Exhaling in relief, Jennifer sagged against the closed door of the hotel room, tightly clutching her coat to her body with both hands.
“Whew! You always were one smooth talker, Jonathan. I thank God for that. If you hadn’t gotten us out of that situation, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“I knew full well what we were going to do.”
Jonathan placed his gloves and his wallet on the desk and shed his leather jacket, hanging it on the back of the chair. “And what I had in mind did not include spending any of the little time you’ve engineered for us to be together, sitting in a hotel lounge nursing drinks and making small talk with a couple that we hardly know.”
“But darling, you don’t think we were a little rude? I mean, turning them down flat like that? You were kind of abrupt, I was completely tongue-tied, and we did get into that elevator car rather quickly. They were still standing there when the doors closed.”
He returned to her, first securing the locks on the door, then removing her hands from the coat. “I don’t care if I was rude. I had been assigned to a more urgent, more pleasurable agenda. And you’d gone to so much trouble.”
Taking hold of the lapels, he opened the coat, pushing it off her shoulders until it draped from the crooks of her arms. The instant delight in his eyes and in his smile made it all worthwhile. The planning, the hurried hotel and flight arrangements, her stealthy departure from the apartment which would undoubtedly result in having to hear it from Pat later, even missing J.J.’s arrival; it had all been worth it to be alone in that room together.
“Ah, yes.” he whispered as he held her by the waist, and she allowed the sable to slide to floor. “All my favorites; lace, garters and silk stockings, high heels- freckles.”
He leaned in to press kisses to her brow and both her cheeks. “You are so lovely.”
Then he drew back again, and his eyes admired her another time. “I don’t know how you manage to do it. My wife, mother of my child, and my lover, all in one soft, shapely package, and wrapped up in a fur. You were taking your chances coming to me like this in the back seat of a car, you know.”
She smiled with mischief as she slipped her hands under his sweater. “Wel-l-l-l, I’ve always been something of a risk-taker. Especially if I thought the outcome might be worth taking the chance. In this case, past experience with you in much smaller cars made me certain it would be worth it in such a large one.”
He rubbed her nose with his. “You are so good to me.”
Anxious for him to stop talking and to feel his warm flesh in contact with her own, she first helped pull his sweater and undershirt over his head. Then she wound her arms around his neck, bringing her lips so close to his that they lightly touched as she whispered, “You deserve all the good things in life, Jonathan. You are a wonderful husband, an excellent father, and a brilliant partner, not to mention my soul mate and lover. A very good man- perhaps a tad volatile at times- but a very decent and deserving human being.”
He kissed her, this time pressing her body against the door with his own. Through the haze, she felt his strong appreciation grinding against her lower belly, which instantly rocketed her own level of anticipation and turned her knees to mush. For leverage, she held to him even tighter.
“Jennifer, I love you so much.”
“Jonathan, I told you earlier, in the car. I thought you understood.”
“Oh, I understood all right,” he breathed into her neck as he licked and nipped at her ear and his hand expertly worked open the clasp behind her upper back. “I’ve told you, and now I’m going to show you. But I’m afraid it’ll go pretty fast this time-”
Her own fingers maneuvered the hook on his pants then slid down his zipper as she reached inside while nuzzling his neck and collarbone. “-then I’ll show and tell you, slowly and sweetly, the next.”
In the gym, J.J. decided against using the weights; having recently eaten, she didn’t think it wise. Instead, in an effort to loosen up, she opted to power walk then run several laps on the track that circled the workout area. The previous evening and the tension on the air in the plane that morning had her nerves strained and her shoulders and lower back feeling uncomfortably tight.
As she hoped, aside from the attendants at the counter and a few older ladies participating in an aerobics session, she had arrived at a time when she could be alone on the track. As she eased her body into its usual rhythm, her mind shifted into overdrive.
Just as Marnie said, there was something going on with her godmother; she could see it and she could feel it. There was a subtle uneasiness about her, which was highly unusual. Besides the Duchess, Aunt Pat was her greatest model of self-assurance. They were both equally confident and strong, although it came across differently in each of them. With her mother, it was quiet, but determined, and sometimes even surprising. In Aunt Pat it was bold, brash, definitely unmistakable. So, that hint of… of… of whatever it was that seemed to be coming from her set off all kinds of bells and whistles and alarms in her goddaughter.
Marnie reported that nobody had talked much at breakfast. There hadn’t been a lot of talk at lunch either- at least not from Aunt Pat. She’d mostly just sat and listened, smiling at some at the things they said, every now and then answering a question one of them might have asked, or interjecting a random comment. But for the most part, her mind seemed to have been elsewhere.
What might the Duchess have noticed in her best friend? Without a doubt she had to have picked up on it. There was nobody on earth better than Jennifer Hart for honing in on silent signals, especially trouble signals, from the people she loved. She had tuned in on Daddy’s without talking with or even being near him. Aunt Pat might have issues, but when it came to Jonathan Hart, the choice of who needed Jennifer Hart’s help the most at the moment was a no-brainer. Aunt Pat would have to wait.
And so would she.
