Promises: Part Six

Part Six

Wee hours of the morning….

The house was quiet, so J.J. heard when Cordelia returned home. She pretended to be asleep when the bedroom door eased open and then slid closed again. Once the woman’s heavy but carpet-muffled footsteps retreated to the first floor, J.J. pushed off the covers, got out of the bed, and went to sit by the window. Staring through the rain dappled glass down to the lamp-lit street below, her mind was busy, tumbling and rolling with thoughts of her mother and Aunt Pat.

Never before had one of her parents asked her to go against something that she’d been taught was wrong. But had breaking into Aunt Pat’s desk been the wrong thing to do under the circumstances? It couldn’t have been. If had been wrong, her mother, of all people, wouldn’t have asked her to do it. The Duchess had very hard and fast rules by which she lived, more importantly by which she expected her daughter to live, and she almost never went against them.

But she definitely had this time.

And Aunt Pat. Hadn’t she been the one to get all over her about running away from her problems? Wasn’t that Patricia Hamilton standing over her in the bedroom that day, hands on her hips, practically accusing her of being a coward? Pat had taken off, presumably to get away from something that was bothering her. So, what did that make her?

Not a coward. Pat wasn’t a coward in any sense of the word. Again, if she did heroes, Pat would certainly rank high among them. She wasn’t perfect, but she was definitely a woman to whom a girl could look with respect and from whom she could take lessons on being a strong, smart woman. What in the world could be so wrong that it would cause Pat to run from it?

Or send her running to something, perhaps?

And what would cause the Duchess to call on her higher power when she read that paper? Had she taken the envelope with her? If she hadn’t, it would still down there in the drawer, the lock of which she had been told to crack without making it look as if it had been breached. That must have meant that her mother planned on putting the letter back and act as if she hadn’t seen it.

That drawer could just as easily be opened again…

Scratch that. No, she wouldn’t do that. Opening it again wouldn’t be right at all. She had only broken in that time because she had been told to do so. Even then, she hadn’t personally gone into it. That part of it had been left to her mother. That was on her head.

Loophole to the max.

I only did what I was told to do, Aunt Pat. No less and, most certainly, no more.

And it was what had to happen at that point in time. Pat wasn’t there to do the talking and the Duchess needed to know.

On the way back up the stairs from the study, not a word had passed between her and Marnie. Marnie had gone straight into her room and closed the door, and she’d let her. Some things a girl needed to handle on her own. Once Marnie was by herself, though, surely she had cried.

Funny how the close relationship her best friend was forging with her godmother didn’t seem to bother her. As territorial as she could be about some things, she realized, with some small surprise, that what was happening between Marnie and Pat didn’t bother her at all. But then, what Pat and Marnie had was different from what she and Pat shared. With Pat, the connection was natural, like breathing, like life. But then, it was that way with he and Marnie, too. That made the circle a natural one, so what was there to be territorial about?

She wasn’t- she couldn’t be as generous with the Duchess. The blood only went two ways in that relationship, between her mother and herself. The guilty realization came with the usual self-chastisements.

Selfish little prig.

Whatever. You know how it is.

… and how it will always be.

She also felt a bit badly about not going to check on Marnie when she suspected that she was in distress over Pat. But, then wasn’t she was up in the middle of the night, sitting in the chair by the window, still wrestling with demons of her own? How could she be of any help to anyone?

Down below, the random car, looking much like one of the little Matchbox toys she once played with, passed the building and she could almost hear the wet pavement splashing beneath its wheels. It was brittle-cold out there, scary dark, and drizzly. At that time of night, everyone should be inside where it was warm. But her mother was out there looking for her friend. What if Pat wasn’t where she said she thought she was? Why couldn’t Pat have chosen a better night than this one to take it on the lam?

Why couldn’t she have just come back to the apartment and closed up in her rooms? Nobody would have bothered her there. Pat had the type of aura that absolutely repelled people when she was upset or in a funk. If one didn’t pick up the vibes she was sending out, then she’d lay it out for them verbally, in no uncertain terms. That kind of nasty reaction had never been directed toward her from her godmother, but she had seen it happen to others. With her, Pat had always been patient, even when she hadn’t been in the best of moods.

But then, too, she had always been one to hone in on and respect social cues, especially those of her loved ones. Yet another lesson in life taught by Jennifer Hart that had been wholly taken into her heart.

As she was getting older; however, she was discovering that she could send out those same kind of vibes as her Aunt Pat. When she was edgy and wanted to be alone, even Marnie would give her a very wide berth. That was a good thing because unlike Aunt Pat and despite how it might appear at times, it really did bother her to hurt other people’s feelings, even when it might be justified. It was good that people left her alone and allowed her space when she needed it. That way, she didn’t have to resort to abrading the offending parties with what her mother deemed, “the rough side of her quick tongue”.

Her mother.

Picking up the cell phone from the table next to her, she started to press the button to call and check on her. But then, she put it back down. What if she had found Pat, and they were in the middle of talking? She wouldn’t want to be interrupted. And it was also the middle of the night. It wouldn’t do to have her mother know that she was sitting up worrying. That would be another worry for her.

Jeez, Aunt Pat. Why did you have to do this tonight? Why couldn’t you have waited until daylight or something?

I’m telling you, if anything happens to my mother while she’s out there looking for you… as much as I love you…

Pressing down the lid on the anger beginning to simmer in the pit of her stomach, she got up and left her room to check on Marnie. Slowly easing open the door so as not to wake her, she peeked inside.

The night light was on.

______________________________________________________________

Frustrated, mildly angry with Pat and a whole lot fearful for her, Jennifer had gone down to the lobby to wait for the car to arrive. She had to get away from the girls. As it was, they were far too aware of what was going on, and both those children were perceptive and sensitive, especially J.J., who if she had seen even one of the tears she was pressing back with the tissue in her hand, would have insisted upon coming with her. She wouldn’t have let her, J.J. wouldn’t have considered that fair in light of what she had done for her, and who knew what might have happened after that. As J.J. was getting older, she was becoming a lot more insistent about getting her point across, especially when protesting against getting what she considered the short end of a situation. And then there was Marnie to consider. Not another thing needed to be heaped on that child’s already full plate.

Yes, it was best that she got out when she did. She would wait down there in that corner chair which allowed her to see out to the street, but put her mostly out of sight of anyone coming in or going out.

It wasn’t long before the long black Cadillac glided to a stop in front of the building.  By the time she made it to the glass door, Davis was out, around on the passenger side, and holding the door of the car open for her.

“Mrs. Hart,” he said, tipping his hat as she got in.

“Davis, thank you for coming on such short notice. I need to fi-”

He held up his hand, and looking up into his eyes from the back seat, she could see that he was already aware.

Davis closed the door behind her. She removed her overcoat, and first settling herself into the plush leather seats, she then leaned across to see what Pat had stocked in the bar.

Martell. Yes, this will do very nicely. Thank you, my friend.

That was also when she noticed that the transparent privacy shield had been raised between her and her driver. Although they could see each other, they wouldn’t be able to speak or be heard through it. She pressed the intercom button to let Davis know where she wanted to be taken. But before she could say anything, he turned around and shook his head, holding up his hand again, signaling to her that she should sit back and let him drive.

As Davis pulled off into the night, Jennifer poured herself a drink, but had to place the glass in a nearby holder to fully give in to the sudden surge of her suppressed emotions. When it was over, composure regained, she relaxed  as the cognac slowly warmed her insides. The view through the tinted windows assured her that somehow Davis already knew where she wanted to go, even though she hadn’t said a word about it to him.

She lay back her head and closed her eyes. There would be plenty of time to think things through and formulate some plans.

______________________________________________________________

Damn. Just forget it.

Unable to sleep after Jennifer’s call, frustrated by what promised to be a relentlessly lengthy bout of tossing and turning, Jonathan finally got up. Although it was early, early morning, he decided that if sleep wasn’t going to happen, there was no need for him to remain in bed. Especially since he was in it alone.

No sport in that whatsoever.

After pulling on his robe, he took a seat in the cushioned bay window.

It was pitch black outside and since the room faced out to the vast rear grounds of Bill’s estate, he couldn’t see anything other than his own reflection. As such, there was nothing to distract him from thoughts of his wife and her friend.

Alone.

Jennifer was out there, looking for Pat. Well, at least Jennifer wasn’t quite on her own. She had enlisted Davis to transport her on her quest. It helped to know that along with being Pat’s driver, Davis was licensed and always prepared to also play the part of bodyguard should that particular facet of his duties get called into play. It wasn’t a thing that Pat made widely known; he wasn’t even sure if Jennifer was aware of it. But Pat had let him in on it when he once questioned the wisdom of her moving around the city in the way that she did without protection. He had August Lamb; she had Davis. At the moment, Davis had Jennifer, and that gave him a great measure of comfort.

Maybe, just maybe, that was how Pat set it up.

That made sense. The girls were at the apartment, not to mention Cordelia. Then Marcia had shown up. Pat and Jennifer had been surrounded by others ever since Jennifer got back from her trip to the Carlyle with him. Maybe Pat took off to get Jennifer to come to her so that they could be alone. Why else would she take it on the lam, leaving Davis behind? It made perfect sense that she might have done it so that he could bring Jennifer to her safely.

Where ever she was.

Where would she go in the middle of the night? Then again, Pat was in New York, on her turf. A better plan of action might be to eliminate the places she wouldn’t go. Hamilton House probably topped that list. Her office windows- well, she just wouldn’t go there. For the longest, since the days she spent marooned at Willow Pond after 9/11, he’d had the ominous feeling that all was not well with Pat, which of course, preceded this latest strange development. Much had happened in her beloved New York. So much and so many lost. The shock, the grief, the resultant paranoia. People in mourning and on edge. So many abrupt changes.

The part of the tragedy that had almost taken her….

That was an awful lot for a person to try and get past, even someone as strong and as tough as Patricia Hamilton.

As Jennifer worried over Pat, he had been concerned about Bill, left on his own, bumping about the house and the grounds he and Pat had acquired together while Pat stayed holed up in Manhattan. As long as they had known each other, he had never seen Bill so taken with a woman, not even his late wife.

A family man at heart, Bill had always been the one who desired the white picket fence, house, wife, dog, kids. He had married Irene while he was still in the Service and she had borne him two sons almost right away. While she stayed home to raise T.J. and Peter, Bill had worked hard on building what would become the behemoth McDowall Aviation Corporation. For those first few years, it seemed Bill had it all. Then the cancer had come and snatched Irene away, leaving him with two kids to raise, along with a thriving business to oversee at the same time.

In retrospect, though, Jonathan found that he could hardly remember Irene. Young and pretty, that was about all he could recall of her. In those early years, he and Bill had both been extremely busy men, studying, traveling, networking, building empires. He had been single, but Bill had been married with a family he didn’t get to see very much. He had grieved a long while after Irene’s passing, but then Clara, his very capable housekeeper had come on board, taking over Bill’s house and the direct care of his kids, allowing him to resume his business affairs without worrying so much about maintaining the home front. Gradually, Bill had moved on with his personal life.

As a widower, he had dated other women, but never seemed to form any serious attachments. That hadn’t seemed important to him. Having a woman as a permanent fixture in his life didn’t seem to matter. He had his business, his myriad other interests, and of course, his boys.

The oldest, son, T.J. and Bill shared a keen interest in all things aeronautical, which made the two of them very close. It wasn’t until after T.J.’s death, when Peter was grown, married, and a father himself, that Bill and Peter formed the congenial bond they currently shared. As Jonathan sat there thinking things over, it dawned on him that if Bill and Pat had been together since J.J.’s Christening, then she had been Bill’s friend at the time that T.J. crashed and died. How much had she helped him through that time?

It wasn’t until earlier that present year; however, that Bill and Pat came clean about the close relationship they had been maintaining. They said it hadn’t gotten serious until more recent years, but even then….

Maybe it was because they met when they were older. Maybe it was because the relationship had taken so long to unfold. But what Bill had with Pat seemed a lot deeper and more meaningful that what he’d had with Irene. With Pat, there wasn’t the promise of children, picket fences, or any of that, yet he wanted her. He wanted her badly, and whatever her problem was, it was eating at Bill who was trying so hard to be patient, leave her alone, and wait her out.

Pat had been pushing Bill away, he said, for weeks, yet he continued to hang in there with her. Ever since Jennifer had come into their lives, Bill’s contention had been that he was waiting for a woman like her. He had nicknamed Jennifer, “Beautiful”, and when J.J. came along, she became his godchild, “Beautiful, Jr.”

Still in the window, that thought made Jonathan smile. Bill called his women “beautiful”, but he’d chosen Pat to ask to be his wife.

Over the years, especially through her interactions with J.J., he had come to see Pat as totally beautiful, too. But Pat would brain a guy for nicknaming her something like that. They were best friends in the best way, but Pat was very different from Jennifer.

A physically attractive woman, too, Pat was tough, inside and out. She definitely had that harder, thicker New York shell. One almost needed a jackhammer to get to her core, but somehow Bill had managed it. And amazingly enough, Pat loved Bill in return; that much was obvious. Having had ample recent opportunity to be in their company and to watch them together, it was apparent that despite their lifestyle differences, they made a very good couple. With Bill, Pat’s more vulnerable side almost shone through.

Almost.

Married, they should have a rich, rewarding life, but at the moment, something had put itself in Pat’s way, and there wasn’t a lot of time left before the wedding to find out what it was and to move it.

Maybe once Jennifer caught up to her, Pat would be ready to let her in. He certainly hoped so.

Then he thought about J.J. and wondered if she was sitting by a window as well, her non-stop mind racing like a Lamborghini’s engine pushed to the max by a lead-foot driver. Jennifer said that she had briefly spoken with J.J. and Marnie and the girls were aware that she was going to find Pat. J.J. had a very protective streak when it came to her mother. She wouldn’t be at all pleased about Jennifer being on what could amount to, in her eyes, a wild good chase. Especially not at night in New York and by herself.

The more he considered it all, the surer he became of Pat’s motives for taking off in the way that she had. But J.J. wouldn’t know that. For sure that girl was awake and thinking about them, just as he was.

He got up and went back over to sit on the side of the bed where he stared at his cell phone lying on the night table. He had already spoken with Jennifer. If he called to check on her, and she had located Pat, he could be interrupting something.

