When the elevator doors opened, the teenager Pat was expecting to find inside smiled at her.
“Hi, you weren’t waiting for me, were you?”
Pat eyed the girl in the baggy gray sweats from the top of her head to the tips of her white sneakers and back again. When J.J. attempted to step off the elevator car and go past her, Pat caught her by the hand, stopping her in the cavalier tracks she was trying to make.
Laying her palm along the too-rosy cheek, Pat assessed with a nod, “Um-hum, cold. Just as I thought.” Then she smoothed a hand across the top of J.J.’s head and used her fingers to investigate the red topknot. “And with your hair wet, too. Justine Jennifer Hart, where in the world have you been?
The answer was a casual, “No place really.”
J.J. eased herself loose and moved into the living room where she sat down on the couch, leaving Pat close to impressed by her outward calm. J.J. had to suspect that she had been missed, and that her investigative godmother would be displeased with not being able to find her. But from all outward appearances, the girl didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the potential trouble she might be in.
For a moment, astounding even herself with it, Pat found J.J.’s coolness mildly intimidating.
But then she caught herself.
She took a seat not quite next to J.J. on the couch, but close enough to be able to reach that slender young neck should the need arise.
“You’ve been outside,” she said. “Where did you go?”
J.J. sighed and took her time in answering. “After last night, the cross-country plane ride this morning, lunch, and the workout, I just really needed to breathe some fresh air. So, after I checked out of the gym, I went for a short walk and some coffee. You didn’t hem Marnie up and make her tell you where I was, did you? She didn’t have anything to do with it, honest. She had no idea I was taking off. I know it’s two for one, but she really didn’t deserve to get third-degreed over this.”
“Don’t think I didn’t start to work her over, but then I heard the elevator coming up and changed my mind. It was probably for the best. Marnie would only have lied to cover for you and made me angry. J.J., you told me you were going to the gym. From whom did you get permission to leave the building? This is New York, not Los Angeles.”
Shifting her eyes to her lap and beginning to twist that emerald ring, J.J.’s voice was soft, but Pat could hear something in it that she hadn’t ever heard before. It wasn’t quite defiance, but it wasn’t deference either.
“They’re both kind of one and the same if you think about it, Aunt Pat. You have to watch your back in both places. And I didn’t go far. Just a couple of blocks to this coffee house that-”
At the hesitation and the flicker of uncertainty, like a Doberman on a scent, Pat cocked her head. “That what?”
“Nothing. I just went a couple of blocks, that’s all.”
“Um-hmmm. Well if it was all so innocent and just a couple of blocks, then why didn’t you call and let me know you were leaving? You know full well how I feel about not being kept abreast of where you are when you’re here with me.”
“It was spur of the moment, and when I left, I didn’t intend to be gone very long.”
Pat shut her eyes for a moment to close out the sight of J.J. using her hands as she explained herself, looking too much like Jennifer in the process and thereby threatening to smooth down the jagged edges of her irritation.
“Spur of the moment or not, J.J., you keep a phone with you all the time; you have me on speed dial. And without a coat or a jacket? Try again.”
After a second heavy sigh, J.J. straightened her shoulders and sat up. “Okay, I ran into Duncan in the lobby, and he invited me to go for a coffee with him. Like I said, I wanted some air, and it had stopped raining, so I went. He lent me his coat with the hood so I wouldn’t be cold and my head would be covered since my hair wasn’t quite dry from my shower.”
“Duncan! Sinclair?? I know good and well that Marnie told you how I feel about that boy.”
“Marnie did tell me, Aunt Pat, but may I say something? Please? Promise you won’t get mad?”
When J.J. focused those eyes on her face, Pat again felt that odd twinge of a subtle something changed in the girl. Despite the fact that she increasingly looked so much like Jennifer, J.J. had always had Jonathan’s intense blue stare coupled with his strong will and quiet, but fierce determination. But now there was something else, something that she couldn’t readily pinpoint, and whatever it was, it was radiating from J.J. over to her.
But Pat was not one to be backed down by anybody, much less a child, no matter how strange the vibration she was picking up from her.
“Justine Hart, you can say whatever you like, but I am not about to sit here and tell you beforehand that I won’t get angry over it. I believe that I’ve made it very clear how I feel about Duncan Sinclair being with my girls.”
“Then I’ll just have to take my chances,” J.J. quietly ventured, as she rested her arm on the back of the couch and drew up one long leg, sliding it underneath her body. In turn, Pat folded her arms and sat back.
“Aunt Pat, may I please ask you why you feel like that about him? Is it because he’s bad, or wild? Is he unintelligent, dirty, or rude and disrespectful? Or is it only because he looks funny to you? Has he done something in your presence that you don’t approve of, or is it because he appears to be into something of which you don’t approve?
Pat’s head jerked backward as if she’d been struck in the forehead by some small but accurate missile; it didn’t quite hurt, but it made its mark. Even after she stopped speaking, J.J. continued to stare at her as she waited for a response, squeezing from Pat the only thing she could come up with at that moment.
“Duncan told me that he knows you don’t like him even though the two of you don’t know each other that well. He said you told him that he should stay away from Marnie once she got here. When he was telling me about it, he specifically asked me how a publisher could judge a book by its cover. I thought that was a pretty good question, and I wondered if that was what you were doing with him. I really hope it wasn’t. I mean, you’ve always told me to go beneath the surface, both in my writing and in my dealings with people. In my eyes, you’ve never been a person not to practice what she preaches.”
It was Pat’s turn to stare. J.J. was growing up, not just physically and mentally, but evidently, socially, as well. That had to be what had the girl coming at her in that manner, asking her hard questions for which she was having an equally hard time coming up with answers.
“You can tell me if I’m getting on your nerves, Aunt Pat. If you’re having him stay away from us because he’s a problem, I can understand that. But, if it’s only because he looks weird to you…” J.J. shrugged and threw up her hands. “I mean, he’s always been right by me. I’ve never had a problem with him any time I’ve visited here. To each his own, I say, in terms of how a person chooses to dress or live his life. I can still like the person even though I might not particularly like how they look or approve of the things they might do or the life they choose to lead. I don’t have to do what they do when I’m with them; I’m not that easily influenced. He’s an artist, it turns out; I guess that’s spilling over into his personal expression, too.”
After silently studying her godchild a few seconds longer, Pat finally fanned her hand in shooing fashion. “Go upstairs and dry your hair before you catch cold, and the next time you feel you need some air, let me know where you’re going to get it.”
When J.J. got up, Pat followed her with her eyes until she left the room.
Engineer, my ass, Jonathan. That is barrister material, for sure.
Marnie was waiting at the top of the stairs, a plush Hello Kitty clutched so hard to her midsection that it’s head and legs stuck straight out. When J.J. was close enough to hear what she said, her whisper was urgent.
“What happened, J.? I was on my way down, peeked around the corner, and saw her waiting for you at the elevator. I knew you were dead, so I just turned around came on back up here. We’re supposed to go shopping tomorrow, you and me. Did she say anything about locking you down?”
J.J. pulled Marnie into her bedroom and closed the door. Inside the room, she went limp, falling backward onto the bed, patting her chest with one hand and fanning her brow with the other. Her words came in gasps.
“She was right there, Marn… when I came up from the lobby… She was… waiting for me, machete in hand, poised… and ready to strike. I played it off, but oh my God… I was not expecting to have to face her right off like that. Inside the elevator… I could see her shadow through the door; I knew I had to stay calm and think fast.”
“So what did you tell her? Did she lock you down?”
“No. I met her head on. I cut her off.”
“Cut Pat off? Da-a-a-amn, J. You are good.”
“I just spoke the truth. I simply told her I went out. I don’t think she was expecting that. I think she was looking for me to be dodging and hedging like I normally might do. In the end, when I was finished talking, all she said to me was ‘go dry your hair and call me the next time you leave here’.”
Marnie sat down on the bed, still hugging the doll. “You must not have told her about your being with Duncan.”
More composed by this time, J.J. rolled over onto her side to face Marnie. “Yes I did. I told her. Then I had to call her on being biased against him. Duncan’s really okay; I’ve known him for years. He looks kind of weird now, but weird is subjective. The rest of us might just look odd to him, who’s to say?”
“You told her that?”
“Not in those words, but basically, that’s where I went. Bottom line, Duncan has never bothered me or done anything out of the way to me. He’s always been very nice- for a guy.”
“She suspects he smokes weed.”
“So? A lot of people do, Marn. That doesn’t mean if we hang out with him that we’ll all of a sudden start getting buzzed. If that were the case, with all the people we know who do it, we’d have been indulging a long time ago. And if you think about it, Pat probably did a blunt or two herself back in the day; seeing as how she was all at Woodstock and everything. Maybe the Duchess did, too.”
J.J. stopped for a moment to look directly at Marnie, tapping a contemplative finger against her chin. “Now that’s a thought. You know, you’ll have to show me that Woodstock stuff you saw. But back to the subject at hand, no, I didn’t get locked down, fussed at, nothing. When she said I could go, though, you can believe I went. I came straight up here. What was that you said about shopping tomorrow?”