The incident might have been short-lived in its happening, but the lingering after-effects had been brutal to her psyche. The man caught her off guard, startling her in the worse way. Nothing threw her more than an assault on her privacy or her personal space. Marnie told her that she would have to get used to it. Small things had happened before in her lifetime to hint that public scrutiny was something with which she should learn to become accustomed. Her parents, especially her father, were considered public figures and both of them had danced most of their adult lives with the media, but she was having a hard time facing that inevitability. Not that she had anything to hide. She actually almost enjoyed it when she earned ink for her athletic abilities or her civic accomplishments.
Earned- that was probably the ticket to her most recent distress. This hadn’t been solicited or earned. It had not been an attempt to spotlight something good.
Having some grown man spy on her with her father, who it was assumed was her older, cheating boyfriend, had been an attempt at bringing something supposedly sordid forward. He had yelled out that he had seen them in the “private” booth her father had requested to keep prying eyes off them as they ate. That meant that the man had been spying on them, invading their space, negating their attempts to keep themselves to themselves. And then to be ambushed, photographed, called an insulting name, and have her father and his integrity insulted at the same time- she was still steaming from it all and no matter how hard she tried to control it, the steam would not dissipate.
Then there was Aunt Pat again. Was she having second thoughts about getting married? Marnie said it didn’t seem so. In her own heart, she hoped that wasn’t the case. Uncle Bill, his son, Peter, and Peter’s family would be devastated. It had come to light that all of them were crazy about Pat and anxious to have her become an official member of their family. If she were thinking of backing out, Aunt Pat would be making a huge mistake. Uncle Bill might never forgive her. Pa would be embarrassed and disappointed in her. And so many other people would be let down, too. There was more than just the planning and the wedding ceremony at stake.
Her father’s face and his body language on the plane and in the taxi played out again in her mind….his tone when he last spoke with her sounded in her ears… her own feelings of helplessness at not being about to assist him in feeing better about it all worked on her heart.
She understood what he was going through. He had been ashamed of loosing his customary cool in front of her. But his guilt over how he handled the incident was unwarranted on her part. Unfortunately, when she had been with him, she hadn’t been able to adequately put that into words. She hadn’t been able to express to him how much she appreciated that he’d gone off on the man, showing and telling the guy how he felt about what he’d done, leaving no room for speculation on the subject. The words wouldn’t come to tell her father that she was proud of him and applauded every single thing he did.
Those sentiments, however, went counter to what her mother had been teaching her about what was right and proper, But then she and her mother didn’t always see things the same way when it came to “right and proper”. Daddy had acted from instinct, and it was an instinct they both shared; they didn’t start fights, but they surely knew how to put an end to one- and they would. In reality, she secretly relished witnessing a good fistfight, and had no inner qualms about becoming part of one if the situation called for it. Fortunately, she had been born into a life where circumstances didn’t often warrant her having to resort to that particular reflex action.
She really needed to talk, to get the anxiety out and off her, but the person she needed to talk with had done a disappearing act, leaving her on her own with it for the time being. That was probably for the best, though. The Duchess never would have entertained that last part, the delight she took in her father’s Saturday night behavior and her own identification with it… not in a million years would her mother have entertained it or condoned it- not coming from her daughter.
So, that left her talking to herself.
Like Marnie said, you’re a big girl now, and getting bigger. Real soon you won’t have your mommy to run to every time you’re feeling uptight or blue. You’re going to be on your own. So, get over it, J. Just handle it; it’s over- done. The Duchess will smooth Daddy out. That’s her job. You’ll have to work out your stuff all by yourself.
It was a few minutes before she noticed that the aerobics group had stopped exercising and were all watching her as she blew around the gym. Without realizing it, she had kicked it all the way up to final straightaway speed, which on a small indoor track had to be a sight. She had no idea of how many laps she had done or how long they had been watching her run.
With her face stinging hot from the exertion as well as from embarrassment, she eased down into a trot, concentrating on slowing her breathing and her heart rate. As soon as she felt it healthy to do so, she left the track to go into the locker room.
“I brought you some tea, Ms. Patricia.”
Pat had been so deep into her own thoughts that Cordelia’s voice nearly startled her into shuddering. But years of careful conditioning had long stifled that particular response. Instead she took her time in looking up from the business documents she had unsuccessfully been trying to read.
“I didn’t ask for any tea.”
Cordelia set the cup and saucer down on the desk. “I know that you didn’t. But you could use it. Did you ever locate Mrs. Hart?”
Pat extended her hand, inviting Cordelia to take the chair in front of the desk. “You know as well as I do that she’s with Jonathan. She does it all the time, breezes into town, drops off the kid- or the kids- with me and finds some reason to run off and shack up with him for a day or two.”
“I think it’s nice that they do that,” Cordelia said as she sat down. “It’s good that they still enjoy getting away and being romantic together like that. But I thought Mr. Bill was expecting Mr. Hart in Maryland this afternoon.”
“After Jen saw that article this morning, she went back across the hall, and she must have gotten busy over there, burning up phone lines, making reservations and whatnot. I’m sure she rearranged all of his flight plans. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns out that Bill got called in on it. Then she booked them into some nearby hotel for a little ‘quality’ time. Davis didn’t come back up here after he left, supposedly taking Jonathan back to the airport, so I couldn’t ask him about it. But I know that’s what she did.”
“Did you try to phone her cell?”
“I don’t care enough to ask, and she wouldn’t answer me if I did.”