It might be the middle of the night, but he knew his child.

Nocturnal and nosy as hell. She’s awake.

He picked up the phone.

______________________________________________________________

Marnie apparently managed to get to sleep, so J.J. had returned to her room. She had just sat down on the side of the bed when her cell began to vibrate.

Who the-? Maybe my moth-

Snatching up the phone, she checked the display and then grinned in wonder as she clicked in.

“Daddy, what in the world are you doing calling me at this time of night?”

I knew you wouldn’t be asleep. I talked with your mother a while ago, and she told me what was going on.  Next to the window, are you?

“No, not now. I was earlier, though. I just came from peeking in on Marnie. She was kind of bent out of shape over Aunt Pat and all, but she’s sleeping now.”

Good. What about you?

“I’m okay.”

Don’t fib to your Daddy.

“But I’m n- Oh well, I never could fool you. All right, I guess I’m kind of bent out of shape, too. But I don’t like my mother being out at this time of night, hunting around for somebody who she’s not sure where she is and who won’t pick up her phone. That is so inconsiderate. Aunt Pat knows that my mother is going to come looking for her if she does that.”

I think it was designed that way, baby. Your Aunt Pat knew exactly what she was doing.

“So weird.”

So them, though. Your mother is in good hands. Davis is driving her.

“Oh, I didn’t know that. I was thinking that in a hurry like she was, she had gotten into a city taxi. Well, that’s good then. Davis packs; he knows what to do.”

How do you know he carries a gun?

“I’ve seen it. He didn’t mean for me to. He doesn’t know that I saw it, but I did. And plus, Aunt Pat told me about it the time I asked her if he was security.”

Oh yeah? When was that and what made you ask her?

“I was little, maybe ten, eleven, something like that. I just had some hunch that he was more to her than her driver. The way he watches everything. How he keeps his eyes on Aunt Pat all the time when he’s with her. Kind of like when Mr. Lamb is with you. In fact, just like that. I think that’s what made me notice. Like I said, I’ve known a while.”

So then you now know for sure that your mother is in good hands. Listen J.J.,  you need to go to bed. You have a flight out in the morning.

“Yeah, but since I’m not slotted for the pilot’s or the co-pilot’s seat, I can catch some z’s on the plane. Even if I do go to bed, Daddy, I won’t sleep. I won’t be able to sleep until they make it back. That’s just how it is. And anyway, I see you’re not asleep. Why are you up?”

Checking on you. Calling you to tell you to go to bed.

“Don’t fib to your daughter. You couldn’t sleep either, knowing that my mother is out there. Just go ahead and admit it.”

I can’t sleep if I know you’re up worrying about your mother.

“Then I guess we’ll both be up worrying about her.”

She and her father had talked a little while longer, and even though she had tapped danced around it, feeling him out, he hadn’t mentioned the first thing about her having opened that drawer for her mother. The Duchess must have left that part out of it when she was telling him about Pat and about her plans to go after her. Which also meant that she hadn’t shared with him that she had an inside track on what might be wrong with Pat. Although Jennifer Hart sometimes had to fuss at her husband about his tendency to keep things to himself, keeping quiet about that letter seemed the sort of thing she would do for Pat. That was their thing.

It was oddly gratifying that her mother had also kept the caper with the desk drawer between them. Having manipulated that lock and thereby breached her godmother’s privacy bothered her, but it felt good that her mother had turned to her for help. Marnie was in on it, too. Indirectly so, but most definitely in. Marnie had been around long enough to know that there were things that didn’t get talked about outside their immediate circle. That would be their thing.

Get some sleep, baby. Your mother can handle herself and Pat.

Even if he totally believed what he said, would he be able to get to sleep until he heard back from her?

Of course not.

J.J. slid back under the covers, but instead of turning off the light, she plumped up the pillows and then pushed the button on the CD player on her nightstand. Fastening the noise reduction headphones snugly over her ears, she lay her head back, closed her eyes, and allowed Streisand and Kristofferson to gently lull her to a more serene place.

______________________________________________________________

She arrived without announcement. Only she could do such a thing in the place she was.

Like always, she had come at night, gone straight to that first floor room and stood alone in the darkness for a few minutes before going up the stairs.

The old woman heard her come in, and had watched her, but kept out of sight. She waited for what she felt was a reasonable amount of time before climbing the stairs and going to check on her.

When she pushed open the door, that room was also dark, but the narrow sheath of light from the hall behind her outlined the fully clothed form lying face down across the four-poster bed.

Like always.

Without speaking and refraining from going in and picking up the coat, discarded in a crumpled heap on the hardwood floor, she closed the door and crept back down the stairs.

______________________________________________________________

… don’t you have a best friend, Mommy?”….

Yes, I do sweetie, and I’m on my way to find her….

 

… “So Jen, the little one out there, sitting at the table next to J.J., the one with the Buster Brown haircut and the tiara. That’s Marnie?”

“Yes, that would be Miss Marnie Elaine.”

“Cute little thing. But it’s J.J.’s birthday party. Why is she wearing the tiara?”

“Because her mother says it’s easier to let her wear it than to tell that she can’t.”

“Yeah? I like her already. ‘My way or no way’; now that’s my kind of girl.”

“Oh, she’s definitely your kind of girl, all right. As little as she is, she can cuss like nobody’s business.”

“You’re kidding me. With that little angel face? For Pete’s sake, she’s wearing ruffled anklet socks and red patent leather Mary Janes. There’s no way.”

“Can fire them off like a blue streak, Pat. Don’t let the appearance fool you. If she’s angry or frustrated, she could make you blush.”

Pat snickered. “I can’t wait to meet her up close and in person.”

“You will. She’ll be here overnight. Her mother asked if we could keep her. Maureen’s going through a bad patch with her husband right now, so I guess it’s better if Marnie is here, away from all of that. Jonathan, and of course J.J., love the girl, but I worry about her influence on J.J., though. Along with the bad words she uses, she’s a bit spoiled. I know that she’s only six, but they don’t make her take much responsibility at home. The expectations for her aren’t very high.”

Pat had just arrived from New York for the birthday party, and she had been anxious to get outside to let J.J. know that she was there. But instead of going out of the door when she left the window, she came back to the table, and took the seat across from her, her face somber and serious.

“Look Jen, please don’t become one of those suburban play-date snob-mommies. You have a very cute, very smart cookie for a daughter. Let her pick her own friends. After all, you did. I’m sure that in the beginning, your father was wishing you had never hooked up with me, but here we are, no worse for the enduring relationship….”

 

… Jonathan and Pat had been missing all afternoon.

Without her knowledge, shortly after they arrived in New York from Maryland where they had gone so that Jonathan could meet Pa, Pat had whisked him out of the apartment and taken him away without saying a word to her. Only Pat could get away with pulling something like that.

But no doubt, Jonathan went quite willingly with her. As much as she had told him about her editor and best friend, he probably found finally meeting Patricia Hamilton face-to-face an exciting adventure, the kind of thing which, in the short time that she’d known him, she was learning that he craved. Like the seaman he told her he once dreamt of becoming, he had handily steered them through the threatening storm that was her father into calmer waters and back to land. Maneuvering the obstacle course that, without a doubt, Pat had set up for him would be just another interesting challenge for such a man.

When Pat was finished with him, she dropped him off at the door of the building, leaving him to return to the apartment and to her on his own. When she answered his knock, there he stood, grinning that irresistible Hart grin. It felt so good to have him back “home”.

“Your friend, Pat, is something else. I think I’m going to like her. She’s smart. I like her style. And she drinks like a man. Matched me shot for shot and didn’t so much as waver once on her feet.”

It was evident that he could put them away, too, without it having any visible affect. The two of them together had to have made a serious dent in the liquor supply of wherever it was Pat took them do that.

“Did she try to pump you for information, Jonathan?”

“Yeah, but then I was trying to get some from her about you. Turns out neither of us was giving up much of anything. The girl is good, though. She almost got me a couple of times. You know, they say one’s friends are a reflection of themselves.”

“And you say that to say-“

“That Pat’s a winner, and so, my darling, are you.”

He came in, gathering her in his arms, lavishing her with kisses as he carried her to the bedroom. Tip-toeing around her father at Briarwood, it had been almost thirty-six hours, and even then it had been a hurried, hushed joining, those delicious stolen few minutes in her father’s study, of all places.

Now they were alone, totally alone in her apartment. Virginity had been left behind at seventeen, but Jonathan would be the first man she took to her own bed. He would be the first and only man to wake up with her under her roof. Even way back then, from the very first time in London, she was certain that he would be the last.

And even back then he didn’t tell very much unless she pulled it out of him. It had taken all night to get him to tell her the details of his afternoon spent with Pat… snippets given up between more pressing matters….

 

They had been in the car, coming home from picking J.J. up from school. J.J. had been in about the first grade… still attending the private academy… still in the early years of the friendship….

“J.J., why do you like Marnie so much? She has to be the worst behaved little girl in your class.”

“Marnie is my best friend at school, Mommy. I like her. She’s fun. She makes me laugh. I make her laugh, too. And she’s not bad for real… the teacher is mean to her, so Marnie is mean back to her. Don’t you have a best friend, Mommy?”

“Yes, Aunt Pat is my best friend.”

“But she’s your sister. Your sister can’t be your best friend.”

“A sister can be a best friend, J.J., but Aunt Pat isn’t my sister. I don’t have any sisters.”

“Then how come she’s my aunt? I thought you said aunts are sisters to the mommy or the daddy. My daddy doesn’t have any sisters or brothers, so she has to be your sister if she’s my Aunt Pat.”

“Baby, Aunt Pat is your aunt because we’re such good friends that she is the nearest thing to being my sister. But we’re really just very good friends. We’ve been best friends since we were little girls.”

 

“… no worse for the enduring relationship.”

 

“No worse, Patty. In fact, better and stronger, for sure.”

 

“… Aunt Pat. Have you noticed anything weird about her?”

“Weird? Weird like what?”

“Come on, Mom. You know full well what. You’ve seen it. If I’ve noticed it, you have, too. Can we just cut to the chase here? Is something up with her? Please don’t treat me like a little kid on this one. I love her, too. Something is wrong with her, isn’t it?”

Yes, little Light Fingers. but I don’t have the specifics yet….

… and you, my baby, are certainly no little kid any more… your father teaches you all the wrong things, but thank you so much for helping us….

 

… my God, old girl, why didn’t you say something…..

 

“Mrs. Hart.”

Davis’ voice drew her from the twilight slumber into which she had drifted once she finished with the phone calls she’d made. Opening her eyes, the privacy shield had been rolled down and she could see Davis glancing into the rear view mirror at her as he spoke to her. “We’ve arrived on the grounds, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Davis.”

It was till dark. They were on a single lane drive lined with trees that, like ominous, silent sentinels kept a wary, vigilant eye on them as they passed.

“Davis?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“How did you know?”

“Cordelia had already phoned me, ma’am.”

“How did she know?”

Davis didn’t answer that one. Instead he squared his shoulders and averted his eyes from the mirror, focusing once more on the road in front of him.

Loyal.

Cordelia, Davis, Dora, all of them would close ranks, even against her, to protect- or obey– Pat.

“Just tell me this, if you can, Davis. Was this a set-up of some kind?”

“We’ll be there in just a minute, Mrs. Hart. You should probably put your coat on. We’re right off the bay, so it’s a different kind of cold here. And with you being from out west and all.”

She hadn’t lived in New York for decades, and it had been longer than that since she’d come to this place, but she hadn’t forgotten how cold it could get there. Some of the cold didn’t have anything to do with the weather.

As they rounded a final bend of the private drive, a massive stone and mortar house slowly rose in the distance before them. It had been many, many years since the last time she’d seen it, but just as it had the first time, it reminded her of how privileged and how far removed from “reality” Pat’s early life had been. It also confirmed her belief that events in life happened as they were meant to happen. She had grown up the child of well-heeled parents, socially prominent parents, but what Pat had come from…. their lives should never have crossed- at least not at the point that they had.

It was nothing short of fate that put Jennifer Justine Edwards and Patricia Rose Hamilton together in that room that morning in Waverly House at Gresham Hall Preparatory School for Girls and that kept them friends for over forty years.

The enduring relationship had her in the back seat of that car which had brought her to Long Island for the second time in recent days.

Davis cruised to the curb and stopped the car. Although she had pulled on her coat and was holding it closed at the neck to keep out the anticipated chill, a quick shiver racked Jennifer’s body as she peered out at the short set of stone stairs leading up to the front door of McMurray-Hamilton House.

______________________________________________________________

The colored man had notified her of the car’s impending arrival, so when it finally appeared in front of the door, she was there, ready to receive his passenger.

Although she had loosely followed her career in the literary world, and had been kept updated about her personal life through marvelously delivered anecdotes, she hadn’t set eyes on the girl in years. This was not a place that saw many visitors, thus nor did she. But then could Stephen Edwards’ daughter be considered a visitor?

The driver got out of the car and went around to the other side.

Releasing the latch, she drew open the heavy wooden door for the woman who rushed inside accompanied by a blast of cold air. As she closed the door behind her, she watched through the window as the man got back into the car. When she turned back around, her guest was shaking out her hair and seemed to be shivering, when she turned back around.

Still a redhead. And pretty. Time has been very kind to both my girls….

“Mrs. Hart.”

“Mrs. Carmichael, it’s so good to see you. Seems as if it’s been forever.”

“Yes, many years.” She held out her hand. “May I take your coat?”

She was caught off guard when instead of being handed the coat, her hand was squeezed in greeting. Opportunities for human contact didn’t come that often for her.

The girl was still slim, stylish and well-groomed. And warm and gracious. But then, why wouldn’t she be? She had married extremely well, and she had come from good stock. She returned the squeezed to the hand that still held hers.

“How is your husband, Mrs. Hart? And your daughter?”

“They’re both fine, Mrs. Carmichael. I take it from how you don’t seem surprised to see me that Patricia is here. Is she all right?”

Accepting the coat and folding it across her arm, Mrs. Carmichael gestured toward the stairs.

“Please,” she said. “Come.”

