to go up to his bedroom to rest or to read for an hour or so, but not this day; there was too much going on.

Directly after lunch, Elizabeth borrowed his car to drive down to the guest house to join her father and the ladies. After all, Agnes was excited about  seeing her former student, now semi-business partner.

The two boys had returned to the solarium while Justine went upstairs, she said, to change.

As he packed his favorite pipe, he thought he detected the faint sound of footsteps over his head. Justine, likely making ready to rejoin her guests.

He lit the pipe, puffed it to life, and then pressed a finger to the intercom button on the phone console.

“Yes, Mr. Edwards.”

“Please have young Baxter come in to me now, Walter.”

He couldn’t see the man, but Stephen imagined the traces of amusement in Walter’s customarily expressionless features. After all, they had been together for most of their lives and knew each other only too well. Walter had as much of an eye on that footloose rascal that had his eye on Justine as Justine’s grandfather had on him.

And Justine’s grandfather had already been there and done that, as the young people say, with a pretty, young girl of his own. It might have been eons ago, but he was fairly sure that the basic rules of play hadn’t changed, which meant that the need for a vigilant, proactive referee had not changed either.

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Jennifer took a good look at herself in the mirror as she touched up her makeup. Alone in the bathroom, freshening up after lunch, she was more than ready to leave Hamilton-McDowell Farms for Briarwood with Jonathan; she needed a break. At her father’s, even though it would be running over with teenagers, she was sure she could find a quiet corner to be by herself or to be with Jonathan for a time.

Examining her own reflection, she could certainly appreciate J.J.’s fascination with heredity. There was a lot to be said for one’s genes, and thankfully, she and J.J. came from a strong line of good ones. As far as she could see, the tension mounting in her heart did not reflect in her features the way they might in another woman her age.

The more time went by without hearing anything definitive from Pat or Bill, the stronger the whisper of suspicion grew that something was definitely wrong. They still  had about twenty hours to play with; the wedding was planned for late the next afternoon, but it wasn’t like Pat to play it so loose with an event this important and personal to her. Typically, Pat was not a last minute person, no matter how much she had going on or how harried she might be. Whichever way one tried to look at the whole situation, it was getting a bit too close to last minute for comfort.

But then again, what would Pat be doing if she were present? Not any more than she could do from wherever she was.

Maybe, possibly, hopefully she was getting done what she really needed to….

…but then again, in a way, I hope not….

Oh, my, Patricia, I don’t know what to think.

That dash of dread, a very recent addition to the negative emotions simmering in the pit of her stomach didn’t make things any better.

She purposely cut away from that line of thought to shift her full focus back to the mirror and her grooming, but the hairbrush practically leapt from her hand when the cell phone abruptly buzzed, skittering in a circle against the smooth ceramic counter top. She grabbed it to check the display. The caller wasn’t who she hoped it would be, but it was almost as good.

“Hi sweetie.”

Hi, Mom. You busy?

“Not too busy for my daughter when she takes the time to pick up the phone on her own to get in touch with her mother. What can I do for you?”

Nothing really; I just called.

“Did you now? Have you had lunch yet? But then I guess you have. Meal times don’t deviate at Briarwood. How’s that cold coming along?”

I’ve eaten, and I haven’t thought much about the cold, so I guess that means it’s a lot better.

“Did you take those vitamins and your iron this morning?”

Yes, Mother-r-r-r-r

“Don’t get fresh with me, young lady.”

Sorry.

“So now, back to your reason for phoning me.”

Mostly I just needed to hear your voice.

“I would think that with your guests, you’d have more than enough voices going down there to keep you occupied.”

They’re not you. Actually, Mom, I do have a quick question. Well, maybe not so quick, but one that I need to ask you.

“Shoot.”

How come life has to be so complicated? Why can’t it just be one way and stay like that for a while? Why do things have to always be boomeranging on me? Why when I think I’ve smoothed myself out do I start getting all gummed up again?

“Specifics, my little love. You’re machine-gunning me again.”

My fault. Excuse me, but you know how I get. Remember when we were talking the other night, and I told you that I didn’t think I liked Teddy that way any more. That I thought the thrill was gone?

“I take it you’re finding that to be not quite true, that the ‘thrill’, as you say, is indeed not quite gone.”

I’m not sure if it is or not. See, that’s the problem.

“Really handsome, J.J.?”

Yes.

“Physically attractive and very nice, which makes him even more physically attractive?”

For real. Yes. And ye-ah, for real on that last thing.

“All right then. Do you remember last summer when we were up in your room, and I was helping you to get ready for the country club dance while Teddy was downstairs talking with your father? Remember our talk? The waistband talk?”

Waistband?

“Of your panties, sweetheart.”

Awwwww, Mom!

“You asked the question.”

I know I did, but-

“The advice I gave you then still applies; the sell-by date on it has not yet expired. To what did I tell you to keep that hand securely fastened?”

That’s not where I was going with this, but in light of what I just admitted to, I guess I can see your point in reminding me of it. One other thing.

“Confirm the waistband commitment first, Justine.”

Confirmed. Hand securely gripping waistband of underpants when-slash-if things heat up. Then continuing to hold on tightly, I bid the gentleman good night, and come to find my mommy.

“All right then. Now that we have that established and entered into record, what’s on your mind?”

I need to whine. See, at lunch Pa was sizing Teddy up. He kept sneaking to do it, but I saw him. He’s going there with Teddy, I know it. In fact, he’s probably already snagged him and got him hemmed up in the study. I’m upstairs right now. I came here after lunch to change clo-

“Into what and why, J.J. Hart?”

I can’t go into all the specifics right now; it’s just too much to try to tell you about in this little bit of time; it’s something you need to see for yourself. But as far as me and changing clothes goes, it’s nothing low life or hot or anything, so you don’t have to worry about that.

“What type of shirt?”

Tee shirt, Mom. Crew neck. High crew neck.

“Good. Now proceed with what else you wanted to tell me.”

Switching to vent mode here. Mo-omm, guys have it made. They get to do everything, and nobody says a word. They so get the jump in life on us girls because everybody is breaking their necks to keep us females close and cloistered while the males are allowed to spread their wings, run rampant, and do whatever they want to get ready for the world.

“What brings this on, chérie?”

Just stuff. You know I used to think that it was kind of bad and wrong that Pa made you go to boarding school while he traveled around the world with his work, but now I’m starting to believe that maybe you didn’t have it so bad after all. Being essentially on your own, you didn’t have so many people in your business, directly running your life, people that you had to be nervous about doing things around, and them doing things around you or embarrassing you with your friends. You weren’t so insulated from real life.

You tried things. You did things. You got to make your own mistakes and learn from them. Look, I know I’m talking a lot and real fast, and I’m not sure if I’m making any sense to you at all, but in a nutshell, maybe Gresham Hall and being away from your father wasn’t such a bad thing compared to what I’m going through right now with Pa and Daddy. I mean, I love both of them so much, you know I do, but they can be so paranoid at times.

“J.J., you know, it’s funny you should say that about me and Gresham Hall. You see, I’ve been watching you a lot lately, and I’m very impressed with how confident, self-reliant, and accomplished you’re becoming. In the beginning, when you first started in the gifted and talented program, I worried that public school might not be a good enough place for you, but I was so wrong. I mean, you’re still a mess, but you would have been that regardless, and that’s always mostly been with me and with family.

“Out in the world, you hold your own very well. When I look at you, when I think about you, I find myself reflecting that maybe I wouldn’t have stumbled around so much and for so long if I’d had the immediate supports in my life when I was your age that you now have. I attended one of the best private schools in the nation, and I did get a superior education, but there was a degree of cloistering and exclusivity involved in that, too.”

You mean you stumbled and were uncertain about stuff? Like me when you were my age?

“Most certainly, I did. Just like you. Surely a whole lot more than you. Pa was paranoid about me, too, and just as irritating with it.”

But at least your father wasn’t talking to your male friends every time they came around, hemming them up, making them and you nervous about it.

“Perhaps he should have been.  J.J., at sixteen, I was so uncertain about everything, even about my father. I spent most of my teenage and early adult years feeling quite naive, a bit too sheltered, and extremely confused. Occasionally, I still feel that way. Not naive and sheltered, but….”

I certainly can’t tell any of that that about you, Mom.

“I guess it’s all about perspective, huh?”

The silence before the quiet concession that it was indeed about the direction one was coming from told Jennifer her daughter had gotten her message. The “Thank you”, and the, “I love you, Mom”, lifted her own flagging spirit. Clicking off, she took one last look at herself and then left the bathroom and the bedroom altogether to meet the handsome, nice, and “ye-ah, for real” physically attractive gentleman waiting for her downstairs.

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J.J. stuck the phone back down in her pocket, shifted the electronic equipment so that it was more secure in her arms, and then continued down the stairs. Just as she reached the last few, the cell went off, vibrating against her backside.

Jeez, I’d say it was off the hook if it had one. Who could this be?

She pulled it out and for balance leaned against the banister post to take the call. However, just as she clicked in, Walter entered the front hall with Teddy right by his side.

The older man nodded once in her direction as they passed. “Miss Justine.”

Over Walter’s shoulder, Teddy’s eyes briefly met hers as “Hello? Hello?” faintly sounded from the phone. Dumbstruck, she slowly brought the cell to her ear she visually followed Teddy and Walter continue in the direction of her grandfather’s study.

Hello? Hello? J.J.? Are you there?

“Oh, hi, Daddy. Yeah, I’m here.”

Hey there, I almost hung up. Thought I had a bad connection.

“No, I- I just got a little distracted for a second. What’s up?”

Nothing. You were on my mind, and I thought I’d see how you were doing.

“I’m doing fine; I’m with Pa, so how else could I be?”

Just checking.

“Are you  sure that’s the only reason you’re calling me? You were just thinking of me?”

Now what other reason would I have?

“Maybe because you you’re aware that Teddy and Duncan are here with me?”

And just why, young lady, do you think I would be concerned about that?

“Uh-uh, don’t even try it, Daddy; you know that’s why you hit me up. You can’t fool me; I can hear you smiling.”

Me? Smiling? You can hear me doing that?

“Yes, I can. Look, you don’t have to worry. I believe Pa has got your back completely covered down here at Briarwood.”

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Jonathan was mentally replaying his conversation with J.J. when he heard Jennifer coming down from the second floor. He moved her coat from his lap, and used the railing to pull himself up from his seat on the bottom stair.

Always easy on his eyes, his wife also appeared a bit less tense than when she went up a short while before. At lunch with all the others, she put up a good front, but he could always tell. Pat and Bill being AWOL was wearing on her.

He held the coat up by its shoulders, and as soon as she cleared the last stair, she turned around to slip her arms into it. “Thank you, darling,” she said, “And what’s got you smiling so?”

Leaning in to nuzzle his way through her hair, he kissed her neck and then whispered into her ear while she pulled the coat all the way on. “You mostly. Having you close to me like this. But I just got off the phone with our daughter. That girl is so bossy. A smart, sassy little riot.”

Jennifer turned around and handed him her purse. “She’s that way with you because you let her run all over you. And you don’t have any better sense than to get a kick out of her doing it to you.”

She flipped her hair out from underneath the coat’s collar, shook it back into place, and began to fasten the buttons. “So who phoned whom?”

“I called her.”

“Hmm, checking up already?”

“That’s exactly what I got accused of doing.”

He saw the flash of amusement in her eyes as he handed her back the purse to zip his own jacket and pull his gloves and car keys from the pockets.

“Her grandfather is in my shoes today. Just before she hung up, J.J. said Teddy was being marched past by Walter, heading in the direction of the village green. That is where they used to set up the guillotine, isn’t it?”

Jennifer’s soft snicker tickled his ears; it was good to hear her laugh. That and the image of J.J. helplessly watching Teddy go by had him smiling all over again.

“I’d like to be a fly on the study wall for that conversation.  That Teddy’s an awfully smooth and charming little operator. I hate to admit it, but he nearly had me on the ropes those two times I tried to break him down. I’d like to see how he does with Stephen.”

“Pa doesn’t suffer flies on his walls or anywhere else in his house, Jonathan. Eavesdropping, particularly on Pa, is a mortal sin at Briarwood. Besides, I really don’t think he’s going to traumatize the boy the way you might be thinking or hoping. But speaking of charming and smooth, I must say I was surprised when you allowed Finn to talk you into letting him and Shane drive Marnie to Briarwood on their own. You know, the only girl in a car with two boys?”

Jennifer was fishing with her best hook, but he refused to take her teasingly offered bait. It certainly had been a departure from his usual M.O. when it came to that subject, but allowing Shane and Finn to drive Marnie to Briarwood facilitated his plan for his afternoon with his wife, the afternoon he decided to adjust while they were at the lunch table, and was even more comfortable with after his conversation with his daughter.

“It’s only a couple of miles, and those two do not want to have to answer to Uncle Jonathan about any indiscretions in that area. They know I’m not playing with them about my girls. Besides, they’re all like cousins.”

“Operative word being ‘like’, Uncle Jonathan. Shane and Finn are young and male, and Marnie is Marnie. Then, too, there’s also Duncan to consider. He is not ‘like’ a cousin in any sense of the term. At any rate, I guess you and I will be there soon enough to give Pa an assist.”

She pressed the intercom button on the wall and let Peter and Lisa know that they were leaving. Then taking her arm, he escorted her through the front door.

At the end of the private drive, when she questioned his making a right onto County Road instead of the left that would have taken them toward Briarwood, that was when he explained the changes he made to their afternoon.

“… and I forgot to mention to you that Betsy is also there with your father and the kids. J.J. said she was out at the guest house, but it looks as if she and Benjamin will be there at least through dinner.”

Jennifer offered no protest against the altered itinerary once it was laid out for her. In fact, with that last added detail, the one about Betsy, she lay her head back, closed her eyes, and to his satisfaction, appeared to relax even more.