“But she didn’t even stay to see Miss J.J.”
“J.J. is with you and me; Jen was not worried about her at that time. She was thinking about her husband and how out of sorts he must have been after having his privacy invaded in that manner. Jonathan really can’t take that, especially not in reference to J.J. He never could. Remember how protective he was of her when she was little? He never wanted her pictures out there. I don’t know what he plans to do when she’s away at college and out of his immediate sight and range of control.”
Cordelia shrugged. “I don’t know. I can see Miss J.J. making her own calls about that. I believe she’ll be as protective as her father when it comes to the part of her life that’s out of the public eye, and just as adamant about maintaining it.”
Pat finally picked up the cup and blew on the hot liquid. “Have either of the girls checked in? They’ve been gone for a while.”
“You would know more about that than I would. I’ve been in the kitchen and on the telephone all this time, placing orders with the grocer and the butcher. I haven’t seen either of them since they ate lunch. And speaking of eating, I need to ask you something.”
Pat raised her eyes to the woman seated across from her.
“I’ve noticed that you haven’t been eating very much lately; you’re just picking at the food, thinking that you’re fooling somebody. You don’t really eat it, and I’m beginning to be offended.”
Chuckling lightly, Pat sat back in her chair and crossed her legs as she took her first sip. “Offended? Nonsense, Cordelia. You have been with me too long to be offended by anything I do. In all these years, your skin has become as thick as mine. Maybe thicker because you have been dealing with me.”
“You’re probably right,” Cordelia said after a quick snicker. “But seriously, Ms. Patricia, I am concerned about you. I’ve been watching you for a couple of weeks now.”
“And I tried telling you when you asked me the first time, I’m fine. There’s really nothing wrong with me. I guess I have so much going on in my life right now that eating isn’t so much of a priority.”
“Please try telling that to someone who doesn’t know you because I do. I live with you. This thing has been coming on you longer than the two weeks I mentioned. I noticed it way before then; I only just mentioned it two weeks ago. Tell me the truth. Are you feeling sick? Is there something wrong with you that you aren’t telling me about? Is it business problems? Is it something with Mr. Bill? You have always managed to handle a million things at one time without it affecting your appetite. Like you’ve said, you and I have been together a long time. I know you.”
“So you know that I am very capable of handling whatever comes at me, should that be the case.”
“And I also know that you’d hide something from me if you felt I couldn’t handle it. Look, when you told me that you were getting married, you said that I wouldn’t have to worry. You said that I’d have a place here in your life for the rest of mine. So you know that you have a place in mine for the rest of yours. You would tell me if there was something really wrong, wouldn’t you?”
Unable to respond right away, Pat picked up the spoon and slowly stirred the tea.
Spiritually, she and Cordelia had always connected; there had always been something between them that clicked and tuned them in to each other. It started when she bought the building that now housed her publishing enterprise. Cordelia had been in charge of housekeeping for the previous owners, so as the new owner, she had inherited the services from them, bringing Cordelia into her life.
In those early days, she would often stay late, working on contracts, proposals, and getting her fledgling business off the ground while Cordelia and her crew were there cleaning. After seeing each other in passing several times and speaking, they formally met one night when she’d stayed particularly late, and she startled Cordelia who had arrived to clean her office, thinking it was unoccupied. As Cordelia worked around her while she continued to pursue her own tasks, they began to talk. It quickly became a nightly routine.
Their easy after-hours chats revealed two independent, self-motivated women with like minds for how things should be done. Cordelia desired stability and a better life for herself; she needed someone stable to help organize her hectic private life. Eventually a compromise was reached. Cordelia sold her interest in the maintenance operation to her brother and moved in with her to take over managing her home and her affairs. Having Cordelia there had freed her up to throw most of her energies into building Hamilton House. In the meantime, Isaiah Davis, Cordelia’s brother continued to manage the maintenance operations of the building as well as that of some of her other properties, while assuming the position of being her personal driver. It was a satisfying, secure relationship. One that she wouldn’t compromise for anything in the world.
But, at that point, even Cordelia couldn’t be let in. That was partially because she hadn’t yet allowed herself to be fully in on it.
“I wonder if the girls have come back yet? Did you hear them come in? This place is so big, they could have and I wouldn’t even know.”
In annoyance, Cordelia made a sucking noise with her teeth before fussing, “I didn’t hear them, and neither did you. You’re trying to change the subject.”
Pat tipped her head in concession and eased forward in the chair to put the cup down on the desk. “Okay, listen. I know that I’m changing the subject, but I need you to understand that I’m okay. Everything is under control. You don’t have to worry.”
“I know that I don’t have to. But I do just the same. You’re not only my employer. I consider you an important person in my circle, and I won’t have the circle being broken. Please don’t be struggling with something that I could help you with. Please don’t be keeping things to yourself that you need help with. I’m here. Ms. Jennifer is here. Ms. Pat, you are strong, but each of us is only so strong on our own. Together, though, a mighty blow can be struck against whatever might be bothering you.”
“I’m home!” Marnie’s voice sounded from the front room and moments later, she appeared in the doorway of the study. “Oh, I’m sorry. Am I interrupting something?”
When Pat gestured for her to enter the room, Marnie came to her side.
