Promises: Part Twelve

Part Twelve

Late Friday Afternoon….

Jennifer decided to give Pat’s cell number one last try. After the third unanswered ring, she snapped shut the phone, muttering, “Damn.”

Jonathan kept his eyes on the road. “So where to, darling? Your father’s or Pat and Bill’s?”

“For all I care at this point, we should say forget it and go check into a hotel. Simply drive off into the sunset, leave the girls to my father, Pat and Bill to their own machinations, and take ourselves out of this fiasco entirely. I’m sick of this. I don’t understand what Pat’s up to with this last thing, but she is making me extremely angry.”

“What? Giving up? Throwing in the towel? Running out of road in the middle of a mystery? Doesn’t sound like you.”

Jennifer lay her head back to massage the tense furrows formed between her eyebrows.

“Jonathan, I’m real close to being over all of this. For days now I’ve been patient. I’ve been supportive. I’ve tried to be understanding. All I wanted when I left home was for us to be here with my father for the holiday and to stand with our two good friends when they get married. Instead of a pleasant New York visit, and Thanksgiving week culminating in something beautiful, it’s been one weird, confounding, aggravating thing after another.

“Now the chapel is canceled without a word of explanation to anyone. Pat’s behavior and her absence are so damned inconsiderate on so many levels. At the very least, she must realize I’m well on my way to crazy with worry. I was agitated to the max when she and I last parted company. Did I tell you she passed out?”

“Passed out?”

“Yes, but only for a moment. I think her system shorted out when Bill showed up unannounced and at the estate, but by then she was already a wreck.” Jennifer shuddered and then thrust up her hands. “Why, oh why in the world won’t she at least pick up the telephone and talk to me after all this time?”

“Because, darling.”

“Because what?”

“Pat realizes she would have to speak with you.”

“That much is obvious, Jonathan, if she’s inputting my number.”

“I’m saying she either doesn’t have the answers you’d be seeking or she doesn’t want to answer the questions she anticipates you asking, at least not over the telephone, thus her continued silence toward you.”

“But how can she possibly think keeping silent is doing anything for my questions about canceling the chapel she’s supposed to be getting married in? Especially in light of everything else questionable about her.”

“Like I said, she expects an inquisition, so….”

Jennifer returned to her more reclined position and to massaging her forehead. “I’ll tell you this much, if Pat were to appear outside this window right now,” she rapped her knuckles two quick times against the closed window, “after I told her precisely what’s on my mind, the two of us would come to some pretty serious blows. We’d be rolling around on the frozen ground out there like two out of control schoolgirls.”

“Ooh, chick fight. Skirts hiked all up? Pulling hair?  So, who do you think would win?”

One eye peeped out at him from underneath her raised hand. “Leave it to you to go there. I’m wearing slacks, Jonathan. Since it’s the weekend, Pat likely is, too.”

“No sport in that.” He squeezed the hand resting on the console between them. “Either way, my money’s on the redhead.”

She snickered as she combed her fingers against his. “If it came to the two of us scrapping, the winner would be anybody’s bet, but should Pat happen to come out on top of the heap, I can tell you this much; the emergency room would get both of us. I mean it.”

Then she shrugged and sighed. “But seriously, darling, invitations have gone out. RSVP’s returned. People are already arrived in town and booked into hotels, or are due to arrive and do so. Marcia and a few others are due in this evening for casual cocktails. Everything is set, or was set. Now this out-of-the-blue, no explanation bump in the road. Does canceling the chapel mean the wedding is off? From what I can gather based on what I got from Elise, we don’t even know that much.

“I’m telling you, I could absolutely wring Patricia Rose’s neck.”

Jonathan smiled. “Sweetheart, you’d only make her mad. Pat’s way too tough and wiry. As many times as she’s stuck her neck out and people have taken aim only to come away with a dulled or destroyed axe, a mere wringing isn’t going to do much damage. All you’d be doing is ticking her off and then ticking yourself off when all you get for your effort is her being ticked off.”

“You’re probably right. You make me sick being right.”

Close to the crucial intersection, Jonathan slowed. “Okay, one more time. To your father’s or to Pat and Bill’s?”

“I like the idea of turning around completely and checking into a hotel, but I guess it better be to Pat and Bill’s. Elise sounded as if she were about to blow a gasket. Dora is likely going mad with the uncertainty, and Cordelia- well, you never can tell about Cordelia. On  the other hand, J.J. Hart can sniff out trouble like nobody else- except, of course, her father.”

“Thank you, darling.”

“That’s particularly true if I’m the one handling the trouble, and it’s somebody else’s business. It’s not as if my daughter doesn’t already harbor some inkling things aren’t right with her Aunt Pat, and I’ve been on the case. She’ll be knocking me down at the door, trying to get a line on what’s developed. Then we must also consider Marnie; she doesn’t need any more bad news. Until we get a better handle on things, I’d rather steer clear of those two, not to mention my father. He truly doesn’t need this kind of stress.”

They turned onto the road to Hamilton-McDowell Farms, both of them thinking a couple hours in a hotel room together would take the edge off some of the tension over their missing, oddly acting friends.

Jennifer sank farther into the seat, concentrating on compartmentalizing the maddening details of the day, to imagine the impossible-for-the-moment, gratifying what-ifs. In her steamy scenario, she envisioned she might even find out what happened to her missing undies.

Jonathan, for his part, diverted from the former line of thought, too, but in a direction different from his wife.  Another detail nagged and nipped at the heels of this thinking, his grandnephews’ departure from the lunch table. Even though Billy and Tom hadn’t acted as if anything were wrong, at the time something about how they left didn’t sit quite right with him.

Bill’s close relationship with his namesake oldest grandson, coupled with this most recent development with the chapel, made the young men’s actions odd altogether. Add to the mix the unique dynamics between those two brothers, it made for an intriguing equation, a puzzling formula with missing factors.

The chapel cancellation would not be big a deal in terms of Pat and Bill; their actual wedding ceremony was only meant to be attended by immediate family and friends. Diverting those guests would be easy once Pat made her alternative intentions known. But what happened to make her cancel the chapel venue in the first place?

What happened to cause Bill to agree to canceling the chapel? Jennifer said Pat didn’t seem hesitant about marriage. Bill hadn’t had any reservations the last time they talked. Had they changed their minds about getting married? If so, what led both of them to such a decision in a matter of a couple of days?

What would make the boys get up and leave the way they had? They were  young men, and this was the holiday weekend, but neither of them mentioned having any romantic or social interests in the area. After all, their grandfather was only getting established out east himself and what other than getting to females would draw two west coast males out into bitter east coast cold? The grandfather and his fiancée were missing, and the guys had taken off as if they had a definite place to be. Were they headed to Bill and Pat? And if so, for what reason? Or had they been summoned to come? And again, if so, by whom and why?

Those were the bigger questions, the heavier concerns. Perhaps, once he and Jennifer got back to the house the answers wouldn’t be long in coming. Even better, maybe the answers would be waiting for them to arrive.

Should things not work out, two cell phones would be ringing as soon as he got a moment alone to input the numbers.

_________________________________________________________

Early Friday evening….

Betsy hadn’t said anything, but J.J. knew it was coming. Then again, Betsy had one coming from her. Ms. Smythe and Uncle Benjamin, a hookup? Betsy let the cat out the bag at lunch.

Tit for tat now; a workable situation, for sure.

Bring it on, Bets.

She landed in a hay crib when she fell from the rail after being startled mid-kiss by Betsy calling out to her. The crib happened to be near full, which cushioned her landing. By the time Betsy made her way to their end of the stable, Teddy was helping her back to her feet.

Aside from injured pride, she hadn’t been hurt in the fall, but of course, she wound up covered with the stuff, and Teddy in his effort to pull her out, got a lot on him, too. The situation she walked into couldn’t have looked good to Betsy, both of them brushing hay from their clothes after being found as far away from the front door as possible. Seemed she and Teddy were always getting busted at something, even if it wasn’t much of anything to get busted over.

Like they had the other times, they played it cool. Betsy hadn’t acted as if she noticed anything amiss, yet in no way did J.J. think her cousin didn’t harbor suspicions of something being up, and that she hadn’t temporarily front-filed those thoughts. For sure, Bets would be reaching into the drawer to snatch the folder back out for review, and she wouldn’t be waiting all day.

But by that time….

After showing Betsy the three horses, they all left the stable. Teddy went crazy over the old, but pristine Thunderbird parked right outside. He took off from them to examine the car up close.

“Dang! A ’65 convertible! Aw man, this is cherry!”

He first snatched open the driver’s side door to look inside, then he backed out and peeked over the hood. “And all the original fittings, too! This has to be your grandfather’s car, J. He’s had it all this time?”

She laughed at his excitement over an old car. Boys….

“Yes, it’s a one owner vehicle.”

“Told you the man was a class act,” Teddy called out before he ducked back inside.

Her grandfather and his car, such well-maintained classics they drew immediate notice. Teddy’s recognition of that quality said a lot to J.J. about him.

Teddy begged to drive back to the house, but Betsy wouldn’t let him, asserting since she checked the car out, she would be the one to check the car back it in. J.J. didn’t blame her. The subject hadn’t ever come up, but she figured her grandfather would expect his car to come back with the person to whom he’d lent it. Besides, Betsy was Pa’s cousin; he’d only just met Teddy. Teddy mastered one hurdle one unscathed. No sense in pushing things.

They found the four older adults talking together in the front room once they made it back to the house, a scene J.J. found somewhat disappointing. Teddy made his greeting to the ladies in Pa’s living room, which negated her built-in reason for going out to the guest house and taking a quick look around. A Plan B now needed to be drawn up.  But would she have time to implement said plan?

Betsy opted to remain up front with the other adults while she and Teddy continued around to the solarium. Halfway down the long hall leading to the back of the house, Teddy stopped.

“Hold on, J. Wait a minute.” He used her shoulder to turn her around to face him. “For real, are you sure you’re okay? You aren’t pretending to be all right just to keep your cousin off the scent?”

“I’m fine. And Bets isn’t off the scent. She didn’t want to say anything in front of you.”

“We weren’t doing anything for her to have to say anything.”

“You and I know that, but I think all the hay on our clothes transmitted something else entirely to her. Don’t worry; I can handle her.”

“I’m not worried about Betsy. I want to be sure you’re okay. Your getting hurt again while in my company would make me real paranoid, like maybe we were jinxed or something.”

Or something, J.J. thought to herself. Or somebody, maybe…

Teddy wasn’t totally convinced. “I told you I was already having flashbacks about that other time.”

“And, I told you I’m sort of accident-prone. The good thing is I’m pretty resilient, too.”

“It scared me to see you go over like that, before I could catch you.”

“Teddy, I’m fine. I’m made of pretty good stuff.”

Her imagination seemed to playing tricks on her; Teddy’s face seemed closer to hers than it needed to be. Imagination or not, her stomach flipped with the deliciously titillating rush.

“Speaking of being made of good stuff, J.J. Hart, you still owe me half a kiss.”

Despite the mad fluttering in her midsection, or maybe spurred on by it, she volleyed his challenge. “Well, you still owe me the other half.”

He winked. “Rain check?”

She winked. “For sure.”

Way too warm, the wrong kind of warm, she wriggled her arms from his grasp. “We’d better get out of this hall before somebody else rolls up on us and gets the wrong idea.”

Worse case scenario would be if that wrong person turned out to be Walter. With all the twists and turns and nooks and crannies at Briarwood, and his intimate knowledge of each and every one of them, who could tell what corner Walter might be peeking around as he kept his ever-vigilant, silent eye on Stephen Edwards’ grandchild and her well-being. She didn’t consider Walter a spy in a negative sense, but his close relationship with her grandfather placed the man more securely in the Edwards’ camp than in hers.

But then again, hadn’t Walter once been a spy? Sort of? A real one?

With those concerns and questions clicking like Morse Code in her mind, J.J. quickened her step, pulling Teddy along with her toward the solarium doors.

Inside, Shane slouch on the couch with a controller in his hands, his eyes riveted to the video game playing through the television. Marnie knelt next to him, faced backward as she watched Duncan and Finn hard at work on the dollhouse. Finn lie along the far side of the structure while Duncan worked on his knees at the back. Light brown patches of smoothed, exposed wood replaced areas of flaking paint that earlier pockmarked much of the exterior. Next to Duncan lie short bits of angled wood arranged in groups of squares. It took J.J. a moment to realize he had removed and cataloged the moldings from the doors and windows.

From those details and from the serious, intense expression on Duncan’s face, she surmised the boy was going all out on the project he’d undertaken- or overtaken.

They stepped through the door, and Marnie jumped up from the couch to greet them.

“Teddy! J. said you were here, but you had gone in to talk to her grandfather. I  wondered if you would get back here in one piece.”

Teddy accepted her quick hug. “Nah, nothing bad happened. We had a pleasant chat. Mr. Edwards is okay. He just wanted to get acquainted with me. I like him; I kinda think he even likes me.”

“I should have known you’d be all right with him. You do real well with adults and making impressions on them.”

Marnie turned to J.J. “Where did you go? They came in here looking for you; I mean your grandfather and the others did. I told them-” Marnie cocked her head to one side as her narrowed eyes flitted between Teddy and J.J.,  down to the boots J.J. had on now but hadn’t been wearing earlier, back to Teddy, and up to J.J. again. “Say-y-y-y-y, where have you guys been for so long?”

J.J. disregarded the question. She pulled Teddy past Marnie to find out if he, Shane, and Finn had been introduced. All the while, Marnie’s accusing stare stabbed at the back of her head.

But Marnie and her questions had already been added to the “Deal With Later” list- right behind Betsy and her anticipated suspicions.

Right behind the Duchess who held that doggoned memory card she hadn’t said anything about it.

And all of them behind Suzanne Roussel Edwards, who clearer than ever to J.J. had her ethereal hand in everything concerning her “Zhoos-steen” and keeping her honest.

_________________________________________________________

They hadn’t been in the room long, but the knowing-not knowing made things a lot more unbearable. Tom was up, out of his chair and into another bout of restless pacing.

“I cannot believe this. What else can happen?”

Billy, seated, leaned forward with his elbows pressed into his thighs, said nothing. The tented fingertips he tapped against his chin combined with his silence only heightened Tom’s anxiety. Between the two of them, Billy usually played the part of easy-going ‘answer man’, but the answers coming from him in this instance had been few and far less than satisfying.

“I guess we should- So, like, when are we even going to let the others in, Billy? What if it takes all-” Tom stopped in the middle of the room and whipped around to his brother. “What am I saying? Nobody even knows we’re gone from Maryland!”

Billy sat up, smoothing his palms back and forth over his trousers as if drying them. Tom tensed even further.

“If that’s what things come to,” Billy finally said. “We’ll call back to Pop’s and say we won’t be in until morning. We’re not kids. As long as we check in, and Mom thinks we’re okay, she won’t kick. If she’s all right, then Dad will be, too. Shane and Finn are into the girls, so they won’t be getting wise and calling us to ask questions either.”

Tom returned to the chair he’d vacated and dropped back into it. “I’m not sure about this, dude. What about Aunt Jennifer? No, worse than her, what about Uncle Jonathan? He’s no joke, man. He’s a hard one to get something past. He’s got to be thinking things, putting the pieces together.”

Billy lay a firm hand on Tom’s forearm and locked eyes with him.

“He doesn’t have a clue what the whole picture is, can’t possibly, so whatever pieces he might be working with, if he’s working with anything at all at this point, he has no idea how they fit together or what they’re supposed to add up to. And I’m sure with the call I made, right about now his mind is tied up with other things.”

“I don’t know, man. You might have gotten Aunt Jennifer with that call, but this is Uncle Jonathan we’re talking about. He didn’t get where he is by only focusing on one thing at a time.”

Despite his younger brother’s skepticism, Billy left off debating the matter. “Look, all I’m doing is what I’ve been instructed to do.”

“Well, nobody said nothin’ directly to me about what to do.”

“I said something directly to you.”

Billy released Tom’s arm and sat back again, shaking his head. “Talk about some bad timing. For this to happen on top of everything else. This has been the longest, weirdest weekend I’ve ever lived through. And for us to get implicated in it like this.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. If things don’t work out- or maybe even if they do- regardless, we’re going to catch hell all the way around for not letting anybody in on it right away.”

Billy slid down in the chair until his head fully rested on tufted seatback. He crossed his arms and folded one leg over the other. “The promise was made, Tom. If it comes to that, there won’t be anything to do except work with what happens. We’re here for them, and you and I are doing whatever they say to do, however they say to do, however they want things done.”

Tom got up, fidgeted a moment or two, jangling the keys and things in his pockets as if he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, what he believed, or where he wanted to go.  After a few moments, with a heavy sigh, he went back to working that trench into the carpet.

_________________________________________________________

Back at Pat and Bill’s, Jonathan decided to ride shotgun while Jennifer took firm hold of the reins. As always he found it fascinating how Jennifer’s natural grace and unassuming manner camouflaged the steely determination and grit at her core. Pat had the larger reputation for being outspoken and driven, and for being the ultimate planner and organizer, but over the years in her roles as writer, corporate wife, mother, and most importantly his life partner, he’d learned Jennifer was no slouch in those areas either.

She started with Lisa and Elise Lawton, who met them at the front door when they arrived. Lisa, Jennifer sent to the den with the promise of joining her there shortly. Then she turned to Elise.

As the primary wedding coordinator, Elise had been there since daybreak. Through it all, she’d been the paragon of calm, an uncompromising, but genteel figure of dogged orderliness. The cancellation of the wedding chapel had clearly been for her a startling, baffling erasure in the carefully crafted, closely followed blueprints. When Jennifer learned from her that both the house and the tents were fully prepared and all the flowers and trimmings delivered for the wedding had actually been ordered sent to the main tent out back to be set up as they would have been at the chapel, she arranged to have Elise taken to her hotel to rest up for the main event, assuring her they, along with Peter and Lisa, would oversee that last minute setup happening as requested.

Requested by whom, exactly?

The question popped into Jonathan’s mind, melding right into the animated loop with the others.

From there Jennifer went to Dora, still camped out in Pat’s office. With the mountain of mail neatly stacked on the desk, Dora was busy scrolling through a long list of email messages on the computer monitor and talking on the phone while two more lines blinked begged in bright red for her attention. As soon as Dora ended the call she was on, before she could click over to one of the others, Jennifer took the receiver from her hand and told her to allow the waiting lines to go to voice mail.

Dora’s mouth fell open as Jennifer reached past her other arm for the mouse, clicked shut the email account, and set the computer on standby.

“Jennifer, what-”

“Enough of this.”

Jennifer stood upright again, looming over Dora. “You’ve been closed up in here all day. You even took your lunch in here. I want you to go upstairs and rest until dinner. Gerald will be here by then. Your husband won’t appreciate your being all worn out when he’s traveled all that way to be with you.”

But, what about-”

Jennifer took hold of Dora’s arm to bring her up from the chair. “You heard what I said. Come on.”