________________________________________________________

All J.J. could see of Duncan at first were his legs. He must have heard her coming; when she entered the room, he sat up from where he lie alongside the doll house and she noticed that he had stripped down to his undershirt.

“Wife beater, Dunc? Should I read something sinister into that?”

Duncan looked down to the garment covering his torso and laughed.

“Nah, J., I’m hopelessly non-violent. These things have gotten a bad rep; I just find them less restricting when I’m working. I don’t do sleeves when I can get out of them.”

Pushing up from the floor, he came over and took the equipment from her. “What photo-shop program are you running on the laptop, J.?”

“A Hart program, of course. If you’ve worked with any of the other better ones on the market, I’m sure you can work with this one.”

“Bet. I go digital all the time, all kinds of programs. The stuff’s second nature. I’ll figure it out as I go.”

She transferred the laptop and mini-speakers to him, and pointed. “There’s an outlet over there by that table. Where’s Teddy?”

Duncan carried the things to the designated table and immediately began setting up, answering her as he ducked down low to plug the adaptor into the wall. “The butler came and got him. Said your grandfather wanted to see him.”

With that supposition positively confirmed, J.J. offered up a quick prayer for her friend and then switched on the camera. “What setting are you going to need? Macro?”

“Auto is good. I can go from there. I like to get before, during, and after shots when I’m working on something like this. Kinda like a roadmap for me.”

Duncan was still at the table, his eyes focused on the screen as his fingers lightly tapped at the keys. She could tell from the colors flickering against his face that he was scrolling.

“Dang J., you have everything on here. This must be one of your father’s creations, made just for you. I mean, a laptop with this much capacity?”

Immediately deciding to consider his question rhetorical, J.J. pretended to be too caught up in adjusting the camera settings to respond to it. The laptop was indeed a custom prototype straight out of a Hart Technologies lab, but she had been the chief designer and architect of its internal structure. With the help of some of the techs and under the guidance of the lab chief, Dr. Westlake, she had been playing around with increasing its capacity for a while, so far with very satisfactory results. Like Duncan obviously could, keeping details like that on the low was a thing she had always done did quite well. Duncan could draw any conclusion he liked, even if he did immediately assign the credit to a male.

Typical. How many female artists and scientists throughout history haven’t gotten their due or got overlooked thanks to that sort of thinking?

Wonder who came up with the idea that only men had talent or brains?

Who else? Men.

Finished with the laptop, Duncan came over and got the camera from her. After a quick lesson on its operation, he began slowly circling the dollhouse, snapping pictures the entire time and talking.

“This is a fine piece of craftsmanship, J. While you were upstairs, I’ve been going all over this thing. Your great-grandfather had a mad eye for detail, and he must have had very good hands. It’s all so intricate and well-done. The living room has a vaulted and beamed ceiling and the dining room has oak paneled walls. The doors even have actual metal hinges. There’s tiny porcelain, not plastic, bathtubs and toilets in the bathrooms. Did you ever notice?”

She hadn’t. She had an appreciative ear for minute sounds, but not that kind of eye for such involved details. Besides, the last time she’d seen the dollhouse up close and personal, it was stashed away in the shadows of Briarwood’s dimly lit secret passage, and at the time, it hadn’t been the main objective for her being there. She only happened to come upon it as she and her mother were passing through, on their way to the holy grail, the attic room of the guest house. The dollhouse and those huge cabinets with all the interesting toys, books, and other stuff in them had been but a relatively brief, albeit utterly fascinating and enlightening, stopping point.

“I didn’t notice. It’s only today that I’m getting a real good look at it. Is it going to take a lot of work to get it back to where it should be?”

“I don’t think so. Mostly some sanding, a quick priming, and then a good paint job. Your grandfather said we could take all day if we need it; I’d like us to take our time. The house itself is solid. Not rickety at all, like I’d think it would be after decades of not being used or purposely preserved.”

Duncan stopped taking pictures and looked behind himself to where she’d taken a seat on the arm of the couch to watch him work and not be in his way. “I mean, I’m guessing that it wasn’t used in all this time, if it was your mother’s.”

“You’re right. I didn’t mess around with dolls much when I was a kid. I guess that’s why Pa never pulled it out for me when I was little. I only found out about it last summer. I figure maybe one day I’ll have a little girl who might want to play with it. At any rate, when I ran up on it, I thought it was pretty enough to be out in the open, on display, like the other art work around here, so I asked my grandfather about it. I couldn’t tell then that it was in such need of refurbishing.”

Duncan made an adjustment on the camera and then squatted to get in close to resume his picture taking.

“It’s not in such bad condition. Personally, I think it’s a lot more interesting like it is right now, J. A lot more stories to imagine about a house that’s been lived in at one time and then got left to stand empty and unattended for years. What secrets does it hold? What tales could it tell if it could talk? What happened between its walls or under its roof? So much to wonder about. Then you go and paint it so that it looks new again, and the potential for imagining is kind of diminished. You’re back to the now of things.”

Continuing to watch Duncan on his photographic mission, J.J. took note of his interesting observations, but her mind had started off on its own speculative journey.

Over there in his snug-fitting undershirt and without his gothic hook-up, she assessed dark-haired Duncan as quite nice-looking, although his upper physique wasn’t as pleasing to her eyes as Teddy’s. Teddy worked out, he was an athlete, and he dealt with horses almost every day. Consequently, he was probably a lot more physically active than the more urban Duncan. Duncan had; however, made some very interesting points about old houses and about the potential for a child’s imaginative play with a semi-antique dollhouse all of which revealed to her some deeper levels in Duncan.

What entity, she wondered, what set of overseeing hands sent to Maryland someone like Duncan Sinclair, a person who although quite young, obviously knew his stuff about art and could appreciate the workmanship and the history behind that to be found in the dollhouse? The dollhouse that just happened to make its way from being hidden in the passage to out in the open on the weekend that he just happened to set aside his business responsibilities to make his way to the solarium at Briarwood. On their own, she and Teddy and possibly the other boys might have had a good time painting it but would probably have made a mess of it, obliterating any potential for preserving what was important. But there Duncan was, taking pictures inside and out. She could see that he had already begun properly sanding down some of the flaky spots. It appeared he’d arranged all the supplies to easily get to them in the order they would be needed. Clearly, he was going about the business of getting the job done right.

Is that you, Grandmama? Is that you in cahoots with Pa, working it so that I’m kept on the straight and narrow?

Or are you just making sure that things get done the way they should be?

Real coincidental all of this is, that’s all I’m saying….

Whatever the answer was, having Duncan there to oversee the project made her even happier that he’d decided to come with Teddy.

But why hadn’t Pa ever pulled out the dollhouse or any of the toys in the passage for her when she’d come to visit Briarwood as a little girl? Had he forgotten about them? Or did he recognize that his granddaughter wasn’t that kind of girl? She could understand her mother not pulling them out for her; the Duchess didn’t remember about them until last summer.

And truth told, as a little girl, she hadn’t played with toys a lot. She’d always preferred books, bikes, balls, and mostly makeshift items to things designed specifically for children to play with, particularly those geared toward little girls. Had Pa honed in on that? Or did he purposely not want her to play with the toys hidden in the passage back then? Had that been his way of continuing to keep the painful memories away from his daughter? Or had that been Pa’s way of keeping the past in the place he once thought it should be?

And if so, what happened since then? What possessed him to allow her access to it now, after all this time?

With Duncan’s back to her, she shook her head a few quick times to clear it. After all, why was she even bothering with that? If anything could be considered water under the bridge….

But the shaking only shifted the line of considerations, only caused the racing locomotive to change track.

And if he’s uncovered the doors to that bedroom upstairs, has Pa also taken away the mortar and clapboard from the windows?

She kicked herself hard for not checking it out when she was taking the night ride on Triple J. But that was a question that could be easily answered, and it would be before she left Briarwood- hell, before the afternoon was out for that matter.

But at the moment she had company to whom she needed to attend.

“So, Duncan, you’re an entrepreneur. You sure kept that to yourself.”

Now standing, but bent over the dollhouse with its hinged roof opened to allow him to lean in and shoot close-ups of the second floor rooms, Duncan didn’t stop his work as he responded. “Was it important? Does it change anything?”

J.J, continued to study him, marveling to herself at how small the world really was, at how just the other day she was defending to her Aunt Pat the “shepherd for the devil” Goth boy who lived downstairs. Now there he was, visiting her in her grandfather’s solarium, brought to her grandparents’ home by their mutual friend, Teddy whose father happened to be a former lover of her Aunt Pat.

Small world, indeed.

“No, not really,” she answered once the thoughts cleared and she could get the words to her tongue. “I guess I got caught off guard by it coming up like it did. So random and all. You never said a word me when we were at your shop with all of your paintings, and we were talking.”

“Didn’t come up.”

“Yeah, I know. So tell me this, why have you changed your persona?”

Duncan stood all the way up, stretching his arms out at his sides and then rolling his shoulders. He clicked a couple of buttons on the camera and looked over his captures on the display screen as he spoke. “J., that’s not really me. It’s what I use to keep the people who think they know me off of me.”

“Like a force field?”

“I guess.”

He came to the couch where J.J. remained perched on the arm. When he sat down, he angled his body to that she could see what was on the camera.

“See, people like to judge, J., and I enjoy giving them a little something to make assumptions about. But nobody here knows me, well except for your Aunt, and I wasn’t about to go there with her. I figure people who don’t know me can look at the basic me, and base their assumptions on that. Hopefully they’ll come away with something good, or at least something genuine.”

“What’s wrong with just being you all the time?”

“I like to consider myself a walking canvas, so why not give ’em something to talk about, to think about? But this is your Aunt’s weekend. When I agreed to go to Virginia, it was Teddy’s time with his mother. All I needed then and all I need on the canvas this weekend is the image of Duncan Sinclair.”

“That’s pretty deep, Dunc.”

“Yeah, well, I have to tell you, so are you. Come to find out that I didn’t know who you were really either. While you’re talking about me, you’ve kept your stuff on the low, too.”

“Me?”

J.J. swung her legs around so that her back was no longer to Duncan.  “On the low? About what?”

“Your grandfather for starts. I always knew who your father and mother were, he a big time industrialist and your mother an internationally known journalist. And of course I know your aunt, the publisher, but I had no idea that Stephen Edwards was your grandfather. The last names, I didn’t make the connection. Your grandfather is the man in the art world. Used to be a real mover and shaker and is still the one when somebody needs to broker a good deal. You weren’t all that personally forthcoming either at the shop that day. ”

She poked an index finger into his chest. “If I’m recalling correctly, and I know that I am, you were trying to get into my personal, social business, which was and still is not your business.”

“Aw girl, I’m not talking about who your man might be, although I have to slip it in here that seeing the two of you together for myself, you and Teddy do make a nice couple.”

Her eyes widened as she puffed up to protest. Duncan held up his hand to stop her.

“- but I digress. I’m talking about your music. I sat right there in the shop, showed you and told you that I’m always looking for new talent, yet you didn’t say word one about your skills on the piano and keyboard. I’m holding you to that promise you made to me back in the music room. You have got to play for me while I’m here. You are good. I mean you are real good, get-paid-to-play good.”

“How do you know all that?”

“Teddy let me hear your CD that you sent him the other week.”

Trying not to blush, but failing miserably at it, she turned her face away and used the hand she’d poked him with to wave his compliments off.

“Awww, it’s just fun for me. I’d never want to do it as a career or anything. That CD you heard was of the entire A Jazz Band at school, not just me. We have the best horn section in the district, I think in the school system- no brag, just fact. We always get excellent ratings at the state evaluations, and we usually either win or finish in the top at competition. Mr. Washington, our music teacher is the best.”

“Stop giving your just due away. A teacher, no matter how good he or she might be at instructing, has got to have some degree of intelligence, natural ability, and talent to work with. Me and Teddy were only listening to the piano section of the CD, and in you, your Mr. Washington has got a mother load of talent. I loved the Marvin Gaye cut, but you really worked that Snoopy song.”

“Snoopy song? Oh, you must mean the theme from the Peanuts cartoons.”

“Yeah, the tune the little guy would sit on the floor and play while that crabby girl, Lucy, leaned up against the other end of his piano trying to hit on him.”

Laughing at his description, J.J. nodded. “Yes, that’s it. That piece is called “Linus and Lucy”, not the Snoopy song. That was Schroeder playing, and Lucy did have the hots for him, but Schoeder was only into his music.”

“Whatever the comic strip characters names were or the situation, you were into your music on that one. I could tell from listening to you that you were.”

“I love when we do that one. The piano riff is so much fun to play; I get to go a little crazy all by myself for a moment or two. We had a real good time recording that one; it was an excellent set, but it’s the horns that made that cut such a good one.”

“I beg to differ.”

Apparently satisfied with his snapshots, Duncan popped the memory card from the camera, got up from the couch, and started toward the table where he’d put the laptop. “You need to come to New York this summer and sit in for a few sessions at the shop. I’d spotlight you in a heartbeat.”

“I’m not a professional. I don’t play professionally or in public venues.”

“I don’t use professionals, remember? And you have so played in public venues. Don’t you do school concerts and things? But that doesn’t mean you can’t or that you shouldn’t branch out. You have a gift, J.J. Gifts are meant to be given, to be shared, that’s their purpose; it’s what the word means.”

Sliding down from the arm of the couch and into the spot vacated by Duncan, J.J. leaned back to think on it. Hadn’t she been told that all of her life about “gifts” ?

“To whom much is given, much is required.”

Wasn’t the Duchess was always reminding her of that? And Daddy, in his own wise way? Wasn’t Aunt Pat always saying that?

“You have to give back, J.”

She closed her eyes.

Aunt Pat. Where…  What… Will you tell us wh-

No. Not now. Save that. Stay the course you’re on, J.

