Promises: Part Five

Part Five

Afternoon

The light from the studio windows behind illuminated the intricate patterns of the lace duster Pat wore over the full-length plain shell dress. When she raised her arms to show off the bell sleeves, that light also showcased how much slimmer she actually was.

“Well, Jen?”

Finger to chin, Jennifer silently took in the sight.

Pat had always been thin. She was one of those people who could seemingly eat or drink whatever she wanted without ever gaining an ounce. Even six months into her unfortunate pregnancy all those years ago, the only indication that she was with child had been persistent morning sickness and the small rise in her normally board-flat belly. “Shoulders, boobs, but no butt”, that was how Pat described herself. Despite the subtle differences in their general build, the two of them had always been about the same dress size. But now it looked as if Pat might take a size or two smaller.

Jennifer fingered the delicately woven jacket. “The shots you sent to me of the final product didn’t do it justice, Pat. It’s exquisite.”

It really was. Dressed in that understated, but elegant outfit on her wedding day, Pat would also be. High fashion thin, but worrisomely so?

“Elizabeth, you are a wonder. I understand that Pat didn’t get around to commissioning you to do this for her until only a few weeks ago.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hart. It was a privilege and my pleasure. The ideas you sent me were so clear and so right for her that all I had to do was take the measurements and construct the pieces. She’s been the only challenge. At least for this last fitting, I didn’t have to take it in another time. If she had come here one m-”

Pat shot Elizabeth a silent but clear warning. It stopped her from sharing whatever it was she was going to say as she stood next to Jennifer, assessing the wedding ensemble she had put together for one of her most important clients.

Duly chastened, Elizabeth fell silent, tightly pressing her lips together.

Having effectively shut the woman down, Pat returned her attention to Jennifer. “So, what about the length of the dress with the shoes, Jen? You’ve always been the expert on that sort of thing.”

The textured silk material of the shoes was the same type and color of Pat’s ensemble. The dress came right down to the pumps, stopping just before touching the floor, and the back of the duster had been designed with a long train to follow Pat as she walked down the aisle. At the moment, though, it lie gracefully bunched at her feet as she stood atop the dressmaker’s platform.

“The length is perfect. I’ve always loved that shade on you. Funny how your favorite color is so complimentary to your features.”

Pat’s responding blush was unusually warm and genuine. “Rose. My grandmother’s name and her favorite color, both of which she passed down to me. I truly loved that lady. The older I get, the more I’m realizing all that I might have gotten from her.”

Jennifer heard what Pat said, but filed it. Instead, she leaned toward Elizabeth to ask, “No veil? I thought we’d planned for a veil.”

It was Pat who answered. “No. I told you from the start that I didn’t need that. I’m going into this marriage with my eyes wide open and my vision clear. I have nothing to hide from Bill behind a veil.”

Jennifer lifted her eyes to Pat in a manner that asked, “Nothing? Really?”

In answer, Pat first turned her face and then her entire body away, carefully stepping down from the platform. “I’ll go and get out of this and you can wrap it up, Elizabeth. Will you be able to have it delivered to me at my home?”

“I thought you wanted it sent to Briarwood in Maryland, Ms. Hamilton.”

Pat slid the duster from her arms with the help of one of the assistants who had been standing discreetly in the background, waiting to receive the garment. Then she turned her back to the girl so that the dress could be unzipped as she answered Elizabeth. “No, I’ve changed my mind. I think I’d like to keep it close to me. Have it delivered, packaged for traveling, and I’ll take care of getting it to Maryland.”

“As you wish, Ms. Hamilton.”

_________________________________________________________

Duncan’s grin dripped mischief as he leaned over the front seat to face the two girls in the back. “So, Marn, how killed are you going to get if your Aunt Pat finds out you’ve been with me all day?”

Marnie slowly shook her head. “I don’t even want to think about it. Somebody said something to me earlier about dabbling in negativity and messing up karma. I’m not going to think along those lines. I’m just going to have fun and let the chips fall where they may. Right, J.?”

J.J. nodded as she dug down into the pocket of her jacket. “Besides, I think Aunt Pat’s kind of relaxed her opinion of you, Duncan, old boy. She and I had a little talk yesterday about her snotty attitude toward you.”

“Yeah? Wha’d you say? Wha’d she say?”

J.J. held up the cell phone she had fished out and momentarily placed a finger to her lips. “Shhh, hush, hold on. I need to call my mother and let her know that we’re okay so she won’t call us while we’re in-flight. While we’re in the air, she won’t be able to reach either one of us, and she’ll start suspecting that something is up if she rings both of us and we don’t pick up. If I call her now, she won’t try to call us later.” She flipped the cell open and pressed the speed dial button. “We need to cover all our bases.”

With the phone to her ear, she crossed one leg over the other and settled back to transact her business as Duncan and Marnie looked on.

_________________________________________________________

In the dressing room, alone with Pat, Jennifer finally returned to Pat’s earlier comment. “So what else is it that you’ve found that you’ve gotten from your grandmother? I heard what you said out there. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the few pounds you’ve dropped, or that I didn’t detect that you were cutting Liz off from bringing it to my attention that she’s nipped and tucked that outfit a couple of times since she made it for you.”

Pat shimmied out of the dress. “You worry too much, Edwards.”

“Perhaps it’s you who isn’t worrying enough. What’s with the weight loss, I asked you.”

“Diet.”

“Liar. You don’t diet. You’ve never had to in your entire life.”

“Stress, then. I’ve been under a lot of it, what with this wedding, getting my business and personal ducks in order, overseeing Marnie, and all.”

“My big toe. You’re the most organized person I know; you don’t get stressed over handling details, no matter how many. And as for overseeing Marnie, both of you are better for that. You love that girl, and she definitely adores you. Stress, my you-know-what. Try selling to that someone else, Patricia Hamilton.”

“Everyone gets stressed at some time or another, Edwards. Even me. I’m not Superwoman. I’m only human.”

“All right. Then let’s cut out all the fluff, and get directly to the point. You, do not lose weight over stress. And yes, you are human, and therefore, prone to human frailties. So, what in the world is going on with you? Or is this going to be another important secret you’re keeping from me, like you did with you and Bill being together all those years and you didn’t tell me?”

Pat frowned but did not look up. “How long are you going to keep throwing that up to me? I explained all of that. It was be-”

“Are you sick, Pat, and trying to keep it to yourself, hoping it will go away?”

Pat hung the dress on its padded velvet hanger and zipped it before she spoke again. Her tone was quiet, conspicuously even, and she kept her focus on what she was doing. “Do I appear to be sick?”

In frustration, Jennifer closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. “Dammit, Pat! Please stop playing games with me.”

Her entire body gone rigid, her complete attention concentrated on her aggravating friend, when her cell phone abruptly buzzed in her pants pocket, Jennifer jumped. Irritated at being interrupted, she snatched it out to check the display, muttering, “J.J.”

Pat stepped into her pants. finally raising her eyes to Jennifer upon hearing her goddaughter’s name. “Checking in most likely. To keep us from phoning them and getting on their nerves.”

“Like you’re on mine,” Jennifer thought as she clicked in to take the call.

_________________________________________________________

“Hey, Mom.”

Hi Sweetie, what’s going on?

“Nothing. We were just calling to let you know that we’re okay. In case you were wondering or anything. What’re you guys up to?”

We’re at the dressmaker’s. Where’s Marnie? Is she with you? You two haven’t split up, have you?

“I’m right here, Mrs. H.! We’re still together.”

Good.

“Where’s Aunt Pat? What’re you doing?”

She’s just had her fitting. She’s taking off her dress.

Pretty?”

Very

“Did it come out like you guys envisioned it?”

Better. It’s lovely.

“Funny, her getting married in a color and her Matron of Honor is the one wearing ivory.”

That’s how she wanted it.

“And such a small wedding for two such important people. She’s really keeping things on the low.”

That’s how she and Bill wanted their wedding to be. What are you and Marnie doing?

“Just hanging out. We left Bergdorf’s a few minutes ago, and now we’re on our way to find some lunch.”

Where do you think you’ll eat?

“We haven’t decided yet. When we find it, we’ll know.”

I’m sure that you will. Don’t either of you eat a lot of junk. Make sure you order a salad, even if it’s a small one. Lettuce and tomato on a greasy, fatty burger doesn’t count, Justine Hart. How much longer do you think you’ll be?

“I don’t know. Two or three hours or so. We’re just messing around. There’s a lot to do and to see. I saw some cute boots that I might go back for later. We might check out a theatre.”

That sounds nice. Any idea what you want to see?

“I prefer a drama, but maybe it’ll be a comedy, or a musical, a mystery, or something else altogether. I don’t know. It’ll have to have cute guys, though, to suit Marnie.”

Not to suit you?

“One cute guy would suit me, but I tend to need substance a little more than real good looks. Although, I have to say, good looks don’t hurt. But none of that is all that pressing. I just like having fun.”

That’s my girl. Take your time. It gives me some comfort that at least I don’t have to worry about you doing out-of-the-way, risky things with boys at this point in your life. Other questionable things, yes, but at least it’s not boys that I have to be concerned about when it comes to you and the things you choose to do.

“No… no… not boys. They’re not a real priority right now. Look, I know you’re busy with Aunt Pat and all. Have you broken her down yet?”

You let me worry about that, young lady.

Okay, okay. I guess I should go now before I step all the way in it and end up locked down. I just wanted to let you know that we were doing all right. You guys have fun. We’ll call you when we get back to Aunt Pat’s.

You do that. Before dark and do be careful.

“Will do, Mom.”

J.J. clicked off. “That should hold her.”

With a jaunty twist of her hand, she flipped the phone closed and stuffed it back into her pocket. “I’ll call her one more time after we get there. But then again, maybe I won’t. If I check in too often, that’ll look fake and get her and Aunt Pat’s antennas up. Nah, I’ll just leave it alone from here. If she happens to call me, I can always play it off; she can’t tell where I really am. We should be okay.”

Marnie, who had been leaned forward, listening in on the call, sat back and seemed to relax.

Duncan was still draped over the front seat, facing the girls. “So it’s okay, J.?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is. I think I’ve adequately covered our tracks. But we need to do lunch first thing when we get there, for loophole coverage. I do a lot of things, but I don’t lie.”

Duncan jovially thumped his driver, Carlos, one time on the arm. “To the airport then, my good man. Our carriage awaits.”

Carlos sped up, maneuvering the car into the fast lane, heading for the airport.

_________________________________________________________

Bill gestured toward the gleaming personal jet waiting on the tarmac. “Wedding present for my wife.”

Jonathan tipped his head in appreciation. “Some present.”

The hatch was open and the stairs had been lowered in anticipation of their arrival. Then Jonathan noticed  “McTricia” prominently scripted along nose of the smooth white body. “Slick name. Very classy.”

“Peter’s responsible for the moniker; he’s started calling her “McTrish”, and it’s stuck. She hasn’t seen the plane yet; doesn’t know a thing about it. I plan to surprise her with it when we fly to Antigua after the wedding. Even though she’s back to flying wherever she has to go, I’ve been a little leery about her going commercial ever since… well, I figure for her comfort and my peace of mind she should have her own transport from now on. I want her to be comfortable, happy, and safe.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gesture. So, how did she like the car? Matching vehicles, cute idea.”

“She loved it; we both prefer Cadillac, so the choice of car was right up her alley. I didn’t realize it at the time that I bought that one for her, but she told me later that it’s the first car she’s ever had that didn’t come with a driver.”

Jonathan laughed at yet another reminder of how privileged an existence Jennifer’s down-to-earth best friend actually lived.

“It’s just as well,” Bill continued. “Have you ever been a passenger when she’s behind the wheel? I’m telling you, Valentine- like a bat out of hell, it’s not for the faint of heart. Pat needs a big, heavy car that can take her kind of punishment.”

“Like her men?”

Caught off guard, Bill whipped around to Jonathan, who merely winked as he quickened his step and boarded the plane.

“Latest McDowell technology there,” Bill boasted as Jonathan peeked into the cockpit where their pilot was already seated, completing his final checks. “Too bad you’re still on the disabled list. We could have flown this baby ourselves to Boston.”

“I’ve still got a month to go, but it’s just as well,” Jonathan said as he settled into one of the plush front seats, admiring the attractive, customized cabin while pulling the belt across his lap and locking it. “Right now, I’d rather be along for the ride. You need to be glad that your goddaughter isn’t with us. She’d be muscling her way up front to get one of those spots for herself.”

With the mention of J.J., Bill snickered. “And that girl wouldn’t care which seat, would she? She can handle them both. I still can’t believe you kept from me the fact that you had her flying all that time. It took her trying to save your hide for it all to come to light.”

The bright twinkle in Jonathan’s eyes reflected his immense pride at the memory. “She didn’t try. She did it.”

“And then she took off again, all on her own, to come to her Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat.”

When Jonathan ran a hand through his hair, smoothing it in place even though it really didn’t need it, Bill instantly recognized the subtle stress signal. “What?”

“That last part you mentioned has had me a little worried lately.”

“About what?”

Jonathan closed his eyes and smoothed the creases forming in his forehead as he answered. “She hasn’t exactly said or done anything along the line, but I kind of got the feeling that even though she was reacting to a bad situation, her taking off on her own as she did might have opened a door in terms of her nerve.”

“How so? What has she done since then?”

“She hasn’t done anything-yet, but J.J. is the kind of kid that once she’s done a thing and had the experience, it becomes easier for her to try it again. Even if what she was doing was wrong, if she liked it or got any kind of thrill, feeling of empowerment or accomplishment from it, it makes her bolder. She’ll do it again despite any previous repercussions.”

“But her taking off on that plane from Vegas was different; she was angry that time. And scared.”

“It doesn’t matter. She did it, and she accomplished what she set out to do- made it successfully and completely on her own to Reno to be with you and Pat. When the opportunity to take off independently like that presents itself again, for whatever reason, she won’t be as hesitant to try it as she might be if she hadn’t done it before.”

Bill nodded. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“I guess what I’m seeing in her lately is she’s growing up fast. Up to now, Jennifer and I have managed to keep her kind of … well,… normal, for lack of a better word. She’s not running around town out of control, partying, getting high or drunk, jetting all over without parental supervision like a lot of kids her age with her means are allowed to do. So far, aside from some vocal coveting of a car of her own, she hasn’t made too much noise about us keeping her grounded and close, but… I don’t know. lately I’ve been really noticing how grown-up she’s getting to be; how self-motivated she is and how independent- and strong- she really has the potential to be without us.”

Sensing Jonathan’s strong concern and uneasiness with the subject at hand, Bill reached across the narrow aisle to place a firm hand to his friend’s shoulder. J.J. had always been a fearless wanderer, and it was true that she was growing into a person with a strong will and mind of her own. And it was also true that Jonathan and Jennifer were about to enter the more daunting years of raising their daughter, the point at which they wouldn’t have a lot of control over the decisions she made for herself when she wasn’t with them.

Jonathan had always been there for him as his boys were growing up, especially after their mother’s sudden illness and untimely passing. When T.J., his oldest child and Jonathan’s godson, was killed as a young man in a plane accident, Jonathan had been his port through the long, turbulent personal storm that followed. Jonathan also helped bridge the emotional gap between him and his remaining son, Peter. Peter had been so unlike his more outgoing, adventurous- and favored- aviator brother. For years after T.J.’s death, he and Peter hadn’t been able to communicate. In fact, it wasn’t until T.J. was gone that he realized how much he didn’t even know his other child. It took a life or death situation for him, and Jonathan enlisting Peter’s technology to save him to get him to see that he had two brilliant children, not one.

Given the room to grow in his own way, Peter had since blossomed into not only a gifted computer science engineer, but also a savvy businessman. He had taken over the “pilot’s seat” of McDowell Aviation, successfully maneuvering the operation into the new, more digitalized millennium. That had allowed ‘Old Dad’ to take his desired less active role in the business to assume a more meaningful one in the things that now mattered to him: life, his family, and most importantly, Patricia Hamilton. Being allowed to be godfather to Jonathan’s delightful girl was an honor.

“But J.J.’s such a good kid, Jonathan. You and Jennifer have set reasonable rules, high expectations, and clear parameters for her. So far, she hasn’t let you down.”

“So far,” Jonathan agreed with a sigh. “She really is a damned good kid, smart and has such a huge heart, but bottom line, I have to face it; she’s mine. Bill, I wouldn’t tell anyone this but you, but sometimes it scares me that she’s so much like me, especially like me when I was a kid.”

“A good kid, but a rascal and a scamp at the same time?”

“Let’s just say that I kept people on their toes. I keep thinking the other shoe is bound to fall. Mine always did. If there was an open window anywhere, I was through it. If the door was so much as cracked, I was out of it and running.”

Bill cracked up and Jonathan had to chuckle with him. “I’m serious. I couldn’t help it. I had to go. God forbid if there was a girl on the other side of that window or door. Unfortunately, my girl child is the same way about windows and doors, but I don’t want her to be that way about boys. She has too much to do for herself first. And there’s no Max to come along, box her ears, and keep her in line.”

“She doesn’t need a Max. She’s got you and for sure, she has Jennifer who’s done a pretty good job without having to do much more than whisper into the girl’s ears. But when or if that shoe does fall, you don’t need to worry. There are enough of us around to give her backside a good tanning with it.”

In spite of his momentary flash of worry over J.J., Jonathan found himself laughing at what Bill said. “Yes, I guess there are enough of us for that.”

“And her little girlfriend, too, Bill added. “Now Marnie, that’s a pistol with the potential for firing, but for now Pat seems to have the safety pretty well in place. ”

“That’s what Carl’s been telling me when we’ve had occasion to talk.”

“She’s even better about her mother. At least better than when she first got here. Where before she was downright nasty to Maureen, she’s at least civil toward her now, but there’s still a definite distance she keeps. Pat and I have both tried talking with Marnie about it, but she shuts us down before we can even get started. You’d think she was Pat’s real kid in that. She must be taking lessons.”

“Speaking of lessons,” Jonathan twisted around in his seat to face Bill, “what about Pat? Did you talk with her last night? This morning? Anything more?”

“No, when I talked with her this morning, she sounded fine, but I could tell. I can always tell. I can feel when one of her spells is coming on.”

“Spells?”

“Valentine, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I know Jennifer’s told you about them. How she shuts down, completely pulls back and cuts herself off from everything for a while, and then comes out of it as if nothing’s happened. It’s been a good while since the last one; she was headed there right after 9/11, but there was too much going on at your place at the time for her to completely withdraw. I believe the only thing that’s kept her on this side so long is Marnie. But now that Jennifer’s here to be with the girls… I don’t want anything to interfere with this wedding. I want to marry her. On Saturday, I want to marry her.”

“It’ll happen. She and Jennifer will be together all day today. Maybe it’ll come out soon.”

“But the girls are with them. Pat might not say anything with J.J. and Marnie around.”

“Look, Jennifer is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever met. She has that way about her. She can make the most hardened individuals among us give it up.”

“That would definitely include my Pat, then.”

The plane made its final turn onto the main runway. Jonathan lay his head back and closed his eyes in preparation for takeoff, audibly inhaling, and then slowly exhaling. “Yeah, Jennifer has Pat. But for now, I have to get my head ready for my interview with one young Mr. Baxter.”

Bill grinned as he lay back his own head. “I can hardly wait to be witness to that. Since J.J. is my goddaughter, do I get to do him, too?”

“For sure. The more the merrier. I do like Teddy, but just like J.J., he reminds me too much of me. As such, the boy needs frequent reminders of how serious I am about that girl he’s interested in who just happens to be my daughter. I get him now, and then you’ll have him the entire weekend at your house.”

_________________________________________________________

After being admitted to the small airport, the white Lincoln sedan pulled up to the open hanger where a private twin engine prop stood waiting on the tarmac just outside. The car backed away after three young people got out of it.

A short time later, the aircraft was slowly rolling toward its assigned runway.

_________________________________________________________

Elizabeth’s entering the dressing room to retrieve Pat’s dress had prevented Jennifer from pursuing her line of question while they were at the dressmaker’s studio. Then Pat’s phone began ringing, and she had conveniently taken the calls rather than putting them off until later, dealing with each problem, question, or conversation at length.

She might have considered it rude the way that Pat continued talking on the phone in the car if it hadn’t been for the fact that Jennifer recognized what she was doing.

Stall all you want, old girl. I can be a very patient person when what I want is worth the wait. And you are worth every infuriating moment.

With the matter of the fitting and the delivery of the dress out of the way, the next stop was the Long Island home of Benjamin Bach, esteemed literary critic, and a distant cousin on Jennifer’s father’s side. After announcing their arrival at the gate, they were met at the front door of the residence by a heavy set woman with a dark-featured, pretty face. She extended her arms in welcome as they got out of the car.

“Jennifer! Pat! It’s been too long.”

“Betsy! I wasn’t expecting to see you until the weekend.” Jennifer accepted and returned a hearty hug from her cousin, Betsy Bach.

Then Betsy released Jennifer to briefly clasp hands with Pat before hustling them into the house where a housekeeper was waiting to take their coats, all the while animatedly explaining, “I decided to come here to be with my father for the holiday instead of staying on campus and then coming to Maryland; like a wise cousin-in-law often tells me, business and paperwork can wait when it comes to family and pursuing a full, balanced life.”

The last part of her statement, followed by the knowing wink generated an even warmer smile from Jennifer.

Before the housekeeper made it out of the foyer with the coats, Betsy asked her to have someone bring coffee. Then she linked her arm with Jennifer’s, bringing her even closer, “You look great, like always.” Then she shifted her visual attention to Pat walking next to them. “You too. So, tell me. Are you a jittery, nervous bride-to-be? Well, well, well, Bill McDowell. So tall and handsome. My word. Why’d you keep such a thing a secret? Oh man, I’d have been baying at the moon, screaming into the heavens. Everybody in the immediate universe would have known.”

