Promises: Part Nine

Part Nine

Thursday: Thanksgiving night….

For the second time in recent memory, when she opened her eyes to that bulky, dozing male form slumped in the chair. A hell of a way to spend Thanksgiving, but if it had to be that way, of all the people she should be with, no one one of them was better suited for that spot, in that chair or in her heart, than him. As for the others, especially Marnie, she hoped they would forgive her absence. Certainly Jennifer understood, and because she did, the others likely would.

Her head too heavy to lift, her throat too dry, and tongue too fuzzy to speak and tell him to find somewhere to stretch his body out, Pat closed her eyes. Comforted and reassured by Bill’s continued presence, she drifted back to sleep.

________________________________________________________

Interrupted from their tryst in the loft by the sound of someone entering the stable, still as stone statues, they silently observed everything going on below until the horse was led out. When the door closed, Jennifer turned to her husband lying on his stomach beside her.

“I do not believe that child. I swear to God- Jonathan, that is the living embodiment of Huck Finn, only with a ponytail! Does she ever quit?”

His clasped hands supporting his chin, Jonathan’s eyes remained trained on the stable door for a few moments. When they finally switched over to her, even in the shadows up where they were, she could see the amused twinkle in them.

“I’d say she’s more like Tom Sawyer.”

“Not with that mouth. You heard her. I have told you and I told you, ever since she was a baby, if you kept saying ‘hell’ in front of her, she was going to pick it up. Now you saw and heard for yourself that I wasn’t wrong.”

Apparently unbothered by his daughter’s actions or her choice of words, Jonathan rolled over onto his back, folded one arm behind his head, and used the other hand to casually pick at his teeth with a blade of straw.

“She could have worse habits at sixteen. You mean to tell me that you never came out to ride your horse across these grounds at night when you were a kid?”

Exasperation welling, Jennifer closed her eyes and released the mounting pressure through clenched teeth.

“Jon-n-n-athan-n-n-n-n-n.”

“Hmm?”

“Can we keep to the point? What I might have done at one time in my life is not the issue here. I’m talking about your kid, the one with the cold who is supposed to be inside the house getting better, not outside the house in single digit climes ‘getting her ride on’.”

When she switched pitch to mimic J.J.’s voice and took on her lingo, the corners of his eyes crinkled even more before, quickly followed by the snort of unsuccessfully suppressed laughter.

She slowly shook her head as she stared him down; there was no help for Jonathan Hart or for his willful daughter. But then, she thought, why ever should she expect otherwise? Sister Anastasia, the nun who raised him told her on numerous occasions of how as a boy, Jonathan regularly climbed out of the orphanage windows at night in search of excitement on the streets of San Francisco. No lock could hold him, Anastasia said. J.J. Hart, his offspring, slipped out any way she could for what she thought were secret nocturnal swims and, evidently, winter evening rides on horses.

Jonathan turned to face her, bracing himself on his elbow.

“Darling, she had to take her shot. Her grandfather always has her horse brought in for her on Thanksgiving weekend, and this was probably the last chance J.J. had at getting in a ride by herself. You know how much she likes to take off on her own with a horse. And to her credit, she did pull her hood up on her head before she went out.”

She did know how much J.J. liked taking off by herself on her horse, and she really did understand her doing that, but still….

It was night. It was also cold, and J.J. had a cold. No matter what, that girl always seemed to be looking for – and finding- a way to do whatever she pleased. Jennifer rolled over and sat up, brushing away straw sticking to her jeans and to her exposed skin. She snapped her pants and was pulling her bra back together to refasten the hook when she heard the scuffling next to her.

“Darling, wait! Hold on. What’re you doing? Aren’t we- I thought- But we didn’t even get to-”

“Jonathan, I know full well that you don’t think that I am going to stay up here with you and risk having that one down there find me in a compromising position. And in a hayloft? Oh, yeah, that would be all she needs. Get dressed.”

“I can’t believe J.J. getting me cut off like this.”

Jennifer was already buttoning her blouse. “Believe it and get dressed.”

“Aw, come on. A quickie. It’s been so long. It’ll be so good. We could-”

“Get dressed, I said. With all these clothes we have on, the quick part of it is already negated. Besides, you heard J.J. say that she’s doing a quickie on that horse. Down to the lake and back, she said, which means she won’t be gone that long. I need to get back to the house before she does.”

Giving up on getting his way, Jonathan pushed himself up from the straw and stood to fasten his pants, belt, and his shirt, which he then tucked back in.

“I’m almost afraid to ask, but why do you need to beat her getting back to the house?”

When he extended his hand down to her, she grabbed onto it and allowed him to pull her up. Once she was standing, she brushed off her legs and backside as she answered him, “Because I need to get set up.”

________________________________________________________

Oh God, this is simply beautiful.

Stephen blindly reached for the handkerchief he had been using. Grateful for the closed door, he slid his glasses down his nose, wiped at the latest bit of relentless moisture seeping from his eyes and blew his nose. Then he rocked back in the ancient wooden desk chair to marvel at the miracle of biology. How the joining of cells, chromosomes, DNA- how the biology between two people could result in something so wonderful and so lasting.

Sixteen, she had been when they met. A mere slip of a girl, but she had stolen his heart completely. When she left, she packed it in her bag and took it with her, leaving in exchange the most precious part of herself, of them, and their girl was truly a wonder. Her mother would have been so proud. But then, knowing Suzanne, she would probably have taken it all in stride. Her desires and expectations had always been great, and she had never been too timid or too delicate to say and to work for what she wanted. What she put her mind to, she accomplished. In those twelve years that she had her, Suzanne laid a solid, lasting foundation in their child, and in the end, even though she wasn’t there physically, she still achieved all that she desired with Jennifer.

… only his wife would be correcting him on that:

“All we have desired, Etienne.”

The sound of hooves momentarily surprised him. Moving fast, thundering against the frozen path that passed close by the windows to that first floor room. He didn’t; however, make the first attempt to get up to see who it might be. Only two people in that house would be out there riding in the cold and in the dark, and process of elimination said who it was. Jennifer wouldn’t push an animal that hard, and only one of the three horses in the stable allowed itself- took absolute joy in being ridden flat out in that manner any time of the day, any time of the year.

She was headed for the lake, he was sure.

Just like her grandmother… Jonathan and Jennifer’s feral, but fascinating child.

Another simple joining of cells, chromosomes, biology between two people… a merger of souls, of spirits, of dreams resulting in progeny… new beginnings from old roots… the future….

Simply beautiful.

________________________________________________________

When she realized J.J. was gone from the house altogether, and to where she had gone, Marnie also asked to be taken back to Briarwood. To her own amazement, her concern for J.J., specifically J.J.’s reason for leaving without informing her that she was, overrode the good time she was having with the boys and their parents in the game room at Pat and Bill’s place. J.J. was notorious for silently going her own way, and was getting worse about it. Her reasons for not giving advance warning were usually justifiable, but that didn’t erase the baseline expectations that came with two for one. The situation might have angered her if she thought getting angry would do any good, but Marnie understood. J.J. was J.J.; doing her own thing and not telegraphing her moves was part of who she was. However, being the oldest made keeping up with J.J. her responsibility when they were together.

Billy offered to drive her, and as much as she might have preferred for him to do that, another Hart house expectation was that she and J.J. were to “come home with the boy you left with”. Since that directive came from J.J.’s father, who rarely laid down laws so strictly but always meant what he said, it was Finn who wound up delivering her.

As Finn took the long, winding driveway that led to the main road, Marnie turned the volume down on the CD he was blasting.

“I wouldn’t have figured you for a Nelly fan.”

“Why? ‘Cause I’m a white boy from Carson City, Nevada?”

“Exactly.”

He turned the sound back up. “Nelly is the man. ‘Ride Wit Me’ is the stuff. Love me some rap.”

Marnie reached over and turned the sound back down. “I do, too. Me and J. bump it all the time at home, but that’s too loud right now for me to hear you or for us to talk. I guess Carson City isn’t as backwoods as I thought it was.”

“Carson City is not Los Angeles, I’ll admit, but we do manage to get news and tunes from the outside world. You know, I think my brother was pissed off that you insisted on me bringing you back.”

Marnie’s ears perked up. “Why would he be upset about that?”

“I guess he doesn’t like having his position of authority to be- I forget the word, like messed up, but you know what I mean.”

“Usurped.”

“Yeah, that’s it. He doesn’t like that. Especially if I’m the one doing it, being the baby and all. He has a serious need to be in charge, but I guess that comes with being the oldest.”

Marnie pulled at her seatbelt to loosen it and slid down some in her seat as she considered her own current mission along with what Finn said about Billy.

“I guess it is like that,” she said after a bit. “I can understand his feeling that way.”

As if he heard something more in what she said, Finn glanced at her before turning his attention back to the road. “Yeah, I guess you would understand. I forgot that you’re the oldest in your family, too. I know about Kyle: I’ve met him, but you have other brothers, too. How many? Two? Three?”

“Two others. There’s Kyle, then there’s Brett and Mikey. Only Brett and Mikey have the same mother, though. We’re all halves, but I’m the oldest just the same.”

“Does that get crazy sometimes? I mean, the different mothers thing? If I’m not being too nosy?”

“Nah, not really,” Marnie said with a wave of her hand. “We all live with my father now anyway. Well, actually, I haven’t for a while, and I didn’t start living with him until earlier last summer. Before then I always lived with my moth- no it’s never been all that crazy. Even after the divorce, my father kept up with me, and I’ve always been close to my brothers. Because he’s in the hospital, we’re in separate places now, but I talk to him and my brothers several times a week.”

“Sorry about your father. The accident, his injuries, and all. I wish him the best.”

“Thanks. He’s working hard on getting right again, but it’s a slow process. He has the nurses and voice-activated messaging to help him keep in touch with us.”

“What about your mother? She still in Boston with him?”

“And then Kyle and I talk every day without fail, sometimes a couple of times a day.”

A bit uneasy with Finn knowing her business, the feeling was balanced out by being important enough to Pat’s family to be discussed within their circle. But there was no way she was discussing her mother with him or with anyone. She was impressed and then grateful that Finn picked up on her switching the conversation away from the direction he trying to take it.

“Kyle really admires you, Marnie. When I met him those two times, he mentioned his big sister a lot. But then, of course, ‘Marnie’ has been a familiar name with us for years. So when I did finally meet you in person, I felt as if I’d known you forever. Kyle’s a cute kid, and a real good gamer for his age. My grandfather has taken a huge liking to him. I think he’s become the fifth grandson.”

That made Marnie smile. It was no wonder she always felt so comfortable with J.J.’s family, the immediate as well as the extended branches of it. Not like an add-on at all. They had a way of enfolding a person, including them in a manner that made them feel at home, even when it came to being in trouble. She got jacked up a lot about being wrong just like J.J. did; the Duchess spared no one when it came to making somebody see the error of her ways and correcting said errors. Funny how she felt more secure with Mr. and Mrs. Hart than with her mother, more at peace being with them than when she was living in her father’s home. Her heart warmed even further to hear Finn say that about Bill and Kyle. The well-being of that particular brother constantly concerned her. Being away at boarding school served Kyle well, especially since it took him away from their unstable stepmother and put him in close proximity to Bill and Pat even when she and her father weren’t in a position to get to him.

Pat.

Being with Pat, the security and peace thing was secondary to the comforting sense of being wanted. Pat carved out spaces for her that fit perfectly; Pat made sure they fit. Pat had once been forced onto the path she was walking, so she knew exactly what to do to make the traveling better. Even when it came to her somewhat secret fear of losing her father to those injuries that didn’t seem to be getting much better, Pat had been on top of that. Before she could say anything to Pat about it, Pat had come to her, sat down with her, and made her talk about what she was thinking and feeling. Pat lost her own father at sixteen, only when Mr. Hamilton died, as she was the last of her people, Pat was left all alone in the world. Alone, that is, except for her best friend and Mr. Edwards.

Pat told her that strays often turn out to be the strongest and the smartest if placed in the right hands. She didn’t doubt that, but thought that maybe Pat, a former “stray” herself who wound up landing in good hands, was way down deep still kind of scared and uncertain about some things, and that was why she was having an episode.

Hard to think of Pat as scared, but I guess anybody can get that way if things get bad enough… please don’t let it be bad….

... at least Bill is with her… hope she doesn’t give him too much hell…

… nah, he won’t let her; he’ll tell her to shut the hell up and listen; he can do that with her… ‘s a wonder he’s been tolerating her crap this long….

… and at least she thought about me and didn’t leave me hanging and worrying completely….

… please, please, please don’t let it be something real bad….

“Hey, where’d you go? What’re you thinking about so hard over there?”

Finn’s voice nudged Marnie out of her reverie. She wondered how long she had been in it to have Finn question her mental whereabouts. Pulling at the seatbelt again, she sat up and stretched, feigning a yawn.

“Nothing. I guess I’m just a little tired. Think I was trying to drift off. A testament to your good driving skills. You have a girlfriend, Finn?”

“No, I’m a ladies man. I like all the women. There’s nobody special right now. You?” When Marnie jerked around to check out his face, Finn was quick to add, “Have a boyfriend, I mean.”

Then they both laughed.

“I’m glad you cleaned that up, Finn. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against that sort of thing; to each his or her own in my book, but I definitely prefer the fellas. I do have a friend in LA. It’s a long distance relationship, but it works for us. Do your brothers have girlfriends? We were talking before about being the oldest and all.  What about Billy?

“Tom has a girl at home. Shane serial dates, like me. Billy was dating this one girl he’s known all through college. Her name is Amanda, and they were kind of serious, but they broke up earlier this year.”

“Broke up? What happened?”

“See, Billy is kind of focused. When he got his Bachelor’s, he went right on into grad school without taking a break.  He’s just twenty-two, but he’s always been deep into McDowell operations. Right now he works with our dad, he’s in school, and he also teaches a class at the flight academy. I think her folks were pushing real hard for a marriage once he and Amanda finished undergrad. They probably considered Billy a good catch socially and economically, but my brother wasn’t going for it. He wound up having to tell Amanda that he’s too busy trying to establish himself to get married right now. They broke up right after.”

“She go off on him? He take it hard?”

“She wasn’t happy about it, but as for Billy, who knows? I’m sure he felt bad about it; they had been together almost four years, but it’s kind of hard to tell with him. He’s a brick, kind of like my grandfather- the strong, silent type. You never really know what’s going on with them because they keep stuff to themselves. And then, too, Billy is always on the go.”

“Interesting fellow. Sounds like he knows what he wants out of life, and isn’t scared to go after it.”

“Well, we’ve all kind of been beaten over the head with making goals and staying on track and all of that. Our parents talk to us a lot about how they got married in college and started a family so young. They say it worked out for them because they knew what they wanted to do, but even so, it was very hard at times to keep up with their plans, be married, and take care of kids. They don’t recommend it for us at least until we finish college and live some. They’ve been pretty up front about all they’ve gone through. And then, too, look who we have to look up to. Hard acts to follow if you don’t stay on your game.”

“I think that’s good that they talk to you guys about things like that. Adults should be up front about the things that matter. That’s why I like Pat. She keeps me on my game, and she tells it like it is.”

She could see the smile slowly forming on Finn’s lips as if he were picturing something in his mind that was triggered by what she said.

“Yeah, she does,” Finn said through his grin. “With all of us. It’s going to be awesome having her for an official grandmother. All of us love her. Getting back to Billy, his being here with us this weekend is a rarity for him. He’s usually flying somewhere on business or for whatever, so he’s not with us a lot. He came here with us this weekend specifically for Pop and Pat. I sure hope everything works out okay for this wedding. It would be a shame if-”

“Don’t worry about it, Finn. I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Marnie lay her head back against the headrest as Finn pulled up to the brick post at the mouth of Briarwood’s driveway and powered down his window. She patted the back of Finn’s hand that was resting on the console between them. “Pat keeps her word when she puts it out there. And Uncle Bill is probably the only person on earth who can make her keep to it if she were to decide to go back on it.”

Finn had powered down the window, but instead of pushing the intercom button, he looked back over his shoulder at her. “You think?”

She nodded. “I know.”

“I guess you’d be the one for that. Being up close and personal like you’ve been. Those two, talk about your power couple. It’s a wonder they don’t cancel each other out.”

“Two different kinds of power,” Marnie said, brushing her hair back from her face, hooking the longer side  behind her ear. “Negative and positive charges lined up the right way, make a thing work the way it’s supposed to.”

Finn turned around to press the intercom button. “I can see why you and J. are friends; you’re both smart.”

“Welcome to Briarwood,” Walter’s voice spoke into the frigid night air. “Whom may I ask is calling?”

Finn announced Marnie’s return and then continued up the drive where he dropped her off at the doorstep.

“See you tomorrow some time, Marnie.”

She waved before going inside and closing the door.

Walter had either unlocked the door remotely or had done it manually and proceeded on because there was nobody in the front hall to take her things from her. That wasn’t unusual, though. She wasn’t considered a guest and based on her own experiences there, teenagers at Briarwood weren’t deferred to very often, much like they weren’t at her grandmother’s house in Texas.

It was as she was hanging up her coat that the Harts entered the foyer from the center hall. Judging by their jackets and hats and the gloves they were removing, it appeared they were coming in from outside themselves. It was Mr. H. who spoke.

“Hey there, what’re you doing back so soon? I thought I’d have to call for you to get you back here.”

The way he treated her and talked to her as if she were his own always made Marnie feel good.

“No, I got down there and thought about some things I needed to do here that were more pressing than sitting around and playing video games and stuff, so I had Finn bring me back.”

Mrs. H. was looking past her, toward the staircase. She seemed distracted, but what Marnie noticed more were her flushed cheeks and the bits of what appeared to be straw stuck to her plush suede jacket. Mrs. H. rarely had so much as a hair out of place, much less stuff stuck to her.

“Have you seen J.J.?” she asked, still not quite looking at her.

“No, ma’am, but then I just walked through the door. She could be anywhere.”

To herself, however, Marnie prayed that J.J. was somewhere upstairs.

She had been around the Duchess enough to know when the woman was casting her rod, and when J.J. was the target of her hook. Marnie also knew when her girlfriend was up to something. J.J. had taken off from Bill and Pat’s without saying a word to her. Not a good sign. And now her mother had that look while asking about her.

Was it that she knew about J.J. going down to Pat’s and was mad about it? Or was it something else? Could it be about them working it so the boys could come over last night? Or was it that damned memory card with the pictures of them modeling Pat’s furs while half-dressed? Maybe she’d heard something from Pat. Or about Pat.

“I- I’m going to go on up,” Marnie said, easing the closet door shut while trying to not let show the nervousness creeping in on her. “Want I should tell J. that you’re looking for her?”

Mr. Hart stepped forward, using his hand against his wife’s back to move her on.