Wasn’t it only a few minutes ago that she had been wondering about female artists being ignored? And hadn’t she just done with Duncan exactly what he said that people tended to do? Hadn’t she made an assumption about how he, a male, thought about female artists? A faulty assumption? She enjoyed playing piano and, modesty aside, was keenly aware that she was very good at it. So why did she downplay it? Why hadn’t she ever considered branching out? It wasn’t as if it bothered her to play for an audience. Rather, she quite enjoyed it.

Could it be that her feelings of being boxed in and held back because she was a girl had a whole lot to do with her own limiting perceptions of herself?

“We’re here! Let the games begin! Duncan! Look at you.”

Marnie.

“Whose doll house, J? Yours? Is this why Marnie said we had to change clothes?”

Finn.

“Whose working on a doll house? Not me. Why don’t you guys have the game on? Is it okay to hook the Playstation up to the TV?”

Shane.

By the time she opened her eyes again, although there were only the three additions, the room seemed filled with people. Of course, Marnie shot right over to the table where Duncan was working with the laptop.

Finn was on his knees, examining the dollhouse, and Shane was over by the TV, setting down the duffel bag he was carrying.

“Go ahead and hook the game up, Shane. Pa won’t mind. That’s why it’s out here.”

From the couch, J.J. could see Marnie subtly checking out Duncan’s bare arms as she commented to him about his changed appearance.

J.J. got up from the couch and joined Finn, standing over him with her hands on her hips. “This was my mother’s doll house from when she was a little girl.”

“Kind of figured it wasn’t yours,” Finn said as he manipulated a miniature door with two fingers. “You didn’t do dolls when you were little. You were a straight-up tomboy.”

“I was not.”

“Yes you were. You were always taking my trucks and stuff from me, playing with them, keeping them, and getting away with it because you were the baby of the bunch and the only girl, to boot.”

“Guess I punked you.”

“Right. I got punked. By the grownups every time I tried to fight you for my own stuff. I had to let you beat me up and keep my toys. I ought to hate your guts to this day, but lucky for you, I don’t bear grudges.”

Behind his head, J.J. grinned. Being female did come with some advantages.

Marnie breezed up and took her arm, tugging at it to get her full attention. When J.J. turned to look at her, Marnie tipped her head toward the door.

Out in the hall, Marnie drew her close. “Where’s Teddy. I thought you said he was here.”

“He is. Pa sent for him to come to the study to talk with him.”

When Marnie tapped her own forehead, chest, and then both shoulders, the gesture caught J.J. off guard.

“Girl, you are not Catholic.”

“Maybe I’m not, but I’ve been hanging around your family, particularly the Duchess, long enough to have built up enough credit to use some of the stuff. This is automatic for me now; all the time, I’m using it. Like for when the heat gets turned up on a situation. To ward off evil spirits- like Ms. Calvin. Or to help me deal with other people’s bad attitudes, you know, shit like that.”

“Marnie! That is so blasphemous.”

J.J. jumped two steps back from her friend. “Let me get out of the way so when He smites you, He doesn’t decide to just go ahead and do a two for one since I’m in such convenient proximity.”

“Whatever, J. God knows how and who I am. I think He appreciates that even though I’m not Catholic, I buy into the worth of making the Sign of the Cross to help me out.  At any rate, no offense, but I’d hate to be hemmed up one-on-one with your grandfather; that’s got to be like being done by the Duchess to the -nth degree because, after all, he’s her daddy and she must have gotten it from him. A command performance, too? Sure hope Teddy’s on his game. I haven’t ever had to wrestle with him,  but I get the distinct impression that Stephen Edwards is nobody’s joke.”

“He’s not, but I’m sure Teddy has it covered.”

“You prepped him, I hope.”

“For sure..”

Marnie leaned in closer. “Look what I really called you out here for- Oooh, J., out of his Goth get-up, Duncan is way-y-y-y cute.”

J.J. huffed in surprise and then grabbed Marnie’s wrist. Holding it up between them, she shook it hard enough to make the heart charm on the new Tiffany bracelet jangle against the links in the chain.

“You’re spoken for, you little hussy. Remember? And Finn is your escort for the wedding. Don’t even try it.”

Marnie snatched back her arm. “So? That doesn’t stop me from noticing. I’m not blind, you know.”

“And therein lies the problem, Marnie Elaine Benson. When it comes to boys, you see too well and think way too fast.”

“I was just saying. And besides, you don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“And I’m just saying. Stay focused, Marn, we’ve been buds a very long time. I  know how you think, so what you’re thinking isn’t that much of a stretch for me.”

“Forget you.”

“You were just fussing the other night about Chance taking that girl from his school to that dance.”

“And I told you, he’s not supposed to look at other people. Guys can’t be trusted with that sort of thing. No judgment or impulse control at all. They do whatever their thing tells them to do.”

“Like you have some, Marnie, and like you’re not listening to yours.”

“I hear it; I just don’t do what it says- yet. I’m not quite that hungry- yet.”

“That is not a testosterone smorgasbord in there, you know.”

“Maybe for you, it isn’t.”

Marnie slyly cut her eyes up to J.J.’s. “But then again, we both know that you prefer yours a la carte.”

The unexpected, but clever barb forced a sputter of laughter from J.J.’s lips before she could press it back. “Good one, Marn. You are so crazy.”

Marnie smirked. “You know I’m right. Now since the afternoon buffet has opened, I think I’ll go check out the spread.”

“Harlot. Make sure that’s the only spread that gets checked out. Pat will be surfacing at some point, and talk about someone who really knows you.”

Without turning around as she sashayed her way back into the solarium, Marnie shot J.J. a one finger salute. J.J. started to follow her back in, but after only a couple of steps, she changed her mind and headed in the opposite direction. At the moment, she figured, there was enough to do in the solarium and enough of them in there to do it to keep everybody occupied.

________________________________________________________

The two somber-faced young men had been able to quickly arrange a jump flight to New York. Their credentials and family name cut a wide swath for them and got the right people moving in most major airports around the country.

After touching down at JFK, they made the mandated adjustments to the flight plan of their own plane based on the sketchy information received. Then they made their way to the car waiting for them at the curb and were whisked away.

________________________________________________________

Jonathan used the few minutes alone to sort out all that was on his mind while the rum the waitress brought to him toasted away the lingering winter chill.

Jennifer had petered out on him downtown after visiting only a few stores. Coming out of the last very upscale shop with her, he found himself admitting defeat. A shopping trip, it turned out, had not been the panacea he hoped it would be for his wife’s disposition. In fact it seemed to have the very opposite effect. It was very unlike Jennifer Hart to go into a store, much less several stores, and come out with absolutely nothing for herself. It was positively abnormal for her to have done so without purchasing something for her daughter, particularly with such an important event on the horizon.

Jennifer loved shopping and didn’t at all mind picking up the slack for J.J. who couldn’t care less about the kind of “aimless retail wandering” her mother engaged in. When J.J. shopped, it was usually for a singular purpose. Once she secured the object of her mission, she’d be on her way back home or off to her next point of interest. A jeans and tee shirt kind of girl, J.J. was perfectly content to leave what she considered the “fluff stuff” to her mother, in whose good taste she trusted wholeheartedly. For her part, her mother certainly didn’t mind bearing that burden. Jennifer was always looking out for J.J., selecting and purchasing those pretty, more feminine outfits that J.J. wouldn’t give a second look- if she gave them a first.

But on this day, that had not been the case. Jennifer’s mind was on someone else, and who that someone was went without saying. But he, too, was beginning to have his own worrying, distracting misgivings about that situation.

While he was out in the reception tent at Pat and Bill’s that morning, Bill had checked in via the cell to say that he and Pat were in Manhattan, but were leaving for the airport shortly to fly into Maryland. He’d ended the call by swearing him to secrecy on the matter. It seemed Pat didn’t want Jennifer to know their plans because she didn’t want to deal with on the phone the barrage of telephone questions she knew she’d be getting from Jennifer once Jennifer learned that Pat was in a position to talk. As it stood, Jennifer had been holding off on trying to contact Pat, allowing Pat to do, with Bill’s assistance alone, whatever it was she needed to do. According to Bill, Pat wanted to wait until they got there to talk with all of them face-to-face, together as a family.

As it should be, I guess, but why? About what?

All afternoon, those two questions had been looping  in his head. Not being able to kick his suppositions around out loud with anyone made dealing with them and the dread they evoked even harder. Now hours had gone by since that phone call from Bill. His last quick check with Dora, made while Jennifer was off looking at shoes in one of the stores, revealed that Pat and Bill had yet to show up, and they hadn’t heard been from. Apparently they hadn’t even let Dora know they were on their way.

But as he thought more on it, Jonathan decided that their not being heard from could actually be something of a comfort. After all, if anything bad had happened to them, surely the authorities would have contacted them about it.

But still, where could they be? What was keeping them away from their families for so long? Why were they cutting things so close with their wedding scheduled to happen in less than twenty-four hours?

Yes, Pat had the details for the wedding nailed down and handled, but shouldn’t she be there in person?

Control freak that she could be when it came to arrangements being made, it didn’t at all seem like Pat to not be present in the hours before her own wedding to make sure that the fine details were to her liking and her specifications. It didn’t seem like Bill to not be with his son and especially his grandsons, who’d come from the other side of the country to be with him. While Bill was crazy about all the boys, Peter’s oldest, Billy, a near-clone in looks and determined demeanor for his deceased uncle T.J., not to mention being his grandfather’s namesake, was closest to Bill’s heart. From all indications, the feeling was mutual. As a kid, Billy had been Bill’s shadow. As a young man, Billy was lining himself up to take his father’s seat when he tired of it, to keep the McDowell Aviation flag, the one originally raised by his grandfather, flying high.

That Bill hadn’t been there to meet Peter and his family when they arrived, or shown up to spend Thanksgiving with them spoke either of his devotion to Pat or highlighted the seriousness of the problem.

Maybe both.

Jonathan lay his head back and allowed his thoughts to drift to earlier on that downtown street.

Jennifer’s arm wrapped snugly around his.

Although he loved having her right by his side, the locked arms were mostly to keep them from being separated on the packed, bustling sidewalk. She’d been increasingly distracted all afternoon, but by that time, her unusual quiet had dwindled down to a pensive silence that increased his already heavy concern for her well-being.

“Tired?”

The question must have pulled her back from where she’d gone; it sounded as if she had to really think on what to say.

“No, no, not really tired, darling. I- I- I guess… un- unmotivated would be a better word for how I feel.”

“How about preoccupied?”

Blushing and smiling, she ducked her head and hugged his arm tighter. “That, too. I’m sorry. You brought me out of the house to cheer me up and to take my mind off things.”

“But it’s not working. You hungry?”

“Not starving. I could go for a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich or something, though. But not here in town, Jonathan. It’ll be too crowded and noisy. Why don’t we head back to Pa’s and have Rosa fix us something we can have in our room? I could do with some quiet.”

There were too many kids at Briarwood to hope for that kind of quiet, and too many boys around his girls for him to completely relax. If he went back to Briarwood, it would become his watch. If he didn’t, it would remain Stephen’s tour of duty. One day out of the year wouldn’t kill the old man- hopefully.

And besides, closing up in a bedroom with Jennifer in the middle of the day would definitely take him off the course he was trying to maintain.

He brought her closer for a quick hug. “You trust me?”

“Implicitly.”

So he brought her to that little local tavern between Bill’s place and Briarwood. Tony Ellswood, the proprietor, remembered him from his previous visits with Bill, and he personally ushered them to that quiet, dim, and relatively isolated  booth in the back. If nothing else, this would be a chance to loosen up a bit and rest. What he hoped was that in the absence of outside distractions, it would be an opportunity for the two of them to get caught up. Several things had been patiently circling his mind, waiting for clearance to come in for a conversational landing.

“You’ve got that look, Jonathan.”

He sat up and opened his eyes. Back from her trip to the ladies room, Jennifer was sliding into the opposite booth seat. She immediately reached for the brandy awaiting her. “Oh boy, am I ready for this.”

Drink in hand, she settled into the tufted leather seatback. “I love that you brought me here, Jonathan. It’s so quiet, so rustic and cozy.”

“So your trust in me was well-placed.”

When she peeked over her the rim of her uplifted glass, the flame from the floating tea candle in the center of the table lit the minute flecks of gold in her eyes and the sparkle in her soft smile. “As it’s always been.”‘

As he watched her from across the table, Jonathan marveled at how natural, simple surroundings made his elegant, uptown wife even more alluring. A lovely lady in a lovely setting, once again his instincts hadn’t let him down. Resting his elbows on the table, he gestured with one finger for her to do the same, and when she did, he took both her hands in his.

“Even in the beginning, Jennifer? The very beginning? Did you ever once have that moment where you wondered, ‘What am I doing marrying a man I’ve only known a few weeks?’ Tell me, what did you think about, lying in your bed on the night before our wedding?”

She tipped her head. “I maybe, perhaps,  just might have had a fleeting couple of those kinds of moments, but-”

He squeezed her hands a bit tighter. “But?”

“But then my wonderful, handsome fiancé would smile, or reach for me, or do something very nice for me or even better, do something nice for someone else, and I’d be instantly reminded of why I was marrying this man that I had only known a few weeks.”

Jonathan used his elbow to slide the globe holding the candle over to the side so that he could stretch across the table.

“And what about the night before the wedding?” he whispered as he kissed her. “What did you think about, lying there in your bed?”

“Well, when I was able to stop worrying about if Pat and I had everything covered for the wedding, I thought about how much I wished you were there with me in that bed. About how much I was missing you altogether. By that time it had been too long since I’d seen or really even talked with you. We’d been together ever since we came from meeting with my father until I left you to go to back to New York for that week before the wedding. I’d grown very accustomed to having your arms around me when I closed my eyes at night.”

“You can thank your Aunt Sabrina and your best friend for that kind  of separation. The two of them did a real good job of blocking me from you while you were in New York and then once you got back to LA. I don’t know how we ever did without cell phones. Then I send Max downtown, to the apartment where all of you were staying, thinking he could smooze his way past the two of them to get to you, and even he got diverted.”