Betsy’s excited tone and her bounciness seemed characteristic of a much younger person, but both Jennifer and Pat were familiar with her perpetual effervescence. Despite having been a ‘big girl’ all of her almost-forty years, she had always exhibited the perky exuberance of a high school head cheerleader.

When Betsy took them into the parlor, Pat immediately sat down in one of the wingback chairs, adjusting the silk scarf she had casually thrown over one shoulder as she addressed Betsy’s comments. “Nobody was informed about Bill and me until I wanted them to know. Jittery? Nervous? Nonsense. I am far too old for that kind of foolishness. You know full well that those components have never been part of my makeup. How many hedonistic frat parties and other goings-on did Jen and I have to infiltrate to extract your young, out-of-control behind? Jittery and nervous, huh. If those decadent scenes I was made to witness while coming to your rescue didn’t melt me down into a quivering mass, nothing ever will.”

Betsy blushed, squinted, and impishly clamped the tip of her tongue between her teeth. Then she snickered. “Those were the days, weren’t they? And it wasn’t all that many times you guys had to come for me. Most of the time it was because somebody had ratted me out for being somewhere I shouldn’t have been and you guys came on your own to make sure I was okay. Or because you ran up on me while you were coming to the party yourselves.”

Pat raised an eyebrow to her. “Just face it. You were one wild little girl, Bets.”

“And I always know that I can count on you to replay that time in my life for me, Pats.”

“Pats, hell. You know better than to call me that, young lady; you are not that grown yet. You’d better be glad for your cousin, here. She was a lot more patient and understanding with you than I ever would have been on my own. That time we found out about you being at that toga and keg party with the Epsilons and you weren’t even out of high school? We had to cut our dates short to come look for you because your father would have come after us if we hadn’t. I wanted to bring the strap, but Jennifer talked me out of it.”

Jennifer, now settled on the couch, opening her portfolio, had been chuckling in amusement at Pat and Betsy’s customary “big sister/little sister” bickering. The two of them, Pat and Betsy, belonged to the same sorority. She had opted out of entering the Greek system in college, instead pouring her efforts and interests into language and literary organizations, spending her breaks and a lot of her free time researching or traveling, which left her little time for anything else extracurricular on campus.

“Betsy has done just fine,” she said, her eyes and her tone conveying her pride. “A doctorate in education, a professor at a major university, and her own institution of learning; I think we turned out a fine product without having to resort to the strap.”

“Thank you.” Betsy beamed as she bowed from the waist. “And speaking of turning out fine products and avoiding the strap, how’s my little cousin? Still a scholar? She was always so smart and so cute. I can’t wait to see her. Is she tall now, Jen? When Father said you were coming, I was hoping that you’d bring her with you today.”

“She’s fine, Betsy. And I would have brought her, but she and her friend, Marnie, wanted to go shopping, so they stayed behind. J.J. is now about as tall as I am, and yes, she’s still a scholar.”

Pat’s interjection was typically dry and matter-of-fact. “As if we’d have it any other way. She might be crazy, like you were at sixteen, but she already gets the principle we had to drive into your head; to whom much is given, much is required.”

Betsy rolled her eyes at Pat and went back to Jennifer. “J.J. sent me a recent school picture; she’s gotten to be so pretty. Just like you, Jen. Does she have a boyfriend? Is Jonathan going crazy about it? I’ll bet that he is, if she does.”

“No boyfriend. She maintains that she’s isn’t interested in that sort of thing right now. She has lots of male friends, though, as well as female friends. Her father can be a bit protective of her, but not overly so… most of the time.”

Betsy’s radiant smile grew even brighter. “I remember how he used to be about me when I would visit you two as a kid. Between him and Max, I couldn’t tell which one was the most nervous and protective. They didn’t have anything to worry about. I didn’t care that much about boys back then, and most boys weren’t looking at a butterball like me.” For a fleeting moment, Betsy seemed to sober with the quick wring of her ever-moving hands, but then she came right back, her smile as radiant as ever. “Let me get Father for you.”

Without ever having taken a seat, she bounced out of the room as one of the maids brought coffee in to Jennifer and Pat. She put it on the table and made ready to serve, but Pat waved her off, telling her they would take care of that themselves.

“Bets has really come a long way,” Pat said when the maid closed the door behind her as she left. “Talk about a little basket case. Such a rough road she had to maneuver all by herself.”

Jennifer, closest to the table, began pouring. “But she made it, just as you and I did. Once she reconciled herself to working with her strengths and stopped worrying about trying to be fashion-magazine skinny, it all fell into place.”

“Took two wrestling matches with amphetamines to get her there, though. That last one almost killed her. How’s her heart these days?”

“As far as I know, any residual complications that might be haven’t yet shown themselves. And that last time wasn’t her fault. She really thought she was taking diet pills. She had no idea they contained speed. I think that was her wake-up call.”

Jennifer handed Pat a cup of the coffee after adding the cream and sugar in the way Pat took it.

“That and me threatening to kick her ass if she ever tried to use drugs again to cure heartache,” Pat declared as she blew on her drink. “Her mother died and left her that money, and she tried to lose her mind with it. But then Jonathan wound up taking her under his wing. I have to give him credit; he is so good with troubled kids.”

“He’s always loved kids,” Jennifer said, smiling into her first sip off her own steaming cup. “And kids adore him. I think his expertise with them has a lot to do with his own childhood; he tries to help kids over the rough places in the way that he was helped. When Betsy had that heart attack as a result of taking those so-called diet pills, I believe he worried about her as much or maybe more than I did; he was constantly at the hospital or checking on her. After we finished pressing charges against the fitness instructors, he and his lawyers went after that exercise chain with a vengeance. Then, once she was back on her feet, he worked directly with Betsy to get her back in school, find her niche, and to focus on a goal.

“Betsy loves kids, too. When we had J.J., she would fly in on her breaks and be right there for me. You remember. All those times when I had to travel and I needed to take J.J. with me, how she would arrange her schedule to accompany us. She would keep J.J. for me so that I wouldn’t be worried about her while I went about my work. I’d come back to my suite from a meeting, a conference, interview, or whatever, and the two of them would be coloring together, playing, or counting, or singing. Or J.J. would be “helping Betsy” with her school work. The two of them were- are so good together.

“When Betsy told Jonathan that she wanted to be a teacher, even though she was an heiress and could have afforded to do anything she wanted, he encouraged her to go for it. She did, and now look at her. Headmistress of her own school for girls. Remember how proud we all were of her at the groundbreaking?”

With the reminiscence, Pat nodded. “I remember. It was a very good moment, one of those you don’t get very often. I was so happy to see her finally doing what it seemed she was cut out to do and no longer wandering around trying to find herself.”

Jennifer’s fingernails made thoughtful music against the fine bone china. “You know, Pat, J.J. is proving to be very good with kids, too. Like Jonathan. And like Betsy. She makes me wonder….”

“About what?”

“About what she’ll actually end up doing with her life. She has so many options… so many talents….”

“Well, ” Pat sighed as she sat back in her chair and crossed a leg. “We each have our destiny. It’s my belief that it’s already scripted for us before we get here. Our job down here is to find out what it is and accept it for what it is.”

Jennifer eyed Pat over the rim of her cup. “And make the most of it, whatever it turns out to be.”

The door opened and a rotund, older gentleman with an archaic, but attractive snow-white handlebar moustache filled the doorway. “Well, my goodness. Two good-looking women calling for me. What is an old fellow like me to do?”

Jennifer and Pat both set their coffee aside and stood to greet Benjamin Bach as he came into the parlor carrying a package under his arm and with Betsy right behind him. Betsy was every bit her father’s child in appearance, as well as in jovial demeanor.

“You can give us a hug,” Jennifer answered as she moved from behind the table to meet and embrace him.

He kissed the cheeks of both women along with issuing hearty one-armed hugs. Then they all sat down with Betsy positioning herself on the arm of the couch next to her father. Benjamin placed on the table the package he had been carrying, a large, temporarily bound sheath of papers with colorful tabs separating sections of the tome.

“Fine job,” he said, patting it with his hand. “Very fine. Your father will be touched and proud that you’ve done this. Someone surely missed her opportunity. Did you bring the rest? What you told me you have been working on?”

Jennifer lifted the folder lying on top of her portfolio and handed it to him. “This is all that’s left. We’ve been transcribing and editing for a while. I put the finishing touches on it while I was on the plane coming to New York and yesterday morning. I got suddenly called away yesterday afternoo-”

Pat loudly cleared her throat, then excused herself when Jennifer shot her a scathing glance.

“- and was unable to share what I did with Pat, so if there’s anything you see that needs touching up, blame me, not Pat.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Pat said. “All I’ve mostly been doing is catching mechanical things, of which there have been precious few. Jennifer is an adroit interpreter and a fine writer; she is the best one for this job, and I’m not the only one who thought so. I believe she only needed me for mental support on this one.”

“We need each other for a lot of things, Patricia. Mental, moral, spiritual. Always.”

Pat switched her focus from the group on the couch to the window behind it.

“Well,” Benjamin loudly declared as he flipped through the papers in Jennifer’s folder. “I’m sure that I’ll be entertained over the holidays. I’ll bring this with me when Betsy and I come for the wedding. You are still getting married on Saturday, Patricia?”

Almost as if she had been startled at hearing her name, Pat snapped her concentrated gaze away from the window bringing it back to Benjamin, “Uh, yes. Certainly. Of course I’m getting married. He asked me; I said I would. We have everything in place. I don’t make promises that I don’t keep.”

“Good thing,” Benjamin said with a grin mirrored by his daughter’s. “You always were a girl of enormous integrity. It’s what makes you so good at what you do.”

Jennifer continued her visual hold on Pat.

And at what you choose not to do. You are not helping me. You surely are not helping yourself.

Giving up on her for the moment, Jennifer relaxed and sat back to leaf through the book that Benjamin had brought down. Pat came over to sit on the other arm of the couch so that she could see the book too. Jennifer concentrated on masking from her face her heightened concern for Pat. As she glanced over the work that she and Pat had taken on together, her heart filled with pride.

Having Pat so physically close to her, their collaboration in front of them, recalling Pat and Betsy’s barbed, but good-natured repartee and Benjamin’s affirmation of Pat’s strong character; it all made her resolve that much harder to not give up on finding out what was going on with her partner… her friend… her sister.

_________________________________________________________

“We’re trusting you. You do understand that… young ladies with your own minds and your own wills… expect you to use them responsibly.”

J.J. squeezed shut her eyes as if doing that would shut out the sound of her mother’s words as they sounded inside her head.

“That’s my girl…

“… at least I don’t have to worry about you doing out-of-the-way, risky things with boys… Other questionable things, yes, but at least it’s not boys…..”

Those eyes. Her mother had that way of looking at her… through her. Jennifer Hart was the only person on earth who could consistently do that to her… make her think and make her feel things so deeply…. so…..

It’s not about the boy… not really… I just want….

The whisper came close to her ear. “What’s wrong, J.? You look as if something hurts.”

Relaxing her face and uncrossing her arms, J.J. kept her eyes closed to answer. “Nothing, Marn. Nothing hurts. I was just thinking about something. I’m okay.”

“You’re not lying, are you? If you’re not all right about this, then I won’t be either. It was both our decision. After all, it’s not like we can change our minds about it now. You don’t have to feel-”

J.J. held up her hand. “I said I’m all right, Marnie. Really. It’s all good. Lets just concentrate on finding somewhere to eat.”

_________________________________________________________

Jonathan left the rehabilitation center with Bill sure of only one thing: Marnie would not be going back to live with her father for a very long time.

He had gone in aware that Carl Benson had been badly hurt in the collision. His injuries had been reported back to him and Jennifer, and although they had been kept abreast of his progress, and had even spoken with him by phone a few times, Jonathan had not been prepared for up close and personal. Two months after his accident, Carl remained in very bad shape. The damage to his spine was proving itself more extensive than initially believed, and it was affecting the functioning of all of his extremities.

It wasn’t until they were back inside their rented car and on their way out of the parking lot that Jonathan said what was on his mind. “I would hate to have seen him when it first happened.”

“Yeah, I know,” Bill answered. “It was a week later that we got back on this side of the country and were able to get to him, and he was still pretty bad. Pat was itching to get here, more to get to Kyle, who we were both sure was probably a nervous wreck. Turns out he’s a fairly stand-up little guy, but then kids are pretty resilient. I could tell that he was kind of scared but was trying not to show it. He was real glad to see us, though, and he wanted us to take him to see his father right away, but we didn’t know what we were going to find so we told him to wait and let us go first. I’m glad that we didn’t. Almost a week later- well… it wasn’t pretty at all.”

“But they say he never lost consciousness. I remember he spoke with Marnie not long after the accident. He’s been alert ever since?”

“Yep. Aside from being put under for his operations, he’s been awake and cognizant the whole time. But I’m thinking that in some ways, that might not be a real good thing. He’s very much aware of his limitations and of the progress he isn’t making.”

Jonathan loudly exhaled as his mind forced him back to that hospital room in Las Vegas. A healthy, vital, successful man one moment, and knocked flat on his back the next with no immediate guarantee that he would ever again get up. It had been frightening. He understood what Marnie’s father had to be going through, despite the strong front he was putting up for others to see. Carl’s situation was even more complicated than his had been.

Carl was CEO of a thriving commercial real estate empire with several major projects in the works around the country. He had two ex-wives, and the current one was hovering over the ejector seat. His four young children looked mostly to him rather than to their mothers for their stability.

Thank God for family and good friends.

In Vegas, that sentiment had been his private salvation, the only thing that kept him sane during the ordeal. His personal life hadn’t been anywhere near as knotty as Carl’s; he had Jennifer by his side and Bill and Pat in his corner. Then, too, his malady turned out to not be as serious as initially believed. But while he was going through it, and before the results were in as to what was causing it, the feeling of helplessness, of not being in a position to personally advocate for his family was something he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

The thought of leaving Jennifer alone to oversee and manage Hart, and to raise J.J. on her own- no that was a lie- the thought of being left out of any part of it, especially of being left out of being a whole man with Jennifer and a real father to his daughter, of seeing her to adulthood; that had been more than he could take. It had been what kept him fighting to get back. But Carl seemed to be facing a life of limited capacity. The doctors were saying that the longer the paralysis persisted, the less likely it was that he would regain full mobility. He had partial use of his arms and hands, but no use at all of his legs. Although they said he had made some progress, most of his needs still had to be met, or at least assisted by others.

The man had four children that he was unable to care for. The kids were in good hands, but were currently living in three different parts of the country. His business was being managed by his board who was being overseen by his ex-wife, Maureen, Marnie’s mother. Although she and Carl were estranged as a couple, and she had proven herself dubious at best as a parent,  Maureen was a shrewd, competent business woman. Upon being told of his accident, she had immediately come to the aid of ex-husband, although Marnie felt it was more that she came to the aid of her considerable interest in the business.

What a mess. Thank goodness Carl had the foresight to look out for Marnie and the boys on paper.

It seemed that Bill was on the same wave-length. “If it weren’t for the fact that you and Jennifer will have her, I’d be taking Marnie with us on the honeymoon. I don’t know what that feels like, to not have at least one parent to count-”

Jonathan immediately interpreted the abrupt cut-off. “It’s okay. Yeah, I do know what it’s like. It’s lonely and it’s isolating. She won’t have to go through that.”

“Kyle, either,” Bill said. “Carl wants the boy kept in school in Gresham to be near him. That’s a good thing. I can more easily keep an eye on him; Gresham’s a hop, skip, jump from me when I’m in Maryland or New York. You know, I think Carl’s doing that father thing: looking to the first born boy to carry on for him, but in my opinion, he’d be better served looking to Marnie. She’s the one.”

Jonathan shook his head, not ready to entertain that line of thought. “Right now, she’s sixteen and a kid. She’s got some growing and some living to do before she can even be considered for the draft.”

“Pat says she’s a business natural.”

“She’s still only sixteen.  At some point while we’re together in these next few days, we’re going to all have to sit down with Marnie and see what it is she wants to do in terms of her living arrangements since her father is open to her being with either of us. Jennifer believes it would be better for her to finish this school year in LA. But I think she’s the kind of kid that if she’s pushed into something she doesn’t want, it might work against anything we try to do with her.”

“We’ll get there when we get there, Valentine. But where to now? You hungry? Or do you want to head straight to the theatre?”

Jonathan checked his watch. “Let’s eat. Teddy’s father said he’s supposed to be there until six. He said that’s how long Teddy and the company have booked the venue for their practice, and Teddy tends to use all of his time and then some if he can get away with it. We have time.”

Bill made a right at the first light. “To lunch it is, then. I know several good places in the area of that theatre. We can eat and then pay the boy a visit.”

The point to paying a visit to Teddy was to establish with him the fact that J.J.’s father and his expectations for her treatment when she wasn’t with him were very much a part of her life. But underneath all of that, Jonathan was really looking forward to seeing the personable young man doing his thing on his own turf. In his opinion, a lot could be told about a person when they were in their own element and not expecting company. And then, too, a meeting with the youthful Teddy, even one about dating his daughter, would be a welcome diversion from the sobering adult seriousness of the meeting he’d just left.

About fifteen minutes later, they pulled into the valet parking section of a restaurant Bill had suggested. Bill got out, handing the attendant the key while Jonathan exited from the other side just catching sight of a young man in a black trench coat getting into a cab. As the cab pulled away from the curb, it occurred to him that the boy and the coat, especially the coat, seemed vaguely familiar.

“Something wrong?”

He hadn’t even noticed Bill come around the back of the car to stand next to him.

“No… no, nothing,” Jonathan answered. “Just hungry, I guess.”

_________________________________________________________

In the car, on their way back to Manhattan, Pat was once again on the telephone. This time it was with the woman commissioned to finalize the details of the wedding and the reception in Maryland. Even though she certainly didn’t have to, Pat had done most of the work herself. But it was up to the coordinator to make sure that everything was in place once Pat arrived. As Jennifer sat on the other side of the rear seat, half-listening to what Pat was saying, she allowed her thoughts to drift. They traveled back decades, to Gresham Hall Preparatory School for Girls, and into Residence Room #1, Waverly House.

From the time she arrived, Miss Smythe, the housemother, had been put through her paces with the two of them. Dean Marchand, in whose office they occasionally landed, would wear out her carpeting, wearily muttering her comments, “If I see one, I’m surely going to see the other… If one is involved, it is without a doubt that the other is certainly mixed up in it too… Who in the world did I offend so severely to have been paid back with the task of overseeing the two of you?”

Indeed.

It was true. When one went down, the other went with her. That was how it was. It was how it had been from the very start.

They were just little girls, she and Pat. Thirteen years old, but after a year together, they had already developed their own world from which they would venture out, but into which very few were allowed to enter. Talking, laughing, sharing secrets, they were always together with the exception of the classes to which they weren’t both assigned.

Then came that one morning that Pat wouldn’t get out of bed. Despite the fact that she’d called over to her several times as she was washing and getting dressed, Pat continued to lie there, facing the wall, not moving, not attempting to rise; her body so rigid and still, she had almost been afraid to approach her. When she did, when she pulled on Pat’s shoulder and Pat finally raised her head… her eyes were dull, dead as was the expression on her pale, almost ghostly face.

“Go without me,” she said and rolled back over. “Please.”

Something about the finality of Pat’s tone was frightening. It sent her back to her side of the room to gather her books and leave without further inquiry. At breakfast, when questioned about Pat’s whereabouts, she told Miss Smythe that Pat was ill and had stayed in the bed, requesting to be left alone. She knew that Miss Smythe had to go up and verify that for herself, but she pitied the woman having to do so. Pat had a sharp, nasty tongue, and the blinders went on when it came to lashing it upon someone who dared get on her nerves.

For two days, Pat stayed in bed, saying nothing, hardly moving, seemingly barely breathing. For two days, although she had been worried sick about her, she had tip-toed around Pat’s silent form. Back then, she hadn’t yet been made aware of the relationship, or lack thereof, that existed between Pat and her father. She only knew that Pat didn’t have a mother, just as she didn’t have one.

But she did know that if she had been the one in that bed, and Pa had been notified of it, as she was certain Pat’s father had to have been; Pa would have come. Even if she didn’t want him to, Pa would have been there.

But nobody came for Pat, so every moment that she could, she stayed there. In the room and silent, but with her. She would attend her own classes and their mutual ones, then go by Pat’s afterward to pick up the work she missed, all of which she would place on Pat’s desk before attacking her own assignments.

On the third morning, as abruptly as it started, it was over. She woke to find Pat already up. Her bed was made, and she was dressed, seated at her desk with several books open, furiously catching up on her schoolwork. When she stirred in her own bed, Pat turned around to smile and say good morning. The fire was back in her eyes; the color had returned to her cheeks. She launched right into how she had been up since four that morning, how much she had gotten done since then, trumpeting that she would be finished with all of it in time for class that morning. Then she thanked her for bringing the work to her.

But there was no mention from Pat of what had been wrong with her. No mention of why she had confined herself to bed for two entire days. No apologies for not acknowledging her presence during that time, or for leaving her hanging and on her own for those two days. It was as if, for Pat, nothing had ever happened. In fact, Pat’s behavior had her questioning herself that morning as to if  anything unusual had ever happened.

But it had. And for some reason, Miss Smythe hadn’t questioned it or tried to make Pat do what she was supposed to do. She and the rest of the administrators had left Pat to herself.

Had Pat eaten during that time? Used the bathroom? She had to have, but she couldn’t remember having witnessed Pat do either one. All she could recall was Pat being in the bed with her back to her and not moving. That had been the first time for a “black period”, and the hurt, the confusion, and the questions were still there, milling about in the far recesses of her mind. They were muted now, not anywhere near as prickly and intrusive as they had been when it first happened; they were no longer important. There had been other times since then, but as kids do, as good friends learn to do, she fully acknowledged them as part of Pat’s makeup. A part that she could accept, just as she did everything else about that girl. And as Pat did about her.