“Pat and your mother have to go to Long Island tomorrow to pick up Pat’s wedding dress. She has to have a final fitting. Then Pat said they have some business things they have to take care of. They were trying to take us with them, but I asked her if we could stay here and just go out to eat and do some shopping. I explained to her that you and I will only have tomorrow to do anything by ourselves. On Tuesday, Marcia comes, and you know we won’t be able to get out then. They have a bunch of stuff planned with their friends, and the Duchess will want you here to show you off to them. Then we leave for Maryland on Wednesday. She said we could stay here and go shopping on 5th if your mother agreed to it.”
J.J. rolled onto her back and folded her arms behind her head, smiling as the little voice inside whispered “Bingo!”
Maybe getting to Boston wasn’t going to take as much maneuvering as she’d thought it might.
Lulled by the soothing warmth of the sudsy, soft-scented water, Jennifer rested her head on the bath pillow, closed her eyes and relaxed. Despite its inauspicious start, the day had been wonderful. One of those romantic, passionate getaways that she and Jonathan weren’t often able to fit into their lives any more, but made the most of when they could. The last time had been a couple of months before, a cozy weekend spent in a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow. This time, it was a lovely, stolen afternoon in a Premiere Room at the Carlyle in Manhattan. But it was ending much too soon. To have been able to spend the night, locked away together and parting in the morning, would have been a better finish; however, that was not to be. He had a plane to catch, and she needed to get back to Pat and the girls.
As the memory of their “slowly and sweetly the second time” sent a shudder of delight through her body, she allowed herself to sink even farther into the water. There had been a third time, as well- one that had been mutually initiated and fully appreciated.
A line J.J. often used floated into her mind, making her smile in its appropriateness.
It’s all good.
J.J. would say it when things were right in her life. It had definitely been ‘all that’, another ‘J.J.-ism’.
Her Jonathan. What a remarkable man. Despite all their years together, he remained the physical lover he had always been, exciting, virile, but tender and considerate, sensitive to returning the pleasure he was receiving. And always ready for more.
So was she.
Was it supposed to be so good? Apparently, it was. That reporter/photographer/whomever that accosted Jonathan and J.J. on the night before could not have had the first clue about them.
She and Jonathan took great pride in their enduring romance, and were very protective of maintaining it. They understood that in the present day world, their happy and satisfied longevity was considered unusual, especially in the circles in which they existed. Promises were made and they had been kept. It was a good feeling.
At sixteen, still a child, but so old for her years. She, too, seemed to understand and appreciate that what her parents shared was special and was very much aware of the security she derived from it.
Jonathan said J.J. had been caught off guard by what happened, and that she had “crawled up his arm”. She knew that J.J. being startled had only been temporary- momentary at best. Once she got past it, J.J.’s surprise had likely turned to anger, making her ready to fight. Jonathan was worried about his baby, but his baby could take care of herself in that regard. If he hadn’t put her in the car, she might have been the one to snatch the camera from the man and slam it to the ground. J.J. safeguarded what was hers, especially when it came to her family, her inner circle, and her privacy.
It was clear as far back as kindergarten, when J.J. was first made to mix closely with other children, that she wasn’t afraid to defend herself or to stand up for what she felt was right.
Mrs. Hart, I’m afraid we had to put J.J. in isolation again. She hit another child so hard today that she left a bruise on her arm.
Talk about mortified. Since that time, there had been two other incidents of that nature. In her early years, while at still at home everyday with her and Jonathan, J.J. had been a sweet child. Always busy, in and out of everything, and full of questions, but never that kind of aggressive. She had never shown any signs of being violent or for having a propensity to attack anyone, especially without provocation.
Of course, back then it had taken Jonathan to get to the little ‘hart’ the matter.
When he got home from work, he called her down and sat her on his knee to talk with her.
“Tell Daddy what happened at school.”
She was nervous, her eyes flitting back and forth between her parents, her brow puckered by her distress, but she spoke right up. “I was doing bad fighting again. I beated up Mek’in.”
Listening in on father and daughter, she had been on J.J.’s other side. He looked over J.J.’s head to her. “Mek’in? What’s a Mek’in? The hell kind of name is Mek’in? Is that a boy or a girl?”
“Jonathan. The child is sitting right here, listening to you. It’s bad enough that she’s fighting all over the place. I won’t have her picking up bad language, as well.”
Focused on J.J.’s problem and apparently unaware of what he’d said, he brought his hand to his lips for a moment. “Sorry.”
“It’s Meg-han, Jonathan. Meghan, the Daniels’ little girl.”
J.J. nodded, her curly ponytail bobbing with the motion of her head. “That’s her, Daddy, Mek’in Daniels. She was bothering me while I was trying to read, but Miss Cathcart only saw me when I was hitting her. Miss Cathcart made me go to the Angry Chair, not Mek’in. Then Mommy came to pick me up, and she was angry at me for being in the Angry Chair again. But I wasn’ angry no more after I hit Mek’in. I don’t know why Miss Cathcart made me sit there.”
“She made you sit there,” Jonathan explained, “because you hit Meghan.”
J.J. rolled her blue eyes, sighed, and then looked away.
When Jonathan bit his top lip with his bottom teeth, it was evident that he was trying not to laugh. He didn’t care about J.J. fighting. In fact, she suspected he might have been proud of her for it, but fighting had established limits, even for him. “Tell Daddy exactly what happened. You didn’t hit her first, did you?”
J.J. quickly shook her head. “No I didn’ hit her first. See, it was story time, but I can’t do story time any more because Miss Cathcart told Mommy I was ‘ruptive. She says I ask too many ‘ruptive questions. So at story time I read the books Mommy sends with me, all by myself. I sit on the floor in the back so I won’t be ‘rupting the teacher or the other children while they do their story. First Mek’in was bothering my friend, so I whispered to her very quietly, to stop it.”
They had both been happy to hear J.J. mention having a friend. She had been in kindergarten for a few weeks, and the adjustment from being at home to starting formal schooling had been rough on her. She’d done quite a few things in an effort to be uncooperative and perhaps get sent back home, including hiding under a covered table in a seldom used corner, hiding behind the bushes on the playground, and refusing to speak English until threatened with a spanking that never would have happened- but she didn’t know that.
“Who’s your friend?”
“Her name is Marnie. She’s five years old, just like me. At story time, Mek’in was pulling her hair and calling her a “baby”. See Marnie is small, smaller’n Mek’in and me. I wasn’ going to let Mek’in bother her, so I told her to stop. Miss Cathcart wasn’ seeing her bother Marnie. Only me. Miss Cathcart was reading the story to the other children and not paying ‘tention. But I saw her. Mek’in hits and pushes Marnie all the time ’cause she’s small and ’cause Marnie gets in trouble lots.”
“Why does Marnie get in trouble?”
” ‘Cause I think Miss Cathcart doesn’ like her. Marnie’s not bad. She jus’ doesn’ have good manners. I think maybe her mommy didn’ teach her.”
They exchanged glances, but didn’t say anything at the time. It had been one of those “out of the mouth of babes” moments.
“Then Mek’in said if I wouldn’ let her bother Marnie, then she would fight me. I told her to try it, and if she did hit me, I would sock her hard as I could.”
Briefly stopping, she pursed her lips, made a mean face, and showed her father her balled fist. Then she continued with her story.
“She started hitting my book so I couldn’ read it right. Then she pulled it out of my hands. I got it back, but the page got torn. I was angry at her, but I didn’ say anything to her. Then she hit me, so that’s when I hit her the first time. She hit me again, so then I beated her all up. That’s when I had to go to the Angry Chair. Marnie tried to tell Miss Cathcart what happened, but she wouldn’ listen. She told Marnie to be quiet, Marnie said a very bad word to her, and then she put Marnie in Time Out. Marnie was only trying to tell her about Mek’in hitting me first, but Miss Cathcart wouldn’ listen.”
Then J.J. hung her head.
“Mommy says for me to do what the teacher tells me to do at school, and to not argue her. So I just went to the Angry Chair and sat down like Miss Cathcart told me. But I wasn’ even angry any more ’cause I had already made Mek’in stop bothering us. She told me I have to stop being so ‘gressive. I don’ know what ‘gressive is to stop being it, but Mommy said not to talk back, so I didn’ ask her what’s ‘gressive.”
“Um-hmm. She said, ‘You need to stop being so ‘gressive, Justine.” Then when Mommy came, she was angry at me for being in trouble again, but I didn’ argue her either or ask her ’bout ‘gressive. I just got my things and got in her car. Then I went to my room when she told me. Daddy, what’s ‘gressive? Is it bad?”
“Aggressive is being like Daddy- and Mommy, so no, it’s not bad.”
“Well, once you got home, why didn’t you try to explain to Mommy what happened like you’ve told me?”