“But Jennifer, Pat will have a fit if-”

“Pat won’t have anything that will concern you. If she does take issue with anything, she will have to come through me, and I can wholeheartedly assure you that won’t be happening. You’ve done your part. Those calls and those emails will continue to queue until someone can get back to them. That snail-mail certainly isn’t going anywhere. Tomorrow there will be more arriving, so what’s the hurry in doing anything more with what’s here tonight?”

She escorted Dora to the door of the room. “Please, do as I say. Go on up for a while and enjoy a little time for yourself.”

It took Dora a few more moments to fully give in to the order. On her way up the hall, she took two or three backward glances at them as if assuring herself she was doing the right thing.

Jennifer merely smiled and waved her on.

“You are amazing,” Jonathan whispered next to her ear. “You never cease to impress me with how you can get anybody to do anything.”

“It was too tense in here. In the event Pat does happen to show up soon, or even if she doesn’t, for everyone’s sake, there needs to be a considerable measure of calm maintained.” Speaking in a lowered tone, Jennifer continued to watch Dora until she started up the staircase. “I don’t want Pat to have to deal with anybody’s drama- except mine, for which I’ll be making sure she’s front row, center, and that she remains seated for the entire performance.”

He smiled and hoped in his heart he was around to bear witness if it went down like that. Pat wasn’t all that predictable, and Jennifer was beyond sexy when she was angry.

With Elise and Dora taken care of, Jennifer said she needed to find Sarah to check on dinner and the arrangements for cocktails later that evening, and then she still had to check with Lisa to see what else might have come down the pike while they were out that afternoon.

That was when it occurred to him. With the change in setup plans, he had details of his own he needed to make sure remained lined up. Not to mention there were still a couple of phones in need of his call.

“You go ahead and see Sarah and Lisa,” he said before lightly kissing Jennifer’s cheek. “I’ll head out back and make sure the chapel things get set up when they arrive.”

Before he could walk away, Jennifer grasped his sleeve to hold him in place.

“Jonathan, there won’t be much time for us to talk again before this evening is over. I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed this afternoon. I wish it could have lasted longer.” Cradling his face with her palms she pressed her lips to his. “Thank you for a very nice afternoon. I miss you. I’ll be glad when all of this is behind us, and we can get back to being us again.”

“Me, too.”

If only, he thought, she knew how much. And how badly.

He gazed in admiration as she walked away, thinking how fortunate he’d been to have such a tenacious, ingenious woman want to finagle her way into his life that afternoon in London. From the outside, to anyone other than Max, it had to have looked like the odds were stacked against them on their wedding day way back then, yet there they were, still together in so many senses of the word. She said she loved him, and he felt it. There was no doubt his love for her was without limit.

There was that darling girl between them as living proof of it….

And just what the hell is she up to? When Daddy’s away, the kitten has a tendency to get into things….

Wonder what she’s doing for that cold?

Can’t be everywhere, Jonathan. You’ll have to trust her….

How happy he would be when everyone was where they should be, when everything was as it should be, and it was all said and done.

______________________________________________________________

J.J. mulled things over as she cleaned up and changed into an appropriate outfit for dinner with her grandfather and their guests.

By the time Walter came into the solarium to let them know it was time for them to stop and get ready, everyone had joined in on working on the dollhouse. Even Shane put the game controller down to help Finn with applying the primer to the four sides while Marnie assisted Duncan with touching up and detailing the pieces of molding he had removed.

She and Teddy worked together at the table, polishing the miniature furniture, sanding and dotting paint and varnish, then setting the pieces up to dry. When Walter came in, everyone was so into what they were doing that he actually startled them.

As she crossed the bedroom from the closet, J.J.’s mind turned to the dollhouse which had become for her a multidimensional fascination of growing proportions. It was not only a tangible piece of family history, part of her mother’s intriguing put-away past, but out in the open once more, it was bringing people together who might not otherwise have gotten as close. It coaxed to the forefront details about people that might otherwise have remained undisclosed, and it also seemed to be revealing talents and abilities that she never knew she or any of the others had.

Particularly Marnie.

Granted, Duncan being so close to her, half naked in that undershirt, and his holding her hand in his to show her exactly how to apply the paint so that it wouldn’t leave brush strokes or get on her clothing was probably a huge incentive for that girl, but Marnie genuinely seemed to have gotten into the actual technicalities of what she was doing. They were only small straight bits of wood, but Marnie worked on the moldings with a focus and dedication she didn’t devote to much else other than her appearance, some business transaction she was working on, or the garçon du jour she was working on.

Also, it wasn’t until Duncan mentioned highlighting them with a shade of beige, and after she looked closely for herself, that she noticed the brier rose carvings in each tiny piece.

Simply beautiful.

Just like those doors upstairs. And in the room above the guest house. And subtly tucked in all around the house.

Speaking of beautiful… well maybe appealing…

Teddy.

As they worked down in the solarium, he talked, asking her about her friends at home, about school. Telling her of his senior project in Boston. He spoke with an enthusiasm and understanding she wouldn’t have expected in a boy his age of the plays he’d seen and enjoyed on Broadway, of the local sets he’d worked on around Boston, and of the things he still wanted to see and do in the world. Duncan interjected here and there with questions and with comments about awards Teddy had earned and about the attention he was garnering from the media powers that be.

Seemed a lot of people had things they were keeping on the low.

Teddy never mentioned winning awards for his work, but then again, she hadn’t harped on those she’d earned either; she and Teddy didn’t really talk a whole lot about those kinds of things. At least not before that afternoon. And then he did most of the talking. Compared with Teddy and Duncan, she didn’t feel she had that much to say. All she did was go to school, run track, and do things around LA that weren’t all that extraordinary or outstanding, not up against Teddy who was already making a name for himself. Or Duncan, who already was an entrepreneur with his own businesses and an artist with his own galleries. And neither of them were out of their teens yet.

Not to mention her might-as-well-be- cousins.

Finn and Shane were likely going right into some leadership positions within McDowell Aviation. They both currently worked there, had their pilot licenses, and flew regularly. But then, if your last name was McDowell, a pilot’s license was like a regular kid getting a driver’s license, a rite of passage or coming of age of sorts.

And speaking of McDowell.

Where were they? The senior McDowells, had they made it into Maryland yet? She checked her watch and figured they should have. More than enough time had passed.

Aunt Pat…

All of her life her Aunt Pat had been Patricia Rose Hamilton. Would she change her name once she got married? It would be kind of strange for Pat Hamilton to become someone else at this stage of the game.

I’ll have to ask her when I see her.

Maybe she’ll change it for private, but keep Hamilton for professional purposes.

That seemed the most likely avenue for the owner of Hamilton House Publishing.

Aunt Pat built Hamilton House up from nothing, on her own, while she was in her twenties… a few years older than she currently was.

Jonathan Hart built Hart Industries up from one technology company he started when he, too, was very young.

What would she, Justine Hart, do with her life? Where was she headed? Where would she end up? What legacy would she leave? Some Hart grandchildren? For sure. But with whom? When? Married to him or not? Kid first, then marriage? Kid, no marriage?

How in the world did I get to this line of thought? Jeez, in a shot my mind can go off in so many different directions.

Makes me dizzy.

After tucking in her blouse, she sat on the side of the bed to give her head a moment to stop spinning and to pull on a pair of knee high stockings. Her mother thought knee-highs under a skirt of any length tacky, but in her book, panty hose under a floor length skirt was a complete sacrifice of comfort and just way too much trouble. Left to her own devices, she would have gone without either, but stockings of some kind were requisite at her grandfather’s dinner table at this time of year; bare legs and feet in winter didn’t cut it, so knee highs it would be. And it wasn’t like the skirt, the blouse or the stockings were going to be on all that long. Right after dessert she’d be hopping right back into those jeans and that tee shirt over there on the chair.

The thought of the chair, in spite of her efforts to turn those kinds of things off, flipped her mind to the image of her mother sitting there on the night before and to the things her mother said to her. About how she should conduct herself with Teddy in her mother’s absence.

Wonder if she would understand about that kiss in the stable?

She probably wouldn’t be all that mad about the kiss, but I don’t think she would like it that I was way on the back end of the stable doing that.

But then who was up in the loft with her man, doing even worse? Hmmph! So what could she possibly say to me about one little-

The door flung open and just as quickly closed behind Betsy who wasted no time hustling over to the chair and moving the jeans and tee shirt to the arm of it so she could sit.

“Justine Hart, don’t think I was fooled in the least by that innocent act you and your charismatic little beau were trying to perform for my benefit out in that stable.”

J.J. continued to smooth a knee-high up her calf. She slipped her feet, one at a casually slow time after another, into silver ballerina-type slippers before she looked up to address her cousin.

“He’s not my beau. But what I did think, Elizabeth Rebecca Bach, was the first chance you got, you’d be up here asking me about it.”

“Then what where you two doing that wound up in both of you being covered in straw by the time I got back there?”

“We weren’t covered in straw; I was. You startled me when you came in and called me. I fell off the railing into the hay crib. By the time you got back there, Teddy was helping me out of where it was your fault I ended up. That’s how Teddy got straw on him.”

“So, what were you so into that I startled you enough to make you fall?”

Now in the mirror brushing her hair, J.J. used the glass to see Betsy. The woman’s skepticism of the story being told was beyond evident, but that only fanned the flames of J.J.’s resolve on the matter. Being the youngest in the family had its drawbacks, and being a girl certainly didn’t make things any easier, but all of them, despite their loving concern, would have to understand she was no longer a baby and thus, had private business of her own.

“We were working on something for tomorrow and when you came in, you caught me off guard. Like I said, you startled me, and I fell.”

“Working on what?”

J.J. sighed, mostly to give herself time, but also to check her tone and choose her words.

“Bets, I’m a big girl and, for the moment anyway, I’m a good girl. You really don’t have to worry about me.”

Then her lungs momentarily seized when Betsy pushed up from the chair and started in her direction.

“Give me the brush, J.”

With Betsy close enough for J.J. to feel her breath on the side of her neck, J.J. hesitated to hand the requested item to her cousin. “You aren’t gonna hit me with it, are you?”

Betsy removed the brush from her hand.

“I’ve never used one on you before, even though God and I both know there were times when I probably should have tagged your fanny with it. Don’t be silly. You’re bigger- well taller- than me now, so at this juncture, what would I look like trying to hit you?”

Betsy did, however, take quick hold of her wrist, telling J.J.,  “Come on over here.”

She led J.J. back to the chair where she made her sit on the hassock while she returned to her former seat. Betsy used J.J.’s shoulders to turn her around.

“You always did have too much hair, J.,” Betsy began to brush, then loosely braid the long, thick waves.

“You’re no slouch in that department yourself, Bets.”

“Nobody, not even Jen, has as much as you.”

“If it were left solely up to me, I’d have a whole lot less. Blame Pa and my Daddy and their fixation on long hair.”

“Judging from the pictures, I’d say the blame, if you will, lies more so with your grandmother. You seem to have taken hair after her and your Aunt Sabrina. But seriously J., getting back to where we were, I’m not trying to butt into your business. Being with young girls all the time as I am, I swear sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that I was sixteen myself. I’m going to tell you what someone wiser and more experienced once told me. You are a big girl, and you are a good girl, but sometimes good girls who think they have a handle on things put themselves in places and positions that can jeopardize both those attributes. Teddy is very handsome and personable. You are very pretty and personable. You’re both very young, and with youth comes varying levels of naivety along with a healthy dose of impulsivity. Don’t close up too tightly with a boy, especially one you like and he likes you. Things have a way of taking off on kids like the two of you, even if that might not have been your initial intention.”

For a few moments, J.J. didn’t say anything. Then she leaned back enough to look up into Betsy’s face. “That same wiser and more experienced person has told me the same thing, but thanks for reminding me.”

Betsy smoothed the hair around the face she was looking down into. “We’re pretty lucky to have her, aren’t we?”

J.J. nodded. “Yeah. But look here, I have a question for you.”

“What?”

“When were you planning to tell me about your father and Ms. Smythe?”

When Betsy started to laugh, J.J. sat up and turned all the way around. “It isn’t funny. My heart almost stopped at the lunch table when I realized what you and Pa were talking about. I would never have held out on you like that.”

“Yes, you would have, you little liar,” Betsy said when she could catch her breath. “It’s in your nature to keep things like that to yourself. But I promise you, I didn’t realize you didn’t know until I saw you change colors. I thought you were going to choke on your food.”

“I almost did. Quit laughing, I said. It’s not funny.”

“I can’t help it. You’re good with keeping your reactions under wraps, but girl, if you could have seen that huge ‘what the heck?’ thought bubble that popped up over your head.”

“What the heck” wasn’t quite what she’d been thinking at that moment, but J.J. found herself grinning, too. “So how long has this been going on?”

“Father has known her for some time. Since back when I was a student at Gresham Hall, but I don’t know exactly when they became an- an item, as they say.”

“So, you’re okay with it?”

“Sure, why not? They could both use the company in their declining years. Now that my father’s taken up with her, I don’t worry about him so much when I’m away, and he’s at the house by himself. Being semi-retired now, it’s reassuring to me to know he’s got somebody to talk with, to keep him company, even if it is mostly by telephone.”

“That’s very generous of you.”

J.J. got up and returned to the mirror for a final check of her face, clothes and her hair. “I’d have a real hard time with that, myself.”

“Even if you were grown and not living at home, your mother was gone, and your father was old and lonely?”

“Even if.”

“But why? I think Ms. Smythe is very nice. Father certainly enjoys her.”

“I think she’s nice, too. I spent a few days with her last summer. It’s great she and your father have hooked up.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m very glad for Uncle Benjamin and Ms. Smythe, but if it were my father and something happened to take my mother out of our lives, even if he was old and lonely, I’m pretty sure I’d still have issues with the new lady. Call me selfish; I just know it is what it is, and I am what I am. I’d be real hard to live with in that scenario.”

Betsy left the chair and came up beside her. Their reflected eyes met when Betsy wrapped an arm around J.J.’s waist.

“Somehow, J., put in your place with that situation, talking about those two people, I’d probably feel the same way. Heck, in my place, I’d probably feel the same way about Jonathan Hart’s proposed new lady. Jen and Jonathan were made for each other. I can’t even picture him, or her for that matter, with anybody else.”

“That’s what I’m talking about.” J.J. said with a single nod to Betsy’s reflection. “When it’s right, it’s meant to stay that way forever. They’re my parents, but I can step out of the box and be objective about them and their relationship. No interlopers of any kind will be tolerated. Think I need to put on a little makeup?”

“No, you and those cute freckles are just fine. You have youth, your mother’s, and your grandmother’s genes on your side; no further adornment necessary. How’s your cold?”

J.J. pinched at both cheeks and then smoothed out the stimulated color. “What cold?”

“Okay, smarty-pants, I get it. I’ll leave you alone about that. Teddy’s going to love you in that outfit.”

J.J. bumped her hip against Betsy’s side. “Better him liking me in it than out of it, huh Bets?”

Catching her meaning right away, Betsy pushed J.J. off. “Come on here, girl. They’re probably waiting the seating for us in all this time. And just so I don’t have to say it to you two later, you and Teddy keep yourselves out of the stable for the rest of the evening. In fact, you keep yourself inside this house. That way, I won’t have to worry about your snotty cold or about who or what’s in or out.”

Quick as always, J.J. picked up on what Betsy said, flipped it, and couldn’t catch the giggle before it managed to escape. “Jeez, Bets.”

Betsy, realizing her gaffe, stuttered through her own embarrassed laughter, “Y- y- you know what I meant.”

Bent by side cramps, both of them tickled to tears, they leaned into each other.

“You are crazy, Bets. We really have to get together more often.”

“You’re the crazy one, J.J. Hart. Quick-witted and closet hot.”

“Great, hot minds think alike. It’s probably why we get along so well.”

“I can see I’m going to have to keep you and that mind of yours in my sights.”

When they were composed enough to wipe away the tears, they checked their flushed faces in the mirror. Betsy fluffed out the end of J.J.’s braid and ran her fingers through her own hair before locking arms with J.J. and leading them out of the bedroom door.

_________________________________________________________

Stephen used the excuse of needing to change into a fresh shirt and cardigan in preparation for dinner to retreat to his bedroom. The company and conversation on the first floor were well enjoyed, but he needed a few moments alone with his thoughts. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have required such a deliberate effort on his part, but things at present were not the norm.

Not that he was making complaint on it. In fact, other than a nagging undercurrent of anxiety connected to Patricia, it wasn’t a bad thing at all. The problem, if it could be called one, was the swiftness such radical change had come for him.

After decades spent denying Briarwood’s quiet pull, he’d finally ceased his travels to come home to stay, to fully give in to the estate as the personal refuge it had once been to him. In retiring from public life, over the years the house and the grounds had evolved into his sanctuary, albeit an isolated and at times a subtly disconcerting one, even for a man of his stoic, more removed sensibilities. Some things would not be silenced, no matter how hard one tried to ignore them or to drown them out.

He smoothed his tie down into the buttoned sweater, smiled at his own reflection and to that other one smiling in his head.

Should have known. Should have recognized it for what it was. Should have listened more carefully.

Could have saved myself so much…

…..if only I hadn’t been so stubborn.

Never could tune you out or shut you down.

Over the past two years, silence and seclusion had gradually given way to something more interesting, much more lively and engaging. It took him a while to realize it had a lot to do with his granddaughter, who was definitely coming into her own. That smoldering something flamed full force after the candid talk he had with his own daughter that past summer where the two of them hashed out some lingering unfinished business between them. He’d since wholly given in to it. The resulting sharp contrast between what used to be with the present came to him as a welcome jump start, waking him to the realization of just how depressed he had been about a great many things and for such a long time. In retrospect, it felt like eons.

Prior to that most private revelation, any attempt at convincing him he suffered from something like depression would have met denial, argument, and full resistance to any attempt at intervention. After all, one could not contemplate repair to what one did not believe required a fix.

But the man looking back at him in the mirror these days was someone he hadn’t seen in a very long time. The light in the eyes, the color in the normally more sallow jowls, not to mention the pronounced absence of heaviness on his spirit, and on his under-performing heart.

Did he really need the blasted pacemaker?

The lack of hair had not improved; however, but one could not have everything. In exchange, he happily accepted the renewed spring in his step, which got regular exercise on his near-daily trips to the guest house.

Agnes and Belinda.

Belinda and Benjamin. She kind, quiet, and self-effacing; Benjamin charming, jovial, and very much enamored of her. They were good for each other.

Agnes. Attractive and interesting as a girl, she remained so as an older woman. Always petite in stature, but huge in intellect and character. She had been good to him over the years, patient and more than kind. He owed her far more than he could ever repay, but he could give her no more than he had: a home for life, good conversation, an attentive ear, a loyal, eternally grateful friend.  But friends they had always been. It was all they could ever be.

His heart belonged to only one woman, but three others resided inside. And two of them were pulling hard on the strings. According to Walter, Jennifer had phoned to absent herself and her husband from dinner. Patricia- or Bill- had yet to return the message both of them surely could see and hear in the queue. A truly strange and worrying situation. Why had Jennifer not phoned him directly?