“Is J. back from working out?” she asked. “I would have called her cell, but I figured she was either up here already, or if she was still down in the gym, the phone would be in her locker, and she wouldn’t hear it. Mrs. Benedict says to tell you ‘hello’, Cordelia.”
She grinned at Pat. “She didn’t say that about you.”
The ‘b’ word instantly formed on Pat’s lips. She caught it before it left her mouth, but not before Marnie saw it and grinned even harder. “She’s equally fond of you, Aunt Pat. I’m going upstairs and see if J’s back. If she’s not, then I’m going down to the gym. Okay?”
“All right,” Pat said. “But if I catch that damned shepherd-for-the-devil, Duncan Sinclair, anywhere near you-”
Marnie waved her hand behind her as she turned to leave. “He knows, Aunt Pat. He knows.”
After a quick shower in the locker room and dressed again in her street sweats, J.J. decided to return to the apartment to see if Marnie was back from reading to Mrs. Benedict. She was the legally blind lady in the building who didn’t speak to Aunt Pat, but had taken a shine to Marnie. And Marnie to her, it seemed. It was still light out, but it wouldn’t be much longer. Since the rain had let up, she thought maybe they could go across the street and take a quick walk in the park before dinner.
But then Marnie would be fussing about it being too cold.
Maybe they could go up to the roof terrace. That wouldn’t quite be the same since it was glass enclosed and climate-controlled; she really needed some fresh air, but at least that would seem more like being outside.
“S’up, J.J. Hart. I heard you were coming into town this weekend.”
Dressed in a black trench coat complete with shoulder cape, his shaggy hair dyed jet black and his already dark eyes made even more so by heavy black liner, Duncan Sinclair approached her in the lobby as he was coming from the direction of the elevators. When he extended his hand to her, she noticed the black nail polish Marnie had mentioned. If it had been anyone else, she might have been tempted to go around him. Instead, because it was him, she smiled and shook hands with him.
“Hey Duncan, long time no see. What’s it been, a year?”
“Closer to two, I think. Whenever it was that you last visited. I think you’re taller than when I last saw you.”
“Probably. So are you, but I’m pretty sure I’ve reached my max. Marnie told me she’d talked with you.”
“It was on the low, strictly. Your Aunt Pat has it out for me. I think she hates me, J. I wonder why? I’ve never done anything to her, but every time she sees me, she gives me the eye. When Marnie got here, she hemmed me up and told me point-blank to not even think about talking to Marnie. Of course, we sneak and talk anyway when we run into each other, but I probably shouldn’t e-e-e-even be seen talking to you. Ms. Hamilton would surely kill me dead if she caught me talking to you.”
Still holding Duncan’s hand, J.J. squeezed it and laughed, “I think you make her nervous, that’s all. No offense, but I believe she’s a bit, shall I say, put off by your appearance.”
Duncan feigned being taken aback, breaking his hold on J.J.’s hand to bring his own to his chest. “My appearance? Now whatever could it be about my appearance that would make her nervous about me? Since when does a publisher judge a book by its cover?”
“Since her nieces are in town, and you’re in the building. I don’t think it’s personal- no, I lie, it probably is- but she’s really okay as a person, trust me. Besides, I pick my own company. So, what’s been up with you? How’s life on the third floor?”
“Nothing’s up. The third floor is fine. Same old, same old. Parents out of town. I’m home alone. Say, I was just on my way to get an espresso or something. Wanna join me?”
J.J. thought on it a moment. She did want to get some fresh air, but… “I don’t know. I could do with an espresso or a latte, but if I go, I should probably call upstairs and let Aunt Pat know I’m stepping out.”
“With me? She’ll never let you go.”
“And my hair’s still kind of wet. I didn’t take the time to dry it all the way. I was going to let it air dry once I got back upstairs.”
“There’s air outside, too, J.”
“And that brings me to the fact that I don’t have my coat either. I just came from the gym.”
When he took off his trench coat, she saw that over his black turtleneck he wore a heavy black sweatshirt and jeans with his black work boots. “We’ll just be a few minutes. We can even bring it back here to drink, if you like.”
He draped the coat around her shoulders. “Here California, you wear this.” Unzipping the rolled collar, he pulled out the hood. “Put that on your head. You should be good with that.”
Still a bit skeptical, J.J. looked him up and down. “What about you? What’re you going to do to keep warm?”
Duncan waved his hand. “I’m all right. I’m a native, used to New York cold. And anyway, it’s just a couple of blocks. Come on, let’s go.”
With her final decision bolstered by the fact that if by chance she should need it, her cell phone was in the pocket of her sweat pants, she gave in and slipped her arms into the sleeves of the trench coat, pulling it closed around her. “Yeah, all right, but I can’t be gone too long.”
To avoid the doorman, the teenagers detoured out of one of the side doors and went around the block to get back onto 72nd where they continued on to the coffee shop.
Marnie checked with the gym’s front desk clerk when she didn’t see J.J. in the gym. He informed her that J.J. had already signed out. From there, she went to the building’s library, thinking that J.J., a voracious reader, might be holed up in there with a book that captured her attention before she could make it to the desk to check it out. But she wasn’t there either.