” ‘Cause she didn’ ask me to tell her ’bout it like you did. She just said for me to go to my room. Daddy, I’m not a bad girl at school. When I get in trouble for hitting someone, they have hit me first, but I don’t tell on them like they tell on me. I just hit them back. But then they tell on me, and I get in trouble and have to go to Time Out and the Angry Chair.”
Completely miserable and close to tears, J.J. lay her head against Jonathan’s chest. “The children are mean, and they don’t like me. I don’t think Miss Cathcart likes me either, and I do have good manners. But I’m not going to let nobody beat me up, or Marnie. I don’t like school. Or Time Out. Or the Angry Chair. I only like Marnie. May I please just stay home? Mommy can teach me, and Marnie can come here and play with me.”
That father/daughter conversation had been a strong lesson for the mother in asking the right questions of J.J. and listening to her answers. The girl could be a pistol, but underneath that quick temper and within that mischievous, adventurous nature lie a deep well of personal integrity as well as a sensitive soul.
The next morning, leaving J.J. at home with her, Jonathan went by himself to meet with the teacher. Beyond saying, “I think things are worked out now. She’ll be all right.” he never elaborated on the details of what transpired at that conference. She had no doubt that Jonathan was anything less than his usual charming self, but underneath all that smooth diplomacy was a more serious, sharper edge to him that showed itself as it related to J.J. and her well-being. Most recently, it had been unsheathed that past summer when one of J.J.’s male acquaintances, a would-be admirer, wouldn’t leave her alone when she asked him to do so. That same switchblade defense mechanism had lashed out in Jonathan on the night before when he was with his child at the restaurant.
After that kindergarten meeting, J.J. soon began to enjoy going to school and learning in that setting, which had since evolved into a stellar academic career. And Marnie Elaine Benson had become a fixture in their lives.
A big girl now, J.J. still stood up for herself and for the things and people she believed in. She remained a fighter, but, to her mother’s relief, as she’d gotten older, the tendency had taken a less physical, more positive form. Marnie, for her part, was still “smaller’n” J.J., and out of deeply ingrained habit still said “bad” words, but with age, she’d become more restrained with it, at least in public settings, and she was learning to channel her hostilities and her frustrations, thereby spending less time in “Time Out”.
What, she wondered, were those two doing? Had they gotten into anything?
J.J. had only been in New York for a few hours, but that was plenty of time for one who it only took a couple of seconds to put her nose where it didn’t belong, slip off on her own without permission, or insert herself into some other mischief while sitting around Pat’s apartment with Marnie and little to do. The Devil’s nameplate was firmly tacked to the workshop that was J.J. Hart’s idle mind. Together again with Marnie after a two month separation, it was anybody’s guess what they might come up with for recreation or entertainment.
But then, they were with Pat. Not a whole lot got past Pat.
What was it, though, that Pat was trying to put past?
There was tomorrow’s trip to Long Island for her fitting and then the meeting to go over the final edits of their collaborative project. The girls would be with them, but she would have to somehow find some time alone with Pat to try to get her to open up. Something was bothering her; that was as obvious and as noticeable to her as that freak white streak Pat had always had in the front of her otherwise dark hair.
She opened her eyes to find Jonathan standing over her. “Dinner’s arrived. You’d better come on and eat. Then it’ll be time for me to get out of here and for you to go back to Pat’s.”
After soaping and washing her back and massaging her shoulders and neck, he helped her from tub. He assisted her in drying off, finishing it all with several well-placed kisses and a hearty hug before wrapping the hotel robe around her.
“Thanks,” he said as he tied the belt at her waist and then used it to playfully pull her body to his. “This has been simply great. Are you planning on riding out to the airport with me?”
“Of course, I am.”
“Then this robe will be between you and that fur, right?”
“Jonathan, are you suggesting that I steal from the hotel?”
“It won’t be stealing. You can return it in the morning, or we can call down and have them charge it to the room. It doesn’t matter to me as long as you’re in it when we leave here. I’ve already had one altercation this weekend over a female close to my heart. I don’t want to have to go through that again, but I will if it comes to that.”
“Easy there, big fella,” she said, laughing and patting him on his backside as they left the bathroom. “I thought we’d gotten that vitriol out of your system.”
“It’s just pushed back into its holding tank; and the tank’s never completely out. There’s Teddy yet to deal with.”
They sat down to the candlelit supper waiting for them on the table by the window.
Jennifer immediately began removing dish covers. “Ooh, I’m starving.”
Normally a light eater, after lovemaking her appetite was voracious. The fruit and cheese they’d enjoyed earlier had not been enough. When his knowing smile caught her eye, she blushed and smiled herself as she read the compliment reflected in his gaze.
“You are so beautiful,” he said aloud. “If I weren’t already married to you, I’d be proposing right now.”
She blushed even harder. “Thank you. And I would definitely be accepting.”
Reaching across the table, they held hands for a long moment before letting go and Jennifer spoke again, which brought them back to the matter at present.
“Jonathan, listen. When you do catch up to Teddy, go easy on him. You know him. You’ve interacted with him before. I think he’s proven himself to be a very nice, very responsible young man who simply enjoys J.J.’s company.”
“Jennifer, darling, none of that balances out the fact that he’s seventeen going on eighteen, and my daughter is sixteen going on gorgeous.”
When Jennifer “tsk’ed” at him, he frowned in dismissive response. “I’m serious. You should have seen her last night in that outfit and those heels. She gets dressed up and even though she’s mine, I’m noticing how pretty she’s getting to be. Now if I’m her Daddy and I’m seeing it, I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to assume that young Master Teddy’s mind is on it. He’s not breaking his neck to get to her simply because of her sparkling personality. Briarwood is a huge place. The horses will be there, and so will the stable and the loft, not to mention all the hidey-holes inside that huge house, and those way out on the grounds. You know full well that I have to talk to the boy beforehand to allow him to see the point of the stake I’ll be driving through his heart should something untoward happen during the course of his visit. And how did that happen, anyway? I’m just getting over his trekking all the way out to Los Angeles to find her.”
Jennifer had been fixing his plate from the assorted serving dishes on the table. After gathering a sample of everything, she passed the plate to him.
“She asked you, and she asked Pa if it would be all right for him to come while she was there, and both of you said that she should ask me. I told her that I thought it would be fine if he were her escort for the wedding. Darling, I really think you’re worried over nothing. J.J. is very responsible with boys, and I’ve told you, she isn’t interested in anything serious right now. Not even with Teddy. It takes two to tango, and J.J.’s not performing that particular step at this point in her life.”
“Well, neither is he,” Jonathan asserted as he touched wine glasses with Jennifer. “Not with her, at least. Not if I have anything to say about it, and I am saying something about it. That is one smooth character, I will give him that.”
Skewering a few asparagus tips with her fork from her own plate, Jennifer brought them to her mouth, but stopped, holding them aloft as she mused aloud, “You know Jonathan, I hadn’t considered Pa getting involved in this thing with J.J. and Teddy.”
She nodded as the thought wound its way through her mind. “With Teddy coming to Briarwood to see her, he’s probably going to get called in to talk with Pa once he gets there. The first boy to visit his Justine on his turf. And I’m thinking about how he feels about girls getting involved with boys when they’re young. Yes, I think Teddy is definitely going to be getting called into the study to speak with Mr. Edwards.”
A devilish gleam immediately flickered in Jonathan’s eye to match his impish grin. “Without a doubt. New, young blood for your father to work over? I can just see Stephen rubbing his hands together, waiting for his shot at that tender, green morsel. He hasn’t had an opportunity like that since he tried to do it to me. I can hardly wait. Teddy plays it pretty cool with me, but called in to speak with J.J.’s grandfather? And housed up the road with J.J.’s Uncle Bill? I guess on this round we’ll get to see just how good the boy really is.”
“Um, um, um,” she said, shaking her head. “Poor Teddy. All that assorted paranoid and defensive testosterone over one skinny little redhead, and all of it aimed in his direction.”
Not to mention that he is the son of the boy who once got caught in the loft at school with Pat.
But that part of it she kept to herself.
“Make a man out of him,” Jonathan replied as he dug into his meal, “in the long run. I’m just going to be making sure that in the short run, it’s not with my daughter.”
J.J. took her time getting ready for bed. Despite her earlier workout and leisurely evening, she was restless and still sort of edgy. It seemed the tension generated by the night before and her close call with Aunt Pat that afternoon hadn’t completely left her. Anticipation of the unauthorized “field trip” scheduled for the next day and seeing Teddy didn’t help that feeling any either.
It had taken some talking to get Marnie to play along. Marnie tended to look at such ventures from the more negative “what-if” aspect, whereas her own perspectives leaned more to the “why-not” side of things.
“I don’t know, J. This is pretty risky. Anything could happen. Hell, my father is in Boston.”
“With all due respect, Marnie, it’s not like your father is in a position to be rolling up on us or anything. I mean, in his present state, you have to admit, he is kind of locked down.”
“I would come over there and kick your ass about saying that if it weren’t for the fact that it’s true, J.J. Hart. You didn’t have to go there.”
“I know, and I hated doing it, believe me, but I needed for you to clearly see that’s not a worry we have to have. This is too good a chance to pass up.”