Because she is ducking you. Why have you not phoned her?

Perhaps because I do not want to know the answers to my questions.  Perhaps I fear the answer to my questions. Perhaps I fear what might not be.

        Or might be?

Perhaps….

He went into his bathroom, ran cold water onto a washcloth and wiped his face, taking time to smooth the wiry eyebrows into temporary submission. Then he opened the door to the room on the other side.

He didn’t cross the threshold, but from the doorway, he inhaled, drawing air from that room deep down into his lungs. He held it, allowing his chest to fill before slowly releasing it as he eased the door back shut and then returned to his own room.  Checking his appearance one more time, he headed downstairs to the parlor where everyone gathered before being called to the table. It would be interesting, surely entertaining, to be surrounded by so many young people; young Theodore and Sinclair, Bill’s sons, Marnie, and of course, his Justine, not to mention Agnes, Belinda, Benjamin, and Elizabeth. Hopefully interacting with them for a time would divert his attentions from the missing two- and Jonathan- for a while anyway. Maybe by the time dinner was over, he would have heard from one or both of them. Or Jonathan.

In the parlor he found Marnie seated on the couch surrounded by all the boys much like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.  All save for Sinclair who stood off to himself gazing out of the window. Marnie and one of the Bill’s boys were playing a card game while Theodore and Bill’s other son looked on. To his gratification, the other older adults were there with them. The times might be modern, but in his world, it wasn’t proper for a young girl to be in a room full of boys without benefit of chaperone. Finding Marnie in the solarium earlier alone with all the boys had not set well with him. Apparently Agnes picked up on that and made sure it did not happen again; she said as much via the reassuring glance and nod she gave him when he entered the room.

For a moment Justine’s absence bothered him. She was well aware of when she was supposed to be downstairs and how much meal delays annoyed him, but then he noticed Elizabeth was also absent from the room. Before he could ask about them, he heard footfalls in the hallway. Elizabeth entered first, talking of course.

“Ooh, sorry, Father. Uncle Stephen. I hope we haven’t kept you all waiting.”

That flicker of agitation snuffed itself when his granddaughter appeared in the doorway. In a ruffled grey silk blouse, floor length navy blue skirt, that thick twisted rope of hair over one shoulder, diamonds twinkling at her ears and neck; all eyes went to her. In her evening wear, Justine was always so different, so much softer.

Just as….

Pride welled in his chest as she came to him and kissed his cheek.  “I’m sorry we’re late getting down here, Pa. Betsy and I were talking and lost track of time.”

And just as charmingly tardy….

Walter stepped in to announce the meal ready to be served.

Stephen watched as without a word spoken between them, Theodore approached Justine, held out his arm, and she took it. He barely felt it when Agnes nudged him and then hooked her arm in his as they all left the parlor, following Justine and her guests. The two of them bringing up the rear of the group, Agnes deliberately slowed, forcing him to lean down to her.

“You have done well,” she whispered. “And you have been duly rewarded for your dedication. Justine is a very talented, well-mannered, and lovely girl- even more so in her dinner attire.”

“Mark my words, our Justine will be back in those jeans and that horsetail as soon as she can properly arrange it.”

“Either way, Stephen, she is your real blessing. Of this, you can rest assured.”

He smiled and patted the small, weathered hand resting on his forearm.

Truly the mistakes of past were no longer things to fear and regret. Released from its confines and allowed to breathe and to speak its mind, the past only made one wiser, stronger, and thus better equipped to engage in, deal with, and appreciate the ever-developing, evolving present. All one had to do was keep breathing.

______________________________________________________________

Friday Evening…..

Oh, my….

How much longer? Guess I shouldn’t complain….

Just be still. Let go, and let….

Drifting back in from another defeat to sleep, she immediately sensed she wasn’t alone. Well, she hadn’t been alone before she dozed off; they’d insisted upon it, but now she was certain there were more than the two of them in the room. Not wishing to alert anyone to her return to the here and now and possibly being made to speak, seeking only to check her surroundings, she eased her eyelids apart just enough to make out the seated young male at her side.

Leaned forward, inclined toward her, his head was down as if he were dozing. Or praying?

It was another moment before it registered that he was holding her hand.

Pleasantly surprised, then comforted, resigned to there being nothing more she could do at the moment, she closed her eyes. If he was there, then so was the other, without a doubt keeping his own vigil over those beloved older, stronger hands on the other side of the room.

Yes, just be still. You haven’t been brought this far to be turned back now.

In reflex to her thoughts, her hand involuntarily tightened and then relaxed against the fingers wedged between her own.

She felt the quick, soft kiss to her cheek and heard her grandson tell her, “We’re here. Just rest. It’s going to be all right.”

______________________________________________________________

Marcia and Dave, her ex-husband-date, were the last to leave. At the door, Jonathan looked on as Marcia embraced his wife. “You are a saint, Jen,” she didn’t quite whisper. “I sure hope Pat realizes how good a friend she has in you.”

Jennifer returned the hug without comment, but Jonathan read her thoughts: “Of course she realizes it. It’s why she’s all right with not being here.”

Marcia filled out that trio, but what existed between Pat and Jennifer was the actual bond. Aware of Marcia’s occasional snipes about and with Pat, Jonathan recognized that behavior as a twinge of long-standing third-wheel jealousy and resentment on Marcia’s part. Who wouldn’t envy such a friendship? Upon entering Jennifer’s life, he quickly grasped that although Jennifer did not have siblings, he would still be picking up a sister-in-law who down the line became aunt/godmother to his child. Bucking that relationship would have been useless, even if there had been reason to, which of course there hadn’t ever been.

Pat and Bill hadn’t shown for their own cocktail party, but Jennifer stepped right in, smoothly took over, and with his, Peter, and Lisa’s assistance, hosted it without a hitch. Fortunately, the guest list contained only very close friends and business associates of Pat and Bill with whom one or all of them were acquainted. Dora’s presence, and Cordelia in and out, made things even more effortless. The evening went quite well despite the absence of the intended hosts and in the face of their continued, baffling silence. With the wedding planned for the next afternoon and with much that remained to be done to prepare for it, people didn’t linger beyond midnight, an added positive component.

After exchanging a handshake with Dave and watching until the couple were in their car, Jonathan closed the door behind them. He reached for Jennifer, sliding an arm around her waist to bring her close.

“Well darling, we made it through.”

Jennifer momentarily sagged against his side. “Jonathan, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been this tired. The longer you wear them, masks can get pretty darned uncomfortable.”

“Tell me about it.” Lisa entered the hall from the living room. She looked spent. “I’m so mad at Billy and Tom. Billy phoned a while ago and had the nerve to tell me he and Tom had ‘gotten into something’ and wouldn’t make it in tonight. I understand they’re grown men, but how in the world can they be hanging out like this when they know we’re all worried sick about their grandfather and Pat? I should think they’d be able to set girls aside for one weekend. It’s terrible that we haven’t heard from Pat or Dad, and now these two have taken off. They need to be here with us, as a family.”

Listening to her, Jonathan realized Jennifer hadn’t been the only one holding up under a weighty facade. Throughout the night, Lisa had given no indication that something so personally troubling had been on her mind. What she said about her sons only solidified the thoughts taking shape in his own mind since he’d tried to reach both of them earlier in the day and hadn’t been able to raise either one.

Ignored on both counts, and he had a pretty good idea why. Indeed a female had both Billy and Tom’s attention, but a woman not a girl. He could envision the two of them, feverishly working out between themselves the possible repercussions of ignoring his calls and how they would handle it when they did have to face the music over having done so. Billy would consider it worth the risk, and Tom would have no choice but to go along.

Peter joined them in the front hall. He was several steps behind Lisa, but close enough to have heard what she said and respond to it.

“I’m sure everything is going to work out. The boys couldn’t do anything here to help the situation. Let them do what they think they need to do. After all, they don’t get to this side of the country that often, and at home they don’t have a lot free weekends like this .”

Peter placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders to administer a quick massage, but over her head he sent Jonathan a look that let him know they were on the same wavelength about missing duo. Billy and Tom loved their mother and respected her need to have her ducks in a row that weekend, but for Billy, there had always been one other person in his life who could occasionally override that. And where Billy went, particularly if specifically called upon by his brother to do so, Tom followed.

The front door opened and Shane came in, huffing from the cold and pulling off his gloves. He used them to fan the dusting of snow from his shoulders. “Hey.”

Shane closed the door behind himself. “Pop and Pat make it in yet?”

Lisa peeked past him as if she expected the door to reopen. “No, they haven’t. Where’s Finn and the other boys?”

“Oh, they’re still at J.’s grandfather’s,” Shane came over to join the group of adults. “And I’m going back. I just came to grab Duncan’s bag for him. He’s going to spend the night at Mr. Edwards’ place instead of here.”

Jonathan wasn’t sure he heard the boy correctly. “Did you say he’s spending the night over there?”

“Yeah.”

“At my father’s?” Jennifer said.

“Um-hmm, yeah. See he’s working on this project Mr. Edwards set up for us kids to do while we were visiting over there. Duncan’s gone way over into it, and I guess Mr. Edwards could tell he had because he asked Dunc if he wanted to stay over so he could keep working. Not my thing, really, but we were having fun on it.”

“What’s the project?” Peter asked.

Shane’s eyes shifted from his father to Jennifer and back to his father. “I’m not supposed to say. J. wants it to be a surprise.”

“What about Teddy?”

Momentary confusion tipped Shane’s head as he turned to answer Jonathan’s sudden, off-the-topic question. “What about him?”

“Is he staying the night over there, too?”

Then, catching the drift and the hint of anxiety behind it, Shane grinned and waved a hand. “Nah, you can relax on that, Uncle Jonathan. Not happening. The invite only got extended to Duncan. Mr. Edwards was pretty clear on that; in fact, looked right at Teddy when he said it. I’m pretty sure all the rest of us guys are getting put out as soon as I get back to the house with Duncan’s bag. And I’m also pretty sure Duncan is going to be watched like a hawk all night to make sure he stays put.”

“Oh, you can make book on that,” Jonathan said as he pressed his hand to the small of Jennifer’s back. “Let’s go, darling. I know how much you like surprises.”

“That I do. And it’s just been one bombshell after another this week.”

Propelled by the nudge, Jennifer started for the hall closet with Jonathan right behind her. A short while later, they were on their way to Briarwood and whatever new disclosures awaited.

______________________________________________________________

For J.J., encamped at Briarwood all day with her grandfather, their family and friends, it had been an enjoyable experience. Even more than she originally anticipated when she had only been looking forward to spending time with Teddy.

After dinner, they had all gone into the music room. It had been at Duncan’s request and he heartily praised her skills on the piano as she accompanied Teddy’s singing, but it quickly became obvious that Duncan’s real focus was elsewhere. Betsy, her father, and Ms. Smythe had gone on to the cocktail party at Hamilton-McDowell Farms. The Dean opted out, blaming the late hour and the need to rest up for the next day, asking if she could be dropped off at her house. The four of them left Briarwood together. It wasn’t long after that the youngest members of the dinner group were back in the solarium.

Back working on the dollhouse furniture with Teddy at the table and caught up in another round of reflection, J.J. surveyed her surroundings.

Finn was over on the couch with the video game. Marnie, multitasking as always, sat crossed-legged on the floor with Duncan, holding the can of stain for him while talking on her cell via the hands-free device. Duncan was hard at work on the doll house, the task he had been itching to get back to. On his back, a hand inside a small doorway, he carefully striped cherry stain to the wood beams of the living room ceiling. One coat of paint had already been applied to the exterior, which was being allowed to dry a bit before application of the second and final coat. In the meantime, Shane had gone for Duncan’s suitcase to allow Duncan to continue with the interior work.

She could not believe Pa inviting Duncan to stay over. And it didn’t escape her notice that the same hospitality had not been extended to Teddy, even though the two boys had arrived in town together and had come to visit her together.

No rocket science level mathematics involved in that equation.

It made her wonder exactly what Pa was seeing through his eyes. What were his exact thoughts about her and Teddy, the ones he hadn’t spoken on? Especially since he’d had a chance to observe them interact. And who knew what corners he had been observing them from when they hadn’t been looking?

On the move since they got up that morning, she and her grandfather hadn’t had a chance to talk alone.

Yet.

As she buffed a small cabinet, she snatched a peek across the table. Teddy, his eyes squinted in the effort, focused on touching up chipped and flaked spots on a finely crafted miniature side chair. The brush he used appeared too small and delicate for his masculine hand. The intense expression underneath those thick, soft curls made J.J. smile on the inside. The curls didn’t quite match up with that marvelous voice. Her mother would term him a “precocious” baritone; in sound he was much older than seventeen, more worldly. With his looks, his easy charm, and that voice, the boy was going places.

Duncan said she and her music were, too, but she knew better.

Strictly for pleasure, not for profit or any other pro….

The music, like tennis and swimming were for fun, but they wouldn’t be if outside pressure to perform came into it. She hoped that didn’t happen for Teddy. It would be nice if he could always get his own joy from the things other people took joy from in him.

Then, there was that other thing. In the music room, the Dean let slip a tidbit about cousin, Betsy.

“And how is that handsome beau of yours?”

What handsome beau? Bets hadn’t mentioned any beau, handsome or otherwise. Why hadn’t she? Who was he? What was going on with the two of them?

And why did Bets so quickly cut the Dean off about him? And what was with the lack of eye contact after that? As soon as she got the chance, Bets got the hell out of there on the pretense of having to make the cocktail party.

But she wasn’t off the hook. There remained the next day, and in it, there would be plenty of time for a little tête-à-tête on the topic. Elizabeth Rebecca Bach was doing an awful lot of holding out, and considering the pre-dinner conversation, she had her nerve.

All up in my business….

“What’re you over there thinking about so hard, Ms. Hart?”

“What makes you assume I’m over here thinking about anything, Mr. Baxter?”

“Because you’ve just about rubbed the finish off that cabinet. You’ve been at it for about fifteen minutes.”

“I have not.”

She placed the cabinet on the table with the other refurbished pieces and picked out a chair from the few things left in the box. “And if you’re over there doing what you’re doing, then how do you have time to notice what I’m over here doing and for how long?”

“You’re hard not to notice, particularly when you’re quiet.”

“Got that right,” Finn said from the couch, his back to both of them. “Her mouth has been closed so long, I was just about to ask if she was sick or something. If her cold was acting up because it’s night and all.”

“Finn, I-” When her grandfather appeared in the doorway, J.J. clamped off her tart retort.

His eyes went right to Duncan and the dollhouse, and a strange look crossed his face, a look she hadn’t ever seen before. Impressed maybe, but there was something more to it. Wistful, perhaps. Whatever it was, it likely was the something that caused him to extend that unusual invitation.

Finn paused the game, and he and Teddy stood as the man entered the room. Marnie clicked off her call, set the can of stain on the tarp, and subtly slid a few inches away from Duncan and the dollhouse. There hadn’t been anything wrong or too close with where she had been, but J.J. detected her making the move just the same.

The boys sat down again upon permission granted by the small wave of the older hand.

“I wanted to see the progress,” Stephen said as he stepped onto the tarp and used his stick to ease himself into a squatting position next to Duncan who finished what he was doing before he sat up to address his elder.

“It’s coming, Mr. Edwards,” he said, wiping his brush on a nearby rag. “This really is a thing of beauty. I hope you don’t mind that I removed the moldings to attend to them separately. I noticed they were hand carved. Excellent work, I might add.”

Stephen reached to Marnie to hand him one of the bits of angled wood. “And how do you know this?” he asked as he appeared to study the piece he was given.

“Each one is a little different,” Duncan said. “I checked. No two pieces, even from the same window or door jamb are the same.”

That got J.J. out of her seat and over to the tarp to see for herself. Squatting over the arrangements of wood drying behind the dollhouse, she checked them over for a moment and then looked to her grandfather.

“My mother said her grandfather, your father, made this dollhouse for her. Did he carve these moldings himself? Each one? They’re like the ones in this house, Pa. Did he do those, too?”

“Your great-grandfather did indeed carve those, Justine. He did every bit of the work on this dollhouse and some of the furniture. Did I tell you that when we talked of it before?”

“You might have, or it might have been my mother. But what about here, at Briarwood? Did he do the carved woodworks here, too?”

“My father and his brother did most of them. It was part of their wedding gift to your grandmother and me for whenever we decided to build a home.” When he raised his eyes to her, they sent a message J.J. immediately realized would be strictly for her. “I carved those door moldings upstairs. I also worked the ones in the guest house.”

“I never knew you did this sort of thing, Pa,” she said to fill any void that might have been noticed as she processed what he said.

That proved he was aware she’d been around that corner and seen them. Only one room upstairs had those intricate brier rose carvings in the door moldings, and for most of her life they’d been hidden away. The ones in the guest house had also been out of sight for decades, and according to her mother, they were now closed away again. But they existed, and she knew for whom they’d been done. It never occurred to her that her grandfather’s abilities with art went beyond curating, collecting, and brokering.

“But I gave it up a long time ago, Justine. My father and my uncle passed the craft down to me. It was a family tradition. As a young man, I loved working with a good piece of wood, but I lost interest in it after a time. When you discovered this playhouse and told me you wanted it brought out into the open again, I thought it might make a nice project for you and your friends to spruce back up this weekend. I did not know at the time that we would be graced with the talents of young Da Vinci here.”

“Hardly,” Duncan said behind his chuckle. “I just like to finish what I start, and when I do a job like this, I like to do it well. I’m grateful you’re allowing me to stay over tonight. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep for thinking about all I’d left undone. I’d have been itching to get back to it.”

Marnie had gotten up to get a chair for Stephen. She slid it onto the tarp and held his arm as he pushed himself up, while at the same time she addressed Duncan’s comment.

“You’re all on your back and everything like Da Vinci must have been when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He got all into his work, too. We learned about him in art history.”

J.J. corrected her, “That was Michaelangelo, Marn.”

“Whoever, J. I knew it was some artist from back in the day who worked on his back and wasn’t scared of heights. Duncan knew who I was talking about.”

Duncan grinned. “Yeah, well, if Mr. Edwards Senior took the time to make sure a dollhouse he made for his granddaughter had real hinges, porcelain fixtures, and beamed ceilings, then somebody ought to make sure it all gets the proper treatment.”

Behind the dollhouse, examining the detached moldings, but in reality still working it all out in her head, J.J. wondered why all the right stuff happened to have been placed in the room for what her grandfather had no reason to think would be anything more than a one-day, keep-busy activity by a bunch of inexperienced kids. Why the stain for the furniture and why the wide assortment of good brushes? Linseed oil and cheesecloth? Without Duncan, the artist, and perhaps Teddy who had some experience with readying sets for plays, what would they have known to do with that? Pa couldn’t have anticipated someone like Duncan would be showing up to properly use all of it and to show the rest of them what to do.

In light of that most recent revelation about him, did Pa have his own plans for fixing up the mess they might have made? Had he planned to work on it once they were gone?