Then she remembered that earlier J.J. had mentioned being tired, but that instead of lying down, she had left the apartment right after eating lunch. It dawned on her that J.J. could have gone to the gym and come back up to take a nap without anyone realizing it. When she had gone upstairs after returning from Mrs. Benedict, she hadn’t checked J.J.’s room; she had only called for her upon entering the suite. J.J. slept like the dead; she might have been up there, but just not heard her when she was calling for her.
She went back to the apartment and straight up the stairs.
Once she confirmed for herself that J.J. wasn’t in her bed, or anywhere else on the second floor, she went into her own room, closed the door, and whipped out her cell phone. There was no sense in checking around the rest of the apartment, risking alerting Pat and Cordelia to the possibility that J.J. had taken off. Aunt Pat said that with family, it was the responsibility of the oldest to look after the youngest. She and Aunt Pat were older respectively than J.J. and the Duchess, even if it was only by months in both cases.
Wherever J.J. was, it was two for one, and supposedly their mutual responsibility to keep up with each other, but J.J. wasn’t always so reliable on her end when it came to the ‘checking in’ part.
J., where the hell are you?
“It depends. Who wants to know?”
I do. I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I looked in the gym, the library.
“I’m not there-”
– I damned well know you’re not.
“I mean, I’m not in the building.”
Just tell me before Pat comes up here and starts asking questions that force me to lie because I’ve not been informed of your whereabouts. Even once I know, I’m probably still going to have to lie. Why didn’t you call me and let me know you were leaving?
“It was last minute, and I didn’t want to interrupt your flow with Mrs. Benedict.”
You liar. You didn’t want me to talk you out of doing whatever it is you’re doing. For the last time, where are you?
“I’m up the street.”
Up the street where? Who with?
“At a gallery-slash-coffee house. With Duncan. He’s really talented.”
Duncan! Are you crazy? I told you what Pat said. She just warned me about it again before I left here looking for you. She’s not playing. She finds you with him, and I swear, I don’t know you. I’m selling you all the way out, for real. ‘I told her what you told me about it, Aunt Pat, but she didn’t listen to me’. That’s exactly what I’m going to say because I did tell you.
“She said it about you, not about me. She didn’t tell me anything.”
You know good and well that she meant it for both of us. And I told you what she said.
“But she didn’t tell me. Loophole, Marn. I’m using it.”
You left, and I know you didn’t tell her. That’s not a part of the situation that you can loophole, J. You’re not supposed to leave without telling somebody. She thinks you’re at the gym.
“And that’s all she needs to know. I’ll be back in a minute. I just needed some fresh air and an espresso.”
She catches you, you won’t breathe fresh air again until we leave for Maryland, and that will only be as you get in and out of the car with her right behind you, watching your every move. Stale bread crusts and tap water will be the only things on your menu. You really better get back here before the Duchess does. Your ass will truly be fried if that happens.
“Girl please, she’s somewhere with Daddy. That means she won’t show up again for hours, if she gets back before tomorrow. You know how they are when they get together.”
We did not have this conversation, J.J. Hart.
“Love you, too, Marnie Elaine. I’ll be home shortly.”
J.J. flipped the phone shut and stuck it back down in her pocket. “Marnie. Looking for me.”
Duncan smiled from across the table. “And panicking because you’re with me?”
She smiled back and nodded. “Despite her diva-like attitudes and all, Marnie is not one to go too far outside the lines, especially if Aunt Pat or my mother has drawn them. If she’s with me, or it’s about me, or it’s some boy she’s trying to get to; she might stray some, but even then, she’s only going to go so far if she thinks either of those two might get wind of what’s going on.”
J.J. stopped to take in her surroundings. “Duncan, I can’t get over these paintings. They’re wonderful.”
The cafe was actually part of an eclectic gallery of nouveau art tucked in among the offices and shops on the lower levels of the high rises and apartment houses lining that part of 72nd. The table in the corner was a good spot to see the paintings and drawings hung on the walls, and the sculptures and other crafted pieces inside the glass cabinets and lining the curio shelves. In the back, draped with black cloth and strung with miniature Christmas lights which were currently turned off, there was also a raised area with a mike and what appeared to be room for a small band.
“Do people come here and perform, too?”
“On the weekends mostly. In the summer you get more action during the week. People are out of school and they want to get their feet wet performing in front of a smaller venue before venturing out into the colder, crueler, real world. So they come here and test the waters first.”
She leaned over her cup, first sipping at the cream on top, and then looking up at him. “So tell me, how come your paintings have color, yet you’ve assumed this ultra-dark outer persona for yourself?”
He tossed his head, throwing the hair back from his eyes. “So, you like my look?”
“Let’s just say that it’s interesting. It made me ask you the question.”
Duncan simply sat back and smiled at her. Getting his meaning, she nodded again and sat back, too.
“So what about you, J.J.? I’ve let you see what’s going on in my world. What’s up in yours?”
“Not a lot. School. Commitment stuff in and out of school. My aunt getting married. That’s why I’m here.”
“Marnie told me. She’s marrying the fly-guy who looks as if he could kill a brick.”
“Careful now, that’s my godfather.” But J.J. laughed at hearing her uncle being described in that manner by yet another one of her acquaintances. Chase often described Uncle Bill in those terms.