“No, that’s all right, sweetheart,” he said as they passed her. “‘It’s no big deal. Mrs. H. will catch up to her later, I’m sure.”

You’re sure? So the hell am I.

Be upstairs, J. Be upstairs. Pleeeeeease be upstairs.

Marnie watched them go, and for a fleeting moment she wondered how Mr. H. got that straw on the back of his jacket and the seat of his pants.

________________________________________________________

The exhilaration of her night ride, the heady thrill of stealing away to take it, and then hot footing it back to the house from the stable left J.J. breathless. Seated on the boot bench in the mud room, her jacket bunched in her arms and hugged to her stomach, she rocked, concentrating hard on regulating her breathing while at the same time willing away the coughing spell that threatened.

When she felt closer to her normal, collected self again, she hung the jacket there on one of the hooks. That would to keep anyone from asking questions should she happen to run up on the wrong person, a category that included any one of the adults in the house. Opening the door, she checked her surroundings and then removed her shoes before venturing out and tipping up the back staircase to the second floor. Near the top, ducked low, she peeked through the spindles to make sure the hall was empty. Satisfied that it was, she cleared the top steps and scuttled around to her bedroom.

Once inside, she leaned in relief against the closed door, chuckling in self satisfaction at her own stealth and guile before turning on the light, dropping her shoes, and throwing herself across the bed. To do the things she wanted to do, when and how she wanted to do them without having to answer to anyone always felt so deeply, deeply satisfying.

Her phone buzzed in her back pocket, and she dug it out to check the display.

Marnie.

She thumbed in a quick apology text for leaving without notice, assuring Marnie that she was fine and telling her to go ahead and have a good time with guys. After sending it, she clicked off and got up to turn on the shower. While the water warmed, she went into the closet to put together an outfit for meeting Teddy the next day. Deep into what she was doing, she almost jumped out of her socks when she turned around and Marnie was standing right next to her, reading her phone message.

Sagged against the back wall where she landed after staggering there, J.J. pressed a hand to her breast to prevent her pounding heart from bursting out of it.

“Jeez, Marn! You scared the living daylights out of me. You know better than to walk up on me all quiet like that.”

Unfazed by the reprimand, Marnie flipped closed the phone, placed her hands on her hips, and rocked back on her heels.

“I figured you were going to try that, J., texting me instead of calling me back.  I knew you were going to do that ’cause you didn’t want to hear me cussing you out for taking off without saying. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back here? You’re lucky I’m not kicking your ass. You know better than to just take off like that. Why the hell did you do that?”

“I didn’t know you were back. I thought you were still at Pat’s house when you called.”

Marnie held a palm up to J.J.’s face. “Talk to this, J.J. Hart. How are you going to just text somebody- no, text me- in response to a personal phone call? Why didn’t you pick up and talk to me? ‘Cause you didn’t want to hear me going off on you, that’s why. Admit it.”

Recovered from her shock, J.J. pushed off the wall and went back to what she was doing.

“Okay, I admit. But at the time I sent it I thought you were still at Pat’s. Shoot, I almost didn’t answer you at all, but I went ahead and texted you because I didn’t want you to worry or to think you had to come home just because I had left.”

“Yeah, well, I came back here when Billy told me he had brought you back after I noticed you were gone so long from the game room. What’s up with that, J.? What was so pressing that you had to come back here after wanting to get out so badly?

She slid a powder blue cashmere sweater along the rack in J.J.’s direction. “Here wear this with those jeans; it’s a good color on you. Goes with your eyes, although I don’t know why in the world you aren’t showing him some leg. I mean, I know you can’t get away with showing him some cleavage because the Duchess will hurry up and cut you off from that, but a little leg you could get away with. So like, why didn’t you tell me you were leaving? I could see you were kind of antsy when you were there.”

After fingering the sweater a second, J.J. accepted Marnie’s suggestion, moving the sweater to the section where she’d hung the pants.

“First of all, Marnie Elaine, I’m not going out of my way to show Teddy, or any boy for that matter, anything on me that he can’t naturally see. Secondly, even if I were to try it, of course the Duchess would nix any show of boobs on my part. Then thirdly- is that a word? Whatever. You know I don’t wear dresses when I don’t have to, and even if I did opt to wear a dress or a skirt, Teddy still wouldn’t see any leg because the hem would be down to my ankles, and the garment would only be on long enough for me to eat dinner. And to address that last thing you said, I was antsy. I came back here to chill out. You didn’t tell me about that picture of Pat in the living room.”

“Oh yeah, that’s new. Tonight was my first time seeing it, too. It wasn’t there when I was at the house the last time. Bill must be planning to surprise her with it- whenever they show up. It is definitely gorgeous, isn’t it? She looks absolutely regal in it. But look here, speaking of surprises….”

J.J. had her bathrobe draped over her arm and was moving toward the closet door. “What about surprises?”

Marnie followed her out into the bedroom. “I think your father and the Duch-“

When J.J. abruptly stopped, Marnie ran smack into her. “Damn, J., what the hel- ooh!“

Both girls froze.

________________________________________________________

With a contented sigh, Jonathan closed the box and put it back where he had it concealed. Aside from this hiccup with Pat, everything else was on schedule to proceed according to plan. J.J.’s unexpected appearance in the stable to rendezvous with Triple J had put the kibosh on his rendezvous with Jennifer up in the loft, but in a roundabout way, even that kept things going according to his design. As much as he might miss Jennifer’s touch, and as much as he wanted to be with her in that way, that was not the time or the place for it to happen. Real enticing, though, but way too soon.

He made plans and stuck by them. At least he tried to. Where Jennifer and making love to her was concerned it wasn’t always so cut and dry. But then J.J.’s turning up wound up ensuring that her daddy stayed the course, even though she hadn’t been the least bit aware that was what she was doing at the time. After all, she’d had her own agenda in coming to the stable; her parents- at least what they were doing, not to mention where they were at the time as long as she thought they weren’t anywhere near her- were probably the last thing on her mind. For J.J., like it had been with him as a kid, getting out on the sly was a necessity. Getting caught at it was almost always a certainty, but the trip itself well worth all of it.

His hope for his only offspring was that she wasn’t catching too much hell from his wife over her latest escapade.

As for himself, a cold, well cool, shower would have to do.

Grabbing his pajama bottoms from where Rosa had lain the set out for him on the bed, he went on into the bathroom.

________________________________________________________

“I see there haven’t been any improvements with that nasty little tongue of yours.”

Busted outright, all Marnie had been able to do was hang her head in shame and silently accept the fussing-at she got. In the end, she offered a humble, “Yes, ma’am,” before being ordered to her room to get ready for bed.

Then those eyes turned themselves on her.

“Justine, we need to talk. Go and get your shower. I’ll wait. Fifteen minutes- not a second longer.”

As she rushed to put things back together and get on the other side of the door on time, the gears of J.J.’s mind, fueled by the hot steam of her apprehension and confusion, churned out thoughts so fast she was having trouble keeping up with them. What did her mother want? What did she know? Was it about the horse? Had she spied her from the window while she was out there with Trip? In hindsight, taking him out at night hadn’t been such a bright thing to do, but at the time getting caught wasn’t enough of a concern to be a deterrent.

Was it about the guys and getting Pa to let them come over? Surely it couldn’t be that. The Duchess didn’t make a big deal about guys coming over to visit. Maybe she was upset about them coming over to this house. Maybe she didn’t like it that they had involved Pa in it. But Pa didn’t seem to object about them being there. Had he only been pretending to not mind and waited until the Duchess got there to say something about it to her in private? That couldn’t be. Pa shut the grownups down when they got there and tried to fuss at them about the boys and Marnie taking the car and leaving without permission. If the boys being there was going to be a bother to Pa, he never would have allowed it in the first place. He’d have negated it when Marnie was on the phone begging. Pa wasn’t one to use a middle man- woman in this case- to speak for him. He’d have said “No” himself. That couldn’t be it.

Was it about her going over to Pat’s without legitimate permission? If the Duchess suspected the loophole theory had been used, she would be pissed off about that. She didn’t like those kinds of games, especially when they were being played over her daughter’s whereabouts.

Or could it be the memory card? Was she was going to go there? If so, why had she sent Marnie packing? Marnie was in the pictures, too, and her poses had been a whole lot more risqué. But then again, it wasn’t Marnie prancing around on film sporting her mother’s fur while singing “Santa, Baby”, telling him to leave a sable under the tree “for me-e-e-e”.

Oh, God, please don’t let it be about that. Please don’t let her have seen that.

If the Duchess was out there waiting like she was, it had to be something truly, truly serious. But what?

None of it was a good thing, not with the Duchess’ nerves likely being frayed over Pat. She was playing it off well, but J.J. could always tell when there was something bothering her mother, even if she didn’t speak it. The air around her would change. Something in her eyes would be different, as had been the case at dinner. She wasn’t sure if anyone else had picked up on it; her mother was a supreme actress, but she wasn’t enough of one to get past her daughter. At the time, she attributed those things she could see to Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill’s absence from the group. But could it have been caused by something else? Dean Marchand being at the table, maybe?

Or was it something else that Jennifer Hart wanted to get with her daughter about?

“What the hell else could have I done?”

Dipping her fingers into the jar of night cream, J.J. ran one more mental inventory of her most recent actions as she hastily slathered her face. She was still working the cream in with one hand as she used the other to open the door to the bedroom.

“Justine, how many times do I have to remind you not to rub at your eyes like that?”

J.J. immediately switched to fingertips only, gingerly tapping at her eyes with them. “Sorry. I always forget.”

“When you’re thirty and looking as if you’re fifty because the skin around your eyes is so damaged, you’ll wish you had remembered.”

J.J. sat down on the side of the bed. She pushed the hair out of her face and moved it back behind her shoulders as she sneaked peeks at her mother, checking out her body language, attempting to discern from it the reason for her visit.

Her mother always dressed well, but J.J. preferred her in that casual, more relaxed attire.  Assessing the attractive fifty-something woman seated across from her, she couldn’t help but notice the top three buttons of her blouse, how they were undone just the way they should have been, showing just enough, and how well she wore those tight jeans and tall riding boots. J.J.’s thoughts manifested themselves in an involuntary verbal response.

“I figure I have some real excellent genes to fall back on. Biology and heredity on both sides of my branch of the tree indicate that I probably won’t age or break all that fast.”

She hadn’t meant to actually say it aloud like that, but she didn’t regret it getting past her lips and out into the air. It wasn’t an attempt at flattery or buttering anyone up; she meant all of it and it as far as she was concerned, it was true. Her hope; however, was that it didn’t come off sounding smart-alecky or sarcastic.

Evidently it didn’t matter either way.

“Hmph, genes will only take you so far, young lady. There are some things you have to actively take care of yourself. They don’t happen just because you want them to or because you think nature is going to do it for you. And speaking of nature and of taking care of yourself-” J.J.’s breath caught when Jennifer hooked a finger at her and then pointed to the hassock she moved directly in front of her. “-come here to me.”

Deafened by internal screams of, “Inquisition! Inquisition!”, inside her temples, J.J. rose from the bed, the guilt spraying her psyche like blood spatters on bedroom walls in an episode of CSI.

Wha’d I do? Wha’d I do? Which thing is it? Which one? Or ones?

Dang, I really need to quit, then I wouldn’t have to be going through this kind of thing with her all the time.

… but then where would the sport be in that?

Ooh, I really must have a screw loose….

Play it off, J. Just be cool, and let her show you what she has first….

________________________________________________________

E&J, or “Easy Jesus” as Jonathan often referred to it, stung like the devil initially, but after that, went down ever so smoothly. Brandy, even brandy of dubious quality, eased jangled nerves, toasted chilled insides, and soothed for a time arrested, frustrated libidos.  Besides, it was what Jonathan had in the flask at the time, and she had been in a hurry to get from their room into J.J.’s. Timing, as it turned out, had been everything.

Jennifer was taking the last slow sip of her of her drink when the bathroom door eased open. She peeked at her wrist and then watched as J.J., freshly showered and dressed in her nightgown, reentered the bedroom two minutes inside the allotted time frame. With all that thick, wavy hair loose and wild and no other enhancement or adornment than the glow of scrubbed-clean youth, even she had to admit her child was downright pretty. Most of the time, though, J.J. didn’t care much about any of that, as evidenced by how roughly she was rubbing at her face to blend the night cream in, an action which obliged the experienced woman-mother in her to address that persistent bad habit in the young girl-daughter.

“Justine, how many times do I have to remind you not to rub at your face like that?”

For the briefest moment, those blue eyes lifted themselves to her and then closed as J.J. switched to tapping at her eyelids and the skin underneath her eyes with her fingertips in the way she had been shown.

“Sorry. I always forget.”

Although she was trying to appear cool and unconcerned as she finished her regimen and sat down on the side of the bed, J.J.’s wariness wafted over to her, feeling her out, and it had her wondering. How many other transgressions had that girl committed while her mother was otherwise occupied? How many scenarios was she over there running in her head, worried if  her mother knew of them? Inwardly, Jennifer smiled. There was nothing better than catching that little one off guard and making her squirm, except, of course, tripping her up and causing her to inadvertently ‘fess to something her mother wasn’t even aware of at the time.

“When you’re thirty and looking as if you’re fifty because the skin around your eyes is so damaged, you’ll wish you had remembered.”

J.J. appeared to stop and study her for a moment. Jennifer eyed her back, finding it fascinating how J.J. so resembled her in appearance, but at times could effect a look that made it abundantly clear Jonathan Hart also bore strong responsibility for her existence.

As it turned out, though, judging by what she wound up saying, J.J. had likely been over there doing some assessing.

“I figure I have some real excellent genes to fall back on. Biology and heredity on both sides of my branch of the tree indicate that I probably won’t age or break all that fast.”

Is that meant to be a compliment, or is she trying to get flip?

But just as quickly as they came, Jennifer dismissed those unspoken questions triggered by J.J.’s out-of-the-blue response. They had bigger business to handle.

“Hmph, genes will only take you so far, young lady,” she said as she used her foot to slide over the hassock beside the chair so that it was directly in front of her. “There are some things you have to actively take care of yourself. They don’t happen just because you want them to or because you think nature is going to do it for you. And speaking of nature and of taking care of yourself, come here to me.”

J.J. was up and on her way over when she stopped her by holding up her hand.

“Wait. Show me what you plan to wear tomorrow for Teddy’s visit.”

Diverting, J.J. went around the bed and into the closet, coming back out with a blue sweater folded across her arm, and a pair of stonewashed jeans on a hanger, which she brought over to her. Jennifer took the sweater and held it up by the shoulders.

“Um-hmm, turtle neck. This will do just fine.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught J.J. checking out the unbuttoned top of her blouse and rolling her eyes. However, she chose not to address what she knew was going through J.J.’s mind. How many times had she told that girl to do as she said and not as she saw her mother do? When grown, J.J. Hart could do as she liked, but until that time, her ‘girls’ would remain sequestered.

Refolding the sweater, she lay it back across J.J.’s arm. After smoothing her hand over the jeans, concluding to herself that fussing about J.J. wearing them as opposed to a pair of casual slacks was a battle not worth fighting, she issued her approval.

“All right. Decent choices. You may take them back.”

When J.J. returned, she started for the side of the bed, but Jennifer crooked a finger at her.

“Nope. Come here to me like I told you to do.”

Then she pointed to the hassock and could have sworn she heard J.J.’s breath catch, a definite sign she suspected her number was up but couldn’t put her finger on why.

As wild as a colt you are, Miss- excuse me, Ms. Hart. You shouldn’t always be doing something, then you wouldn’t have to be so concerned over what I want with you when I show up like this.

Look at that hair. Absolutely gorgeous, but you couldn’t care less about it.

“And bring the brush with you.”

J.J. sat down, handing the hairbrush over her shoulder.

She loved brushing J.J.’s hair. Not only did she enjoy the feel of it, but being allowed to brush it was a privilege. It was one of the few things J.J. still liked having done for her. Then, too, there was the added benefit of the physical closeness for a sustained amount of time. As she was getting older, J.J. increasingly strived for separation and independence, as was the natural order of things. She was usually so on the go and caught up in her own daily teenaged life that she wasn’t often in one place long enough for many such moments. And then too, J.J.’s mother was often on the run and occupied, as the case had been recently. The mother-daughter talks were lessening in number, but becoming even more important and precious.

With the flat of her hand, Jennifer began smoothing the hair, starting with purposefully moving it back from J.J.’s forehead.

“I don’t have a fever, Mom. I can feel you checking. This is just a cold, and it’s already getting better, just like it always does after the first day or so.”

Behind her daughter’s head, Jennifer pursed her lips at being caught and at the sassy rebuke; there was no fooling J.J. Hart.

“You just sit there and let me be the mother.”

Thinking of J.J. out there riding that horse with the hood of her jacket pulled up on her head, trapping her rising body heat, she asked, “So, why didn’t you wash your hair?”

“Because you said to be back out here in fifteen minutes. Past experience has taught me that it’s in my best interest to keep to dictat- established curfews and time limits when it’s you who’s setting them.”

“I see. Well, experience does tend to be the best teacher.”

“And we both know it would have taken me way longer than that to get a proper shower and wash my hair. We won’t even talk about drying it. Besides, Aunt Pat’s people will be all over us like bad rashes come Saturday morning. She’s already paid for their services, so why should I interfere with their craftsmanship? You’ve always told me I shouldn’t mess with people’s livelihoods. By Saturday morning, whoever does me will have a serious challenge on their hands. They’ll be earning their money for real on this head.”

In her own head Jennifer agreed. By that time, whoever it was, certainly would have a job on his or her hands.

Jennifer took her time untangling the auburn tresses, working her way to separating it all into three sections as she kept her tone light and conversational. “So what did you do after dinner? I got tied up myself. I hadn’t seen you all evening, so I thought I’d take a minute and stop in here to check on you.”

Those shoulders before her stiffened a bit making Jennifer wish she could see the face. Then those same shoulders flashed in her mind, but up there they were bare. The hair was pulled to the front of them and the femininely muscled young back was naked save for the sable slung low across it.

… little preening Jezebel… scarily well-built would-be harlot….

Stay focused, Jennifer. Not now.

“Nothing much,” J.J. answered after a moment. “Just kind of bumped around. Talked on the phone. Did some other stuff. What did you do after dinner?”

… and ‘some other stuff’? Indeed.

“Oh, nothing. Took care of some loose ends. Made some calls myself, then I went over to visit with Dean Marchand in the guest house.”

“Did you walk over to the Dean’s or drive?”

Letting me play my hand first? That’s right, little girl, feel me out. I recognize the strategy. The Sorcerer has certainly done his job; you have been well taught.

“I rode. I took Legs out for some exercise.”