“Okay, well how about my mother then? She’s there, too. Look, that’s all she needs, to find me there and learn that I was able to sneak off from Pat and fly in on a plane without permission all the way to Boston. I think she’s looking for a reason to find fault with Pat having me here with her as opposed to my being in Boston with them. I don’t want to hand my mother anything to work with, especially not against Pat.”
“She’s not going to run up on us, Marn. Our luck isn’t that bad. Besides, we’re flying in on the plane, getting into Duncan’s car at the airport, going straight to the theatre, getting back in Duncan’s car afterward, and right back on the plane. Unless she comes to the airport or the theatre, your mother won’t see us. Duncan says he flies into and out of a small, private airport, so that lessens even further the chances of us getting caught. Pat and my mother will be occupied in Long Island. Daddy and Uncle Bill will be in Maryland. It’s all good.”
“I don’t know, J. You know, my sense of adventure has never been quite the same as yours.”
“Okay then, let’s put this picture into a better frame for you. You know that Teddy has lots of cute friends. You met some of them when we were at the reunion. You even Frenched one.”
“No, I di-“
“Josh gave you a hickey; he Frenched you. Don’t lie. You don’t get your neck sucked red like that from a closed mouth kiss.”
So, there’s bound to be lots of cute guys you could meet. Now tell me about your sense of adventure.”
“That’s not even fair, J. Putting guys in the mix. What a low blow.”
“Maybe so, Marnie Elaine Benson, but tell me your perspective on the subject hasn’t shifted some. Some of Teddy’s friends from school are bound to be part of this production. You’ve been cooped up in this apartment, being home-schooled and everything, hanging out with Ms. Haversham, Mrs. Benedict, Cordelia, and Pat. After two months, you cannot sit there and tell me that you’re not in deprivation mode, in serious need of some male attention.”
“Wel-l-l-l, there is that to take into account.”
With that last exchange, the few lingering reservations Marnie might have had evaporated completely as she fully committed to the plan. Then a call came in to her cell from Chance, and she had gone into her own room to take it in private.
Although Marnie claimed to be devoted to her relationship with Chance, and she had been upset with him for taking another girl to a dance at his boarding school, she saw nothing wrong with flirting a little herself. The prospect of meeting and possibly enchanting some new boys, if only for the purpose of teasing them for the moment, finally convinced Marnie that going to Boston was a chance worth taking.
Duncan had since been contacted and their tentative reservations for the trip to Boston placed with him. All that remained was getting final clearance from the Duchess for the smokescreen shopping trip- whenever she surfaced again.
Barefoot, dressed in the tee shirt she’d had on all evening and a pair of pajama pants, instead of getting in bed, J.J. sat down on the floor to do some leg and back stretches in an effort to loosen up. As she put her body through its paces, her mind floated back to Pat and how quiet and strangely distant she had been for most of the evening. The sight of her aunt at that desk in the study, looking at that letter, came back to her. When small, seemingly insignificant things like that stayed with her, it usually meant that something major had registered in her brain. Pat had been awfully quick to put it away once she realized that someone had seen her with it.
Perhaps the contents of that desk drawer held the answer to what was going on with her.
Upon her return from Duncan’s coffee shop, after talking with Pat, she had gone upstairs where she and Marnie stayed until Cordelia called them down for dinner. When they made it to the table, they found themselves taking the meal alone. According to Cordelia, Pat had decided to eat her dinner and take a phone call from Uncle Bill upstairs in her bedroom.
Marnie explained once Cordelia was out of earshot.
“She does that sometimes lately, eat by herself, I mean. It’s a recent development. But I don’t think she’s really eating much of anything. I’ve been watching her. At her last fitting for her dress, the seamstress had to take it in again at the waist. Pat explained to the lady that it was because of stress and having so much to do. Personally, I think she’s been weird ever since we got back here after 9/11. She had blinds put on the windows of her office.”
But that made sense. Aunt Pat said that the view from her windows was why she had taken that office as her own, that she got her daily dose of strength from that view. Aunt Pat loved New York. New York was Aunt Pat. How many times had she been in that office with her and witnessed her stand in front of those windows, breathing in her strength… but the view was no longer there… what remained, the change in that panorama….
Still on the floor, J.J. lie all the way back and squeezed shut her eyes.
On the way in from the airport, she’d seen it for herself. From a distance, it had been the absence of what should have been there that hit her the hardest. It was almost unbelievable… too hard to fathom what it must have been like to have been there when it happened… too hard to imagine what Aunt Pat must have seen from those windows when she first made it back to her office… and realized that she had just missed being….
Yes, she could understand Aunt Pat putting up a barrier between that and herself.
Did that have something to do with what was going on with her? Maybe it was post-traumatic stress. She’d read a lot about it following 9/11 and some other bizarre events that had taken place with them in the weeks following the terrorist attack. She wanted to know the symptoms of it for her parents, her friends, people at school, and for herself. Aunt Pat was always so strong in the face of adversity. She didn’t seem the type to succumb to something like that, but who could tell behind something like 9/11 and having it be so close to her in so many ways as it had been? According to what she’d read, there was no way to tell in advance who might become a victim of it and to what degree.
Even when she had been fussing at her about being with Duncan, Aunt Pat seemed to have given in too soon and too easily. It was as if she might have had greater battles to fight than waging one with a teenager who had gone somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be, but had come right back. Aunt Pat had always been a bit more generous with the leash length than the Duchess, but both of them were sticklers about being informed before changes in location were made.
The garment rustle at the door opened her eyes. It was Pat, in her satin slippers and robe, her hands in her pockets, standing just inside the room. “What are you doing down there? Why aren’t you in the bed? It’s late.”
Using her stomach muscles, not wanting to waste the opportunity, she pulled herself up into a sitting position without using her arms. “I couldn’t sleep. I thought a little workout might help.”
Pat came into the room and offered a hand to help her to her feet. “What’s got you so wound up?”
“Nothing, really. Nothing specific. It’s just one of those nights, I guess. I have them sometimes.”
“I know that you do. It’s usually because you have something on your mind that’s bothering you. I fixed you up with rum and Coke the last time we were together, and you were going through one of these things. Of course, that time you had absconded from Las Vegas, hopped a plane, and come to me. You were afraid that any minute Jen was going to show up and let you have it.”
“I was not scared. I was angry.”
“Say what you want, J.J. Hart. You were scared. You had taken off, on a plane no less, without permission, and you were scared she was going to eat you alive.” Pat made a gulping, slurping noise. “Just sa-wallow your slim tail whole, like the rattlesnake you had turned her into that day.”
J.J. snickered. “Okay, maybe I was a little nervous. I had taken things a bit too far.”
“You think?” Pat hooked her arm in J.J.’s and began moving with her toward the bed. “So what are you so nervous about now?”
Standing next to the bed with Pat, J.J. stopped and shrugged, “Just stuff. There’s a lot going on. The thing last night with Daddy and me, coming here, going to Briarwood, seeing Pa, your wedding.”
“You left out Teddy,” Pat said. “Could he be a part of your agitation?”
“Maybe. I am looking forward to seeing him again. We’ve talked a lot, but I haven’t seen him since last summer.”
Pat smiled. “I have. And when I do, he always badgers me about you. I think he really likes you. But I like your style, J.J.”
“Yes. You’re a good, decent person, and no matter what else is going on, you stay true to that. You speak your mind. I like how you’re not blindly ruled by social conventions or what’s in vogue at the moment. I really like that so far you’re not dictated to by your hormones at this point in your life, like so many young people are, even though I suspect you do have some pretty strong ones.”
J.J., listening to what Pat was saying, blushed and then chuckled. “I do have a couple. Teddy is kind of cute.”
“Teddy is really cute, hell, let me just come out and say it; he’s sexy cute- I’m not so old that I can’t see that. But even with that being true, you don’t seem overly smitten with him. I like that you’re taking your time.”
“What choice have we had? He’s east coast; I’m west coast.”
“With the resources you two have at your disposal, that’s something that could have easily been overcome. I think left solely up to him, it would have been.”
“Well it wasn’t left solely up to him, was it? My daddy doesn’t want him thinking that he’s going to be all up on me. For that matter, my Daddy doesn’t want any boy too close to me for too long.”
Pat chuckled, mumbling loud enough for J.J. to hear, “Takes a old former hound to detect a new, young one on the prowl.”
Then she looked J.J. in the eye. “Seriously though, you can be crazy sometimes, and do crazy things, J.J., but bottom line, I respect you. I like that even though I know you’re likely to try one or two things; at your core, I can trust you to be moral. I was upset with you earlier for taking off without telling me, but I don’t really worry about you and the things you choose to do. The choices you make, as unorthodox as they can sometimes be, are usually sound and justifiable. I’m very proud of who you’re turning out to be.”
Underneath her feet, J.J. could feel the slightest vibration. The elevator.
Seconds later, a light on the panel by the bedroom door began to flash followed by a single small chime. She was glad for the chime; it distracted Pat, and it kept her from having to respond to the heavy compliment paid to her while her mind furiously wondered, “What brought this on?”