“Marnie told me that, too. I’ve seen him coming and going sometimes. He seems all right. I mean, he’d have to be to have gotten close to your Aunt Pat.” Duncan quickly held up his hand. “No offense. I’ve known her a long time, or I should say I’ve been in the building with her for a long time, but she just doesn’t come off as somebody who it’s easy to get close to.”
J.J. thought on that for a moment. Having always had Aunt Pat in her life, she hadn’t ever had to look at her from the perspective of how intimidating she might be to someone who didn’t know her so well. Switching for a moment to place herself in Duncan’s shoes, she could see how he might form that opinion.
“I guess,” she conceded. “But she’s really okay. She just means what she says when she says it. And she’s accustomed to being in charge and having people pay attention to her when she talks.”
“I hear her,” Duncan said with a mischievous smile. “But-”
J.J. grinned, “Yeah, I’m like that, too. That’s why we’re here.”
“So, J., who’s the man in your life these days?”
For moment she eyed him over the rim of the cup she had up to her lips. Taking her time to sip and swallow, she finally answered. “My, aren’t we forward? My father, if you must know.”
He laughed. “You know what I mean. You’ve gotten to be kind of cute in your old age. I know you must have the guys in LA at your feet.”
“Old age? Kind of cute? Gee, thanks for the compliments, Duncan. You’re sort of glamorous yourself over there, all older than me, while you’re talking. I don’t do the exclusive dating thing; I have friends. I have friends all over, male and female. In fact, one of my friends is going to meet me in Maryland when we go there next week, but he lives in Massachusetts. He goes to Brookfield in Gresham.”
“Brookfield? Really? I know some of the guys at Brookfield. Senior like me or a mere Junior, like you?”
She stopped sipping from the cup to rock her head at him. “Mere?”
It was Duncan’s turn to lean forward. “Underclassman to me, my dear. Bow down. Next year, it’ll be your turn to make the underlings grovel.”
She frowned at him in amused annoyance, but answered, “He’s a senior.”
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
“You ask an awful lot of questions, Duncan Sinclair. Just all in my business. I don’t even know why I’m answering you. His name is Teddy.”
“Baxter? As in Theodore Martin?”
“You know him?
“That’s my boy. Hell of an actor. He can sing, too, and he’s a lot of fun. He’s been here in the shop a few times. Came over for some weekend gigs and wowed the house. The last time, he even got hit on by a couple of people who asked him if he had a manager. I never asked him what came of that. He’s a great guy, though. Small world, J.”
“It really is.”
Again, it was interesting to hear about someone she knew from another person’s point of view. So, she hadn’t been off the mark about Teddy. Once again, a personal hunch had proven itself to be solid.
Duncan polished off the Danish he had ordered and swallowed the last of his drink. “He’s running a dress rehearsal tomorrow of a production he’s written and is directing for community theatre in Boston. He invited me over, and I’m going. Wanna come with me? I’m flying in and flying right out.”
Immediately intrigued by the notion, J.J. sat forward again. “For real? He didn’t say anything about that to me. He told me he was working on something and that he’d be in Boston until he went home for Thanksgiving, but he wasn’t specific about what it was he was working on, and I guess I didn’t ask. I couldn’t possibly go.”
She pondered it while she took another sip from the cup. “But if I did decide to go, I’d have to ‘creatively’ slip out to do it, and- nah, I couldn’t… although I’d very much like to see Teddy in action.”
“You mean you haven’t?”
“I know you are not trying to get twisted with the questions, Duncan.”
“I meant in action- acting. I don’t know where your twisted mind went.”
“Just checking. You never can tell with guys. You all tend to take the low road in conversations.”
“Whatever,” Duncan said with a grin. “Give it some thought, J. My father’s letting me use the plane. That’s my parents’ way of keeping tabs on me when they’re not around; I can use the plane and the car, but I have to have a pilot and driver take me so that they can report back to them about where they took me. Never mind what I did when I was where I went. Parents, who can figure them out? We have a two o’clock slot. See if Marnie wants to go. Let me know before noon, so I can let Oscar- he’s the pilot- know that he has extra passengers- fuel stuff, you understand.”
J.J. finished her drink, picked up Duncan’s coat from the unoccupied chair, and began to put it on. “I’d better get back. By now Aunt Pat’s probably realizing that I’ve been gone a suspiciously long time. She’ll start in on Marnie, Marnie will cave, and who knows what creek I’ll be up after that? I didn’t pack a paddle when I left home. If Aunt Pat breaks Marnie down, and she tells where I am, I’ll be locked down so hard and tight, I’ll be lucky to see daylight through the blinds. Then I won’t have to let you know if I’m going or not.”
Duncan paid and they started out of the restaurant.
“You know, I saw your mother this afternoon, J. She was getting off the elevator in the lobby when I was down there earlier. All that hair of hers, and she was wearing this really nice fur coat, a sable, a long one. Your mom’s a real good-looking woman, as far as older ladies go. You’ve got something to aspire to.”
“Fur?” J.J. thought to herself.
“Aspire to? I beg your pardon,” she said aloud. “Look, don’t let me catch you scoping out my mother, Duncan. ‘As far as older ladies go’, you have your nerve. Either a person looks good or they don’t. Age shouldn’t matter. You’re one to be judging someone.”