The head lifted slightly, the neck straightened, and Jennifer was sure her daughter’s eyes squeezed shut with dread as she wondered how much her mother knew. Legs had been in his stall when J.J. left, and he was there when she came back, but that girl was enough of a sleuth in the making to know that didn’t have to mean anything in terms of if or how she and Triple J had been found out.

Despite her probable unease, J.J. kept her voice even and unconcerned, too.

“Oh, yeah? Did Dean Marchand and Ms. Smythe make it nice out there? What’re the new rooms like?”

Then J.J. twisted around just enough to peek into her face. “What about that attic door?”

In placing the guest house on the discussion table, Jennifer figured J.J. would ask about that door. They hadn’t talked about the guest house, the garret, or any of it since their last visit to Briarwood. But it was for certain J.J. remembered about her grandmother’s private room above that house and would be concerned about it being protected from outsiders, even if those the outsiders were her grandfather’s invited friends. Jennifer used J.J.’s shoulders to turn her back around. Gathering the section of hair she was working on, she resumed the long, burnishing brush strokes as she spoke.

“They seem quite comfortable and settled. It’s cozy and very nice. The two new rooms make it even more pleasant for them as it allows them more room to spread out, as well as to accommodate Ms. Smythe’s tutees.”

“I wish I could be here sometime when she’s doing that. I’d like to watch and maybe help out, if she’d let me. I like working with kids; they’re fun when they’re learning new stuff. But what about that door, Mom?”

“There is no door, J.J. It’s gone. There’s only a wall there now.”

J.J.’s posture seemed to relax some with the news. “Pa is the king of that, isn’t he?”

Jennifer pressed her lips together as the image of that set of double doors to that bedroom around the corner appeared in her head, momentarily overwhelming her and stopping the brush. Not until that moment did it occur to her J.J. had probably also been around that corner and was aware that the wall in front of the doors to her grandmother’s room was gone. So blown away by it herself when Jonathan took her around there the night before to see, J.J.’s hours of relatively unsupervised exploration time before her mother arrived at Briarwood hadn’t crossed her mind. For sure, Ms. Nosy had discovered those doors for herself, and in her customary close-tongued fashion, kept her knowledge of them quiet.

But how far had she gone? Most likely alone when she went around there, had J.J. ventured into the room? J.J. was nosy, but intrusive? In no way the focal point of her visit to J.J., there sat the issue anyway, staring down on both of them like a magistrate waiting for the right question to be asked and the answer to it that would be offered. From the resumed rigidity she felt and observed in her daughter’s body, J.J., too, realized that she had unintentionally stepped into it. There was no sense in pussy-footing around it.

“So did you go inside, J.J.?”

Apparently J.J. felt as she did about not beating around the bush- or the doors as the case happened to be; she made no attempt to stall or to act as if she didn’t understand the question.

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t feel it was my place to do so. I thought it was probably something you should do.”

Relieved that her faith in her daughter’s sense of discretion hadn’t been compromised, Jennifer allowed, “Or that maybe you and I should do together. But not on this trip.”

When J.J. nodded her agreement, Jennifer gathered the three freshly brushed sections in her hands and began braiding them together. It was time to get to the point.

“So how did you find Triple J?”

The back stiffened again and this time J.J. did not readily take the bait, but the gears hard at work inside that red head were almost audible. Behind her, Jennifer smiled in satisfaction.

“Trip?” J.J. ventured after a prolonged silence.

“Yes, Trip, your retired race horse that you love to ride when you come here. You know the horse your grandfather makes sure is here for you when you’re visiting. How did you find him?”

Again there was a delay before J.J. finally murmured, “He’s fine.”

“He rode well?”

Huh?”

“I asked you if he rode well?”

J.J.’s spine slumped forward and the sigh was a loud one. “Mom, how do you always know?”

“I keep telling you, there is nothing you do that I don’t suspect, soon find out about, or already know about, especially if it’s something you’re trying to slide past me. J.J., why in the world would you take that horse out in the night, and why would you do so when you knew I didn’t want you fanning around outside with that head cold  you have? I’ve been keeping you in the house ever since I arrived. Your father told me that before I got here, he also had you to stay in, so what in the world would possess you to slip out and ride a horse, no less, in frigid Maryland air when you know you have a big weekend coming up and that you need to be well for it?”

“I don’t know. I just had to. I was going stir crazy, Mom. I really, really needed some air.”

“So if you really, really needed some air, as you say, why not go and stand on the front porch for a few minutes? You could have breathed and then brought yourself right back inside.”

“That’s not the same, Mom, and you know it. I love horses. If there’s a horse for me to ride, you know I’m going to ride it. You would, too, even if you were sick or had a headache or something.”

Just like her father, she was. Just like him.

“We’re not talking about me, J.J. Hart.”

“I know, but you once told me that riding is therapeutic for you. I think it might be for me, too.”

Minx.

Try as you might, you are not slick enough to reverse this onto me. Every bit and shade of your father….

“And you’re neglecting to mention the therapeutic thrill you get from doing something you know you’re not supposed to do, Justine Jonathan Hart.”

The dimple flashed in J.J.’s lower cheek, the one that only showed itself when the smile was naughty and she was trying to hide it.

“But Mom, nobody specifically said I couldn’t.”

“Did you specifically ask?”

“I- I guess not.”

“You guess not?”

“I mean, no, I didn’t ask.” The shoulders bowed even more. “But you would have just said, ‘no’ to me if I had asked you.”

Unmoved by the body humble language, which she sensed was more for effect than out of any sincere remorse, Jennifer also refused to acknowledge the subtle challenge she thought she could hear in her daughter’s answer. Instead, she plowed on with her line of question.

“So, you just went ahead and did it with the hope that you would get away with it, but if you did happen to get caught and get into trouble over it later, at least you would have had the satisfaction of having ridden the horse, right? Even if you got put on restriction over it, by then nobody could take having done what you wanted to do from you, right?”

When she didn’t get an immediate response, Jennifer used her knees to J.J.’s sides to squeeze it out. “Right?”

A quick jerk of surprise, then J.J. murmured, “Yes. And that hurt.”

“It was supposed to.”

Finishing the braid, pulling a bit tighter at the end to keep it from so easily coming loose during the night, Jennifer took hold of those shoulders again to turn the girl around to face her. “J.J. Hart, I don’t know what in the world I am going to do with you.”

“You could just-”

Jennifer dropped her head and held up a hand. “I know, I know. Just love you.”

When she looked up again she found that impish freckled face struggling to appear contrite. Against her will, she had to fight hard to remain serious against the irrepressible twinkle in those Jonathan-blue eyes.

“What else is there for me to do, Justine, except love you? You’re too big to spank, and I realized early on that sort of thing wouldn’t benefit you in any way. I’d only be setting myself up for a possible heart attack from exhaustion because I’d have to give it to you good to get through to you. And it would all be for naught because in the end, you’d still be just as incorrigible.”

This time it was J.J.. who dropped her head, hand to her mouth, the fingers squeezing at her lips, attempting to press away the “I-got-you, Mom” smirk forming there. She reached for J.J.’s chin and used it to bring their eyes back together.

“But seriously, we need to talk, J.J. Before tomorrow and Teddy gets here, you and I need to establish some parameters. You tend to try things when you think I’m not paying you any attention, and I-”

“Okay, Mom. But first, may I tell you something else? I think I need to get it out. Promise you won’t be mad?”

Slightly surprised at being cut off, Jennifer sat back to eye her child. “You can tell me, but I’m not promising anything. What have you done?”

J.J.’s fingers twisted at that emerald ring, and noting that sign, Jennifer planted her feet, bracing herself for whatever it was that was coming.

“Well, in light of what’s just been brought out to the open, and since I’m pretty sure now that I messed up, I think I should tell you before someone else says something about it around you, or before you somehow find out from somewhere else and think I was trying to get past you with it….”

“Get past me with what, Justine?”

“Well, see, while you were out riding and down at the guest house visiting and stuff, see… well … I kind of left.”

“Kind of left? Left to go where?”

Her ring now a green-gold blur, J.J. hurried the answer. “I went with Marnie to Aunt Pat’s. I admit; I loopholed it and went. I had Billy bring me right back, though. It- it- it just didn’t feel right once I got down there.”

Jennifer closed her eyes and used her own fingers to smooth the sudden puckering between her eyebrows. “I see. Now let me get this straight. Going to Pat’s the way you did didn’t feel right to you, but once you got back here, even though it was dark of night and the dead of winter, you came to the stable, got Triple J and rode him?”

Cheeks aflame, J.J. turned her face from the unrelenting, accusatory stare being sent her way. Jennifer again took hold of the chin to bring the face back.

“You called yourself piggybacking on Marnie’s permission to go to Pat’s. So, you were just all over the place tonight when you thought I wasn’t watching. What did I just say about the things you tend to try when you think I’m not paying attention?”

J.J. humbly bowed her head. “For real, it wasn’t all that clear when you guys said it. You know, that it was just meant for Marnie, so I-”

“Justine, hush with that. You knew. Just like you knew when you almost got on that airplane headed to Boston with that Sinclair boy without permission. I haven’t forgotten about that, and that’s exactly why I’m here. That is exactly the sort of thing I want to discuss with you.”

Jennifer leaned forward to take J.J.’s hands into her own, pulling her all the way around and a bit closer. “Now you pay attention to me, and you hear every word I say. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

________________________________________________________

When the door clicked closed behind her, J.J crawled from the hassock up into the chair her mother vacated while it was still warm from her having been there. She tucked the gown over her bare feet after pulling her legs up to sit on them. Then, moving the braid around to the front of her shoulder for added cushion, she lay her head on the chair’s tufted arm to think about what had gone down. It turned out to be nothing near the bad scene she anticipated when she and Marnie came out of that closet and saw they had company waiting for them with a drink in her hand. The Duchess only brought a drink with her when she intended to go deep. She’d done gone deep, but things turned out a whole lot better, and ended up quite differently than expected.

The Duchess might be a huge pain in the butt at times, and her rules and expectations could chafe and at times suffocate a person, but there was nobody on earth better suited to be J.J. Hart’s mother than J.J. Edwards Hart. That woman really knew how to throw her kid off balance, but at the same time keep her on her toes.

…and how to let her know she was loved and appreciated for who she was.

Nobody better.

No better daughter to Pa.

Or best friend to Pat Hamilton.

Nobody….

My Daddy was and is absolutely on the money….

________________________________________________________

Jennifer closed J.J.’s bedroom door behind her and then, tapping her chin with her fingers, a faint smile playing at her lips, she stood there a moment to reflect. There was nothing like shaking J.J. Hart up and then watching her wait for her mother to drop that shoe, the one that had never even come off her foot.

An absolute paradox in the form of a young girl, that one was. If only she knew….

Brilliant, self-reliant, generous, and responsible on one hand. On the other, wild, willful, impulsive, and afflicted with occasional bouts of tunnel-vision. Normally fairly even-tempered and pleasant, but under the right circumstances or pushed to it, defensive, easily angered, and not at all hesitant to make it physical. Constantly reading and studying, always learning from everything and everywhere, but full of questions that she could fire off like nobody’s business. And funny as hell. Despite all the things she could be and all the means she had at her disposal to be them, J.J. was a very good girl. Well-grounded and precociously self-aware, but still very much her mother’s sweet girl.

Leaned against the wall, Jennifer breathed a long sigh of relief and gratitude.

So far the stress, the embarrassment and scandal, trips to the police station, juvenile court, and the financial loss suffered by some of their friends and acquaintances as the result of their children’s misdeeds had bypassed her and Jonathan. Truth told, in many of those cases, the kids ran wild because their parents lived their lives in a manner that kept them from paying the right kind of attention. They left their children’s upbringing to the help, or to the schools, or in some cases, seemingly to the winds. Children were given and had access to way too much too soon, before values, responsibility, or earning one’s way could be taught and established in them.

In the years that she and Jonathan were childless, while their friends were having and raising children, she observed those parental shortcomings with a detached, more objective eye. At the time, that sort of thing didn’t apply to her, and after a while, she thought they never would. Although she could see where the problems might lie, she withheld comment or opinion. Fortunately, those mental notes had stored themselves away, waiting for that time further down the line that she would need to resurrect them, dust them off, and put them into play with her own late-in-life daughter.

The only real worry they currently had with J.J. was her tendency toward wanderlust and her increasing capacity to indulge it, but at least that desire was still pure. With J.J. it wasn’t a matter of defying her parents rules, sneaking out to party, or a substance abuse problem she had to get out of the house to feed. She wasn’t lying and taking off to be with boys. When J.J. did out of the way things, they were done because she was curious about something and trying to figure it out, or she just wanted to do them without being told she couldn’t. In short, J.J. was having increasing difficulty waiting to be the mistress of her own world, and as quiet as she kept it, mama could certainly relate to that.

She was willful, but J.J. kept it clean and above board. Riding a horse at night, leaving the house with dubious permission- to visit her godmother’s house no less, entertaining thoughts of flying on a private plane without permission, for J.J. it was strictly the thrill of doing what she wanted that motivated her actions. Like her father said about her earlier, Justine Hart could have far worse habits and tendencies.

… now the modeling session thing in Pat’s cold storage vault, which had been tabled for another time when she could blindside J.J. with it, remained to be explained. But still, she got the feeling that was fairly innocent, too. In a roundabout way, that episode had been the real catalyst for her visit to that bedroom. A lot about J.J. and the things she did were subject to interpretation, but the wrong interpretation could lead to trouble.

Because she spent so much time around J.J., and because they did talk about important things, she knew J.J. But Pa did not, at least not that part of her. Pa would be focused on her being female, her looks and the effect those things might have on someone. Overseeing Pat’s wedding and reception arrangements would keep her busy, away from Briarwood, at Hamilton-McDowell Farms where she would probably be from early morning on. That would leave J.J. on her own with her grandfather.

Did Aunt Pat help out a lot with your wedding?”

“She planned my wedding; you know how she is. I was the yea or nay person. She let me say what I wanted, but for the most part, she ran the show.”

“So you don’t mind running hers in her absence, huh?”

Not at all.

Funny how J.J. hadn’t pushed past that, how she hadn’t asked anything more, such as wanting to know how everyone could be so sure that Pat was planning to turn up at all since as far as J.J. knew, Pat and Bill hadn’t been heard from.

But all of that aside, with the adults occupied by the wedding preparations most of the day, the kids would be doing their own thing. Teddy would be arriving in the morning, and once he deposited his bags at Pat’s, no doubt he’d be headed straight to Briarwood to be with J.J.- and Pa.  Because of that inevitability, J.J. had to be prepped. She had to be let in on Pa’s way of thinking so that he didn’t put her on the defensive in his efforts to be protective of her. This was going to be a first for Pa and J.J., and Pa was very old school. There were latitudes that she and Jonathan allowed J.J. when she was ‘keeping company’ that her father might take issue with. There wasn’t a whole lot that could be done with him, so J.J. had to be briefed to help her understand the difference in home and Briarwood since her mother would not be there to run interference for her. J.J would have to hold her own and perhaps do things for appearance’s sake with an added amount of that word she often said she didn’t care for: decorum.

“So you’re saying that I should put on airs?”

“Not airs. Just watch what you do and where you go with Teddy.”

“Huhhhhh, this is so crazy. I almost don’t want Teddy to come now. How come fathers and grandfathers are so paranoid? What would make Pa be like that about me?”

“Because Pa is who he is, and I know him. And I know you. I’m here tonight looking out for you tomorrow.”

“But I’m not hot and fast. I’m not Marnie. I mean, Marnie’s my girl and all, but we both know her and how she is with boys. Teddy’s just a friend to me. I’ve told Pa that already.”

“I know you’re not hot or fast, and I believe you when you say Teddy’s just a friend to you. But that’s exactly why I’m telling you the things that I am. I wasn’t hot or fast either when I was sixteen, but Pa had his own ideas about young people and how they operate. I’ve told you about how it was for me, how strict he was with me when it came to boys. It wasn’t necessary, and it made me angry. I don’t want you angry. I want you to understand beforehand and to act accordingly.”

“You mean save myself some grief?”

“Yes, J.J. And me because you know I’ll have to hear it.”

“Don’t worry, I get it, and I won’t get you in trouble. Hey Mom, do you think Pa might have been all paranoid about you because he was having flashbacks or something? I know that’s why Daddy is ‘noid about me. He was way cute back in the day. I bet he had all the girls. Think he was a hound? Pa was cute too. What about Pa? Old Yeller tendencies?”

She didn’t even attempt to address that last set of questions and comments. Just rubbed J.J.’s head, kissed her cheek, and tried not to laugh. Picked up her empty drink glass and got up, walking away from that grinning girl sitting there on that footstool.

My mother was sixteen when Pa met her, and he was twenty-one. Believe me, Pa knows….

And that Jonathan; J.J.’s daddy.

“Way cute back in the day…”

I wasn’t there, but I heard from a very good source about your daddy and how he operated back then: “All da girls who would or he could, an’ it was mostly them who would what was after him.”

That according to Max, and he would have been the one to know about that, being a man himself and having raised Jonathan from the time he was fifteen.

Yes little girl, just as mine did, your daddy remembers how it is, so he definitely knows what he should be on the lookout for….

But I know what I know, too, J.J. Hart. Fighting you on something like this will only make you fight… and cause you to make bad, stupid mistakes that you don’t have to be pushed into making… when there isn’t any battle to be waged in the first place….

Pushing off from the door jamb, Jennifer started up the hall. She had some unfinished business with Jonathan, as well, and no thanks to Pat, if she didn’t get to him that night, there wouldn’t be time to do so in the next couple of days. There was so much to do to make sure that things would be right for Saturday.

That look on Jonathan’s face up in the loft, what he said. His plight caused by the unannounced arrival of his daughter….

“Wait! Hold on. What’re you doing? Aren’t we- I thought- We didn’t even get to-  I can’t believe she got me cut off.”

Way too funny. After over twenty-five years together, the man remained unabashedly lusty, sexy and very much cued in on how to make her feel the same. His lips, his hands, that voice, those eyes… up in the stable loft, of all places…  quite a while for them for that kind of spur of the moment unorthodox action and location. And then to be almost busted by their own kid.

Now shouldn’t that have been the other way around?

Heck, it’s been quite a while- period. Close to a week….

At the Carlyle…

… that was fun… he was so shocked… the sable and noth-

Snapshots, one behind the other in her mind triggered a hard, painful shudder.

That skinny teen-aged redhead on the other side of the door, the one with the good ‘ta-tas’ bore watching. Whenever she did decide to come into her own, whoa...

Yes, J.J., I’d say it’s highly likely those flashbacks do it to them and make them so ‘noid about you. I might be, too, if I didn’t know you better.

But just as Jonathan plead up there in the loft, it would have been good between them….