Pat released her arm. “Must be the prodigal mother. You go on to bed. I’ll go down and meet her.”
J.J. turned back the covers enough to get in and acted as if that was what she was going to do. Instead, as soon as Pat cleared the door, she counted to twenty and then tiptoed behind her, out of the room and around to the stairs.
Sorry Aunt Pat, I am moral, but unfortunately, I’m nosy as hell, too.
Jennifer had been halfway home from the airport when it dawned on her that she didn’t have with her the skimpy lingerie she had worn on the way to the hotel with Jonathan. Leaving the Carlyle, ending her evening with him, she hadn’t thought about it. But then she couldn’t remember having seen any of it when they were getting dressed to leave.
Jonathan had to have taken it. It was stashed inside his jacket as that was the only place he could have put it. He hadn’t been carrying a briefcase or any other sort of bag when she joined him in the back of Pat’s car earlier that afternoon. Bra, panties, garter belt, and hose, what in the world?
She chuckled to herself as she tried not to think about his plans for them. Taking them was naughty, but so very Jonathan, and it was so delightfully funny that he still cared enough to do something like that.
Such a rascal… and so very sexy.
Jonathan said he’d always loved women, that they fascinated him. Twenty-six years together, and yet, he’d stolen her panties, his wife’s panties. He had three days to get through, staying with Bill at his and Pat’s new place, and visiting Pa at Briarwood. Lots of male bonding for sure. Would those items be under his pillow at night as his undershirt had been under hers all those years ago? She had “borrowed” it when she finally parted from him to go home to New York right before they married.
She was glad that something had pushed her and Jonathan together for that afternoon, even if that something had been negative in nature. An afternoon of love, a deep massage, wine, cheese, fruit; and a dinner later; when she left him at the airport, he seemed to be past his troubles, and because of that, she was more at ease.
At least about him.
Pat was standing there with her arms folded and patting one foot when the elevator doors opened.
“Welcome home, you scarlet harlot. It’s about time. I see my sable got trotted out for an unauthorized airing. I thought the conservationist in you had given up wearing fur.”
Jennifer pulled the collar together at her chin which she haughtily raised. “I needed it for effect. Besides, it’s mine. I can do what I want with it.”
“Oh no, no, no, no. It’s mine by default, Edwards. I’ve been telling you that for years. Like this apartment, you left it; I claimed it. End of story.”
“I did not leave this coat. You kept it when I asked you to send my things to me. My initials are still in it.” Jennifer opened the sable to reveal the inside lining and the letters “JEJ ” stitched inside. “At least you had the decency to not take them out when you were having it restyled.”
“To do that would have ruined that wonderful lining,” Pat said as she ignored the monogram but fingered the lapel of the white robe Jennifer had on underneath the fur, taking note of the embroidered insignia on the breast. “Oh, the Carlyle, eh? So that was where you two holed up this time for your afternoon delight. I’m surprised to see you back so soon. So was it good?”
Trying not to smile at Pat’s cool brazenness, but not quite successful in the effort, Jennifer took off the fur and pushed it into Pat’s arms before brushing past her into the front hall.
“That’s none of your business. My feet are killing me.” She stepped, barefoot, out of the pumps she had on and then bent to pick them up. “How are the girls?”
“They’re just fine. They were here with me, so how else could they be? They’ve had lunch and dinner, and for the most part have been in their rooms, up there doing whatever it is they do when they’re together. How’s Jonathan? Now why am I asking that? He’s been closed up with you all day, so I know he’s fine by now, or at the very least, a bit more tranquil. I guess he made it out of New York all right.”
“Jonathan is just fine, thank you, and yes, he made his flight.” Jennifer raised her eyes, as if she could see through the ceiling. “Pat, you know, J.J. and Marnie do things when they get together, and it’s been a while for them. Are you sure they’re still up there? Have you checked lately?”
“Jennifer, Marnie is in her bed asleep, and I just spoke with J.J. before I came down here. She’s still awake, I’m sure, waiting for you. Why don’t you go up and see her. She’s been kind of tense all day; she told me that she’s having a little trouble getting to sleep. It’ll probably do her some good to talk with you.”
“If she’s still up, I would like to see her, but I need to change first. I know she’s wondering why I wasn’t here when she arrived and where I’ve been. She’s sees this robe, and the floodgate of questions will burst wide open.”
“Oh, she’s already figured out where you’ve been,” Pat said with a sly smile as she shook out the sable and draped it across her arm. “And as such, I’m sure she’s put it together what you’ve been doing.”
“Well, that’s just dandy.” Jennifer ran a harried hand through her hair. “I guess I should go and get this over with then.”
As they spoke together, neither of them could see the girl crouched down low, her neck craned at an odd angle as she peered at them through the staircase spindles down the hall. They also didn’t see it when she backed away and her long legs stealthily spanned three stairs at a time to get her back to her room.
Back in her bed and underneath the covers, J.J. wrestled with her disgust and her delight. Once again, she had done the math and solved the equation. She’d eavesdropped like she wasn’t supposed to, which had resulted in her seeing and hearing something she wasn’t meant to have seen or heard. But it wasn’t as if she didn’t already know the real story. It had simply been a matter of confirming the particulars for herself.
Duncan said he saw her wearing a fur, and she had been. At home, the cold storage closet in the cellar was full of furs her mother no longer wore for what she said were ethical reasons. But she had put one on that afternoon. A sleek, fine sable.
In nothing but that fur.
Evidently. She came home wearing a hotel robe with no stockings.
… nothing but a fur coat.
When Duncan saw her parading around in the lobby, she wasn’t wearing anything except that fur… and maybe some sexy underwear. Yeah, that sound’s like her.
Now wouldn’t she absolutely, positively kil-l-l-l-ll me for something like that? I get called out for just wearing my tops too low. But she can go out in public butt-nek-kid under a fur.
Are mothers supposed to do stuff like that?
… only my mother…. with my father, no less. And they got a room. Just too old for all of that. I am so glad Marnie’s asleep.
At least they’re married to each other while they’re sneaking around, getting busy….
Oh, God, please. I’m going to puke.
But she grinned instead, the rapidly flashing, mischievous thoughts causing her already-closed eyes to squint and her nose to crinkle.
I love it. Jen is my girl, for real.
Scarlet Harlot Studies 101, and guess what? I’m an ‘A’ student. Gifted, even, my mother says. She doesn’t know it, but she’s a very good teacher.
So we can now add ‘Naked Under Fur, Going to See Your Man’ to ‘Talking on the Phone to Guys When You’re in the Tub’ to the advanced placement courses we’ve covered.
And by the time I get into practicing my skills, my phone will take movie shots.
Suddenly very tired, but finally relaxed. she snuggled down into the pillows.
Cordelia was at the kitchen sink, fixing a glass of water for herself before going to her rooms for the night. She turned around when Pat came in, her eyes immediately focusing on the sable.
“I see Mrs. Hart must have made it back. I heard the elevator and you coming down the stairs.”
“Yes, she’s back. She’s gone into her room.”
Pat lay the coat out on a counter and began to closely inspect it.
Glass in hand, Cordelia went over to see what she was doing. “What are you looking for?”
Pat continued lifting and looking at parts of the coat, folding it over, open, and then closed. “I planned to wear this on Saturday, but for most of today, it’s been kidnapped and held against its will in a high-class den of iniquity. If I find as much as two hairs stuck together or the tiniest spot on the lining, it’s going to have to go out for a cleaning and be overnighted to me in Maryland.”
It took a moment for Cordelia to get Pat’s meaning; she grimaced with the nuance. “Oh, Eee-yewww, you’re on your own with the examining, Ms. Patricia. If you find anything like what you’re looking for, just leave the coat right there. I’ll have it sent out first thing in the morning.”
J.J. had almost drifted away when the sound of the bedroom door sliding open across the carpet summoned her back. Moments later, the light she had left on next to the bed was switched off, and she could sense the person leaving.
“J.J.? I thought you were asleep.”
“Wait. Don’t go.” J.J. pushed the covers back and reached for the lamp to turn the light back on.
Jennifer returned to the bed as J.J. sat up. When she began to rub her sleepy eyes, Jennifer reached for her hands, stopping her from doing so.
“What have I told you about that? You’re very young now, but the things you do at this point will dictate how long you keep that girlish complexion and that youthful face. And why are you wearing a tee-shirt to bed? Where is your pajama top?”
First looking down to the white “I’m with the band” message on the black shirt, J.J. raised her eyes to her mother, who had taken a seat on the side of the bed.
“I just didn’t change out of it; I was only going to bed. Mom, you haven’t seen me in two days, and when you finally do, you come right in fussing. Don’t I get a ‘hello’, a ‘how are you’, a hug, or something like that first?”
“Hello, sweetie,” Jennifer said with a chastened chuckle. “How are you?” Then she reached for J.J., hugged her tightly, and sat back. “Satisfied?”
J.J. smelled soap and shampoo, and the upswept hair felt damp on the ends.