“You’re right, she does, and it doesn’t.” Duncan said as he held the door open for her. “But as far as scoping your mom out, I saw her- she’s hard to miss- and made note of her, but she’s not my type; I’m not really into tall women. Now, medium to short in height- brunette- that’s my speed. I’d try to holler at Marnie, but-”
“You’d get killed. Besides, she’s taken.”
“Just trust me, she is.”
At the first gust of cold air, J.J. pulled the hood up on her head. Then she checked her watch. “We need to hurry. I’m way overdue. ”
“Signed out, you say? How long ago?… She did? Yes, she’s always been fast; a track star in the Los Angeles school system and AAU material, I’m told. So, how long has she been gone from there?… Ummm, all right. Thank you.”
Pat hung up the telephone, shaking her head and talking to herself. “She’s fast all right, and slick. Damned little fleet-of-foot gadfly. Six distinct shades of her mother and her grandfather. Those two little harpies haven’t been back together a full day yet and already…”
She pressed the intercom button to summon Cordelia.
“Is Marnie here?” she asked when the woman appeared in the doorway. “Have you seen her?”
“Not since she said she was leaving to look for J.J.”
“It’s taking them a mighty long time to get back up here. I phoned the gym. The clerk said that J.J. signed out a while ago, and that Marnie had come down there looking for her, but that she had already gone. J.J. has not been in the library or up on the roof. She wouldn’t visit with anyone in the building without phoning to let me know where she is. It would be just like her to have slipped off and for Marnie to be covering for her. Marnie would keep her head low and stay out of sight to keep me from asking her anything about that other one.”
Pat rose from the chair. “I think I’ll pay a visit to the second floor. Just to make sure that nobody’s slipped her little tail back in and is hiding out up there.”
When she passed Cordelia, it was Cordelia who was shaking her head.
Jonathan woke with a start from his light slumber. Slightly disoriented and not quite sure of what had roused him, he was assured and comforted by the feel of Jennifer as she slept, spooned inside the curve of his body.
A discreet knock sounded at the door.
Realizing that was what had broken his sleep, he eased from the bed and pulled on the hotel robe draped over the footboard.
Mindful of not waking Jennifer, he kept his voice low as he spoke through the door. “Yes?”
“Room service, Mr. Hart.”
He bent to pick up the sable from the floor, draped it over the back of a nearby wingback chair, and then cracked the door open to address the waiter standing behind the white linen-covered serving cart.
“We didn’t order room service.”
“Compliments of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Spencer,” the young man said, handing him a small envelope. “May I?”
“I’ll take it,” Jonathan said, moving to take control of the cart.
He was glad that he did. When pushed it into the room, he found that Jennifer had awakened and was sitting up in the bed with the covers discreetly pulled up to conceal her body.
“Jonathan, you ordered that?”
“No, it seems we’ve been sent a gift.”
She got up and pulled on the other robe to join him at the table next to where he had pushed the cart and turned on the light. She checked out the cart while he opened the envelope.
Jennifer uncovered the trays which held assorted fruit, cheese, breads, butter, and other spreads. Lying on the ice inside the wine bucket was champagne and two flutes.
“My,” she said, holding the bottle up so that he could see it. “Dom Pérignon Rosé, 1995. A very nice gift. From whom?”
“The Spencers. They sent a note with it. Here, see what it says.”
He took the champagne and handed the note to her. While he worked at opening the bottle, she read the note aloud.
“To the inseparable Harts,
Sorry you couldn’t join us in the bar, but we understood. Instead, we thought we might send a little something up to your room.
You two are an inspiration to lovers everywhere. Enjoy.
Happy Holidays, Bruce and Mary Spencer”
“A little something?” Jonathan said as he set the glasses upright and poured the champagne. “This is more than a little something, but it was so nice of them to send all of this.”
“Oh, Jonathan, do you think they knew about me?”
The atypical insecure sound of Jennifer’s question drew his attention from the glasses he was filling. Embarrassment was again evident in the deep blush of Jennifer’s cheeks as her eyes skimmed the note a second time, and immediately his heart went out to her. Such a normally confident woman, secure in her sexuality but private about it; she reserved that part of her life for him alone. It would mortify her to have let someone else in on what was theirs.
He went to her with one of the glasses, wrapping his arm around her, and handing her the drink. “No darling, you were very discreet,” he said as he lightly kissed her forehead. “And very, very beautiful.”
“I really wasn’t expecting to run into anyone we knew. This was by no means meant to be public.”
“Jennifer, it wasn’t. And even if they did figure us out, they called us an inspiration. There are worse things to be, you know.”
She sighed as she lifted the glass to her lips. “I suppose. All I wanted was a quiet afternoon with the man I love. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m not too fond of the limelight either. Especially not when it comes to personal matters.”
She lifted the glass and knocked back the champagne as if it were a tankard of beer. Then she wrinkled her nose as the bubbles tickled at it.
Watching her involuntary reaction to the effervescence, he grinned. Champagne, even in small doses, tickled her nose- and eased any tension or reservations she might be experiencing. It had always been that way with her. He noticed it their first time out together in London, and all these years later, it was still like that and she was still as lovely.
Taking her hand, carrying the bottle in his other hand, he led her back to the bed. Then he went back for the cart, which he also wheeled over to the bed.