Jennifer smiled at hearing his perspective of that incident. “Yes, mostly by Sabrina. That was really something. I only heard the interaction, but I think she swept poor Max right off his feet as soon as she came into the room.”

“I know she did. He was the biggest sucker for your aunt; just loved the woman. Talk about a strong sailor’s knot of a man being reduced to a huge lump of putty.”

“A lump of putty puffing on a cigar. He wound up giving Sabrina the flowers you sent to me, and of course, she kept them. ‘He say they are for me, Jennifer. Not one thing does he say to me about them being for you’, although the card attached to them clearly had my name on it. I did get your note, though. I slept with the note underneath my pillow.”

“I slept with something underneath my pillow that night, too. They were still warm.”

She grimaced and shuddered. “Ugh.”

Then her eyes narrowed. “And along that same disgusting line, where are my things from the other night? What did you do with them?”

Donning his most innocent expression, he tilted his head. “What?”

When she attempted to pull her hands free from his, he held on to them.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know very well what I’m talking about, Jonathan Hart. I’ll tell you one thing I did not know at the time that I said ‘yes’ to your proposal. I did not know that I was agreeing to marry a panty thief with a revolting fetish.”

Jonathan released her hands to pick up his drink and casually sit back with it. He winked and pursed his lips, sending her an air kiss. “Only your hot panties, baby. I like ’em used.”

“Jonatha-a-a-n, honestly.”

“Jennifer-r-r-r, honestly.”

When he mimicked her and then grinned, her hands shot to her hips.

“Jonathan, I know you took them. I’m asking for the last time, what have you done with-”

His upper half jerked in her direction. “- I mean after all, I think I’m the one who should be upset. Imagine, my wife traveling across town in a city taxi, dressed in nothing but a fur and a hotel bathrobe. I can’t believe that you were almost back at Pat’s before you realized you didn’t have any knickers on.”

“Knickers? Oh, I can tell you’ve been hanging around with my father.”

His naughtily twinkling eyes never left hers. “But then again, it was me you were with that night on the way to the airport from the Carlyle Hotel and back to Pat’s sans knickers. It stands to reason that you wouldn’t have noticed a thing like that. That’s been pretty much a natural state for you when you’re with me or you’ve been with me, huh Red?”

Her cheeks flushed, her mouth fell open, and he could see the tart retort forming on his wife’s tongue, but it stopped there when the waitress, like a timely genie from the lamp, materialized tableside with her pad in hand. He bit his own bottom lip to keep from laughing as Jennifer smoothly transformed back into her cool, classy public persona to place her order.

If nothing else, he’d successfully brought her out of her funk. That made him feel better about bringing up with her the things he’d been putting off for a better time.

________________________________________________________

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

Stephen raised his eyes to the boy standing in the doorway of his study. In appearance Theodore Baxter, Jr., Justine’s “Teddy”, was very much like his father had been decades before. Refined handsome features, tall, slighter in build than his father had been at that age, but with the same thick unruly curls that modern times allowed to be longer and even more unruly.

Apparently Walter had escorted him only so far, as he arrived alone and unannounced.

“Yes, Theodore, I did. Do come in and sit with me.”

He gestured to the chair on the other side of the conversational table, but the boy’s eyes had already gone to the painting over the mantel. Having only heard his permission to enter the room, he headed straight to the fireplace.

“This is wonderful, Mr. Edwards; Mr. and Mrs. Hart on their wedding day. Was this done from a photograph? I think I saw the original when I was in Los Angeles last summer. An eleven-by-fourteen on a shelf behind Mrs. Hart’s desk.”

With Theodore faced away from him, Stephen took stock of the broad shoulders and upper back underneath the tailored oxford shirt in comparison to the narrow waist and slim hips encased by the fine quality gabardine slacks. Young, fit, and evidently well-cared for. Reportedly bright, personable, and talented. An entire lifetime of possibility, adventure, and opportunity just waiting for him to take hold of them and ….

Envy flared like the triggered flame in a butane torch, but it just as quickly snuffed itself out, leaving behind only a languidly exhaled, pleasantly pungent cloud of satisfied reverie.

Lungs emptied, Stephen brought the bent billiard back to his lips, but this time didn’t inhale.

… to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven….

He had certainly had his time and made the most of his purpose. His had been a life fairly well lived despite the hard bumps in his road. He had done the best he could do.

“You are right, Theodore. That painting was rendered from the photograph that you saw.”

When fire reduced the original house on Willow Pond to scorched stone and ash, Jennifer sent for his copy of that photograph to have another made. Invited to visit the rebuilt house, if he hadn’t known of the first one being destroyed, he might never have realized that the framed photo she repositioned in that spot behind her new desk was a replacement, as was the case with the house itself.

Like a Phoenix… so many times, my darling daughter….

The boy was making his way toward the chair, but those busy, bright eyes were on everything around him. “Great room, too, sir.”

Giving in to his empathy for curiosity getting the better of him, Stephen offered Teddy an out. “Why don’t you take a look around.”

After all, his own rampant inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge had often gotten the best of him as a young man. Every now and then, it still did.

Stephen continued to look on as his guest slowly wandered, peeking into the glass cabinets, peering at the books and other things on the shelves, perusing the plaques, pictures and maps mounted on the walls.

“J.J- I mean, Justine told me that you’ve been all over the world, Mr. Edwards. I can certainly see the truth in that. Isn’t this Winston Churchill with you in this picture?”

Amused at how his granddaughter’s named switched up- an obvious sign of briefing on her part-  and impressed that such a young person recognized on sight a long-deceased figure from world history, Stephen rose from his chair and went to that framed picture on the wall.

“Yes, I am with Mr. Churchill in this one.”

“Were you friends?”

“I had the great privilege of meeting and talking with him on several occasions. How is it that you know of Churchill? Did you study him in school?”

“Actually, yes we did. But I know of him more from the research I did on him on my own. You see, I’ve written a play about him and some other figures from history.”

Written it?

“Justine told me that you enjoyed working in theatre, but she did not tell me that you were a playwright, as well.”

The boy shrugged. “This started out as a school thing.”

Gesturing with his pipe. Stephen led the way back over to the chairs where they sat down and Teddy resumed his explanation.

“You see, I don’t like writing research papers and things like that. I don’t see the long term worth in it, so I get bored, and I tend to slack off when that happens.”

“You are not in school to be entertained, young man. Occasionally you are going to be bored. How will you learn if you allow yourself to slack off, as you say?”

“I know the importance of keeping my grades up, Mr. Edwards, and that to do that I have to do the work. But if I’m going to do the job, I’d like for it to mean something to me, as well as to the professor.”

Stephen crossed one leg over the other and picked up the pipe he had set down in the ashtray on the table.

“It pleases me to hear you say that. You will find the pursuit of education to be a lifelong endeavor, one that you should always take seriously even when you find the subject matter of little interest to you. If you pay attention, you will always come away with more than you had when you began the study. Now tell me about this play you have written.”

“It wasn’t the subject matter that I found disinteresting. It was the research and regurgitate aspect of it that I found useless. I asked if I could do an alternative assignment where instead of writing a standard research paper on one person, I would study several historical figures, the reason they are remembered, and what I thought they would make of today’s world. I wanted to write about what actions I thought the people I studied might take to tackle modern day problems if they were to somehow get transported forward into these times. My history instructor allowed me do that, and in the end, he liked what I did so much that he shared my work with my Literature teacher. My Lit teacher suggested that I take a shot at working it into a story, but I decided to make it into a play. It was a way to kill two birds with one stone, to do the assignment for History class and to write and direct my own performance piece to meet my senior project requirement.”

Impressed by what Teddy said, Stephen also noticed that the entire time he was talking, the boy’s strong gaze on him had not once broken.

Impressive. Noteworthy, even.

“So what would Mr. Churchill think of our world today?”

The initial response to his question was a mischievous grin, followed by a response that wasn’t expected, but that lined right up with everything else that had gone on in the conversation.

“You’ll have to come see the play, Mr. Edwards. Can’t give away the plot beforehand. Bad Karma. I’m sure you understand.”

“I may just do that. You will leave me the particulars. You said that this is your senior project, which means that this is your final year of high school. So what plans have you made for after commencement? I take it that you have already applied to university?”

“Yes, sir. I have several applications in.”

“What is your first choice?”

“My father would like for me to attend Harvard.”

“His alma mater. I would expect that; however, I asked what would be your first choice.”

The curly head lowered and the shoulders bowed for the first time. There was a decidedly long pause before the soft vocal response.

“Truthfully, sir?”

“There is no other way.”

Teddy inhaled deeply, sat up, set his shoulders, and turned to face him again.

“Truthfully Mr. Edwards, I would rather travel with a theatre company, tour with a singing group, apprentice with some famous writer, sling hash in a greasy spoon, or maybe even perform in a circus, as long as those venues took me places I haven’t been, allowed me to meet all kinds of people, and let me live, learn, and do things that I can really learn from. I’d like to work with my head, my hands, and my heart, not be bogged down with a whole lot of somebody else’s theory. To quote Sir William, “Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught’.”

Stephen briefly closed his eyes as the boy’s words transported him into his past, back to when he had been a student, a youngster on the threshold of manhood and eager to be about the business of his life.

He would never have admitted such things to his own father, who by the time his intellectually gifted son entered his first year of upper school, had already mapped out his offspring’s collegiate path. But he understood every bit of what the young man in the chair across from him had just said, including the impressive Churchill quote. It was the same longing he secretly harbored all through his years at Cambridge and that he’d acted upon for most of his adult life thereafter. It was the same sentiment he came to understand in his brilliant, but maverick wife, and that he understood about his granddaughter. So it was of no surprise to him that the two of them, Theodore and Justine, naturally and so quickly gravitated to each other. And it was becoming clearer to him why this boy on the other side of the table, despite his determined desire to have it otherwise, was becoming increasingly fascinating to him in a way for which he had not been prepared.

To keep to his composed and objective persona, Stephen used tamping the bowl of the pipe and relighting it as a respite before returning his attention to his guest.

The head was down again, the eyes trained on the restless, interwoven fingers as they slid up and down each other. Stephen wished he could tell Teddy he need not feel uncomfortable about having shared that kind of truth. But for all practical purposes, that would not be possible. Just as it had been with him, it would have to be with Theodore, and with Justine. Higher education was an important component to finishing one’s person, especially for the type of person circumstance dictated each of those children would one day be.

“So Theodore, may I ask you what it is about my granddaughter that you find so attractive you would travel such distances to be with her?”

With the change of subject, the head lifted and the face brightened. The answer came slowly, carefully, but not one whit less candidly.

“Well, aside from her being very pretty- I’d be a huge liar if I didn’t include that factor- I truly enjoy her company and the company she keeps. I relish her good aura.”

Slightly stunned by such frankness from one so young to an elder, as well as the precocious use of prose, Stephen struggled to maintain that benign facial expression. Suzanne had certainly been a fiery beauty, but when made to explain himself, his prospects, and his intentions to Henri Roussel, that was not an aspect of his attraction to her that he shared with her father. Decades later, Jonathan, in talking with him along those same lines about Jennifer, had not mentioned to her father her very obvious physical appeal.

Not that Jennifer’s father did not manage to nearly stumble upon that part of it for himself….

My God, in here, of all places… still gives me the shivers….

And these current modern times were certainly different and even more lenient. Was that a good thing or bad?

“Aura, Theodore?”

“The air around her, I mean.”

“You will have to explain that to me. I fear I need a bit of assistance with some of the current vernacular.”

“I mean that she’s a lot of fun. There’s always something interesting going on with and around her. Her friends, the people she keeps around her are mostly like her. No pretense, no exclusivity. She is what she is. I like that in people. I like that about her.”

Teddy moved forward on his chair and fixed that confident brown gaze back upon him.

“You see, Mr. Edwards, the first time I ever saw her was in a photograph that one of the guys at school had of her. Turns out that he was a friend of hers from Los Angeles, and she’d sent him a school picture. Something about that photo stayed with me so strongly that when I happened to run into her in person at the Gresham reunion last summer, I instantly knew who she was. In that very first encounter with her I had such a good time being in her company and in the company of the people with her that it felt as if I’d known her forever. We struck up an instant friendship. Even now it’s hard to believe that we’ve actually only known each other a few months.

“Her friends in California, when I went out there to see her, showed me a very good time and made me feel like I belonged, just like she does whenever we’re together. And Justine has good family. Her father’s a great guy. Her mother has been nothing but kind and gracious to me. Both of them have been welcoming to me as a guest in their home. The house she lives in has such a good feel, as does this one. Even you. You’re a strong and kind of… well, an intimidating presence, but looking around this room and at that particular display case-”

He pointed to the one that contained the awards and certificates earned by Jennifer, Patricia, and Justine. “-I can tell that you are a positive influence on those around you, too. Justine speaks very highly of you as a person outside of you being her grandfather. I guess, sir, I- I guess I’d like to have some of that rub off on me. I mean, I’ve got family as I’m sure you know, but we’re kind of… well, kind of fractured these days.”

Stephen felt himself nodding at what was said, and for a moment, it caught him off guard that he was.

“Mr. Edwards, my father told me that you nearly scared the life out of him once. He said he’s never forgotten the experience, but that the interaction with you made him think and be a better kind of person on the inside. In short, getting down to what you initially asked me, your granddaughter is someone I enjoy having in my life and that I’m grateful she’s letting me be a part of hers.”

A short time later, Stephen watched from the study door the young man leaving him, on his way back around to the solarium. He would have summoned Walter to escort him, but having made the trip from that room, he was certain that articulate and observant rascal had studied the route well enough to make his own way back.

… to Justine and her “relished aura”….

Theodore Martin Baxter, Jr. was that kind. The kind of young man with whom, despite the years between them, Justine’s grandfather learned he shared more than a few common characteristics, one of them being that strong internal compass that pointed them in the direction of the things they loved. For himself, that indicator had lost none of its pull.