Oh, it’s going to be good, darling… very good….

As it was getting late, she figured the brighter setting on the lamp at the head of the main staircase wouldn’t be needed any longer; by that time, everyone on that end of the house should be where they were going. As she reached under its shade to adjust the dimmer switch, she noticed the framed photograph of her, Jonathan, and J.J. in its usual place on that table.  They were out by the paddock. She was sitting on the fence, and Jonathan was leaned against it holding onto J.J.’s legs as she rode on his shoulders. About three at the time and quite the little ham with photographers she knew, on Pa’s cue J.J. beamed her brightest smile for him.

Such a little cutie back then. Still one. Growing up so fast. Seems like only yesterday….

But there was another frame there on the table, one she hadn’t seen before. A black and white photograph of Pa, very young and seated on a handsome Arabian. She blinked hard with the abrupt memory.

Aladdin.

So focused on Pa and the horse, a hard twitch shot through her neck and shoulder as she noticed her mother right next to him, perched on the paddock fence in almost the same spot as the one she occupied in the photograph with her, Jonathan, and J.J. How had she not seen her right away?

She picked up the frame, and on closer examination was further startled to find that she had also missed the child tucked down in front of Pa. Holding the reins in her hands was a small curly-haired girl about the same age and looking very much like baby J.J. in that other photograph.

That’s me!

She went back to examining the image of her mother whose attention was fixed, lovingly so, on the baby.

Although Pa liked for her to wear her hair down, when she was outside or working with the horses, her mother would pull it up and twist and tuck it into bun to temporarily get it out of her way. In the picture, some of it had come loose, giving the appearance that she was wearing it in a ponytail. Jennifer marveled at how much that photo of her mother resembled her daughter. Although she had to be about twenty-three or twenty-four in the photograph, her mother didn’t look a whole lot older than J.J. did at present. The hair, the lean athletic build, the strong, confident aura, the eyes…

Absolutely amazing….

But just too much right now.

She put the picture back on the table, and started for her bedroom. Then, suddenly filled with an overwhelming need to see her father, she turned back around and went down the stairs hoping that Pa’s habit of keeping late hours hadn’t changed like so many other things at Briarwood.

________________________________________________________

“Pa.”

She tried to be gentle and not startle him, but he jerked to wakefulness anyway. She rubbed at his shoulder to reassure and calm him.

“It’s just me, Pa.”

“Hmm, oh, Jennifer.”

Plucking the wire-rimmed bifocals precariously dangling at the end of his nose and removing the open newspaper from his chest, he placed both items in his lap. “I must have dozed off.”

“Paaaaa.”

Jennifer kept her fussing soft, but firm as she took the things from her father and walked them over to his desk. “You know better than to stay down here so long that you fall asleep sitting up like this.”

When she came back over to where he was sitting by the window, she slid her hand behind his head to raise it and remove the pillow, which she plumped before gently lifting his head again and sliding the pillow back underneath it.  “Why didn’t you go up to bed when you felt yourself getting tired? I’m surprised Walter hasn’t been in here and insisted upon your doing so.”

At the mention of Walter, Stephen waved his hand in dismissal. “Aaaah, he has been in here a couple of times, worrying like an old woman. I sent him on his way. I imagine he has grown tired of me and has gone to bed. Walter is getting old. He needs to worry more about himself.”

“It’s his job to worry about you, Pa, and to make sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do when I’m not around.”

“So who is the father here, girl?”

When Stephen raised his eyes to her, accustomed to his feistiness, Jennifer stared right back down into them. After a moment, he broke the standoff by tapping her arm and gesturing to the chair on the other side of his tea table as he offered further explanation.

“The sleep simply overtook me, darling. It does that sometimes if I happen to be up late reading. Funny how it’s not that way at night when I lie down. But in any case, I didn’t want to stop when Walter came in here. Actually, I was hanging around down here in the hope that you would come in to see me some time this evening.”

But before she could sit, he used the same hand to indicate that he wanted her to bring the chair closer. Instead, she drug his hassock over and sat down on it right next to him.

“You have been so busy,” he said, placing his hand on top of hers as it rested on the arm of his chair. “I have missed our chats, our time to get caught up.”

“I know Pa, we haven’t had much time. I’ve been meaning to tell you how pleased I am at how well you look.”

“Well, the last time you were here, I was coming off that nasty dehydration incident that put me in the hospital for those few days, so I was not at my best. Since then; however, I have been kept pretty busy myself.”

“So I’ve seen. You didn’t mention any of this to me in our phone chats.”

It made Jennifer a little uncomfortable to see her father searching her face for approval, an absolute reversal of their roles and behavior toward each other. “I wanted to surprise you. What do you think?”

“I think the house is lovely, Pa. I was surprised. I continue to be surprised as I discover things I’d put out of my mind. I really love your placement of that portrait in the living room. I just wish you were in it with us.”

Stephen turned from her to lay his head back again. “That was as it should have been, Jennifer. You were definitely your mother’s child at that time in your life. In fact, were she were still living, I doubt that she would be here very much. Every time I looked around, she would be on a plane headed to California to be with you and her grandchild. She would have loved and immensely enjoyed our Justine.”

Jennifer moved her hand so that she could lock fingers with her father before placing her other hand on top of that joining.

“Don’t. Things happened the way that they were supposed to happen. I sometimes think how much my mother and J.J. missed in not being allowed to meet, too, but then I have to remind myself, who knows what would have been? If things had been different, I might not have met Jonathan. I probably wouldn’t have married, and then there wouldn’t have been a grandchild at all for either of you to love and enjoy. And then, too, I certainly wouldn’t have gone to Gresham Hall and met Pat. And then Dean Marchand and Ms. Smythe wouldn’t be here with-”

When he turned his gaze back to her, the look he gave her said that she’d struck a nerve and it cut her off from what she was about to say.

“Speaking of Patricia, my dear. How long do the two of you plan to keep me on the outside of whatever is going on? How did you find her while you were in New York with her? Did she tell you that she would not be here for Thanksgiving, and if she did, why did you not inform me? Or Walter and Rosa?”

Seated on that footstool, Jennifer suddenly felt sixteen again, as if she were being called on the carpet by her father over yet another indiscretion she and Pat had gotten themselves into that Pa was trying to “sort out” and handle. There wasn’t a whole lot she could tell him; she didn’t know that much herself, but what she did know would undoubtedly cause him to worry more about Pat than he obviously already was. If Pat hadn’t discussed her business with him herself, how much of what she knew was she supposed to tell? Pat and Pa talked together like father and daughter, talks that often didn’t include her even though she was his biological child. From the way it sounded, Pat hadn’t let him in on anything, so there really was not a whole lot for her to say.

“Sir?”

Having let her father’s hand go to clasp her own together, she didn’t realize how hard she was wringing them until she felt those weathered, but deceptively strong fingers clamp down and stop them from moving.

“You always were a bad one for doing that. I notice that Justine does it, too. It is definitely an inherited trait, I will say that much about it you and those hands. Now ‘Sir’, my foot. Answer me, Jennifer.”

Jennifer dropped her head, identifying with J.J. when she was covering for Marnie or trying to weasel her way past a situation she really didn’t want to or know how to discuss.

An inherited trait?

Stay focused, Jennifer.

“Pa, I really don’t know anything. I haven’t spoken with Pat since yesterday morning. I left her with Bill.”

“On Long Island?”

How did he know? Thinking the question, she raised her head to find those intense, wise brown eyes boring into hers.

“Yes, I know that is where she goes when troubled, Jennifer. That is not a surprise to me, so you need not worry about betraying her trust. Is that where you left her, I asked you?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“And how was she when you left her?”

Lowering her head again, Jennifer reluctantly murmured her answer, hoping that she wasn’t giving away too much, but very much aware that he wasn’t going to settle for much less. “She wasn’t well, Pa. Not sick, just unwell emotionally.” She raised her head some, but couldn’t quite look at him. “I’m sure she’s all right now. As I said, I left her with Bill.”

But Stephen Edwards was proving to be as relentless as his daughter could be when it came to mining his child for details. But then, where had the daughter learned that technique? Right in the spot that she currently sat.

“Might she be ill physically?”

“I’m not sure. That’s the honest truth, Pa. I really don’t know. She hasn’t let me in on what’s bothering her.”

“But something is bothering her.”

She nodded.

“Do you think it is the wedding? Does she not want to get married? Is she having second thoughts?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not what it is.”

From the slight rustle of his shirt, she deduced that he was shaking his head, negating his own question himself before he said as much. “No, it wouldn’t be that. Patricia would simply call things off if that were the case, and she obviously has not. Do you think it has something to do with her business, although I can just about dismiss that idea as well. That girl handles business affairs and finances like a man.”

That comment, she could not dismiss without addressing it.

“That’s a very sexist remark, Pa. Women handle business and finances equally as capable as men. In some cases, as with Pat, much better than men.”

“As did your own mother. Touché’, darling. But then, that only leaves illness. Do you think Patricia might be ill?”

When he hesitated, waiting for her answer, she couldn’t speak. That was impossible to do when one was holding her own breath.

“Come on, darling. Don’t treat your Pa like a feeble old man who cannot handle bad news. I need to know what you think. If I cannot get it from Patricia, which obviously I cannot, then I must trust you to tell me. Patricia is almost as much my child as you are. I have been looking after her since she was sixteen years old. Hell, even before that. That is four decades or more worth of love, caring, and worry. Believe me, I can take it, whatever it is. Over the years, dealing with the two of you, I have been well-conditioned. I think I deserve to know if she is all right or not. Tell me.”

He did deserve to know. Pa loved Pat and considered her family, and Pat loved Pa. It was anybody’s guess why she was doing what she was doing, but Pa did deserve to be given a bit of an inside track.

She could let him know what she thought, but not how she arrived at that line of thinking. To do that would be to betray J.J. After all, if she hadn’t gotten J.J. to break into Pat’s drawer and retrieve that letter, she wouldn’t be drawing the conclusion herself.  If Pat didn’t figure it out for herself, she would not be telling her. For sure J.J. and Marnie wouldn’t be telling anyone what happened. They were only girls, but they understood.

Pa could only be told what she surmised to be the problem and if he asked, which he probably would, her own reasons for thinking along those lines.

“I do believe she might be ill.”

“How ill?”

“That, I don’t know.”

“Ill with what?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“Physically or mentally?”

When she looked up again, Pa’s eyes were still fixed on her face. “Sir?”

“I asked you if you think what is wrong with her is physical or mental. The girl has been through a lot with all that terrorist mess practically right next door to her business enterprise in New York. Thank God things worked out for her in the way that they did and put her in Bill’s plane and them in California with you and your family, but she still had to come back to it. I know that she lost some acquaintances in it. Is it mental or physical, this thing that keeps her away from us right now?”

Jennifer hesitated a moment with the thought that she hadn’t really looked at it that way.

“It may be a bit of both, Pa.”

“And the physical, how do you come by this conclusion?”

Damn, he’s good.

Stephen Edwards had once been a government man, one so good that his own daughter was thirty-seven before she had any inkling of the fact. Questioning her had to be small potatoes for him.

“I just know her. Nothing spooks Pat. If she’s nervous or acting funny about something, it’s something over which she feels she has little or no control. You know how she is. She feels like she can control almost anything, and even when she gets down mentally, she knows how to lay low until she can get that back under her control, too. But she’s running right now, and she’s been doing that for a while, but Pa, I honestly cannot tell you from what.

“However, I do know that she’s in the best possible hands right now. I left her with Bill, and I also left them some information they might need if what I’m thinking turns out to be valid. I believe she tried a couple of times to tell me what the problem is, but we kept getting stopped by one thing after another. Mulling it all over, I’ve concluded that it wasn’t meant for me to know right then. It was supposed to be her and Bill’s problem to solve. After all, he is going to be her husband, and that’s how it should be between husband and wife. When Bill asked me to, I gathered up Marnie, and she and I came here to you.”

“Marnie went to Long Island with you?”

“No- I-  it’s complicated, Pa. It just wound up being Marnie, Bill, and me on Long Island with Pat, and J.J. and Jonathan in Manhattan. J.J. and Jonathan came directly here first. And then Marnie and I wound up coming later from Long Island.”

“So how did Marnie get to Long Island?”

The man never gave up. Exasperated, Jennifer slapped her hands to her thighs.

“Pa, stop trying to piece the puzzle together. The picture still ends up the same, no matter how it’s assembled; Pat and Bill are together, and the rest of us are here. I don’t know any more than I’ve told you, but I’m sure that between tomorrow and Saturday, Pat and Bill will turn up, and then maybe we’ll all find out what’s going on with her. You and I know that Pat wouldn’t be going to all this trouble to put a wedding ceremony and reception together if she didn’t plan to show up for it. I’m going to be at their place all day tomorrow to oversee her arrangements regardless of whether she’s there or not. I figure it’s the least I can do. And speaking of my being gone all day tomorrow, Pa., J.J.’s friend is due to arrive, and he’ll probably be coming here to see her.”

“Justine is not going to Patricia’s with you?”

“When I was upstairs talking with her a while ago, she didn’t ask if she could come, and she didn’t give me any indication that she wanted to be there; I really don’t need for her to be. I believe she’s planning on staying here, and that’s fine with me since she still has that cold and all. She’ll be more at home, relaxed, and more likely to be still if she’s here. I really want you to go easy on her friend, Pa.”

Stephen’s brow furrowed as he sat forward, pointing to himself and then pressing that hand to his chest. “Go easy? Me? Now Jennifer, darling, what would make you think that I would do anything other than that?”

Jennifer rolled her eyes and sighed at her father’s feigned disbelief and surprise. “Pa, honestly. Please. For me? For her?”

Stephen chuckled as he slowly resumed his more reclined position. “So life has come full circle, and now my granddaughter is friends with the son of Patricia’s old beau. I have to tell, that certainly does not instill any great measure of confidence within me as it regards this boy. The apple does not normally fall very far from the tree, and you, my darling daughter, can be assured that I have not forgotten the type tree from which this young man has descended. That kind of tree that grows in stable lofts….”

Jennifer’s cheeks flamed at her father’s cloaked, yet very candid reference to that past sexual near-miss on the parts of Pat and Teddy Sr., and her own role in playing lookout for them.

Not to mention being reminded of her own more recent near-miss, even though Pa was likely unaware of it and her romp in a stable loft was with her tree of a husband.

How much she always wanted to tell her father that a lot of what happened with Pat and Teddy Sr. back in high school was initiated by Pat herself. Poor Teddy, “Bear” as he was known then, ended up spending an entire winter shoveling coal into Brookfield Prep’s boilers for simply trying to accept what was offered to him. And in the end, despite the interventions and severe warnings from his own father and Pa, Bear wound up getting it on prom night anyway. But that was water long passed under a very old, no longer used bridge. Bear and Pat were a part of the past. Now they were speaking of J.J. and Teddy, Jr., an entirely different set of players and circumstances, and unfortunately, part of Stephen Edwards’ present.

“Please don’t embarrass her. Teddy’s a nice boy, and as far as she’s concerned, that’s all he is.”

Stephen didn’t say anything to that. Instead he leaned forward to take a cigar from the humidor on the table.

“Isn’t it kind of late for that, Pa?”

Slowly turning to look at her, he eyed Jennifer down to the floor and up again before asking, “Did I not tell you a few minutes ago that I am the father, and that you are the daughter?”

Then he handed Jennifer the lighter, and once he had it ready, leaned his head toward her. She held the flame to the corona while he puffed it to life. Then he sat back, crossed his leg, and inhaled, releasing his patent elegant plume of swirling white smoke before he spoke again.

“I will speak with him because that is my responsibility as Justine’s grandfather to do so. It is good that a boy knows that the girl in whom he is interested has family who values her person, loves her, and is concerned about her and her well-being. But I will not intimidate him any more than necessary. Besides, there is plenty around here for them to do to keep them occupied, and plenty of eyes to keep them out of trouble.”

“J.J.’s not usually that kind of trouble.”

“Neither were you, but I was diligent about you just the same.”

Too damned diligent. Especially since you were doing it long distance and through a second party.

Old headline, Jennifer. Get a grip.

“Darling, there is something else on which I would like to speak with you.”

Mentally admonishing herself for sniping against old confines, Jennifer turned her attention to Stephen, resting her arms on his chair and leaning in.

“About that package you gave to me.”

Of course. With everything else going on, and all that she had on her mind when she came down the stairs to him. She’d almost forgotten about that. As hard as she and Pat had been working to have it ready for this weekend and for him, she couldn’t believe that it just about slipped her mind until he mentioned it. Now that she did remember, her heartbeat quickened in anticipation.

“Yes?”

The smile was one that also warmed and softened her father’s stern, timeworn features. It was the kind of smile she rarely saw from him.

… when he first lay eyes on J.J. … the day she and Jonathan married …. at her high school graduation, as she made her speech….

… before that, maybe not since she was a girl…  not since before….

“Jennifer, this is a wonderful, marvelous thing you have done. Your mother’s stories, were they not? From in the attic out there?”

“Yes. J.J. found them last summer when I took her up there. She brought some of them down to me. She said they were in folders on my mother’s desk.”

Where at one time, she would have shut down after the first sentence or two, the delight in her father’s eyes loosened her tongue and allowed her to talk with him about a person they hadn’t really discussed at length between them since she was taken away.

“I never knew that she wrote stories, Pa. I mean, she told them to me all the time, but I had no idea that she could write like that. The French ones were so- I don’t even have the words to describe them, but they brought tears to my eyes, they were so well-written. She was working on trying to transcribe them into English when… when she-”

Jennifer closed her eyes and swallowed. A hand lay itself on top of hers, stilling them. “Keep going, darling.”

She swallowed again and pushed on. “Well, she didn’t get a chance to finish. From some letters and notes I found, I learned that Benjamin had been helping her.”

“My cousin? Betsy’s father? I never knew that. Suzanne never mentioned…”

“Yes, Benjamin Bach, your cousin. He was working with her on the transcriptions, working the French versions into English. But her writing wasn’t the same in English. ‘Lost in translation’ is such an accurate explanation for it. You know, even though I majored in languages, and I’ve transcribed the work of others, I never much thought about a writer running into that kind of difficulty with her own work.

“I showed the stories to Pat, and told her I wanted to work on them. She urged me to finish the transcribing and said she would help me with the editing and revisions, so I took them with me when we left last summer. I got in touch with Benjamin, and it turned out that he still had some of their old notes from when he and my mother were working together. He sent them to me when I told him what I wanted to do. It’s all I’ve been working on since then. Pat and I have been going back and forth with them. Initially, I was only doing it to finish my mother’s work, but Pat says they should be shared with the world. She thinks they’ll eventually make a nice series of inspirational stories for older girls and young adult readers. Benjamin does, too. He says that publishing them was my mother’s intention, had she… had she lived to do it.”