Pat clicked off from the coordinator, and Jennifer clicked back over to Pat.

“Is everything all right?”

“She seems competent,” Pat answered, punching at the buttons of her new Blackberry. “She answered all my questions correctly. The rest remains to be seen when I get there.”

Jennifer slid toward Pat, grabbing the hand that Pat was using. “Stop.”

The abrupt gestures caused Pat to jerk, a reaction that surprised Jennifer and must have annoyed Pat. “What? Damn! You scared the shit out me. I need check my emails.”

Jennifer leaned into Pat’s face. “You need to talk to me, that’s what you need to do. Emails can wait. They’ll be right there, waiting for you when we get finished.”

Pat’s eyes flitted to the back of Davis’s head, to Jennifer’s face, to the Blackberry again, and then to Jennifer’s hand that still rested atop hers. “Not now, Jen,” she murmured. “Not here.”

Jennifer tightened her grip. “Then when? And where? We are running out of time. I am running out of patience.”

Again, Pat’s eyes shot to the back of Davis’ head and she repeated in a whisper, “Not here.”

They hadn’t put up the privacy shield before they got in, and to do so at that point would have been rude. Most employers didn’t care about that sort of thing, but Pat had a different sort of relationship with Davis and Cordelia. She trusted them enough to discuss business matters in their presence, but that probably did not extend too deeply into personal details.

Understanding Pat’s reluctance to include her driver in on something that might be very private, Jennifer discreetly whispered back, “As soon as we’re alone? No more games; no more avoidance. I mean it, Pat.”

Pat rolled her eyes and sighed her last attempt at keeping control over the situation. “I’m your elder, Edwards. You don’t make demands on me.”

“Age nor hierarchy has a place in this. You are forcing me to make demands of you. We haven’t had a fight in a very long time, Patricia Rose Hamilton, but you’re forcing me there, as well. Promise me we’ll talk. As soon as we’re alone. Promise me.”

Pat sighed again and nodded in resignation. “Deal.”

The Blackberry buzzed beneath both their hands. Jennifer released Pat’s so that she could see who was trying to reach her.

“Cordelia,” Pat said aloud as she clicked in and placed the phone to her ear. A couple of seconds later, Pat clicked off, practically spitting in disgust, “Shit!”

“What? You’re slinging that word around a lot today.”

“It’s that damned Marcia. She’s here. A day early, without calling to tell me. She knows how much I hate that, but she did it to me anyway. I am not mentally ready for her, but Cordelia says she’s on her way in from the airport.”

Jennifer slid back over to where she had been. She didn’t curse out loud like Pat, but in her mind, she was “slinging” the same thing.

“We were going to 21 for that late lunch,” she reminded Pat. “We had already phoned Cordelia to let her know, so she hasn’t prepared lunch. We really should stop by the apartment to pick Marcia up and take her with us.”

Pat was scowling at that point. “Hell no, we should not. We’ll see her when we see her. She’ll be rubbernecking and trying to network the entire time if we take her with us. You know that everybody goes there. I don’t feel like making nice with all the as- people she attracts or drags to the table. Cordelia can make her a sandwich right there in the apartment and she can wait until we get back there. We already had our plans in place.”

As much as Jennifer wanted to keep Pat to herself at that moment, her sense of doing what was proper won out. “By the time we get back to Manhattan, she will have arrived. We might as well sweep by, pick her up, and get on with it.  We can do Bruno instead. It’s more private, and you love Italian. Pat, there’s no sense in putting her off.”

“So, exactly who is going to do Bruno? You or I?”

When the question registered, Jennifer was floored by it. “Pa-at!”

Pat turned her face to the window. “Come to think of it, we should probably leave that to Marcia. She loves Italian, too- and Brits, and Frenchmen. Spaniards, Texans, longshoremen, pool guys, and-”

“Patricia, really.”

“Hmph.”

But there really wasn’t any sense in putting Marcia off. That fragile line of personal communication she and Pat had begun to string was effectively snapped. Even if they went to lunch alone and secured a private booth, Pat was too upset at having her home and her established plan intruded upon, even by Marcia, to readily give up any other part of herself at the moment- even to her.

_________________________________________________________

Full from his lunch, Jonathan was ready for his visit to Teddy. He and Bill had left the restaurant and driven over to the small theatre shared by Gresham and Brookfield, the sister- brother Prep schools for their performing arts classes and performances.

“I understand the kid’s pretty talented,” Bill was saying as they made their way from the parking lot to the building. “Pat told me that he’s already got some pretty important people looking at him.”

Jonathan was not impressed. “As long as he confines his ‘talented’ performances to the stage, he won’t have me looking for him.”

They entered the front doors and passed through the small, unoccupied lobby. Voices and music could be heard coming from the other side of the closed doors to the auditorium. When they went inside, Jonathan immediately noticed Teddy standing up front, apparently giving direction to two young people who were onstage. As he and Bill began walking down the center aisle, his attention was drawn to his right, to a young man seated in the audience. It was the same person he had seen ducking into the taxi at the restaurant- and that he had fleetingly noticed exiting Pat’s building right before Jennifer had gotten into the car on the afternoon before.

“Say, that looks like that weird-looking Sinclair kid from Pat’s building,” Bill remarked in a whisper just as the same thing was registering in his own mind. “Wonder what he’s doing here?”

It had been a while since he’d paid attention to Duncan Sinclair. The kid was older now and was obviously going for a more Gothic look, but Jonathan had seen him enough times in the past to recognize him as one of J.J.’s New York acquaintances.

But what he noticed more was the girl slumped way down in the seat on Duncan’s far right, the one with her hair pulled up in a ponytail.

_________________________________________________________

The undercurrent of tension at the table had Jennifer wondering if Pat hadn’t had the better idea when she suggested leaving Marcia at the apartment to have a sandwich with Cordelia. She found herself uncomfortably wedged between Pat’s slightly embarrassing reticence and Marcia’s overcompensating nervous chatter. Although it was a place she had found herself stuck many times over their years together, she had never gotten used to the claustrophobic feeling that came with being there.

She was the unifying factor between the three of them professionally as well as personally. Marcia was her agent for most of her freelance work that did not include Pat. When Pat was involved in a project with her, there was no need for such representation. As friends, if something were to happen to her, she doubted that Pat and Marcia would have as much of a need for each other. Having met in college and remaining friends as well as business associates, they got along as a threesome, but Marcia did not share in the deep relationship that existed between her and Pat.

“So what’s Jonathan up to?” Marcia asked. “We’ve talked about everything except him and J.J. How are they?”

Grateful for the segue into an easy topic, one close to her heart, Jennifer was happy to answer. “They’re both doing fine. Jonathan was given a clean bill of health at his last checkup. Now he’s just waiting until the end of the month to get his clearance to fly again. And J.J. is fine. You’ll see her soon. She and Marnie should be back by the time we return to Pat’s.”

Marcia turned to Pat. “And I understand you’ve taken on a young charge. J.J.’s friend? How’s that going?”

For the first time since they arrived at the restaurant, Pat seemed to warm up some to Marcia’s presence. Her face subtly relaxed and in fact, she seemed to stop short of smiling. “Marnie and I are fine. I really enjoy her. It’s been a good experience.”

And Jennifer silently prayed that Marcia didn’t tease Pat about it, saying something like, “For who, you or for Marnie?”

When Marcia merely said, “That’s real nice”, Jennifer offered a quick follow-up prayer of thanks.

A waiter approached the table. “Excuse me, Ms. Hamilton.”

In his hand he carried a closed leather folder which he held out to her. “There is a message inside for you.”

Jennifer held her breath as she and Marcia watched Pat scan the contents.

“I will just be-,” Pat pressed the folder closed and looked up to the waiter. “Thank you. I’ll take care of it.”

Apparently satisfied with Pat’s response, the man nodded, and walked away.

“Well?” Marcia said when Pat didn’t immediately share with them. “Was it something bad?”

“No.”

Pat lifted her glass and finished the bourbon in one long swallow, discreetly signaling for their waiter with her other hand.

From the corner of her eye, Jennifer saw Marcia turn to her in question. But she was more focused on the lingering irritated expression on Pat’s face. It didn’t quite go with that momentary amused glint she’d caught in Pat’s eyes.

_________________________________________________________

For a moment, Jonathan stopped in his tracks at the sight of the girl. The glow from the dimmed house lights faded out on the end of the row where she was sitting, but he could see the red of her hair, the silhouette of the style, and Duncan Sinclair of  Manhattan, New York.

Teddy, distracted by the newcomers, had turned around to see who it was. “Mr. McDowell! Mr. Hart?”

At the same time, Jonathan noticed Duncan snap around in his seat, his dark-lined eyes registering surprise- and something else- as he saw them. Then Duncan eased back around, sliding down in his seat.

Teddy strode up to them with his hand extended in welcome. “What a surprise! It’s so good to see you. I wasn’t expecting to do so until next week.”

He shook Bill’s hand first, and then reached out to Jonathan whose focus was still on the girl in the corner. She had been reading something, but she sat up when Teddy called their names. The ponytail was too short and when she turned her face in their direction, Jonathan was gratified to see that it wasn’t who he hoped it wasn’t.

He shook hands with Teddy and was once again pleasantly surprised by the young man’s confident bearing as he launched right into asking about Jennifer and Pat, explaining what he and his company were doing, and offering them some refreshments.

As Teddy talked, escorting them to some prime seats up front, Jonathan did not miss how closely Duncan was watching them while trying not to be obvious about it.

_________________________________________________________

Hi Darling, how’s it going?

“Great. Jonathan, it’s so good to hear from you. I wasn’t expecting to until much later. Marcia’s arrived. She, Pat, and I are having lunch.”

Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I thought Marcia wasn’t due in until tomorrow.

“Something came up and she changed her plans, and it’s no interruption. Where are you?”

I’m in Boston. We just left Teddy.

“Jonathan, you promised.”

I didn’t grill him. Honest. I barely got to talk with him. We saw him at a theatre where he was working. Bill and I stayed and watched part of his rehearsal. The rumors of his talent aren’t rumors; the kid can truly sing, Jennifer. But then we had to leave to make our flight. We’re on our way to the airport as I’m speaking. Look, where are J.J. and Marnie? Are they with you?

“No, we left them to go shopping up on Fifth on their own. They phoned earlier to report that they were fine. Why?”

Nothing, I guess. It’s just that- well, J.J. has been on my mind, and I thought I’d check on her while I had you on the phone.

“So, why didn’t you phone her directly if you were so concerned about her?”

Because I wanted to hear your voice.

“And because you didn’t want her to know that you were checking up on her. Let’s be honest here, Papa Bear.”

Ahhhhhh

“You can’t fool me. You know that was why you didn’t call her. It’s just fine if I’m made out to be the heavy. But that’s all right, darling. One of us has to be, and I’m better cut out for that role with her than you. History has proven that.”

I love you, and I miss you.

“Me, too. Have a good flight, and if you happen to go by and see him in person, give Pa a kiss for me.”

A handshake will have to do, darling. I like your father, but not like that.

As Jennifer clicked off, she was left wondering what would make Jonathan stop to phone to ask about J.J. Fretting over that child was normally her role. Before his call, she hadn’t really given the girls a lot of thought. For a moment, she was tempted to phone J.J.’s cell to see where they were. But then, she decided against it.

You have to trust her at some point, Jennifer. She’s getting to be a very big girl.

Plus with a cell phone J.J. could ‘say’ she was anywhere, and at the moment she had more pressing things going on. She lacked both the time and the energy to attempt to decipher any loophole language J.J. might employ to report her location.

“Jonathan worried about his baby?” Marcia asked.

“Yes, but he doesn’t have anything to be concerned over.”

That calm of that certain place in her heart assured her that he didn’t.

_________________________________________________________

The wide blue eyes and oddly pale face in the doorway made Marnie sit straight up. “What?”

J.J. came in and dropped down on side of the bed, pulling the band from her ponytail. As she threaded her fingers through her loose hair, Marnie could see that her friend’s hands were trembling. “J.J.! What? What happened?”

Falling limply backward, J.J. loudly exhaled “Whe-e-e-ew. Girl, wait ’til I tell you.”

She lie there on her back, hands pressed to her heaving chest. After a couple of strained moments, Marnie leaned forward to shove her in the shoulder. “Dammit, will you go ahead and tell me. What in the hell is going on?”

Swallowing hard, bringing one hand to her damp forehead, J.J. pushed it out, “I just talked to Duncan and Teddy on three-way. They’re both about to die. They said Uncle Bill and Daddy showed up at the theatre.”

Marnie gasped. “In Boston?”

“Yes, in Boston.”

Her surroundings beginning to swirl, Marnie thought sure that she was going to faint. “Oh my God.”

She fell over, collapsing on her side to the bed. “Oh Jeez. How busted would we have been?”

J.J. groaned and closed her eyes. “Duncan said he had just told Teddy about us trying to surprise him, but changing our minds at the last minute about coming. Then Daddy and Uncle Bill showed up. I can’t even begin to imagine if- Oh, Marn, if I never believed in following my hunches before now, you can bet I will be following them from now on. What if we-”

Marnie held up her hand. “Don’t say it. Don’t eeee-ven say it. We wouldn’t be seeing the light of day for- for I don’t know how long. Probably never. We were out of the car, J. We were on our way to the plane, and then you said we should go back.”

J.J. rolled over, onto her side to face Marnie. “No matter how I tried to work it in my head, I couldn’t come up with a loophole big enough for us to get through on that one. It just didn’t feel right. It was too wrong, even for me. ”

“Then there you were, feeling bad in the car for turning back like we did.”

“I know. I fought with myself all the way back from the airport, and I’ve been in the room over there, beating myself up ever since for chickening out, but-” J.J. dropped her forehead into her hand. “Ooh Marnie, Daddy rolling up on me. On us. And Uncle Bill. And I would have been with Teddy. I never would have been able to explain that it wasn’t about getting to Teddy. Not getting to Teddy in the way that Daddy would have been thinking.”

“That would have been all messed up, J. We would have been in so much trouble. And we had taken off with Duncan, too? Don’t leave that out. Everybody would have been mad at us.  Teddy would never have been allowed to come to Maryland.”

“Not to mention that nobody would have trusted us ever again. That really would have been messed up. I am so glad we decided not to go.”

“You decided not to go. Even though I told you I understood, I was still a little pissed off about not being able to see any boys, but now, after all this, I think I can do without boys for a while longer, J. I’ve been busted before, but not by anybody I really cared about disappointing.”

Marnie lifted her bangs and wiped away the perspiration forming on her forehead. “Pat would have kicked my ass and then made me feel like dirt afterward. Some things you do have worse effects than just what happens to you.”

“The Duchess would have kicked my behind, too.” J.J. said as she lay her head down on her folded arms. “She probably wouldn’t have gotten physical, but she’d have done a real head job-guilt trip on me. But it would have been a lot worse to deal with Daddy on this. He would have been so mad and so disappointed. You’re right about the greater ramifications thing. When you plan stuff, you’re only thinking about what you want to do, not about how it might blow up on you. Our getting caught wrong like that might have even messed up the vibes for Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill’s wedding, too. I am soooooo glad we changed our minds.”

Marnie rolled over and lie back to rest her head on her pillows. “I felt bad about leaving Duncan to go on his own after having him pick us up, planning to take us and all, but he wasn’t going to be in the trouble we would have been in.”

She tossed a pillow down to J.J. who tucked it underneath her chin.

“Leaving the restaurant like we did doesn’t seem like anything now,” J.J. mused, “compared to the hell we would have caught if we had gotten busted in Boston by Daddy and Bill after we were allowed to go off on our own.”

Marnie chuckled. “When Pat gets back she’s going to come straight up here and do us. I wish we could have stayed just long enough for me to have seen her face. She says I have too many hookups here in New York, but I know she’s proud of me for having made them; she likes that kind of stuff. But she is going to do us for real when she catches up to us.”

With a wave of her hand and a impish grin, J.J. rolled over and put the pillow behind her head, crossing one leg over the other. “Whatever. They were having their lunch; we were finished with ours. We had to get out of there. If they had seen us or if we had gone over there to them, they would have made us stay and hang out with them. Our day had already been cut short as it was. Shopping, a movie, and lunch- how Park Avenue-Junior League lame. That was not what we had in mind when we left here.”

“And the day would have been made even worse to end it hanging out with grownups and having to watch everything we said or did around them. It was worth it, sneaking out like that.”

“Yep. You know Marn, Daddy always tells me to trust my hunches. The Duchess always warns me not to do things behind her back that I wouldn’t do in front of her, and I somewhat adhere to those things. But I swear, I have to have somebody else, somebody I can’t see but who can see me, looking out for me and my butt.”

“Whoever it is,” Marnie said with a sigh, “they obviously have my ass in their sights as well.”

_________________________________________________________

Early Evening

“Miss Marnie?”

Startled, the intercom woke Marnie from the nap she didn’t realize she had been taking. The room was darker now than she last remembered.

“Yes, Cordelia?”

“Is Miss J.J. with you?”

At the foot of the bed, J.J. lie on her stomach, her face buried in her crossed arms and the pillow.

“Yes, she is.”

“It’s almost time for dinner, but Ms. Patricia would like to see the two of you in her study before you go in to eat.”

“Thank you. We’ll be right down.”

Of course, J.J. hadn’t moved a muscle, and Marnie dreaded having to wake her. J.J. was a hard one to rouse and she could be a huge crab once a person got her up. Then, too, they both needed to change for dinner, J.J. would have to do something with all of that hair before she could go downstairs, and Pat wasn’t one to be kept waiting.

Damn.

Marnie sat up, trying to visually confirm for herself that J.J. was really asleep.

Go ahead and get it over with, Marn.

With her foot, she nudged J.J. in the side. J.J. stirred and then turned her head to face in the direction opposite. “J., wake up.”

J.J. stirred again, mumbled something Marnie couldn’t make out, and then went still. After a minute or so of that inaction, Marnie used her toes to nudge J.J. again.

The words were slurred, but this time Marnie could understand them. “If you kick me one more time.”

“J., wake up. Pat wants us.”

“For whaaaaat? I’m sleep-i-i-i-i-ing.”

Marnie switched on the lamp; J.J. loudly groaned her displeasure.

Sliding off the bed, Marnie headed for her closet. “Well I’m getting up. Fool around, and make her climb those stairs….” At the closet door Marnie turned around to J.J. who was still on the bed, in the same position. “You already know what Pat wants, so you can keep lying there if you want to, but she won’t be coming up here after me.

“You make me sick.”

“Pat will make you sicker. You need get up so you can do something with that hair. You know how your mother is about looking presentable at the table. She’s down there. I’ll bet any amount of money, the Duchess is in the study with Pat, waiting for us.”

When she saw J.J. lift her head at the mention of her mother, Marnie grinned and proceeded into the closet, but speaking loud enough for J.J. to hear, “I thought mentioning Jen would get you up.”

“Forget you, Marnie. Forget you, forget you, forget you.”

“Forget me, if you want,” Marnie called back. “But keep in mind that Marcia is probably down there, too, which means we’re being trotted out, so we need to look good. You’d better hurry up with doing what you have to do to get downstairs ’cause remember, Pat is personally waiting for us.”

_________________________________________________________

Pat was alone in the study and glad of it. In need of a little time to herself, she had gone in there rather than up to her room to gather her thoughts while Jennifer and Marcia freshened up for dinner..

She had planned on Marcia spending Tuesday night there in the apartment and then traveling to Maryland with them on Wednesday. It worked out however, that Marcia’s sons had come to New York to spend their Thanksgiving breaks from college with their father, her second ex-husband. She was still on amicable terms with Dave, and he had invited her to stay with them, thus her early arrival. Marcia’s claim was that she wanted to visit as much as she could with her sons, but the better likelihood was that it was her handsome, newly-single ex she was looking forward to seeing- in every sense of the word.

But that was a good thing. Marcia would have been a definite fifth wheel if she stayed with them longer than a few hours. Pat had been dreading the thought of having to house Marcia for two days and two nights. Then there would be traveling with her to Maryland, and having to spend time with her at Briarwood even though the house was large enough and there would be enough people in and out for her to have gotten away from her when she needed to do so.

The truth of it all, though, was she was enjoying being together in their circle, Jennifer, herself, and the girls- by themselves. It was rare that it happened that way. No Bill. No Jonathan. Just the four of them.

At the sound of footsteps on the stairs, Pat pushed back from her desk.

Those damned girls….

As pretty as oil paintings rendered by one of the masters, J.J. and Marnie appeared in the doorway. Dressed for dinner in silk blouses and long skirts, their shiny hair neatly brushed, their faces porcelain masks of youthful innocence, they stood with their hands at their sides.

“Yes, Aunt Pat,” J.J. said as if she had only just summoned them.

“Cordelia called upstairs and said that it was almost time for dinner, but that you wanted to see us first,” Marnie added as if further clarification of their presence was needed.

“It took you long enough.”

Pat pointed to the couch, and the girls entered, sitting down next to each other, bowing their heads and demurely folding their hands in their laps.

“And you can cut out the pious crap.”

Pat crossed the room with a slip of paper in hand that she allowed to flutter down onto the coffee table in front of the teenagers as their eyes warily followed its descent.

“Explain to me how you two eat like pigs, then get the host to let you skip out, leaving me with the bill?”

Pat picked up the receipt and read Marnie’s neat, rounded script aloud. “Caught short. Had to go. Love you. Signed by a smiley face and a heart.”

Marnie shrugged and dropped her eyes to her lap. J.J. slid hers away as she slightly turned her head in the same direction.

“It’s not as if you don’t have cash and credit cards of your own. So, what was so pressing that you had to go out of the back door?”

Pat noticed Marnie’s momentary stiffening and the wary turn of J.J.’s head back to her. “Oh yes, I checked. I know exactly how you left, how quickly you did it, and who aided and abetted you in it.”

“Something just came up,” Marnie murmured. “It was like, spur of the moment.”