______________________________________________________________

Jennifer followed the woman up the slowly winding stairs, admiring the elaborate crystal chandelier and the series of unique narrow windows as they passed them on their way to the second floor. She was taken to a large bedroom where a bedside lamp was already on, a fire crackled in the small hearth, and the bed covers were turned back. A soft-looking sky blue nightgown and robe had been lain out and a pair of slippers in the same color were right there on the floor.

“You should be comfortable here after your long ride,” Mrs. Carmichael said as she took the coat to what turned out to be a closet. “I made a fire to warm you. I think that you will find you have everything you need. I’ll have some tea and an aspirin brought up to you.”

Mrs. Carmichael was leaving, closing the bedroom door behind her before the bit about the aspirin registered.

Cordelia.

That meant her hunch about Pat had been right; she was there. Her late grandmother’s house on the North Shore was Pat’s retreat, her safe port in the bad storms. It was a place she came to alone. A place that despite it’s existence, Pat never really talked about.

She only knew of the house because once Pa took over Pat’s affairs, they had to come there a few times to retrieve some of Pat’s things, and because she had tracked Pat to it a couple of times before when she went missing. The empty, desolate feel of the place reminded her too much of the atmosphere at Briarwood after her mother’s death. But that had been back when they were very young, still in high school and college. She had never been there overnight as it seemed she would be this time. Except for finding Pat and maybe getting to the bottom of what was wrong with her, the idea wasn’t all that appealing. Those old, repelling vibes she once got from the place were threatening to creep in on her again, even though it was decades later. She was glad for the fire. It made being alone in that room a little easier.

But where in that cavernous mansion would Pat be? Why hadn’t Mrs. Carmichael answered her when she asked? How was Pat? Had the black mood overtaken her completely?

As she stood there, pondering it all, she noticed the time on the clock on the nightstand; it was going on four in the morning, and with that realization, her body began reminding her that she had been running around all the day before, not once stopping to rest or even catch her breath. The urge to sit on the side of bed, even for a moment, was strong, but she knew that if she did, she wouldn’t be getting back up until she woke up.

Instead, she looked around to make sure she had what she needed to get a shower. Just as Mrs. Carmichael said, she had been well accommodated. Pat had some network operating around her. A small tightly-knit group who looked out for her and anticipated her needs.

And who, apparently somehow also anticipated the needs of her best friend.

A short time later, she emerged from the bathroom refreshed and relaxed, but even more mindful of how tired she was. On the night table next to the bed, a ceramic decanter and a china cup had appeared. The camera she had stuck into her coat pocket back at the apartment was there as well.

I didn’t see that there before. In fact, I had forgotten all about it.

As she sat down on the bed to unwind the towel from her hair, she noticed that the initials “PRH” were incorporated in the elaborate leaf and berry carvings in the heavy wood headboard.

Patricia Rose Hamilton. If this is your bed, then why aren’t you in it? Where in this huge place are you?

That was also when she spotted out of the corner of her eye the single aspirin resting on the saucer, for which she immediately reached.

Better take this now or, with all I’ve had to drink,  I’ll be wrestling with a whopper of a hangover later on, and that’s not something I can afford on this trip.

Her intention had been to take the aspirin, chase it with a cup of tea, and then go in search of Pat.

She took the aspirin and followed it with the tea, but that was as far as she made it.

______________________________________________________________

Unable to get to sleep, even with the feel of her father’s distinctive voice still floating through her mind and the equally mellow music close to her ears, J.J. had gotten back up to sit by the window. When the door pushed open again, she didn’t notice it until the long, dark shadow cast itself across the carpet, startling her as she sat lost in thought.

“Miss J.J., I knew you would still be up. You were over there playing possum when I came up that first time, weren’t you?”

“Cordelia? What are you doing up at this hour?”

The lamp by the door was switched on and Cordelia, dressed for bed while carrying a cup and saucer, entered the room.

“I came to see about you again. I’ve been taking care of you all of your life, so I’m familiar with your habits. I figured you for having trouble sleeping.”

J.J. didn’t try to argue. Cordelia had indeed been taking care of her all of her life, and in turn, she was well aware that her Aunt Pat’s housekeeper was more than a domestic, much like Marie was in their home on Willow Pond. Like Marie, Cordelia was a responsible adult trusted with caring for her, a person to be respected and to whom she was expected to listen. The sight of the cup in Cordelia’s hand made her get up from the chair, head for the bed where Cordelia had immediately gone to stand, and get in.

She took the cup and saucer when Cordelia handed it to her, blowing on it and then taking a sip before looking up at the woman standing over her. “No word?”

“Word about what, Miss J.J.?”

“Please, Cordelia, about the reason why you knew I would be up here not sleeping and you brought me this tea that you’ve probably laced, that’s what.”

Cordelia chuckled and shook her head. “No word, not yet. But I’m sure it will be fine.”

J.J. patted the side of bed, and after what seemed to be a moment’s hesitation, Cordelia sat down on it.

Rising from resting against the pillows, J.J. cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You live with her. Do you know what’s wrong with Aunt Pat? Do you have any idea why she took off? Did you see her when she did it? How did her face look? How can you be so sure that everything will be fine? ”

With her fingers, Cordelia gently moved a thick lock of stray hair back from J.J.’s forehead. “You look so much like your mother looked when I first met her, freckles and all. Only your eyes are different; you have your daddy’s eyes in every way. You’re getting to be very pretty, Miss J.J. How was Miss Marnie when she went to her room?

“Thank you for the compliment, and Marnie was worried, but I know she’ll be okay. She’s small, but she’s pretty resilient. Now I’ve answered you, but you haven’t answered any of my questions, Cordelia.  You said you’re sure that it’ll be fine. Do you have an inside track or something on where Aunt Pat and my mother went?”

“Or something, Miss J.J. Drink the tea. Your mama always says that you want to be the mama. Please don’t worry. I assure you that she and your Aunt Pat will be fine.”

“Assure me? Truly?”

“Absolutely.”

“Why don’t you tell me where they are.”

“Why don’t you lie back and try to get some sleep?”

“I’ll sleep better if you tell me where they are, and if they are together.”

“Finish your tea.”

Cordelia’s no-nonsense tone made J.J. polish it off in a couple of long swallows after which she handed back the cup and saucer. “Did you put knock-out drops in it?”

The woman smiled. “Stay in the bed, Miss J.J. Relax. Sleep will come. You have a flight in the morning, so you need your rest.”

“Have you spoken with my mother, Cordelia? Or Aunt Pat? At least tell me that.”

Cordelia got up and started for the door, talking as she went. “I know that they are fine. I know that you don’t need to be concerned over them. Your grandfather is waiting for you to come to him, and because she wants you rested when you see him, I know that your mother would not want you to lose sleep.”

To appease Cordelia, J.J. rolled onto her side, lie down, and pulled the cover up over her shoulder.

The Duchess might not want me to lose sleep, but there are… some… things over…. which she doesn’t have any c..o…n….t….

At the door, Cordelia used the remote on the wall panel to turn off the light by the bed. The last thing J.J. heard her say was, “Rest well, Miss J.J. I’ll come wake you when it’s time.”

______________________________________________________________

Still restless after talking with J.J., Jonathan had left his bedroom and gone downstairs with the intention of going into the library in search of a good book. At the foot of the stairs; however, he ran into Bill, who was fully dressed and pulling on a heavy jacket.

“Where’re you headed?”

“New York. I can’t sleep. Something’s going on with Pat.”

He had kept his word to Jennifer about not mentioning to Bill their conversation about Pat, so it left Jonathan wondering exactly what it was that had  Bill leaving the house in the dark of night to get to her.

“You talked with Pat?”

“No, Valentine. That’s just it. I haven’t. We talk every night. I know she said the girls were taking her out, but she would have phoned once she got in, no matter how late it was. She hasn’t done that. And when I did talk with her earlier in the day, she sounded so funny.”

“Funny? How so?”

“Not like herself at all. Like she was a million miles away rather than the relatively short distance that she is. She’s been sounding more and more like that to me ever since Jennifer got there.”

As Bill filled him in, Jonathan could hear the observations Jennifer had shared with him about Pat, echoing in his head. But that didn’t change what was happening at the moment.

“So you were just going to cut out? Leave me hanging here without saying anything?”

Bill shoved a folded piece of paper that he had taken from his pocket into Jonathan’s hand. “I had written you a note. I was going to leave it by the door where I figured you’d see it. I didn’t want to come upstairs and wake you, leaving it up there. I haven’t forgotten what a light sleeper you can be.”

Jonathan opened the paper and read Bill’s hastily scribbled message. “Went to Pat. Catch up with you in Maryland.”

“And this chicken scratch of yours wasn’t going to leave me with a thousand questions?”

Bill shrugged and continued fastening his jacket.

“I take it you’ve secured a slot?”

The question raised Bill’s eyebrow. “Come on. This is Bill McDowell- you know, McDowell Aviation? I can get a slot at the drop of a hat. It’s gassed up and waiting for me to get there.”

“Need a co-pilot?”

“You can’t fly right now, and you know it.”

“I won’t be flying. I’ll be a passenger. Give me a minute. I’m coming with you. You’re not leaving me here by myself to explain it to old man Edwards if or when Pat and Jennifer don’t show up in Maryland when they’re supposed to.”

A short time later, Bill’s Cadillac was barreling down the drive, carrying its two occupants to the main road and the airport.

______________________________________________________________

The phone rang just after the doorman called up to her apartment to let her know that her taxi had arrived. On her way to the door, she started not to pick up, but something- something powerful at the last minute, told her that she should.

“Jen.” The voice was quiet, oddly strained, and right away it registered that something was terribly wrong.

Pat was six months pregnant, and she hadn’t seen her in a week. Pat and Evan had been staying on Long Island most of the time since their hastily arranged marriage five months ago, and had only returned to Manhattan the week before.

“I need you to come, Jen.”

“Where are you? Come where?”

“Here. To my place. Jen, I’m sick, and I’m so scared. I’m bleeding. Please. Hurry.”

The only time Pat had been sick in the six months she’d been pregnant was in those first few weeks after she had conceived. In fact, it was the sudden onset of nausea, not the absence of her period, that initially signaled to Pat that there was a child growing inside of her. Pat was rarely physically ill, and she never got scared.

“Where’s Evan? Isn’t he there with you?”

“He went out. I was supposed to go with him, but I wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t want to stand up the Emersons, so he went without me. I- I told him to go…”

 …the rat bastard…. leaving her like that….

“Hold on, Pat. I’m coming. I’ll be right there. Just hold on.”

Hanging up, she first phoned for an ambulance and then ran down to get into the cab that should have been taking her to Blake, her date for the evening. She was almost grateful to be getting out of that; she had been regretting agreeing to meet him for dinner ever since she let him wear her down about it. Her plan had been to eat and then get back home as graciously- and as early- as she could. Lately, it seemed the men she met weren’t living up to her expectations. No shock there. Few ever had.

But she didn’t want to get out of the date this way, not like this….

… hold on, Pat, please. I’m coming….

 

…like one of those unborn baby birds… fallen from the nest, naked and exposed after being ejected from its shattered protective shell.. abandoned and all alone…

…her skin so thin and delicate that her veins were clearly visible through it. But no blood flowed through them. Her tiny chest, like the rest of her was still. No one would ever know the color of those eyes underneath lids that never opened to allow them to look upon her mother’s face. She would never know her mother’s touch. The nurse said that Pat refused to even look at her.

So her Aunt Jennifer had stepped in and held her for those few minutes. Nobody should go to the grave without knowing some measure of love. Not even a child who had been born already on her way to the other side.

So tiny. But already she had Pat’s eyebrows and dark hair with perhaps that small patch of white.

 Probably would have inherited your mother’s snake hips, too.

Pat was going to call you “Jennifer Patricia”. I told her to call you “Patricia Jennifer”.

That way nobody could try to call you “Jenny”. Our secret, okay?

Requesting a pair of scissors from the nurse, she snipped two of the wispy curls for Pat to keep. Pat should have something tangible for all of her troubles.

Pat hadn’t had a relationship with her own late mother. Her father had been neglectful, but in death it turned out that he had taken very good care of Pat’s material needs. She would never want for anything that money could buy.

But money couldn’t secure the things Pat wanted most… a family of her own… a child of her own….

There would be no more babies for her. It had been a life or death decision. There had been no question as to what should be done.

No question. Do it. Save her. …

She kissed the cool forehead.

My mama is up there, little girl. She’ll look out for you, take good care of you until your own mommy comes for you…

Then she covered her face, and allowed the nurse to take her. The baby was dead. Pat had been taken to surgery. Evan was no where to be found. Pa hadn’t arrived yet from Europe. That left her out there on her own, waiting for Pat to be okay again….

Pat would need for her to be there when she came out….

Damn you, Evan…. you sorry, narcissistic, whore mongering son-of-bitch.

I’m never, ever getting married if this is how things turn out…. can’t count on men… can’t count on them at all….

Of course that didn’t include Pa.

 

Pa.

Fierce and foul in his anger. Not at Pat for getting pregnant outside of marriage, but at Evan for not supporting her once they were married.  Might as well have shoved the boy back through the apartment door by his collar and the seat of his pants. Pa wouldn’t even let him see Pat when he attempted to get back to her after she was released from the hospital.

“But she’s my wife!”

“Not for long she is not. Get the hell out of here. You weren’t there when she needed you. She does not need you now. Go!”

With dispatch. Evan had only visited Pat once during her recovery period.

Then Pat wasn’t married any more. No baby. No husband. Evan had been in it for the money, and Pa made sure that he didn’t get a penny of Pat’s.

It was a long time before she became Pat again…

… her eyes black holes of emptiness… her body thin almost to the point of emaciation… she kept to her room most of the time…..

Then she was back. All of a sudden, dressed, and ready for the world. Business plan in hand and talking, seriously talking with Pa about withdrawing the funds to start her own publishing business….

 

“Darling, can you hear me? Please nod your head or something. Jennifer, I know it hurts. You don’t know how much I wish I could take the pain away. Please say something to me.”

I can hear you. I love you, but I can’t talk with you right now. Yes, it hurts so much… never in my entire life… have to focus… have to listen to Kate, then I’ll be all right….

“Push Jennifer. Now. Push. Come on. Push, push.”