Art wasn’t an area she considered herself particularly well-versed, but checking it out up close, even she noticed the fine detailing and exquisite craftsmanship in her mother’s old toy. Fixing it up right felt kind of like being loyal, like living up to one’s legacy, even if it was just a dollhouse. After all, if it lasted until she one day had kids to play with it, which with Duncan at the helm, she was sure it would; five generations of Edwards hands would have come into contact with it.

Awesome.

Her grandfather leaned forward and down to inspect the underside of the eaves. “Justine, get me a three-quarter inch flat,” he said. He looked down to Duncan. “Don’t mind if I give you a hand do you, my boy?”

Duncan, his brush full again, lay back down to resume what he’d been doing. “I would consider it an honor, sir.”

J.J. delivered the brush and assisted Stephen with moving the chair closer to the dollhouse. Then she watched as he fanned the stiffness from the new brush, dipped it into the white paint, and bent down to attend to the eaves. His old hands were steady, knowledgeable, a lot like they were when he played chess. He knew what he was doing. Going in, he already had in mind the strategy he planned to use. Here was yet another fascinating twist to her grandfather and to the unfolding story that was Briarwood.

Marnie came to her side. “Did you know your grandfather could do all that?”

J.J. shook her head as she continued to watch him and Duncan work. “This is all new to me, but I think it’s pretty cool.”

“Me, too. This has been a lot of fun. A real good day.”

“Up to your elbows in boys,” J.J. whispered out of the side of her mouth, “I guess it was for you.”

“Whatever.”

The sound of footsteps preceded Shane’s return to the room. “I’m back. Duncan, your bag and your suit got taken at the door. I guess they’re going to your room.”

“Pack that up,” he called to Finn about the video game. “Dad said for you and Teddy to come on in. It’s getting late, and we all have to be up first thing in the morning.”

“Are Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill back?”

At J.J.’s question, everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and looked to Shane. Even Duncan pulled his arm out of the dollhouse and twisted around to see.

“I don’t think so, J. Your folks and mine were in the front hall when I got there. I didn’t see him or Pat. Nobody mentioned them being there. Your mother and mine looked kinda stressed. I didn’t ask any questions; the vibe said they weren’t there, and I think it’s getting on your mother’s ner-” His eyes shot to Stephen. “-well, I just went ahead and got Duncan’s bags and came on back here.”

He reached out and gave his younger brother’s shoulder a hard nudge, causing the controller to pop out of Finn’s hands. “Didn’t I tell you to pack that up? Come on, we don’t need to be adding to the drama. Dad said bring it on in, so bring it.”

“That’s me, too,” Teddy said as he wiped his hands on a rag and stood up.

J.J. caught the quick, but satisfied smile playing at her grandfather’s lips as he went back to his painting.

“I’ll walk you up front,” she said to Teddy, also catching it out the corner of her eye when Stephen again slid his eyes to her and Teddy.

Leaving the room with Teddy, tossing the ponytail over her shoulder as she passed him, she hoped her grandfather caught her quick, satisfied smile. Stephen Edwards was really getting to be a lot of fun, despite his imperious, pompous male attitude. It was becoming ever clearer to her that most of it was really a smokescreen for the intelligent, caring, interestingly complex fellow underneath the starchy facade. The more time she spent with him, the more obvious that was, and the more apparent it became that beyond caring for her, her grandfather appreciated her.

And oddly, that last thing meant a whole lot more to her.

_________________________________________________________

J.J. got Teddy’s jacket from the closet and handed it to him.

“I had a real nice day, J.” Teddy put the jacket on and began to fasten it. “I wonder why your grandfather didn’t ask me to stay over?”

“I don’t. You might be able to sing like Pavarotti, but you can’t paint like Da Vinci. And even if you could, my grandfather was not about to let you spend the night under the same roof with me. And even if Pa did happen to say it was okay, once Daddy made it back here and found out, in a half a heartbeat he’d have driven you back over to Aunt Pat’s himself. If you stayed overnight, he wouldn’t get a wink of sleep for walking the floor, trying to make sure there was nothing going on. Heck, as it is, he probably won’t get much sleep with Duncan here in the house with Marnie. She’ll get taped in for sure.”

“Taped in?”

“Yeah. It’s not like she’ll be trapped or anything. It’s only to keep her honest. They do it to us all the time in hotels when we don’t have a suite or adjoining rooms with the adults. They put us in the room and then stick a piece of tape on the outside of it, and tell us if we need something to phone one of them first.”

“I don’t get it. What does the tape do or mean?”

“It’s a way for them to tell if we opened the door for anything or anybody. See, if we open the door, then the tape breaks and they know we opened it. And then because we’re on the other side, we can’t fasten it back, so we’re busted. It only had to happen to us one time. They didn’t tell us they did it, so when they found the tape had been compromised, we caught the Devil from my mother and Aunt Pat. It was all Marnie’s fault, trying to slip out to go to the store in the lobby.”

Teddy laughed. “Clever. I’ll have to remember that when I have kids. I didn’t know Marnie and Dunc had the hots for each other. But come to think of it, they have been living in the same building for a minute, though. He did mention to me he thought she was cute, but at the time I got the impression it was just an observation on his part. Why didn’t anybody tell me? How’d I miss that?”

“I didn’t say they had the hots for each other. Marnie just likes boys in general a lot, and my parents- particularly my father- knows it. Not that I think she’d do anything way out of the way with Duncan; she has a boyfriend, but with Duncan here, I bet she gets taped in. Daddy’ll make sure. Probably me, too. Tell me, why are guys so ‘noid, Teddy? About their daughters and girlfriends and wives? Guys want to do whatever they want with their wild oats, but they sure don’t want the females doing anything with theirs. Why is that?”

“Guy thing, J.” Teddy took his scarf from J.J.’s hands and wrapped it around his neck, tucking the ends into his collar. “Probably has something to do with territory, dominance, or some other cave man stuff. I don’t know. It defies explaining.”

“One of those ‘it is what it is’ kind of things?”

“Yeah, like that. So, did you make a decision?”

“About what?”

He reached behind her head for her ponytail bringing it to the front of her shoulder. “About your hair. You gonna wear it down tomorrow?”

She frowned and then raised that one eyebrow at him. “Teddy Baxter, do you have some sort of hair fetish I need to be made aware of? I thought we left off about this out in the stable. What is it about guys and hair? Must be another one of those cave man things. Daddy, my grandfather, and now you. For folks who claim to be the more simple, laidback half of the species, you all sure have a lot of quirks, inconsistencies, and hang-ups.”

“I admit to my hang-ups, inconsistencies, and quirks, as well as to my fetishes. But you do have very nice hair. I remember when you wore it down last summer. I liked it a lot when you did.”

“So am I to take it you’re saying I’m ugly with my hair up? You don’t like me with the ponytail?”

She tried to pull her hair from where he had it threaded between his fingers, but he clamped down on it and grinned at her half-hearted efforts.

“Don’t even try picking a fight with me, J.J. Hart. I said no such thing. I’d like you and think you were cute if you had a buzz cut. You know, I think I’m going to take the safe road here and leave the decision of hairstyle to the person whose head it’s on. I’m just happy to be your escort one more time.”

He released her hair and took a step toward her holding out his hands to take hers and pull her closer. “So, tell me. What’s up with your Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill? How come they aren’t at home yet? Is there something going on with them? With the wedding? I’m sensing tension. I felt it at dinner, and I’ve been feeling it all evening since. I didn’t want to ask with everyone around. Wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know. I am going to be escorting you somewhere tomorrow, aren’t I?”

J.J. hesitated to reply. Whatever was up with Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill, it was family business. As much as she liked Teddy, he wasn’t family.

She wound up shrugging and raising both hands. “How would I know? I was here with you all day. They’ve been in New York together for a couple of days; maybe their flight got delayed or something. I’m sure it’ll all work out, though.”

Teddy looked directly into her eyes as he pulled her even closer to him. “I really had a nice time, J. I do anytime I’m with you.”

“I’m glad you had a good visit. It was so nice finally having you here to entertain at Briarwood with both of us on two good legs.”

“It was great, J., but I’d have fun with you anywhere. Hey, close your eyes; I want to give you something.”

She closed her eyes and his lips had just made contact with hers when she heard footsteps on the other side of the front door and felt the rush of cold as it quickly opened. But the blast of frigid air from the outside wasn’t enough to cut off the heat Teddy’s kiss generated on her inside.

___________________________________________________________

A while later….

She had been extremely tired when she made it up to her bedroom, but once  in bed, J.J. found sleep elusive. Like several of the nights since she left Los Angeles the week before, thoughts, images, and impulses bombarded her from every direction. After a day full of surprises, close calls, disclosures, and subsequent introspection, there was no way she was going to just put her head down on a pillow and fall asleep. No way. That wasn’t how it worked with her, no matter how much she might have wanted that to happen. With her, turning her mind off at the end of the day, especially one as interesting as the one she just had, was always easier said than done.

Even a shower and some of Rosa’s thoughtful mentholated tea hadn’t helped.

Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill.

Pa.

Her parents.

Teddy, his smile, his voice, and his kisses- which somebody didn’t seem to want her to overdose on.

Duncan Sinclair and his bag o’talents.

Uncle Benjamin and Ms. Smythe.

Betsy and her mystery man.

The Dean, a real nice lady after all.

Tall doors with intricate carved moldings that impressed her the first time she saw them, but even further intrigued her when Pa revealed he was responsible for them.

How much more was there about her grandfather that she didn’t know? He was rapidly becoming a very real, three-dimensional person who’d lived a very full, very rich life. A real person outside of being her grandfather or her mother’s father.

Pa. Definitely an acquired taste, one she was beginning to appreciate to the utmost. She regretted having taken so long to recognize him for who he was turning out to be in her life.

They left Pa and Duncan downstairs working on the dollhouse. By that time, Pa had left the chair and was actually in his undershirt, lying on the floor to get the angle he needed. It was a small thing, but at the same time, so huge in her mind. Never had she seen, or ever fathomed she would see her very dignified grandfather stretched out on his back, in his wife beater, no less- He wore those?- on the floor wielding a paintbrush.

Watching her mother standing in the doorway looking on, Pa’s actions struck her as one of those out-of-character things a father would do for his daughter.

Her mother.

What a trip. I can never figure her out, but I’m beginning to think that’s how she wants it.

The kiss had been too good to cut right off, but her mother tripping in the doorway like that had been a two-way good deal. It shocked her and Teddy into breaking the lip lock, and it kept Daddy outside long enough for her and Teddy to get composed and play it off when he did make it inside. Teddy was a really good actor, and she had always been a quick study, a trait it was becoming increasingly obvious she’d inherited from her mother’s side of the family. Daddy probably hadn’t been completely fooled, though, but what he hadn’t seen, he couldn’t prove, and therefore couldn’t fuss about it.

Period.

Good looking out, Mom. I owe you big.

Hugging the pillow to her cheek, she reflected on how her mother, too, was becoming an even fuller, more fleshed-out figure than she’d ever been. She had always been able to separate mother from the person, the person had always been interesting and fascinating- along with a few other occasionally more aggravating attributes, but there were so many admirable and sometimes surprising qualities about her. As Jennifer Hart gradually lifted the “respect-your-perfect-mother” mask and allowed her growing daughter glimpses of the very real, endearingly flawed person underneath, she was becoming even more intriguing.

And getting to better know the person increased the daughter’s love for the mother all the more.

J.J. closed her eyes and floated back to a short time earlier, back to the solarium when her parents arrived.

Her mother looked tired, but then, she had a lot on her. According to Shane, Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill weren’t back, and that had to be a pressing issue for her mother. And for her father. For him that would be doubly pressing; they weren’t back, and them not being back was intensifying an ongoing problem for his wife. Nothing set Jonathan Hart off worse than people upsetting his wife.

Probably because now he won’t get any.

Ooh, that was wrong of me.

But she smirked into the pillow just the same.

Teddy drifted in, but she pushed him right back out of her mind because  … ooh, that was all wrong, too.

Her cell phone buzzed on the night table, and grateful for the diversion, she reached for it to check the display.

Marnie.

“What?”

Am I taped in?

“Why?”

I’m just asking.

“Don’t lie. What do you have up? No, on second thought, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. If you get caught, then I won’t have anything to do with it because I won’t have a clue.”

The hell with you, J. I just asked. If I’m taped in, you better be taped in, too. Think your grandfather is still down there?

“Break out. That way you can see if we’re both taped in. Go down there and see for yourself if he is.”

Nah, not worth the risk. Pat will be back tomorrow, and I don’t need any marks on my record- no ‘sad face’ reports. Remember those?

“Yeah. Basis for nausea in the car going home and then high drama once you got to the house.”

Right. I think I’ll just stay in here and try to go to sleep.

“You have that night light on?”

No.

“You’re scared of the dark. How come you don’t have it on? Are you lying?”

I’m not lying. I don’t have it on. And I’m getting so I’m not scared of the dark everywhere I go. I’m not scared of it here.

“Why? In that big, old room.”

I’m just not.

“Um-hmm. Why did you call me?”

Just to say goodnight and to tell you I had fun today. And that I hope everything works out tomorrow.

She did, too. There was a lot on the line, and a ‘spanner’ like Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill not showing would surely mess up the works.

And Marnie. Marnie probably didn’t have the night light on, and that was probably for the same reason she wasn’t worried and panicky over Pat still being AWOL. Typically, Marnie should have been asking a million questions, trying Pat’s number all day, or sitting off to herself all quiet and tense, but she hadn’t been. Not for one moment had she been.

And it was probably for the same reason that she wasn’t all that worried about her godmother and godfather; Aunt Pat had coded in with her earlier that day, and she’d probably done the same with Marnie. Aunt Pat wouldn’t want Marnie bent out of shape over her. It was bad enough Marnie’s father was in such bad shape. On the low, Aunt Pat had coded in with both of them to let them know she was okay, and neither one of them had mentioned that she had to the other. Aunt Pat probably wasn’t back because she was hemmed up with whatever it was she had to take care of first, but the saving grace in it was Uncle Bill was with her. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to or with her.

It was going to be okay. Aunt Pat was not going to miss her own wedding. No way.

And no way was she going to be putting a dress and heels on and having her hair done up for nothing. Well, it wouldn’t be for nothing, but a dress, heels, and a fancy hairdo should earn the full enchilada.

Aunt Pat knows what’s up.

I am still holding your marker, but what I did wasn’t enough to warrant making me wear a dress on a Saturday, for a whole evening for nothing, and you know it.

There was no way she was going to sleep. The pull she had been trying to ignore was too strong.

She flipped the covers off and sat up in the dark. The top drawer of the night table held the flashlight. After putting on her robe and slippers, she and the flashlight slipped from the room.

No tape on her door, but a big strip of masking on Marnie’s.

The Duchess truly knew what was up. Or rather, what she wasn’t having up.

_________________________________________________________

Jennifer got into bed with her head feeling as if it weighed a ton. Thank heavens, it wasn’t an oncoming migraine. Considering the day she had and the amount of alcohol she’d consumed, it could very well have been. Migraine or not, with so much on her mind, a lot of it worrying and aggravating, the rest intriguing and thought-provoking, she didn’t see much rest on her horizon.

But her mind was made up. As soon as she got the chance, she would be booking a spot at that nice resort on Laguna Beach for a couple of days. There she could take full advantage of the quiet, the solitude, not to mention the spa and yoga facilities. Her mind, spirit, and body begged for a break and healthy dose of TLC. The girls would be back in school, and by the time they got to their classes, they would be two or three days behind. In getting caught up with their studies, the better part of their first days home were already accounted for. Jonathan and Marie could handle the rest.

If she could arrange it before they left Maryland, she would be out of there and on her way to the resort almost as soon as the plane touched down in Los Angeles. It had been one thing after another for months, problem after crisis after problem, none of it her own but most of the fallout from them, falling on her.

Tired, tired, tired didn’t even begin to cover it. There was nothing like family, but that didn’t discount how wearing family could be.

The evening they just spent, making small talk, pretending all was well when it wasn’t. Entertaining Pat and Bill’s guests while wondering where the hell they were and what the hell they were doing that they hadn’t had the decency to show up to their own party- or to even call and say they weren’t coming to their own party- it had all been too much. She was full up. No more room for anybody’s else’s baggage. Close to emotional bankruptcy, she had little else left to give.

But then there was J.J.

… little hot-tailed minx….

She certainly was growing up. It was natural and normal, perfectly innocent and honest, but….

You’d better thank your lucky stars you have your mama to understand and to look out for you.

It was always something.

For once, it was so much she was too tired and too wired to even make love to her husband, and it had been days since she’d been with him in that way. A week to be exact, and for them that was a mighty long time, but she hoped he wouldn’t want to go there tonight.

Considering that week thing, though, the odds were not in her favor. Jonathan Hart was a man with strong needs, and usually she was what he strongly needed.

She could hear him in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. As much as she loved him, she did not want to make love; she only wanted to try to sleep to avoid looking as haggard and worn out as she was sure she would feel in the morning. The liquor in her system wasn’t going to help. Bless Rosa’s heart. She’d delivered aspirin and hot tea to her almost as soon as she made it to the bedroom.

Cordelia, always on the case. And evidently, on the phone, looking out for her.

And Pa. Still up, painting with Duncan? Both of them totally engrossed?

After arranging the pillows, she pulled up the covers and rolled over, away from Jonathan’s side of the bed.

Jonathan came into the room. She heard him stretch, and she felt him sit to kick off his slippers before he lie down. Not wanting him to get the wrong message, she tried not to stiffen when he reached for her the way he always did as soon as they were together in bed. He nuzzled through her hair to kiss the nape of her neck. At the same time, his hand slipped underneath her pajama waistband to caress the bare skin of her belly.

Damn.

“Nice save, Red.”

The rich timbre of his voice near her ear sent an errant tickle up her spine.

“What are you talking about, Jonathan?”

“I’m talking about your tripping as you came through the front door and then falling back into me to keep me outside a few seconds longer.”

Damn.

The man didn’t miss a trick.  “I tripped on the door jamb, darling. I was tired, and I wasn’t really looking where I was going.”

“Jennifer, when you trip like you claim to have tripped, inertia propels you forward not backward. Engineer here, remember? So, exactly what was your daughter doing there in the front hall with Mr. Wonderful?”

“I tripped, Jonathan. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What did you think about Pa allowing Duncan to stay over to finish working on the dollhouse? And then finding Pa down there on the floor, helping him with it?”

“That’s right. Divert me. I’m going to let you change the subject only because I trust you to have J.J. covered in that area.”

“And what area would that be? I never said she was doing anything untoward.”

“You know full well what area, and ‘untoward’ in your book reads a bit differently in mine, particularly where J.J. and boys are concerned. However, I’m willing to go with your interpretation because, as I said, I’m confident you have a handle on whatever it was J.J. Hart and ‘friend’ were doing that you’re trying so hard to cover up.”