“Yeah, I know spur-of-the-damned-moment. Three old ladies you recognized came in, and you two got the hell out of there.”

Then Pat moved a step closer. Hands on her hips, she lowered her voice. “Look, I didn’t want to eat with her either. Why the hell didn’t you signal me and let me skip the hell out with you? That’s what I want to know.”

It took a couple of seconds for what she said to sink in and another for them to get past the shock before both girls looked up to her with “are you for real?” expressions on their faces.

“Aunt Pat!” J.J. nervously whispered, sneaking peeks at the door. “You aren’t supposed to say stuff like that about company.”

Marnie having lost it, quietly snickered as she dabbed at the tears forming in her eyes, threatening her mascara. “Oh, my God. I do not believe you.”

Pat came around the coffee table and sat down next to J.J., gesturing with her finger for Marnie to come closer while leaning in to whisper, “Tell me that I’m wrong. That’s exactly what was going on, wasn’t it? You knew that if we saw you, we’d make you come over and speak to our guest, didn’t you? And then Jen would have made you stay with us since we had you in our sights. Rather than risk that, you took off and left before we could notice you. Just tell me I’m wrong.”

“If we tell you that you’re right,” Marnie ventured, “do we have to pay you back for the bill?”

“Oh, you’re going to pay me back for the bill regardless, but I’ll be taking that out in trade. Both of you just be ready when I call in my marker. And the next time you see me jammed up, you’d better be doing what you can to get me out of it.”

J.J. reached around to pat her godmother on the back. “It was about saving ourselves this time. You were too far gone. There was no way you could leave, but there was no sense in all of us being jammed up. Sorry, Aunt Pat, but that’s the way it is sometimes. If we had known that you wanted out, and we could have gotten you, you know we would have.”

“Well, there’s an entire weekend coming up. Be looking out for me. I may need a circumspect exit or two in the time to come, especially once we get to Briarwood with all the folks that will be there. I can only take so much.”

They sealed the pact by Pat squeezing hands with the girls. “Now let’s go in to dinner before Jen gets wise that you’re in here talking with me and starts asking questions about things that don’t concern her.”

“You mean you didn’t tell her what we did?” Marnie asked. “Even when you got the note at your table?”

“Didn’t I just say that it didn’t concern her? Just remember what I said about keeping an eye out for me. Now let’s go.”

With her hands to their shoulders, Pat escorted J.J. and Marnie from the study.

As she walked with her, J.J. mentally reviewed what Pat had said, attempting to hear what more might have been behind the actual words.

_________________________________________________________

“Daddy”

Hey, sweetie. How are you?

“I’m fine. I hadn’t talked with you all day. Thought I’d give you an after-dinner call.”

I’m glad you did, and now I’m just fine.

“Have you eaten yet?”

Yep.

“Crap? I know it’s just you and Uncle Bill there. No adult supervision.”

You haven’t met Sarah, Bill’s new housekeeper. She runs a tight, very healthy ship.

“That’s good. She can keep you two and your constitutions in line until my mother and Aunt Pat get there. And while I’m on the topic of you and your friend, I talked tomy friend, Teddy.”

You did?

“Um-hmmm. He told me he had visitors this afternoon at his rehearsal session.”

Did he?

“Um-hmmm. Said that his guests told him that they just happened to be in the neighborhood of the theatre.”

Did they?

“Daddy! Don’t even try it. You know what you did. You and Uncle Bill.”

What? What did we do?

“You rolled up on Teddy, out of the blue, hoping to get your scare in early. And you took Uncle Bill with you for backup.”

What scare? What backup? It just happened that we went to Boston to see Mr. Benson, and while I was there, I thought I’d drop in on Teddy. Don’t you think it would have been rude of me to have gotten that close to him and not stopped in to at least say “hello”?

“Real convenient. How was Mr. Benson?”

What’s the old cliché? As well as can be expected. He was in good spirits, though. Said to tell you that he was thinking about you. He said to me that he wished we had brought you to see him.

“That’s so nice. I wish I could have seen him for myself, too. Oh well, you and my mother have seen him. I’ve sent him flowers and two cards since he’s been there. I guess that will have to do for now.”

So, in ratting me out, did your friend, Teddy tell you that your other friend Duncan was there, too?

“Duncan?”

Duncan Sinclair, from your Aunt Pat’s building. He was there at the theatre visiting Teddy when we arrived.

“Was he?”

Yes, he was. You know, I have to tell you. Once I saw Duncan, for some odd reason I had the fleeting suspicion that I might find you there.

“Did you?”

But that was crazy, wasn’t it?

“Absolutely, Daddy. Just plain crazy.”

_________________________________________________________

Monday Night

With dinner over, the study was where everyone had gone to relax. Pat had taken her customary place behind her desk while Marcia settled into one of the leather chairs. Jennifer lounged on the couch, lulled by the lessening of tension between her two friends, the crackling fire in the small hearth, and the after-dinner port, a souvenir from Pat’s last trip to Portugal, which the adults were sharing. J.J. and Marnie were seated on the floor on her side of the room. They were at the coffee table with a large white leather album open in front of them.

In the time between lunch and dinner, Pat appeared to have fully accepted Marcia’s presence, the two of them finding common ground in shop talk. They were currently involved in a discussion of two promising young authors with whom they had both had some recent contact. With Pat and Marcia otherwise engaged, through half-closed eyes she studied the two girls as they quietly discussed the photographs. As usual, she found it both interesting and amusing how different those two best friends remained.

Marnie was still dressed in the attractive outfit she had worn to dinner. Her ever-cute baby face was mellowing into pretty, and the longer hair style gave her an older look than she had when she left Los Angeles two months before. However, her diminutive physical dimensions still held her to no more than sixteen. Normally a loquacious girl, Marnie hadn’t said very much at dinner, but it didn’t seem as if she were holding back; rather, she appeared more to be taking in and processing what was being said around her.

So what kinds of life lessons has Aunt Pat been teaching you in these two months, little girl?

J.J., on the other hand, had gone right upstairs once the meal was over and returned to the fold dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a tee-shirt. The loosely twisted French braid she’d worn down her back to dinner had been pulled up into the more manageable ponytail she favored. She, too, had been unusually quiet during the meal, but that was not so atypical of her. J.J. was one to sit quietly while adults were talking. But that was because she really was taking in what was being said, processing it for reference, not to mention possible future use. Tonight, though, it felt as if J.J. had something on her mind and that something had taken her to a place away from the table with them.  And because of that observation, a nocturnal mother-to-daughter visit had already been penciled in for later. J.J. might not let her in on her thoughts, but the attempt at conversation would let J.J. know that her mother was there for her- or onto her if indeed it was a case of her cooking something up.

It had also not escaped Jennifer’s notice how her daughter had positioned herself on the side of the coffee table closest to her. That unconscious, yet strangely deliberate placement on J.J.’s part had her smiling on the inside.

Still don’t really want anybody getting between you and I, do you? Well, that’s just fine with me, sweetie. As long as you opt to stay close, I can see where you are.

The girls were perusing her and Jonathan’s wedding pictures taken by the secondary photographer Pat had commissioned to record the nuptials solely for her. She wouldn’t be satisfied with copies of the originals taken by the main photographer; Pat needed her own. J.J. had seen assorted sets of those wedding pictures many times in many places over the years: at home, at her grandfather’s, at Sabrina’s when she went to France, and there at Pat’s; yet she never seemed to tire of looking at them. Pa had even noticed her fascination with them, especially with the formal wedding portrait hanging in his study. J.J. had never really commented on any of it to her in depth, but then she often pored over things that she didn’t necessarily talk about. Now that she was older, knew more about her parents, and could appreciate such things so much more, it was anybody’s guess what she really made of that painting or the photos.

“Mrs. H., you were so beautiful-”

Marnie’s eyes anxiously darted across the table. “I mean, that’s not to say that you aren’t now, but this dress, your hair- you just look so- so happy. So.. so everything.”

In an instant, Jennifer was transported back to that hectic Saturday morning with Pat driving and pushing everyone to keep to schedule.  For her part, she had been anxious as well. She and Jonathan had been separated for a week. She hadn’t set eyes on him or even spoken very much with him in that time, but that morning she woke with the happy realization that when she went to bed again that night, she would be with him as his wife.

Wife… Before him, that was a role she hadn’t considered playing.

After that day, he would forever be her husband, and together they would be for all the mornings of the rest of their lives. No more uncertainty or disappointments. No more mistakes. He was the one for whom she had been waiting, without even realizing that she had been waiting.

“I was very happy that day, Marnie. That was the first of the two happiest days of my life.”

For just a moment, J.J.’s fingers stopped moving as she was pointing something out to Marnie. The flash of distinctive dimple in her lower left cheek said that she was suppressing a smile at having received her mother’s message.

I didn’t know that I  was waiting for you either, Justine Hart, but just as it was with your father, it turned out that I must have been.

“Who did your dress, Mrs. H.? It was gorgeous. That color was just right on you. Plain white would have been too stark for your tones. The ivory made you glow.”

“I came up with the basic design. Fontaine added the finishing touches, the fine details, and he and his team put it all together.”

Marnie sighed as she brushed a reverent hand across the page. “Simply gorgeous. I love his work. Aunt Pat took me to his studio to meet him. It was wonderful. All those pretty pieces he showed us, all the people in and out. I felt as if I’d gone to heaven.”

“We’ve known him since we were about you and J.J.’s age. Before the studio, the fame, and all of that, Pat and I recognized his potential.”

“That’s what Aunt Pat told me, but she said it was mostly you who saw it. I’ve always admired how you use your own designers rather than strictly going with who everybody else is into. It’s like how you collect your art. You do your own thing, and you do it well.”

“Clothing, textiles, that’s art, too Marnie. I enjoy seeking out new talent and supporting it. The people who have already made names for themselves don’t need a lot of cultivating; they already have their following to keep them fed. But there’s always someone coming along with something new and different to offer. The joy is in discovery and fostering growth. ”

“Private labels,” Marnie observed aloud as she went back to the book.

“I like this one,” J.J. said.

She had turned to a picture of her parents, arm in arm, on the stone steps of St Augustine. “Good you went with traditional cutaway tuxedos for the guys’ outfits, Mom, and not the trendy ones. They don’t look all dated now like other people’s wedding pictures I’ve seen. Powder blue velvet, ruffles, and platform shoes, it might have been cool then, but it looks dumb now. Daddy is so handsome in this one. I love his hair longer like that. He looks as if he felt on top of his world that day.”

“He did.”

Pat had cut off her conversation with Marcia to address J.J.’s comment. “Strutted like a peacock the entire evening. His head could have been a Macy’s parade balloon.”

Then she puffed out her cheeks and made a bobbling motion with her own head causing everyone in the room to laugh at the abrupt departure from her usual cool dignity.

“I’m serious. Cock of the walk to the -nth power. And Jen wasn’t much better. The whole thing would have been deeply nauseating if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were so genuine.”

“It was a beautiful wedding. Jennifer was such a lovely bride.” Marcia sighed deeply, then she abruptly frowned at Pat. “Hmph, if you had let me go to London for that story instead of sending Jen, that could have b-”

Pat swung back around to face Marcia. “My God, will you just get over it. If you had gone, we never would have gotten the damn story, and you’d still be sitting right over there where you are, single, with the same three ex-husbands. That particular man was not meant for you; the assignment was not meant for you. I’ve told you that over and over and over. I had nothing to do with how things worked out. Who knew Jen would go over there and- That those two would end up- well, the kids are in here now, but you know what I’m talking about. Let it go.”

Marnie covered her mouth to contain her giggles while J.J. immediately reddened and squeezed shut her eyes. Jennifer chuckled to herself as she rolled off her elbow and returned to fully reclining on the couch pillows. J.J. knew full well what had happened with her parents when they met in London, and that meant Marnie had been most likely let in on it, too. But as far as she knew, the girls didn’t have the inside track on Marcia in her younger days, which was the part that Pat was holding back from them. That episode in their lives had been an ongoing point of contention between Marcia and Pat ever since it happened.

It was Pat who dispatched a reporter to London to get the story on Jonathan. She’d sent her rather than Marcia, who had lobbied hard to be allowed to go. Back then, Marcia had a notoriously voracious appetite for men, and Jonathan Hart would have been a definite blue plate special. Pat wanted nothing to get in the way of the story, so considering her more focused when it came to business and men than Marcia, she’d chosen her to cover it instead.

Also, at that time, she had been coming off a bad personal situation, and Pat had been pushing her back into working. Pat thought getting out of New York and into another setting entirely might be good for her. Who knew that it would change her life completely?

That she ended up with the story and with Jonathan as a result of the assignment caused the temporary split between Marcia and Pat, catapulting an angry, envious Marcia to San Francisco to set up shop for herself. The two of them had long since patched up their differences- rather Marcia had gotten over it, but she still jokingly jabbed at Pat about it whenever they got together. Pat, in turn, wasted no time in giving it right back. With J.J. and Marnie present in the room, Pat had been much kinder and a lot less graphic than she might normally be about her reasons for not sending Marcia for that interview all those years ago. It was odd, though, how Marcia had only included Pat in the negativity, never her.

For a moment, Jennifer tried to picture Marcia in London attempting to get through Max to interview Jonathan. Would she have been successful? If so, would the same bizarre things have happened to them as they had happened with her and Jonathan? Would Marcia have made a move on Jonathan?

Without a doubt.

Would he have reciprocated?

Secure in the knowledge that the events had played out in the way they were meant, Jennifer folded her arms behind her head and spoke her mind. “I have always believed that things work out as they do for a reason. It was supposed to happen that way. That’s the only explanation for it.”

“It was how the cards got dealt and the hand got played,” J.J. quietly added as she turned a page in the book.

The lingering naughtiness on Marnie’s face softened into reflection. “It must have been meant to be, just as you’ve said, Mrs. H. I’ve often told J. how I think it’s so nice that you and Mr. H. are still together and still get along with each other so well after all this time. That’s almost a miracle these days. Most marriages now only get like five years, max, and then the fights start, or somebody starts cheating. Then it’s off to divorce court and ‘custody’ and ‘visitation’ become new vocabulary words for any kids there might be. I hope Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill have it like you and Mr. H. That’s my wedding wish for them.”

Marnie’s head was turned away from Pat, so she couldn’t see the look Pat gave her, but Jennifer saw it and she noticed J.J. slyly watching her godmother, too. Whatever was going on with Pat, Jennifer concluded, Marnie was somehow a component in it. It showed on Pat’s face, in how she didn’t address what Marnie had said, and in Pat’s eyes when they momentarily met hers then flitted away.

Marcia must have also noticed. It was she who broke the heavy silence that followed. “So, J.J., I hear you have a friend meeting you in Maryland.”

“Yes, I do, Aunt Marcia.”

The next long pause was to be anticipated. J.J. didn’t volunteer information of a personal nature, especially in such a relatively public venue. Marcia had known J.J. all of her life, but unlike Pat, she didn’t really know her.

“Well, am I going to get a briefing before I actually meet him? I’d like to be prepared.”

J.J. moved from being on her knees to sitting with her back against the couch. Jennifer shifted just enough to allow her leg to make contact with J.J.’s neck. At the touch, J.J. lay her head back on it, her tension and irritation permeating through Jennifer’s slacks. In response, Jennifer wedged her leg even tighter under her daughter’s head.  J.J. breathed deeply, held it, and then released before answering Marcia.

“He’s just someone I met at my mother’s school reunion this past summer. He lives in Boston with his father and he goes to the same school as Marnie’s little brother, in fact he mentors Marnie’s brother.”

“Does the young man have a name?”

“Teddy.”

“He lives with his father? So where’s his mother? Are his parents not together?”

“No. They’re divorced. His mother lives in Virginia, and he sees her often. But since he goes to boarding school near Boston, his official residence is with his father.”

“Oh I see.” Then Marcia’s eyes twinkled with sudden mischief as she crinkled her nose. “So, is he cute?”

Marnie fielded that one. “Very. Mind you, I’m not lusting after him or anything. He just is.”

J.J. slowly shook her head at Marnie, but Jennifer could see that she was amused. Despite her heightened air of maturity, it was evident that Marnie remained a pip when it came to boys.

“He’s very nice,” J.J. answered. “And he’s fun to be around. Since I’m on this side of the country, and he’s been invited to the wedding, it works out that we’ll get to see each other. Bottom line, though, he’s just a friend.”

“Is his family originally from Boston? Do we know them?”

Pat raised a hand to Marcia. “I am going to have to stop you here. You can leave off that snooty Back Bay business. These girls see who they want- within reason. It’s a new day. There will be no selective breeding here.”

Then she spun the chair around to point down to the girls. “Or breeding of any kind. Let me make myself clear on that while we’re on the subject.”

She narrowed her visual scope to Marnie. “Peter’s boys will be in Maryland. Two of them, Shane and Donovan, are within range in terms of their age. For all practical purposes, they are “cousins” to you, and I know I don’t have to say anything about inbreeding.”

Marnie turned even farther around to the table, subtly including an exasperated neck and eye roll with the motion. Jennifer detected the two girls briefly making eye contact, exchanging some wordless, but impertinent, teenaged message.

“Pat. Do you have to be so blunt?”

“Jen, I’m just putting it out there, plainly and simply. No frills, no figures of speech, no room for question. I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings, loophole fillings, or any other kind of fillings. I’ve already had this conversation with Shane and Donovan, although I’m not sure that damned Donavan was listening. That baby boy is the one I’m going to have to keep my eye on. He’s asked me about Marnie too many times.”

Marnie’s cheeks flushed as she kept her eyes on the photo album and tried to hide her satisfied smile. Jennifer suspected that it would likely be a two-woman watch. Bill’s grandson, Donovan “Finn” McDowell, was a handsome, charming little rake, Marnie was a cute-going-on-pretty little flirt, and despite Pat’s edict, there wasn’t any real blood between them. Finn was on tap to be Marnie’s escort for the weekend.

Marcia, evidently finished with J.J., switched her line of questioning as well as her focus. “So Marnie, how has life been with the warden here, our prickly friend?”

Marnie lifted her head at the question. She turned all the way around to properly address Marcia.

“Aunt Pat’s no warden to me. She allows me to come and go pretty freely. She’s not prickly either; she just means what she says. She makes reasonable decisions as they concern me, she’s beyond clear about what she wants from me- as you just heard- and she’s fair. That last thing is really all I ever need anybody to be.

“See, even if a person is mean or hard to get along with, if they’re that way all the time, with everybody, that’s fine by me. That’s not to say that Aunt Pat is either one of those things; as far as I’m concerned, she isn’t. She gives my brother and me what we need, and for that I’m grateful. To answer you, Aunt Marcia, it’s been very, very good.”

With that said, Marnie twisted around to the coffee table, once more putting her back to Pat and Marcia and her face in the book.

And again, Jennifer managed to catch Pat’s eye only to have Pat quickly look away.

“Well, despite the fact that we don’t always see things the same way,” Marcia said. “And that she can be one of the most difficult and exasperating people that I’ve ever had to deal with when it comes to business, I have to agree that Pat is fair, and that whatever else she is, she’s it all the time. And if she likes you, or thinks you have something positive to bring to the table, she will look out for you.”

Pat bristled. “What did you mean by whatever else I am, I’m that all the time? What ‘else’ are you implying that I might be?”

Marcia placed a finger to her lips. “Shhh, Patricia. The children are in here now, so I can’t elaborate. But then, as long as they’ve had dealings with you, I’m sure they probably already know firsthand what I mean.”

Marnie leaned even further over the photo album to keep anyone from seeing her grin, but J.J. wasn’t quite able to catch the snicker before it sputtered past her lips. Jennifer used the leg J.J. was still leaned against to try and reprimand her, but that only made things worse. J.J. covered her mouth with her hand, but it was too late; Pat had already heard her.

“What the hell are you laughing at?”

J.J. was fairly choking. “N- n- nothing, Aunt Pat.”

“Oh, so you know what she’s talking about?”

“N- no. Oh, God.”  J.J.’s laughter doubled her over.

Marcia wasted no time in taking advantage of the situation. “Well, since it’s obvious that it’s out, I might as well just go ahead and say it. You’re a bitch.”

Pat’s dark eyebrows arched way high. “What?”

Unfazed, Marcia took a slow sip of wine and then looked Pat in the eye. “I said, you are a bitch.” She set down the glass and leaned forward in her chair to perfect her aim.

“Marnie was nicer about it, but she has you totally pegged. You’ve always been as tough as old boot leather and hard as hell to get along with. But since you’re that way to everybody, in the same way, and all the doggoned time, people respect you. One thing I have learned about Pat Hamilton over the years is she can be counted upon to be Pat: a generous genius, but an acerbic, argumentative, stubborn-as-hell-bitch at the same time.”

Marcia sat back, crossed her legs and picked up her glass again, bringing it to her lips. “But at least you’re consistent with it.” She winked, then pursed her lips to send Pat an air kiss. “So, are we still on for tomorrow, old girl, or what?”

Marnie and J.J. fell to their sides on the floor, fetal with laughter. Their irrepressible giggles, Pat’s outraged, tongue-tied shock in contrast to Marcia’s deadpan calm had Jennifer near hysteria. Tears streaking down her face, she turned in to the cushions, holding her own aching side and hugging the couch pillow to her head to keep Pat from hearing her laugh.

When she had it together enough to turn over again, she found Pat staring with disdain at the three of them. On the other side of the room, Marcia smirked over the rim of her glass at the back of Pat’s head.

“The hell with all of you.” Pat said. “I might be one- in fact I am one, twenty-four seven, three hundred sixty five days of the year, and don’t any of you forget it.”

Then leaning on the desk, resting her forehead in her hand, she began to snicker herself. “All of you make me sick.” She raised her head and wiped at her eyes. “Yeah, we’re still on for tomorrow. But understand about tomorrow night, I am too old for any of that frea- well, the kids are in here, Marcia, but I know how you can be.”

“We did it for Jen.”

“We were considerably younger.”