“Come on, darling. You can do it. Please. It needs to be over.”

He can’t take this. I wish he’d go back into the waiting room. This is hurting him more than it’s hurting me. Oh Jesus, here it comes again. I’m going to split in two right in front of his eyes….

“We have hair, Jennifer. Looks like it’s red. Come on now, push. Give me a good one.”

The hell with the hair. There had better be a vagina on the other end.

“Squeeze my hand, darling. I’m here. Hold on to me.

Oh, I’m going to hold onto you all right, and I’m not going to let go of you. Ever. It’s because of you, Jonathan Hart, that I’m going through this. I could kill you, but I love you way too much. Darling, don’t leave me. Oh God, pleeeeeeease…

“We’re almost there, Jennifer honey. Come on. One more big push and get these shoulders out. We’ll be home free then.”

I AM pushing…. Shoulders? Big shoulders? Like a boy’s?

… unnnnnnnnngh….Oh God, please…unnnnnnnnngh…

“There we go. Ah, yes, here it is. Keep your hold tight, Jonathan. Yes, like that. We’ve got a girl, Jennifer. A sweet little girl.”

I knew all the time that we did…must have her daddy’s shoulders…

… her daddy….

… oh my, I have a baby too! A girl..

… a little girl…

 

… blue-eyes… Jonathan’s eyes…. how wonderful….

…definitely a redhead … all of her fingers and toes…and other essential parts… so little, but so big and so complete compared to….

… this one… warm when I kiss her… breathes and moves and cries… holds on to me… my sweet girl… Jonathan’s little love… your daddy is going to spoil you silly….

… and your Auntie Pat….

… hurry Pat, get here so that we can share her with you… she’s ours… Jonathan’s, yours, and mine…

… get here, Pat… I’m scared this time… I need you to shore me up… she’s so beautiful and so little ….and it’s all so intimidating… get here….

 

…crying, Pat crying…. Pat never cries… except that time when… all I had was a few of her curls to give you….

“Jonathan’s little squirt. My goddaughter… you and Auntie Pat are going to get along just fine, aren’t we, sweetie?”

She cried looking at and holding that baby close to her that day….

… yes, just fine… you and her….

 

Worried, scared, crying and worried all day.. Jonathan’s home safe, but Pat…where… Jesus, my head hurts.

I’ve been praying all day, but I don’t think you hear me. A lot of people are praying today. Maybe you can’t hear me for all the others. Maybe I’ve had too much in my life, and now I’m just being greedy….

Mom…. you still awake?

Yes, sweetie, I am. What is it?

Can we come in?

Not ‘can we’; it’s ‘may we’… urban living… public school… what’s a mother to do?

Who is “we”, J.J.?… What’s wrong?

Footsteps, two sets… who’s with her? My head hurts too badly to look… I’m sure I look too haggard and worn out to entertain company. I know I feel too badly for company….

“Nothing’s wrong, Jen. It’s all right now.”

Patty!

… that baby brought you right up here to me….

Not 9/11, and not this thing either… whatever it turns out to be… it won’t get us. 

 

“Do what?”

“Open it so that she can’t tell that it’s been opened. I’m sure that your father has shown you how.”

…why didn’t you just tell me about it, Pat… just call and tell me… I would have come….

“I can’t do that! Aunt Pat would kill me if she found out that I broke into her desk. Where is Cordelia?

…Cordelia; she wouldn’t tell me… if she had told me when I asked her….

“If she sees me in here, Cordelia will tell Aunt Pat for sure. You just told me the other night not to even think ab-“

“Forget about what I’ve told you. This is an emergency. I need you to get that drawer open. NOW.”

… it was a gray area, J.J.  You, of all people understand about gray areas… and ‘loopholes’, don’t you, baby…

“But-“

“But nothing. Do it.”

Like father, like daughter; she got right to work….

“What’s happening, Mom? What’s going on?”

“Pat’s taken off. I don’t know where she went, and I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She got upset and left. I need to find her, but I have to have somewhere to start. I need some idea of what’s wrong so that I can get a line on where to look. Like you, I believe the answer is in this drawer.”

… Jonathan’s child… popped that lock in seconds… scary how good she is…

“Are you sure you want to do this, Mom?”

“No, I don’t want to, but I have to, J.J. This is about Pat.”

… my child… questioning my morals and ethics… gratifying how good she is…

 

“What is it, Mom?”

I don’t know for sure…

“Is it something really bad?” … Marnie….

… Marnie loves you, Pat. You shouldn’t have run… you should have thought about Marnie… you said it yourself; she needs you, not me….

 “I love you, Mom. It’ll work out.”

Pat and I love you, too, baby. We needed you tonight. There is a reason for everything… there was definitely a reason for you …

 

Not 9/11 and not this thing either… whatever it turns out to be… we will beat this… together… all of us….

Pat!

Jennifer sat straight up in the bed, immediately sensing a presence nearby. She felt for Jonathan, and then remembered where she was and that he wasn’t there. The lamp had been turned off and the fire had burned down to a few tiny and random, glowing embers. She couldn’t tell if the darkness in the room was due to it still being night or if the heavy, brocade curtains, drawn closed across the windows, were obliterating the light of day. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she could recall Pat strongly permeating the dreams from which she had just awakened.

It occurred to her she was still in her robe, but a blanket had been spread over her. Wiggling her toes, for a confused second, she wondered why she had gone to bed in her robe but had remembered to remove her slippers. Had Carmichael put something in that tea to aid her slumber? Or had the liquor she’d consumed the night before caught up with her in the way that it normally did when she drank too much of it?

Never was much of a drunk. Good thing….

Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, her head spun a little as she reached to switch on the light.

Well, I can’t worry about having a hangover now. I don’t know where you are in this huge, maze of a house, but I’m coming to find you.

When the light flashed on, she recoiled in shock as the chair across from her shuddered and began to rock, seemingly of its own accord.

______________________________________________________________

Once they arrived at the airport, Bill rented a car so that they could drive themselves into Manhattan. Jonathan held back from telling him that might be a good idea because the chances were very good that Pat and Jennifer would not be at the apartment once they got there. He sorely wanted to let Bill in on Pat’s flight from the nightclub and Jennifer’s going to find her, but he still hadn’t spoken with Jennifer to get the okay from her to do so. His hope as Bill got behind the wheel while he climbed in on other side was that the two women had found their way back to Pat’s place.

______________________________________________________________

“Well, now, and who might you be?”

A tawny tabby with dark striping lie curled in the rocking chair. The sudden switch from darkness to light had obviously snatched it from its slumber, and being that it was a large cat, its startled movements upon waking had set the chair into motion. With serious emerald eyes, it stared at Jennifer, as if sizing her up.

“I know for sure that you scared me. Where did you come from?”

She noticed that the bedroom door, which had been shut earlier, was now cracked open, just wide enough for the cat to have squeezed its way in.

“So that’s how you did it. Someone must not have closed it all the way when they came in and covered me up. Was that Mrs. Carmichael? Or was it someone else? You know, you have a huge head. I’m going to assume from that detail that you’re a boy.”

The cat flicked his ears as if confirming her assumption, but continued to stare at her. She patted the space next to her on the bed. “Wouldn’t you rather come over here and sit with me, Monsieur Chat?”

The cat stood in the chair, stretched and then jumped down and crossed the room. But instead of attempting to occupy the spot she indicated, he brushed himself against her legs. Then, his question mark tail held high in the air, he sauntered toward the bedroom door where he stopped, looked back at her and issued his own directive. “Meee-owwww.”

Intrigued, Jennifer cocked her head to one side as she continued to study him. “What is it? What do you want?”

He returned to the bedside to slide under her feet as they hung over the side of the high bed and brush against her calves again, more forcefully this time. Then he walked back to the door where he sat down and looked over his shoulder to her with an expression on his face that said, “I’m waiting.”

“Well, I was always good with languages,” Jennifer said with a sigh as she slid her feet into the slippers left for her and then adjusted the robe which had twisted some on her body as she slept. “I think I can interpret cat-speak.”

The low glow from small lights fitted into the baseboards allowed her to see as she followed the cat down the wide hall. Every now and then he would slow to glance over his shoulder, clearly checking to if she were still there.

Even though it was just the two of them, she whispered down to him. “I’m here, don’t worry. I follow directions really well. But where is it that you’re taking me? It better not be to your water dish- or worse.”

He continued down the hall and turned a corner where at the end of another short hall, they were faced with a set of imposing, closed double doors with a crest over them. Even in the shadows as they were, Jennifer could see that it was the same crest that hung over the front door of that house, and which adorned the facade of Pat’s building in Manhattan, the combined McMurray-Hamilton crest.

At those doors, the cat sat down again. Peering over his shoulder, he summoned her in what amounted to a whispered,  “Mee-owwww.”

Jennifer came closer, joining him at the doors, staring down at him in amazement. “I do not believe this. If this is where-”

Slowly, slowly, she turned the knob and cracked open the door enough to be able to see inside. The curtains had been left open and there was enough light coming in from the lamps in front of the house for her to see once her eyes adjusted to the relative darkness. Someone was lying on the bed; the form was one that she would have known anywhere.

Mindful of not making any noise, she pressed her body inside before closing the door again. The cat came with her and immediately made for a window sill.

On her way to the bed, tip-toeing across the floor, she nearly tripped on something, but caught herself in time. Bending to see what it was, she picked up a woolen coat and shook her head.

You always were careless with your clothing.

As she leaned over her, visually checking her out, Pat didn’t move. Her eyes were closed, and she was still dressed in the outfit she had worn to the nightclub, including her shoes.

Like always. Well, there is nothing to do now except to wait you out.

When she retreated to the small divan in the corner, the cat left the window and came back to her, jumping up into her lap.

I do not believe you. How could you possibly know? Or was it that you were trying to get to her, as well?

Having been reunited with the object of her quest, covering her legs with Pat’s coat,  Jennifer rested her head, closed her eyes, and relaxed completely. She could feel the cat curling up, making himself at home.

You’re accustomed to being held, aren’t you? Well, so am I. I guess we can keep each other company for a while.

As she stroked the animal’s silken neck, she took added solace from its contented purr.

______________________________________________________________

They left the car keys with the doorman and took the elevator to Pat’s apartment. Jonathan was a bit surprised at first that Bill had the key to get them up there without calling ahead. But then he reminded himself that it had been sixteen years that Bill and Pat had been together. It was he and the rest of the world who had only just been let in on it. Surely he would have been supplied his own key in all that time. From what he had witnessed of their relationship, Bill had probably been coming and going at Pat’s place for years. The two of them were beyond good to have kept something like that a secret for so long, especially from him and Jennifer.

“Don’t you think we should have phoned first? You know, to say we were on our way? It is before day, you know.”

Bill shook his head. “No. If something is wrong, and I had let her know that I was coming, Pat would have fought me on that. I would have disregarded her, of course, and come anyway, but by the time I got here, she would have her guard all the way up. Pat can run defense like nobody’s business. I need to get to her at a point where I can catch her off balance.”

Jonathan wasn’t so sure about the plan. “You think that’s wise? I mean, this is Pat we’re talking about.”

Fiancée or no, he couldn’t see Pat appreciating being surprised by unannounced guests before daybreak. That was, given that she was in the apartment at all. The last he’d heard from Jennifer, she was headed for a place that she knew Pat to go when she wanted to close out the rest of the world. When she phoned from the car, Jennifer hadn’t divulged to him the exact location on her own, so he hadn’t asked. He trusted in her instincts.

And in Davis’ size and well as his prowess with that gun.

It would be nice if Pat and Jennifer had made it back, though. He hadn’t had any sleep and it would be great to be able to slide between some sheets and catch a quick nap, hopefully next to his wife, before leaving for Maryland.

The elevator car stopped and the door slid open. When they stepped off, Cordelia met them in the front hall. Jonathan caught her fleeting look of disappointment before she could replace it with one of uneasy surprise. It seemed odd to him that she was already fully dressed at such an early hour.

As the doors slid closed behind them, Jonathan nudged Bill in the back, whispering to him out of the side of his mouth. “I’m not so sure that this is as undercover and unannounced a visit as you thought it was going to be. Somehow they always seem to know.”

“Either way”, Bill whispered back. “I don’t give a damn. Good morning, Cordelia. So good to see you.”

“Good morning, Mr. Bill.”

She nodded once in Jonathan’s direction. “Mr. Jonathan, it’s good to have you here again. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you until Maryland.”

She gestured with her fingers for their jackets and scarves.

“We were in the neighborhood,” Bill said, “and thought we’d drop in. Is Pat still asleep?”

Running footsteps lightly thumped down the staircase. It was Marnie, still tying her robe around her as she trotted into the hall with the adults, drawing all of their attention.

“I heard the chime. Oh!” She stopped in her tracks, her eyes wide with surprise which was quickly replaced by that same subtle let-down as Cordelia’s. “I- I thought…” Then she resumed walking toward them. “Hi Uncle Bill. What are you doing here? And so early?”

Jonathan stepped out from where he had been standing behind Bill. With his hands clasped behind his back, he assumed a stern, almost military stance. “Marnie Benson, it’s been two whole months. Have you forgotten me? Or have you kicked me to the curb already? Don’t I get a hug after all this time?”

All shamefaced grin and dimples, Marnie stepped into Jonathan’s outstretched arms, returning his hearty embrace. “Of course you get a hug, Mr. H. You know full well that I didn’t forget you. How could I possibly kick a guy as handsome and nice as you to the curb?”

Jonathan leaned back to speak to her as he playfully mussed her hair. “So what’s with all this? I’ve never seen you with your hair so long. The cold weather get to you?”

“You know it.” Marnie said in way of confirmation as she left him to go and hug Bill. “Good morning. And how are you?”

“I’m good,” Bill said. “I’ll be fine once I talk with your Aunt Pat. She upstairs?”

Marnie twisted in his arms to look back to Cordelia. They all did.

Once again, Jonathan caught that hint of uneasiness as Cordelia fidgeted with arranging the garments on her arm. Her answer came quietly, reluctantly. “She’s- she’s not here, Mr. Bill.”

“Not in yet?”

“No sir, she and Mrs. Hart have gone out.”