“He is just her friend.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  And I’ve told you time and time again my thoughts on our daughter and her seventeen year old male ‘friends’. But about what I think of your father, I think he can recognize talent and drive, and it was brilliant of him to have something at the ready to keep the kids occupied. I also think it was a fortunate stroke of fate that someone like Duncan showed up to take charge of that, especially in light of what J.J. told us about him and his abilities. That is one heck of a dollhouse, and it could have been turned into a huge a mess. It’s so well constructed and intricate. I couldn’t tell all of that when it was down in that passage. It really needed the touch of someone who knew what he was doing, someone like Duncan and evidently, your father.”

Having successfully rerouted the conversation from J.J. and Teddy, Jennifer relaxed and let her mind go back to the scene she encountered when J.J. walked her and Jonathan to the solarium after the boys departed and Marnie went upstairs. Duncan and her father, on the floor in their undershirts, hard at work on her old dollhouse from the passage.

“To see it there, out in the open again, was every bit the surprise J.J. wanted it to be for me. To come upon my father working with Duncan on it was an even bigger surprise. Pa was actually down on the floor without a shirt, my very formal father. I’d forgotten about how Pa used to tinker with wood when he was at home. He used to design and craft picture frames from scratch, carved them, then painted and gilded them. Sold them to galleries….”

As she spoke, grainy sepia images of her father in the solarium with the wood, the lathe, the paint and stain, his carving knives… the smell of wood, and linseed oil, varnish, it all rushed back to her, pushing her more snugly into the protective bend of Jonathan’s body.

Jonathan closed his arms around her to hold her more closely to him. “You okay?”

She nodded. “I’m fine. It’s just that- it’s- Jonathan, it’s just been so much. There are so many things I haven’t thought about, that I’ve put out of my mind for so long. Now- I don’t know. I guess there’s just so much going on right now, on so many levels. So many things to consider and to be concerned over, so many uncertainties and unanswered questions.”

He smoothed the hair back from her temple. “Listen, there is a lot going on, but try to stop dealing with all of that for a while. Better yet, stop allowing all of that to deal with you. Darling, you really need to rest now and let things go until morning.”

“What about Pat and Bill? It’s the night before their wedding, and we still haven’t heard from them. What if they don’t show up at all? At what point do we really start to worry about where they are? Nobody even knows what’s going on with them.”

“Somebody does.”

The way he said it, the certainty in his tone, made her roll over in his arms and rise up on one elbow. “Why do you say that? You’re talking about Billy and Tom, aren’t you? I sensed something going on with them. Do you think the boys went to Pat and Bill? Why would they do that? Where do you think they are?”  Then she ducked her head and chuckled. “Listen to me. I sound just like J.J. Hart.”

In the darkness, Jonathan’s arms reached for her and pulled her to him again. “Come on and rest. I think Pat and Bill, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, whoever’s hands they might be in at the moment, are where and with whom they need to be. The best thing we can do for everybody is to get enough rest tonight to be at our best tomorrow.”

She rolled back over, and when she was settled against him again, he tucked the covers around her.

“You tape Marnie in?”

She nodded.

“J.J.?”

She shook her head. “That one doesn’t need it. Pa is downstairs, or at the very least still up and roaming around. She isn’t going anywhere near the solarium. And then you know her, once she’s asleep, she’s out.”

“I’ll trust your judgment on that one, too.”

It wasn’t long before he was out. As soon as she heard the first soft snores and was satisfied he was far enough under, too restless to sleep herself, she eased out of his embrace and sat back up, grateful that it had been that easy and she hadn’t had to turn him down. She disliked rejecting him. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it hurt to hurt him in that way.

Just as she was getting the pillows propped to support her back, she noticed a weak bar of light pass under the door, on its way up the hall.

What in the….

Sliding to the side of the bed, she grabbed her robe and slid her feet into her slippers.

I declare, it never ends.

… just as soon as I can arrange it… Laguna Beach, here I ….

Seconds later she was in the hall, heading toward the soft glow at the other end, coming from around the corner.

_________________________________________________________

As she passed her parents’ bedroom, it occurred to J.J. she should have turned off the flashlight. It wasn’t as if she needed it to get to where she was headed. Damage already done, she dismissed it.

It’s late. They’re in the bed… together. What’s happening out here is probably the farthest thing from either one of their minds.

Besides, there wouldn’t be time to check it out tomorrow. It had to be tonight. Grateful for the generously padded carpet, she continued on and made that turn at the end.

Compared to the more expansive, longer main hall, that strange back one was much shorter, and more contained. Approximately ten feet by twenty,  it served one room. The doors to that room, if opened, would do so to a facing wall. The only window, a lovely stained glass affair, was at the opposite end, a dead end.

That last thing triggered a cold shudder that rippled the back of her neck then shot across the back of both shoulders.

What made her grandparents set that bedroom entrance up this way? Was it the original design of that part of the house? After all, those doors- heck, the room itself- had only recently resurfaced to public knowledge, sort of. What else in the house might still be covered up, removed, or rearranged completely?

Prior to this visit, when sheet rock and likely some sort of preservative insulation covered those doors, the back hall had merely been an odd, out of the way area that seemed to serve no real purpose. It was one of those things to which she had never given any real thought. In fact, as a younger child, she rarely went back there. But let in on that architectural secret in her grandparents’ home, she wondered how it never occurred to her that Pa’s bedroom, bathroom, and closets couldn’t possibly have backed up that far.

I hate when I’m stupid and clueless. It should have been obvious.

Now everything on that end had taken on an irresistibly enticing new dimension. Imagine, her grandfather worked those beautiful designs into that wood with his own hands. He had always been an intelligent man in her eyes, but who knew how talented?

The Duchess? If she did know, why hadn’t she said? But then, to her credit, the subject hadn’t ever come up. And did she know? Or was it yet another one of those things she’d put out of her mind a long time ago?

What gifted men, Pa, his father, and his father’s brother. No wonder Pa was so into Duncan and the dollhouse.

On her previous trip to this area, of course saw and appreciated the decorative moldings, but their significance now went much deeper. Equipped with that new knowledge, ever since Pa said it, the need to more closely examine them with that better informed eye had been pestering her, needling at her until she had to get up and go. She needed to feel the wooden petals, the leaves, and the twisting, winding branches, to glide her palms over the smoothed flats and rises, to tactically experience the intricately carved ridges and curves, to probe with her fingertips the dips and scallops, every single one of those details formed by her grandfather’s hand.

For her grandmother.

So very romantic. A lasting tribute….

The flashlight’s selective rays in the inky darkness made it eerie back there, ethereal as they followed the doors from the floor to almost the ceiling. The word ‘mausoleum’ tried to register, but with a quick shake of her head, she ridded herself of the word as well as the image attempting to form. There was nothing to fear or to be sad about, only much to admire. Closing her eyes, she allowed her fingers to appreciate what her grandfather created. She pictured him as that young man in the photographs, tall, substantial, imposing, with all that dark hair and those intense dark eyes as he labored over the wood, taking his time, making it beautiful for the woman he loved. Recreating the brier roses she loved….

What were you really like? Why did you have to leave so soon? Why couldn’t you wait for me?

I understand it wasn’t your choice to go, but I wish so much I could have met you, heard your voi-.

The single blip of an internal sensor shot her senses to high alert and stopped that breath in her throat. Slowly turning her head and the flashlight, she opened her eyes.

Her heart skipped a beat stopped at the sight.

_________________________________________________________

“Breathe, baby.”

Jennifer held tightly to the startled, trembling teenager in her arms. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Having found J.J. where she was, confused by what she was doing, and then witnessing her reaction to being discovered had her shaking as well.

When J.J. jerked, then swayed as if about to faint, she had rushed in and managed to catch her before she could hit the floor.

“What in the world are you doing down here?”

No answer, just frenzied gasps like a bad case of hiccups. She continued rubbing J.J.’s back until her breathing slowed some and her body relaxed.

“Are you okay?”

J.J. nodded into her shoulder, and she felt the girl wipe at her eyes.

“Breathe, sweetie.”

After several deliberate, very deep breaths J.J. raised her head again. At that point, she tried to ease back a little, as if to signal she had a handle on things, but Jennifer maintained her firm hold.

“I’m fine, Mom. Really I am. You just caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“What are you doing around here? Why aren’t you in the bed? You should be worn out.”

“I am, but I  just wanted to see.”

“See what at this time of night? And in the dark? It couldn’t wait until morning? I thought we agreed to wait on all of this.”

J.J. stiffened again, then she angled that flashlight between them so that she could see into her face. “Oh Mom, please don’t misunderstand. I- I wasn’t trying to go inside. I just wanted to-”

She twisted around to send the beam to the bedroom doors, “- to see these moldings. Pa said he carved them. Did you know that? Aren’t they beautiful?”

She did know, or at least she used to know, and they were beautiful. J.J.’s mention of it brought one more thing from her past to her present. She dropped her arm to J.J.’s waist to keep her close while J.J. continued to explain.

“See, when we were down in the solarium working on the dollhouse, Pa told us about how the dollhouse was made by his father and his uncle. Then he said he was responsible for these. We hadn’t talked about it, me and him-”

“He and I.”

“Yeah, he and I. I guess he figured I’d been around here, or that if I hadn’t, I’d go looking for what he was talking about.”

“Without a doubt.”

J.J. snaked her neck at that. “Anyway, mother. Of course, I’d already seen them, but after he told us that, I had to come back here. It was as if I needed to see them with a different eye or something. Like they meant more once I found out he’d done them. There wasn’t going to be time tomorrow, so I had to come tonight. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“You didn’t wake me; I was already up. I saw your light go past.”

“Oh. I kind of hoped you’d be asleep or something and wouldn’t notice.”

Jennifer ignored the possible, more like probable, dig she thought she heard in that “or something” and instead went on to address the topic at hand. “When I was a girl, my mother told me my father made the moldings and these doors.”

“The doors, too? He didn’t say about the doors. Jeez, he was good.”

“The woodcarver story, J.J., do you remember that one?”

Hesitating for a moment, answered slowly. “Yeah, I do. It’s one of the stories you were working on for the book.” Her eyes widened in what, even in the dimness of that hall, Jennifer could see was wonder. “It’s Pa, isn’t it? The woodcarver is Pa! Oh my goodness, it’s all making sense; the woman in the stories is her! She was writing about meeting Pa in that one. The woman in the story hooked up with the woodcarver.”

“And speaking of ‘hooking up’, Justine Hart.”

J.J. immediately lay her head on her shoulder. ” I know, I know. We were only saying goodbye. Thanks for looking out for me at the door; I owe you big. I figured you didn’t trip for real. I don’t know how you made it without my grandmother. I don’t know what I’d do without you in my life.”

She couldn’t even begin to fuss at the girl.

“You’d still have your father, your partner in crime.”

“I would, but that’s not the same when it comes to personal stuff. I need you for that. Thanks.”

They stood together for a few moments, arms about each other’s waists, the light trained on those doors. It was J.J. who broke the silence.

“Mom, why is the entrance to my grandmother’s room way back here, all off the beaten path? Was it always like this? You know, only the doors to this room in this hall?”

In her head, Jennifer envisioned a little girl in a nightgown making her way down the main hall to that one, heading toward to the welcoming reflection of the lit fireplace inside the room dancing on that wall behind her and J.J., and to those loving arms waiting for her inside. So long ago, but so very real.

“I don’t know what the actual reason was. I’m only surmising from what I can recall. My mother was big on privacy and on personal space. She liked her quiet time. You’ve seen the inside of the room, how it’s made. If she chose, she could go into or through Pa’s room, but when she wanted to be alone or to not disturb Pa, she could use this side. When he was away, she only used this side.

“I supposed that was how she wanted it,” J.J. said. “Nobody had reason to come this way except her or someone who wanted her.”

The whole time, even though she pointedly avoided making direct contact with them, Jennifer noticed J.J.’s skirting eyes searching her face. J.J.’s ears heard what was said, but that mind was busy, adding things up for itself.

“And if you wanted her, you could come to her without disturbing anyone else, or without anyone else knowing, couldn’t you, Mom?”

She could, and she did. So very long ago.

“It must have been nice, having your own world back here with your mother.”

“Yes, sweetie, it was.”

It had been, so very nice. But now she had her own girl, and that was very nice, too.

“Now Ms. Hart, do come on. You and your mother, both of us, need our rest.”

Hooking J.J. with her arm, Jennifer attempted to start them on their way back to the main hall, but J.J. stood fast.  “One more thing, since we’re here, and it’s just the two of us. Please? What about Aunt Pat? Truthfully, Mom, not the  ‘Protect J.J.’ version. What’s up with her, Uncle Bill, and the wedding?”

Wrestling with it a moment, Jennifer gave J.J. the only answer that she could. “Truthfully, Justine, I don’t know. Truthfully, the wedding is still on, and I’m playing it all by the script, following what she’s written down, as all of us will tomorrow because that’s the only thing we can do.”

“I guess so,” J.J. agreed with a shrug of her shoulders. “That is the only way we can play it.”

“Are you all right now? Did you have tea tonight for that cold?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Honest. I’m sorry I got you up. We have a long day tomorrow, and we need our rest. Come on, let’s go to bed. Daddy’s probably up, wondering where you went, and about to come find you.”

“You let me worry about my husband.”

“Your husband is my daddy, and I know how he is about you.”

“Whatever, Justine.”

“Whatever, Jennifer.”

“Impudent, pup.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

Arms about each other, they left the back hall and those doors.

_________________________________________________________

He heard her creep back into the room and felt it when she eased back into the bed. When she was finally lying down, he reached for her, strapping his arm firmly around her midsection.

“Jonathan!”

With an arm around her midsection, he drug her over to him.

“Jonathan, hell,” he whispered into her hair as he fitted himself around her and she settled inside his embrace. “So, which one was it?”

“Yours.”

The fearless wanderer, he figured as much.

“Not downstairs, was she? Or was she on her way downstairs?”

“Of course not. Just restless. She had a few things on her mind.”

“Problem resolved?”

“Not really a problem, but yes.”

“Back in her room?”

“Yes.”

“Taped in this time?”

“No, not that one. Wouldn’t do any good; my mother would only let her right back out.”

It took a moment or two for what she said to register, and when it did, he decided not to address it. It was late, and that was too much to deal with. Some things were better left between Jennifer and J.J.- and apparently, Suzanne. He had his own business to make sure stayed in order.

Instead, he gently tugged aside the collar of her pajama top to kiss the exposed shoulder. “Good night, darling.”

She snuggled even more comfortably against him.

_________________________________________________________

Very early Saturday morning….

It was still dark when J.J. woke, but after checking the clock, she decided to go ahead and get up. The day would be a busy one, so it probably wouldn’t be much longer before her mother came in to wake her. Better to get up on her own.

After getting washed and dressed, she went across to Marnie’s room. After peeling the unbroken tape from the door, she peeked inside. Marnie was still in bed, but awake and on her cell. She looked up when the door opened and gestured for J.J. to come in, but J.J. shook her head and stayed put.

“I was just checking to see if you were awake. I’m going on downstairs. I have a couple of things to do before the car comes to take us to get our hair done and all of that. Who in the world are you talking to this early?”

Marnie clicked off and returned her attention to J.J. in the doorway. “Just Kyle. He was getting ready to go riding with our cousin and didn’t want to miss talking to me, so he called to see how I was. Your mother send you to get me up?”

“No. Actually, I haven’t even seen her. I got up on my own. Didn’t feel like being bossed and rushed right out of the gate. You know how she is, and it’s probably going to be that kind of day, so I’m trying to minimize the need for anybody to have to say anything to me or dictate to me.”

“You’re always touchy in the morning, but yeah, I hear you on that.”

Marnie pushed back the covers and swung her legs to the side of the bed to feel for her house shoes. “Come on in and wait for me. I won’t be long.”

J.J., one hand still on the doorknob, waved the other. “Nah, I can’t sit through you changing fifteen outfits before you get to the combination you want. That drives me crazy. Just come on down when you get dressed. I’ll either be in the music room, the parlor, or the solarium.”

At the mention of that last room, Marnie perked all the way up and snatched her robe from the footboard. “Ooh yeah, I almost forgot that Duncan is still here. I’ll be right down.” And she hustled into the bathroom.

Laughing to herself, J.J. closed the door and left Marnie to her morning constitution.

On the other side of the hall, her parents’ door was also closed. She figured they hadn’t gotten up yet. At least she hoped they hadn’t. What she really wanted and needed was a little more alone time.

Downstairs, she wound up in the music room. After closing the doors behind her, she headed straight for the windows to open the drapes. In the emerging light of day, a blanket of newly fallen snow covered everything. So lovely, like a Currier and Ives Christmas card, but she was happy to be on her side of the glass, looking out on it rather than out there in it. There was an odd something about newly fallen snow that mildly unnerved her. It sucked up sound, leaving behind a peculiar, isolating vacuum effect. She enjoyed skiing and sledding, but the indoor activities associated with those things were just as much fun, or occasionally even more fun for her on the annual Christmas break trip to Tahoe with the Barnetts or on cold weather vacations with her parents.

Her parents.

They had a day and a half in front of them. She hoped in the end it would be worth them having gone through it.

Her mother.

Her mother nearly scared the life out of her on the night before, showing up like she did, unexpected and sudden, in that back hall. Like an apparition, pale and too much like that image formed in her head. When that internal signal tripped, letting her know she wasn’t alone outside those bedroom doors, that startling, shadowy figure at the end of the hall would have dropped her to her knees if her mother hadn’t caught her in time.

What the heck was that about? I don’t normally freak out that easily.

“Sensory overload” was the only answer she could come up with. It was the only logical conclusion she could come to for that most unusual reaction. J.J. Hart dealt in reality and logic, not… stuff like that.

But….

She raised her eyes to that recently hung portrait on the back wall, and once again found herself wondering… and questioning why that wonder was becoming so strong, the presence- if it could be called that- so insistent.

But…

There were other, more pressing matters at hand.

With a sigh, she turned away and went to sit at the piano. Her fingers tapped the smooth, cool white and black keys in the manner of playing them, but without applying pressure. The house was huge, and she probably wouldn’t have disturbed anyone had she decided to actually play the tune, but it was too early for sound.

Alone and silent, the best way to get her head ready for whatever she might face in the upcoming day. Or might not face if it didn’t turn up. When she clicked into her phone before leaving her bedroom, there still hadn’t been a check-in.

But….

She would go on holding that marker. That was what she’d be expected to do even though Aunt Pat would give somebody all out hell for leaving her hanging like that.

_________________________________________________________

Jonathan woke to empty arms. A blind swipe across the other set of pillows confirmed he was in the bed alone. Seconds later his ears made out the sound of a running shower. Instinct urged him roll over and get up, but remembering his commitment to himself, he lie back down.

It’s been hard enough just sleeping next to her. And she was liquored up last night, too?

To climb into a warm, steamy, early morning shower with her would result in certain defeat to his resolve. He rolled back over onto his stomach.

No, no, that’s not what this is. I just need to go to the bathroom, that’s all.

Think baseball, Jonathan, yeah baseball….