“And wilder. Live a little. It’s your last day and night on the town with the girls as a single woman, Patricia. Jennifer, the girls, and I simply want to show you a good time.”

“Ooooh, so we can come tomorrow night, too?” a small voice asked.

Pat slowly rotated in that direction, skewering Marnie with a withering gaze. “She wasn’t talking little girls. You and your partner there,” she pointed with her thumb, “upstairs.”

Marnie shrugged. “Well, you can’t blame me for taking a shot. Let’s go, J.”

J.J. pretended to pout as she used her mother’s leg to help her stand. “Aunt Marcia said “girls”; she didn’t specify. Sounded to me like she invited us.”

“You know she meant for lunch.” Jennifer said. “We’ve discussed this. As it is, you two have already heard far too much.”

“And the state of New York will not be coming after me for contributing to the delinquency of minors.” Pat gestured for both girls to come to her. She took their hands as she spoke to them. “Have a good night. There’s a lot on tap for tomorrow. People in and out, us running around all day, so you need to be at your best. Remember what we talked about earlier.”

The girls silently nodded. Saying their good-nights to all, they left the room.

Lingering on the air behind them; however, Jennifer thought she detected a faint whiff of conspiracy.

_________________________________________________________

Both girls ended up in J.J.’s bedroom, still laughing from the exchange downstairs in the study. Marnie fell onto her back at the foot of the bed, kicking off her shoes and wiggling her toes in the air while J.J. dropped down at the head.

“Whew, that was funny. Marn. Did you see Pat’s face when Marcia called her that?”

Marnie was still wiping away tears. “I thought I’d die, J. Now that was a Kodak moment.”

“And Pat telling you not to get filled. She is so raw.”

“And embarrassing as hell. She gets me every time, but she’s still my girl.”

“I like how you got with Marcia when she asked you that about Pat. Pat appreciated what you said, too. You couldn’t see her looking at you, but I could.”

“I wasn’t getting with Marcia; I was just saying how I felt. Pat is my absolute girl. Anybody who can keep me in line and not make me mad over it has a lot going for them. Even if Marcia was kidding about it, that needed to be said.”

“That was great what you wished for them. It was real nice of you to say it in front of my mother and to wish it for Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill.”

“I meant it. Pat has everything when it comes to material stuff. I really just want her and Bill to be happy together. If I could wrap that up and give it to her as a wedding present, I certainly would.”

Marnie folded her arms behind her head and closed her eyes. “When I get married- the first time anyway, I’d like to have a big, huge wedding and have pictures taken like the ones in that album. Your mother was such a beautiful bride, J. I wish I could have been there and seen it for myself.”

“Me, too. I always have.”

“I think it’s so romantic how your parents met and hit it off right away. Wonder how they just knew like that?”

“I don’t know. It’s crazy, but whenever I’ve looked at those pictures, I always wish I could have been there to see it: how they met, them running around London, Daddy having her arrested, them making up, the proposal, the wedding. I know they’re my parents, but what they have- well…”

Marnie raised her head a little so that she could see J.J.’s face. “Well, what?”

“Nothing. It’s stupid.”

“What? You can tell me. Go ahead.”

J.J. grimaced as she searched for the words. “Well, it- it’s like- like a fairy tale. Like something that doesn’t really happen to real people in real life.”

“It would make a real nice story or a made-for-TV-movie or something.”

“I doubt it. People wouldn’t be interested in a show about a couple who stick with each other.  People like drama, deceit, and low-life chaos better. It’s like you said tonight to Marcia, a lot of people get married and don’t make it to five years. Other people who’ve been married a long time seem to just be going through the motions. They stay in it because they have too much between them to try to divvy up, or they’re cheating on each other, or they have other issues. We know so many people like that. You see them at the country club. The women are off in their little huddles and the men are somewhere trying not to be seen scoping us. My folks have been married twenty-six years, and they’re still- Do you know where the duchess went last night?”

“I figured with your father. Didn’t you tell me that?”

“I don’t know, probably. But I know I didn’t tell you that she went to him in a fur coat.”

“A fur? I thought she didn’t wear them any more. It was cold yesterday, though. This is New York. Maybe a fur was warmer than what she wore here from home.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with keeping warm, at least not in that sense. She only wore the fur. She said she wore it ‘for effect’.”

Marnie sat all the way up. “Only? You mean just the fur? Effect?”

“Maybe underwear, but not clothes. She left out of here, essentially naked underneath a long sable- it was fine, too- to hook up with Daddy.”

Marnie narrowed her eyes at J.J. “No clothes? That doesn’t really sound like her. But then again, yeah it does if she was going to him. How do you know she did that?”

“Saw it with my own eyes. When she came back last night, I snuck downstairs and peeked through the staircase at her and Pat.”

“Eavesdropped, J.?”

“Sure did.  When she took off the coat, she had on a robe from the Carlyle. She took off her shoes and was barefoot. No stockings. It’s winter for Pete’s sake. Then Pat got on her about sneaking out with the fur like that. Seems it’s my mother’s coat, but Pat kept it when she moved to Los Angeles.”

Clasping her hands together, Marnie held them tightly to her breast and squeezed shut her eyes. “Ooooh, that is so sexy. I can’t wait until I’m grown. I’m going to do stuff like that all the time. Imagine, going to see your man in nothing but a fur coat. And then- ooooh, that is beyond sexy. A cozy hotel room, dim lights, wine, and- Yeah, your parents are a trip, but nice ones.”

“It all worries me, though, Marnie.”

Marnie opened her eyes again to find J.J. fingering the edging of the pillow she’d pulled onto her lap.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. You wouldn’t have said that if you didn’t already know.”

Sighing, J.J. averted her eyes as she spoke. “See, you can already picture yourself doing things like that. You already know that you could get into that. I don’t think I have it in me. I don’t think I’m going to have it the way they do. Daddy’s easy-going and nice. My mother is nice and she genuinely likes people. They’re both charming, and they draw people to them. It’s no wonder they met and hooked up right away like that. I’m not like them.”

“Yes, you are, J. You’re nice. People like you.”

“But I don’t really like people all up on me. I don’t trust people right off like that, especially not boys. Not like that.”

“What about Teddy?”

J.J.’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s that we haven’t been together enough. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I mean, I like him, but not in that way. I’m attracted to him, but not- I don’t know. I just sometimes think that I’m not wired right. I mean, you like boys a lot. Almost all my girlfriends do. But boys are just okay with me. Teddy is cute, and he’s sweet, and he is sexy, but-”

“But what?”

“When we were going to Boston with Duncan to see Teddy this afternoon, my reason for going wasn’t solely to see him. I was going for the thrill of doing something like that on my own and getting away with it. Seeing Teddy was almost secondary for me. I just wanted to go. I mean, I like him, but not… like that. Seems like considering who and how my parents are, I’d be more-” When the words wouldn’t come, J.J. shrugged. “You know.”

Marnie scooted up the bed so that she was sitting right next to J.J.

“It’s just not your time yet, J. That’s all. There’s nothing wrong with you. You do have extraordinary parents, but nobody expects you to be them or be like them when it comes to stuff like that. Just feel lucky that you got them for parents and not some cheaters, or divorcees, or some other form of dysfunctional couple. And the Teddy- the boy thing, that will come in time. I like boys because I’m just naturally fast and hot.”

“Didn’t you tell off Ms. Calvin for calling you that?”

” ‘Cause it’s not for her to say, cow that she is. She doesn’t know me like that. But getting back to what I was saying, I’ve always liked boys and I like them liking me, but that’s just who I am. You are you. I know I tease you about how you are, but really, I admire you. Like Marcia said about Pat-”

“I’m a bitch?”

It was a minute or two before the girls could stop laughing, and Marnie could continue. “Marcia is crazy to have said that to Pat. I swear I thought I would die. I didn’t know if I should be scared or laugh.”

“Me, too. If I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, I wouldn’t have believed somebody calling Pat that to her face. I’m surprised she didn’t let Marcia have it with both barrels.”

“Pat knows who and what she is, just like you do. You’re both just who you are. You’re that person twenty-four seven, three-hundred sixty-five days of the year, no matter who’s around or what the circumstances, you don’t really switch up. I’d say that’s pretty cool for someone who’s only sixteen. You already know yourself.”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure about me.”

J.J. noticed Marnie eyes searching the room. “What, Marn?”

“Speaking of the Duchess and furs and all, where is that photo album that I brought in here yesterday? Did you get to look at it?”

“Oh, it’s in here,” J.J. pushed up from the bed and started across the room. “I got caught up in a couple of other things and had forgotten all about it.”

She went into the closet and came back out with the book, which she carried back to the bed and Marnie. Crossing her legs, Indian-fashion, she sat the album on top of her knees.

“Good you didn’t look at it, J. I kind of wanted to be with you when you did.”

J.J. flipped it open to an 8×11 photo that appeared to be a magazine mockup. “Oh, my goodness. What in the world is White Fury?”

“A synthetic fur company from back in the day. I told you that. She was doing an ad for the company for charitable purposes. From the look of it, though, I don’t think she was wearing much under that fur either.”

J.J.’s grin intensified with each page she turned. “Well, well, wel-l-l-l-l, will you look at this. An entire sexy photo shoot, charitable purposes notwithstanding. And she calls me the family harlot?”

“Apparently, you got it honestly. The Duchess does look damned hot, though, doesn’t she?”

As her mother gazed over her shoulder with a white fur draped scandalously low across her bare back, J.J. nodded in fascinated appreciation. “For sure, she does. Real good looking out on this one, Marn.”

“I thought you’d get a kick out of it.”

_________________________________________________________

After the girls had gone up, the three women reviewed the guest list and the schedule Marcia had set up for the next day’s activities, the events for which she had taken responsibility. Jennifer had focused the bulk of her attentions on assisting Pat with the details of the wedding and the reception to follow, but she had been on consult with Marcia for the afternoon’s luncheon. The “bachelorette” party planned for the next evening was solely Marcia’s project.

Pat wasn’t terribly enthused about any of it. Despite her celebrity as a publisher and her prominence on the New York social scene, like Jonathan, Pat didn’t like being made the center of attention.

“You didn’t want an engagement party, a shower, or any of the normal pre-wedding traditions. Now you’re fussing about having to attend a luncheon in your honor. There is just no pleasing you.”

“Marcia, I am a grown woman, not some wet-behind-the-ears young girl. There is nothing I need, I don’t do parlor games, and there is really no need for all of these preliminary events.”

Marcia rolled her eyes. “Pat, do you realize how big this really is? How big this should be? You and Bill are major players in your respective fields. You both know people all over the globe. By keeping things so private and exclusive you’re going to piss people off.”

“As if I care.”

“You’re downplaying this wedding almost to the point of silence.”

“Exactly.”

The edge in Pat’s response said that the matter should be dropped, and it was.

A very short time later, after tying up a few remaining loose ends, Marcia phoned her family to let them know that she was on her way while Pat summoned one of her account taxis to come for her. Bidding them good night, Jennifer left them sitting in the front room waiting to be notified that Marcia’s cab had arrived.

Alone in her own rooms, she  ran a bath, and while the tub filled, she took a few moments to again look over the book she had gotten back from Benjamin. Aside from a scarce few pencil-written notes in the margins, the manuscript was as she had sent it to him. That was a good thing. No comment from Benjamin was a great compliment indeed. Once he brought her that last section, and Pa had a look at it, Pat would be able to proceed to the final step.

She put that book down, opened her journal and picked up her pen. It had been a long day, much had been accomplished, and a lot had gone on. But the one thing she wanted to happen, had not. She and Pat had gotten close to that destination, but then the train had jumped the track, forcing them to disembark and wait for a later opportunity, which hadn’t yet arrived. It was unlikely that said opportunity would present itself again any time soon.

Pat would be surrounded by people all day. Having to be “on” would put her off dealing with a personal matter, much less sharing it with anyone else. After that, they would be traveling to Maryland where she would be with family, celebrating Thanksgiving, and preparing for the wedding.

What in the world is on that girl’s mind? Is she sick? Please don’t let that be the case. Is she worried about Marnie? She need not be. Marnie will be fine with us. Jonathan and I-

The water!

Arriving in the bathroom just in time, she shut off the tap, then opened the drain to release some of the water to keep the tub from overflowing once she got in. When it was at a reasonable level, she closed the drain but went back into the bedroom to finish chronicling her thoughts while they were still fresh and free-flowing.

Several more pages had been filled when the quiet knock sounded at the door. Thinking it was Pat or, more likely J.J., who she actually hoped it might be, she pulled on her robe and went to answer it. It surprised her to find Cordelia there, bearing a hot cup of tea and a bottle of aspirins.

“I thought you might enjoy a cup of chamomile before bed and one of these to chase Ms. Pat’s Spanish port wine. That stuff packs a delayed wallop.”

“I see you remember,” Jennifer quietly remarked as Cordelia handed her the bottle and placed the tea on the table by the door.

“Yes. You aren’t like Ms. Patricia. She has the hard head; you have the unforgiving head.”

“That I do. Cordelia, would you please stay for a minute?”

Without waiting for an answer, Jennifer pushed the door closed and offered Cordelia a chair. Once they were both seated, Jennifer leaned forward to be closer to the other woman. She spoke softly so as not to be overheard by someone who might be on the other side of the door.

“I’m going to cut to the chase, here, Cordelia. I’m concerned about Pat. She’s lost weight, and she just doesn’t quite seem to be herself. Haven’t you noticed it?”

When Cordelia stared back at her, saying nothing, Jennifer pressed on. “I’ve been trying to get through to her, and I almost did this afternoon, but then it just didn’t happen.”

Cordelia sat silently studying her leathery brown hands. Jennifer marveled at their smooth texture and the strength and dignity she could see in them as Cordelia slowly rubbed them back and forth.

“Ms. Jennifer,” she finally said with a sigh. “as much as I care for you, and as much as I know that you love Ms. Patricia, even if I knew the answer to what you ask, I couldn’t tell you what she hasn’t shared with you herself.”

Cordelia stood as if to leave, but then she lingered, dropping her steady gaze to Jennifer’s face. “I will say this to you about it. Please, keep trying.” She walked to the door and turned around before closing it behind her. “And don’t forget to take the aspirin. If you don’t, that wine will be afflicting you in the morning, and you have too much to do to be feeling badly yourself.”

The brown eyes deeply set in that serious, unlined face said a whole lot more than the woman had.

“I will, Cordelia. Thank you.”

After closing the door, Jennifer jotted a few more lines in her journal. Then she picked up her cell phone and headed for the bathroom.

_________________________________________________________

Grinning to himself, Jonathan put the cell phone on the night table and tucked the item in his hand under the pillow next to him.

Absolutely love that girl. How did I get- and stay- so lucky?

His heart full, but his mind too busy and all over the place to fall right to sleep, he folded his arms behind his head and stared at the exposed polished oak beams above his head. It was impressive, to say the least, how in a matter of months Pat and Bill had transformed what had been a rustic, if huge, farmhouse into an elegant, but comfortable and pleasant country home. Bill was proud of what they had done, and he had every right to be.

Prior to Bill and Pat purchasing Farrell’s place, it had been a horse farm run by old man Farrell, his sons, and grandsons. Although he and Jennifer, not to mention Jennifer’s father, had done business with the Farrells, and he had been on the property many times throughout the years, he had never been inside the house. From the outside, however, it appeared to have been a house run by men whose primary focus was the business of horses. Now there was no comparing what was to the present. From the landscaping down to the most minute house furnishings, Pat, and Bill had created a showplace. What was more amazing was that Pat had orchestrated her part, the house, largely from long distance.

All of it, the exterior as well as the interior, reflected her refined, but understated good taste. The rooms designated for him and Jennifer had been decorated in muted pastels, much like their bedroom on Willow Pond. Lots of decorator pillows, thick scatter rugs on the burnished hardwood floors, plush bed covers, a writing desk by the window for Jennifer, and satin sheets. That last little detail had him smiling to himself and longing for Jennifer’s physical presence. When Bill had been showing him around the house, he noticed that theirs was the only bed dressed with satin,

He pictured in his mind the look on Pat’s face and surmised what had been going through her mind when she placed that order. Bill hadn’t said a word about it, but he probably hadn’t even noticed. Bill wasn’t one to pay that kind of attention. A mattress, a blanket- and now Pat- that was all he needed.

After dinner, he and Bill had gone over to a small tavern nearby for drinks. It was a cozy spot, way back off one of the main roads, its remote location designating it a place meant for locals. Had it not been for Bill, he would have definitely been out of place. Having spent most of the last couple of months on his new property, Bill was already acquainted with several people in the area. A huge, jovial presence in a room, Bill easily made friends everywhere he went. Pat hadn’t been around a lot, but folks seemed awfully anxious to get to know her; they’d asked Bill a lot of questions about her. And about the boy Bill seemed to have kept underfoot even more than he had been aware of; one gentleman had asked for Kyle by name and laughed over a recent encounter he’d had with him. From the look of things, that boy-themed bedroom with the small riding boots by the bed said that Bill had taken on a fifth grandson.

Again, Jonathan smiled to himself. If events had happened differently, if circumstances had been different, he was willing to bet that Bill and Pat might have taken very different paths in their lives had they met and married as young people. Both of them loved children and were good with them. A house full of boys would have suited Bill, who had once confided that had his wife lived, he would love to have had two of three more children, preferably boys. Picturing Pat as a housewife, riding herd over Bill and a bunch of their rambunctious young pups, he almost laughed. Now she would be proudly sitting in the midst of the group of fine young men she would have turned out. Like himself, Pat revered the notion of family. So did Bill. With Bill, Pat was getting the one thing that had eluded her most of her life- a family of her own. Along with Bill’s son, Peter, Peter’s wife, Lisa, and their four boys in Nevada, there would be a boy for Bill, and a girl for Pat at their eastern homes. Those latter two kids were borrowed, but were being loved and cared for by them just the same.

Even though they were getting a late start, Bill and Pat were building a fine life together.

He guessed.

Pat was holding out, and Bill was aware that she was. After much inner speculation on the matter, he had come to a possible conclusion on why. The disturbing supposition made him slide his hand under the other pillow again, in search of comfort and diversion.

How do you not remember until you’re in the cab on your way home, Jennifer? You had been all the way out to the airport and were on the way back when it came to you that you didn’t have them?

… picturing her in his head, those eyes and that smile surrounded by bubbles as she asked him about it….

As if I was going to admit….

Pulling his hand back, he again folded his arms behind his head, savoring the warm sensations generated by the reminiscence of the afternoon spent at the Carlyle with his unpredictable, but lovely wife….

Been a while since I’ve seen you in a fur, and then when I saw you in it, I couldn’t wait to get you out of it.

How easily Jennifer could concoct a scenario, drop into character complete with appropriate accent, or come up with a plan to get to, with, or over on anyone she wanted. She had certainly done all of that on the previous afternoon. His mind wandered even farther back. Back to the time she stood-in as a southern author for her male professor who didn’t want his real identity revealed. In that escapade, he had been drafted to play the part of her personal assistant- her most willing and very personal assistant.

Or the times she played Edna to his Vern. Edna could be a sleazy blonde in a tight dress and stilettos, or a gum-snapping female mechanic in flannel and overalls. Over the years she had been a rhinestone cowgirl, a nun, an Egyptian princess, a gypsy fortune-teller, a sexy elf to his Santa….

… the time she had to be J.J. to….

His eyes squeezed shut as a hard shudder racked the entire length of his body.

That one still haunted him. Not only had he witnessed a side of Jennifer that he had never seen before, he also saw J.J. that day. In the deepest recesses of his heart, he knew his child, the part of her that he hadn’t really discussed with anyone. In J.J., he could see, hear, and feel that under the right circumstances, she could be everything that her mother had become that fateful day at the mall. Physically provoked into it, defending someone she loved, backed into a corner, J.J. would instinctively come out fighting to win by any means necessary.  Jennifer was a fighter, too. He had always known that. But until that day, in his mind she had been a different kind of warrior. In protecting her daughter from a sexual predator, she had assumed another identity, another persona, and she had nearly been lethal in the role. She had been J.J.

It made him wonder if Jennifer could sense that side of their child, too.

Forcing his mind to another place, he returned to the theatre and to J.J.’s friend, Teddy. There was something about that boy that made him… not quite nervous, but…. Teddy seemed to be a nice kid, a good kid from a good home with a strong, involved father. Teddy was very talented, and an obvious a leader; he ran that theatre company as if he’d been born to it. Reportedly he was a good student and a fine mentor to Marnie’s little brother. Aside from the fact that he was seventeen, male, and from all indications, enamored of his daughter, he couldn’t come up with a single tangible reason to be anxious about him. And then, too, Jennifer continued to say that J.J. wasn’t that interested in boys. When she was on the phone with him, she mentioned that once she got out of the tub she needed to go up and talk with J.J.

Talk to her about that boy, Jennifer. She might not be all that interested in him, but he’s seventeen and she’s your daughter. There’s an awful lot of house, stable, and land between your father’s place and Bill and Pat’s.

The fur slowly sauntered its way back into the forefront of his mind, only this time it was J.J. who was wrapped up in it as she climbed into the taxi… with Teddy.

Oh, hell no.

He sat up and with a shaky hand poured himself a glass of water from the decanter Sarah had left at his bedside. After swallowing it down and taking a couple of deep, cleansing breaths, he lie back and clicked over to another line of thought, going back to Pat.

There was only one thing he could come up with that would spook a person like her and cause her to keep it to herself. Only one thing could scare her so badly that she couldn’t even speak it. He didn’t even want to think it.

Pressing the button in the headboard, he switched off the light, and closed his eyes.

...diamonds… pearls… ivory lace… silk stockings… her bright, inviting smile

… just like an angel floating over that red carpeting, coming toward him on her father’s arm….

… ivory lace garter on a long, shapely leg…

Red ponytail, that sable, and damned Teddy.

Then he closed down his mind.