For the present, those things would have to be his secret.

In the interim, the grandfather along with her father, would be watching over that one mutual interest until she came of age. After all, he and Jonathan understood exactly how it could be for a healthy, intelligent, restless young man when a pretty, maverick, unpretentious Roussel girl entered the picture. At the moment; however, restless, maverick Justine was far too young and promising for that kind of distracting involvement.

Stephen left the study door and returned to his chair, his mind on the two for whom whose existence he and Suzanne were directly and indirectly responsible. One of them, as her mother predicted, had grown up to be a lot like him. The other, surprisingly, delightfully- and twinge disturbingly- was revealing herself to be very much like his late, but nonetheless beloved wife. And both of them with her face and grace and intelligence. How blessed a man was ….

But what of Patricia? That one loose end in an otherwise perfect picture….

Granted she was quite grown and engaged to be married in approximately twenty-four hours, and he had certainly been trying to respect those things, but patience was not a virtue he counted among his stronger suits. Sitting around and keeping silent while attempting to ignore being wracked with worry over her was getting old. Patricia, always stubborn and guarded, never easily frightened, but paternal intuition insisted that fear, perhaps even panic, was likely the thing plaguing her.

Of what could that one be afraid?

Illness, only.

Aside from a mild tropical affliction she and Jennifer once succumbed to while in Africa with him when they were very young, Patricia was rarely ill, and heretofore never seriously. Thus, should that be the case with her now, she would not know how to be.

An illness on Patricia’s part would also be one of those things she and Jennifer would try as long as they could to keep from him. And that Patricia might even keep from Jennifer for a time.

With that reality bearing ever heavier on his mind, Stephen determined that in not much longer he would be on the telephone acting the concerned father. After all, he was the closest thing Patricia had to one; for the past forty years she had been his other child.

… and when he did input that number, he dared her- or William McDowell- to not pick up.

________________________________________________________

Once the waitress left, they gone right back to holding hands and laughing over their interrupted exchange.

“Jonathan, you are so crazy. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. And your daughter is getting to be just-”

Then her hand tightened its grip on his as she slowly sat forward from her more relaxed, reclined position, her smile morphing into an expression of skepticism.

“And while I’m on the topic of you and your daughter, I had a very interesting phone call from Anastasia while I was at Pat’s in New York.”

“Now what?” he asked, throwing up his hands with the question. “What did we do now?”

“It seems that while the good Mother Superior was in the window, she managed to see as your car was driving away. She said that unless you had a baseball cap with a ponytail attached to it that you must have left on the seat when you came in to see her-”

Jonathan rolled his eyes. “I swear that woman doesn’t miss anything. You’d think that as old as she is- as old as I am-  Jennifer, that’s my car and J.J. is my kid; J.J. has her Learner’s Permit, I’m over eighteen, and I have a valid California driver’s license. I can let my kid drive my car if I want, as long as I’m by her side when she’s doing it.”

“And did I not tell you and J.J. Hart that I did not want her getting accustomed to tooling a Rolls Royce around Los Angeles? Jonathan, that girl is only sixteen years old. She gets plenty of practice with me in my car, and even that is too much vehicle for her. You spoil her so. I will not have our daughter turning into the next flash-in-the-pan, constantly-in-the-press-for-negativity heiress.”

Despite his wife’s serious expression and imperious tone, Jonathan snickered at the notion. “No worry about that. Our daughter can’t stand that kind. No matter how much I indulge her, she’ll never go the route of what she calls the ‘Flashncash Crew’. Sweetheart, the Rolls is just a car, no big deal to me or to her. Simply an engine, four tires, and a steering wheel. An expensive set, I’ll grant you, but when you really get down to it, a car is all that it is, a means of getting from point A to point B. She wanted to drive home; I didn’t, so she took over. And by the way, she’s turning out to be a very good, very conscientious driver.”

But that eyebrow lifted even higher. “As good and conscientious a driver as she is a pilot?”

Now wading in his waters, confidence and pride swelled his chest.

“Of course. Her Daddy taught her to do both. I may not go with the approved teaching curriculum, but I do believe in sticking to basic standards and making sure she learns to do things right.”

Then he fixed his gaze on those simmering cinnamon orbs challenging him from across the table.

“And speaking of teachers, Jennifer Edwards Hart, you never did go into any detail about your visit to the guest house the other night. I damn near froze waiting for you to come out. I’d think the least you could do is cut me in on the details. Holding out on me for some reason?”

“If you recall, darling, I tried to take care of that. I’d have warmed you up completely up in that stable loft if it hadn’t been for your wandering rouge of a child coming in to get to that horse you bought her.”

“Don’t use my kid to change the subject. Come on, Red, give.”

“And I’ve told you time and again about calling me ‘Red’.”

“Is it something you don’t want to talk about? Something you don’t want to tell me about seeing the Dean?”

He noticed her body’s subtle squirm before she responded, and he hated pressing her, but whether she admitted it to herself or not, he could tell that she needed to unload some of what she was carrying around.

“Jonathan, it just hasn’t come back up for discussion. That night, in bed, you and I started talking about it… I would have told you then, but we ended up on another track. Don’t you remember?”

He did. Like snapshots, in his head the scenes from that night flashed one behind the other: the two of them coming back up the stairs, that blind rear hall on the second floor, those tall double doors with the carved brier rose borders, Jennifer’s hesitation before leaving his side and starting down to them by herself, her cheek against the polished wood. His delivering her to and placing her on that uncertain track was yet another item on the agenda.

“Now that you mention it, I do recall our getting diverted from that topic.”

She had lowered her eyes, hiding them from his while idly stirring her drink with a single long finger. She spoke in a quieter, less confident tone.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t hold out on you, Jonathan. There really isn’t anything in it to hold out on you about. I do remember what I was telling you, or I should say that I was on my way to telling you.”

“Refresh my memory.”

“I believe I was about to tell you how I came away from the visit with Dean Marchand feeling a little silly about some things.”

“Okay then, let’s go back to it and be a little silly together right now.”

He reached across to touch the back of her hand. When she raised her head, he wiggled his fingers at her, gently urging, “Come on, give.”

________________________________________________________

As she approached the living room door, J.J. spotted Teddy coming from the opposite direction. In the instant before he noticed her, while he was unaware of being watched, it was as if he’d become another new, but pleasantly surprising addition to Briarwood’s handsome, stately entry hall. As if he fitted. Like he belonged there. A perfect modern compliment for the older aristocratic backdrop.

The sight made J.J. take a small step back to give those worrisome butterflies a moment to exercise their wings before she stifled them and got herself back together.

“Hey, J., where you headed?”

The voice, more so that smile, drew the butterflies and her through the door and out into the hall.

“To find you.”

She met Teddy at the foot of the formal staircase. While he leaned against the railing, she climbed the first step to be more on level with him.

He smelled good. Like Teddy, but with a hint of Pa’s pipe, and it occurred to her that this was their first opportunity to be alone since his arrival.

“I wasn’t lost, J.J. Hart.”

“That wasn’t the kind of ‘finding you’ that I was talking about. I heard Pa had flagged you in; I was coming to rescue you, if it turned out you needed rescuing. But I see you made it out in one piece. So how it go?”

“Nothing like you made out it might be. In fact, it was kind of fun talking with your grandfather. He really is a very interesting man whose led a heck of a life from what I could see there in his study. I love his voice and his precise use of the King’s English. He certainly loves your mother, your Aunt Pat, and you.”

“I know he’s paranoid about me. That’s why I warned you about him. Did he threaten your life or anything?”

“Not in so many words, but I got the underlying message. He’s like your father in that. They don’t have to come out and say, ‘I’ll kill you about my little girl’, but you leave them knowing that losing your life is a distinct possibility should you slip up or make any false moves.”

“Um, whatever. Come on.”

Taking Teddy’s arm, she pulled him around to the closet and opened the door. “Which one of these is yours?”

Teddy reached for the black cashmere jacket. “This one. We going somewhere?”

“Yes, we’re going out of here to do what you came here to do.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been having such a good time, I nearly forgot.”

“That’s okay, I didn’t forget. I’ve taken care of everything.”

“I’ve got the car. We driving?”

“No, that’ll draw too much attention. It’s not that far. We can walk over.”

“We sneaking out or something?”

“No, nothing like that. I just don’t want everyone in our business, asking unnecessary questions, and all. This is strictly between you and me. For now.”

“Whatever you say. I’m your guest in this.”

“That you are, and I appreciate your being here.”

As he put the jacket on and wrapped the scarf he pulled from the sleeve around his neck, Teddy eyed her up and down. “I know you’re going to put on a jacket or a coat and some real shoes on your feet. It’s cold as rip outside, it might even be snowing some, and you’re already sick.”

“I am not sick. I was never sick. I just had a bit of a head cold. I told you, I always get them this time of year. It’s been this way with me all of my life; it’s something I inherited from my Daddy.”

“Along with those blue eyes. You’re still kind of snotty, J. Not as much as yesterday on the phone, but I can still hear it. This isn’t LA, you know. You’re not going out of here without a coat. At least you’re not going out of here with me without a coat.”

“Who died and made you my father? I’m not sick or crazy. I know how to take care of myself. Come on.”

Tugging at his arm again, she took him down a short flight of stairs to the mud room where she grabbed from the hook the jacket she’d stashed there. She slipped her arms into it, stepped out of the canvas mules, and sat down on the bench to pull on her riding boots. When she bent to do up the laces, Teddy squatted down before her.

“Let me do that, J.”

He pulled her leg out straight and went right into tugging at the cords, expertly securing the first boot to her foot and calf.

“Not too tight?”

She shook her head and placed her other leg in his hands. After he tied that boot off, he slid his hands back down to the ankle and held onto it.

“So do you have any trouble with this now? Sometimes, when I remember that morning up on the bluff, I get chills thinking about you falling, how fast your ankle and foot swelled up, and how bad that all could have been. I was so scared that you had broken it.”

In her mind, J.J pictured that same bluff on that morning she and Teddy stole away to go up there. But she was thinking of how it could have been had she not hurt her ankle… how much more trouble they might have been in had the injury not cut short the trip. At the very least, they might have lost track of time and been gone a lot longer than they were. After all, it was the two of them, two good horses, and acres and acres of lovely, dewy, summertime Massachusetts morning countryside to explore. How fast and hard would the Duchess’s imagination have run in that situation, and how much angrier would she have been?

She removed her leg from Teddy’s hands. “It’s fine now.”

Drawn to how the soft brown curls had fallen over those long-lashed eyes, she purposely averted her own eyes from the sight and rose from the bench to fasten her jacket, very conscious of how fast she was talking but unable to slow it down.

“I had all that physical therapy with Jazz while I was here, stuck in the hospital and after I got sprung from it. Then Daddy had me working with Elias, my track trainer, once we got home. I don’t feel anything any more; it’s fine, but I do wrap it up when I run. I think that might be more a psychological need on my part than it is physical, though. Plus, it keeps Daddy off my back. He thinks I need to support it when I’m running, just to be on the safe side, so I can be one hundred percent when track season starts back up.”

When she pulled up the jacket’s hood, Teddy removed his scarf from his neck and wrapped it around hers.

“You need to cover your throat, just to be on the safe side.”

He pulled her closer with it so that he could tie it behind her head. That put his face, specifically his lips, so close to hers. His eyes looked right into her eyes.

For the moment, that certain dainty waistband was securely zipped inside her jeans, and even if she were to be able to get to it to hold on, her mother wasn’t at home to run to. In light of that, she determined it best to just keep moving and indeed “stay on the safe side”.

“Come on, Teddy. Let’s go.”

She took hold of his sleeve and headed for the back door.

________________________________________________________

Waiting, Jonathan focused on Jennifer’s hands as they caressed that second Rémy Martin. Eager to keep her talking, he verbally nudged his wife out of her silence.

“And so?”

She raised her eyes from the glass to him. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to think of where to start.”

Resisting the urge to move over onto her seat to put his arm around her, he forced himself to remain where he was in order to be able to clearly and objectively “see” her as well as to not physically or emotionally crowd her.

“It’s me, Jennifer. It’s us. We’re just talking. Go with it. We can backtrack, circle, go forward, do whatever we need to do if things get too confused, but I’m with you all the way on this. I know Pat, what’s going on with her, and the questions about the wedding are looming large in your mind, but I sense there’s lot more than that going up there.”

She picked up the glass and in one swallow, knocked back over half the drink before setting it back down. “Okay, here goes. It’s my father. The house. The Dean. It’s Pat. of course, and….”

Rat-a-tat-tat, tap-tap, tap-tap, her fingernails daintily time-stepped against her glass.

“And?”

“… and it’s my mother.”

He actually saw the lump as it passed through her throat, but he forced himself to concentrate to prevent, “I knew it!”, from showing up on his face.

Even he could feel Suzanne Edwards’ steady, insistent hand on her daughter in those past couple of months. And perhaps, in a roundabout way, on him, too.

Since that last visit to Briarwood, Jennifer hadn’t spoken much more on the things that happened or of what she learned about her mother in those eventful few days. Upon returning home to Los Angeles, she set aside most of her other projects, and with singular dedication began working on those papers she brought down from her mother’s garret over the guest house. They were stories written by Suzanne that at the time of her death, she had been in the middle of transcribing from French into English.

Once she started on them, Jennifer obsessed over getting done what it was she thought her mother wanted her to do with the stories, just as she’d done with exploring her mother’s things in that attic. She hadn’t brought him in on the exact details of the project, or of the stories themselves, but that was reflective of an agreement informally forged at the start of their personal relationship. It was a virtual contract which proved to work quite nicely between them. She refrained from interjecting herself into the day-to-day running of Hart Industries, and he stayed out of the business end of her writing career, which often included the writing itself.