In denial or not over the current state of his physical affairs, he decided to stay put until she came out, hopefully wrapped in a robe. He reached for his cell on the night table and checked it. Nothing. From anyone.

Come on, Bill. This isn’t like you. Not like Pat, either.

In the hope that the early hour might catch the boy off guard, he pulled up Billy’s number and hit ‘send’.

No answer.

Damn.

But then, I should have guessed that going into it.

The same procedure with Tom’s number garnered the same result, which further cemented his hunch that those boys were with their grandfather. That meant the three of them were with Pat, and that deduction lessened his aggravation with all of them. If it worked out that they had arrived too late into the night before to notify anyone that would really work out.

The bathroom door opened, and Jennifer came back into the bedroom. Lying there, pretending to sleep, he eased open one eye. She was tying her robe closed as she came toward the bed.

Thanks for the assist.

“Darling,” she whispered as she switched on the bedside lamp, and smoothed a hand over his hair. “It’s time to wake up. I asked Rosa to have breakfast ready early, so we need to be downstairs soon. The cars will be here to pick us all up by nine.”

“I’m already awake,” he droned through a yawn.

She sat down on his side of the bed to lotion her legs.

    Does she have to do that over here?

“Jonathan, you won’t hold it against me, will you, if I wind up staggering drunk by the end of all this?”

He rolled onto his back to avert his nose from her soft, freshly scrubbed scent and his eyes from her legs as she massaged the smooth, toned calves.

“Well, I happen to find you pretty cute when you’re a little tipsy.”

“I’m not talking tipsy; if this doesn’t go well, it’ll be way beyond tipsy. Seriously, darling, my nerves are shot. I’m holding on by a string here.”

“Sweetheart, I’m on the other end of that string, so you don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to holding on.  Besides, I’m a far more capable drunk than you. No way I’ll let you fall.”

She chuckled and then leaned over to kiss the tip of his nose. “Crazy, you. You always know just what to say to a girl.”

He wrapped his arms around her, forcing her to lay her head on his chest where he kissed the silken crown of her head.

“I know what to say to you- the truth. We’re in this together, Jennifer. Everything is going to work out fine, you’ll see.”

“I certainly hope so. I can’t tell you how much I hope Pat and Bill are home when we get there this morning. This whole episode isn’t turning out to be anything like I thought.”

“But then, that’s what makes life so interesting and exciting, isn’t it? The plot twists and turns?”

“I guess,” she said with a sigh. “But I think I would have been just as interested in this plot without the twisted excitement.”

Finished with the lotion, she set the bottle on the night table and stood up. “Well, I’d better go and wake the girls. J.J. will be the harder one to rouse, so I’ll start with Marnie. I’ll need to linger a bit longer to get things going in that other room. Leave your child, and she’ll pull those covers back up and fall right back to sleep.”

He let Jennifer leave without telling her that she probably wouldn’t be as long as she thought. J.J. was already up; he’d heard her voice through the door, which stood to reason. There was too much on the line for that one to be sleeping in. Like father, like daughter.

Pushing back the covers, he took a long stretch and then rose from the bed.

Far too much on the line.

_________________________________________________________

Maybe this is an omen of better things to come.

Jennifer came out of J.J.’s bedroom grateful both the girls were already awake and operating on their own. That J.J., in particular, was not only up, but dressed and out of the room, was a real relief. Wrestling her out of the bed, especially so early in the morning, had not been a chore she looked forward to undertaking. The emotional energy that might have been spent in that effort could now be stowed away for later use, if needed.

She hoped she wouldn’t need it.

“Good morning.”

She turned around. “Good morning, Pa.”

He was up the hall, just outside his open bedroom door.

“Jennifer, I know you have much to do this morning, but can you spare your old dad a moment?”

She went to him, impressed at how diplomatically her father could issue what essentially amounted to a non-negotiable command. He ushered her into his bedroom, and when he closed the door, she walked over to the high-backed chairs in front of the windows. She was sure Stephen Edwards had questions for which she was equally sure she wouldn’t have very many answers.

“I am aware there is much you must see to being done,” he said as he moved the purple brocade pillow from the other chair and sat, placing the pillow in his lap, “so I will not keep you. You and I did not have much time together yesterday.”

“No, Pa, we didn’t. I apologize for not getting back until so late. I hope the girls and their friends weren’t too much of a bother.”

“Quite the contrary, actually. I believe I experienced the best day I have had in a very long time. The ladies, Benjamin, and Elizabeth were very good company. Watching Elizabeth and Justine interact is enjoyable, to say the least. They get on very well, and that makes me happy. Bill’s grandsons seem to be fine young men. Young Sinclair is talented and deceptively mature in his thinking for a boy his age.”

“And Teddy?”

“And Theodore,” Stephen said with a faint smile, “is a conundrum.”

“A conundrum?”

“One that Jonathan would be wise to keep his eye upon.”

“Like you did with his father?”

“Yes, only Justine is a very different girl from the one with whom Theodore Sr. was involved, and that’s where the conundrum factor comes into play. As his father before him was, young Baxter is a very charming, spirited lad. He is enamored of our Justine. I cannot say that I blame the boy; I commend his good taste, however-”

“Pa, I’ve already explained to you that she-”

“I am merely saying, Jennifer.” He waved his hand and shook his head. “But that is not what I wanted to speak with you about.”

“So just what did you call me in here for?”

He tipped his head to one side and eyed her. “Tell me I am not detecting an impertinent tone in that dangling participle, Jennifer Justine. I am still your father, you know.”

She smiled this time. “No impertinence, Pa, and I never forget. You wouldn’t let me.”

“Believe it.”

“For what reason did you summon me, Father?”

“That is much better. I want you to explain why I did not get direct notice you would not be seated at my dinner table yesterday evening. Why did I have to hear from Walter that my daughter had absented herself from my presence? It is not as if we have had many meals together since you arrived.”

Jennifer squirmed and avoided her father’s eyes.

“I asked you a question.”

She wound up shrugging and quietly saying, “You know why.”

“So you are not going to try and deny my assertion?”

“As I said, Pa, you already know why I did it the way I did.”

“You did not want to be bothered with my questioning you about Patricia.”

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be bothered; I simply wasn’t going to have the answers that would put you at ease. I didn’t want you to worry about her.”

“I was, I am worried about both of you.”

“I’m fine. You need not worry about me.”

“I said I worry about both of you. The two of you operate in concert. What is going on with one has always affected the other, which ultimately affects me. That fact leads me to my next question. She is not yet here in Maryland, is she?”

No phone call, and not even a check-in that morning. What in the world was Pat thinking? What was she doing? With things this close to the wire, why wasn’t she at least checking in? Now there she sat, alone on the hot seat, closed up with Pa.

But then, what goes around, comes around. When it was me out there AWOL with Jonathan in London, she had to cover for me.

However, mine wasn’t this bad, and she was only on the phone with Pa, and in another state, not sitting directly across from him in his bedroom, trying to come up with answers.

I could just kil-l-l-llll her.

“All I know for certain is she wasn’t there when I left her house last night.”

Of course, Pa wasn’t letting up. He had her hemmed in, and while he had her where he wanted her, he was going for all he could get. “Have you tried phoning her this morning to see where she is? Has she phoned you?”

“No, Pa.”

“You do believe she will be here this afternoon? For her own wedding?”

“Of course I do. I have no reason to believe she won’t be there.”

“Had Cordelia arrived? Dora?”

“Yes, both of them are there.”

Stephen sighed and sat back, absent-mindedly pressing the pillow to his abdomen. “Well, I guess that’s something. If neither of them are panicking and phoning you, I imagine the rest of us should take comfort in their lead.” Then he hard-eyed her again. “They haven’t phoned you this morning?”

“No, Pa. Neither of them, and now that you mention it, that does say something. It does put me more at ease”

All of her except that whiny, prickly, tiniest bit of bad feeling in the very pit of her stomach. The one she tried as hard as she could to wrestle into submission on the previous evening, but was now attempting to wake from its alcohol induced coma as Pa stared her down.

For a few very long seconds, she fried under that unwavering gaze. It whisked her back to #1 Waverly House at the Gresham Hall Preparatory School for Girls. Pa and her, in the room, just the two of them, sitting. He, concerned to the point of aggravation. She, defensive but a whole lot more nervous about aggravating him. Pa had that way about him then, and decades later it rendered the same unsettling effect on her.

But no matter what, as Pa said, she and Pat looked out for and covered for each other, even when it didn’t quite make sense to do so. Even when it might not be such a good idea to do so.

“Well,” he said as he broke his scrutiny of her face. “I am telling you this, and you can convey it to her by whatever telepathic means it is you two communicate, I better not be getting bound in a tuxedo for nothing.”

She grinned at the tiny give-away twinkle she spotted in his eyes. “You love getting dressed up, and you know it.”

“I do not love getting left at the altar- by the bride and the groom, no less.”

She didn’t have the heart to tell him there was no altar because there was no longer a chapel involved. That could wait. When he did find out, there wouldn’t be much time for him to question it or to fuss about it, and if lucky, she wouldn’t be around to hear it or to deal with it.

“Everything will be fine, Pa. Now if it’s all right with you, I really need to get started.”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Along with you, then.”

She stood and started to leave, but then stopped. “Pa, I have a question for you, if you don’t mind.”

“What is it, darling?”

“What really happened that got you to allow Duncan to stay over to work on the dollhouse? I mean with the girls here and all?”

“Out of character for your old man?”

“Quite.”

Stephen’s chuckle came softly, as if he were laughing at himself. “Passion, Jennifer. Young Sinclair has it. All evening, when the children were called into the parlor in preparation for dinner, during the meal, and when we repaired to the music room afterward, the boy could not focus. It was in his eyes and all over his face that he could not wait to get back to that dollhouse. The flame was consuming him; I could see it. I so enjoyed talking with him, working with him.”

“I remember you, Pa. A long time ago, out there in the solarium, working. You had that once. It seems you still do.”

Her father nodded and smiled. His eyes were on her face, but she could tell he was seeing himself as she described him. He remembered, too. In her journals, her mother frequently referred to him as “passionate” about or “dedicated” to the things he loved.

She recalled having caught a glimpse of Duncan in the lobby of Pat’s building as she was leaving in the sable for her rendezvous with Jonathan. At that time, she had no idea the boy would become a part of her weekend. She wondered what her father would have made of Duncan’s New York persona had he decided to bring it with him. Would staunchly conservative Stephen Edwards have gotten past that eccentric outer shell to the talented youth underneath? Would they have bonded as well as it appeared they had in the solarium once she and Jonathan made it in on the night before to witness their interaction? Her father would have missed out on that experience had Duncan not come to Briarwood.

From the nightstand, her mother smiled at her.

Leave me alone, Mama. I’m not even going to try to make sense of it. I have too much on my mind as it is.

And she diverted back to her father. “So you were impressed with him, Pa?”

“Very much so. He is well-traveled, and is exceptionally knowledgeable about some of the major galleries in the world. He has an… an absolute appreciation for things one does not often find in a teen boy, particularly an urban American boy. I could not disappoint him with making him break off his endeavors. His interest was not in the girls, well a major portion of it wasn’t; he is human and seventeen, and that Marnie is awfully cute. However, his desire to complete what he started, the artistry in it, was a much greater draw. I understood that. Justine must have a rather eclectic set of friends at home, if Marnie and these two young men who have come here to be with her are any indication. ”

Jennifer smiled. “That she does, Pa.” She bent to kiss the top of his head. “I’d better go now and get dressed. It’s nearly time for breakfast.”

He walked her to the door. When they parted in the hall, she was left pondering what her father must have been like as a seventeen year old boy, just starting out in the world. How zealous and deep had he been about the things he was doing to have accomplished so much by the time he met the love of his life a mere four years later.

Her mother had only been sixteen to his twenty-one. Eighteen to his twenty-three when they married.

Then it came back to her, what he said about Teddy.

A conundrum, indeed.

And a good bit of déjà vu as well for you , Pa?

He need not worry. Sixteen year old J.J. Hart had a lot of living to do before going down that path- with anyone of any age. She really was a very different sort of girl with her own take on boys and their place in her current life. But she was also a girl who made up her own mind, so, there was that to consider…..

Thankfully, J.J. Hart also had a paranoid father with an itchy trigger finger, not to mention damn good aim. But, at the moment J.J.’s mother had more immediate matters to consider.

Marnie’s door, closed when she passed it earlier, was still closed but light and a faint sound of music now leaked out from underneath it.

Two down. Or up, however one wants to look at it.

Regardless, they’re out of the way, and I can concentrate on getting myself together.

Then it’s back to that doggoned Pat.

_________________________________________________________

J.J. half expected to find her grandfather inside the study, but it was dark and unoccupied when she got there. It wasn’t a room she frequented when he wasn’t in it; that was his space, and she respected the fact that it was, but that morning something greater than that regard drew her inside. With the intention of admitting some light, she opened the drapes, but the view on the other side of the glass held her in that spot.

The side gardens, slumbering underneath their own crystalline blanket, were as picturesque as the back yard and paddock had been from the music room. The grounds of her grandfather’s home, in their rural serenity, seemed to go on forever, even more so when covered in snow. She closed her eyes to imagine her mother’s favorite spot way out by the pond. The lake. The dock area, and what they all must look like, feel like on that morning.

Then she thought of Teddy and what trekking out to those places with him, in spite of the cold, might be like. What a nice- and legitimate- excursion for them to slip off on. She could have shown him all of that while he was there with her on his visit to Maryland. With Teddy, hanging out in the snow would surely be much more pleasant. But would that have been a good thing?

Or the right thing?

Young, and definitely impulsive….

No matter. There wouldn’t be time for that today. Or on this visit at all. Truth told, she might not even make it out to the guest house on this trip. In a couple of hours, everyone would be swept into the momentum of this special day.

Wonder if Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill came back during the night.

What if they decided not to….

Nahhhhh

She turned from the windows to switch on the table lamp, and her eyes went right to the wedding portrait of her parents over the fireplace, her reason for coming in there in the first place. Weddings, couples, relationships, love- those kinds of thoughts had been playing around in the shadows of her thinking for a while, but now they were making their way from the wings to center stage.

Her parents. Captured in oil and hung on the wall for posterity. In real life still hanging in there two decades later.

That’s a good thing.

It was a private source of comfort and pride that both her parents had only been married once, to each other, and they were still together and in love, with each other. She was one of few among her peers who could make that original-two-parents claim, and she was the one who regularly got ribbed about her parents still “doing it”, about them giving off the kind of vibes that said they did.

Whatever-r-rrr to all of you. Don’t hate.

So young and happy in that portrait. How lucky was it they ran into each other the way they did? Apparently that hookup was right, one of those things meant to be. Fate at its best. Like a match made in….

… heaven?

Say-y-y-y-y, what if both my grandmothers met up there, put their heads and hands together, and-

“I wondered why the light was on in here. I remembered switching it off last night”

Her flight of fancy aborted before it could leave the runway, J.J. swung around and returned to the moment. “Good morning, Pa. It’s just me. I hope you don’t mind my being in here. I needed a quiet place for a few minutes.”

Her grandfather came into the room, going right to his desk and switching on the lamp.  “It is fine, Justine. I cannot think of a nicer way to begin my day than being greeted by my granddaughter in my favorite room. This is as good a place as any to come when you need a bit of solitude.”

His eyes went past her to the windows as he picked up the newspaper waiting for him. “I see the snow stayed with us. Not very much of it, though.”

“It’s looks like a lot to me, but I guess that’s relative.”

“It is, darling. Like most things.”

He came over and sat down in the chair closest to where she stood. “Where is Marnie?”

“I left her in her room, getting dressed. Want I should go and get you some coffee?”

“What I want, Justine Jennifer Hart, is for you Californians to speak English properly.”

J.J. rolled her eyes. Standing over him as she was, he couldn’t possibly see her do it.  “Would you like for me to fetch you a cup of coffee, grandfather?”

He looked up at her. “Don’t be cheeky.”

She was relieved to detect that hint of amusement in his eyes. Her London accent was one of the best in her repertoire.

“Walter will bring the coffee.”  He gestured to the other chair with the newspaper he flipped open. “You can sit down and talk with me while we have a few moments to ourselves.”

She went right to the chair, eager and a bit anxious over what he might want to talk about.

“Theodore is a very talented young man,” he began as soon as she was seated.

I should have known.

“Yes, Pa, he is. In many ways, I’m finding out.”

She hoped that sudden blush she felt on the inside didn’t show on her face. She hadn’t been alluding to that way, but unfortunately, the unintentional but possible double entendre was right there for someone to pick up on.

If he did detect it; however, Pa didn’t let on that he did.  “From the conversation we had yesterday afternoon, watching him work in the solarium with you and the others, and from listening to him sing last evening, I can tell  he is quite a gifted person. But then, I am finding my granddaughter has talents she has been keeping from her Pa.”

“Me?”

“You, Justine. I knew you played the piano, but I have never heard you play in that manner before. I did not know you could accompany someone as they sing. Have you and Theodore worked together before musically? ”

“No, that was the first time for us in person. The music department at my school often overlaps disciplines. I’m officially in the jazz band program, but I sometimes get lent out to the choral department to learn to work with singers, so I have some experience with that. Occasionally I even get called upon to fill in with the orchestra. I’m not so crazy about orchestra and playing classical music or accompaniment, but Mr. Washington says I need to be well-rounded.”

J.J. reached across to lay her hand on Stephen’s forearm. “But then, I’m finding that my grandfather is pretty well-rounded, as well. He has talents he’s been keeping from me.”

She confirmed for him the question she could read in his eyes. “They’re beautiful, Pa. Your work is wonderful.”

“Before or after I told you, Justine?”

“I saw them before you told me. Actually, I went around there right after I first arrived from New York. I was astounded to see them, but I had no idea they were your work until you told me.”

“And you have kept that to yourself all this time? Why did you not mention it when we talked? Did you not have questions?”

“I did- have questions, I mean- but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know. I didn’t want you to think I was being nosy.”

“I have always understood you to be inquisitive, Justine, but I have never thought you nosy.”

“Then Pa?”

“Yes, darling.”

“Why? You told me why you put the wall there, but what made you change your mind and take it away after all this time? I mean, if I’m not being too inquisitive.”

Stephen put the paper down and took her hand in his. “It was time. I did it for your mother, I did it for me, but I did it mostly for you. I had not been fair to your mother, but more importantly, none of us have been fair to you. We have kept your grandmother from you all this time, and that was not right. Your mother rediscovered her mother last summer. You should know of her, as well.”

“I know my mother did. I was here. It was rough for her.”

“Has she has spoken of her mother to you since that time?”

“More than she has in the past; there’s only so much she remembers. She was twelve when my grandmother died, so what memories my mother has are only her kid memories. It’s been decades since the accident, so I would guess there’s an awful lot of fuzziness on my mother’s part about what she remembers of her mother. Then too, things you recall as a kid aren’t necessarily what was really going on; perceptions and understandings change as you get older. My mother didn’t get that chance to grow like that about her mother.”