“Are you?” J.J. thought to herself, biting her top lip with her bottom teeth to keep the thought from escaping via her tongue as she rearranged the pillows to sit up in the bed. “Yes, that’s much better,” she said aloud. “I missed you. Thanks for coming to check on me.”
“You know me. I have to peek in on you at least once before I can completely rest at night.”
“Still? What are you going to do when I’m off at college?”
“Probably phone you every evening to make sure you’re all right. At least for your Freshman year. Looking at that shirt, I’m reminded that your father said that you and the band made a CD.”
“Yes, we did. Hector’s father put it together for us. Daddy listened to my copy in the car, and then he had me burn one for him.”
“Do I get a copy for my car?”
“If you want one. When you get time, you can listen to mine and decide if you want one or not.”
“If you’re playing on it, I surely will. So, what’s going on with you? Pat mentioned to me that you were having some trouble getting to sleep earlier.”
“I’m over it. In fact, I was just about to drop off when I heard you come in.”
“What is it, or what was it that you’ve gotten over?”
“Nothing specific. You know how I get all wound up sometimes. There’s been a lot going on, a lot coming up. I guess I was a little antsy. Plus I’d had some cof-”
“Coffee.” Jennifer shook her head. “Jusss-tine. That was the last thing you needed after last night’s fiasco. It’s no wonder you’re having trouble settling down. You and caffeine do not get along, you know that.”
“But I love it, and I didn’t have school or anything like that to worry about. I would have been up anyway.”
J.J. dropped her eyes to her lap where she began twisting her ring. “I kind of needed to see your face. I talk about you for checking on me, but I have some issues with doing that with you, too. I’m so juvenile and spoiled, aren’t I?”
With one hand, Jennifer stopped her from twisting the ring, with the other she lifted J.J.’s face up, thereby reuniting their eyes. “Not juvenile, but yes, somewhat spoiled; however, that’s not your fault. Now about last night, talk to me.”
“Marnie told me you had found out about it.”
“So now you tell me. I want the first-hand version from my daughter’s viewpoint.”
Sighing first, J.J. began her retelling of the events of Saturday night. “It was terrible at the time that it happened. Up until then, Daddy and I had been having such a good weekend. I went out Friday night with my friends, but I ended up coming home early; there wasn’t much to do. He was waiting up for me on the couch, but he tried to play it off like he wasn’t. Then on Saturday morning, like I told you when you called, I cooked us breakfast. Then we went shopping-”
“Oh, you can shop with your father, but you can’t shop with me?”
J.J, frowned, waving her hand. “Daddy knows how to shop. He has in mind exactly what he wants beforehand, goes to the specific place to get it, and it’s over. That’s my idea of shopping, not meandering from store to store like- Well, anyway, back to what I saying.”
“Yes, that’s probably best for now,” Jennifer said with that one warning eyebrow raised.
“You know, even though he’s my father, I can really see why you hooked up with him; he’s a lot fun and he knows everybody, everywhere. Last night, we went to a jazz club where some friends of his were playing. Then he took me for his huge steak. It was sooooo good, we had wine, baked potatoes-”
“Wine? Were there any green vegetables? Salad? And did both of you eat them?”
“Yes, mother, there was a salad and some vegetables, and yes we ate them. We were so stuffed afterward, we actually skipped dessert. We had good conversation and lots of laughs. He was telling me one of his San Francisco stories, about him and Max when he was my age; it was so funny. Then he said we needed to go in because we had that early flight. But then we got outside, and out of nowhere, this guy just ambushes us, saying all kinds of stupid, unreasonable things about you and daddy, and about me. He scared me at first, with that camera flashing in my eyes and all, but then, when I realized what was happening, I wanted to kick his- I wanted to fight him, but Daddy made me get into the car. Then Daddy went after him.”
“Did it upset you that your father had to go after the man?”
J.J. lie her head back on the pillows and slowly grinned. “No, it really didn’t. In fact, to be truthful with you, I thought it was pretty cool. I really wanted Daddy to beat the man up, but he didn’t. He just wrecked his camera.”
“Well, you asked me; I’m simply telling you how I feel.”
“I did ask you. And to be truthful with you, I must say that I’m not really all that surprised by your response, considering whose child you are and who you were with when it happened.”
“I’m yours too, don’t forget.”
“Hmph,” Jennifer replied, raising that eyebrow again. “Listen, I’m really sorry that you had to experience something like that, but I’m awfully afraid that as you’re getting older, more of that may be par for your course.”
“That’s what I’ve been told.” J.J. sighed before nonchalantly inquiring, “So how was Daddy when you left him?”
Jennifer sat straight up and rolled her eyes. “I was wondering how long it was going to take you.”
J.J. smirked. “You had to know I was going there. You had to know I had put together that’s where you were all this time. Gone without calling in to check on me? Please. When Aunt Pat told me that you had ‘stepped out’ rather than staying to see me, I figured out exactly to whom you were headed. Is he okay now? He was pretty down and quiet on the plane this morning.”
“He’s fine,” Jennifer conceded after studying her calculating daughter’s, freckled face. “He was a little upset about having lost his cool in front of you. He didn’t think it was very good example for him to have set for you.”
“He need not worry. Daddy is the man. I would have reacted the same way if he would have let me.”
“I’ve surmised as much, J.J. Hart. I’m glad your father had the foresight to get you to the car first. That’s not to say that I condone what he did.”
Looking away from her mother, J.J. snaked her neck one good time, quietly declaring, “Some people deserve to have the crap kicked out of them.”
“Justine Hart, what have I told you about using that term?”
“Sorry, but in certain situations, there is no substitute, no polite or socially acceptable phrasing. You just have to go baseline with it.”
Despite her admonishment of J.J.’s language, Jennifer had to snicker at the explanation. “You are such a mess.”
“But I’m always your mess,” J.J. said as she basked in her mother’s reluctant smile. Even without makeup and with wet hair, Jennifer Hart remained a pretty, freckled woman with the best eyes in the world.
She almost didn’t want to bring up the next subject, but it was the one she really had been waiting to talk about.
When she patted the pillow next to her, Jennifer went around the bed and stepped out of her slippers before settling on the bed next to J.J.
“It’s Aunt Pat. Have you noticed anything weird about her?”
Jennifer rolled onto her side to face J.J. “Weird? Weird like what?”
“Come on, Mom. You know full well what. You’ve seen it. If I’ve noticed it, you have, too. Can we just cut to the chase here? Is something up with her? Please don’t treat me like a little kid on this one. I love her, too. Something is wrong with her, isn’t it?”
For J.J., the next questions were gratifying; she was being let in and not rebuffed like a naive child. “What have you noticed, J.J.? What has Marnie said to you?”
She filled her mother in on her godmother’s unusual quiet, her evasiveness, Marnie’s observations at home and at the dressmaker’s. She even told her about her own interaction with Pat after she returned from the coffee shop with Duncan earlier that afternoon, and how quickly Pat had backed down from her defensive position despite the fact that she thought she’d put forth a decent argument. Decent argument or not, up-to-speed, Aunt Pat would still have utilized the matter of her leaving without permission to get all over her.
“I know you always tell me to mind my own business and to leave people to their own affairs, but today I walked in on her reading a letter or something in her study. As soon as she saw me standing there, she stuffed it into her top drawer as if she didn’t want me to know she had it.”
“Well, I can only say that it was a paper of some kind. That’s all I could really see. In an envelope. I was at the door, and she was at her desk, so from that distance, I couldn’t see exactly what it was, but I could definitely tell that she was bothered by it, and that she didn’t want me to see her with it. But I did see her. What do you think could be wrong with her?”
“I have no idea, J.J.” Jennifer rolled over onto her back again, folding her hands across her midsection and staring at the ceiling. “But there is certainly something amiss with her. I’ve noticed it. Marnie’s told me that she’s seen it. Now here you are, saying the same thing.”
“She keeps that drawer locked.”
“And how would you know that?”
“I’ve seen her lock it, Mom.”
“J.J., is that the only knowledge of that drawer that you have?”
“Yes, I promise you. I’ve never, ever, in all my visits here, ever fiddled with it. Although, now that I think of it, being that it’s probably a simple desk lock, I probably could-”
Jennifer sat up. “No, you cannot. Forget about that. Erase even the kernel of that thought from your scheming, knows-too-much-for-her-own-good mind.”
J.J. shrugged as Jennifer slid to the edge of the bed, stood, and stepped back into her slippers.
“I was just saying, Mom. Look, just keep me and my skills in mind, you know, in the event you should change yours.”
“I won’t be changing mine,” Jennifer declared as she came around the bed, back to J.J.’s side where she bent to kiss J.J.’s forehead. “You make sure that you keep your skills to yourself. Even though you need your rest, I’m glad you stayed up for me to be able to talk with you. Don’t worry about Aunt Pat; I’ll get to the bottom of it. You relax and have a good night.” Then she switched off the light.
“Thanks, Mom. I will now that you’re back home.”