_________________________________________________________

At the head of the stairs after leaving J.J.’s room, Jennifer came face-to-face with Pat who was on her way up.

“Did Marcia get off all right?”

“She probably won’t do that until she makes it to Dave’s place.”

“Pat!”

With satisfied smirk, Pat climbed the final two stairs to lean against the filigreed iron railing. “So was the Squirt okay?”

“What makes you ask?”

“Well, you’re up here rather than downstairs in the bed. You’ve obviously been in with her. And I noticed that she was a bit quiet and withdrawn this evening despite her great amusement at my expense.”

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said through a snicker, “but that was funny. Marcia shouldn’t have said that with the kids in the room, but the look on your face was priceless.”

“I should have shot the bitch. The gun was right there. But then, like you said, the kids were present. That wouldn’t have been right to do in front of them either. Might have scarred Marnie for life. She’s a little on the scary side.”

With her hand over her mouth to keep the girls from hearing her, Jennifer laughed. “You are a mess.”

” ‘Bitch’ was what Marcia said. I wonder why it is that when a man is good at what he does, says what he means, and stands his ground, he’s a good businessman, but when a woman does it, she’s classified as a bitch?”

“Funny, that’s the same question your godchild just asked of me.”

Pat nodded once in appreciation. “That’s exactly why I love that girl. She always could see through bullshit. One day, she may be writing “Esq.” behind her name. She’s definitely got the head for it.”

“As well as the potential for that type of guile.”

Although she wanted to try getting through to Pat again, something about her said that it wasn’t the right time. Pat was being Pat in nature, but there was a subtle rigidity to her movements, as well as an aura of defense that seemed to radiate from her person.

“Well, I guess I’ll go on down to bed,” she wound up saying. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

“As ready as I’m going to be,” Pat moved from the railing to start toward her own suite on the opposite side of the hall from the girls. “Sleep well, Jen.”

Jennifer watched her go and then went down the stairs to her own room.

I’ll try, but that will mean putting you out of my mind for a time.

That wouldn’t be very hard to do. What J.J. had shared with her had been so many things on so many levels that although she told J.J. she understood, as her mother, she would have to lie down to process it.

Under the covers with the light off, she played back their main conversation.

“Mom, I have something to tell you, but you have to promise me you won’t get mad.”

“J.J., you know I don’t make deals beforehand. I’m not your father. This is Jennifer, not Jonathan.”

“Then I guess I can’t tell you.”

“J.J., what have you done?”

“I haven’t done anything. But what I have to tell you- no, that’s okay.”

“Tell me.”

“Not if you’re going to be all mad. I can only tell you if you promise to let me say what I have to say without you getting angry, without cutting me off. There are some things I need to ask you, but if you’re mad I won’t be able to.”

J.J. had been unusually quiet all evening, but at that moment those blue eyes were pleading with her to let the voice be heard. Then J.J. pulled out her ace and pressed it face-up to the negotiating table.

“You always say I keep stuff in. I’m trying to share.”

“Go ahead and tell me then, J.J.”

“Promise me first, Mom.”

“All right.”

“All right what?”

“All right, I promise I won’t be angry. Now tell me.”

After saying she wanted to talk and after having secured the agreement she sought, it took J.J. a minute or two to get her words together. It had appeared as if she hadn’t quite expected to pull the deal off and thus, didn’t quite have her opening line ready.

“You know Duncan? Duncan Sinclair?”

“Yes. From this building. His parents are Anita and Steven Sinclair. Dark haired boy. I thought I might have seen him yesterday.”

“Yeah, him. He said that he saw y- Well, anyway, I ran into him yesterday as I was coming from the gym, and we talked. It turns out that he knows Teddy. We talked some more, and it turned out that he was going to see Teddy today. Teddy is working on one of his plays and he wanted Duncan to come and check out his sets. Duncan was going to fly to Boston, and he asked Marnie and me to come with him. We told him we would.”

When her mouth involuntarily fell open with the anticipatory shock, J.J. rushed to clarify things.

“But we didn’t go. We started to. See, we had made arrangements with him to have him pick us up from Bergdorf’s. We were going to fly over with him, see Teddy, and come right back. When I called you this afternoon to check in, we were actually in Duncan’s car, on our way to the airport. Duncan’s parents let him use their plane whenever he wants.

“Mom, you said you weren’t going to be mad.”

At that point, she didn’t know what to be. She made the promise with J.J. not to be angry, and it wasn’t exactly anger she was feeling over J.J.’s disclosure.

“Why are you telling me all of this, Justine? To clear your conscience or something? I saw you had on makeup this morning and a ribbon on your hair. I thought that kind of odd for you. And then I noticed you were a somewhat quieter than normal this evening. Had a lot on your guilty little mind, did you?”

“I had a lot on my mind, but I can’t honestly tell you that it was guilt. That’s what I want to talk with you about. See, I knew it was wrong to go. It turned out it would have been a major, major catastrophe of the highest order if we had gone, but in my heart, what I really feel isn’t guilt. It’s more….”

“More what?”

“Like- like- like regret.”

“Regret? What, that you didn’t get to see Teddy?”

“No, that I didn’t get to go. That I didn’t get to- couldn’t take off when and like I wanted to.”

It was happening.

She had been there herself, and she had been about J.J.’s age when it started. That feeling of being tied down when her newly-formed wings wanted to try soaring. The girl had been as wrong a left shoe on a right foot, and she was somewhat relieved that J.J.’s problem was frustration over not being able to take off in the plane rather than not getting to see Teddy. J.J. wasn’t chasing boys yet, but the great beyond was calling to her, and for a child of Jennifer and Jonathan Hart that could be an even more seductive entreaty.

“Then, it turned out Daddy and Uncle Bill had gone to see Teddy. If we had gone, they would have found us there. Can you imagine what a mess that would have been?”

Jonathan would have hit the roof.

He would have jumped to all of the wrong conclusions, and come at J.J. full force with them. Even though J.J. would have been dead wrong, his presumptive volatile reaction would have set her solidly on the defensive. The loggerheads they would have come to might have been catastrophic and long lasting. Because of her agreement with J.J., she found herself struggling to remain calm and not fuss as her instincts were screaming at her to do.

“So, what was it that made you and Marnie decide not to go?”

“Well, we had gotten all the way to the airport and out of the car, but then I heard you in my head. You were saying how much you trusted us to use our own minds. I heard myself promising you that I wouldn’t run off without permission again. I thought about how I took off on you when we were in Vegas. That if something had happened that time, nobody would have known that I was on the plane. It could have been that way this time, too.”

“That’s such a morbid way of looking at things, J.J.”

“It is, but it’s real. You know, I think of John Kennedy, Jr. sometimes. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I think I kind of identify with him. Maybe because he loved to fly, and skate, and do a lot of things that I like I do. I liked his style. I don’t do heroes, but if I were to have one, he would have made my list.”

When she hadn’t said anything right away in response, that voice piped up to fill the void.

“Mom. remember you said you wouldn’t be mad.”

Dumbfounded had been more like it. Nobody, not even Jonathan, could send her mind spinning in as many directions at one time as could their child. J.J. had become acquainted with young Kennedy and his mother through Pat. She had been in John’s company a few times, enough so that despite her having been very young at the time, he remained a vivid presence in her memory. His wedding to the Bessette girl, in its private simplicity in contrast to his celebrity and social status, had really captured J.J.’s interest. The news of their deaths in a plane crash had been very difficult on her, especially when she learned that he had been piloting the craft. After that, J.J. had spent long hours finding and reading articles and stories about the handsome young man and his family.

“I’m not angry, J.J. I’m glad that you turned back. The mother in me wants to fuss, but realistically, I have to acknowledge to you that everyone gets tempted at one time or another. It’s what we do with the temptation that matters. Is this what you had to tell me or is this somehow the lead-in?”

“It’s the lead-in, I guess. I wouldn’t say this to anyone but you, but Mom, be for real. Have you ever, do you ever think that something isn’t- isn’t quite right with me?”

“Isn’t quite right? Like what?”

“Like- like with how- how I am.”

Despite her huge vocabulary, when it came to herself, it was hard for J.J. to reveal in words the things that came from way down inside. In embarrassment and frustration, she had plopped down onto the pillows, the bed covers fisted in her hands.

The sight of her child going through that torment wrung at her own heart.

“What, J.J.? Just tell me what you’re thinking. I’m listening.”

J.J.’s flushed face contorted with the difficulty it took to get the words to her tongue.

“Well, see, when we didn’t go to Boston, Marnie was disappointed because she wasn’t going to get to see any boys. That’s why she was going, for the social aspect. She knew right off the bat that was why she was going. I would have thought that I would have been upset at not seeing Teddy or meeting his friends. But when we turned back, and I really thought about it, really thought about it, I found out that I wasn’t that upset about not seeing him. I was satisfied that I’d see him later this week. It upset me more that I didn’t go, period. I felt as if I had cheated on myself or something. Like I had wimped out on an opportunity and come dragging back like some kind of little punk kid with my tail between my legs. Like I had let myself down.”

J.J. turned her face away at that point and her voice was barely audible.

“I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’m just plain weird.”

Not weird. She was growing up and discovering even more who she was and what she wanted from life. What had been apparent to her mother early on, was finally becoming apparent to her; she was very much her own person with a strong sense of adventure and a need to make and meet her own challenges.

How long would it be before J.J. began to ignore her inner reservations? When would she take that leap and act on her desires to go her own way, to do her own thing? She was only sixteen, but she was sixteen with a lot of enabling fringe benefits, not to mention ample wherewithal. Conscience had kept her grounded that afternoon. But had she opted to go off with Duncan, and things had worked out the way that she and Marnie had planned, who would have been the wiser? What things had J.J. already done and gotten away with?

The possibilities had her twisting the bed covers in her own hands.

“I never seem to be on the same page as everybody else.”

“That’s because you are your own page, J.J. You have always operated on your own plane and have never been quite like anyone else. But why would you want to be?”

“I don’t really want to be. I- I just wonder sometimes why I don’t- why I don’t seem to like what other kids like. How come I don’t like shopping and boys and all of that? I mean, I like boys. I’m sure I’m not gay or anything, but why don’t I like to do the things other girls like to do? How come I never have?”

“Like what? Be shallow and narcissistic? Be into looking good, but not taking care of your spirit, your heart? Your soul? Be rebellious and make bad mistakes because you refuse to listen to people who know, instead choosing to follow the lead of your equally confused peers? Chase boys because it’s the popular thing to do and not because it’s what you want to do? Live for the day, and not realize that the solid base you put down now will be the foundation of the house you build of your life? J.J., you’re doing all the right things by taking your time and using your head. I think you’re wonderful just as you are.”

“But you’re my mother. You’d say that.”

“I am your mother, yes, but more importantly, I’m the person you chose to tell how you felt. That must mean what I say has some merit with you.”

The self-conscious, but grateful smile had been precious. The hug even more so.

It was odd for J.J. to be questioning herself in that manner, but perhaps it was to be expected. With every day that passed, she moved closer to becoming a young woman and farther away from the child they were all accustomed to her being. She had to be finding the transition confusing and frustrating at times. A brief, but encouraging pep-talk from Mama on that topic seemed to have shored up J.J.’s faltering self-confidence for the time being. Then they had moved on to other things.

Laughing over Marcia and Pat. Reflecting on Pat and Marnie, Marnie and her mother, Marnie and her father, and Marnie moving back in with them for a while.

“Something in my gut tells me that Marnie would rather stay with Aunt Pat. I think Aunt Pat would like for Marnie to stay with her, too. I’d hate that. I missed her so much. Nothing is the same without her, Mom.”

“That’s how life is J.J. Things constantly change, shift, get rearranged.”

“Marnie told me she feels safe with Aunt Pat. She says she feels safe with you and Daddy, too, but it’s different for her being with Aunt Pat. She couldn’t explain the difference to me, but she didn’t have to. I already understood.”

That was a good thing because she had seen and sensed between Pat and Marnie what J.J. said she instinctively felt. Pat hadn’t specifically said anything about what she wanted to do long-term with Marnie, but it was odd that so many of Marnie’s things had not yet been shipped home to Los Angeles. Sure Cordelia could take care of that once she was back from Maryland, but there didn’t seem to be any urgency on Pat or Marnie’s part to get that  taken care of.

After talking about Marnie, they revisited the girls’ aborted trip to Boston from the perspective of Jonathan’s potential reaction had he caught them once he got there. But interestingly enough, they hadn’t touched upon what her reaction might have been, or Pat’s for that matter. For J.J., that would have been taking things too far- or getting too close. Instead they ended up discussing trust and freedom and how the two walked hand-in-hand when it came to parents and children, and with people in general. J.J. seemed to have a reasonable grasp of the concept.

Then she brought up with J.J. the topic of Teddy and his inevitable meeting with Pa. As it turned out, J.J. hadn’t thought ahead to that part of the visit. Teddy would have to be called and prepped, she said. They both ruled out trying to prep Pa; there was no such thing. Once Teddy got called into the study, he would be on his own with J.J.’s imperious grandfather. What Pa would say to him about his granddaughter- his only grandchild wasn’t something that anyone could predict.

“Did he give guys the blues about you?”

“The few he met. Remember I wasn’t always living with him the way that you’re with your father.”

“Even though I am glad I have Daddy in my life all the time, that boarding school- separation thing you had with Pa did have it’s advantages when it came to him being all up in that part of your life.”

Unfortunately, it had had its drawbacks as well.

“Did he give Daddy a hard time about you?”

“What do you think? I agreed to marry a man my father didn’t know before that man asked my father if it was all right with him.”

“You were way grown by then. Why would Pa feel he should have been asked first?”

“Because he was my father.”

“Even if Daddy had asked him, it would have only been a formality.”

“My father stands on ceremony.”

“Yeah, well, that he does. I’ll bet Pa wore Daddy out when he got him closed inside that study.”

“I don’t think so. Your father has always been a very charming and confident, not to mention, convincing man. As you see, we ended up getting married.”

“Yes, you did. Happy for me.”

Married….

Jonathan had promised a life of excitement and adventure, and he had followed through on the assurance in so many ways, the best of which was that redhead with his eyes whose room she had just left.

Of course J.J. had asked about Pat. Without really answering, she’d switched away from that topic to tell J.J. of her visit to Benjamin and Betsy. J.J. was looking forward to getting together again with Betsy at the wedding. It had been some time since they had seen each other, but J.J. liked Betsy, and she enjoyed Betsy’s tales of the goings-on with the little girls at her school. Both Betsy and J.J. were naturals with children.

Anastasia had been keeping her abreast of J.J.’s interactions with Daria, one of the residents of St. Augustine’s children’s home. Daria had come from very tough circumstances, including being rejected by her half-sister as well as the rest of her deceased mother’s family. Her imprisoned father had never really been a part of her life. As a result, she had built a hard, protective shell around herself that allowed no one to get inside. No one that is, except J.J. Anastasia had already been pleased with J.J.’s take-charge attitude with the tutoring program sponsored by her school and with her gentle patience with the children. In the beginning, Daria had been a real disruption to J.J.’s math class, but somehow, she had pulled Daria in and gotten the girl on her side. Anastasia was very pleased with that development.

When they talked together earlier that evening, Jonathan mentioned that J.J. had given Daria earrings for passing her math exam. At least that was what she told Daria. It had actually been because the child didn’t have any and was wearing broom straws in her pierced ears to keep the holes open. J.J. didn’t want her getting picked on, becoming angry, and possibly resorting to fighting, which would earn her demerits, even though J.J. said she wouldn’t have blamed Daria for fighting someone who came at her…

… naturally.

Jonathan said it had been a very touching moment, and that Daria had been overwhelmed by the gesture, which in turn had confused J.J. The girl had no idea of the effect she had on people.

Her Daddy said he’d never been more proud of her.

J.J., if she kept to the path she was on, had nothing to worry about. Boys and all of that were still on the back burner, and that was all right for now. A lovable, complex, tomboyish scamp of a girl, soon to be a fine young woman, she was Jonathan’s greatest gift to her, a promise fulfilled.

Her mind drifted back to the dressmaker’s studio, to Pat, her dress.

So pretty.

Her own dress and J.J.’s had been completed in Los Angeles and had been shipped ahead to Briarwood. Pat had taken care of Marnie. Everything was in place. Everything except Pat. What was she holding back? What was it that she was going to reveal before Marcia unexpectedly showed up?

“I know Aunt Marcia was only joking, and the way it went down was real funny, but you know, I’ve been thinking. If Aunt Pat was a man in her position, ‘a generous genius, acerbic, argumentative, stubborn’ she’d just be considered a good businessman. My daddy can be all of those things- well, maybe not argumentative- but he’s all the rest of it, and nobody thinks he’s a “b”. For all those reasons, he’s considered brilliant and strong. Doesn’t seem quite fair does it? Aunt Pat is a successful businesswoman in her own right. She’s a very strong and straightforward person. Why does that make her a “b”?

Why, indeed?

J.J. had always been relentless with the questions, which this one really hadn’t been on her part. For J.J, it had been more of an observation of yet another example of life’s inconsistencies between the sexes.

Tired from thinking, still a tad anxious about Pat, and drowsy from the port, not wishing to turn that emotional cocktail into a headache, she turned off the light and lie down. Jonathan’s physical presence, his arms around her, his breath on her neck as they both eased into sleep, were absent, but inspired by the photo album the girls had in the study, she filled the void by returning to her own special day.

… in six short weeks, Pat, her planners, and Pa’s checkbook- he insisted on paying for everything- had put together the perfect formal wedding. Flawless in its execution, and so, so beautiful…

Tall… very handsome and dapper… funny, intelligent, sexy, and so very, very nice… waiting for her at the end of that seemingly endless red carpet…

Max at his side, like the proud father of a son who had done well with his life….

Pat preceding her, then taking her place at the head of the girls. Bill on the other side, standing with Jonathan, Max, and the guys.

Anastasia, that oddly contented expression magnifying the vestiges of dignified beauty lingering in her age-lined face.

And Sabrina…

God bless her…

… seated on the first row… almost like the proud mother of a daughter who had finally gotten it right…

… almost like….

“Who gives this woman…”

“It is I, her father, who relinquishes her…”

Pa, as always outwardly poised and eloquent, but uncharacteristically jittery and nervous when they had been alone together those few minutes in the vestibule before it was their time to enter the sanctuary…

then kissing her cheek, whispering, “I love you, my darling daughter, “ before releasing her at the end of the aisle, allowing her to leave him to go to the other man in her life, the one she loved enough to consent to join with him for the rest of their lives….

“Good you went with traditional cutaway tuxedos for the guys’ outfits, Mom, and not the trendy ones.”

“Sweetie, my father is a classic, and I married a classic. You don’t put trendy on classics….”

 

Standing around for pictures… so many pictures and people and poses and pictures… camera shutters snapping, bulbs flashing….

... so many guests- friends, associates, dignitaries, society columnists, reporters….

… when all we wanted to do was get away and be together….

“You’re very photogenic, Mom. You take really good pictures.”

Somehow it seemed there was a hint of something else behind that last, kind of out-of-the-blue observation.

But then again, it was J.J. making the observation.

… you’re reading too much into it, Jennifer… say goodnight.

“Goodnight.”

_________________________________________________________

Tuesday Evening

“They make me sick not letting us go to the bachelorette party with them or go out on our own. What’re we, kids or something?”

J.J. rolled her eyes at Marnie’s complaining; she had been grumbling and restless ever since they had been left on their own by the adults.

Personally, she was glad to be shut of her mother, Marcia, Pat, their friends, and the stifling constrictions that came with being in adult company. She and Marnie had been surrounded by it all day. It had begun with breakfast, a catered affair in the apartment building’s smaller banquet room. The Hamilton House executive board and a few more of Pat’s closer business friends had been present. Then there had been the luncheon that afternoon, a far more elaborate affair held at the Waldorf and attended by a wider circle of Pat’s personal friends and acquaintances, most of them wealthy, influential people for whom the girls had to put on their best faces and be on their best behavior.

Marnie had been brilliant, and Pat had been proud of her. Although it had been an interesting, even exciting experience at times, J.J., already acquainted with many of the people, allowed Marnie most of the spotlight. When the time came, she was more than happy to get back to the quiet apartment and into her jeans, sweatshirt, and ponytail.

Lazily sprawled on her back on the couch in their den, she frowned at the ceiling as her concentration on the tune playing in her head was broken by that latest bout of whining.

“Marnie, Marnie, Marnie. Let it go. We’re stuck in the house and that’s all there is to it. Did you really think they would let us go to a bachelorette party? We are kids. You have to be twenty-one at least to get into where they’re going, and with Aunt Marcia with them, that might be too young. Fake I.D.’s were not going to work in that situation. And then too, with Aunt Marcia planning the party, there was no way they were going to let us be witness to whatever she has planned. She’s a mess. Remember the time I let you see that book she wrote that my mother had hidden?”

Marnie grinned in devilish recollection. “Yeah, it had ev-er-ee-thing.”

“Yep. She’s written some worse ones than that. I’ve read them at Aunt Sabrina’s. She uses a pseudonym, but I broke that code a long time ago. Aunt Sabrina lets me read anything I want. I think my mother ships the books she gets from Aunt Marcia to France to get them out of the house so that I won’t see them. She was a little slow with that one I showed you.”

“So glad she was, though. That one was real hot. It’s a wonder our corneas didn’t get scorched.”

“Um-hmm, if Aunt Marcia writes that dirty, you know they weren’t going to let us see what they’re doing tonight.”

Marnie, curled up in the big chair, stopped top-coating her nails to look up at J.J. “Think they’re going to have male strippers and penis cakes and stuff?”

“How would I know?” Then it was J.J.’s turn to naughtily grin. “But probably so, if Aunt Marcia ordered it for Aunt Pat, who we both know can be kind of raunchy.”

“Kind of?”

“And they’ll probably also have gorgeous, muscular hunks, all dancing, oiled up, and sweaty, and everything.”