Not quite sure what to make of the odd look her grandfather was giving her, J.J. stopped talking and waited for him to say something.

“There are things you should know of your grandmother from me,” he said after a few moments. “When we have more time, you and I will sit down and speak of her together.”

She wished they had the time right then. So much could come up or happen to keep them from ever getting back to where they were, but the hope in what he offered was a lot more than she had.

“I’d like that very much, Pa.”

“Good morning. May I join you two?”

When Stephen waved Jennifer in from in the doorway, J.J. stood to relinquish her chair to her mother.

“Can’t tell you how glad I am to see you already up,” Jennifer said as she accepted her daughter’s morning kiss to her cheek and the seat she offered. “I’ll tell you, I was not looking forward to the struggle to wake you, sleepyhead that you tend to be and as early as it is. How’s that cold? Have you taken your vitamins?”

“I haven’t even had breakfast yet, Mom.”

“I don’t want you to conveniently forget.”

The woman never let up about some things, particularly the prickly, aggravating things that happened to be- in her mother’s opinion- good for her.

“Mom, I-”

“Jennifer, I am going to have to ask you to leave my granddaughter alone. She is perfectly right not to take that stuff on an empty stomach. Justine is not going to forget what she is supposed to do. She has done just fine, operating on her own at her grandfather’s these past few days. Haven’t you, darling?”

“Yes, I have, Pa.”

J.J. made a point of not looking down when her mother’s eyes shot up to her, and she pressed her lips together to contain the grin and to keep the smugness from dripping onto the top of her mother’s head. In urgent need of moving away from the adults so she could make it out to the hall and happy-dance in the face Jennifer Hart’s comeuppance, she excused herself.

“Well, I’m going to leave you guys so I can maybe get some juice from Rosa and go ahead and take the meds, you know, before I forget.”

“Yes, you do that, M-z-z-z-z Photoplay 2001.”

Over-inflated ego abruptly deflated, J.J. worked hard to maintain her outward composure as she left the study. The last thing she heard as she entered the hall was her grandfather asking, “Why did you call her that?”

Ohhh- kayyyy, it’s been properly moved and seconded that she has that memory card and she knows what’s on it.

And I got her called out by her father.

I’m dead on this one.

She started it, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Dead.

You didn’t do anything except model a coat…

… yeah, her coat, while looking real naked underneath it.

Dead as hell….

Of course, her mother would change the subject and not explain it to Pa; she wouldn’t put it out there like that. But there was nothing lost in interpretation between herself and the Duchess.

… oh well, can’t worry about that now. That shoe will have to fall when it does….

Her intention had been to head to the kitchen and request the juice to take the vitamins. On the way around there; however, the dollhouse came to mind, and she detoured to the solarium to see how much progress Duncan and Pa had made before going to bed.

The doors were closed when she got there. She reached to open one, but then it dawned on her that Duncan might be in there, and if so, he might not be decent. She knocked instead.

“Coming!”

And she blew a sigh of relief at having been taught basic good manners.

“Closed doors, even at home, are meant to be knocked on, Justine.”

Especially at home.

Not that it had ever been that sort of an issue for her. When one lived with the Harts, one took totally to heart that particular lesson.

‘Cause one could easily end up in therapy or scarred for life.

The door swung open and there stood Duncan dressed in tee shirt and jeans, toweling his damp hair.

“Good morning, J. I was wondering if you would come down before breakfast. Just got out the shower and back in here myself. Come on.”

“I like you better with the brown hair than the Goth black look you sport for the public.” she said, as she took him up on the invite. “How’d you get the black out so fast?”

Duncan wrapped the towel around his shoulders. “It was rinse. Rinse comes out; dye doesn’t. Since I like to- sometimes have to- transform from time to time, I go with rinse.”

“Rinse is easier on the hair, too. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know first hand. I’m not allowed such liberties with my own hair. Can you believe it?”

“You don’t need to be allowed that liberty. The natural red’s good on you, and appropriate.”

“I’m not even going to ask you what you mean by appropriate, Duncan.”

“That’s because you already know the answer.”

She flipped him a quick “talk to the hand” and headed for the paint-stained tarps on the floor.

The room was glass walled and daylight getting stronger, but Duncan had the room lights on. A couple of the lamps had also been brought over to be used as spotlights while they had been working, and they, too, were switched on. It had only been a day, but to her eyes the transformation was nothing short of amazing. The dollhouse seemed to glow in its refurbishing. Even the nameplate over the front door had been burnished to a renewed gleam.

Like so many other things she’d encountered on this visit, “Jenny’s House” had returned to the living side of Briarwood’s walls.

And what about her grandfather? He also seemed to have come back better, stronger, and more vital from some dark, hidden, forlorn place.

For her, he said.

She knelt to more closely examine the hard-to-believe fine detailing. Even the rooms inside had been painted and meticulously trimmed. “How long were you guys down here last night?”

“Your grandfather went up about 1:30 or so. He tried to put me in a bedroom upstairs, but I told him I wanted to stay in here. Sometimes, when I’m working on something that has my attention, I go back to it several times in the night. I didn’t want to be prowling around, waking people up, trying to feel my way back down here, so your grandfather arranged for me to stay in here.

A quick peek at the couch revealed the tell-tale folded blankets and pillows.

“Did you get much sleep?” she asked, returning her attention back to the dollhouse and noticing for the first time the tiny “J” and “E” figured into the ceramic tiled foyer floor.

“As much as I need when I’m on a job. I get my fuel from the work more than I do from sleep. I sure am glad I decided to come here with Teddy. This was great, and I learned so much talking and working with your grandfather. He’s got great hands, great technique. Showed me some things I can definitely use. You’re a lucky girl, surrounded by so many intelligent people with so many different talents and skills. If I’d have stayed home, it would have just been me, work at the shops, maybe some homework and a little painting, with a blunt or two to help me though it all.”

J.J. looked up at him. “You didn’t do that last thing while you were in here, did you?”

Duncan grinned. “Nah. I do have some home training. I’d have gone outside to do that, but I didn’t even bring any with me. All I could think of was your aunt. It’s bad enough that she already hates me-”

“She doesn’t hate you.”

“-and I’m essentially on her turf. I’m not giving Ms. Hamilton that kind of ammunition to use against me. But off that subject, J., like, just how serious is Marnie with this guy you mentioned she was dating?”

“Good morning.”

It was Jonathan arrived in the doorway, and in this instance, the interruption was a welcome, not to mention timely, one for J.J. She pushed up from the floor and turned around in time to catch her father’s eyes flit from the couch, back to her, over to Duncan, and bounce back to her. Hanging out in a boy’s “bedroom” and walked up on by her father, who she was certain would see it just that way. Add to that Duncan standing there with damp, fresh-from-the-shower hair. Nothing left to do except play it off.

She flashed her father her brightest smile. “Good morning, daddy.”

After a quick kiss to his cheek, she took his arm. “Come see this.”

As she drug him past, J.J. saw him fish-eye Duncan while saying “Good morning” to him. To get the man to focus, J.J. tugged at the hand gripped inside hers.

“Look. Didn’t they do a good job? Check out all the detailing they’ve done. Isn’t it amazing the progress they made, considering they started working on this less than twenty-four hours ago?”

When Jonathan squatted down before the dollhouse, J.J. remained standing behind him, and watched as he reached out to brush a fingertip over the newly shined nameplate over the front door.

Funny, she thought, how with that entire toy house in front of him, that was the one thing he honed right in on. Hugely macho guy that her father tended to be, that little plate with that name on it was the one thing that caught his eye and that he actually touched.

Jenny’s House

In life, she reflected, with his considerable range of options, he held out and, in the end, chosen well for himself.

Lucky for her.

Lucky for both of them.

All of them.

And wasn’t it funny how that one other person, actually the absence of that person, was the common denominator in every single other one of them ending up together in Maryland that weekend? They were there for a wedding, but if it weren’t for her, that dollhouse, all of the people coming together and getting to know each other or renewing old relationships, the main house, the guest house- heck, even Aunt Pat, Uncle Bill, and their wedding itself- none of it would be.

Absolutely everything would be different.

Not even she would have been had her grandmother not left them.

How sad and kinda scary to think about, but how real.

The thoughts rushing like freed floodwaters, J.J. found herself overwhelmed, then oddly dizzy with trying to keep up. One hand to her forehead to stop the spinning, she used her father’s shoulder to steady herself.

“You all right, baby?”

She opened her eyes to find his searching her face and Duncan at her side.

“J, you okay?”

Embarrassed, more so because of Duncan being there, she struggled to find the words. “Yes, yes, I- I’m good. I was just thinking, and it- I-, I guess I do that too much sometimes.”

It amazed even her how quickly her father was up from the floor with an arm around her.

“Yeah, you do,” he said as he continued to check out her face. “Are you sure that’s all it is?”

As graciously as she could, she eased herself from his protective hold. He had enough in front of him that he’d have to deal with without unnecessarily worrying over her. “Yes, daddy. I’m sure. I’m fine. There’s just so much going on, so much we have to get done, we’ve been running around a lot and stuff.”

She flipped the ponytail over her shoulder and lifted her chin. “I’m fine, I promise you. You do still have the CD’s I gave, don’t you? Are they at Uncle Bill’s or here? If they’re, you’re going to take them with you when you leave this morning aren’t you? You guys are supposed to get dressed at Uncle Bill’s. All of us will be here, so I won’t get to hook up with you about that once we split up this morning.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes to Duncan. “See how she bosses me?”

Duncan grinned and left them to go over to laptop on the side table.

J.J. hooked her arm in her father’s and walked him to the windows on the other side of the room.

She whispered her question to him. “Everything’s going to be okay, isn’t it?”

“What, with-”

“You know what I’m-”

“Look, it’s as okay as I can make it be, J.J. Some things are outside our control.”

“This has been one heck of a trip. My mother told me last night that Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill weren’t here yet. It’s snowed. If they haven’t arrived by now, do you think they’ll make it in on time? I wonder how the roads are? Aunt Pat’s used to snow, but Uncle Bill- Have you or my mother talked with anyone this morning?”

She saw his answer in his eyes, and he confirmed what she detected there when he kissed her forehead. “For a kid, you worry too much, you know that?”

“Daddy, you didn’t answer me.”

“And I repeat, you worry too much.”

“When one cares, one tends to worry. Don’t you guys tell me that all the time?”

When he frowned his exasperation with her, she frowned hers with him right back.

“Excuse me, Mr. Hart, but breakfast will be served in five minutes.”

Walter was on his way out before he could be thanked for the notification. J.J. found herself moved in front of her father and headed for the door while at the same time he waved to Duncan. “Let’s go, son. Mr. Edwards has a fit if people are late to his table, particularly his breakfast table.”

She admired and appreciated the way her father always included her friends and made them feel at home, wherever they were.

Duncan clicked a couple keys on the laptop, slicked back his hair with his hands, and then hurried over to them while at the same time tucking in his shirt. The contrast in how he appeared at that moment to that day they were together in the lobby of the apartment building in New York had J.J. laughing on the inside.

Such a diverse group of people gathered in one place. She hoped everything played out as originally planned.

Or that it all worked out positively, however it played out.

In the hall, they met up with Marnie, rushing in their direction, but with a twirl of his hand and a pointed index finger, Jonathan Hart turned her around. A quick check of his face told J.J. he knew exactly why Marnie was in such a hurry, and that he wasn’t having it. She looked behind her to see if Duncan noticed the brief, but effective exchange. Duncan was focused on the girl in front of all of them.

Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill might still be out of place, but fate had the rest of the family and their friends lined up quite nicely. Everything really was as okay as any of them could make it. All that was left was to go with the flow and end up wherever things took them, which was fine with her as long as they were all on the journey together and ended up together.

_________________________________________________________

After everyone had been served and begun to eat, Jennifer laid out the morning plans. “The girls and I will be together. We have hair, facials, and all of that in the city, and then we’ll be back here to get dressed. Jonathan, Pa, the car will come for you two and yes, you as well, Duncan. You’re here now, so you’re included in all of this.”

J.J. dropped her eyes to her plate when Duncan shot a surprised look over to her. Jennifer continued talking through the silent exchange.

“Your car will continue to Pat and Bill’s where you’ll pick up all the guys. Haircuts, whatever else you need to do in the city, and then you’ll go back to Bill’s and stay there until time for the wedding. Pa, the car will bring you back here to get dressed. You’ll leave for the wedding in the second car with J.J. and the ladies.

“I have no problem with riding in a car full of women, but I don’t know why I am being made to go into the city for a haircut.” Stephen gestured toward his head. “To cut what?”

Jonathan suppressed his grin when Jennifer softly sucked her teeth in response to her father’s complaint. “It’s because Pat’s arranged it that way, Pa. Now please don’t be difficult. She has everything arranged.”

“Oh, it is I to whom the difficult tag is being pinned,” Stephen challenged. “She has everything ‘arranged’, as you say- Just you wait until I-”

The discreet young hand sliding onto his forearm stopped his fussing before he could start. His  granddaughter’s face softened his stance completely. “Whatever you say, Jennifer. It seems you have the wheel in this, and we are all merely bewildered passengers on Patricia’s bizarre touring bus.”

The fingers slid away, and he heard the whispered, “Good one, Pa.”

Jennifer ignored her father’s comment and instead addressed the girls. “J.J., Marnie, finish up there. We have to swing by and pick up the Dean and Ms. Smythe, and then Lisa and Dora from Pat’s. Our appointments are at ten, and it’s already after eight.”

“What’s Aunt Pat going to do?” Marnie asked. “She was supposed to go with us to the salon. I know she is not going to just show up off the street for her own wedding.”

“Would be interesting, though,” J.J. observed, fork in hand, eyes half closed as if she were picturing in her head what she was saying. “Personally, I prefer a more natural look. You know, kind of windblown, tousled. Sort of casual, laid back. But then, well, being who she is, Aunt Pat probably couldn’t pull off that Bohemian look real effectively, but-.”

She ducked back to her plate when the look in her mother’s eyes shut her down.

“I’m sure she’ll have that worked out, Marnie,” Jennifer said when she left off the visual skewering of her daughter.

“You know, Jennifer,” Stephen said. “There is a first time for all things.”

“And seconds,” said Jonathan. “And if you’re very lucky, thirds and fourths, and even more.”  Finished with his meal, he placed his napkin on the table and sat back in his chair, disregarding the puzzled looks from everyone at the table except J.J.

_________________________________________________________

The party of four exited the limousine and slowly crossed the short stretch of tarmac. The two younger men flanked the older man and the lone woman in the group. A pilot stood in the open doorway at the top of the stairs of the waiting personal jet.

Just as she reached the foot of those stairs, the woman slowed, then stopped. Her knees seemed to buckle, then she swayed. The older man caught her and held on to support her while the others, including the pilot, closed ranks around them.

_________________________________________________________

Jennifer was hanging up the house phone just as Jonathan walked into the bedroom. She had come up right after breakfast to get what she needed for the morning’s appointments and to make that phone call she resolved during breakfast to make just as soon as the meal was over. He came to the side of the bed, offered her his hands to bring her to her feet, and then pulled her to him, wrapping both arms snugly around her.

“Well darling,” he said, “this is it. I won’t see you again until this afternoon. I’m going to miss you.”

“It’s only a few hours, Jonathan, not a week like it was when we were getting married.”

“I’m glad of that. A week was an eternity. I kept praying you wouldn’t change your mind during the time you were away from me.”

She rubbed his nose with hers. “No chance. I was completely hooked by that time. Like it or not, you were stuck with me.”

“And I’ve so enjoyed the sticking.”

“Jonathan!”

He lightly pinched her side. “So what did Cordelia tell you?”

At the question, she dropped her eyes from his and slowly shook her head. An embarrassed grin formed on her lips. “How in the world do you do that?”

“Do what? Read you? You’re just so easy.”

She pushed back from him. “Easy?”

He pulled her in again and laughed. “Easy to read, Jennifer. You’re easy for me to read. See, I watched you at the table. I could see you were mentally weighing your options. Phoning Cordelia now would be your only chance to kind of get her alone and feel her out. I figure her, Rosa, and Walter for heading off together to get ready for the wedding. Rosa will be taking Cordelia to her people while the rest of you ladies go off to yours. After that, you’ll be busy doing your thing here, and Cordelia will be back at the other house doing hers. So again I ask, what did you find out from her?”

Jennifer shook her head as she gazed up at him. “I’m impressed. Have I told you that you are one brilliant man. You truly missed your calling as a sleuth.”

“So are you. A brilliant woman, I mean, and so did you on the sleuth thing. Now answer my question.”

“Not much. You know how Cordelia is when it comes to Pat. All she told me was Pat and Bill had yet to arrive, as if I didn’t already know that. I’d already spoken with Elise Lawton before I called up Cordelia. Elise is already at the house. She’ll be there supervising all day, so there’s no worry on that end of things.”

“Cordelia didn’t seem too bent out of shape about Pat not being there yet?”

“No, but then she never gives the appearance of being bent out of shape about anything. I believe a bomb could go off next to that woman, and she wouldn’t so much as flinch.”

“What about Marnie?”

“What about Marnie?”

“Just wondering if you’ve noticed the lack of agitation on her part over Pat’s absence? At the table, she only seemed concerned over what Pat was going to wear, not that she might not be there at all.”

Jennifer raised her eyes back to her husband’s. “What are you thinking?”

His arms were still around her, but he shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just an observation. Typically, Marnie’s kind of emotional about things like this. Either she’s all over the place, or she’s somewhere off to herself and shutting down. We have this gross uncertainty with one of her favorite people, but things seem pretty business as usual with Miss Benson.”

“And now that you mention it, with her little friend, too. That one had a mouthful of questions last night, but she wasn’t nearly as agitated as I’d expect her to be. I bet they know something we don’t. Do you think Pat could have been in touch with them? And if so, why would she contact them and not me? I think she could have gotten to Cordelia, too, and that’s why Cordelia was so non-committal with me on the phone. And if so, why her and not me? What is Pat thinking? What is going on?”

“Now who has the mouthful of questions?”

Out of words altogether, she lay her head against his chest. He tightened his hold on her. “Like you said at the table, Jennifer, Pat rarely leaves ends hanging.”

“Yes, but then Pa said there is a first time for everything.”

Jonathan kissed her forehead. “Like first dances. Save yours for me tonight?”

“I should be making that request of you.”

“Now who else would I be giving my first dance to other than the love of my life?”

“The other love of your life, the one with the ponytail.”

He chuckled. “Believe me, she will not be thinking about dancing with Daddy tonight. She’ll be breaking her neck to get to that curly headed “friend” of hers.”

The fast moving, but fleeting storm cloud she saw briefly cross her husband’s brow tickled Jennifer’s insides. “Do I detect a twinge of jealousy, Daddy?”

“What you detect is the involuntary twitch of my trigger finger. As I’ve said many times before- to the pertinent parties- guns don’t kill people; fathers with pretty teenaged daughters do.”

“Jonathan.”