Eager to hear what she had to say on the matter of her mother, he understood going in that it would take patience and likely a bit gentle encouragement from him in some places.

… and perhaps yet another visit from Monsieur Rémy for her.

That particular French gentleman was his only competition when it came to loosening up his wife. Quite often, he had even proven to be an ally in the effort.

“She’s been on my mind ever since last summer, Jonathan.”

“You’ve told me that.”

“I- I know I did. But actually, truthfully, it’s been quite a lot longer than that… off and on… You see, it’s just that since last summer, her presence….”

She lowered her eyes. Once more, he withstood the urge to get up and switch seats.

“Go ahead, darling. I’m listening.”

“This is so crazy, Jonathan. My mother is dead. Why….”

“Don’t try analyzing it, Jennifer. Just talk to me. I could, I can tell that you’ve been walking around with this for the longest. You know you don’t have to do that alone. Trust me. Talk to me.”

“I trust you, Jonathan, you know that I do. It’s just difficult. I’m usually so… so practical. So… look, I don’t really believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in spirits, per se, but… I guess I don’t… understand why all of a sudden it’s as if she’s with me, around me. Then I get here, to Pa’s, and….”

“And?”

“And I feel like I’m twelve all over again. Jonathan, I never told you this. But for a very long time, after I got over the initial shock and anger of her being gone, after I, well, after Pa and I reestablished our… our bond, I didn’t think a lot about her any more. I mean, there were moments that I missed her.

“Like when I was at school, but still dancing; I’d wish she were there to see me in performances. When things happened with me that happen to all girls, and I needed her: I’d miss her so much. At my high school graduation, I thought I’d die because she wasn’t there to see me make my speech; she really liked that I was smart in school. But in between those times, I had Pa. I had Pat. There was Sabrina to turn to. Especially once I went off to college, and particularly after that year I spent at the Sorbonne and living with Sabrina, my mother faded into another life I’d lived, a mostly forgotten, mostly put-behind-me life.

“I started working, writing, building my career, forging relationships, making and enjoying a life for myself. I’d fall down and get back up on my own. I’d do well, and I’d pat myself on the back. I’d mess up, and I’d clean it up by myself. Then I met you, and aside from wishing that she’d been there to meet you, and missing her so much at our wedding, I rarely ever thought about her. You and I built a life together, a very full and satisfying life, and I was so happy and complete….

“It wasn’t until I found myself pregnant with J.J. that I started thinking strongly of her again, but by then I- I couldn’t see her face any more. I had photos of her, but somehow that wasn’t the same. In my head, I couldn’t see her, hear her, feel her any more. I’d lost her.”

“Darling, by then it had been over twenty years. It stands to reason-”

Jennifer held up her hand. “Wait, there’s more.”

He watched her drain the last of the cognac, down to the very last drop, before she started back with the story.

“This goes way back, Jonathan. Back to the morning that I went into labor with J.J. I can see it just as clearly. I knew early on, almost as soon as I woke that morning, that I was in labor. I was so scared. I’ve never been so afraid of anything in my life.”

“Of what? The pain? Of having the baby? I was there. I took a leave to make sure I’d be there. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It wasn’t the biology of it; I was prepared for all of that. I was afraid of bringing a baby in my life, into our lives- period. I was afraid of the changes a baby would bring. It had always been you, Max, and me. Then, all of a sudden, it was only you and me, but we seemed to be getting along just fine, the two of us.”

He couldn’t help but grin.

“If you think about it, Jennifer, it was never you and me alone. You were pretty far along by the time we found out we had company.”

Her chuckle was soft, matching the look in her eye. “I guess you do have a point. It was as if Max took his leave, but before the door could completely close behind him, she slid in, found herself a warm, snug spot to set up camp, and laid low until the opportune time to reveal herself. Not much has changed with the slick miss, has it?”

It was his turn to laugh. His wife had painted a pretty accurate picture of their daughter’s conception. Stealth and guile, a survivor, a “loopholer” of the highest order right from the start; that was definitely his girl, his baby. A chip off the old Hart, for sure.

“But back to that morning.” She leaned her back against the seat. ” I can see us as if it were yesterday. I took a bath because I knew I’d eventually be going to the hospital, and I wanted to put some heat on my back to ease the tightness and pain.”

“You wouldn’t let me make love with you the night before. Did you know then?”

The eyes shot him a look not unlike the one he remembered getting that night so long ago.

“I told you I was not going to be talked about in the delivery room. The work had to be done on that end, and I wasn’t having anyone gossiping about me. I didn’t know at that time that I would be in labor in the morning, but I was aware that it could happen at any time. You’d been cut off, buddy.”

“You never told me that.”

“You’d have figured it out eventually. But anyway, after you helped me out of the tub, and I sent you out of the bedroom, I lay down on the couch wondering how long it would be before the contractions would be strong enough and close enough for me to tell you that we needed to go. Instead of lying there, praying to God like I should have been when I was so afraid, I found myself calling upon my mother. Jonathan, I hadn’t done that in decades, but that morning, although I was all grown up, very well-versed in childbirth, which I should have been able to handle on my own, I called her and asked her to look out for me.

“Like I said, I’d missed her before, but I think that was the very first time I instinctively called on her like that.”

“I would think that would be a time that a girl, even a very intelligent and grown-up girl, would call for her mother.”

“That must be the case because I certainly did. Darling, please don’t think me crazy-”

“Never.”

“But the entire time that I was in labor, she was there. You were on one side of me, and she was on the other. I’d close my eyes to concentrate on my breathing, and she would be right there. The pain… it was something I’d never in my life experienced, that I could never, ever describe to anyone now, but my mother held onto me and kept telling me that I was doing fine. She was proud of me for not crying out or giving in to the pain. She said it was a natural process; it was a woman’s work and I needed to be dignified in my labor. She said it was what I had to do to make sure that we live on.

“She was there at the side of my bed until the nurse put the baby in my arms after they cleaned her up. By that time, I was so tired, drained, and overwhelmed that you might say I was delusional, but I promise you, she was there. She was smiling at you, at me, and at the baby. I kissed J.J. for the first time, then I looked to my mother again to see what she thought of our child, but she was gone.”

“I don’t find it strange at all that she’d come to you at a time like that.”

And besides, oddly enough, he’d already seen what Jennifer was talking about. Just that past summer, Jennifer’s mother appeared to him in a dream, in that very same scenario.

“I’ve never said that to anyone, not to you, not to Pat, certainly not to Pa. I never even wrote about it in my journals. In fact, I don’t think I even admitted it completely to myself until just now. You don’t think I’m crazy? That I just imagined it to get myself through?”

“What I think, Jennifer, is that things happen sometimes that are beyond our understanding. It’s my opinion that man does not have it all figured out. There are some things that we term ‘supernatural’ that are probably natural, but because no scientist or other such authority can verify it with hard data, we are encouraged to dismiss them as nonsense, crazy, or silly to keep the peace and to stifle the hysteria that might result from the uncertainty. Personally, I don’t dismiss anything, especially when it comes from someone as level-headed as you. I believe that you saw what you saw. I believe that there have been a whole series of events to happen to us lately, to you, that are real and that have meaning for you, if not for all of us. I like to think that there’s always something to be learned in the things that happen to us, around us, and around the ones we love. For me, if I can’t figure a thing out right away, I let it ride until it does make sense to me, but I don’t dismiss it.

“There’s reason and meaning in everything, as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes we just have to wait for it to play itself out before we can understand it. And then sometimes, it’s not meant to be understood. Sometimes it just is.”

For what seemed like a very long time, Jennifer stared at him as if she were studying him or something on him. It went on so long that his body uncomfortably warmed under her scrutiny.

“Darling, what is it?”

She slightly tilted her head, but kept her eyes on his. “You know, whenever I attribute something in J.J. to her having gotten it from you, it’s usually a more negative trait. But listening to you just now, I can see from whom she gets her ability to reason and to cope. The old people used to call it ‘mother wit’. In my daughter’s case, it should be termed ‘father wit’. Have I told you how much I love you today?”

“If you did, you can do it again. I never get tired of hearing it.”

“I love you, Jonathan. I don’t know where or who I’d be if you never came into my life.”

He reached across the table for her hands to bring her fingers to his lips.

“You would be the woman I’d still be looking for. And as far as ‘mother wit’ goes, it’s called that for a reason. Don’t sell yourself short on your contribution to J.J. Hart’s person. She took a lot more from you than just good looks, and she’s still taking it. But back to your mother; where is all of what you’ve told me so far taking us? How does it tie in to what happened out at Dean Marchand’s place?”

“Sure hope you folks are hungry.”

The waitress was back bearing a large tray with two full plates expertly balanced on one extended arm.

“Nick made these up special for you seeing as how you’re friends of Mr. Bill.” she said as she placed the food before them. “May I refresh your drinks?”

“Yes, the lady will have another cognac, and I’ll stick with the rum.”

“Jonathan!”

He winked across the table. “It’s all right, you’re with me.”

________________________________________________________

Braced against the cold, as well as the sharp crystals of snow swirling against their faces, J.J. and Teddy hustled down the concrete path that ran alongside of the main house. As soon as they turned the first corner of the building, J.J. raised her eyes and silently gasped at the sight of large leaded glass windows where before there had only been white clapboard shingles. In covering and uncovering those windows and the doors to that bedroom, she figured her Pa had to have some seriously skilled masonry artists and construction workers under contract. Like those doors on the inside, from the outside, it appeared as if those windows had always been there. Of course, they had, but-

“Whatcha looking at, J.?”

“Just at how the winter light catches the bevels in those windows so nicely. The cuts make them kind of sparkle, the way the light hits them. Sort of like stained glass, but without the color. Instead, you get a sort of a twinkle-effect.”

Like maybe my grandmother’s eyes would have if she were watching me right now from up there.

Then she congratulated herself on the quick save. It wasn’t like her to get caught being obvious, but then why would Teddy be watching her that closely?

Suddenly warm all over, feeling a mad blush coming on, she ducked her face and hastened her step causing Teddy to lengthen his to keep up.

“Too cold for you, West Coast?”

“You know it is, East Coast. This is winter for real. I don’t know how you stand it on a daily basis.”

“I thought you told me you skied and all. Aspen, Tahoe, Vail, Davos.”

“I do. I have. Davos, only one time, though, when I was a lot younger. But that’s being outside actually doing something that keeps you warm. As soon as I come off the slopes, you can bet that I’m back inside for some aprés ski cocoa, coffee, or a latte. Just walking around or hanging out in this, no way. My blood’s much too thin.”

“I’d put my arm around you to keep you warm, but your grandfather might be looking.”

“Yeah, he’d definitely misinterpret something like that.”

But it would have been nice.

Soon enough, though, they’d be out of sight of prying eyes in a warm, somewhat isolated spot where they could get to what it was they had been planning so hard to coordinate.

“Are you sure about this, J.? I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’m game and all, it’s just-”

“I’m absolutely sure, Teddy. In fact, it’s perfect. You’ll see when we do it together. Come on, this way.”

With her shoulder, then her entire side, she nudged him onto the leg of the fork in the path that would take them to the stable rather than to the guest house in the opposite direction. With her head down to keep the air out of her face and the hood pulled up over her ears, J.J, didn’t see or hear her grandfather’s car passing a short distance away.

________________________________________________________

The door to the private waiting room opened and the younger man bolted from his chair.

“Well? Wha’d they say?”

The other swept into the room, brushing a thick hank of dark hair off his tense brow. He crossed the room to stop at the windows, keeping his back to the man he’d left staring at him, waiting for an answer.

“Nothing really.”

Pulling his hands from his pants pockets, he removed his trench coat and then dropped down into the overstuffed chair right beside him. “The doctors back there were fully engaged. Nobody else could, or perhaps were allowed to tell me much.”

“Didn’t you let them know who you were?”

“Of course I did. How do you think I was able to get back there in the first place?”

He gestured to the other chair in the room. “Sit back down, man. They- those techs- insisted that we’d have to wait.”

Still, standing over his brother, Tom hesitated. “Shouldn’t we call somebody and let them know what’s going on?”

“We have our orders.”

Tom slowly moved to the chair directly across, sat down, and sighed. “So, I guess that means we just sit here.”

Billy propped his elbow on one crossed knee and rested his chin in his hand. Staring past Tom, but at nothing in particular, he quietly completed Tom’s thought. “And we wait until we get the word to do something else.”

“We’re gonna catch Hell. You do know that.”

“Yeah, I do know, but….”

“Yeah, I know, too, dude.”

The door opened again. This time it was a young woman. She was dressed in a business suit.

“Which one of you is William McDowall?”

When Billy stood up first, she approached holding out to him a folded piece of paper. She handed the paper to him, turned around, and went right back out of the room. Stunned, it took Billy a moment to open the paper and read it contents.

Tom was at his side, reading along with him. “What does this mean?”

“I don’t know,” Billy said as he unclipped his cell phone from his belt. “But we’ve been so ordered.”

________________________________________________________

The waitress placed their food before them and left after making sure there was nothing else they would need. When she was completely out of earshot, Jennifer leaned forward to ask, “Are you trying to get me drunk?”

The amusement in Jonathan’s smirking eyes reminded her of that long-ago brash seventeen year old he often referenced. Surely he’d always been as attentive, as kind and engaging as he’d been that first night in London. But at seventeen, had those characteristics worked to enhance the persuasive, slick, charming rake he claimed to have been?

Most likely.

That brought to mind her last conversation with J.J. about her handsome, charming seventeen-year-old friend, Teddy.

It felt good to know that her daughter turned to her at those conflicting, troubling times, and that she and J.J. were able to talk so comfortably about personal matters. As a teenager, she had been nothing like J.J. No where near as confident and self aware. That wasn’t to say that J.J. had everything all worked out yet; she was still quite young and all of it was still very new to her, but at least she had someone close by- a person both of them trusted- to go to for help, advice, encouragement, or a stiff warning when things got to be too much- or too good- for her to deal with on her own.