Releasing Marnie, Bill moved closer to Cordelia. “All right now. I’m going to need for you to come clean. It’s not quite morning, so it’s way too early for them to have left knowing that they were supposed to fly to Maryland with girls in a few hours. Are you saying that they didn’t come home last night?”

Jonathan reached for Marnie’s arm, gently drawing her to him as Cordelia continued to fidget with the jackets, obviously uncomfortable with having been put in the middle of things between Pat and Bill. He understood her loyalty to Pat, but the fact that it was Bill, Pat’s husband-to-be who was asking about her, had to be tearing Cordelia apart. No doubt she had more of the inside track on their dynamics than anyone.

Bill had a right to know if Pat was all right, but Cordelia had to be wondering if it was she who was supposed to tell him that she wasn’t? How much trouble would that get her into with Pat? And how much did Cordelia really know of it to tell? Had she been let in on Pat and Jennifer’s location or their plans?

More importantly, though, Jonathan recognized that Marnie shared that same type of loyalty toward Pat and was probably feeling the same kind of distress as Cordelia. After all, she, too, knew the answer to that last question Bill had put out there. Jennifer said that both girls had been awake when she came back to the apartment, and she’d told them that she had gone looking for Pat and to leave for Maryland without her should she and Pat not make it back in time.

“Where’s J.J.?” he whispered in Marnie’s ear.

“Asleep, I guess.” she whispered back, tucking herself under his arm. “Her door was closed, and I didn’t stop to check.”

Jonathan figured J.J. had to be asleep, too. If not, it was for certain that she would have beaten Marnie down the stairs.

Bill sighed a heavy, tired sigh. “Cordelia, I understand your allegiance to Pat. Really I do. But I’m here because I had a bad feeling that I needed to be. I need your help. I need to find her and speak with her. Really. In my life, I have never begged for anything, but Pat is worth that to me. Please, I’m begging you, tell me what is going on. Where is she? Is she all right? She must not be if Jennifer is with her and not here with the girls.”

Cordelia dropped her head and for a moment, seemed to be considering what was said. Then she turned away from Bill, walking a short distance up the hall and opening a closet door that blocked her from their view. When she closed the door and turned back to them, her arms were empty, but the uneasiness had left her eyes and her demeanor.

“Miss Marnie,” she said, fanning her hand in the girl’s direction. “You go and get dressed properly. You know better than to be down here like that with gentlemen in the house.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Marnie left Jonathan’s side and started up the stairs.

Cordelia gestured to the two men. “Please come with me and let me get both of you some coffee and a bite to eat. You must be hungry and in need of something warm to drink.”

When Bill looked back at him, Jonathan could clearly see in the deep puckering of his brow the exasperation and confusion he was feeling. Placing a hand to his shoulder, Jonathan moved Bill in the direction of the kitchen. Once he had him settled in a chair in the breakfast room, he left him there to go into his rooms and freshen up, feeling that Cordelia might be a bit more forthcoming with a more limited, albeit very intense and edgy audience.

______________________________________________________________

In the bathroom, Jonathan splashed cold water to his cheeks and eyes. He toweled off feeling slightly refreshed. Checking his face in the mirror, the lack of sleep was evident, and the shadowing said he could do with a shave. He’d nodded off during the short plane ride in from Maryland, but that had been nothing like a full night’s rest, which so far had eluded him.

Jennifer.

Where was she and what was she doing? How was Pat and how was she doing? What were they up to? Had they talked? Would they get back in time to make their flight? Bill had the new plane at the airport, and he had a pilot on standby. They could all go to Maryland together if Pat and Jennifer were to surface from where ever they were in a reasonable amount of time. Where….

The place in Long Island maybe?

On one of their visits to New York years ago, one where they had come to work on a charity performance and wound up walking right into one of those “things” into which they always seemed to become entangled, Jennifer had taken him to it. They hadn’t gone in; in fact, they had only made it as far as the gates, but it was just off Oyster Bay, on the North Shore. It had been Pat’s grandmother’s estate, the home where Pat had resided exclusively for the two years between her mother’s death and her grandmother’s passing. After that, her father had sent her to Gresham Hall where she and Jennifer met and became friends.

In all of his years of knowing Pat; however, he had never heard her mention the place. It was only through his vast network of research resources that he had acquired a picture of the house proper. That photograph was the closest he had come to actually seeing for himself the grand, forbidding old money mansion overlooking the water.

That has to be where they are. Surely Davis knew of the place, not to mention Cordelia.

Even though she hadn’t specifically related to him where she was headed, he could hear in Jennifer’s voice that she was certain of her destination. If Davis was driving her, she had to be headed somewhere that wasn’t terribly far. That house had to be where they were.

But then, it didn’t have to be. With their connections and wherewithal, those two could be anywhere. Knowing that she had left the girls in Cordelia’s care and scheduled to be delivered to him, Jennifer wouldn’t be overly concerned about them. Her attentions would be focused on Pat.

As long as they’re together.

Neither of them would let harm come to the other.

His thoughts went back to Marnie and how much her appearance had changed in the short time since he’d last seen her. Or maybe she had always looked that way, but he hadn’t noticed because in Los Angeles, she had been so much a part of his life. One thing was for certain, she hadn’t been looking for Bill or for him to be there when she came down those stairs.

Even though the girls were sixteen and considerably capable, he was glad that he and Bill had come. Uncertainty over who would take care of her, or who cared for her well-being- inside as well as out, was the one thing he never wanted J.J. to have to feel in her life.

Ever.

Or Marnie. She had been put through enough of that.

Sixteen was still pretty young for kids to be fending for themselves… at least for his girls, it was. At least not until they had to do so or were old enough to choose to be on their own.

Jennifer’s belongings were situated in different places around the room, and as he stood in the center of it all, her presence was strong. Over on her desk was her portfolio, and lying on top of it was a thick, bound manuscript that he immediately recognized as the one she had sent to her cousin, Benjamin Bach for his approval. She had mentioned to him about going out to Benjamin’s place with Pat to pick it up. The two of them, Jennifer and Pat, had been collaborating on that project since the previous summer in preparation for the upcoming weekend. Going over to the desk, he flipped through a few of the pages, impressed as always by Jennifer’s enormous talent and dedication to her writing.

It’s really too bad…

… but then maybe this was how it was supposed to be after all.

For a moment, he wished Jennifer’s imagined presence was physical, even if only in the form of her first smile of the morning. But glancing at his watch, he figured there would be time enough for that. In the meantime, there was that other, more tangible and accessible presence that needed to be summoned if they were all going to be ready and in place when the time came for them to leave.

______________________________________________________________

The knocking woke her, but it sounded as if it were miles and miles away. Because of that, J.J. didn’t open her eyes. When she attempted to lift her head from the pillow to better hear, it felt as if it weighed a ton. Lying back down, she slowly began drifting off in the other direction.

An unmistakable touch to her shoulder brought her back toward wakefulness. Then she heard that voice.

“Hey you. Wake up.”

Forced to full consciousness, she raised her head just enough to peek over her shoulder at her father standing bedside. “Daddy? How- where did you come from? What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you.”

She sat up, brushing loose hair from her sleep-blurred eyes. With her father’s unexpected presence, all the details of the night before rushed back to her. “Did my mother and Aunt Pat make it back yet?”

“No, not yet.”

Yawning, she slowly stretched her arms in front of her. “Uncle Bill come with you?”

“More like I came with him.”

“So, if they’re not back, then what brought you guys here? Did my mother call you, say she wasn’t going to make it, and tell you to come get us?”

“No, she didn’t. I haven’t heard from her since before you and I talked. Bill and I came on our own. Look, I know it’s early, but you need to get up and get dressed; we can do the Twenty Questions thing later. Right now, Cordelia is fixing breakfast, and she’ll want you downstairs to eat. Marnie is already up. Are you two packed?”

Giving him ‘that’ look, she pursed her lips. “Of course.” Then she added a neck roll to further emphasize her annoyance with the question.  “We know how to travel.”

But that was when she noticed the faint throbbing in her temple and the slight scratchiness in the back of her throat. It was that time of the year, and she had been pushing her luck while hanging out in New York in November with Duncan and Marnie. Wet hair, no hat or scarf, chest not adequately insulated, all the things the Duchess constantly warned her and her father about that they both mostly ignored and ended up paying for in the long run- or short, as it seemed this case was trying to be.

“Well, if I have to get up and get dressed, I’d better get on with it. I don’t move so fast this early in the morning. I’ll be down as soon as I get it together. Say, what was it that made Uncle Bill decide to come to New York? Does he know about Aunt Pat? Did you tell him?”

Her father’s sigh and his using his fingers to rub at the lines in his forehead spoke his feelings about her questions before he responded verbally, but she knew that he wasn’t going to leave her hanging, at least not completely. That wasn’t his style with her. As usual, he didn’t disappoint.

“Okay, J.J., I’m going to answer these, but that’s it, and I mean it. Don’t push past this.”

“I won’t. I won’t. I promise.”

“Your Uncle Bill knows that your Aunt Pat isn’t here, but he only found that out once we got here and Cordelia told us. Your mother asked me to keep the rest to myself. You and Marnie need to do the same.”

“No problem. It’s not like Marnie and I know much more than that anyway.”

He started for the door. “I’m leaving. Get up. Don’t lie back down, or you might fall off to sleep again.”

“Not my M.O.,” she said, stretching one more time. “Once I’m up, I’m up. You know that.”

______________________________________________________________

J.J. was dressed and brushing her hair up into a ponytail when the door swung open and Marnie walked in without announcing herself.

“I thought I heard you moving around in here, J.”

“You should have knocked. It could have been embarrassing for you if I had been in here without anything on.”

Marnie came straight to the mirror to closely examine her face. As she spoke, she used a pinkie finger to further blend the gloss on her lips.  “Aw girl, only you would have been embarrassed. I wouldn’t have noticed. You don’t have what I’m looking for. If I want to see what you have, I can go in my own room, strip, and look at me. I’m way cuter anyway.”

“Whatever. I have better boobs.”

“Relatively speaking. You’re just taller so you have more.”

J.J. finished with her hair and flipped Marnie the bird before getting up from the bench.

“So where do you think they are, J.?”

J.J. shook her head as she stood over by the closet, slipping her feet into a pair of her signature shoe boots. “I don’t have the foggiest. I don’t think they’ve been here all night, though. Daddy and Uncle Bill are here.”

“I know. I saw them when they came in.”

“You did? Then why didn’t you come get me?”

“You had your door closed, so I knew you were asleep.”

“How could you know that if the door was closed? You couldn’t see me.”

“Because if you had been awake and heard the chime, you would have been on your way down the stairs before me. I woke up, thinking it was Pat and the Duchess. Imagine my shock when I saw it was your father and Uncle Bill. I think Uncle Bill is mad at Aunt Pat, and that’s why he came. Now she isn’t here, and he suspects she’s been gone all night. What do you think is going to happen?”

“That’s hard to say, Marn. On the one hand, Aunt Pat isn’t one to be messed with. She’s not used to having to answer to anybody, and we don’t know what’s wrong with her, so it’s hard to say what she might do. But I think it’s safe to say that she’s not going to be taking any crap off him if he tries to act up. But then, on the other hand, you said she’s been acting funny about him for a while. He’s probably tired of it, and that’s why he’s shown up here, looking for her. Uncle Bill isn’t one to take any crap off of anybody either, probably even Aunt Pat.”

“Captain Whoop-Ass,” Marnie chuckled, “that’s what Chase and Chance call him.”

“Yeah, well, Aunt Pat is his co-pilot, emphasis on ‘co’. I don’t think he’ll be whoopin’ anything there. If he tries it, he’ll know for sure that he’s been in a good fight. That’s provided she doesn’t just decide to cut to the chase and shoot him for trying it.” J.J. held out her arm to usher Marnie through the door and into the hall. “But we won’t know anything for sure until we get downstairs with him and Daddy and Cordelia. Are your bags ready?”

“Yep. The ones I’m taking. Say, what did you do with my camera?”

“I didn’t give it back to you? No, wait. I remember. I had it in Aunt Pat’s study when I was putting that photo album away. I must have left it down there. After everything that happened, I forgot all about downloading the pictures. It was in my back pocket when I sat down to look at some other pictures in another book, so I took it out and set it on the couch. It’s probably still down there.”

“Then let’s take the front stairs. We can pick it up on our way to the kitchen. I don’t want to forget to pack it in my carry-on.”

______________________________________________________________

“I love her, Cordelia. Talk to me.”

Cordelia remained straight-faced as she poured coffee into the cup she’d set in front of him.

“I kind of figured you did love her, Mr. Bill. As long as you’ve been hanging around here, and seeing as how you’re about to marry her this weekend.”

“So tell me. What’s going on with her? If anybody would know, it would be you.”

“Funny, I would have thought that you’d be the one to know.”

“Well, I don’t, and I need to.”

She left his side to fill the cup that would be Jonathan’s once he returned to the breakfast room. As she did, he watched her. A tall, strong-looking woman with the kind of features that deemed her “handsome”, a step somewhere outside of attractive or good-looking, maybe even a cut above. Heavy-set, but not fat. Not fat anywhere. Solid. Dignified.

And tight-lipped.

“Is she angry with me?”

“No, sir. To my knowledge, she isn’t angry with you.”

“Is Marnie giving her any trouble?”

“Miss Marnie is a joy to her.”

“So, is it work? Did something happen at the job?”

“No, sir. Not to my knowledge. She finished up on Friday, and then she turned her back on all of that. Doesn’t even want calls unless it can’t be helped; says there are enough of them over there to handle things for her for a while. She’s just been a little… preoccupied, I guess is the word for it. Maybe with all the wedding preparations, the new house, and all of that.”

When he pushed back from the table, the legs of the chair screeched across the polished ceramic tile. “Come off it, Cordelia. Pat has people handling the wedding to the point that all we have to do is show up. She’s been dictating-mostly long distance- to me and everyone else about the house. Dora and the board have Hamilton House covered.  You take care of this place and of her. Preoccupied? Over what? What is going on?”

Without reply, Cordelia went out of the breakfast room and back into the kitchen. He could still hear her moving about, so he was sure that she could still hear him.