J.J. turned onto her side and pulled up the covers, adding loud enough to be heard, “And I’m sure now my Daddy will have a good night too.”
After a moment’s hesitation, her mother’s footsteps resumed, continuing to the door, which slid, then clicked back closed.
As she drifted off to full sleep this time, J.J. was still smiling.
“J., if we get caught…”
“Marnie, I’m really going to need for you to not taint my karma with all this negativity. I am not claiming ‘caught’, therefore, it will not happen.”
J.J. snapped the tight band around her ponytail. Standing in front of the mirror, she could see Marnie reflected as she stood behind her, putting the finishing touches to her lips.
“I’m just saying, J. I don’t have a good feeling about this. We’ve done some things, but taking off on a plane without permission, that’s a bit much, even for us. I mean, I know you’ve done it before, but the Duchess almost kicked your butt about that.”
” ‘Almost’ doesn’t count. And she wasn’t really mad about my being on the plane. We had other issues at the time.”
Marnie checked her mascara and sighed. “J.J., what if something should- I mean nobody would even know that we were- or where we-”
“Nothing will happen, Marnie. Period. We’re going to Boston by plane, just like if we were going by car or by train, only it won’t take as long- and we’ll be right back. Nobody will be any the wiser. Just keep your mind on the cute guys you’re going to meet.”
“It would be just my luck that Teddy’s doing some all-female production, and there’s nobody on the set except girls. Duncan- and Teddy- will have something to see for real if that’s the case, J. We will be fighting the whole time we’re there and all the way back here. You won’t be able to enjoy one moment with Teddy if I get there and there aren’t any guys. Hell, I might even get back here and tell on you, how it was all your idea and I just went because it was two for one.”
Unfazed by Marnie’s threat, J.J. calmly fanned at her cheeks with the rouge brush. “Think about it. If you tell on me, you’ll get in trouble, too.”
“I don’t care. No boys in Boston, your butt is busted with Pat- and the Duchess. Especially the Duchess.”
“Ratting for the sake of ratting? That’s not your style, Marn. Ratting because you’re hemmed up, that’s more like you. But none of that matters anyway because it won’t be necessary.”
Finished in the mirror, J.J. checked her watch. “We’d better head down to breakfast. We still have to get clearance from my mother to go shopping, although I don’t think that will be a hurdle.”
The original plan might have been for the four of them to be together to run errands that day, but J.J. was pretty sure that after their talk in the bedroom the night before, her mother would want a clear shot at getting to Pat. The adult in Jennifer Hart wouldn’t be able to do that with two nosy children in tow. A basic rule of business in the Hart household was “cut the middleman”.
She wasn’t too worried that she and Marnie, “liddle-women” for sure, would have much trouble getting cut loose from the big girls to go their own way that morning.
Jennifer was mildly surprised to find that Pat was already seated at the table, perusing a newspaper, when she entered the breakfast room. It was very early, and Pat was not generally an early riser on a non-workday, but judging by the folded sections put to the side, she had been there for a while.
Jennifer sat down in the chair directly across from Pat. “I take it the girls haven’t come down yet.”
Pat shook her head without looking up from what she was reading. “Still primping most likely. At least that would be the case with Marnie. J.J. is essentially on vacation; this not being a school day or Sunday, she probably hasn’t been up that long. But then it doesn’t take J.J. as long to get dressed as it does Marnie. That one changes outfits several times before settling on one. Has to have every hair and eyelash in place. Lipstick has to be just right.”
“Lip gloss. She’s sixteen. It’s lip gloss when you’re that age.”
“Well, whatever it’s called that will make a male of the species better notice her pouty lips.”
Jennifer chuckled at Pat’s dead-on assessment of Marnie’s make-up motives. “Speaking of males, I spoke with Jonathan earlier. He said to tell you, ‘hello’, and that he apologizes for not stopping in to see you yesterday.”
“Yeah? Well you can tell that big lug that I understand on both levels why he didn’t come up here. It was to his advantage that he didn’t, either when J.J. arrived or when you came back here last night. I had so much I wanted to say to him.”
“He anticipated that, Pat.”
“He mentioned something to me last night about some paperwork that needed to be taken care of concerning Marnie and her going back with us.”
The faintest dark cloud crossed Pat’s otherwise expressionless face as she flipped newspaper pages. It only lasted a moment, but Jennifer definitely noticed it.
Pat closed the paper and held the section up to fold it in half again before stacking it with the others on the table.
“No, no. Nothing.” She smoothed her hand over the newspaper and then looked up. “Jen, the girls are going to ask you if they can go shopping alone rather than going to Long Island with us. I’ve already told Marnie that I didn’t mind. It’s the only time they’ll have to do anything by themselves while they’re here in New York. Tomorrow, we’ll have company, and we leave on Wednesday. I think they’ll be all right on their own.”
Jennifer took inventory of Pat’s face, attempting to get a reading of some kind.
Giving me an opening, old girl?
Before she could respond to Pat about the girls, together, they came into the breakfast room.
“Morning, Mom. Morning, Aunt Pat.”
“G’ morning, Aunt Pat. G’ morning, Mrs. H.”
At the sound of their voices, both women checked out the girls as they took their seats at the table.
Marnie, as always, was polished perfection in a burnt orange sweater and matching pants. Her suede boots flawlessly matched the rest of her outfit. Her longer hair, in its shiny thickness, enhanced her air of casual, but sophisticated vitality.
J.J., of course, was in jeans, black ones with a short black leather jacket. The French cuffs on her white satin blouse were fastened with cufflinks like a man’s might be, but the look suited her. But what stood out the most for Jennifer was the black velvet ribbon tied in a very feminine bow on her ponytail and the trace of makeup on her eyelashes, cheeks, and her lips. Manhattan, she figured, must have brought out the more cosmopolitan side of her more athletic, tomboyish child. She was just as her father said, “sixteen going on gorgeous,”‘ and it made her mother proud.
“My, don’t you two look nice.”
“Thank you,” the girls said at the same time.
J.J. immediately reached for the coffee decanter, but with a wave of her hand, Jennifer cut her off.
Frowning and fussing, J.J. sat back. “Oh, Mom, come on. I don’t have school or anything.”
“You do not need that, J.J. You almost couldn’t sleep last night because of it. Drink your juice.”
Pat, in the meantime, turned to Marnie. “Are you two still trying not to go with us?”
Marnie nodded her head, but avoided Pat’s eyes. It was J.J. who did the talking. “We have other plans. That’s if it’s okay with my mother. Mom, would it be all right if we didn’t go with you and Aunt Pat today? We’d rather hang out by ourselves, if you don’t mind.”
Picking up on J.J.’s lead-in, Marnie finally piped up. “Aunt Pat said it would be okay with her, if it was okay with you. We want to go up on Fifth Avenue. There’s a pair of shoes I want that the woman is holding for me at Prada. They only have one pair in my size.”
“You’re going shopping?” Jennifer asked, directing that question to J.J. “Willingly?”
“More like I’m just going,” J.J, answered, chasing the vitamin she popped into her mouth with a hefty swallow of orange juice before turning back to Jennifer. “But it’s okay. I like it on Fifth. There’s always something interesting to see or do. I might pick up some shoes or something else that catches my eye. And then, too, we always seem to manage to run into someone we know. Marnie and I can have lunch, maybe do some other things. So is it okay?”
Jennifer wrestled with her instinctive protectiveness of the girls and her need to get Pat alone. She had been anticipating spending the day as a foursome, but it was understandable that J.J. and Marnie would want to spend some time by themselves, doing what they wanted to do. Allowing them that would give her the time and the space to do what she needed to do with Pat.
“I don’t really know if I like the idea of you girls taking just any old taxi.”
“I can arrange for one of my fleet drivers to take them and pick them up when they’re ready to come home,” Pat offered. “I have a fellow I use with Marnie.”
“Kendricks,” Marnie said as she unclipped her cell from her pants and lay it on the table. “I have him on speed dial now. So is it okay for us to go ahead and call him?”
Pat turned to Marnie, staring her down. “My God, is there anyone on earth that you don’t have on speed dial?”
“I don’t have everybody in here,” Marnie replied with an embarrassed, dimpled smile. “Only the important people in my life. My daddy, J., Mrs. H.” She lifted her eyes to Pat. “You. Only the ones that I can’t do without….”
“So, how about it, Mom?”
Jennifer looked from J.J. to Marnie and back to J.J. who was intently watching her. “I guess,” she said after a moment. “But I’m trusting you to do what you know that you’re supposed to do. You’re sixteen, and I have to let your hands go at some time. This is as good a time as any. Listen, don’t detour, don’t take any unnecessary chances, and don’t do anything behind our backs that you wouldn’t do in front of us. If you need anything, or if for some reason, your plans change, you know that you can- you should- no, you will reach Pat or me by phone.”
While Jennifer had most of her attention focused on J.J., Pat’s voice drew her focus to how pointedly Marnie was avoiding looking at Pat.
“Marnie, you and I have had that conversation right?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Marnie answered, but she seemed a little nervous in acknowledging the exchange Pat mentioned.