As for herself, she had been left, for the most part, to figure things out for herself. What if Jonathan had come along earlier, when he was seventeen….

I would only have been twelve, and at twelve I wasn’t thinking about anything except….

But still, what if….

Clandestine big brother-like admiration on my part, most likely. Or a very secret puppy love crush. Skinny, sheltered, undeveloped twelve to his drop dead gorgeous, relatively worldly seventeen, he wouldn’t have looked twice at me, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to.

But then, who’s to say?

Maybe it would have been different with us, like it is with J.J. and Tommy, good friends despite the gender difference. A natural affection and camaraderie.

Still there would have been the age gap between Jonathan and me, a huge one at that stage of things. Pa would have killed him dead if he got the slightest wind of a boy that old- hell, a boy of any age- looking at me.

But maybe Jonathan would have noticed me in that way and kept it to himself. Maybe he would have waited for me to catch up, like Pa did with Mama. Same age difference between them; they just had a later start. After all, fate is what it is, and like Pa and Mama, Jonathan and I were definitely fated to be.

“Jennifer, you’re doing it again. You’re drifting. That mind of yours take off on one of its flights? Without me?”

Caught in the act, she blushed for what felt like the millionth time since they began to talk. “Sorry, must be the drink getting to me.”

“Don’t even try it. You don’t get loopy until after the third one.”

“So you are trying to get me drunk.”

“You said you needed some quiet in order to relax; I figure a little liquid warmth to go along with that quiet is the best way for that relaxation to happen.”

She raised the glass to her lips and her eyes to his. “Second best, darling.”

For sure.

But as it happened, they weren’t in anywhere near a proper place to take advantage of that first best relaxation technique.

What did it matter if she were to go over the side after that third drink? Who better to be with? Who better to come along with the lifeboat, pull her in, and take her to safety?

Or, just take her, period.

A quick, hot shudder rocketed through her body, causing her to discreetly fan the lapel of her blouse to allow some air to her flesh.

God, I love this man.

And just how long has it been?

On the other side of the table, Jonathan snickered at his wife’s thinly veiled suggestion along with the look she gave him,  reminded of something told to him by the two people most important to his early life.

“Jonathan, it is obvious you are not going to be the priest I would like for you to have been. You love girls too much for that way of life-”

He was fifteen and on his way out of the door. By then it was glaringly apparent, even to that most diehard believer in anything being possible, that the priesthood would not be his life’s calling.

“- and unfortunately the girls certainly fancy you.”

Actually, he’d concluded that much for himself at twelve. Sneaking into the theatre balcony with that older girl, whose name no longer registered, for a Saturday matinee he’d never forget, he decided right there and then that celibacy left way too much to be desired. 

But he was fifteen now and leaving Mission Street, hopefully forever.

“Jonathan, you are meant for great things. I know this; I feel it. Thus, you must be careful. You must save the best part of yourself  for the one who is meant for you. You do not want youthful impulsivity and indiscretion to tie you for life to the wrong woman. The Church does not- you have not been brought up to- your faith- Jonathan, I do not condone…. Oh my, I know you’re not listening. Look, I realize that I cannot stop you from being with girls in… in… in that way. No one can be with you at all times to oversee your… your… activities.

“My dear boy, all I can do is pray for you and implore you to please, please take care. Jonathan, please be mindful of… of… with whom you might place that most important part of  yourself.”

Since Max didn’t operate on vows of piety or suffer from the reservations and embarrassment that plagued Sister Anastasia when it came to speaking on matters of the heart and the sex that came with it, he cut more directly to the chase. Max had always been brutally blunt on the topic, but once the money started rolling in, he became even more forceful about getting the point across.

“Look, it’s a whole lotta gold diggers out there, and all of ’em don’t look the part. Some of ’em are drop dead gorgeous, wear diamonds and furs, and either have rich daddies or money in their pockets already. But they need a rich man to keep ’em in the style they’ve become accustomed to. You now got a lot more goin’ for you besides your good looks and a boat loada charm. These days, they’re lookin’ for a lot more than a place on your arm, a hole in your pocket, and a shot at you in the sack. You gotta look out for you. And some of them rich daddies I mentioned aint above groomin’ their daughters to set up a guy like you.”

It had not escaped his notice that where once fathers had given him the fish eye and the third degree, the tables had turned. He was not only being invited in and wined and dined; he was being offered memberships, stock tips, and partnerships seemingly in exchange for taking a daughter off someone’s hands and maybe off the books. Max never came out and said, but he’d always gotten the impression that the man wasn’t too certain of his relationship with the Greek heiress, Nikki Stephanos, particularly of the motives of her father. A nice enough man Stephanos had been when it came to business, but he’d come off little less than subtle about pressing him into making the friendship between him and Nikki a permanent, legally binding arrangement.

Max, the outside observer, must have noticed some machinations that being inside the situation himself, he could only sense.

“Mr. H., I know you’re pretty savvy about the ladies, but I gotta say this out loud. Life has been very good to you. You’ve worked hard for all you got. You got some breaks along the way, some’a your long shots paid off in your favor, but for the most part all you’ve earned, you’ve earned on your own. You got where you are by your own means. Don’t let yourself get caught up. You don’t need to be givin’ nobody nothin’  that you don’t intend for ’em to have; I’m talkin’ your kid, here. You ain’t said nothin’ about it, but you’re gettin’ to that age where a man starts wantin’ one. Listen to me and listen to me good- keep a boot on it, maybe even two of ’em, until you meet the woman you want to have them kinda permanent ties to you. I’m talkin’ a wife, Jonathan- a good wife- the woman you fall in love wit’, the one that you wanna spend the rest of your life wit’, and who you want to have your kid.

“A baby wit’ a woman is for-ev-er. At least it will be for the kind of guy you are. I don’t see you walkin’ away from a woman who’s got yours even if you ain’t particularly fond of the woman any more.”

Fortunately, listening and paying attention had always been strong aspects of his overall make-up, as was filtering and holding onto the important and discarding the unimportant. At fifteen, he heard Anastasia. Although what she said in no way diminished his affection for and strong attraction to the fair sex- or sex itself- it did heighten his sense of responsibility in regard to both. During his latter teen years, Max taught him to be more discerning and even more careful about girls, which down the line led to his own decisions about filtering the women he chose to allow into his life. He’d kept to the promise made to himself as a boy- to not bring a child into the world that he was not in a position to raise. Where it was in his power, no child of his would be raised without its father, nor would said child be used as a pawn between him and its mother. He’d kept his guard up, mentally and physically, and into his mid-thirties he’d successfully avoided any messy or serious entanglements where women were concerned.

But then came Jennifer.

One look into those eyes and one flash of that mesmerizing smile, the shield came down and the whole carefully crafted operating procedure flipped. If ever there was a woman he wanted a permanent tie with, that he wanted nothing at all, no barriers of any kind, between himself and her. Never had the pull been that strong or so immediate.

That first night spent together, she didn’t have to say it twice.

Don’t. You don’t need to use that.

You sure?

Not with me. You won’t ever need them any more. I want only you.

After all, they were getting married.

But even if they hadn’t gotten to that base yet, forty eight hours into knowing her and making love with her that first time, he was certain she was the one inside whom he wanted to leave “that most important part” of himself, and should his seed have taken that very night, so it would have been; he wouldn’t have had the first problem with it. With Jennifer he’d been completed as a person.

J.J. was the butter cream icing.

Both Jennifer and J.J. took a while to come into his life, but talk about being worth waiting for. Sometimes it still felt like a very good dream. Even J.J., as young and as up close as she was to it, appreciated the uniqueness of her parents’ relationship.

But it wasn’t a dream; proof positive was over there picking at the salad she ordered. Proof positive to the second power was at her grandfather’s.

Thanks, Mrs. E. You had to have had a hand in all of this.

“In fact, I’m pretty sure you still do.

Which brought him back to where he and Jennifer left off.

“So how does what you were telling me before the food arrived tie in to what went on out at Dean Marchand’s place?”

Jennifer speared a bit of sliced green pepper to nibble on. Then she leaned her back against the wall next to her and drew a leg up to put her foot on the bench and rest an arm on her knee. It wasn’t like her to be so informal in public, but given the very rustic atmosphere, the fact that their booth was pretty isolated, and that she was on her third drink….

The only thing needed to complete her picture was a thin cigar to still those restless fingers.

“Where do I begin?”

He slid his sandwich over to rest his elbows on the table as he focused his full attention on her. “Just start, darling.”

“Well,” she said after a long sigh. “I found out that the Dean and her sister being there is not about filling any voids, at least not the kind… of void, I mean… that I was thinking. Well… not what… what I was trying not to think it was.”

With her face in profile, her words haltingly delivered in that soft, uncertain tone, for the briefest moment he could have sworn that was J.J. over there attempting to explain herself out of some difficulty.

Or maybe it was the unsure young girl who was still a tiny part of Jennifer but who remained every bit of Stephen Edwards’ daughter and Dean Marchand’s former charge.

In either case, the woman was nothing less than fascinating. The layers of her captivating persona continued to unfold, revealing ever more to him about her.

And from the angle he was looking, he could see the delectable way her blouse folded open at the third button revealing that part of her to him, as well.

Tomorrow night couldn’t get there fast enough.

Stay focused, Jonathan. Concentrate on today, right now.

… or baseball.

“Let’s get back to where you were letting your romantic nature lead you in the wrong direction.”

She turned to him, her face bearing a strong question mark. “I said that?”

“No, I did. Remember? The other night? When we were talking in bed. Just before I took you to see-”

“I remember,” she quickly cut in.

Dropping her leg back down to the floor, Jennifer turned back to her salad. She stuck her fork into it as if she were finally going to eat, but then she took another long, deep breath and lay the empty utensil down on the table.

“Dean Marchand did most of the talking. I think she could sense by ambivalence…. about her… and about her being there, maybe even more than I was willing to admit to myself that I felt. When she invited me in, it dawned on me that it was the first time that I’d ever really had a conversation with her, well talked with her where I wasn’t on the receiving end of her wrath or where I didn’t feel as if I were being talked down to by her. I found that she really is quite an interesting woman. I still have a hard time believing that she and Pa have been friends all this time, and I knew nothing of it.”

“There was a lot about your father that you didn’t know, if I’m recalling correctly. In that, you are his daughter, for sure.”

Jennifer tilted her head. “Am I hearing something more than just the words in that statement?”

“Nah, it’s just that both of you are fascinating. You’re both sort of unpredictable, and there’s a whole lot more to both of you than immediately meets the eye.”

“Is that a good thing or bad, Jonathan?”

“For me, it’s an excellent thing. You know how much I love uncovering a mystery.”

“Uncovering Pa?”

“It’s discovering when we’re talking your father, darling. It’s uncovering when I’m doing you.”

She cut her eyes to him. “Filthy.”

And he grinned. “As long as you love me for it. Go on with the story.”

“It was strange, really. It was as if she had been anticipating my coming out there, like she was ready for me and knew what was on my mind. She spoke mostly about herself, about how welcome she felt at Briarwood, how having the children around for tutoring keeps her current, that she continues to work and travel so much because it sustains her. But I got the distinct impression that she was speaking allegorically. The entire time, I felt she was trying to tell me something about my father through talking to me about herself. It would be like her to do it that way. She would remember.”

Jonathan, fully focused on his wife, didn’t let her take a full breath. “Remember what?”

“From what she would remember of me, I probably wasn’t very receptive to outside advice or personal conversations, at least not head on and especially not when it might be related to my relationship with my father.”

“Now who does that sound like?”

Jennifer bypassed the question and picked up her thread about the Dean’s conversation.

“It registered right away with me, what she was saying. You see, My father’s constant, ah… theme, I guess is the word for it, has always been purpose. For as far back as I can remember, he’s always taught that if one doesn’t have a purpose, a reason for being somewhere, then one should take his leave. People tend to go off the track when they don’t have motivation for living or when they lose their focus on said raison d’être.”

She’d picked up the fork and begun lightly tapping it against the salad bowl, filling the silent gap made when she hesitated again with the dainty ting of fine metal tines against the crockery. After a few moments, Jonathan reached across to stop her and to bring her back.

As he expected she might, she jumped at his touch and flashed him an apologetic smile.

“What has this to do with everything else?”

Her next words came even came slowly, more introspectively.

“You know… all of my life, my father has been my Papa. He’s been the person I could look up to, my protector, the one who when I was a kid I could expect to turn up when I was out of line, and who as an adult I tried not to worry so that he wouldn’t stop what he was doing and turn up, which he certainly would have felt compelled to do if he thought I was in any kind of trouble or having some sort of difficulty.”

She raised her eyes from the salad she had gone back to toying with.

“But Jonathan, believe it or not, in all this time, I don’t think I have ever really seen my father as a man. Until talking with Dean Marchand that night, I don’t think I’ve ever viewed either one of them mere human beings. I’ve never really, really, looked at my father as a man with a life of his own that, like anyone else, he’s been doing his best to make it through, but doing it mostly on his own. As crazy as this may sound, I think my father has finally gotten over being angry with my mother for leaving him, and he’s decided to let her come back home.”

“Or maybe he finally got over being angry with himself.”

Jennifer appeared to mull his suggestion over for a moment. Then she tipped her head, shrugged, and picked up her drink.

________________________________________________________

Having saved Triple J for last, J.J. was slightly disappointed but not really surprised when after showing him the three horses in the stable, Teddy meandered back down to that first stall where her grandfather’s horse was kept.

“I can’t get over this fellow, J. He is one impressive animal, and he certainly has the right name. Outstandingly fine, this one is.”

Teddy stopped in front of that door and crossed his arms to gaze inside the stall. Looking over her shoulder as she allowed Triple J to finish nuzzling the last of the feed from her cupped palm, J.J. could see both of them.

Outstandingly fine for sure, she thought, the horse and the boy.