“I understand your loyalty, I’ve told you that. But I’m going to marry her, Cordelia. What ever is going on, if she’ll have me, I’m going to marry her. Since that’s the case, aren’t I entitled to some of that loyalty? It isn’t as if you don’t know me. I’m not some guy she dragged home last week and impulsively decided to hitch her wagon to his. It’s me. You know me. You know how I care about her. You, of all people, know how she feels about me.”

Cordelia returned to the room and his side. In her upturned palm, she held out to him a folded sheet of note paper. “You can’t say that I told you anything. My lips were sealed.”

Bill took the paper from her upturned palm. “You don’t have to worry about me selling you out. If she were to try to fire you, I’d be keeping you on. You’re a gem, a diamond, brilliant and unbreakable.”  He opened the paper and read what she had written on it. “Damn. I should have known.” He looked up, into Cordelia’s face. “A bad one?”

She shrugged. “If she went there, I have to assume it was.”

“Jennifer went to her?”

Cordelia didn’t answer that one.

“Okay, okay. I understand. Well, can you at least tell me what brought it on?”

Again the woman shrugged. “Could be anything. Or any number of things, Mr. Bill. You can’t ever really tell with Ms. Patricia. She’s very strong and very private. But then, I guess I don’t need to say that to you.” She turned to leave again, but stopped at the door, speaking with her back to Bill. “I have the feeling though, that it’s definitely something she doesn’t think she has control over. It’s something only she knows about right now. Well, maybe her and her- well- I’ve said enough.”

Her hand lightly patted the door jamb as if she were reassuring it, or herself. “Let me go check on the meal so that by the time the rest of them make it down, you all can eat.”

Then she moved on into the kitchen.

Bill was still fingering the note, staring at the message when Jonathan came in and sat down, right away picking up the other cup of coffee. “I am ready for this. You’ve got me dragging, guy.”

“You’ve got yourself dragging, Valentine. You invited yourself on this trip. If I’m remembering correctly, I think your motive for coming here was dodging old man Edwards’ questions.”

Bill folded the note and carefully slipped it into the pocket of his shirt.

“What’s that you have there?”

“Treasure map.”

” ‘X’ marks the spot?”

“Yep.”

Jonathan shifted his eyes toward the kitchen. Bill answered the silent question with a single nod.

The girls came into the breakfast room. Marnie slid into the closest empty chair, the one between Jonathan and Bill while J.J. stopped to give Bill a peck on his cheek. “Good morning, Uncle Bill. What a nice surprise. I thought we were coming to you.”

Bill gave her one-armed hug. “Long time, no see, Sunshine. I had business here. Your father decided at the last minute to come with me.”

She sat down on Bill’s other side just as Cordelia came in with the first of breakfast. The room was conspicuously quiet as the other dishes Cordelia delivered were passed around the table and they all filled their plates. It was after his first few bites that Bill broke the silence.

“I’m going to her.”

Marnie perked up. “To Aunt Pat? You know where she is?”

“Yeah, I do.” Then Bill turned to Jonathan. “If you were me, you’d go, wouldn’t you?”

“I’d already be on my way; I’d have to know for myself. You do what you have to do, Bill. The girls and I will be fine.”

Marnie tugged at Bill’s sleeve. “May I please, please go with you?”

Bill studied her for what seemed a very long time. He appeared to be considering a great many things before he finally replied, “Okay. I think that would be all right. If you want to go, you can.” He looked over to J.J. “What about you? I believe your mother is also in the place where I’m headed.”

After glancing over to her father, J.J. shook her head. “No, you and Marnie go ahead. I think Daddy and I should go on to Maryland. Pa is expecting us to arrive today. I’m pretty sure nobody has filled him in on what’s going on that might change those plans. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing my mother would let her father in on until she had it worked out- if she let him in on it even then. I’m going on to Briarwood as planned, to I guess, stand in for my mother. Aren’t Peter and his family due to arrive this evening, too?”

Bill snapped his fingers. “How’d I let that slip my mind? Valentine, if I’m not back, you’ll be at the house won’t you?”

“I will be if that’s where I’m needed.”

“Good. Look, the plane’s being gassed up. I told them to have it ready, and that I would notify them when we would be returning. I’ll call and let them know that you and J.J. will be there in a few hours so that they can get things in order to be able to take off.”

“No. J.J. already has her commercial ticket,” Jonathan said. “I’ll call ahead to try to get a ticket for myself and have it waiting for me at the airport once we get there.”

Bill was skeptical. “It’s the day before the holiday. There may not be any available. You don’t want to be put on standby.”

“If I can’t get a regular ticket, I can always charter something private to take us; it’s not that long a flight. That way, your plane will be here whenever you get ready to come back. I’d rather that the four of you have the sure thing. J.J. and I will be fine together.”

From across the table, J.J. sent her father a confident thumb up.

With the travel decisions made, they all went back to eating in earnest. Between bites, Jonathan was on his cell talking with the reservations desk at the airport.

______________________________________________________________

Groggy and at first a little disoriented, she rolled over onto her back, shielding from her eyes the light of the new morning with the back of one hand. Just as she did, a thump, soft but noticeable, sounded to her ears. She moved her hand just in time to catch sight of a blurred figure with a full curved tail scurrying to and slipping through the door which was slightly ajar.

“Damn you, Eli. You know that I do not allow you in here.”

A voice from somewhere in the room sleepily slurred, “Don’t scold him. He came in with me.”

“Jen?”

Slowly rolling her sluggish body onto its side and lifting her heavy head, Pat peered over the footboard. Jennifer was on the couch by the window. The sight took her back. Way back. Decades back.

She lie down, covering her eyes again as she spoke. “Did you have to use my coat for a blanket, Edwards?”

“We were cold.”

“We? You and who else? I know you did not have that cat over there on my coat.”

Her questions were answered by a soft yawn, and understanding what had happened in her period of darkness, she felt badly about what must have transpired in her spiritual absence.

“Oh, Jen-n-n-n-n. Why are you over there all scrunched up like that? You’re going to be at the chiropractor’s right along with Marcia, only not for such a worthwhile reason as Marcia. What are you doing in here?”

“Don’t worry about me; I’m fine. This really is a very lovely room. Kind of reminds me of one of the rooms at the Ritz Paris.”

She could hear Jennifer yawning again, this time sounding as if she were doing it through her morning stretch. In her mind, Pat could see her pulling out those long dancer’s legs and arms of hers from where she’d had them curled under and around her. “You’re as bad as that damned cat.”

“I heard you call him ‘Eli’.”

“Carmichael’s cat. He hates me, and the feeling is mutual. He knows I don’t like him near me, thus he can’t wait to be with me when I’m here. Especially if I’m in this room. I wake up and find him sitting on the window sill, staring at me like some kind of fat feline gargoyle. Gives me the creeps.”

“He came into the room and got me early this morning. Then he brought me here to you.”

“Who told you I was here? I’m surprised you even remember this place. We were kids the last time you were here.”

“Not the last time, I wasn’t.”

Pat started to, but didn’t inquire into what Jennifer meant by that. Once they were grown, Jennifer had proven that she could be anywhere at any time, so she could very well have come there without anyone knowing. And she would have come if she thought there was trouble. But along with her heart of gold, Jennifer had a keen sense of discretion. She knew when to advance and when to keep her distance. It would have been very like her to have traced her to that house, but to not have come in. To know where she was and that she was safe would have been enough to ease Jennifer’s mind.

They continued talking, she on the bed, Jennifer on the couch, not able to see each other, but not having to.

“I asked you what made you come here.”

“You did, when you left me the way that you did at the club.”

“Who told you where to find me?”

“Nobody had to tell me. I could feel it. Even if I had asked, no one would have told me. Ranks tend to close rather tightly around you when you’re in trouble.”

“Who says I’m in trouble?”

“Let’s not start that again.”

“I see you managed to get through my closed ranks.”

“I have the right key. I was supposed to be here, and here I am. We need to talk, Patricia. Today, and I don’t mean later today. I mean this morning.”

Pat rolled over onto her stomach, burying her face in her arms and the down comforter. She’d shut out the sights around her, but she couldn’t shut out that voice.

“Patricia. I’m talking to you.”

The couch creaked and soft-soled shoes slid across the hardwood planks. She could feel Jennifer standing behind her, looming over her.

“Pat, I’m going back to the room from where I came, your old room, and I’m going to get washed and dressed. I want you to get a shower, get changed, and then meet me over there. Do you hear me?”

The words wouldn’t come. She sorely wanted to retreat back to where she had been; to where she would surely have remained if that damned cat hadn’t awakened her.

“Patricia Rose Hamilton, answer me.”

She answered, but without raising her head. “The hell with you, Edwards. I’m not J.J. I’m not Marnie. In fact, I’m the oldest of all of us. You cannot tell me what to do.”

“And right now your behind is facing my foot. Those two months do not matter. And speaking of J.J., I’m sure she told you what happened when she tried to hold out on me in Vegas, and I finally got her alone in that bedroom. It wasn’t fun, and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but we eventually got matters between us worked out. She finally saw things my way. Now you’re making me just as angry. I haven’t come all this way for nothing. Do as I said.”

Even though she was face down, Pat could see Jennifer in her head as she heard her sweep out of the room. That girl always did have a flair for the dramatic. And a real nasty streak when pushed.

After a few more minutes of lying there, fighting her own usually indomitable will, Pat raised her head once more. Shortly after that she forced herself to sit and open her eyes to gaze at the small black and white photograph on the night table. Then she drug herself off her grandmother’s bed.

______________________________________________________________

Marnie was slipping into her coat when J.J. entered the room carrying a suit bag and a matching cosmetic bag. The Gucci pattern registered with her right away. “What, J.? You’re sending the Duchess an outfit?”

“Yes. She left here with just what she had on. You know how she is about her appearance. She won’t be comfortable in the same outfit she had on at the club last night. I’m sending her toiletries and some fresh clothing by you and Uncle Bill.”

Marnie pointed to a similar set-up lying on her bed, a matching Vuitton suit bag and cosmetic case. “Looks like we were on the same page. I don’t know where they are, but I had Cordelia to get Pat some stuff up, too. Pat doesn’t really care about that kind of thing like the Duchess does, but she needs to.”

While Marnie continued getting ready for the cold, buttoning the coat and arranging her scarf so that it covered her neck, but stylishly so, J.J. smiled at the idea of Marnie mothering Pat.

But she needs to… too funny.

Marnie spoke to her through their reflections in the mirror. “J., do you think Pat will be mad at me for coming with Bill? Do you think she’ll be mad at Bill for tracking her down? She likes her space, you know.”

J.J. went over to the bed and picked up the other suit bag, draping it on top of the one of her arm. Then she handed off the cosmetic bags to Marnie. “I don’t think it matters, Marn. Bill is going to her, regardless. And he told you that you could go with him, so make the most of it.”

“Where do you think they are? It must not be all that far; Uncle Bill called down for his car to be brought to the front; we’re driving, he said.”

“Who knows with them? They could be anywhere. Maybe they went to a hotel. There are so many of them right here in Manhattan. Then again, maybe Aunt Pat has some other hidey-hole that she goes to; this is her turf, and nobody knows it like she does, except maybe my mother. But you’re probably right about where ever it is not being too far. She went to where ever it is in a car.”

“I kind of wish you were going.”

J.J. waved her free hand. “Nah, you don’t need me. But I do think Pat needs you. Don’t start second guessing yourself.”

“But, I’m not sec-”

“Yes you are. I can see it in your face and hear it in your voice. You asked to go, and Bill said you could. Did you see the way he looked at you before he answered you? He must think it’s a good idea, your being there. Your first mind is usually your best mind; at least that’s what I’ve always been told, and it works for me most of the time. If your head and your heart are saying to go, then go.”

Marnie shrugged and placed the straps of the two bags on both shoulders before hanging her purse from one of them, too.

“I guess you’re right. I just don’t want her to flake out about me being there, go off on me, and make me have to go there with her.”

J.J. laughed at the notion. “Now that, I’d like to see. Call me if you think it’s going to happen, but give me a little lead time to get some tickets printed up. We could make a little side money because that would be the fight of the new millennium. I have to tell you, though, you won’t be the odds-on favorite in that match up.”

Marnie snickered as she checked herself in the mirror one last time. “Going up against Pat, I wouldn’t even bet on me. I must be crazy going near them knowing that the Duchess has my camera with those pictures on it. Why would she take it? You think she saw the shots?”

“We don’t know for sure that she took it, but my money is on she has it. I know I left it on that couch, and that was where she was sitting when she was in that room I didn’t get any vibes off Daddy or Uncle Bill, so I don’t think either of them has it. Cordelia might have it. There’s always that possibility, and if so, she’d hold onto it until she could show it to Aunt Pat or the Duchess.

“I think, under the circumstances, though, that I’d rather the case be that my mother has it. I’d rather catch hell from her or Aunt Pat on this one than deal with Daddy. He’d never understand. If my mother took it, I don’t think she could have seen the shots before she left here because if she had, she’d have called us back down and chewed us out right then.”

Marnie agreed. “Yeah, she would have. If she had seen the pictures, even if she didn’t call us down, she would have snatched out the memory card and left us the camera. That way we wouldn’t have known about her having the shots until we went to take more pictures and didn’t have any memory.”

“Yep, that’s her. That’s just what she would have done, taken the card and dealt with us later. If she shows the shots we took with the furs to Pat, you might as well know that we’re getting double-teamed big time. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

J.J. clapped a hand to Marnie’s shoulder as she guided her toward the bedroom door. “Or rather I should say, you’ll be crossing that bridge when you get there. By the time they get around to doing me, the bridge will be blown up, what’s left of your behind will be washed way downstream, and they’ll be tired and out of breath.”

“Send me into the lionesses’ den, why don’t you.”

“You asked to go.”

As they went down the front stairs, J.J. was thinking that aside from the uncertainty about her Aunt Pat, it wasn’t so bad that things had worked out the way that they had. One good thing about the turn of events was that she and her father would have some alone-time together in Maryland without having to answer a lot of nosy questions a certain other redhead might otherwise be asking.

______________________________________________________________

When she emerged from the bathroom, Jennifer found a dressing gown on the bed in the place where she had her lain out her clothes. She also found that she was not alone. From the rocking chair, Eli’s glittering emerald eyes greeted her.