Stephen sat his cigar in the ashtray, freeing his hands. Then he turned to Jennifer, holding her eyes with his own.

“Come here, girl.”

Still straddling the hassock, Jennifer rose to allow her father’s waiting arms to envelop her. Rare were such overt displays of affection coming from him, but one could be sure that when he opened up that much, he was speaking his heart.

“You are the best part of your mother, Jennifer,” he whispered to her while he continued to hold her. “When taken away from me, the best of herself, she left for me in you. Your thoughtfulness, generosity, your graciousness, your talents, and the willingness to share those talents; all of that in you is her. I love you. You make me so proud in all that you do and have done. You are a good daughter, an excellent mother, a wise wife, a devoted friend, and a good person. I am sure that your mother constantly smiles upon you and that she, too, is very proud of you.”

When he released her, she had to retrieve the tissue box from the other table so that they could both use them.

A short while later, as she parted from him after the elevator deposited them on the second floor, she remembered that they hadn’t talked very much about what he’d done to the house and why. She hadn’t broached with him the changes at the guest house or the reappearance of those doors to that other master bedroom.

But then, she figured they had covered enough ground for one night. Besides, her visit to Dean Marchand wound up satisfactorily answering some of her more pressing questions anyway.

Leave the rest of it for another time, Jennifer. It isn’t as if you’re ready to deal with any of it right now anyway.

In the bedroom, she found Jonathan lying on his stomach, covers pulled up to his chin, and fast asleep. That wasn’t like him; normally he waited for her. When she kissed his temple, he didn’t wake- didn’t move at all, which indicated he was way under, likely catching up on rest he missed in previous days. Gathering her things, she went in and got a shower.

When she finally climbed into the bed with him, he still didn’t move, but for once she was glad of that. It was late, they were both tired, and they both had a long day in front of them. Too much had happened between their time in the stable and her getting to bed; for her, the mood was past. All she wanted to do now was rest and to do so with the man she loved.

Reaching over Jonathan’s shoulder, she turned off the light, kissed him one more time, and then snuggled up close behind him, shutting down for the night any further thoughts on anything.

________________________________________________________

The room was dark, the house quiet. He was in the bed and comfortable, but as usual, sleep was taking its own sweet time in coming. Yet another inconvenience of getting older. While he lie there, waiting slumber’s arrival, Stephen played back a part of his recent chat with Jennifer down in the study. It was her chastisement of his comment about Patricia conducting her business and financial affairs “like a man”.

“That’s a very sexist remark, Pa. Women handle business and finances equally as capable as men.”

Jennifer viewed the remark as biased. He thought it a compliment of the highest order, no disrespect on his part at all intended toward women. As he saw it, it was merely a difference in wording; the meaning was the same.

“In some cases, as with Pat, much better than men.”

That was indeed true. Of that, he had first-hand knowledge.

No better horse trader in the area had there been than Suzanne Edwards. Old man Farrell wouldn’t have stood a chance with his operation had she lived. Suzanne could have done business with the Devil and come out of the transaction with the Devil forced to turn Saint. In fact, months after she was gone, after the initial confusion and hurt somewhat eased and he could view things a little more objectively, he wondered if she hadn’t done business with the Lord Almighty himself and worked out a deal with him.

It would have been just like her….

“Well if it is my time, and that is the way you want me to come to you, then make sure it is so that….”

After all, that drunk could just as easily have crossed the road while she was on the way to taking Jennifer to school as he did when Suzanne was on her way back… and by herself.

God, then where would I be? Most certainly with the two of them.

Instead, just as way down the line he had to eventually admit to himself, and as his daughter kept reinforcing to him, there was a benefit to their loss. It forced him and Jennifer together, and they had both come out better for it. He, a better, more attentive father; she, a strong, independent, compassionate woman. And they gained Patricia. What would have happened to her, with her, if things had been different for him and Jennifer?

For a wedding weekend, especially one for two such prominent people, it was certainly panning out to be a quiet, private affair. But then, that was how they wanted it. In light of how things were turning out so far, that was probably for the best. After all, from the outset, Patricia’s greatest desire for her wedding had been to make sure it was a family affair.

Slowly rolling from his back onto his side, Stephen closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to travel back to his late wife, as they seemed to increasingly do of late. He was certain she had never taken her eyes off Jennifer. Hopefully, she also held their Patricia in her sights, and she was up there working something out on her behalf, too. That girl deserved a family of her own, and she was too close to that goal to be turned back now.

________________________________________________________

Friday: very early morning

In his sleep, Jonathan tried to turn over, but found he couldn’t; her warm body was solidly wedged into his side. Scooting a bit in the other direction, he tried it again, minimizing his movements in an attempt to not wake her. Propping up on one elbow, he opened his eyes. At the same time his mental secretary began briefing him on the high points of his ‘to do’ list for the day.

Teddy was arriving and he and Jennifer would be at Hamilton-McDowell Farms all day, taking calls, if necessary, accepting deliveries, and doing whatever else they could to help out with overseeing the wedding and reception arrangements.

It would be real nice to get there and find out that Bill and Pat had arrived during the night. Maybe they would make it in by the time he and Jennifer got over to their place later that morning. If not, when the hell were they planning to get there, and what the hell was going on with them? It wasn’t like Bill to be so clandestine about things. Generally speaking, when it didn’t involve business, Bill didn’t engage in cloak and dagger or secretive behavior; he had always been a pretty up front guy. But then, getting married, especially getting married to Pat Hamilton wasn’t an “in general”. Pat becoming a permanent part of his picture could change a whole lot of things with and for Bill- for both of them.

That thought sent him in another reflective, more speculative direction. How might he have changed in Bill’s eyes once Jennifer came into his life? Bill was also close-mouthed. If he’d seen any changes, he’d kept them to himself, just as he would when and if things with Bill and Pat came to light.

He and Bill had never been the talk-almost-every-day friends that Pat and Jennifer were, but in their own way, they were as close as the brothers neither of them had. Meeting while in the Navy and maintaining the friendship afterward, the two of them had been through a lot together, triumphs and tragedies, trials and tribulations, competing with and trying to outdo each other in business, but always there for each other on a personal level. He stood as best man at Bill’s first wedding, was godfather to both his sons, and stood by him through the untimely deaths of his wife and later his firstborn. Bill stood on one side of him as best man at his wedding, and was godfather to his only child. In fact, after proposing to Jennifer, one of the first calls he made with the news of his upcoming nuptials had been to Bill. Of course, Max had been the very first to know about them, but then Max was right there with them the whole time. In fact Max, his right hand best man at the wedding, came up with the idea that kept Jennifer in London long enough for him to ask her to marry him.

Watching Jennifer as she continued to sleep, shifting gears again, he smiled with the memory of the first time he woke with her sleeping next to him. The smile turned to a grin when he recalled how the proposal went down. He had the cops haul her in and detain her in London for questioning in the matter of that editor’s, Brooke’s, murder while he conducted his professional responsibilities. Then he set about arranging for his personal needs. When she got out of that taxi he engaged to have bring her to the Tower- after he managed to coax her out of it- she was so incensed at the sight of him, it was obvious she could have spit in his face. But never one to back up from a challenge he felt worth taking, instead of unnerving him, her eyes changing to that grayish shade he learned they did when she was extremely angry only intensified his fascination with her. What a scrapper. Nothing better than an intelligent, beautiful woman with a whole lot of vinegar running through her veins. And a redhead, too?

Then after the flags on the bridge unfurled, when she turned back to him after reading his message, “Will You Marry Me?” on them…. watching the flames of her anger diminish, the color in those eyes mellowing back to their natural warm-whiskey-with-honey as she made up her mind: should she or should she not marry this crazy man? He read her answer in those expressive orbs before it reached her sexy, pouting lips.

What a great day that had been. All sorts of adventure and intrigue: gunshots, car chases, eluding assailants, fist-fighting, and all of it culminating in the most gut-wrenching of the myriad deals he’d made over time. But it turned out to be the most satisfying and rewarding. Truly a merger not only of lives and livelihoods, but also of souls, over the years providing him continual optimum return on his heart’s investment, not to mention a little something for the future.

She lie on her stomach, her features partially obscured from his view by her arm. Her head rested on her hand with her hair covering most of the exposed part of her face. He wondered how that never seemed to bother her. But then, she was asleep, so did she even feel it? Or care? Obviously not, but looking at her like that made his own nose tickle, and that tickle compelled him to reach across to try, without disturbing her, lifting it back, away from her nose.

But she felt it anyway; her eyes flickered open and she raised her head a little, flipping the hair back from her eyes and nose herself as she greeted him. “Hi there.”

He loved the sound of her raspy morning voice. Sometimes it was that way very late at night, too, especially after spending time outside, particularly if it was humid or damp. Their daughter’s voice had that same quality and was similarly affected by the elements.

“Hey there yourself. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“That’s okay. I felt you before you even touched me. Before I even opened my eyes or woke completely.”

“How? Are you telling me you’re clairvoyant now?”

“Jonathan, I can sense you watching me in my sleep. I feel you when you’re doing it to me.”

“Well, I would hope so. Why do it to you, if you can’t feel it? What kind of lover would I be?”

She smiled. “Still on that loop, eh? You have such a one-track mind. You know what I’m talking about.”

Turning over onto her back, she yawned and stretched her arms over her head while arching her back for the same purpose. “One would think that after all this time, you’d be bored with that.”

He leaned over to kiss the tip of her nose. “Never. On the looking or the feeling. You?”

“Never.”

When her arms wrapped around his neck, he allowed them to pull him closer to her, but resisted the natural instinct to cover her. Instead, he slid in tight next to her.  She rolled over, toward him and when he moved his arm to hold her, he found her nightshirt had twisted up around her waist which left her backside exposed underneath the covers. No panties. It was all he could do to fleetingly slide his hand across her naked flesh and then keep going to rest it on her waist. Early morning, first thing, it was their favorite way to start the day, and it had been a while… in a bed or anywhere… but….

He brushed his lips along her ear as she burrowed her face into his neck. Resisting her was beyond difficult, however… “Darling, we need to get up. We’ve got a lot to do today.”

“Jonathan, we have time.”

Her lips and teeth nuzzled then nipped at his flesh, sending a delicious shiver snaking through his body straight to where he least needed it to go. To keep control over the situation, he backed his lower half away from her.

“Sweetheart, you know how we are. We get started, and then it’s an hour or more later before we can get out of the bedroom. Jennifer, we need to get up now so we can get started.”

But a long leg followed him in his retreat, finding just the right spot at the same time her lips sought out that that sensitive spot behind his ear. “A quickie,” she whispered. “Come on, darling. You know you want it.”

Yeah, he did. For sure he did, but he already had a set agenda.

“What was that you told me last night? I think you said I don’t do quickies real well.”

“What I said, Jonathan, was we had on too many clothes at the time for a quickie, but that’s not quite true right now.” She slid his hand back down her torso. “See.”

He did see and feel.

Stick to the plan, Jonathan. Stick to the plan.

Reluctantly, he lifted that lusty set of feminine fingers out to rest on the top of the comforter and then sat up, easing her back from him completely, wishing he could do something to smooth the disappointment and confusion from her face. He hoped his words would at least temporarily ease them.

“I’ve decided that when I do make love to you, Mrs. Hart, I’m going to want to take my time. We have too much hanging over our heads right now for that to happen. If it turns out they aren’t back yet, Bill is counting on me to step in for him, and I’m sure Pat is counting on you to do the same for her.”

At that point, Jennifer sat up too, and he heard her suck her teeth as she flung back the covers. She slid away from him to swing her legs over the side of the bed. “I cannot believe Pat and her affairs getting me cut off from mine like this.”

He pushed the covers off and rose from the bed completely.

“Believe it,” he said to the back of her tousled head as he stretched his arms over his head. “And get dressed.”

The dirty look she shot him over her shoulder and the bird she flipped him upon hearing her own directive repeated to her had him laughing out loud. Yes, Jennifer Hart nee Edwards alias Louise Tolbin was quite the scrapper, and an occasionally profane one at that. How he loved her, every bit of the unpredictable woman that was her.

When she came around the bed, irritated and sexually frustrated, attempting to flounce past him to get to the bathroom, he caught her about the waist with one arm and hugged her.

________________________________________________________

“So, like what, Marn? You set the clock to wake you early so you could get cleaned up, dressed, and make it over here to grill me before breakfast about what happened with the Duchess last night?”

“Hell yes. When I left you, she was sitting in the chair with her legs crossed, that drink in her hand, and that look on her face. What did she have in the glass anyway? Bourbon? Whiskey?

“Brandy. You know that’s her drink of choice. I’m surprised you couldn’t tell from the smell.”

“Like I was getting that close to her.”

Marnie plopped down in the chair and began shaping her shiny, red fingernails with a small Emory board. “You forget, she caught me cussing. She was looking right at my mouth.”

Snickering, J.J. snapped and zipped her jeans then adjusted her sweater over the waistband before checking herself in the mirror. “I didn’t forget. She got you red-handed, or maybe I should say, red-tongued.”

“And I hadn’t even gotten to the WTF part from when you saw her, backed up, stepped on my damned foot and made my house shoe come off.”

At the thought of Marnie getting caught being that vulgar, J.J. started laughing. “She’d have eaten you alive for that one, Marn.”

Marnie chuckled too. “Yeah, I shudder to think what would have happened had she heard me say that.”

Shoe boots in hand, J.J. came over and sat on the arm of the chair to use the boot jack to slip her feet into them. “Even though her fussing at you about your mouth is all for naught at this point. My mother knows you’re too far gone. It’s just that the responsible adult in her makes her have to call you out on it when she hears you doing it.”

Marnie held a hand up to closely check the uniformity of her ‘hand’-iwork. “In the long run, she’d have just blamed Pat for teaching me to say it. You know, that’s Pat’s middle name at Hamilton House. They say she starts most of her meetings asking somebody ‘what the f— they were thinking about when…’ and she goes on from there.”

“She ever tell you about the tee-shirt incident, Marn?”

“No. What tee shirt incident? What happened?”

Leaning back against the chair and folding her arms, J.J. began her story.

“Well, like you said, that’s Pat’s line, and it’s been her line forever. My mother said she once told her if I ever came home and repeated it, she was cutting me off from visiting her. Like that would ever happen- me saying it where my mother could hear it or Pat letting my mother cut her off from me. But anyway, Pat said one morning, after a meeting where somebody messed up royally and got cussed out by her, she got to her office, and Dora and all of them in the executive suite were wearing these white tee shirts that had ‘WTF’ screen printed in bold black letters on the front of them. Pat said she played it off, acted like she didn’t notice them, and went on into her office. But when she got in there, she cracked up laughing. Then she said she hit Dora up on the intercom, acting all serious and everything, wanting to know ‘why the f—‘ she didn’t have a tee shirt waiting for her on her desk, and that if all of them knew what was good for them, they’d have one in to her before the end of the day. Girl, she said by noon they had her a classy black sweatshirt with ‘WTF’ on it in big white letters.”

Marnie fell back, bouncing against the chair cushion, clapping her hands, and laughing. “That is so Pat. I could just see her at her desk, laughing ’til she cried, and then calling up to mess with Dora, lighting a fire under her and the rest of the office staff. Pat can be a dragon, but most of the time she’s just getting off on blowing smoke at people. Her inner staff knows her. That is too funny.”

J.J. got up and went back to the mirror to check her hair one last time.

“I sure hope she and Bill show up today,” Marnie said, holding the finished fingers up to check them, then starting on the other hand. “It’s kind of crazy, their being gone and not saying much about it to anybody. Like they know everybody will understand and will hold down the fort for them.”

“Well, haven’t we understood? Aren’t we holding it down? I hope they show, too, Marn, but if they don’t, they should be here by tonight. They have to be here tomorrow.”

“I guess,” Marnie said with a shrug. “Say, I like the wave in your ponytail this morning. What did you do, braid it last night to get it like that?”

“The Duchess did, when she was in here talking to me.”

“You never did say what she wanted. Since you’re still here and in one piece, I assume it wasn’t about that memory card.”

“No, she didn’t say anything about that. I’m wondering if she’s even taken the time to look at the card, seeing as how she hasn’t even mentioned it. Maybe she took it out to look at it later. Maybe she’s forgotten all about it. Maybe she’ll forget all about she has it.”

Then she turned around to look back at Marnie. “But who I am fooling with that, huh?”

Marnie shook her head. “Certainly not me. You know that if she hasn’t seen it, she will. We know for sure she took it, and she didn’t do that just to be doing it. She snatched it because she figured something was up with it. And what would make her think that? Because it’s us that had the camera, me and you, two for one. She hasn’t and she won’t forget. So if it wasn’t the memory card she came in here to get on you about, what was it that she wanted?”

J.J. moved from the mirror to the bed, folding her nightgown, putting it under the pillow, and then straightening the covers. “To get after me about riding Trip last night. That’s what I did when I left you at Pat and Bill’s. I went to the stable, took Trip out, and rode him.”

“It’s a wonder you didn’t run into your mother and father while you were out there.”

“Yeah, my mother told me she had been out riding, too. But I didn’t go near the guest house. That’s where she went. I don’t know how she knew I had been out there, but she did. She always knows when I’m up to something.”

“Maybe your father told her.”

“She said she went riding. She didn’t say Daddy went.”

“Maybe he didn’t go riding, but he had been in the stable, though. When I got back here, they were both coming in from outside. They were together, and both of them had straw on their clothes.”

Her mind shifting into drive, J.J. came around the bed to stand over Marnie who was still in the chair, but now leafing through a magazine that had been on the table.

“Straw, you say, Marn? Both of them?”

“Um-hmm.” Marnie licked her thumb to turn a page. “It was kind of odd. I mean, I’ve seen your mother bed down a horse after a ride. She doesn’t get messed up when she does it, not a thing out of place. Maybe her boots might get a little mucky, but not her clothes. She’s good. But last night she had straw on her jacket. So did your father. On the back of him, though.”

“I didn’t see them in the stable. Not my mother or my father. All the horses were there when I went in. I’m doing the math here. If she saw me from a window here in the house, she had to have already been to the guest house and come back. But that means she probably wouldn’t have just been coming in from outside when you got here. I wasn’t gone that long. I did a quick loop down the lake and back without stopping, and I took that path that’s right up against the house so the only way she could have seen me from a window would have been if she was in the study with Pa, and he’s been closed up in there all day by himself.”

“Maybe she left after you did.”

“She couldn’t have. Like I said, I wasn’t gone that long. She said she visited with Dean Marchand, so that would have made her trip longer than mine. You know what?”

“What?”

J.J. grimaced and turned on her heel, putting her back to Marnie. Her hands went to her hips as her foot patted the hardwood.