Aloof and regal, as if he recognized that he was being admired and worthy of the same, Legs made no attempt to sniff Teddy out. Instead he coolly scrutinized the newcomer from his spot just inside the stall. J.J. softly snickered  at the sight. Legs was nothing like Trip and Star, who were much more animated and nosy. Legs conducted himself a lot like his master.

‘Stiff uppa’.

Standing back, maintaining a discreet distance between himself and the unwashed masses… nose all in the air like he’s royalty

…. or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Triple J’s lips and tongue, warmly moist and rough against her palm brought her back to the moment, and she took her hand away from his mouth.

“All gone, boy,” she said, laughing as Trip alternately nudged at her shoulder, snuffling insistently as he tried to get to her hand again. “I’ve got company, guy. Gotta go. There’s more feed in the stall if you’re still hungry; you don’t need me spoon- no- hand-feeding you. You are too spoiled.”

She snatched a couple of wipes from the dispenser to clean her hands and leaned back in to briefly brush her cheek against the horse’s face and whisper near his ear, “But it’s not all your fault. I’ve been an enabler in it. Can’t help it; you’re my boy.”

Teddy was standing in the same spot when she made it to his side.

“He is gorgeous,” she agreed. “But you shouldn’t say it where he can hear it. He’s arrogant enough.”

“Legs has every right to be arrogant. He’s got the build and the carriage for it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this-.”

“Don’t say it. He already knows. Thinks he’s Lord Majesty of the Stable because he’s here year round, and Trip and Star usually aren’t.”

“Usually?”

“Trip is only here right now because I am. He’s boarded at what’s now Uncle Bill’s place. Star is too, but Pa has kept her here this year for Dean Marchand to ride.”

At the mention of the Dean, Teddy broke his cross-armed stance to snap the fingers of one hand. “Dang J., I’ve got to get out there to see her. I almost forgot. My father will have my head if word gets back to him that I didn’t handle that in a timely manner. And believe me, word will get back to him if I don’t. I’ve been here a while now.”

“We have time for that,” J.J. said, crooking her own finger at him. “It’s not our fault that she didn’t come down for lunch. Come on, and let’s get to what we came here for. Once we finish, you can give her a call on the cell and then run out there to see her.”

“You’re coming with me, right?”

“It would be bad form if I didn’t.”

“You know that could be interpreted in a couple of ways, J.J. Hart.”

“But you know what I meant. Don’t start with me. We can go right back up to the house and be with the others.”

“Okay, I’ll be good, J.”

“You’d better be.”

When Teddy grinned, winked at her, and then reached for her hand, she could only shake her head. Grabbing his hand, she lead him off to the unoccupied far end of the stable.

________________________________________________________

Patricia hadn’t answered either time.

Stephen was just going for the Rolodex on the desk to look up Bill’s number when Walter came to tell him that Benjamin was back from the guest house and that he’d brought the two women with him. Concern having mounted to a seriously uncomfortable level, Stephen was almost happy for the diversion.

That phone, that Blackberry gadget of Patricia’s that she was always pulling out and checking, was practically glued to her person. With all the bells, whistles, and horns he understood that thing to have, surely it came equipped with the caller identification feature. Patricia showed him the utmost respect and deference, so much so that he sometimes kept things from her to avoid having her put her own affairs to the side to come see for herself what he might really need. He couldn’t imagine that she would look at that phone, see that it was he who was calling, and then choose not to pick up.

Now that other one might do that, especially if she sensed the call was one that could possibly draw her onto the proverbial carpet.

Something was wrong, very wrong. A father’s heart knew these things, and as their father, he knew his girls. One was missing in action and the other was conveniently keeping her head low and her entire person off the front line. That was how they operated when things were not as they should be with one or the both of them, and that awareness only intensified his nagging suspicions.

But it appeared that for the time being the worry would have to be tabled. He closed the Rolodex and straightened his already impeccable attire.

Perhaps he was wrong, and it was worry over nothing. At least he hoped he was wrong, and it was worry over nothing.

But he knew better than that.

Jennifer and Patricia had been his long enough for him to recognize their rhythms only too well. Sisters, they were in every sense of the concept and therefore, daughters… his, and as such….

In route from the study, hoping that by the time he got to his guests he appeared more collected than he felt, Stephen sent up a quick prayer to the heavens and relayed his usual private, one-on-one entreaty for the safe delivery to him of both those errant girls of theirs.

Oh, yes. You are right…

… and their husbands, too.

Waiting for him in the living room were Agnes, Belinda, and Benjamin. After exchanging greetings with the ladies, he invited them to accompany him to the solarium. He was curious to see what progress was being made on the dollhouse. With young Sinclair overseeing the project, which with his artistic expertise and confidence he was sure the boy had done, the whole affair had taken an interesting turn. Where his initial intention had been to provide Justine and her young guests with something to keep them occupied, in the brief time that he’d watched the boy from the doorway as he worked at the preparations for painting, he could tell that the job was going to be taken a lot more seriously and that the outcome might not be the youthful disaster he expected.

Which meant one less thing he would have to redo.

Agnes and Belinda were laughing at a couple of their past interactions with young Theodore while they had been at Gresham Hall and saying how good it would be so see him again as they all made their way to the solarium. It wasn’t until they got there, however, that Stephen actually remembered that Betsy should have been with them. He figured that upon her arrival, she must have gone straightaway to the room with the other young people. However, they found only Marnie in the room with two of Bill’s boys, one of whom was playing a video game through the television. Young Sinclair and the other boy were on the floor, working on the dollhouse while Marnie snapped pictures with a camera.

All of them looked to the door, and the boys all stopped what they were doing and stood when he spoke. He nodded in greeting to the newly arrived and then he turned his attention to the lone female in the room.

“Marnie, where are Justine and Theodore?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Edwards. Justine was in here a little while ago, and then she disappeared. I haven’t seen Teddy at all since we got here. She told me that Teddy was in your study, talking with you.”

Benjamin had gone on into the room to more closely see what the boys had been doing. After a moment, he turned around from looking over the dollhouse and addressed Stephen who was still at the door with the others.

“You know, I believe I might have seen them outside when we were on our way over here. Two young people, a boy and a girl, were walking toward the back, perhaps toward the stables. We were too far away for me to tell you exactly who it was. Betsy dropped the three of us off at your door. She said that she had something she wanted to do, and that she would be right back. Maybe she went to join them.”

Stephen felt Agnes’ subtly bump her arm against his, and he caught it when she briefly shifted her eyes up to his before she, too left his side to step into the room as she offered a suggestion as to the two missing children’s whereabouts.

“Justine most likely wanted to show Theodore those beautiful horses of yours, Stephen. Elizabeth must have wanted to see them, too.”

With a hand to her back, Stephen ushered Belinda inside, confident that indeed someone wanted Elizabeth to see to them.

________________________________________________________

J.J. switched off the music and looked to Teddy in awe. It had gone better than she imagined it would.

“Jeez,” she said. “I thought I was blown away by you before, but I have say it, you are simply awesome. You’re going places.”

Teddy dismissed her compliment with a casual wave of his hand.

“Ahhh, like you said, the acoustics are just real good in here. But you’re one to talk, J.J. Hart. Even with a cold, you’re no slouch. Does Duncan know about you? You never even told me you could do it like that.”

“I keep pretty quiet about it. It really is something I only do for the joy of it. I don’t like hanging out on Front Street too much.”

“Well it’s a real nice thing you’ll be doing out there on Front Street tomorrow.”

“That we’ll be doing. I wouldn’t be venturing out there without you.”

Satisfied that they had it together, she climbed up and resumed her perch on the rail. Teddy came over to the rail to lean next to her.

“This is a some idea you came up with. You dug real deep. I’m sure it’ll bring some smiles to people’s faces.”

“I hope so. It came to me in a dream.”

Teddy moved a bit closer to her, which caused her to have to grip the rail tighter when struck by a wave of butterfly-driven lightheadedness.

“I thought you didn’t do dreams and other fairy tale, imaginary things like that.”

“Dreams aren’t the same as fairy tales, Teddy. In one way or another, although they are generated by imagination, most dreams are based, in one way or another, on reality.”

“You are so deep, J.J. Hart.”

He reached for her ponytail, gliding his fingers down through it to the ends. “So will you be wearing your hair down tomorrow?”

It could have been her imagination- or wishful thinking- but it seemed his lips were getting closer.

“I haven’t decided. Probably not. It’ll be a long day, and I won’t want to be bothered with it for such a long stretch of time.”

“You taking requests?”

“You making one?”

He nodded.

“Well? Go ahead. I don’t think I have to guess too hard what it will be.”

“One kiss. A proper welcome.”

“I was talking about hair style requests, Theodore Martin Baxter, Jr.”

Grinning, he gazed into her eyes. “Oh! Forgive me. I got mixed up, lost my train of thought. That happens when I’m nervous.”

There was no longer any doubt in her mind over the proximity of his lips or what those laughing brown eyes were doing to her resolve.

For the sake of…

… ugh, decorum…

…she leaned- just a little- in the opposite direction.

“Liar. You’re never nervous about anything.”

But he leaned with her. “You’d be surprised. I’m an actor, remember?”

“That’s right. You are an actor. So I guess I shouldn’t be trusting you right now to be you?”

“Oh, no, you can make book on my being for real when I’m with you. If ever I wanted someone to trust me to be for real, it would be you.”

“And why is that?”

“Anybody ever tell you that you ask a whole lot of questions?”

By that time, he was right there, and so was she. His arms slid around her waist while she wound hers around his neck. Their lips met.

“J.J.! You in here?”

Startled by the squeal of huge door hinges accompanied by Betsy’s call, the teenagers jumped, hastily breaking their embrace, but in doing so, J.J. lost her balance and fell backward over the rail.

Warm, full, and very relaxed, Jennifer snuggled down into the car’s seat. Confident of her driver’s skills at the wheel, as well as contented by his comforting presence, she closed her eyes and gave in to the anesthetic effect of her lunchtime beverage of choice. With her eyes closed, it was kind of like being under the influence of “happy gas” administered to dull the awareness of pain during minor surgery. The thoughts loosened from their moorings of reason and floated off, flowing and swirling inside her head at will….

Talk about someone lucking up on love; she certainly had. For it to have lasted this long between them, and the feelings to remain so intense, to be so deeply entrenched and holding ….

After years of trial and error, along with a bit of “touch and go”, Jonathan finally happened to her life, confirming her fundamental, sustaining belief that promises made were meant to be kept. He’d kept every single one he made to her.

A shrewd strategist, successful in business and in life, at his core, Jonathan remained principled. Having been an investigative reporter and writer, as well as a corporate partner for almost three decades, she’d learned first-hand that it wasn’t something that could be said for very many men operating in the business world, particularly at her husband’s level. But what made it even better, what made her love him even more was the private person, the ‘civilian’ she had come to know.

Kind, compassionate, generous. Observant, covertly sensitive, in places somewhat complicated and a little mysterious ….

An excellent father- sometimes to a fault, an almost too-effective teacher, a gifted listener….

Irreverent, sexy, wickedly funny, bottom line, just plain nice.

… Dean Agnes Marchand.

A huge personality, a huge spirit in stark contrast to her petite physical dimensions. She had to be strong beyond measure.

What must it be like to absolutely love a man, have him darting in and our of your life, even being saddled with the job of overseeing his child by another woman-  a woman for whom his love prevents him from… or maybe forbids him from seeing your love for him even after that other woman is gone from his life?

How does one endure such torment for the better part of her life?

Yes, the Dean had been speaking of herself that night, and yes, she’d detected the Dean’s message to her about her father, but in between all of that subterfuge, she picked up on that other message being sent her way. Jonathan had also touched on it some time back; he had that uncanny knack for ‘reading” a person, but back then she hadn’t really believed it. Or maybe she didn’t want to believe it back then.

Talking with Jonathan at the table at lunchtime, she’d kept that part of the story to herself. That was a thing between women, meant to be kept between women. J.J. Hart would say, “It’s a girl thing; boys wouldn’t understand.”  Jonathan would have, had she told him of it, but that would have been betraying a trust that somehow, Dean Marchand seemed to have been bestowing upon her that night.

Weird, it was. Strange.

But she understood it. Somehow it was all coming in clearly.

For the Dean it was purpose and proximity. For Pa, it was purpose, preservation, paying back, and most importantly for him, posterity.

Profound…

Or maybe I’m just that drunk.

I’ll know better about the degree of that in the morning.

Be sure to order up that aspirin tonight, Jennifer.

Jonathan’s question gently parted the gauzy azure haze. “Back to the city for a movie?”

“How about a leisurely drive along the Potomac instead? I’m enjoying my time alone with you. Maybe we can even find somewhere quiet and secluded to park. ”

Her eyes still closed, she heard him chuckle, but he didn’t say anything.

“What, Jonathan? What’s so funny?”

“You’re so easy when you’ve got a little liquor in you.”

“I wasn’t aware that you found me all that difficult when I’m not liquored up.”

He laughed, saying, “I just love you, my darling lush.” just as her cell went off in her pocket.

To ignore it was her first inclination. However, with so much going on in other places, she was forced to pull it out to at least check to see who it was that was calling. The name in the display completely threw her off.

“Elise Lawton?”

It didn’t register that she’d read the name aloud until Jonathan questioned it.

“The coordinator?”

“Yes. I wonder what’s happened?”

“Maybe Pat and Bill made it back.”

“I hope so,” she said as she clicked in to take the call.

According to Elise, the chapel that was to be used for the wedding had been cancelled using Pat’s confirmation code. Nobody except Pat and the people handling the had access to that code.

There had been no explanation offered for that sudden change in plans, and there was still no direct word home from Pat or from Bill.

Swinging a U-turn, heading back in the direction of Briarwood and Hamilton-McDowell Farms, Jonathan summed it up in his usual succinct fashion.

“What in the hell?”

 Continue to Part Twelve

 

 

 

 

 

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