Marnie shuddered at the suggestion. “Umph, I can’t wait until I’m grown. I’m going to be in the strip clubs every single weekend. You wait and see.”

“You are so nasty, Marn.”

“Whatever. You’re the one who’s coming up with images of sweaty, oiled-up hunks.” Fanning her hands in the air to dry her fingers and cool her brow, Marnie got up from the chair and went to look out of the window. “So what are we going to do tonight?”

“I don’t know. We can’t do too much. ‘Don’t go out,’ they said.”

“We can go over to Duncan’s and see what’s up. That’s not going out. Aunt Pat said not to have anybody in here, but she didn’t say we couldn’t go out of the apartment, just the building itself. Maybe we can call around, get a group, and all go up on the roof to the terrace and hang out.”

“Nah.”

J.J. slowly rolled over onto her stomach, scrunching a couch pillow under her chin. “Duncan and his crew smoke weed. They’ll be doing it, and even though we won’t, we’ll be smelling like it when we come back in. Even if we take a shower and wash our hair, we run the risk of the Duchess catching a whiff from somewhere, from our dirty clothes in the hamper or something, and then we’ll be through for real. Leave Duncan and them where they are. We’ve already had one close call so far, fooling around with him.”

“Damn, J., we’re in Manhattan, home alone, and we’re stuck in the house. If we were in Los Angeles, we wouldn’t be home.”

“Yes, we would. It would be considered a school night, and we would be in the house just like we are now. There’s only so much we can do. Let’s see what’s on TV.”

“I don’t feel like TV. There’s never anything good on during the week. They don’t show the hot sex movies on cable until the weekend.”

J.J. lifted her head, that one eyebrow raised high. “You know, they say doing that makes you go blind and it gives you sticky fingers.”

Marnie was unfazed. “Only guys go blind when they do that, J.J. Hart. Girls get hair on their hands. And just how would you know about ‘sticky fingers’? Besides, I don’t get off on the hot movies. I just look at them for reference, you know, to get tips to maybe use later.”

After they got past the snickering, J.J. rolled over again and sat up. “I’m going in my room to call Teddy and talk to him.”

“Oh, talking about sex movies, going blind, hairy hands and sticky fingers brings Teddy to mind?”

“Forget you, Marn. I just need to warn him about Pa.”

“What about your grandfather?”

“When Teddy gets to Briarwood, Pa is going to call him into his study and give him hell about me. Teddy might as well be forewarned.”

“Good looking out, J.”

Marnie came to the couch and sat down on the other end. “But call him later. You’ll have enough time to talk to him, feel him up, and for him to get sticky fingers when he comes to see you in Maryland.”

Shocked, J.J.’s mouth fell open, much to Marnie’s obvious delight.

“For your information, his hands won’t be anywhere below my waist. Or anywhere below my neck. And it’s for sure that I am not going to feel him up. ”

“Whatever. If it was me with Chance, I would. But don’t call Teddy now. If you do, then I won’t have anything to do. The twins are at their cousins’ in the hills, and they all went out tonight, so I can’t call Chance right now. Let’s go downstairs. Maybe we can find something to get into down there.”

“Yeah, all right.”

J.J. swung her legs around and slid her feet into her house slippers. “Cordelia’s not here. She’s off ogling greasy, gyrating men with the rest of them. I saw earlier that she had some of those gourmet chocolate chip cookies down there. With the macadamias. I love those, and the Duchess isn’t here to regulate things, talking about sugar and calories and carbs and chocolate, like somebody gives a rat’s patoot.”

“You’re gonna have zits for the wedding pictures, J., messing around and sneaking chocolate chip cookies. You know what chocolate does to your skin.”

“I’ll take my chances. I’ll eat the cookies and then drink lots of water to flush the bad stuff out afterward.”

In the kitchen, after raiding the refrigerator, the girls decided on cold chicken sandwiches in lieu of the cookies. In keeping up appearances at the luncheon that afternoon, neither of them had eaten very much. The others had gone out for dinner; the chicken and a salad had been left for them. J.J. took out the chicken, but completely ignored the salad.

“Toast the bread, J. I like mine toasted.”

“Then put the bread in the toaster.”

“You know I can’t cook.”

“Marnie, that’s not cooking. You are so spoiled. Such a diva. Just put the bread in the slots of the toaster and push down on the lever; you can’t do it wrong. I have to slice the meat.”

“All right, J., but you explain it to Pat when she comes back and finds her house burned down.”

When they had it all together, they sat on stools at the island counter, washing their snacks down with milk.

After a few swallows, Marnie held her glass aloft. “Should be bourbon. But Pat marks her bottles, and I think she’d notice if I used water to get it back to the line.”

J.J. laughed at the notion. “For sure she would detect any dilution of her signature drink. I don’t know how you two drink that and drink it straight. I prefer rum, the good kind like Daddy drinks. It goes down smooth. Brandy is good, too. The Duchess prefers brandy. Don’t mess around and become an alkie, Marnie.”

The disgust came through loud and clear in Marnie’s response. “No chance. The last person I want to be like is my stepmother. She’s enough to keep anybody sober. Can’t even see her own kids because she’s too far gone to stay her ass in rehab. My grandmother has an injunction in place where she can’t see Brett and Mikey unsupervised, and she can’t see them at all if she comes around them sloshed.”

“That’s so sad. Poor kids. How many times has Karen been to see your father?”

“I don’t know. A couple of times. Maybe even three, I’m not sure. I don’t keep up with that. She mostly stays in Texas now to try to be near the boys. The last time she went to see Daddy, I’m told she showed up drunk and started arguing with my mother who gladly had security remove her from the building.

“Then my grandmother tried to put Karen in rehab in Texas to keep her closer to the kids, but it was one of those six month, intensive things, and Karen quit after only about two weeks. Personally, I don’t think she can be saved. You have to want it, and I don’t really think she does. My father is probably going to divorce her, and then Grandma Lillie will keep the boys until Daddy is well enough to get them back. If he gets divorced, though, she just might keep them, period. They’re doing pretty well there. Brett and Mikey need my grandmother’s kind of structure, and it’s going to be a while before Daddy’s going to be well enough to keep them in line.”

J.J. was still shaking her head over the situation. “Even though I think kids need their mother, there are definite exceptions.”

“How well I know about that.”

When the girls’ eyes met; something unspoken, but girlfriend-familiar passed between them. J.J. understood completely that Marnie knew about such exceptions.

“Pat loves having you here. Despite her issues, I can see it in her eyes.”

Marnie’s cheeks colored with her small, appreciative grin. “I hope so. I love being here with her. I need her. Since I’ve been here, it’s like- well, I feel better. I don’t worry about things so much. I’m not as scared about things.”

“You were scared before you came here? I never knew that. I mean, I knew you were worried about your father, but scared? I never suspected.”

Marnie shrugged. “I don’t need to sleep with a night light any more. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really realize that I was so scared about things until I got here and had so much quiet time to think. And had so much-”

“So much what?”

For a moment, Marnie’s face contorted as she appeared to be trying to come up with the right word.

“Security, I guess. See, during the day, Pat calls from work to see how I am. She checks on me where ever I go and she checks in with me when she goes places. She makes me say how long I think I’m going to be when I leave, and funny enough, I want to check in with her when I’m out. Even though I’m being home-schooled, I have to dress as if I’m going out to school- ‘business casual’, she says.  I have to have my schoolwork done before I can goof off, and she looks it over and questions me about it to make sure I really know the stuff and that I’ve done my best. On Saturdays, after we sleep in, she takes me to breakfast. She has that table in the back at the Brasserie, and they treat her like royalty, so I get the royal treatment, too. Then we shop for a while, and go to a late lunch at some other real nice place since that’s Cordelia’s day off.”

J.J. smiled. “Aunt Pat does make New York fun. She’s always taken me to nice places whenever I’m here.”

Marnie nodded. “Yep. I just love it. I also love how Pat doesn’t sweat me about small things, but that she’s all over me about the big things, like grades, how I carry myself, and the things I choose to do. She even likes to talk with me. You know me; I can talk twenty-four-seven, but I understand that she works hard during the day, all on the phone and dealing with people face-to-face, all of them on her nerves; so I go in the car to pick her up, but I try to stay out of her way once she gets home. But even when I think she might be too tired to be bothered, she’ll come find me and ask me about my day, what I’m into, what’s on my mind. I guess what I’m saying is, she cares, but she cares in a way that I like. And then, too, I care about her. I just wish I knew what’s wrong with her. I hope it’s not anything bad.”

Finishing her first sandwich, J.J. began assembling a second one with the sliced meat they had left over. “Me, too. She was putting up a good front with her friends today, but I could tell. So could my mother. I was watching both of them.”

“Speaking of your mother, did the Duchess come up to see you last night after Marcia left?”

“Yeah. We hadn’t had a whole lot of time to get together with all that had gone on yesterday afternoon, so she came up to see me. I have to tell you, though, while we were talking together, it was kinda hard not to picture her in that fur coat.”

“Which one, the sable she was naked under or the white simulated one in the photo album that she was naked under?”

“Both.”

It was a few minutes before their laughter subsided they were able to get back to eating and talking. Marnie dreamily sighed over her plate. “I had so much fun today. Authors, politicians, business people, you name it. I’ve met so many important people in the last couple of months. Pat knows everybody, it seems.”

“Yeah, she does. I’ve met a lot of people through her. But then she’s lived in New York all of her life; she was born on Long Island and has lived in Manhattan for decades. It stands to reason that she’d be acquainted with the ‘Who’s-Who’ here. Heck, she’s one of them.

“I know. I really love all the networking and what-have-you.”

“I saw you. You were in your element with the New York hoi-polloi today. They liked you, too. Well, you can have all of that. Too much posturing and pretense for me. I have a harder time with that than you. I’m always afraid that somebody is going to see through me and peep out my boredom with it all.”

“Say, speaking of people, I was thinking, and I’ve been meaning to ask you. Did you know Uncle Bill’s son, T.J.? Do you remember him, J.?”

“Not really. I was way young when he died in the crash. Maybe like three or four. Peter is the one who’s always been in my life.”

“T.J. didn’t have a wife, kids?”

“I’m told that he was really into his planes and McDowell Aviation operations. Then, too, he was still relatively young when it happened, so I guess he just hadn’t gotten that far in his personal life yet. All Uncle Bill’s grandkids come from Peter.”

“So tell me about Donovan, J. What’s he like?”

“To be honest, it’s kind of hard for me to say. I’ve known him all my life, too, so he’s more like a cousin to me, not a real boy. I’m surprised you haven’t met him already.”

“I’ve only met Peter and the older sons, Billy, and Tom. They were in Maryland, visiting Uncle Bill once when I went with Pat to check on some work they were having done to the house. Shane and Donavan were still in school, so they couldn’t come.”

“Well, it’s kind of like Peter has two sets of kids. Billy is twenty-three and Tom is twenty-two. Then Donovan and Shane are seventeen and eighteen. Shane is in his first year of college and Finn is a senior in high school. The first two are very close, and Shane and Finn are tight with each other.”

“Why do they call Donovan ‘Finn’?”

J.J. snickered a little. “You’ll have to ask him that when you see him. He likes to tell people that story himself. Looking at him objectively, though, I guess he is kind of cute and he’s definitely lots of fun.”

She then reached to finger the heart charm dangling from the Tiffany bracelet flashing on Marnie’s wrist.

“But remember, Marnie Elaine Benson, no matter how cute and nice he might be, he is just your escort for this wedding. Your heart- and this one– belongs to Chance. Don’t forget that. You were all bent out of shape when he took that Emily to a dance. Now you’ve been hooked up with Finn, but it’s only for the occasion. You watch yourself all the other time that we’re in Maryland with him.”

“You watch yourself in Maryland, Justine Jennifer Hart. You haven’t seen Teddy since the summer. He’s probably even cuter now.”

“I don’t have to watch myself. I’m not hot and fast. You are. You said so yourself.”

Marnie narrowed her eyes and lifted her chin. “Truth or dare, J.”

J.J. stiffened and braced herself. “You know I’m going to have to take the dare. I’m not agreeing to answer one of your nosy, risqué questions, especially as we’re discussing boys.”

“All right then. Go in the cold storage closet, get that sable your mother was wearing the other night, and put it on. I get to take your picture in it.”

“You’re crazy! Pat will kill me- and you- because if I get caught, I’m implicating you in this. I won’t be going down alone.”

“Don’t claim getting caught. Isn’t that what you always tell me? Besides, Pat’s not here, the Duchess isn’t, and neither is Cordelia. It’s just us, you and me, for hours, and by the time they do get back, they’ll all be wasted and tired. Go on. Get the coat. I’m going to get the camera.”

J.J. slowly slid from her stool, gathering the dishes they had used. “How do you come up with this stuff for dares, Marn?”

“Very easily, thank you. I’m fast and hot.”

_________________________________________________________

Despite the music, the attractive, delectable young male exhibit gyrating on the small stage and runway for her benefit and the hilarious primal reactions of her otherwise mature, educated, dignified peers, Pat found herself tired and largely disinterested. At another time in her life, she might have been right with the others, catcalling, flashing bills, and paying for table and lap dances in the privately booked venue. But, mentally worn out from keeping up her game face for most of the day, all she really wanted to do was go home.

Thankfully, Jennifer was right by her side. Cool and collected as she sipped her drink and laughed at their animated friends, Jennifer hadn’t moved once from their table. In her own subtle manner, she had made herself the buffer between the two of them and the rest of the goings-on that day. When they arrived that night at the club Marcia had booked for the event, although the guest of honor should have been situated at its center, Jennifer had maneuvered it so that they were seated at the end of their table, thereby negating the chance of anyone- namely Marcia- seating themselves on her other side.

Keen intuition was one of the things she loved best about Jennifer. Over the years it had proven most reassuring. Jennifer might not understand, she might not agree with a position she’d taken, she might not have a clue about what was going on with her, but somehow she always knew when to come and that she should stay close when she got there. It had been no different in this instance. Despite having been at her most gracious and accommodating with their friends, Jennifer had really been looking out for her the entire time.

It made what she had decided to do that much more painful. Jennifer didn’t deserve it, but there was nothing else left to do. As soon as the opportunity presented itself….

As a surprise to her, Betsy and a group of her friends had come to the party. At the moment, they were even farther down front, standing at the rail, ogling the men, yelling, and dancing to the music. It should have been hilarious, but lately it was becoming increasingly difficult to find humor in anything. Even in Bill to whom she wanted to run, but at the same time the thought of him dampened her spirits even more.

“You all right?”

Jennifer was leaned over, pressed against her right shoulder, her eyes on the stage and the people standing around it, but her ear and her attention directed to her.

She leaned so that Jennifer could hear her over the din. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“Enjoying this?”

“The guys or the girls?”

“All of it. It’s been years since I’ve been in the midst of this much abject debauchery, Pat.”

“Me, too. But been there, done that- so many, many times. I’d be better served at home, curled up with a good book. Look at Marcia up there. She’s going to break a damned hip if she’s not careful.”

Marcia and a couple of the others at their table had gotten up with their drinks and joined Betsy and her boogying friends. A couple of the dancers were teasing them with pretending to remove their G-Strings as several eager hands reached way over the rail, the manicured fingers like sucking tentacles in search of prey as they shoved bills down inside the scraps of cloth the men wore over their private parts.

“If Betsy’s ticker is still bad, I guess we’ll be finding that out momentarily.”

“Let’s hope not, Pat. We’re all here for a good time, not a hospital run.”

“Then send someone to tell Marcia to sit her old behind down before we have to call emergency services to carry her to the coronary unit. She’ll be at the chiropractor in the morning for sure. Between this and whatever tricks she’s making Dave do this week, her back is going to be in need of a real good realignment.”

Jennifer laughed her great laugh, which under normal circumstances would have been contagious. “You are crazy, Pat. Let the girls have their fun.”

She and Marcia had done the same for Jennifer before she married Jonathan. That had been one wild night. In fact, the entire week before Jennifer’s wedding had been a time to remember. But back then, they had all been so young. So full of hope. World turmoil wasn’t as virulent or as close. Their lives were going reasonably well, and their futures lay bright and shiny before them. Back in those days, at that time in their lives, there was so much to celebrate.

As an added bonus, Jennifer’s aunt, Sabrina, had flown in and gone with them to that nightclub to see the male dancers where she made all of them look like prim schoolmarms. Later that night, it was rumored that she had infiltrated Jonathan’s bachelor party. Then she disappeared with Max and didn’t turn up again until the next morning. Talk about wild. Those had been very good days…

“Where’s the guest of honor?!”

The question shouted from the stage blasted Pat out of her brief drift into the past, landing her smack in the middle of the moment at hand. Coming down the runway was a naked- for all practical purposes- young man with his hand extended to her, beckoning for her to join him on stage.

Not in the mood, and thus horrified by the notion, she raised her hand to wave him off. Raucous chants from the crowd urged her to oblige him. She could hear Jennifer alone saying, “No, no!”, as she, too, attempted to wave him in the opposite direction.

Maybe he didn’t hear her over the shouts. Perhaps he couldn’t see the look of horror on their faces. Lip reading must not have been a skill he possessed. Or maybe he was just plain stupid. Whatever the case, he advanced, kept coming, kept calling for the “guest of honor” to join him in a dance.

Like hell.

He proceeded down the stairs, heading right to their table where he leaned across and reached to take hold of the hand she was using in her attempt to fend him off.

Inside Pat’s cold storage vault, J.J. marveled at her godmother’s extensive collection of furs. There were two whole racks of them, different types, textures, and colors in varying lengths and assorted styles. Something for every occasion and all of them soft and lovely. Snuggling her face into a full length red fox, she was reminded of the vault in the cellar at home.

Her mother also owned a large assortment of sumptuous fur coats and jackets, but for what she said were ethical reasons, she had stopped wearing them some years back. She abhorred the practice of killing animals for their pelts and had come to personally feel that it was wrong for her to wear them.

Secretly, however, J.J. did not completely share in that thinking. Like diamonds and good footwear, she loved furs. She, too, felt it was wrong to raise animals or to hunt them for that purpose. But what about those animals that had already given their lives for that cause before PETA began raising people’s consciousness on the matter? Before it became politically incorrect? It was as if the poor animals had been harvested or killed to be hung in a closet, out of sight, where nobody could appreciate their beauty at all. What a waste.

Aunt Pat didn’t seem to have a problem with wearing hers; many were the evenings she’d admired Pat’s look as she left home swathed in one. For a moment, J.J. wondered if the Duchess would feel differently about wearing hers if she lived in New York rather than in Los Angeles where the temps didn’t get so cold or where it didn’t get as snowy and icy as Manhattan in winter.

Probably not. She’s committed.

But the daughter loved them and had no problem with going down to the cellar to try the mother’s on and walk around in them. It was on one of those clandestine trips that she discovered the box with her dolls, the ones her mother had packed up and put away that unfortunate time when she was seven. The Duchess said that she wasn’t playing with them properly and didn’t deserve to have them. Whatever. It was nice to know that they and the furs would be there, properly preserved for future use.

Because it was November, the temperature in the vault had been raised some. Between April and October, it was kept much colder to preserve the pelts. If she had been in there a month earlier, she would have been too uncomfortable to able to take the time she was taking to look around for the one she wanted.

Foxes, beavers, Persian lamb, Tibetan lamb…

My favorite….

… chinchillas, minks….

Ah, here it is.

She folded open the sable to check for the monogram.

“JEJ,”. Jennifer Justine Edwards, this is it. This is the one.

Removing it from the hanger, she slid it right onto her arms and pulled it closed at her neck, reveling in the feel of it against her skin and as it tickled her nose. It felt sexy, like really feminine and pretty intimate lingerie, another of her passions, but the more private one.

In the full length tri-mirror, she admired herself in the coat from all angles. But the jeans she had on kind of skewed the image she was going for. So despite the cool of the room, she unsnapped the pants and kicked them and her slippers off.  After wrapping the coat around herself again, she pulled the band from her ponytail and shook her hair over her shoulders and down her back before returning to the mirror.

Oh, yeah….

She almost laughed as her mother’s facial features stared back at her. Even she could see that with her hair down and in that mode, she looked a whole lot like the Duchess.

The image of her mother with the fake fur draped down her back floated into her mind.

She removed the coat, slipped her sweat shirt over her head, and then pushed down the straps to her bra. She put the coat back on, where in the mirror she draped it low to reveal her bare shoulders. However, she couldn’t get it low enough on her back without the bra showing, so she took the coat off again and pulled the bra down around her waist. Putting the coat back on, she returned to the mirror. Holding the fur to her breasts she let it fall to reveal her bare, femininely muscled young back.

“White Fury, baby!” and a camera shutter clicked.

Startled, J.J. whipped around in the direction of the voice and the sound. “Marnie!”

“Girl, you are wearing the hell out of that coat. I am not lying. It looks real good on you.”

Digital camera held aloft, Marnie snapped another picture as J.J. stood there in shock, the coat clutched gripped tightly around her body.

“I told you before, J., when we did the cigar pics at school, you have the makings of a star. You’ve got the height and the looks.”

“And I told you then, you have the makings of a calculating press agent. I’ve fulfilled the dare. I’m done.”

Marnie came farther into the vault, checking out the coats and jackets on the racks. “I knew this was here, but Cordelia is always hanging out on this end, so I haven’t had a good chance to check it out. These are gorgeous. Pat certainly has good taste.”

She stopped at a clear-plastic covered three-quarter length jacket which she reached in to finger. “Damn, she even has an ermine. Look at this. My grandmother says that ermine is very hard to come by these days. Check out the color. Russian Summer.”

She pushed it back to get a good look at the whiskey-colored garment. “This is a vintage cut, so old fashioned that it’s back in style.”

Mesmerized, Marnie pulled it out from the plastic and off its hanger to try it on.

Amused at the sight of her tiny friend being swallowed by the attractive coat, J.J. came over to her. “Jeez, that’s supposed to be a jacket, but it’s practically full length on you. How do you know so much about ermine and vintage cuts ?”