“What?”

“When she was in here last night, she said something that kind of stood out to me.”

“What did she say?”

“Funny how it’s stayed with me that she said it.”

“WHAT, DAMMIT! What’d she say?”

Turning back around, J.J. returned to the chair and sat down on the arm.

“She was fussing about me being out in the cold with a cold. I had told her about having gone to Pat’s, but that I came back and that was when I took the horse out.”

“You told her about going to Pat’s even though she didn’t know? She went off on you, didn’t she?”

“No, actually she didn’t. See, I went ahead and volunteered that part of it. I figured I’d better tell her before it slipped out in somebody else’s conversation. Too many people saw me there. I didn’t want her thinking I was sneaking behind her back or anything.”

“But you were.”

“Whatever. Back to what I was saying, she was fussing about my feeling guilty and coming back here, but not coming in the house. She specifically said, ‘…then you came to the stable.’ That implies-”

Marnie’s eyes widened. “- that she was in there when you showed up! Your father must have been, too. I remember thinking when I was looking at him as he was walking away from me, how did he get straw on the back of him like that?”

“On the back of him like what?”

“On the back of his jacket and his butt. Like on his thighs, too, the back of them.”

Marnie looked up to lock stares with J.J., her question uttered in a stunned, disbelieving whisper. “In a stall, J.?”

J.J. quickly shook her head. “No, I don’t believe that. That’s nasty, and I would have heard somebody in the stalls. Those three stalls are right near each other. I have something like radar; I can usually feel when somebody is near me. If they were that close, I’d have sensed it. But-”

“But what?”

“The loft.” J.J. frowned and held her stomach. “Aw Jeez, Marn. I bet they were up in the loft. That’s where they would have gone to- ugh, aw, Jeez.”

Still holding her stomach, J.J. got up to pace as she worked it all out. “Yes, the lights were already on when I got there; I’m just remembering that. I was in such a hurry to get Trip and get my ride in, I missed that. Then my mother’s exact words were, ‘…you came to the stable’. That’s how she found me out. They were up in that loft. I know it.”

Marnie grinned from the chair. “Doing it?”

Spinning around, J.J threw her hands up in the air. “What the hell else would they be doing up there? These are my parents we’re talking about.” Then she doubled over, gripping her sides. “Ooh, I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Like that time when we were playing in the wine cellar at your house, and your mother and father came down there and went into-”

“Shut up, Marnie. Just shut up about that.”

“What? Not enough time has gone by for it to be funny now? It’s been five years, J. It should be funny by now.”

Amused to the point of giddiness by the salacious Hart details and J.J.’s reaction to them, Marnie pressed her hand to her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. She lived for such delicious drama, and it tickled her to no end when something like this ruffled her best friend’s usually calm feathers. And nothing got to J.J. Hart like the physical antics of her amorous parents. Trapped together in the wine cellar that time, they hadn’t seen anything, but as far as she knew, Mrs. H. wasn’t asthmatic. The wheezing and gasping only meant one thing to both of them. Although at the time, J.J. had been mortified, Marnie found that incident and J.J.’s parents relationship titillatingly delightful and romantic. She also felt that on some other more distant, more removed level, J.J. did, too.

However, at the moment, J.J. obviously wasn’t thinking that way. “Shouldn’t they be busting me in the loft, Marn? I’m the teenager. I’m the one who should be acting hot. They’re as old as dirt, been together forever, and still- Oh, my God.”

J.J. dropped to sit on the side of the bed, holding herself and rocking. “This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Marnie got up and went to sit next to her. In an effort to console her, she rubbed J.J.’s back as she tried to offer some words of comfort.

“Maybe you’re jumping the gun, J. Maybe they weren’t up there- you know. Maybe they weren’t in there at all, and she found out about you and Triple J. some other kind of way.”

J.J. raised her head, and for a moment, a glimmer of hope formed on her face. But just as quickly, it faded. “Oh hell no, we’re talking about Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, here. If I don’t know anything else about my mother and father, I know they do it, and they do it a lot. But in the loft, Marn? While I was in there?”

“They probably stopped once you showed up.”

Shoving Marnie in the shoulder, J.J. got up from the bed. “You’re no help. Come on, here, I’ve got to try and get through breakfast without making eye contact. Jeez, Marn, like rabbits. I’ll never be able to go up in the loft again.”

“Rabbits do it in hutches, not haylofts,” Marnie said as she opened the bedroom door, earning another push from J.J.

At the staircase, Marnie stopped to let J.J. catch up to her. “You going to Pat’s this morning or are you going to stay here?”

J.J. didn’t answer right off. Instead she picked up a picture on the lamp table, looking closely at it before she spoke. “No, I’m staying here. I have some things to do, and I want to show Teddy around when he gets here.” She set the picture back down and finally looked up at Marnie. “But even if I had planned to go, I wouldn’t be now. I’m telling you, Marn, I’ve got to put some distance between me and them for a minute. You know, let this loft thing wear off some.”

“Well, one good thing about it, J., if you and Teddy end up out there, making out or whatever, and get caught at it, you can always throw it up to your parents that you know about them being up there getting busy. Just tell ’em, ‘Tree-apple’, J. Keep that in mind. Use it against them if you have to.”

Threatening Marnie with the flat of her hand, J.J. hissed, “Didn’t I tell you to shut up about that? I mean it. Just hush.”

Marnie ducked and took off down the stairs, laughing the entire way.

________________________________________________________

“Don’t you think we should head home? There’s so much to do. Nobody knows what’s going on with us. How will they know what-”

“No, we’re going to finish what we’re doing here. You, I, and everyone else who knows you knows full well that when you set a plan in motion, you hire all the right people to do things exactly the way you want them, and to do them that way whether you’re there or not. I’ve seen that for myself too many times to doubt that you’ve done any less than that this time. Besides, Jennifer is there, and so is Jonathan, between your planning ability, the two of them, Lisa, and Peter, it’ll all get done.”

“I hate it all being placed on Jennifer and Lisa. Jennifer will take on most of it.”

“She’s a big girl. A very capable woman. I’ve seen her coordinate huge corporate functions and not break the first bead of sweat; I’m sure she can pull off a wedding. She probably expected to do that anyway. After all, you’re here because of her; seems she’s more in tune with you than you are sometimes. She said you ran her wedding. Let her take care of yours. All she has to do is answer any questions your coordinators might have. You’ve issued enough directives and warnings that they should be able to follow your game plan with their eyes closed.”

“We missed Thanksgiving. Pa was probably so disappointed.”

“I’m sure Jennifer has smoothed him over for you. You two have looking out for each other on automatic. She’s been doing it for you for a while. I had to make her turn it off.”

“Make her?”

“Yes, and she was pretty upset with me about it, but I think she understood.”

“Understood what?”

“Everything. That’s a smart, smart woman. Keeping Valentine, Junior, and you in line has to take an awful lot of maneuvering.”

“She needs me now. It’s Friday, the day before. Tomorrow is Saturday, the day of. I should be there with her today. ”

“But you’re not, so just be still. We get there when we get there.”

“I’m sick of you bossing me. You don’t tell me what to do. Do not think that just because you and I-”

“I said hush, Patricia. For once you are not in charge, and in this instance that’s something you’re going to have to deal with. Now just be still and let God and everybody else do what they have to do while we do what we need to do.”

“I don’t know who the f-”

“I am William Peterson McDowell, the man who loves you, that’s who the fuck I am.”

“I don’t know why I bother with you. You talk to me any kind of way.”

“And you love it. You thrive off of it. You bother with me because you love me. Now, say it to me.”

“No. I can’t stand you.”

“Liar. Say it.”

“Okay… I do… love you… but to hell with you right now.”

“You can wish me there if you want, but you’ll be going right along with me because I’m stuck on you, and I’m not going anywhere without you. Right by your side, babe, you right by mine- everywhere, in all things, for all time. Now deal with that reality and be still like I’ve told you to be.”

________________________________________________________

With breakfast over, everyone headed in different directions to get started with the day.

Justine, who had been very quiet during the meal, excused herself when she was finished and went back upstairs. Jonathan left right behind her, but he was headed for the garage to get the car out and warmed up for the trip to Pat and Bill’s place. After seeing Jennifer and Marnie out of the front door, Stephen went into the living room to stand at the window. A light snow was falling, and Jonathan was just arriving out front with the car. He got out and went around to open the two passenger doors. Stephen watched Marnie get into the back and close her door as his son-in-law took his wife’s arm to help her inside. Jonathan leaned in close to her; it appeared he said something to her, and whatever it was, it made Jennifer laugh before Jonathan closed the door behind her. Observing the brief exchange between his daughter and her husband also brought a faint smile to Stephen’s lips.

As the car pulled off down the drive, he left the window and went to the couch and sat down. There might be company stopping in later as out of town guests began arriving and coming by both households after checking into their hotels. Jennifer and Patricia’s friend Marcia, his cousin, Benjamin and his daughter, Betsy, and whoever else might ring the phone desirous of a visit. It was still early; he thought he should make the best of the quiet time while it was available.

Sitting back and settling himself, his eyes traveled to the painting over the fireplace mantel, specifically to the little girl seated at her mother’s feet. A comforting tableau from another time in his life, a life divided into “before” and “after”. Although the “before” had been playing a very large part in his recent thoughts and actions, it was a particular part of the ‘after’ that had been on his mind since his talk with Jennifer in the study.

Flying in on his command, she was returning from London a week later than scheduled, bringing with her the “fiancé” she informed him of via telephone.

Fiancé. Indeed.

She might be all grown up, but she was still his daughter, and no daughter of his was marrying a man her father had not yet met. Patricia had gotten herself into trouble that time and hastily married that fool she dispatched once she lost the child. That had been a very bad time for all of them. In the five years since, she and Jennifer had gone on to make spectacular strides in their professional lives, on their own, making themselves strong and self-sufficient.

This time it was Jennifer jumping into an impromptu marriage. What was she thinking? It was unlike her to be so impulsive, especially about a matter as important as marriage. Had she made a mistake for which she was hastily trying to make amends? No, that didn’t sound like his child. That one of his girls would not feel compelled to marry simply because she was with child. Far too stubborn and independent….

Besides, she said she only just met this individual. It took a little longer than a week for that kind of predicament to make itself known.

A week….

Standing there at his front door when Walter opened it, she was more radiant and lovely than he had ever seen her, and for a moment that previous thought….

But then he didn’t detect the first hint of that subtle nervousness he got from her when she was trying to keep something from him or was bearing some news he might not want to hear.

It said a lot to him that she had agreed to marry this joker after such a ridiculously short amount of time, and that she readily brought him to Maryland to meet her father. Less than a handful had made it that far with Jennifer, and never, to his knowledge, had she entertained a proposal of marriage. The “fiancé” had flown them in on his private jet. Whether or not that was a good thing or bad remained to be seen.

“Pa, this is Jonathan. Jonathan Hart. Jonathan, please meet my father, Stephen Edwards.”

Tall, good-looking, well-dressed and delivered a decent handshake that conveyed an almost intimidating level of confidence- almost. A nouveau riche industrialist from Los Angeles, California by way of San Francisco’s Mission District, where he was raised in an orphanage until he was fostered out at fifteen. High school graduate, Navy pilot and officer, some college, successful in business, reportedly honest and hardworking, considered a wunderkind by his peers and by people who mattered, but also globally popular with the ladies. Yes, Pa had done his homework on the young man. A face-to-face meeting was in definite order.

But first he needed to speak privately with his daughter.

“This is not like you, Jennifer. You are not a rash person. You have only known this man a week, and already the two of you are talking marriage?”

“Not talking marriage, Pa. I am going to marry him.”

“Without securing my permission?”

“I didn’t know that I had to do that, but I would like very much for you to believe in my judgment, and give us your blessing. I love this man. I know this is the right thing for me. For him. For both of us.”

“And how do you know this, Jennifer?”

“How did you know, Pa?”

The question as well as her tone bordered on impertinent, but it was not worth addressing at the moment, not with that larger matter before them.

“I knew your mother two years before I married her. I courted her a full year before we even became engaged to marry.”

“My mother was sixteen when you met her; you were twenty-one. Her father wouldn’t allow you marry her until she was eighteen. But tell me if she had been older when you met her that you wouldn’t have asked her a whole lot sooner. Tell me that if Papa Henri had allowed the two of you to marry sooner, that you wouldn’t have done so. Tell me that the two of you didn’t know right off that you loved each other and wanted to be together.”

Putting forth some rather forthright questions of her own allowed her to artfully dodge the one he put to her, and to have disagreed with any of her challenges would have been to lie, but, “We are not talking about me, Jennifer. We are talking about you.”

“And I am speaking of my father, of whom I am an extension in all things, body, mind, and spirit. You loved my mother, and you waited for her, but would you have if you hadn’t been made to do so? Pa, I love Jonathan. I believe in his love for me, and I am going to be with him. I know this is rather sudden, but I’m not a child. Believe me, I’m not going into this blindly. Admittedly, I’ve had my ups and my downs with personal relationships, and I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but I must say that I am wiser from having made them. I need you to trust me, Pa, this is right. I feel the truth of it here.”

She lay her hand on her breast, and at that moment, he could see and hear in his mind her mother …

“Etienne this is the right thing to do. I love you. Trust me. I know this is what I want to do.”

On a somewhat different train of thought, and it was his hand she placed on her breast, but the sentiment delivered with the same conviction.

Alas, he made her wait. He made himself wait. Assurances had been given to her father: not until she finished her schooling and they were married. It was one of the very few times he had been successful in shutting Suzanne down from doing what she wanted to do even though that time nearly killed him. She had been too young for such things, and a promise was a promise despite his love and longing for her.

When her intended came along, however, Jennifer, had been a grown woman, a sensible, determined woman, not to mention an effective debater. There was no talking her into waiting, and as it turned out, no need as it soon became painfully obvious to him that it was too late. Despite Jonathan’s sketchy background and the less fortunate circumstances of his upbringing, he had in that initial meeting proven himself a charming, seemingly worthy fellow, and in the long-run, ten-fold and beyond, an outstanding husband, son-in-law, and father.

But what would Suzanne have made of the boy?

His eyes went back to the painting, this time focusing on the woman looking down at that child. Over the years, it was a scenario he occasionally enjoyed manipulating in his head:  How would she have handled Jennifer’s impromptu engagement? What would she have said if she had been the one to take that call from their daughter with her news from London? How would she have reacted? With shock? Anger? Worry? Surprise?

Might she have been intrigued by it?

He usually went with that last option. And along with intrigued, Suzanne would also have been pleased, especially once she actually met Jennifer’s young man.

Closing his eyes, he pictured himself and his wife together, waiting for the younger couple to arrive. He, pacing the study while sputtering his outrage; Suzanne, rushing around, making sure that the house was ready for them, poking her head in to warn him beforehand against embarrassing Jennifer. Then she would have been at the door, graciously welcoming Jonathan into their home. With the first smile, that boy would have won his mother-in-law over. Suzanne would have immediately taken to Jonathan because Jennifer chose to love him…

… and because Jonathan honestly loved Jennifer. That much rang true, loudly and clearly, even to his ears in that first conversation with his potential son-in-law.

To which he could certainly relate. As he and Jonathan talked, and Jonathan spoke of his intentions, Jennifer’s challenge continued to sound in the background of his thoughts, “Tell me, Pa. Tell me you wouldn’t have.”

He could not.

If her mother had been the one to almost happen upon Jennifer and Jonathan together in that way in his dad-blasted study that night, he would have been spared the knowledge of it.

Amused, he slowly shook his head as he pictured Suzanne coming through that hall conducting her nightly check of the doors, the tell-tale rustling, whispers, and moans stopping her in her tracks. Her brow wrinkling in confusion, further furrowing with disbelief, then her wonderful hazel eyes widening with the realization. In his mind’s eye, she quietly turned away to tip-toe back up the stairs to him, arriving in the bedroom with a mysterious smile, the incident tucked safely away with her for all time. She would not have shared it with him or been upset with Jennifer about it. Suzanne Roussel Edwards was a true, an absolute romantic, a sincere believer in the supreme, all encompassing power of love.

They were irresistible women, real women, those Roussel females, the whole lot of them, including the baby of the bunch. Smart, strong, and capable like her predecessors, Justine would carry on for all of them. Things were already set in motion to facilitate her in doing so. Taking those positive steps in the last few months to do what he could to right old wrongs and to put the rest in order brought a huge measure of comfort and peace of mind. Amazing it was, how aligning one’s spirit and actions could so positively impact one’s physical being.

That Baxter boy would be showing up soon. Perhaps Justine wasn’t all that interested in him, but that did not take away the draw he knew that Justine might have on the young man. As the young people might say, it was a man thing; Jennifer could not possibly understand. Because of young Baxter’s imminent arrival, he was forgoing his morning walk out to the guest house.

And he was eager to talk with Benjamin about the book. Even though life was no longer the constant exciting adventure it once had been, there were still some wonderful surprises to be had.

There was so much going on that she would have loved having a hand in. Suzanne might have been taken away from him, but he had certainly not been left alone. For that he was grateful.

Now if only Patricia would come… and be all right when she did so….

________________________________________________________

In the bedroom window that overlooked part of the driveway, J.J. watched her father help her mother into the car. The two of them were a trip. Embarrassing as hell at times, but admirable in their devotion to each other, enduring. And a very hard act to have to follow. In her eyes, their lasting, loving relationship was a fluke, a good one, but an odd something that definitely happened to other people. Just because she was their daughter, that kind of happiness, that level of trust in another person wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to her. Sometimes she found what her parents had between them a bit intimidating. At others, she found it inspiring. Most of the time, though, they were just a trip.

In the loft. The two of them.

All old and everything.  Ought to be ashamed.

First taking off to hook up with Daddy at the Carlyle after she left here in just a fur. Showing back up at Aunt Pat’s in a bathrobe; she probably lifted it- in more ways than one. And now hooking up with him in a stable loft.

But calls me out for riding a horse at night. Wonder who was riding who up-

Don’t go there, J.

It had been all she could do to make it through breakfast. The entire time, Marnie was over there doing everything she could to make her look at her, but she didn’t. Wouldn’t give that girl the satisfaction. In fact, as soon as she could, she excused herself and came back up to her room. Maintaining a poker face when she wasn’t playing poker took way too much effort.

When the car pulled off, she left the window and sat down in the chair, picking up from the table the framed pictures that she’d brought in from the hall table. The one of her with her parents had been out there as long as she could remember. The other; however, was a recent addition, but it was beyond weird how alike they were. The black and white was a snapshot she hadn’t ever seen before, not even in the old photo albums her mother and Pa allowed her to look through over the years.