“So you’re back. A closed door means nothing to you, I see. What did you do? Go get Carmichael, tell her to take my clothes and leave the door open for you?”

Left with no other choice of garment and finding the room a bit chilly as she stood there clad in only the nightgown, she pulled it over her head and exchanged it for the dressing gown. As she tied the belt around her waist, Eli jumped down and came to her, weaving himself around her ankles, in and out, rubbing his soft fur against her skin.

“Claiming me, eh?”

She chuckled as she bent to pick him up, cradling him under one arm and scratching behind his ears with her other hand. “So why me and not Pat?”

She brought him up close her ear as if to hear his whispered answer. “Because she’s a bitch to you? Ohhhhh, okay, I understand.” Then she softly laughed at herself as she sat down on the side of the bed, moving the cat to her lap, marveling at how quickly and easily he had taken to her. “You shouldn’t think of her in those terms, Eli.”

Her words were soft, matching the strokes she was applying to the animal’s back and sides.

“She really is a wonderful person, but I sense that you already suspect that. Believe it or not, the two of you have a lot in common in terms of what you’re assumed to be to those who don’t know you: aloof, pushy- maybe a little snooty, self-reliant, confident; when in reality all it boils down to is you choose to whom you’ll show your true, more vulnerable self. You keep up the facade to shield you from the rest of the world, so that you don’t have to deal with them. So the real you doesn’t get discovered and perhaps exploited by them. I can see through both of you, but I want you to know that I do understand.”

Eli’s eyes rolled before he closed them, and she could feel the purr travel through his plump body.

She smiled at the sight and the sound. “You’re very welcomed, sir.”

And she wondered how much more stroking it was going to take with that other feline friend of hers, the stubborn, petulant, and maybe frightened one, when the time came.

______________________________________________________________

It was still fairly early. With schools out and some businesses shut down for the upcoming holiday, early morning commuter traffic in the city was much lighter than normal allowing Bill to easily make it to the highway. Once on, he settled in for the hour’s ride ahead. He wouldn’t have to be on point again until they reached their exit. Then he’d have to start paying closer attention to Cordelia’s instructions, road signs, and landmarks in order to maneuver them to their final destination.

Sitting beside him, Marnie stared straight ahead, appearing to be studying the road. He suspected, however, that her mind was busy with other things. How could it not be? His own was in overdrive.

Normally an easy-going guy, even he had been caught off guard by the intensity of his feelings for Pat. Although he had known her since Jonathan’s wedding to Jennifer- she had been his partner for the ceremony- it wasn’t until J.J. came along that he had really gotten to know her.

It was at the Christening dinner that they had their first chance to sit down and really talk. Something clicked that afternoon. Clicked hard. Back then, it had been a more physical connection, but there was something warm and comfortable that he could sense under that dignified, polished, venerable veneer. He could hear it in her tart tongue, her razor-sharp wit, and in the way she could hold her own in a conversation, at the card table, and at the bar. Despite all that she had personally accomplished in her life and her considerable amassed assets, all of it achieved in an arena that was largely occupied by men, she was surprisingly down-to-earth. Pat Hamilton was the kind of real woman only a real man could handle, and he had been more than game to audition for the part.

He asked her out, and they left that evening telling Jonathan and Jennifer that they were going to see a movie. But the only movie they wound up seeing was the one playing on the television in the hotel room.

Although she was a good-looking, interesting, intellectual woman, her no-nonsense, almost severe outward demeanor belied the hellcat she turned out to be in the sack. That warm image sent a delicious shudder through his entire body despite his current anxiety over her.

“Something wrong, Uncle Bill?”

“No. No, I’m okay. Just a little itch.”

“Oh.”

Pat had shut down on him the last time they were together, when he asked her about her weight. It wasn’t a lot that she had lost, but it was the kind of thing a lover would notice.

A lover.

God, how he loved her. After the death of his first wife, he thought he’d never care for another woman enough to want her to be a permanent part of his life. The hurt and the loss had almost been more than he could bear. Over the years, women had come and gone, flitting into and out of his life like butterflies, easy on the eyes, amusing for the moment, but quickly forgotten once the wonder of the initial contact was past. Pat Hamilton had been the only one to come in and stay, the only one that he wanted to come in and make herself at home in his space.

That part of it went back to when he lost T.J. That had been another very bad time in his life, almost worse than losing Irene had been. That oldest child of theirs had been his pride and joy. Smart, brash, funny, and fearless, the kid took on challenges with a relish that had been his father’s great joy to watch. Growing up, T.J. had his hands in everything: Scouting, sports, civic ventures, and school activities up to and all through college, which included his fraternal associations. In most of those undertakings, he had held leadership positions. The girls were crazy about him, and he enjoyed their attention, but T.J. loved planes, and all things related to flying, much, much more. Roaming the skies had been his life.

When the accident happened, he and Pat had been casually seeing each other off and on for a few years. She came with Jonathan and Jennifer for the funeral. J.J., just a little girl at the time, had been left at home in California with Marie. Because of that, Jennifer and Pat had flown right back out afterward while Jonathan remained in Reno with him for a few days, along with Peter, his remaining son, and his family.

Peter and Lisa had been high school sweethearts, and they had married in their sophomore year in college when Lisa became pregnant with Billy, their oldest child and his namesake. They remained in school, and by the time they graduated, they also had a second son, Thomas Jonathan, Tom. With a computer science degree in his back pocket and a lifetime of hands-on experience, Peter had been well entrenched in the technological operations of McDowell Aviation. Since that time, he and Lisa had added two more boys to their brood, Shane and Donovan, or as he was more commonly known, Finn.

Peter had been his bookworm son. Quiet and studious, he spent his childhood and young adulthood existing in his older brother’s huge shadow. The heir had been T.J. Peter, it turned out, had always been aware of his “spare” status in his father’s eyes.

Just as it always did when that truth came at him, Bill’s neck grew warm and moist under his collar. It still embarrassed him to think about that.

A couple of weeks after Jonathan and Peter left him to return home, Pat phoned, inviting him to New York. Still grieving and morose, he declined her invitation. The next morning, before daylight, he got another call from Pat. That time, she was ordering him to pick her up at the airport. She had flown in to be with him, she said, and be with him she would be. Once they arrived at the ranch, she made love to him, an act he didn’t realize how much he needed until she lavished it upon him. Then she forced him to pack a bag, and whisked him off to Antigua, which he learned was one of her favorite places on earth.

There he discovered a whole other side of Patricia Rose. Where he had always associated her with mansions, penthouses, chauffeurs, yachts with attendants, and upscale dining, he found out that she preferred intimate villas, sailboats, driving her own car when she could, and that she was a pretty good cook, not to mention a most able first mate on the water. She could wear shorts, tee shirts, and deck shoes as well as she could one of her custom designed suits and pumps.

They spent two weeks alone, sailing and stopping in at various ports-of-call. The days were spent exploring caves and other points of interest. Their nights were another type of adventure that ended with them in each other’s arms. By the time they made it back to the States, Pat had pulled him all the way up from the inky, uncertain depths of despair back to terra firma.

It was on the return flight that she soundly chastised him about allowing himself to wallow in self-pity when he should have been celebrating a life well-lived. She got all over him about attending to the needs of his remaining child, who, although he was a grown man, was undoubtedly also deeply grieving the loss of his only sibling…

…and he’s no doubt scared shitless about what T.J.’s departure is going to mean to his life. You were preparing T.J. to take over for you. Now what? I know you’ve been talking to Jonathan about selling McDowell to Hart Industries. 

No… no, don’t worry about how I know. Just know that I do. Bill, did you consider Peter in that decision? Did you even ask him? T.J. is gone. I know it hurts, but your boy died doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky when our time comes. But Peter is still here with you, with his father….

Her words, blunt and brutal as they were to his ears, had been right.

She knew what it was to lose a child. It was also on that trip that she let him in on her short-lived marriage, her miscarriage, and the finality of its aftermath. He couldn’t figure out which was worse, to lose a child without ever getting to know her or to lose one after getting to know him so well. Then he concluded, it really didn’t matter. Losing a child, regardless of when it happened, was a loss one never really got over.

But one had to move on.

A few months after that, he had been almost killed- purposely trapped in the bowels of a cave as part of an insider conspiracy at McDowell to keep him from selling off the company. It was Peter, acting through Jonathan, who utilized his developments in infra-red technology to locate him and get help to him.

As soon as she could get through to him, Pat placed that call to the hospital. After inquiring into his well-being, she lit right into him ….

Jennifer told me what happened and how you got out of it. William McDowell, if you don’t make up your mind to take care of Peter now, I swear to God, I will never speak to you again.

Believe in your son, Bill. You had two brilliant kids, not one.

That was a call she didn’t have to make. He had already made the decision to turn operations over to the son with his fingers pressed firmly to the keys of the more digital future.

Peter had been very young when his mother died. Aside from their housekeeper, Clara, Pat was the closest thing Peter had ever had to a mother. She was certainly his greatest cheerleader.

It was after that trip to Antigua, that he and Pat became something more than intimate friends. Over the last six years or so he had come to the conclusion that Pat was the only woman he wanted in his life. After shifting McDowell operations to Peter, he had been easing himself out of that picture, concentrating more and more of his time on what he wanted to do rather than on things he had to do. After Irene, he thought he’d never love again. With maturity, with time, and with Pat, he had discovered what real love was all about. Once they agreed to go public with the seriousness of their affair, nobody had been happier for them than Peter; he was nuts about Pat.

Whatever it is, Pat, we’ll work it out. Together. You and me. Whatever it is. You have got to learn to lean on somebody. I keep telling you that. You have got to learn to lean on me. That’s why you have me. That’s why you have family.

“Uncle Bill.”

He had almost forgotten that Marnie was with him. “Yeah?”

“Do you think she might be sick?”

Taking his eyes from the road for moment, he glanced over at Marnie. She had the biggest eyes for such a little girl, and they were sad eyes that morning.

“Who? Pat?”

“Of course, Aunt Pat. Who else would I be talking about?”

The girl had no shame. Ask a stupid question, and she’d certainly make it clear how dumb it was. It didn’t matter who was doing the asking.

“I don’t know, Marnie. Honestly, I don’t. What makes you think she might be sick?”

“She’s quiet. Like inside-herself-quiet. She puts up a good front, but I can tell. And she’s lost weight. Not a lot, but I can tell that, too.”

In his head, Bill agreed. “So can I.”

“I hope it’s not that,” Marnie continued. “Sick, I mean. If it is, I hope it’s not something bad. She won’t be able to handle that, if it is.”

A bit surprised by what she said, and taken with her insight, Bill wanted to know more of Marnie’s line of thought. “What makes you say that?”

She sighed and lay her head back on the headrest.

“Because bad-sick wouldn’t be something she could have control over. See, Aunt Pat can help other people all day long, and she can help herself, but only if it’s something she can, I- I- I guess manipulate is the word. It’s important for her to be able to work a thing her way. You can’t make sick do what you want it to do; sick does you. Am I making any sense?”

She was making plenty of sense, so much so, that it scared him. He changed the subject.

“Have you spoken with your father?”

“I called him before we left. Just to check on him, though. I didn’t say anything to him about Aunt Pat or us going to find her and Mrs. H.”

He got ready to ask her why she hadn’t mentioned it, but she answered that question before it could be put out there.

“It wasn’t something he needed to know. He’s where he is, and I’m with you. I know I’m in good hands. Daddy didn’t need to be worried about anything or anybody else. He has his own problems.”

“Have you spoken with your mother, Marnie?”

“She’s- she’s not really talking to me. Not since she found out that I had been meeting with the lawyers. I mean, she talks if I call her, but she’s kind of dry about it. She doesn’t call me.”

“Marnie, may I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I’m not trying to be nosy, but what is it that you’re trying to do? What made you go and talk with the lawyers about your mother? Pat tried to explain it to me, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to hear it from you.”

He noticed when she closed her eyes to answer him.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind telling you. You’re all right with me.” Her voice went quiet, almost as if what she was saying frightened her to say it. “I don’t think my father is going to make it, Uncle Bill.”

He struggled to keep his eyes on the road. “What in the world has you thinking like that?”

“Because he’s not getting the feeling back in his arms, hands, his legs. He still can’t walk, can’t even really move that much. The doctors have told us that the longer the paralysis lasts, the more unlikely it is that he’ll ever get the feeling back. My father is not going to want to live like that. He’s a fairly young man in terms of age, so if he lives a regular life, he’s got at least thirty, may forty or more years ahead of him. He’s not the kind of man to live those years in a wheelchair with people having to feed him and change him and stuff. He likes the ladies and life too much for that.”

She breathed in and then exhaled long and slow before she pressed on.

“See, I’m a realist when it comes to stuff like that. I know I have to look ahead and take care of me so that I can take care of my brothers. I want it lined up so that in the event that my father goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up, that my mother can’t get me back. I don’t ever want to live with her again. Not as a kid, I mean. Maybe if she’s old and sick or something, she could come live with me if she had to, like she couldn’t take care of herself or something. But I won’t ever live with her again. I want it in writing that she can’t have me or anything that is mine. I had a long talk with my father and told him that was how I felt. He has full legal custody of me now, so after he could see that I meant what I said, he set it up for me to talk with his lawyers. The paperwork is done. All that’s left is for it to go to the judge. They say that I’ll have to sit down and talk with the judge when the time comes. My mother is hurt, I think, that I don’t want to live with her, but that’s her problem, not mine.  I don’t want her in charge of me. It’s not a healthy situation for me.”

“May I ask what she did to you to make you feel that way?”

Marnie turned her face away from him, but he could hear what she said even though her voice had gone soft again. “She’s just an irresponsible person who I can’t trust with my well-being, that’s all.”

Then she turned back toward him. “Don’t get me wrong. I say that in all honesty and with no disrespect intended. I don’t hate her or anything; it’s not like that. I don’t even resent her much any more. I do love her, I mean, she is my mother, so how can I not? I’ve just come to the conclusion that I don’t like the kind of person she is. She’s shown me who she is, and I know for sure that I cannot trust her to look out for me. If something happens to my father, or even if it doesn’t happen, going back to her is not an- well, I’m just not doing it.”

“So, what’s your plan should it come to that?”

“Hopefully, if it comes to that, I’ll be eighteen, and it won’t matter.”