“I loved what you did for me,” he said as he refilled her glass and then sat down next to her. “I feel much better now.”
“I’m glad for that. That makes everything worthwhile.”
She drank from her glass, more slowly this time, then she slid her eyes over to him and smiled. “And for the record, I feel much better now, too. I always do when I know the people I care for are at peace.”
“Speaking of people you care for, did you find out anything more about Pat?”
She signed and bowed her head. “No, but there’s definitely something going on with her. I tried to ask her, but she shut me right down. She blew me completely off, so I left her alone about it.”
“So you’re quitting? That doesn’t sound like you.”
“Not quitting. I can’t quit knowing that something is bothering her. I just have to come at her another way, or I may end up having to wait her out. Pat is a lot like you, Jonathan.”
He knew that to be true, but he wanted to hear the analogy Jennifer had in mind. “Like me? How?”
“She thinks she rules the universe, or at least the part of it in which she exists. It’s important for her to feel invincible and in control, to be the protector rather than one who needs protecting. She really doesn’t understand how much it bothers other people when something is bothering her, so she resists allowing anyone to help her. In Pat’s mind, nobody is paying that much attention to her to notice when things aren’t right with her, when in reality, she’s such an important part of other people’s lives that her struggling with something would be all they notice.”
“So that’s like me.”
“It’s every bit you. And Pat. And J.J. Hart, to some extent- maybe even to a great extent.”
“Are those bad things?”
She polished off the second drink before answering. “They can be when you’re holding out, not sharing something that keeping it to yourself can harm you. It is when you keep people out who could help you with it if only you’d let them in. Its harmful when you try to handle everything on your own, and perhaps you don’t have the right equipment to fight the battle you’re trying to wage, but someone else does and you’re too stubborn and shortsighted to allow them to join in the fight.”
“That’s me, too?”
“Sometimes. And Pat. And J.J.”
He checked his watch. “We have a couple more hours before I need to get ready to leave. I’d like to spend them with you, helping me over my problems, my stubbornness, my shortsightedness.”
“You’re past your problems, Jonathan. Now you’re taking advantage of the situation. That, too, is one of the traits that you, Pat, and our daughter share.”
He took her glass from her hands and set it on the tray. Then he stood to remove his own robe before helping her stand and get out of hers.
“But you love all of us, Jennifer,” he said as he stood behind her, massaging her shoulders and feeling her body relax under his touch and the champagne’s effect. “Especially me. We’re an inspiration, remember?”
“There you go, Jonathan Hart, taking advantage again.”
He eased her toward the bed and gently pushed her onto it. “I’d never take advantage- at least not without good reason. All I ask is that people keep to their promises.”
“Slowly and sweetly the second time? Remember? I kept my end of the bargain with fast the first time.”
“So I noticed.” She chuckled as she accepted another filled glass of champagne from him. “But you put a lot into it. Say, are you trying to get me drunk?”
He climbed into the bed beside her. “With every fiber of my being. And then I’m going to live up to my apparently established reputation of taking advantage-” He leaned down to kiss her wine-flavored lips and run a hand through her tousled hair. “Because in this situation, I have a damned good reason.”
“Slowly and sweetly could take some time, Jonathan. And since you have a plane to catch and I have a child waiting for me and a best friend to work over, we don’t have a moment to waste.”
“Show me, don’t tell me.”
She handed him the empty glass and then rolled him onto his back.
“Don’t forget, J. If you’re going with me, call my cell and let me know before noon tomorrow. You’ve got the number.”
Entering the building through the same door from which they had left, J.J. gave Duncan back his coat and they parted company in the vestibule. She continued around to the elevator.
Inside the car, she took several deep breaths, concentrating on relaxing and assuming her normal casual persona. In the event that Aunt Pat called her into the study to ask why she had taken so long in the gym, it would be important to not send out any accidental signals that might trigger her godmother’s investigative streak. Aunt Pat was good at picking apart inconsistencies in a story. But as she was getting older and more sophisticated herself, she felt she was becoming better at weaving details and at deciding which ones weren’t necessary to the overall design of the story being told.
Like Daddy says, less is better when it comes to talking. Let the other person play their hand, then all you have to do is follow their lead or take advantage of any weaknesses in the strategy they’ve shown you they’re using.
Maybe I’m worrying for nothing. Maybe I really haven’t been gone long enough for her to think anything out of the way. She obviously has more on her mind than me.
Earlier, when they had spoken in the study, although Pat was putting up a good front, it was evident that there was something more going on with her. The quickness with which she hid that paper she had been looking at had not gone undetected. When they had been holding hands- rather when Pat had been holding her hand- the trouble she sensed in her godmother seemed to vibrate up her arm and neck as the message traveled to her brain. Marnie was right. Something was definitely wrong with her.
This might not be the best time to be pulling anything…
… but then some opportunities only come around once…
The thought of surprising Teddy was so delicious she could taste it. She was aware that he could sing, and he had shared with her his interest in theatre and live performance. But to see him in his element? And to have the means to quickly get there and get back?
It’s too good to pass up. No way. We’re going hook or crook.
But when the car arrived on her floor, and through the frosted glass she could see the figure of someone on the other side, standing with her hands on her hips, all of a sudden she wasn’t so sure about that.