Marnie had pulled the coat close to her body. “It sure feels good. My grandmother collects furs, too, and she’s taught me a lot about them- she bought me my first one when I was eight. She told me she always wanted an ermine, but she never got one. Seems they’re hard to come by these days, and they’re very expensive. Like anywhere from thirty to sixty thousand sometimes. This is an old, expensive coat.”

J.J.’s eyes widened. “Then take it off. We don’t want anything to happen to that.”

Marnie picked up the camera from the shelf, shoving it into J.J.’s hand. “Take my picture in it first. This may be the closest I ever come to wearing an ermine. Damn, this is nice. I feel like- like royalty; they do ermine. Like good Queen Bess, or since it’s me, Princess Di if she was still living. Wonder if she had one. I bet that bitch, Camilla is jockeying for it, if she did. She’ll have to have it let out, though.”

“Don’t be irreverent.”

While J.J. got the sable arranged to keep her nakedness from being exposed as she handled the camera, Marnie inspected the lining of the ermine. “R.McM.H.,” she read aloud. “Whose initials?”

Thinking on it for a moment, it came to J.J. “Rose McMurray Hamilton, Aunt Pat’s grandmother. That must have been her coat.”

Immediately, Marnie slid it from her arms and took great care to hang it back up, folding the plastic back over it. “I don’t mess with grandmothers, especially dead ones. I don’t think Pat would appreciate anybody farting around with that one.” She moved on to a lush beaver jacket a little way down from the ermine, pulling it from the hanger and putting it on. “Not an ermine, but real, real nice just the same. Take my picture.”

When she moved over to the mirror where the light was better, she stuck a pose and J.J. snapped her picture.

“Wait.” Marnie slid a small wooden bench over, closer to the mirror, and sat down on it, crossing her legs. But before J.J. could take her picture, she held up her hand. “Hold on.”

She got up and pulled down the slacks she had on, tossing them off to the side. Sitting down again, she partially reclined on the bench allowing the coat to open some to show off her shapely bare calves. “Now, J.”

Grinning at Marnie’s nerve, fully onboard with the caper, J.J. snapped the picture.

“I’m sending that one to Chance,” Marnie said afterward. “Give him something to think about on cold, lonely nights or the next time he tries to take Emily Whoever-The-Hell-She-Is to another damn dance.”

“You’d better not let Pat catch you sending it, you foul mouthed harlot.”

“What-damn-ever.”

Marnie shook out her hair and shifted positions to expose more leg. “Take this one.”

About fifteen minutes and a lot of goose bumps later, the girls emerged from the vault, dressed again, laughing, and with a memory card loaded with “White Fury” shots of both of them.

_________________________________________________________

Betsy must have seen what was happening and realized that it wasn’t good. In an instant, she and her group converged on the dancer at their table and somehow enveloped him, moving him away from Pat. Jennifer, a watershed of emotions overwhelming her, sat frozen in stunned silence for a few moments, her body still leaned protectively toward Pat.

“I have to go,” she heard Pat say before she felt her getting up.

“Pat! Where-”

“I just need some air.”

Before she could say anything else to her, Pat was squeezing through the tables of frenzied, imbibing women, moving away from her, heading toward the door to the lobby.

Stunned and strangely embarrassed, Jennifer remained where she was, sure that Pat would be right back after she got over whatever it was she was feeling. When she hadn’t returned in what felt like a reasonable amount of time, Jennifer got up to go look for her.

Pat wasn’t in the lobby, nor was she in the restroom. Upon inquiring at the coat check, she learned that Pat, talking into her cell phone while doing so, had redeemed her ticket and left via the front door.

“Jen, where’s Pat?”

It was Betsy, obviously having either witnessed Pat’s departure or having noticed that both of them were missing from their table.

“I- I don’t know, Betsy.”

“She didn’t want to be here, did she? I was getting a bad vibe off her the entire time.”

Jennifer sighed and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to think what to do. There was a major function going on inside, the guest of honor had absconded, and she was left to pick up the pieces.

Betsy gave her an out. “Go find her. She loves you. If something’s on her mind, if she’s upset, you’re the only one she’s going to tell it to.”

“But what about the party? What will I tell Marcia? She went to so much trouble to set this up. She’ll be so disappointed that Pat skipped out like this.”

Betsy took one of Jennifer’s arms, pulling it out and prying something under it. It was her purse. “When I didn’t see Pat come back, I figured her for being out of here. I saw you get up and leave, too. I grabbed your bag and came to find you.”

While Betsy was talking, she had been maneuvering Jennifer over to the coat check. “I’ll handle Marcia. That’s if she’s even noticed; she was otherwise occupied, as are the other girls. They’re all in there having a good time. You won’t rest until you find Pat. Go.”

Betsy phoned for a taxi while Jennifer took care of retrieving her coat. Sure that Pat had phoned for a taxi herself, she was leaving the limousine in which she, Pat, and Marcia had arrived for Marcia to have to get home once the party was over.

When the taxi arrived, the two women embraced, and Betsy kissed Jennifer’s cheek. “Find her, Jen. I have the strongest feeling in my heart that she’s got a lot going on.”

“I will, Bets. Be sure to make our apologies and thank Marcia for the very good time. Despite this, it really was a lot of fun. Tell her that we’ll see her in Maryland.”

They hugged again, and Jennifer braced herself to meet the cold as she hurried to the cab.

_________________________________________________________

J.J., better at domestic chores than Marnie stayed in the kitchen to finish tidying the counter and putting things away while Marnie went up to take her shower. Despite her careful attention to detail, J.J. figured that Cordelia would do the kitchen again once she got in. The entire house was Cordelia’s responsibility, but the kitchen was her personal domain. She said she could always tell when someone had been in her space, and it wouldn’t be right with her again until she put her own hands to it. But still, J.J. felt it was only proper that she at least make it look as if she and Marnie had respected being allowed to dwell there for a bit. It was another one of those things her mother had drilled into her head. The same principle applied at home with Marie.

“Having live-in help doesn’t mean you can’t help yourself, Justine. The word ‘help’ means ‘assistance’, ‘not beck and call’ or ‘do it for me’.”

That and…

“You don’t do things that jeopardize people’s livelihoods or make them harder than they have to be.”

For as far back as she could remember, she had always been expected to keep her rooms tidy and to clean her own bathroom. At the cabin, her mother had taught her to wash dishes and shown her how to keep a kitchen clean. Those skills carried over to home, where they usually got put into practice at those times where she found herself caught in one of her ‘loopholes’ or teetering at the short end of her mother’s patience. Most of her clothing went to the dry cleaner or to the professional laundry, but with her increasing need for privacy, she preferred taking care of those items that didn’t on her own. Marie understood that side of her, and had taught her exactly what to do. Watching Marie prepare meals and taking lessons from her, she had even become a pretty fair cook.

Better than my poor mother, at least. Jeez….

Cooking was something she enjoyed doing. Through all of it, though, she had learned that she really did prefer doing the more personal things for herself by herself.

Unlike Marnie, who wasn’t even sure about making toast, nor was she interested in learning.

Having been in the Duchess’ universe for eleven years, Marnie had picked up some domestic skills, but relatively speaking, she was still pretty pampered.

Keep hanging around Aunt Pat. You will know how to do some things. She doesn’t do them much herself, but she knows how, and she’s going to make sure you know how, too. You aren’t here only because she likes you.

Marnie had come out and said how much she had enjoyed living in New York with Aunt Pat. But J.J. could see and feel the other subtle changes in her friend, and that they were changes for the better. Although she was still mischievous and boy-crazy, Marnie seemed calmer about things in general. She appeared to be better able to move the more troublesome aspects of her life that weren’t within her immediate control farther away from her, where before, she often found herself squarely in the middle it all.

In the absence of all the turmoil, Marnie was finding another side of herself, a more giving and reflective side. Back at home, Marnie would never have taken the time out of her day to read to an old lady who couldn’t see, like she did with Mrs. Benedict. Before coming to New York, that kind of benevolence and personal extension didn’t appear to be a part of her makeup.

Although she was big on the social scene at the country club, it had taken an awful lot of talking to get Marnie to buy into involving herself in extra-curricular social or academic activities at school outside of helping to host the dances. The most likely reason she was on the advertising committee of the school newspaper and took part in running the girls’ track team was because in both those activities, she was in charge of them, which she continued to be from long distance. The year before, she had to be talked- practically forced- into joining the Honor Society when she was invited at the start of the tenth grade. Now she was a junior officer. For a long time, for Marnie, school was merely an obligatory part of being a kid. She had always done well in her studies, but that was mostly because the work, other than math, came easily for her, and also because it was a strong expectation of their social set.

As she gave the island counter a final wipe down, J.J. picked up the camera from where Marnie had left it for her and stuck it in the back pocket of her jeans. The plan was that once she got back upstairs, she would move the pictures they had taken with the furs from the memory card to the hard drive on her laptop where she had an excellent Hart Technologies program installed for photo shopping. She wanted to touch them up before transferring them to a CD for final storage. She and Marnie needed the memory cards in both their cameras freed-up for picture-taking over the holiday and at the wedding.

When she returned with the camera, Marnie had also brought down the album with the White Fury pictures of the Duchess. It still needed to be returned to Aunt Pat’s study. After washing out the towel, hanging it up, and then checking around the kitchen one more time, J.J. picked up the photo album and turned off the overhead light, leaving on the florescent over the sink area so that Cordelia would be able to see once she returned.

In case she’s lit. Don’t want her stumbling around in the dark, but the overhead light will be too bright if she is.

In the study, J.J. went to the set of shelves where Pat kept her huge collection of photo albums. It was floor to ceiling, as were the other shelves with all of her books. But the shelves with the albums had wooden doors, which closed them off from the elements in the rest of the room. Those doors had also kept Pat from immediately noticing that one of the 1980’s books was missing, although Marnie had mentioned that Pat had seen her take that one from the room.

Pat probably really didn’t notice Marnie taking it. At the time, according to Marn, she was with my mother, looking at the article on the computer about Daddy and me.

Inside the cabinet, the albums were arranged by the dates on their spines. J.J. slid the book she had back into the gap left by its removal. Then her eyes shifted upward to the books labeled “1976”, and as always, she was compelled to take that peek.

The rolling ladder was right there, so maneuvering it into place, she climbed up, pulled out the tome she sought, and climbed back down with it. Before sitting, she took the camera from her pocket to keep from crushing or damaging it and put it next to her on the couch. With the book on her lap, she opened it up to the pictures she had seen so many times before and that continued to draw her interest whenever she was at Aunt Pat’s and happened to go into that cupboard.

She had been thirteen when she first happened upon the pictures of her mother with Mr. Manning. Although the two of them, she and Pat, could talk about anything, that was a subject J.J. had not pursued with her godmother. Something about her tone and the abrupt change in her demeanor when she had asked about him that first time she saw the pictures, told her that this was an individual who had caused one of them, Aunt Pat or her mother- maybe both of them- huge stress of some kind. As such, for J.J., he had become a source of morbid fascination. Who was he exactly? What had his role been in their lives? What had he done to one of them or both of them?

Aunt Pat had a well-deserved reputation for being a meticulous archivist, a by-product of being a publisher, J.J. guessed. Each album was dated. Each photo or group of photos in her books were labeled with names, dates, locations and any other pertinent information that might be lost if left solely to human memory. The photos with Manning went back to late 1974, into early 1976. Based upon the content of the shots and the body language of the subjects, Manning appeared to have been a serious boyfriend of her mother’s, although she had never heard either of her parents ever mention him in her presence. Neither of them spoke very much about their pasts, especially not about their past personal business with her, but she was very well acquainted with Ms. Nikki and her family in Monte Carlo.

She was aware that at one time in their lives, the Greek heiress, Ms. Nikki Vignon nee Stephanos and her father had once been an exclusive couple. Through pictures and one extremely unfortunate recent circumstance at a Mission Street ball, she knew of a few men that her mother had dated before meeting her father. Her parents had been older when they met, so it stood to reason that both of them had come to the relationship with past baggage that might need to be unpacked from time to time, but not once had the name Elliott Manning come up around her. Not with anyone. Not with her parents, Pat, Marcia, Pa- nobody. Not one mention. If there was a year’s worth of pictures of Mr. Elliott Manning with her mother, he must have been an important part of her life at one time, and that time hadn’t been very long before she met and married Jonathan Hart.

Over the years, after a lot of dot-connecting and supposition, she had built a scenario for herself.

In the pictures, Mr. Manning was an extremely handsome man, and judging by the pictures, he and her mother had been very close at one time. Certainly lovers. Judging from the scenic backgrounds of the shots, he was Australian or he at least resided there at the time that they were together. Some of the pictures of them were taken in the outback. Others were at what appeared to be a reserve, a game reserve. Some were taken in a house, a huge house for the rural area in which it appeared to have been located. There was tropical-like foliage and lots of animals. Of course, the Duchess, a lover of animals and wildlife, would have been drawn to all of that- and to the man.

He was dark with thick dark hair, dark eyebrows, a moustache and a beard. In a weird sort of way, she could see her father’s looks in him, or maybe even some Uncle Bill. They all were good-looking, men with distinctive dark features. All of them had a hint of ruggedness about them, Manning and Uncle Bill more overtly so than her father who was a bit more suave and polished than the other two. But unlike Daddy and Uncle Bill, there was something kind of sinister that emanated off the page to her from Manning.

She had always sensed that hint of danger as she looked at the pictures of him with his arm around her mother’s waist or holding her hand… as he smiled up at her from behind the clear plastic that separated his image from her touch. It was something that wasn’t quite right.

In the pictures she had in front of her, the ones from early ’76, there was something also not quite right with her mother’s eyes. The mouth smiled for the camera, but the eyes did not. Her mother might not have shared a lot with her about her personal life, but there was one aspect to the woman with which her daughter had become intimately familiar- the many moods and definitive shades of those expressive, honest eyes. In those old pictures before her, J.J. could see that they were dull, unsmiling, guarded, and not readable at all.

As she turned the pages that depicted the life of the pretty, footloose, globetrotting young woman who existed before Jennifer Hart, J.J. Hart was left with the same questions she always asked the pictures in that book.

What happened? What did he do to you? Did he hurt you? How come nobody ever talks about this joker? Where is he now? Do I need to look him up, too, one day?

Then she thought about how oddly funny it was that she and her mother seemed drawn to the same physical features in a man: tall, dark, on the tough side in some way, and well put together. Even that Andy Seagren, the one she knew about, the man who had attacked her mother at the ball, despite his having lost his mind in doing what he did, had also been tall, dark, and physically fit for his age.

Good bod and good butt. I may not be in love with a particular man right now, but I know what I love in my men.

The chime beeped once, indicating the arrival of the elevator. With the house so quiet, it’s sudden magnified sounding startled J.J. into jumping, causing the photo album to slide from her lap, but she managed to stop it before it hit the floor. Not wanting to be caught looking at that particular set of pictures by Aunt Pat, and really not wanting to be seen with them by her mother, she snapped the album closed. Scuttling up the ladder to put it back, she hustled down again and shut the cabinet doors. She was on her way out of the room when her mother rushed in from the front hall, immediately grabbing her by the hand and dragging her back inside.

“Is Pat here?”

“No. Why? I thought she was with you.”

“I’m glad you’re already in here. Keeps me from calling you down or from getting a screwdriver from the kitchen and wasting precious time trying to do the job myself while ruining the desk. I need you to open that drawer.”

“Do what?”

Surprised and at the same time, confused, J.J. was pulled over to the desk and plopped down into Pat’s chair. “Open it so that she can’t tell that it’s been opened. I’m sure that your father has shown you how.”

Eyes widened with shock, J.J. protested, “I can’t do that! Aunt Pat would kill me if she found out that I broke into her desk. Where is Cordelia? If she sees me in here, Cordelia will tell Aunt Pat for sure. You just told me the other night not to even think ab-”

Jennifer switched on the desk lamp so that J.J. could better see the job she had ordered her to perform. “Forget about what I’ve told you. This is an emergency. I need you to get that drawer open. NOW.”

“But-”

“But nothing. Do it.”

J.J. checked out the lock, feeling at it with one hand while she held up the other. “Nail file. The metal one.”

Already digging in her purse, Jennifer located the utensil and placed in J.J.’s palm much like a medical nurse assisting a surgeon. “File.”

J.J. went to work, talking as she slid the point into where it needed to go. “What’s happening, Mom? What’s going on?”

“Pat’s taken off. I don’t know where she went, and I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She got upset and left. I need to find her, but I have to have somewhere to start. I need some idea of what’s wrong so that I can get a line on where to look. Like you, I believe the answer is in this drawer.”

“Did you try her cell?”

“She wouldn’t answer.”

“Did you try Hamilton House?”

“I don’t think she would go there. Not now. Not after 9/11.”

J.J. nodded in agreement. “Where’s Cordelia?”

“Probably right behind me once she finds out that Pat’s left.”

“Where were you guys when she took off on you?”

“At a nightclub, and that’s all I’m going to say about that, so don’t start pushing for details. You just hurry up and do what I’ve told you to do.”

“What’s going on?” Marnie, dressed in her bathrobe and slippers, her hair wet from her shower, entered the study. “I thought I heard the chime.” Then her eyes went wide. “J., are you breaking into the desk? Aunt Pat is going to rip you a new one.”

“I was ordered to do it.”

“Mrs. H.?”

There was a small pop and J.J. slid the drawer partially open. She stopped it, holding it closed enough to keep anyone from getting their hand inside. “Are you sure you want to do this, Mom?”

“No, I don’t want to, but I have to, J.J. This is about Pat.”

It was Marnie who pulled J.J.’s arm back, which allowed the drawer to roll open all the way. “If she’s saying to open it, do it, J. Your mother wouldn’t be telling you to break in there if it wasn’t important.” Then she turned to Jennifer. “What’s happened? Is Aunt Pat all right?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll both be better when I find out what’s going on, Marnie.”

J.J. pointed to the envelope lying on top of the other neatly arranged papers. “That looks like what I saw her looking at.”

Jennifer removed it and went over to sit on the couch. The girls watched as she first checked out the return address and then pulled out the letter inside, holding it underneath the light of the lamp on the side table to read it.

“Jesus,” she murmured before sitting back and closing her eyes. “I knew it.”

Marnie moved closer to J.J. who remained in the chair. Both pairs of young eyes riveted to the woman on the couch.

“What is it, Mom?” J.J. whispered.

“Is it something really bad?” Marnie asked, her hushed voice laced with a tone of dread that caused J.J. to wrap an arm around her waist.

“I don’t know for sure.”

Jennifer sat forward again, using her free hand to brush the windblown hair back from her brow. “Listen, I think I have an inkling where she might have gone. I’m going there and look for her. If I’m not back with her by morning, I want you two to go on to Maryland as planned.”

“Without you and Aunt Pat? I don’t want to go until we know that she’s okay.”

“Me neither, Mrs. H.”

Jennifer shook her head. “No. Cordelia will be here. I’ll get in touch with her, let her know what’s going on, and she’ll get you to the plane. I’ll feel a lot better if you two are at Briarwood with Pa. J.J., I’ll phone your father and fill him in. I know that he’ll want the two of you in Maryland with him.”

“What will you tell Uncle Bill, Mrs. H.? How’s he going to feel about her taking off?”

Again Jennifer shook her head, but this time J.J. could clearly see that it was from being overwhelmed. She stood up and taking Marnie by the arm, they went to her.

“We have this, Mom,” she said, placing a hand on Jennifer’s shoulder. “You go look for Aunt Pat. Marnie and I will take care of our part. You can count on us. If you’re not back in the morning, we’ll phone you when we’re getting ready to leave for the airport. We know what two for one is like. You and Aunt Pat have been modeling that concept for us for a long time. Just promise us that you’ll be careful. It’s night and this is New York.”

J.J. bent down and brushed a kiss to her mother’s cheek. “I love you, Mom. It’ll work out.”

For once, Marnie kissed Jennifer, too. “I love you, too. Mrs. H. Find her, and tell her that I love her and I need her to come home.”

After bidding the girls goodnight and watching them go, Jennifer pulled out her cell to summon Davis. With it being so late, she hated to bother the man, pulling him away from his family to drive her, but without a car of her own, she needed a driver she could trust. In light of the nature of her mission, she didn’t think he would be too upset about it.

After talking with Davis and securing his services, she rang Jonathan. Just the sound of his voice was reassuring. He offered to come and assist her or to get the girls himself, but she told him it wouldn’t be necessary. When or if she found Pat, she would need to be alone. and it was already set up for the girls to get to Maryland. Cordelia was more than capable of supervising that, and both girls were seasoned travelers. When Jonathan said that he would tell Bill about it himself, she was grateful, but she asked him to wait until he heard back from her before he did. If Pat was where she thought she might be, then it might not be necessary to worry Bill any more about her than he was.

It was after ending that second phone call, while looking at the letter a second time, that she realized she had been sitting on something. Rising up a little, she found the item to be a small digital camera. She started to put it on the table, then she recalled that when she arrived, J.J. had been on her way out of the study- sort of rushing out of the study. J.J. and Marnie used digitals. Pat still favored her trusty 35mm over those. It had to be J.J. or Marnie’s camera.

But why would J.J. have a camera in here? What would she and-or Marnie be taking pictures of in the apartment?

She didn’t have time to check it out at the moment, but there would be time in the car. Instead of putting the camera on the table, she slipped it into her trench coat pocket. The letter, she carefully slipped back into Pat’s drawer, placing it back in the same spot and in the same position as she had seen it when she pulled it out. Then she slid the drawer back closed, satisfied to hear the lock engage when she did.

Light Fingers, Jr. is good. Scarily good. But then, why wouldn’t she be? She attends the best school with the finest instructor… has perfect attendance… hasn’t missed a single session….

Patty.

Taking up her purse, fighting back tears, she headed for the elevator.

 Continue to Part Six

 

 

 

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