Jennifer then cast her steadiest gaze over both their girls. “We’re trusting you. You do understand that. You are young ladies with your own minds and your own wills. We expect you to use them responsibly.”
The girls nodded, answering, “Yes, Ma’am” at the same time.
Pat drank from her coffee cup and then set it down in her customary business-like fashion. “Whether we’re back or not, you two are to be back here before it gets dark. That gives you all day to do whatever it is you’re going to do. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the girls intoned again as Cordelia brought in the platter holding their breakfast.
Jonathan dismounted, patting the firm, sleek side of the horse he had been riding while checking out Bill and Pat’s new digs. Lida’s snorting breaths slowly curled and twisted on the air as his own danced before his eyes, confirming their existence for yet another day. Although the winter air was brittle-cold, the ride had been invigorating. With a ranch in Colorado and a cabin in the mountains, both of which he usually visited when it was warmer, for him, such a ride at that time of year was an unusual experience. But then he was Jonathan Hart, the man who relished unusual experiences. He was also married to Jennifer Edwards Hart, the woman who taught him to enjoy horseback riding in winter… even in snow… riding of any kind… with her….
“How was she?” Bill came from inside the stable followed by one of the hands who took Lida from Jonathan.
It was a second or two before Bill’s voice registered and then another for Jonathan to realize that he was asking about the horse. But still he answered, “Beautiful,” speaking of both females, the one he had just handed off and the one smiling at him in his mind.
“As is this place, Bill. You’ve done so much with it in such a short time. I never knew Farrell had this much land and that it was so nice. Not only do you have that interior pond, but you also have that section that backs right up to the same lake as Stephen’s place. I never knew that.”
Jonathan and Bill fell into step, heading toward the main house.
“I didn’t either, Valentine, until I got in the boat one day to kind of feel my way around. I mean I knew that section was off a lake, but I didn’t know it was the same one as Edwards uses. I went around a blind bend, and there, looming in the distance is Briarwood. Farrell never mentioned to me about that. I went back and found it in the survey, but who reads all of that other than the lawyers you pay to do it? And they didn’t give a damn.”
“Well, you have a great place here. I know it’s right up your alley, lots of places for you to explore and learn about. Good fishing. What about Pat? She seems all right with it?”
“She loves the house and the horses and having enough room to enjoy the horses. The grounds, other than riding over them when she’s here, she leaves up to me. She hasn’t been here a lot lately, though.”
“I imagine she’s been busy, tying up loose ends. Getting things ready at the office so that she can be away for a while.”
“No, I’ve told you. Something is going on with her, but she won’t let me in on whatever it is. I know she was pretty shaken up by the state of things in New York when she got back. I don’t think she’s quite gotten past all of it yet.”
“That’s a lot something for a person like her, one who loves New York so much, to try to get past. And then she was a near-miss, herself, It’s probably some post-traumatic stuff. I’m told it’s very real for some people.”
“It is real, for a lot of people. Pat included. I believe it’s a touch of that. But I also feel in my gut that it’s something more. Lately, she’s been doing anything she can to keep us apart. She finds things for me to do here that keep me here. Or she’s too wrapped up to come here to be with me. It’s been like this for a month or so, increasingly more in the last two weeks. I talk with her several times a day, but I haven’t seen her for nearly two weeks. If I didn’t love her so much and believe in my heart that it’s something outside her control, I might get fed up with her.”
“Maybe, with things being so close, she’s getting nervous. Cold feet or something.”
“Valentine, like you know Jennifer, I know Pat. Pat doesn’t bite her tongue and she doesn’t beat around the bush. She would come right out and say if she didn’t want to marry me. She loves me, she loves Peter and his family, and she’s looking forward to being an official stepmother and grandmother. She’s been enjoying having Marnie and Kyle in her life. No, it’s something else, I’m convinced of it, and it’s got to be bad. She would have told me by now if it weren’t.”
“Maybe she just wants to put some distance between the two of you before the wedding. For that reason, she’s staying at Briarwood once she gets to Maryland for Thanksgiving. Maybe she wants to make the absence a little fonder.”
Bill shook his head as he held the mud room door open for Jonathan to enter. “That’s something you and Jennifer would have done. Pat and I don’t play those kind of games. We could be together in the same bed the night before, wake up together in the morning, get married that afternoon, and have all the good luck in the world to follow. For us, it is what it is- most of the time. I’m worried about her. Something has her spooked.”
Jonathan sat down on the bench to unlace and remove his riding boots. “Well, one thing is for sure. The right person is with her, and she’s definitely on the case. If there is something going on, Jennifer will get to the bottom of it. We may never know what it is; they keep some things to themselves, but it’ll get worked out.”
Bill shrugged his shoulders, stuffing his hands down into his pockets. “I hope so. I really do.”
When Jonathan had his shoes back on, the two men started up the stairs.
Bill pulled a folded paper from his pocket and opened it, handing it to Jonathan. “They faxed me the confirmation. I got us a noon slot. We can take those papers this afternoon rather than waiting until tomorrow. That’s too last minute. We take care of that today and tomorrow we can rest or do whatever you still need to do.”
Jonathan looked over the printed details as they entered the hall leading to the kitchen. “I really want to talk with Carl. I haven’t seen him since his accident. Since I’m taking his kid back with me, I think it’s only right that I stop in and see him in person.”
“He’ll like that. He’s real grateful that he doesn’t have to worry about his daughter while he’s laid up. He says Marnie was his only real worry because he knows she can be a handful. But Pat’s crazy about Marnie, and Marnie has done real well with Pat. That Kyle is a mess, too. He’s sort of become mine; I’ve found myself going over to see him at school on my own from time to time. He’s a great kid. Teddy’s doing a real good job of mentoring him.”
Jonathan stopped in his tracks as if he had a sudden thought. “Teddy. He’s still home, isn’t he? He hasn’t gone to Virginia to his mother yet, has he?”
“He’s still in Boston. He’s there for a theatre production, a rehearsal or something like that, until tomorrow, I think.”
“Well,” Jonathan said with a huge grin as he sat down to one of the two place settings in the breakfast room. “Since we’re going to be in Boston this afternoon, we might as well pay the young gentleman a little visit. I haven’t seen him in quite some time either.”
Bill sat down, too. “I have his cell number. Should I call him and let him know we’re coming?”
Jonathan opened his napkin across his lap as Bill’s new cook and housekeeper, Sarah, came in with their coffee.
He was almost laughing when he answered Bill. “No. We’ll call his father when we get there and get his exact location. Then we can make it a surprise.”
“Pat, do you think the girls might have had something up their sleeves?”
Looking up from the notes she had been going over, Pat frowned. “Something like what, Jen? You are so suspicious. I think you’ve been married to that would-be sleuth of yours too long.”
But Jennifer was not to be deterred from her uneasiness. “I don’t know. Marnie seemed a little skittish to me and J.J., when left to her own devices, almost always has a plan to detour off the prescribed path. That’s getting a lot worse lately. When it comes to flexing her considerable nerve and trying things, she is her father’s child.”
Pat closed her notebook and looked directly over to Jennifer.
“Look here. Who used to sneak off to Boston to get her clothes altered every chance she got? Who got caught smoking cigarettes and cigars so many times that she ended up getting both of us suspended because of it? And who was it that would get pissed off and take to the winds on a stolen horse going who knew where on the expansive school grounds, leaving me hanging and unable to check on her because cell phones hadn’t been invented at the time? Who used to leave notes behind in the dorm or in the apartment saying, “I’m off-” to this city, country, continent- whatever, without any prior warning? Justine Jennifer Hart is aptly named. She gets that shit from both of you. Don’t try putting her daring wanderlust tendencies on Jonathan alone.”
The back of the car had gotten warm, so Jennifer slipped out of her coat, not bothering to address Pat’s challenge.
“I see you have on a bit more today,” Pat quipped as she continued to watch her. “Just as well. I don’t swing in that direction. Never have.”
“The hell with you, Pat. So you really think the girls were on the up and up?”
Pat sighed her impatience. “Oh Jen, I think they’re teenagers. I think they have their own minds, and that they’ll do whatever they want regardless of what we tell them. It’s what we did. I think we need to trust that either they’ll make the right decisions, or that they’ll screw up royally, get caught, and afterward, we can make their little lives a living damned hell just as Pa did with us. How about that?”
Jennifer settled back into the leather seat, crossing one leg over the other. “I guess I can live with that, especially the ‘living hell’ part.”
Besides, she had a more immediate concern.
After all, it was said that God looked out for babies and fools, and teenagers snugly fit both those categories. Pat, on the other hand, was neither one of those things.
Looking out for Pat would be left up to her.
A white Lincoln Towne Car glided to a stop in front of Bergdorf’s, and a young man in a black trench coat got out. He opened the back door, gestured toward the doors of the store, and ushered into the back seat the two smartly dressed young girls who had been waiting for him.
Closing the car door behind them, he returned to the front passenger seat. When traffic allowed, the car and all of its occupants pulled off.