She greatly enjoyed those books even though they usually left her feeling a little left out, as if she’d been born too late. Like someone who got there all ready to dance and have a good time just as the party was winding down. By the time she made it in on the late train from baby heaven, it seemed as if all the good stuff had already happened, and so many of the principals had packed up and gone home. Max, and her maternal grandmother, gone. Her paternal grandparents were, too, but technically, they were  AWOL They could still be alive somewhere.

But that didn’t seem likely. It didn’t feel likely. Feel….

Of all those people she would like to have met, it was Max and her mother’s mother that she most “felt”. At home, there were so many reminders of Max everywhere. There were pictures, some of his things, his old rooms that were now Marie’s rooms, but that still had a couple of his pieces. People spoke freely of him with her. He so often came up in conversations, that she felt as if she actually knew him. Her maternal grandmother, whom she always wanted to know, only recently seemed to be returning to people’s lives. Lately, her presence seemed even more strongly felt, especially there, at Briarwood.

For the longest there had been a small picture of her grandmother on the night table in her bedroom at home. She got it from her mother when she was very little, having come upon it when it fell out of one of mother’s books while the two of them were together in the great room library. Even though she had to have been about three, maybe four – she wasn’t in school yet and she was still taking afternoon naps- she remembered that incident.

Her mother always allowed her to look at the books that she could reach on her shelves. Most of them were over her head in terms of readability, but she still liked to look at them, and she liked that books were the one thing nobody tried to keep from her because she was “too little” to mess with them. The book she pulled down that day was one with pictures of Paris, France, a place she was very familiar with by that time in her life. Butte Montmartre was already one of her favorite places to visit when she was there, especially the pretty white church at the top of all those stairs. When she was little, she thought Sacré-Coeur was somehow “our church” because of its name, Sacred Heart.

Her mother was working, so to keep from disturbing her she took the book and went to her spot on the floor near her mother’s desk. They kept a sleeping mat and pillow rolled up under the desk just for her, and she had already gotten it out and made a place for herself to look at the books she selected. There she would spend her “quiet time” until she fell asleep, which was what usually happened. Since she had seen this book a couple of times before, she started farther back with looking at the pictures. As she flipped through the pages, the small black and white photograph popped out, falling into her lap.

The face, so much like her mother’s, but then not really. More like Aunt Sabrina’s, but not quite. Pretty. Interesting. Compelling. Somehow connecting to her, like somebody who was supposed to be part of her picture.

She got up and went to the desk.

” ‘Scuse me, Mommy.”

“Yes, Sweetie.”

“Is this your mommy?”

Her mother stopped typing and swiveled around in the chair to her, taking the picture from her hands. She stared at it for what seemed like forever before she spoke again.

“Where did you find this?”

“In the book.”

“What book? Show me.”

She went back to the pallet, got the book and brought it to her, making sure to keep her hand in the page where she found it, right between the pages with the pictures of Sacré-Coeur and of all the steps leading up to it. After giving her the oddest look, one that she could still see in her mind, her mother told her that it was indeed her mother, which made the woman her grandmother.

“She’s pretty, Mommy. Was she a nice mommy to you?”

“Very nice.”

“What’s her name?”

“Suzanne. Suzanne Simone Roussel Edwards.”

‘Soos-awhn’, she said, not the American, ‘Sooz-zann’

“That’s a nice name. She was Pa’s wife?”

“Yes. My mother and your grandmother.”

“Was Roussel my grandmother’s last name before she married Pa? Like Aunt Sabrina’s is now ’cause she isn’t married?”

“Yes. Like my last name was Edwards before I married your daddy, and it became Hart.”

“Hart. Like Sacré-Coeur in the pi’ture?”

Her mother laughed that great laugh of hers and said that she didn’t know about the sacred part.

“Would you like to keep that picture, J.J.?”

“May I? I have one of Pa, but I don’t have a pi’ture of your mommy. My grandmother.”

Instead of reading and taking a nap while her mother worked that day, her mother put her work down and they went out of the house to shop for a suitable frame for the photograph. Then they had lunch and went to the pier to hang out- no more shopping, thank heavens. But there had been no further discussion of the grandmother. She didn’t ask, and her mother hadn’t said. However, the next morning when she woke up, the picture was in the new frame and underneath the lamp on the night table where it sat ever since.

Older now and better able to understand more about such abstract notions, it seemed kind of symbolic to have found that picture where she did, between those two pictures. But how had it gotten in there in the first place? Who put it there? Why? What were they thinking at the time? Was it coincidence or was there some meaning or message behind it? If so, what? And from whom? Was there some reason it happened to fall in her lap that day?

Just bizarre and random. Or was it?

Funny how the Basilica was still one of her favorite places, how she felt so strongly connected to it, and so completely at peace when inside of it. She and her mother or she and Aunt Sabrina sometimes attended services when they happened to be in Paris on a Sunday. The tranquility she felt in that sanctuary was unlike that she experienced anywhere else.

“You think too much, J.” she said out loud to herself. But she continued to study the families in those two pictures, realizing as she did that the thread that connecting them was her mother.

Get some DNA. Mix it up,and make history. And some future. Grow a family tree.

It was those gaps in the present, the absence of those other branches, however, that sometimes got on her nerves. Daddy said it didn’t matter. But it did; her tree was lopsided. He said he was content with just her and her mother. That was all right for him, maybe….

Nothing you can do about that now, J.

She took the pictures back out into the hall and returned them to the table. For a moment, she thought about going back around that corner on the other end, but just as quickly decided against it. What could she do around there except stare at some doors she didn’t dare go through? Not one for self-torture, she instead went back to her room, plugged in, and booted up the laptop fretting at how Pa’s house was so low-tech. Her teeth gritting, she listened to and waited for the dial-up connection to work. When it did and she finally got logged on, she checked her emails, responded to a couple of them. Then she shot Tommy one.

Hey there,

What’s up? So, did not having Turkey Day seem strange?

We had the usual huge dinner here at Briarwood. Just about everyone came, and we all stuffed ourselves. Rosa would have been insulted if we hadn’t. No worry for her on that front. We hardly had any leftovers, which is okay by me. I’m not too much into Thanksgiving leftovers. I hope we have steak or something for dinner tonight. Anything but turkey or something made out of turkey. A turkey sandwich for lunch maybe, but not that again for dinner.

How is your mother? I understand she came to see you this weekend since she had the break from work. Did Fee come, too? My mother told me  your grandmother was thinking about going to Barcelona with your mother, but at the time Fee wasn’t sure if she could get away. How is the language acquisition coming along? And school? Having lots of fun in that part of the world? How is your wrist? Is the cast off yet?

I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but then, you know me and how I am.

Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill get married tomorrow. My parents and Marnie are over at their house right now, helping to get the place ready. I stayed at Briarwood with my grandfather. Teddy is flying in for the wedding today, so I’m waiting for him to show up. I think I told you he’s my escort for tomorrow. I expect he’ll be coming over to see me in a little while. I’ll show him around, then we’ll probably wind up just hanging out for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe we’ll go riding or something. It’s real cold out, but he’s used to that being he’s from this side of the country. I can take it if I’m riding or skiing or doing something else to take my mind off how freezing it is, but I’d rather be in the house or in the chalet by the fire. There isn’t a whole lot else going on in my life right now, which is probably a good thing because it all happens tomorrow.

Well, I just wanted to let you know I was thinking about you. You’re probably awfully busy these days, but I hope you think about me every now and then when you get a chance..

Miss you, boy.

Take care of yourself.

It was the third email she hadwritten Tommy in recent memory even though she had yet to get a response from the first two. The prolonged silence made her wonder what was going on with him. Had he gotten more of a line on his mother and Uncle Marcus? Was there a line to be gotten? Had his mother come clean on that while she was there in Spain with him? Then again, maybe there wasn’t anything for Mrs. Steel to come clean on, and the reason she hadn’t heard from Tommy was something else altogether.

Since it was supposed to be a total cultural immersion for Tommy, she wasn’t sure if his sending emails home or receiving them was allowed. But then, the two of them had never done anything totally by the rules, especially when it came to keeping in contact with each other. Even when one was on lockdown for getting out of line in some way, the other one found a way to get a message through. Maybe she hadn’t heard from him because he got caught at emailing her. But surely his uncle, Josef and Domenec, Tommy’s tutor, couldn’t expect Tommy to completely cut himself off from his friends and family and everything he knew before going to Spain, could they? Seemed kind of cruel and inhuman to do that to somebody. However, they and Tommy’s grandmother, Fee really did want him to fully learn the language, the way of life, and the trade of his father’s people. And he was supposed to get it all in one year. But did that really mean severing all ties for a whole year?

Actually, maybe it did.

Even so, she couldn’t see Tommy totally shutting himself off from her, no matter how ‘immersed’ he might be becoming. He knew better than to try doing that. After all, the boy had to come back home some time. Tommy Steele knew her well enough to understand the kind of hell he’d be paying if he was trying it.

Whatever the case, she made up her mind to keep writing him until she had solid grounds to stop. After all, even if for some reason Tommy couldn’t send a message out, he might very well be able to read the ones coming in. If so, he would at least recognize that he hadn’t been forgotten back home. Putting herself in Tommy’s place, that would have worked for her, and as soon as she could, she would work out a way to let the sender know that the messages had gotten through, and she was grateful for the outstretched familiar hand.

The thought of a hand reaching out in that context brought Pat back to the front of her mind. She was still holding Pat’s marker the way she and Marnie assured her they would that day in her study after she called them on ducking out of the restaurant and sticking her with the bill. As it worked out, holding onto Pat’s marker was doing her a lot of good, too, because it kept her from worrying any more about her godmother than she already was. Had she and Bill they made it back yet from wherever they were? If not, when would they? Had Bill broken her down and made her tell him what was wrong with her? Had she filled him full of holes for pressing her on it, trying to get into her business, and was she now on the lam after hiding the body?

Snickering to herself at the image, J.J. had to lie back on the pillows to allow the tickle to pass. Aunt Pat wouldn’t run. She’d take Bill out, then with the body right there on the floor and the smoking gun in her hand, she’d get on the phone, call her attorneys, and tell them she did it and that they should get busy with fixing things so she wouldn’t do time. She had long detected subtle streak of quiet-crazy in her godmother and that some of her threats of people coming up missing for crossing her or pissing her off should be taken seriously. Other than for business purposes, that would explain why she kept that slew of lawyers at her beck and call. Uncle Bill would do well to watch his back with her; Aunt Pat could be a mess.

But for real, what in the world could they be doing that was keeping them away for so long? They were cutting it mighty close for people who were due to be legally hooked-up the next day.

After checking over her message to Tommy and sending it, to muffle her mind and keep her body still, she switched to surfing the net, clicking into and out of the various news services she used. Starting with a couple in Los Angeles, she branched out to areas beyond LA, but nothing caught her interest enough to take her past the first few lines. Leaving California, she then moved on to New York news, including Gazer, which carried exclusive Manhattan news and gossip. Although her mother referred to it as a “rag” of a publication that she should bother with reading, she still enjoyed the juicy stories, some of them about people she knew through her parents or Aunt Pat. Sometimes she ran into a mention of Hamilton House Publishing, something associated with Hamilton House, or every now and then, a mention of Pat herself.

Not sure what she was hoping to find, nevertheless she wound up clicking off from there a little disappointed. A few celebrity sightings, too many mentions of people who either put themselves in a position to be noticed, most likely personally let the publication in on their celebration or affair, or in some way paid to get a mention in someone’s column, but nothing at all about Pat this time. Not even a mention of her bachelorette party, which as she thought about it, might not be a real bad thing. Surely Cordelia and Dora would be showing up that afternoon. Maybe they would have word if Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill hadn’t surfaced by then.

Then, the memory of her mother telling her to open that drawer and the look on her face while reading that paper from Pat’s desk had her pushing the laptop off her thighs and onto the bed. She got up, pacing, attempting to getting away from the mental image, and to leave that line of thought altogether.

I only did what I was told. The Duchess only did what she had to do.

In the mirror, she took her hair down, and started to leave it that way. But not wanting Teddy, or her grandfather to read anything into a radical move like that, she brushed it back up into a fresh ponytail and then wandered back to the window. A check of her watch said that Teddy should have gotten to Maryland and might already be at Aunt Pat’s or just about there. At the thought, an assortment of small peach pits, generated by the fluttering of those butterflies that associated themselves with Teddy or thoughts of him, bumped about in her stomach. There were too many dynamics to consider with this visit. Teddy and Daddy having to meet was no longer a serious problem for her. Daddy would huff and puff, of course, but Teddy’s house had proven strong against that. He would have to get through Peter and the boys down at Pat’s, though. If Uncle Bill wasn’t there to buffer him from them, that might be a problem. But then Daddy was down there, so some of their stuff might actually get buffered by him. However, there was still Pa to get by, and there was no telling what direction Hurricane Stephen would be coming from. Also there was Dean Marchand. She wasn’t really an issue, but she was one more person added to the mix. The Dean, Ms. Smythe, and Teddy were already acquainted, so it would be rude of him to visit and they not go down to the guest house so that he could say hello to them.

That last thing left her idly scratching at her chin as she considered how a visit of that sort might just work to her advantage. She would love to see the wall Pa put in front of that attic door as well as the new rooms he recently added on. Taking Teddy down there would give her irrefutable reason to check all of that out for herself. Nobody could call her out for being nosy if she did it that way, could she?

Then there were her own ambiguous feelings about Teddy.

It might be better if it were spring or summer, and they could spend time outside. There were lots of places to go and things to do outside. What in the world would they do in the house all day? There was only so much to talk about, and they had plans, things to do that nobody else needed to know about. Her strategy had been to use the stable, but in light of the morning’s revelations, she wasn’t so sure about that now. Besides, in slipping out on the night before, she probably triggered an alert to Pa from her mother about keeping her inside to insure that her head cold symptoms went away altogether. What crap.

As soon as she got a chance, she was going right out of the door. If Dean Marchand had to be her exit ticket on that, then so be it.

But a spring or summer visit would have been nice. They could go riding. Take a picnic lunch with them. Maybe go out in the boat….

… then again, maybe it was better to be relegated to indoor activities. Teddy was really cute and lots of fun in addition to being an awfully good kisser, and regardless of how she might feel or not feel about him personally, since it was just her alone in her head at the moment, she had to admit that she was a girl who liked to be kissed….

Streaking straight up from the bottom of her tummy, the delight rung like tower bells in her ears.

Jeez, J., you really are a harlot.

Tommy and that dream about him from when she was in the hospital that past summer came floating back to her. In general, she usually didn’t remember her dreams very clearly. Yet, there it was again, a warm fog pressing her onto the arm of the chair as it settled over her.

… together with Teddy, holding hands, walking with him way down back there at Briarwood, headed for the dock and the boat. She had her hair down- not a good sign… also wearing a dress, that long, embroidered, peach silk, and she wasn’t wearing shoes- another not-good sign. Teddy’s tight knit shirt whispering rumors about the chiseled chest and abs underneath. When they were out of sight of the house, Teddy took her in his arms, smiling that gorgeous smile of his, all that long, curly hair framing his handsome face. He kissed her. She kissed him back, and everything the Duchess ever said to her about boys, signals, sex, protection, and whatever went right out of her head.

“J.J.”

Please, please, please don’t let that be Daddy calling me.

It wasn’t; it was Tommy, but where the hell did he come from? How did he get to Maryland, and why in the hell was he there in the yard? Or for that matter, in thatdream?

And why is this dream still so vivid in my mind? And why was Tommy messing with her mind when he couldn’t even return an email? What nerve.

“I thought you said you were listening the other night, J.”

How in the world could she be expected to remember a phone call a night or two ago when there was a tongue down her throat and strong hands on her back at present?

“I heard you, Tommy. I was only kissing him.”

“Yeah right, and the way you two were going at it, he was going to be feeling you up for real any minute now, and then, out on the water, once you let it go so far and get so hot, you were probably going to end up screwing him.”

He really had his nerve, going there with her like that- even in a dream. Who did he think he was?

“How do you know what I was going to do, Tommy? You think you know everything about me.”

“I do know you. I know you get a kick out of trying stuff that you shouldn’t. I know you were sneaking off to go do something you shouldn’t be doing with him…we, me and you, both know you’re not ready for it. It might not be your intention to have sex, but you’re always saying how things have a way of getting away from you. Don’t do this, J. Wait.”

“I wasn’t going to do anything. And wait for what, Tommy? Wait for who? You?”

“Just wait on all that, J. You’re the best, a lady. Wait until you’re sure you’re with the best, somebody who’ll respect that… when it does happen for you, it won’t be with me, for sure. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I respect you and all that. But like I told you, I know your old man personally. I had my ear pierced on purpose, but I’m not putting myself in position to get my forehead pierced by his .38. I know how he is when it comes to you, and he is not messing around. Jonathan Hart plays for keeps when it comes to his daughter.”

Tommy always knew how to get to her, how to make her see reason. Bringing her father into it was definitely pouring ice water on steamy panties. For sure.

“It might just be this guy one day, J. It might not. But whoever it turns out to be, you need to be sure about everything. You are not sure, and you know it.”

“How do you know what I am? And just why are you all up in my business, Tommy Steele?”

Yeah, why were you? Why are you still all in my head, messing with me like this?

” ‘Cause I care, girl. I’ll always care, and I won’t lie to you about stuff. I don’t have to. I don’t want anything from you that I have to butter you up to get. When it comes to us, we can just be real with each other.”

They really could. They always were, even when it hurt to hear what the other had to say or to sit back and remotely, helplessly endure what the other was going through, they were always real with each other.

“J, all I’m saying is wait. Don’t even be thinking along those lines. Quit letting your head go there, and just have fun and be a kid for as long as you can. Don’t get all hemmed up with that stuff and start growing up too fast. Just be a girl for a while longer, J.J. That’s all I’m saying. I know what I’m talking about.”

Tommy would be the one to know. He started having sex at thirteen or so, and it hadn’t all been good or uncomplicated for him. In fact, there was that one time that it got downright scary. That time with Mil.

“Okay, Tommy.”

In her head she could see Tommy, almost feel him… off to the side, trying to be inconspicuous but too big to be, as he silently checked Teddy out. Sizing him up, taking inventory, stocking up critique details to use in a future discussion.

He was standing there looking at her, ignoring Teddy, arms crossed and smiling, showing off those Tommy dimples. Nodding to her, happy with her decision to wait, to take it slowly.

“Okay, then, J.”

It wasn’t until she opened her eyes again that she realized she had closed them. Yes, it was a very good thingit was too cold to be outside, taking off with Teddy by themselves to those isolated, secluded places. The two of them could find somewhere inside to do what they had to do.

She got up and returned to the window just in time to see an unfamiliar car roll to a stop in the driveway underneath her window. Unless he drove there straight from the airport, which she doubted, it was too early to be Teddy.