And again she sighed, once more closing her eyes.

Either way, he figured, it wouldn’t matter. There were enough responsible people with whom she could trust her well-being that there would be plenty of options open to her.

But he had no doubt, should it come to that, who she would choose. And who would allow her, and that cute rascal of a brother of hers, to stay.

But you have to do right by her, Pat. She’s a kid, a real sensitive, smart kid who loves you and who worries about you. She’s got your number, but she needs to know for sure that she can depend on you.

And that you’ll trust in her enough to lean on her when you need to do so.

And it occurred to him, as it had over the years through his friendship with Jonathan, how families weren’t always connected by blood. Sometimes they were formed by something a lot more substantial and satisfying.

“Are you mad at her, Uncle Bill?”

“Mad at her? Why would I be angry with her?”

“For holding out on you. You know that’s what she’s been doing. That’s why you came to New York, isn’t it? That’s why you’re on your way to find her, isn’t it? To get it out of her.”

“Anybody ever tell you that you ask too many questions, Miss Marnie Elaine? Are you going to make me sorry that I let you come with me?”

She smiled as she shook her head. “I don’t usually ask a whole lot of questions. That’s J.J.’s department. I’m usually the one trying not to get asked a whole lot of questions. I only ask them when I care about what’s going on, but I don’t want you to be sorry you brought me, so I’ll shut up after I say just this one more thing about it.”

“What?”

“Don’t fuss at her or be all mad. She needs you, and she needs for you to not be upset with her. I really think it’s something she can’t control, and she’s scared over it.”

“I’m not upset with her. I’m only concerned.”

“Good.”

He had been through sick before with a woman he loved, and that time he’d lost her to it.

You can’t be doing this to me again.

Please, please don’t be doing this to me again.

Please let it be something we can fix.

As if she could read what was going through his mind and wanted to offer him reassurance, Marnie patted the hand resting on the console between them.

They rode the rest of the way in silence save for the non-descript background music softly playing on the radio. Marnie didn’t open her eyes again until he slowed to take the off ramp. Then she reached on the dashboard for the slip of paper upon which Cordelia had written their directions.

______________________________________________________________

Standing just outside of the bedroom door, but out of the sight of its occupants, Pat stood and listened.

She had come straight there from her shower, forcing herself around the corner and down the hall. Not wanting to risk giving in to her darker impulses, she hadn’t stopped to dry her hair or to dress past putting on a robe. Had she slowed to do more, she wouldn’t have made it that far.

The soft voice and the things Jennifer was saying to that damned cat made her smile even though they were talking about her.

They? You’re losing it Pat.

For most of her life, there hadn’t been that many people who could make her smile when she really didn’t feel like doing so. In her early years, there had only been one person on that list. That one had been replaced by another who remained that singular entity for a very long time. But gradually, slowly, steadily that number had been growing. The increase had everything to do with her friendship with the singular entity-cat lady sitting on her bed in her old bedroom, the one who had done exactly what she thought she would do when left behind in that nightclub.

Jennifer wasn’t comfortable in the house; that much she knew, so it said a lot that she had come there and even more that she had stayed overnight. Her uneasiness with being there probably better explained her choice of sleeping arrangement despite the more comfortable digs that had been provided to her. On her first visit there, back when they were sixteen, right after that last funeral, Jennifer told her that the atmosphere in the house reminded her too much of Briarwood once her mother was no longer there. She said that when her mother had been taken, her spirit had gone with her, and the resultant void had been unbearable for her.

Even though Jennifer had been born and been raised there as a child, Jennifer never referred to Briarwood as “home”. She always called the estate by its name or referred to it as ‘Pa’s house’ or ‘Pa’s place’, but it was never ‘home’.

Unlike herself and that house.

The McMurray-Hamilton estate was home for her. She owned other places in the world to which she could retreat when the need arose, but the spirit she sought was strong in this place. She inhaled and it filled her. She moved and it moved with her. Confused or frustrated, she sat, and it sat down with her. Tired and worn out, she lie down, and it stroked her head. But her need to come there wasn’t a thing that she wanted just anyone to know about her.

Patricia Rose Hamilton had been a big girl for a long time. Before leaving her, Rose McMurray Hamilton had been preparing her to take care of herself.

You are the last of us, Patricia. On both sides, you are the last. I hope to live long enough that I can see you through, but that may not happen. I’m afraid that Rick won’t be of much help to you. In the event that my hope for us doesn’t pan out, I have made provisions for you, but you must be able to take care of yourself.

As if she hadn’t been doing that most of her life. Well, as if she and the servants hadn’t been doing that most of her life.

As it happened, Rose’s hope for them hadn’t panned out. A sudden heart attack had taken her. A few years before that, cancer had snatched away her grandfather and her mother, who had been distant at best. Two years after Rose, her father, Rick Hamilton had succumbed to cancer, just as his father had. All of them had died before sixty. Rick, in fact, had been in his late forties.

At twelve she had indeed been left all alone. But then she and Jennifer had found each other, and she hadn’t been alone since that day. Actually, it wasn’t until Jennifer came into the picture that her own life began.

But every now and then, that old thing overtook her. That fear, the self-doubt, the crushing memories of how lonely she had been and how unwanted she had felt. Even though those days were eons behind her, every now and then, that thing crept up on her, slammed her between the shoulder blades, and sent her spiraling down that long, narrow, pitch black tunnel.

The last slam had come on 9/11. Since then, she had been fighting hard to hold on to the rim and not go down. But one after another, the hits kept coming, loosening her grip: 9/11 and almost getting on that plane, the devastation that awaited her when she returned to New York, funerals, memorial service after memorial service, the heart wrenching conflict of interest she was experiencing over Marnie, and then this last thing.

There was so much that she didn’t know where to start talking about it or where it all would end…

Or how it would all end.

It was too much to talk about, but pushing it out of her way had only worked for so long. Jennifer’s arrival had relaxed her, but maybe it had relaxed her too much. Her tired fingers slipped, the slide started, and she hadn’t been able to stop it. Fortunately Jennifer’s calling to her, urging her to stay and talk with her, had somewhat slowed the total descent.

She was supposed to be married in less than three days. Everything was planned. She had been assured by the principal parties that everything was in place, and the principal parties knew her well enough to understand that when assurances were made to her, they should not be made in vain. It wasn’t the wedding or the preparations for it that worried her.

It was the fairness of getting married that gave her pause for concern.

Sorry Jen, I just can’t do this right now.

Instead of entering the bedroom, she turned away from the door and instead headed for the front stairs.

______________________________________________________________

It turned out that Jonathan had been lucky enough to secure a plane ticket for himself, and it had been waiting for him at the airport when they arrived. He took the seat that Jennifer would have occupied, so he and J.J. had been together for the flight. After picking up their luggage, they found the car that had been sent for them.

Although he had been staying at Bill’s since his arrival in Maryland on the previous weekend, the plan had been for him to move to Briarwood once Jennifer and J.J. arrived. With his and Bill’s sudden departure, he hadn’t yet transferred his things from the one estate to the other. But he was certain that Stephen would want his grandchild with him from the moment she arrived in Maryland.

J.J. had been very quiet throughout the flight and once they got into the car. He assumed that she was still wondering about her mother and Pat, but there seemed to be some other element to her silence. The flight and the car trip into Hillhaven was turning out to be a lot like when they arrived in Manhattan. But this time, it felt differently. The last time, it had been her feelings about something he had done that worried him. This time, it seemed to be something else. There was an evasiveness element to her behavior. He could sense that she was hiding something, and after an hour or so of surreptitious study, he was sure that he had picked up on what it was.

“J.J.”

Seated next to him, but over by the other window, she turned her face around to him. “Yes?”

There it was. In her cheeks.

He hooked his finger at her. “Slide over here to me.”

Her brow wrinkled. “For what?”

“Just come here.”

She slid across the seat, but when he reached his hand out to her, she tried to stop it with her own. “Daddy, don’t. I’m okay.”

But he was the father. He knew her and how it went with her, and he had the right.

Pulling his hand free of hers, he lay it first on her forehead, then along her cheek, and finally he pressed his fingers against her neck. “You’re running a temp. I knew you were awfully quiet. Why didn’t you tell me that you weren’t feeling well?”

She slid away from him, back to her side. “I’m not sick. Honest. I feel okay.”

He moved over to her. “You should have told me. How long have you been feeling bad?”

“I don’t feel bad. It’s just a little tickle in my throat. I had sort of a headache earlier, when you woke me up this morning. But Cordelia gave me some tea right before we left, and it made the headache and some of the tickle go away. You know, Cordelia can do some mean things with herbs and junk. Make you better. Make you sleep. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Jonathan put an arm around her shoulders. “You know who’s going to get blamed if you’re sick when your mother turns up.”

J.J. grinned at him. “Now how is she going to blame you for this? You weren’t even with me this weekend. No hat, no gloves, no scarf; that was my problem, even though I’ve read that’s not how colds are caught. You and I are just predisposed to catching colds, that’s all.”

“That’s why I’ll get blamed. You got the tendency from me.”

“Wel-l-l-ll, I can’t think of a better person to have gotten it from.” She lay her head back on his shoulder. “Have you talked with my mother at all since the last time?”

“I heard from her earlier. She let me know that she was all right.”

Most likely to avoid his inevitable questions, she had sent the message straight to voice mail where he discovered it when he checked his phone after he rinsed his face in his bathroom at Pat’s apartment.

Darling, I’m with Pat. I just wanted to let you know that I found her, and that we’re both all right. It’s very likely, though, that we won’t get back in time to leave for Maryland with the girls. I’m sure that Cordelia will make sure that they get off all right, but please just call them to… I don’t know, just call them for me. I’d do it myself, but I know J.J. will have a million questions that I just can’t deal with right now.

I love you, Jonathan. We’ll be there as soon as we get things worked out.

He waited for that barrage of questions he was certain his answer to J.J. would generate. It surprised him when they didn’t come, J.J. instead settled herself even more against him, relaxing and crossing her arms. Her silence on the matter confirmed with finality for him with that she was likely not at her best.

But not all of the fight had gone out of her.

“Daddy, look, you’re not going to be putting me on medical lockdown because of this, are you? I’ll be fine. Pa said he had the horses brought down for us, so I just can’t be on lockdown when I get there; I haven’t ridden in forever. Finn and Shane are going to be there. And Marnie.”

And Teddy. Let’s not leave him out of it.”

When she flashed her eyes up at his face, in the chagrined look she gave him, all he could see were shades of  Jennifer and it tickled him down to his toes. He could hear Jennifer’s inflections in J.J.’s voice as she rolled her eyes, then hung her head and quietly sighed, “Oh, Daddy.”

Like her mother, she couldn’t take it when someone saw through her efforts to pull out the wool and try to use it to her advantage. Thus, he found J.J.’s attempt adorable. “Oh Daddy, my foot. We’re playing this thing by ear. If you get bad, you might have to make that phone call. You wouldn’t want to be exposing Teddy, Shane, Finn, and Marnie to your germs, would you?”

“I wouldn’t care, and neither would they. We’re kids. Kids pass germs to each other all the time, and it’s okay by us. Besides, you and I have stuff to do. You need to worry about you. If you hang around with me to tie up those loose ends, then I’ll be exposing you to germs, too. If you think about it, I’m probably infecting you right now. You just said I get the predisposition for colds from you, so what goes around can easily come around.”

“Have you ever thought about a career in law?”

“Too far down the line right now. At this point in my life, all I’m trying to do is make it to the weekends. So what do you think is up with Aunt Pat?”

“I thought I asked you not to push past what I told you in the bedroom.”

She lifted her index finger, wiggling it back and forth. “Unh-uh, you said not to push past what you told me about why Uncle Bill came to New York looking for Aunt Pat. We didn’t talk about what might be wrong with her, so that topic should still be fair game according to my playbook and the rules you set down.”

He could only chuckle to himself as he had to admit that he’d left himself wide open for that one without even realizing that he had. J.J. was so quick that it both scared and impressed him at the same time. She had always done that to him.

“I have some ideas on the subject,” he said. “But if you don’t mind, I’d rather keep them to myself right now.”

“All right. I can respect that. Another question then. Another topic.”

“What?”

“What do you think Pa is going to say to Teddy when he calls him into the study?”

“What makes you think he’ll do that?”

She gave him that look again, only this time she included pursed lips and a snake-like roll of her neck. “Puh-lease, Daddy. You did it when he came to our house. You know Pa is going to do it. Didn’t Pa do you the first time you came around him? I’m told he ordered you come to him that first time. You might have been good and grown at the time, but weren’t you at least a little nervous? I mean, come on. She was his only child. He was her only parent. You asked her to marry you after only a couple of days, and she had said ‘yes’ to you. You had to know that Pa was gnawing at the bit, foaming all on it, waiting to get a piece of you.”

“You know way too much about that story.”

“You and my mother told me the story.”

This time he chuckled aloud.

“J.J., I’m sure that your grandfather will ask some very direct, but fair questions. He will tell Teddy what his expectations are for the young man who would keep company with his granddaughter…. and he’ll e-e-e-ever so subtly let Teddy know what the ramifications might be for him should he fall anywhere short of stated expectations.”

“I just don’t want to be embarrassed or for Teddy to be made uncomfortable. Daddy, why are you males so territorial?”

He gave her shoulders a quick squeeze. “Not territorial, baby. Just protective of the people we love.”

“Is that why Uncle Bill came to New York?”

“J.J.”

“Just taking a shot, Daddy, playing the odds. You can’t blame me for that. I got that from you, too.”

Indeed she had, and no he couldn’t blame her. It was what he had been doing in his head on that matter all morning.

Checking her forehead one more time, he settled back, having decided to get with Rosa as soon as they arrived at Jennifer’s father’s place. They needed to put together a regimen to keep J.J. from getting any worse. It wouldn’t do to have her sick, sniffling, on “lockdown”, and irritable as hell for the weekend.

Providing that nothing else happened before then to take the train further off the track.

Continue to Part Seven

 

 

 

One Response to Promises: Part Six

  1. Lesa says:

    Love how Pat helped Bill get through the loss of his son. I certainly hope Pat gets over her health issue with Bills help. They are a great couple.

    Liked by 1 person

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