I’m as nosy as hell and not in denial about it. And the Duchess isn’t here to check me on it.

Leaving the window and the room, she headed for the front stairs.

________________________________________________________

“Thank you Elise. If you need me, you can use the cell to page me. I’ll be here all day.”

“That’s fine, Mrs. Hart. I’ll see that everything is completed to Ms. Hamilton’s- and your- specifications, of that you can be assured. You needn’t worry about anything.”

True to form, Pat had been more than thorough in her planning and in her choice of personnel.

A brief meeting with the woman Pat engage as head coordinator and going over Pat’s notes with her left Jennifer completely reassured that there was precious little she needed to do. Elise Lawton would be overseeing preparations for the chapel wedding and the reception being held the next evening. As the wedding would be a simple, small affair there would be no rehearsal needed for that, which worked out since the bride and groom were still missing in action. As for the reception, the decor, stocking the bars, the catering, both inside and outside of Pat and Bill’s country house, all of it was being taken care of.

Buzzing all over, readying the designated areas, the swarm of workers were already there when she and Jonathan drove in from Briarwood. The two of them planned to handle the phones but as it turned out, Pat’s executive secretary, Dora had already been tapped for that job. Flying in from New York early that morning, Dora got right to it, setting up camp in Pat’s office. With everyone in place, and Jonathan elsewhere on the grounds, Jennifer had gone upstairs for a while to think and to catch up on some journaling. Then Cordelia arrived with all of Pat’s bags. Friendly, but close-lipped as ever, she declined any offers of help and closed up in Pat’s dressing room to unpack the suitcases by herself, leaving Jennifer with nothing to do except return to her writing, but with a bit more to add to the day’s entry.

A short while later, returning to the first floor, she marveled at the transformation made in her relatively brief absence. Silk ribbons and flowers wound through the spindles and around the posts of the formal staircase. Lush arrangements of live flowers artfully graced the foyer, the living room, and the dining room, filling the air with their soft, comforting fragrance as a couple of the designers added finishing touches to the bows, and the bouquets and sprays. In the dining room the curtains had been gathered and tucked into tasseled sashes, exposing the tall French doors leading to the back grounds. A temporary canvas passageway attached to the outer side of those doors would allow people to travel without being exposed to the cold or to the elements from the house to the huge tents on the rear grounds where the reception proper would be held, .

Alone in the decorated living room, slowly turning to take everything in, Jennifer thought Pat’s cream and rose color scheme complimentary to the furnishings, as well as simply gorgeous in general. The house itself was amazing, a testament to Pat’s organizational and interior design skills, as well as to her ability to transform her visions into reality.

In the past, she had come to the same house with Pa on horse business, the whole time focused more on not touching anything out of a fear of contamination than she was on any horse transaction. No way could she ever have imagined old man Farrell’s place looking like this. Nobody she knew could make something out of nothing like Pat. Standing before the fireplace, she ran her hands over the smooth earth-toned stones, admiring the artful masonry, all of which were recently discovered after Pat and Bill had the decades of soot scrubbed from them. She wondered about her absent friend, the layers of stubborn defensiveness and denial built up in Pat over her lifetime to protect her from the world, and what it might take to get to her core. That kind of thing, those layers, didn’t do a whole lot to shield one from herself, especially when what was bothering her wasn’t coming from the outside, but was already in.

She had an idea where Pat might be and what she might be doing, but if those thoughts were valid, that was a worry in itself. By the time she looked at her cell that morning, right after her shower, she found Pat’s brief signal, but nothing else beyond that “P”. It at least confirmed that she and Bill were still breathing. Of course there had been no mention of Bill in that cryptic message, but it went without saying that he was still with her. It also went without saying that the work at Hamilton-McDowell Farms in preparation for the wedding should continue as planned. Pat hadn’t said otherwise, and she would have if something was changed with them or might keep her and Bill away past time for the ceremony.

From above the fireplace, Pat’s image stared down at her as if asking to be understood. Looking up at the painting, admiring the authenticity of the features, the overall demeanor, Jennifer credited the artist with doing Pat supreme justice. There was no need for the request she sensed from the portrait’s subject; it wasn’t as if she hadn’t done this for Pat before. When Pat got married that first time, a decision based mostly on saving face, Pat really hadn’t been all that interested in the planning or the execution-

…bad choice of word, Jennifer.

Appropriate, though, Edwards…..

– of the ceremony and reception. Most of the planning and all the overseeing had fallen to her.

“Just do it however you want, Jen. Keep it simple, and get it over with. We can have it on Long Island. That’s the only place I’ll feel comfortable doing something like this in.”

“Why do it at all, Pat, if you aren’t going to be comfortable with it? You don’t have to, you know.”

“Because it is something I have to do, Jen. I got myself into this, and it’s the honorable way to handle it. ‘Get married’ is what Rose would tell me I need to do, being pregnant and all. ‘That baby has to have a name, Patricia’, as if our name isn’t enough for it.”

“But you don’t really love him.”

“How do you know that I don’t?”

“Because you don’t. You’ve said as much in one way or another, and you don’t even act as if you do. I know about these things, Pat, I can sense romance, and I don’t sense it in you at all. In fact, I’ll bet that your grandmother is probably somewhere shaking her head because she can see you don’t either.”

“All right, you’ve got me. Okay, you, she, and I all know that I don’t love him; that’s obviously not a secret. Hell, he probably knows it, too. But Evan is my baby’s father, and I want this baby even if I don’t really want him. I have to do the right thing by my child. Jen, so do what you think should be done for this wedding, but don’t go out of your way. It probably won’t last.”

She found out later that Pat couldn’t concentrate on that wedding because she was more focused on the terms and timing of her divorce, which as it turned out, wound up occurring shortly after she lost the baby.

But a few years later, when it came to planning and putting together her own wedding to Jonathan, Pat was all over it. Jonathan, who would have been satisfied with a minister and one witness, grudgingly allowed them eight weeks to put together a formal wedding. Pat said she could have it done in six, and she did. Jonathan Hart, she asserted, was a definite keeper and they needed to make sure that the wedding happened ASAP, and being who they both were, it had to be a very grand affair. Then she went into her whirlwind mode, phoning, flying, bossing, bullying, ordering, coordinating, calling in favors and markers, and bossing some more. An exhausting, monumental effort it was, but the end product had been simply breathtaking. The church, the reception, all of it nothing less than tasteful and elegant.

In doing all of that for her and Jonathan, she always secretly felt Pat had been compensating for what she missed.

But Pat wanted this marriage. This time she loved the man she was marrying. She wanted Bill, she wanted his family, and his family all wanted her to become a permanent part of them. It was Pat’s turn, this time.

Please, after all she’s been through, after all she’s come through recently, please could you let her be happy in this way just this once? I know that you have your reasons for the things that you do, but, please….

“A penny for your thoughts.”

The whisper caressed her ear as strong arms wrapped themselves around her.

________________________________________________________

At the landing, J.J. noticed her grandfather standing in the doorway of the living room, but when Walter stalked into the foyer, she stopped right where she was.

In Walter’s eyes, it was bad form for the owners of the home to answer the door. Admitting visitors to Briarwood, announcing their arrival, and either escorting them to the proper party or seating them until the proper party was able to meet with them was his responsibility. Although such formality was not the case in her parents’ home, and she didn’t buy into such stiff and stuffy notions herself, J.J. conceded to Walter’s rulings on what was proper and improper. To some extent and for reasons she hadn’t quite figured out, she found herself observing more to the letter what Walter set down along those lines than she did her grandfather or even her parents. When Walter spoke, she listened, which is what kept her in that observational position three-quarters of the way up the stairs, hidden in the shadows of the overhang.

Walter opened the door and greeted the party. The responding male voice was one she vaguely recognized, although from the distance, she couldn’t quite make out the words spoken. A portly gentleman with a lot of snow white hair and a black wool coat entered followed by a woman, much younger but of similar build as the man. Decorum fell completely away as J.J.’s feet took off running down the remaining steps.

Stepping around the man, the woman held out welcoming arms, and J.J sailed straight into them.

________________________________________________________

She hadn’t detected his approach, but she wasn’t startled by his touch. Placing her hands over Jonathan’s, Jennifer relaxed into his welcome embrace as she accepted his penny and delivered his package.

“Just remembering our wedding day, darling, how lovely it was. Our color scheme was nearly the same as Pat is using now. Remember?”

“She’s roses and cream. You were peaches and cream.”

“You do remember.”

“Of course. How could I forget anything about the second best day of my life?”

“Our wedding day was the second best day of your life?”

Moving her hair back with his chin, he brushed his cheek against her temple. “Yeah, the first was the day a young woman in a prim business suit with her hair in a French roll sat down next to me in at the Ritz in London and ordered a man’s drink. Turned out she was an American with the prettiest smile I’d ever seen in my life. She said she had been stood up, and I thought to myself, ‘What fool would leave her hanging?’ Then I took my own shot and asked her out. When she said yes, there was a look in those eyes, and something about all of her that was so subtly sexy she almost made me embarrass myself the first time she said my name correctly. I told her to lead the way out of the bar, and I’ve been following her, that smile, and those legs ever since. Now she couldn’t lose me if she wanted to. So yes, I remember the colors and everything else about our wedding day.”

“I chose those colors because that first night we were together you told me I reminded you of peaches and cream.”

“You did, every delectable inch of you tasted of it. And you still do.”

She turned in his arms to gaze into those blue eyes, the ones that almost had her embarrassing herself in those first few moments all those years ago in that bar in London.

“You are the nicest man. You always say the nicest things. That’s what made me fall in love with you. You were nothing like I imagined you’d be.”

“Like you imagined? You traveled all the way to London for the purpose of getting an interview with me. What did you think I’d be like?”

“You know, arrogant, pompous, sexist and too full of yourself. You’d done so much in such a short time, and you were self-made. People were heaping it on you about how great and brilliant you were. And then I’d seen your pictures; I’d done my preliminary research. You were handsome, well-traveled, dating a Greek heiress, had a reputation for being a ladies’ man-”

“Lies. I had lots of friends.”

“- and I just knew I was going to wind up interviewing a jerk who’d be trying his best to get into my underwear in an effort to add yet another notch to the wall. Instead I found the nicest, classiest, and the funniest man I ever met.”

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Jennifer, I have to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“I was a nice guy. You’re right about that. You know I don’t like talking to the media. Never have, so mostly all they had to go on about me was what was observed. They did have me wrong about my being a ladies’ man and all of that. I mean, I had my share, and I did- and do love women, but it wasn’t nearly what they made it out to be. I’m sure in all this time you’ve learned that to be true, but that night, I’d met the one. You were it; I felt it in my heart that you were. I was a nice guy. Like I said, you were right about that, but I have to admit, when I brought you  back to my place on the pretense of having a drink, I had every intention of talking you into my bed and ravaging you.”

As if he were telling her something she didn’t know. She smiled. “And I had every intention of letting you.”

Laughing, he kissed her forehead. “I kind of figured. Too bad jet lag got the best of me.”

“It was just as well. It wasn’t the right time for that, and I think we appreciated it so much more when it did happen. When I did make love with you, Dom Perignon wasn’t urging me on. It was strictly what I wanted to happen, and it was only you and me in that bed. Dom had no place in it with us. I don’t do threesomes.”

That made him laugh again. “Me neither. I’m kind of lazy- one at a time is all I can handle, and with you, that’s like a foursome anyway. And about the notch on the wall thing, no. With you, making love that first time would have been to make you mine. By the time we got back to the apartment that very first night, even though I wound up falling asleep, I already knew I wanted you in my life forever.”

“So, I was one of your better hunches?”

His huge grin stopped short of a leer as his hands on her lower back pulled her tighter to him. “In every sense of the word, my darling. The absolute best.”

Forced to snicker at the lightning quick delivery of his double entendre and having walked right smack into it, she slowly shook her head. “You have such a dirty mind, Jonathan. I don’t know how I’ve put up with it and you all this time.”

“You love my dirty mind, Red, that’s how you’ve put up with it and me.” Then before she could reproach him for calling her by that name she detested, he squeezed her to him in one of his full body gentle bear hugs, speaking into her ear, “I love you. I love everything about you.”

She fully trusted in what he said, and she loved even more hearing him confirm it. “Still, Jonathan?”

“Still. For ever.”

“Then I guess I should consider everything in my world as all right.”

When he moved his hands to her shoulders, she looked back up into his face to find concern creasing his brow.

“What’s wrong, Jennifer? I can assume you’re probably worried about Pat, but is there something else? Something you haven’t mentioned to me?”

She didn’t answer right away. Instead she took his hand and led him over to the couch where they both sat down, she still holding that hand in her own as she finally spoke.

“That’s all it is, just Pat. I’m wondering what she’s doing that she isn’t here. It’s not like her. You know, to not be here wading knee deep in the preparations, especially since this whole thing directly involves her.”

“You said she had it covered.” She watched his eyes take in the room around them and beyond. “It looks to me as if she does. And as far as the back end goes, unless you were approaching from outside, you’d never know that you were inside a series of tents, it’s all so well-done. Looks just like a ballroom out there, parquet floor, acoustics for the music, a bar; Pat went all out.”

Then Jonathan returned his focus to her. “So what exactly is on your mind about Pat? I’m thinking you weren’t altogether forthcoming when we were talking last night about her and what her problems might be.”

Yes, it was Jonathan doing the asking, but it was Pat they were talking about. Several hours had passed since that late night conversation, but still all she had to go on were her own assumptions- although what she learned from that drawer in Pat’s office made them a bit more than conjecture. Still she wasn’t ready to give voice to those specific fears, not even with him. But needing to talk, she limited her sharing to things in general.

“I’m scared for her. She’s been through so much recently. I- We almost lost her last September. She somehow managed to slip past that. Now…”

“What exactly are you thinking?”

“I’m trying not to think anything, but…”

Reaching out, she idly fussed with the buttons and the collar of his shirt, attempting to come up with words to camouflage the thoughts she was struggling to keep to herself. When he lifted her chin with his fingers, the understanding she found in his face told her the effort to conceal her suspicions was unnecessary.

“So don’t think about any of it,” he said. “Pat’s a fighter, she’s a survivor, and she’s got the added bonus right now of having Bill with her. Whatever is going on, I’m sure that between the two of them, they’ve got a handle on it. I know it’s hard not to wonder or be concerned, but let’s try to keep it positive until we have a reason not to. After all, Pat hasn’t called to put a stop to any of this.”

Jonathan squeezed both her hands in his and then ducked his head to gaze directly into her eyes.

“And even though you haven’t said as much, Jennifer Hart, I figure your friend has to have at least somehow let you know that she’s still alive and that the reason she hasn’t surfaced isn’t because she’s hurt or worse. Otherwise you’d be on the phone, ringing up the hospitals, NYPD, the FBI, the FAA, the Coast Guard, and anyone else you could think of to try and locate her.”

Then he looked around himself as is searching for something. “Say where is everybody? I would have thought that Lisa or at least Marnie would be with you.”

As usual, he was right on the money about her outward show of calm over Pat’s whereabouts. But the existence of their signal system itself was private, something between her and Pat alone. Grateful for the segue he offered, she easily answered that question.

“It’s Black Friday, Jonathan, the biggest shopping day of the year. After Peter and the boys left to go finish up the last minute things they hadn’t done before leaving home, Marnie mentioned that this was going to be the first Friday after Thanksgiving since she was little and couldn’t go on her own that she wasn’t going to be in the stores. Then Lisa got this pitiful look that she tried to hide, but that I caught onto anyway. I told both of them to go on into town. There really wasn’t anything they could do around here, and there was no sense in all of us missing out.”

He gestured with his arm to the decorated room and the activity they could see through the door leading back to the rest of the house. “”With Pat’s precision planning here, you could have gone with them if you wanted. I would have been here to oversee things, and then Dora’s here, too.”

“And Cordelia.”

“Really? Well then you absolutely should have gone with Lisa and Marnie. You love to shop on this day, too. Usually you leave J.J. and me at your father’s, watching a game or something while you go do your thing.”

She shook her head. “No, no, no, I needed to be here. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate, thus I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. And anyway, even though you saw him in Boston, with an audience all around you, I’m sure you didn’t get any satisfactory time in with Teddy then. I was not about to leave you here on your own to meet him once he arrives.”

Jonathan blinked as if surprised by what she said. “Now why would you not want him to be here alone with me?” Then he went ahead and grinned. “That’s really why I’m up here. I got a call from him a while ago. He’d picked up the car from where Peter and Billy left it in the lot for him. Said he was on his way in.”

“My, he’s very grown up for such a young fellow. He wasn’t at all nervous about finding his way from the airport to here?”

“He’s been to this house before to bring Kyle to Bill. He told me that he went online and got the driving directions before he left Virginia just to be sure. When you’re on the kind of mission he’s on, you find your way to where you want to go without a problem. Nervousness doesn’t fit into that; you’re too focused. Just like a homing pigeon, your internal radar helps you make it to your destination without too many hitches.”

“And in your mind, Jonathan, this ‘pigeon’s’ mission and destination would be?”

“Why, J.J. Hart, of course. Look, say can what you want. I’m married to her mother, so I know all about that kind of mission. I was on automatic pilot myself from the moment I met you, and I was twice seventeen at the time. Nobody had to guide me in either.”

Immediately she checked his eyes, catching that flash of hot mischief in them. “You are so incessantly filthy.”

Laughing, he held up a hand in defense. “Not me. I was strictly talking navigation, getting from Point A to Point B in the literal sense. I don’t know what figurative context you’re putting things into. This time I think it might be you with the mental hygiene problems.”

The intercom console out in the front hall chimed, signaling someone at the gate wishing to be allowed inside.

He rose, bringing her up with him, then locking arms with her. “Come on, sweetheart. I think my pigeon is out on the ledge wanting in.”

“He’s only a boy, Jonathan, a friend of your daughter who’s come to spend the weekend with her.”

“He’ll be a main course if he steps a millimeter out of line with my daughter this weekend. And for the record, I’d rather you leave the word ‘come’ out of this. I’m filthy, remember?”

“I do remember. Incessantly so. Sorry.”

“I’d hate to have to do the boy in on a holiday-slash-wedding weekend.”

“Jonathan.”

“And why’d she have to turn out so cute?”

“You’d rather your daughter be homely and unattractive?”

“I’d rather she stayed twelve and in the awkward stage a while longer.”

Jennifer patted his back as they entered the front hall just as Sarah passed them on her way to the door. “She’s is still in it, darling. These days it’s just harder to tell from looking at her that she is.”

And from what they could see though the frosted glass of the front door, if that did turn out to be Teddy waiting to be admitted, apparently he brought someone with him.

Continue to Part Ten

 

 

 

 

 

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