“I’m serious. I hear what you say about J.J. and where she is in all this, but I continue to maintain that he’s seventeen and therefore, prone to lapses in-”

The door to the room was open, but a knock preceded the apologetic sounding voice. “Mom, Daddy, excuse me, but the cars are here.”

Before either of them could answer, J.J. was already gone from the doorway.

Jennifer exhaled as she reluctantly removed herself from Jonathan’s hold. “Well, I guess we’d better get this show on the road. I really hope this doesn’t all turn out to be only for show.”

“I’m pretty sure it won’t.”

As he followed her out of the room, Jonathan snatched a quick peek inside his vest pocket and patted its contents for good measure.

_________________________________________________________

Early Saturday afternoon….

J.J., limp as a cooked noodle following her facial, massage, and shampoo slid into the chair next to her mother’s. Neither of their stylists had come to the area yet, so she took the opportunity to check out her mother’s face. There had been a good deal of excited chatter all morning among their group, but her mother had been unusually quiet through most of it.  In light of that “Ms. Photoplay” comment in the study, an ominous reference to that missing memory card, J.J. made it a point to steer clear of her. However, circumstance had now forced them together.

Quiet. Very still. Staring straight ahead, but not really looking at anything or anyone in particular. Somebody else might call it introspective, but J.J. knew better. The Duchess was worried, which in turn troubled her. She tapped her mother’s arm to get her attention.

“Are you okay, Mom?”

“I’m fine, sweetie.” The slow smile, the averted eyes, and the insincere sounding response were exactly what J.J. expected.

J.J. leaned over the arm of her chair. “You’re worried about Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill, aren’t you?”

“Are you trying to be the mother again, J.J. Hart?”

“No, but I do know my mother. I can recognize when she’s upset over something. You’re worried about them, aren’t you? I don’t blame you. It’s really kind of inconsiderate, if you ask me.”

“I don’t recall asking you.”

Her mother’s ill-disguised distress and her sass compelled J.J. to throw her earlier nervousness about her mother to the wind. “You didn’t, but it still is. I’ll take my chances with you on putting it out there like that. I don’t like it when people get on your nerves like this; I don’t care who it is that’s doing it. That gets on my nerves. You can lock me down for saying it, I don’t care, Mom. That’s how it is.”

The stylist appeared behind her mother’s chair and began smoothing the damp hair back from her forehead, which cut off any possible verbal response on her part. But for J.J., it said so much more when her mother reached out for her hand, took it in hers, gently squeezed it, and let go.

She wished there was something she could do to ease her mother’s anxiety. There were things she’d been made privy to that she couldn’t disclose, but even worse, there was too much she didn’t know or couldn’t be certain about.

When she felt her own stylist’s hands in her hair, she gave in to her physical lethargy. It would be her only chance to rest in that way for a while. Once they left the salon, she would have to be on absolute point for the next several hours; that much would be expected- and needed of her.

Ooooh, I never did take those vitamins. Dang…. gotta take care of that.

To mentally slow down, she closed her eyes and thought of Teddy.

Not a good thing.

She switched to thinking of her mother, her father, Aunt Pat, and Uncle Bill.

_________________________________________________________

Saturday Afternoon

Jonathan adjusted his tie, thinking if Jennifer were in the room, she’d be doing that for him. It was habit with her. He’d put the tie on, think it looked just fine, only to have her come along and adjust it.

He smiled at his reflection in the glass.

Just can’t keep her hands off me.

As if…

Hell, I could do with her hands on me right about now. With her arms and her legs-

… keep thinking baseball, Jonathan… baseball….

Standing before the three-way mirror, dressed in all but the tuxedo jacket still hanging on the valet, he checked himself from head to toe, automatically including the obligatory abdominal suck-in typical of mature males.

Not bad, I guess, for it being the better part of three decades later.

Being married to Jennifer, he had little choice but to keep as fit as possible. She made sure they all ate right and got plenty of exercise…

… and plenty of…

Baseball, man, stick with it for just a few more hours.

Unless, of course, Bill and Pat mucked things up, then who knew how much longer it would be before-

Don’t be selfish; it’s not about you and what you want… or need….

But things were getting ever closer to the wire with still no word.

After returning from running around with the guys, he and Peter met with Elise Lawton to get final assurance everything was in order. From there, he went to the tents to see for himself. All that was needed was for the guests to arrive and for the two principal parties to make it to the “church” on time. Not wishing to be ignored in his efforts another time, he hadn’t tried again to call any one of those four phones. Instead, his plan B, as weak and iffy as it was, had been to attempt to pin Cordelia down once he got back to the house. It didn’t work out. She, Walter, and Rosa hadn’t made it back from their own trip into the city. Elise had planned catered lunches for those gathered at that house and for the people at Briarwood. After eating, he had come up, showered, and taken his time to get dressed.

He tapped at the jacket hanging on the valet. Then he sat down and took a needed deep breath. He wanted to phone Jennifer but figured she had her hands full. Besides, a phone conversation would only open to discussion the concerns and questions she undoubtedly harbored as she managed the girls, oversaw her father, and got herself together. Better to leave those things alone for the moment, seeing as how talking about them wasn’t going to fix anything.

As for him, there was nothing left to do but wait. Just as it had been before….

Closing his eyes and relaxing while he had a moment to do so, he traveled back…

… sitting as he was at the moment, alone in his room, dressed, and waiting….

“Louise Tolbin”….

Genius, her clever attempts to maneuver and finagle an interview with him. He and Max did all they could to dodge her, but fate had been the better strategist.

An instantaneous, heart stopping, life changing click. Up to that moment, he’d been master of his heart, the designer of his days….

Eyes like rich butternut toffee. That dazzling smile. Then she stood up on that set of outstandingly long, shapely legs….

Great laugh, quick mind, and a perfect fit in his arms as they danced that night.

And when they finally made it back to his room, the time he had sense enough and the wherewithal to stay awake ….

The prim reporter outfit and that businesslike French roll hairdo had not prepared him… not prepared him at all…

Perfect in every way….

He smiled, folded his arms across his chest, and floated even deeper into the daydream.

“Patience”, Anastasia would always say.

“Dames are a dime a dozen.” Max frequently reminded him. “You’re lookin’ for a lady, a woman wit’ brains and class. In the meantime, keep it casual, and keep a boot on it. Good things come to those who wait on ’em.”

And then fate- or whatever alias absentee mothers went by- dropped her right next to him.

Jennifer Edwards ….

And after all these years, she still fit. They still fit.

Perfectly.

Naturally.

Essentially.

Completely.

Eter-

Footsteps on the back staircase. He sensed them before he actually heard them, thus he was out of the chair and peeking around the door frame in time to see Cordelia pass, moving in the direction of the master suite. His first inclination was to follow her, but second thought told him to stay put. Something about Cordelia and her relationship with Pat elevated her above and beyond servant or employee. Something about her commanded strict respect for boundaries, kept people in their places. To confront Cordelia in Pat’s space would be….

… disrespectful? Wrong?

Just plain stupid?

If nothing else, Cordelia would go on the hard defense, and he’d get nothing from her if there was indeed something to get. That secret tiny bad feeling he had about Pat and Bill refused to let up. If anybody had an inside track in this situation, Cordelia would be the one. She would be who Pat, and thereby Bill, would trust to remain outwardly objective and unreadable to others. He’d learned through Max’s teachings and his own years of hustling, wheeling, and dealing that patience, definitely an acquired virtue on his part, could pay off big.

So he waited.

_________________________________________________________

Well, this is as good as it gets.

Jennifer turned to the right, then back around to the left to see as much of herself as she could. The ivory garment fit to a tee and complimented her figure. Fontaine had outdone himself in following her requests for the design. Her shoes were a perfect match for the style. The upswept hairstyle was elaborate, but worked in concert with the dress and shoes.

…Jonathan….

He preferred her hair loose and flowing as opposed pinned up, but there would be one thing he’d like about it today. He would look forward to taking it down when day was done and they were alone.

Pin by very slow pin. And so would she….

Not now, Jennifer.

His fingers, strong, but at the same time gentle. Persistent, playing in the curls he loosed, while his lips loved the exposed nape of her neck…. the backs of her shoulders… as behind her, he inched up her dress until… he unfastened his… pressed his-

Oooh, I said not now.

    When, then?

I don’t know, but definitely not now.

She patted at her flushed cheeks and moist brow, fanned the blush forming on the back of her neck.

Whew. This does not make sense. One would think after all these years…

Then she laughed at herself before returning to checking her appearance and sobering once it all came back to her.

It was supposed to be her and Pat in the mirror, not her alone. It should have been her and Pat the entire week, but….

In all that transpired since she first arrived from New York, she had almost forgotten the original source of the problem they now faced. What in the world was wrong with Pat that set all the rest of it in motion? It was all so out of character for such a methodical, practical, creature of habit.

She closed her eyes and pressed her hands together, touching the fingertips to her chin.

God, please let her be all right.

Mama, please put in a word for your girls. This truly needs to happen. Pat and Bill really need to have this happen.

I really need-

She opened her eyes and jumped at finding she was no longer alone in the mirror.

“J.J.!”

Wide-eyed, flinching as if she had startled herself, J.J. immediately apologized for the intrusion. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. The door was open. I came in since I knew Daddy wasn’t in here.”

The pearl strands in J.J.’s reflected hands diverted Jennifer’s attention from that last thing J.J. said. That, and her hair was now loose rather than styled in the upswept manner it was when she left the salon.

Flabbergasted, Jennifer whipped around to actually face J.J. “What in the world have you done? Why in the world did you take your hair down? All that time spent to weave those beads in, and-”

J.J. paled, stiffened,took a subtle step backward, and Jennifer realized the expression on her face must be conveying more to the girl than her questions or the tone of their delivery. J.J. Hart didn’t back up a lot or often, but when she did, it was usually with good cause; her daughter’s retreat from her softened herstance. J.J.’s face reflected how she felt herself- as if she could cry. Slowly shaking her head, she went to the girl.

Her hair, so pretty when they left the shop. The stylist worked so hard on it. Oddly though, even with it falling down in her face, flowing like molten lava over her shoulders and down her back, the look was becoming, but of course completely unsuited for a wedding.

Wasn’t it?

“… I prefer a more natural look. You know, kind of windblown, tousled. Sort of casual, laid back…”

Jennifer raked a thick length between her fingers and held it up between them. “J.J., why? We spent all that time. Pat spent all that money.”

“Mom, I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t wear that prom queen hairdo. I just couldn’t. I had to take it out. I would have died having to wear my hair like that all evening.”

“They why didn’t you say something at the salon? I thought you liked it because it was pinned up and out of your way.”

“I tried to be okay with it, really I did, but I looked liked one of those old time paintings. You know, like Empress Josephine, Madam Pompadour, or somebody.”  Then she hung her head. Her words came softly, but sincerely. “I didn’t know it was going to look like that. When I first saw it, I hated it, but I didn’t want to say. I didn’t want to put any more on you. I thought it might look okay once I had my wedding get-up on and all, but-”

Jennifer noticed that aside from the disheveled hair, J.J. was otherwise very prettily outfitted in her dress, jewelry, and shoes.

“Why didn’t you at least say something about it in the car, J.J.?”

J.J. sighed. “Well, see, at first, like I said, I was going to try to deal with it. I really, really didn’t want to be one more thing on you, but once I got dressed and I looked at- Mom, I know you’re busy and worried and everything, and you say I’m spoiled and you’re not my personal stylist and all, but please, can you do it? Please, just twist it, French braid it, or something. It can be down, and the pearls can go back in if you can do it without a lot of trouble, but I just couldn’t go to the wedding looking like a sorority bobble head, not even for Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill. It simply was not me.”

“Jus-s-s-s-tine.” Jennifer then gave in. What else could she- they do?  “Come on here.”

She took the pearl strands from J.J. and led her to the vanity where she had her sit. “J.J., what are you going to do when I’m not-”

“Like I’ve told you before, I’ll wear the ponytail like I started to before I came in here, but I thought Pa might kill me. Then he’d get after you for letting me, which would result in me getting killed all over again. I started to do the ponytail and maybe twist it up in a ball with those pearls around it, but I don’t think that would have cut it with Pa either. I’m sorry I’m being a pain, and that I’m being it right now, but I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it better to come in here to you than to have you walk up on me trying to fix it myself.”

“And you were right.”

Jennifer was already at work, brushing, pulling and separating, all the while thinking how simplicity and normalcy, constant themes in her daughter’s personal development and struggle for independence since she was old enough to make her choices known, didn’t appear likely to change. Rather, they were solidifying, becoming a very real part of her person. J.J. liked to look nice, but for her “nice” constituted clean and neat over fussy, expensive, or trendy. Even in her fondness for foot wear and precious gemstones, she made selections suited to her rather than what was most costly or currently popular.

“Where is Marnie. J.J.? Is she dressed?”

“She’s all dressed. Looks really pretty, too. Just like a bridesmaid. This kind of thing is right up her alley. She came into the room with me, but when she saw I was taking my hair down, she shot out of Dodge like a bat out of- I mean she left and went downstairs to keep from being witness to it. She said you were going to get with me for sure, and she didn’t want you to do two for one. I couldn’t blame her. I’d have left her to fend for herself, too.”

“I should be turning you over my knee. I keep telling you, you’re not too big or too old for it. Do you really want the beads back in?”

“I don’t care. I don’t care how you do it. You make good decisions about what looks good on me. Just like this dress; I love it, and I don’t care for dresses much. I could never come up with something this nice on my own.”

“Thank you. Aside from this hair, you look lovely.”

“Thanks, Mom. I don’t know what’s going to happen with stuff like this when I go off to college.”

“You’ll avoid these types of functions like the plague and be in jeans and boots all the time. That’s what’s going to happen, J.J. Hart, and you know it.”

“If I’m on this side of the country going to school, I will have to be in jeans and boots all the time just to keep warm. If it weren’t for the plow service, we’d have to wear boots to the wedding today.”

Jennifer hooked a string of pearls into the hank of hair in her hands. Then she rolled hair and pearls into a loose twist which she drew around to the back of J.J.’s head.

“Mom?”

“Hmmm?”As much of a response as Jennifer could muster for the bobby pins pinched between her lips.

“Are you mad at Aunt Pat?”

Jennifer secured the first soft twist and started on a second one.

“Do you think Aunt Pat is sick and that’s why she’s not here yet?”

With both twists softly framing J.J.’s face, Jennifer stabilized them with the hairpins and then used the ends of both pearl strands to fashion an elaborate bow to hold the two together.

“Mom, did that letter in the desk drawer tell you Aunt Pat was sick? Is that why you went looking for her that night?”

Jennifer brushed and blended the wavy loose ends of the twists into the rest of the hair hanging down J.J.’s back. The style simple, yet classy, and most importantly, out of J.J.’s face. J.J., Pa, and probably Jonathan- don’t forget Teddy- should be pleased.

“There now,” Jennifer said, patting J.J.’s upper arms and using the mirror to speak to her face. “How about that?”

J.J. smiled into the glass, using a finger to pull out single fine strands to hang loose on both sides of her face. “Beautiful. This is so much better. Thank you.” She turned around on the bench and looked up. “But you didn’t answer me.”

First touching the tips of two fingers to her lips, Jennifer pressed them to J.J.’s forehead and said, “I know.”

She could feel J.J.’s eyes on her as she leaned past her to straighten the items on the vanity. No protest over being ignored. No customary continued line of questioning, but she could practically hear J.J.’s confusion and hesitation.

There was still the matter of that memory card between them, a bargaining chip she held of which J.J. Hart, innate gambler, was acutely aware. It stood to reason she wasn’t going to push. The girl was no fool; the odds were not in her favor, and as it was, she’d already taken a huge risk with the hair. In J.J.’s mind, it would be in her best interest best to fold for the time being.

It was that way in J.J.’s mother’s mind, too.

You are definitely your father’s child. Cagey and slick, but smart.

Yes, we’ll table the memory card for now, baby. In the meantime….

Finished with the vanity, she tapped the back of J.J.’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetie, and get your things. The cars will be here shortly. Marnie and I have to leave before the rest of you.”

Jennifer gathered her own wrap and purse from the bed, while J.J. picked up hers. “Mom, one more thing.”

“What now, J.J.?”

“How come you never told me about Aunt Pat’s house in Long Island? Marnie said she went there with Uncle Bill. How come Aunt Pat never told me about it or took me there?”

Jennifer turned J.J. around by the shoulders and moved her toward the door, fluffing her hair, then fussing with the sash at the back of her dress. “Why do you ask so many questions?”

“Because there are so many questions, that’s why. And nobody tells me anything.”

“All right, well how about I tell you I might have a couple of rather ‘furry’ questions of my own to ask of you?”

She caught the minute shoulder twitch and tried not to smile as J.J. silently stood aside and allowed her though the doorway first. On the way past, she hooked J.J. by the waist to speak softly to her so as to not be overhead by any unseen ears.  “I don’t think I have to remind you of how to conduct yourself this evening. I will be occupied, and you will be on your own with your friend.”

“With who? Marnie?”

Jennifer pinched J.J. in the side. “You know full well who I’m talking about, Justine Hart, but since you’ve brought her up, do keep check on that friend, too.”

J.J. grinned. “Testosterone smorgasbord?”

“Indeed, a veritable feast, and I won’t have time to keep an eye on who she’s trying to fit on her plate- or who you’re trying to put on yours. And J.J.-”

“Yes.”

“Just so you know ahead of time, the chapel is canceled. The wedding ceremony is going to be conducted at the house, but I haven’t told Pa yet. As I’ll already be gone, and you’ll be in the car with him, I’m leaving it for you.”

J.J. stopped in her tracks and pulled away. “For me? Why me?”

“You opted not to be in the wedding, so you’ll be in the car with him.”

“So? Look, I know I opted out, but I didn’t know then it would mean I-”

Jennifer pressed a finger to her lips, but J.J., hand to her hip, leaned in closer and continued her protest in a more hushed tone. “- had to become a human sacrifice. Why did the chapel get canceled? What happened with that? Who canceled it? Why are you leaving it to me to tell Pa? He’ll flip when he finds out Aunt Pat isn’t getting married in a church setting. You know how traditional he is, how he stands on ceremony and all. He didn’t like it when he found out she’s wasn’t using a priest. And after all, he’s your father!”

Jennifer pulled J.J. to her again and latched eyes with her, sending a silent message that J.J. right away understood, proven by the single eye roll, followed by a begrudging nod. “Okay, okay, Mom. I know I’m in your debt for a bunch of stuff and at your mercy for a couple others.”

“It’s not about being at my mercy or in my debt, Justine. I just need you today, period.”

“Only today?”

Jennifer started them on their way up the hall again. “You are such a mess.”

“But I’m always your mess. By the way, I meant to tell you, you look fabulous.”

“So do you.”

“Hey, did you know Betsy has a boyfriend? Do you know who he is? Have you met him, and just didn’t tell me? Is he coming this afternoon? Is he cute?”

“And did you, Justine Magpie Hart, know you are as nosy as hell?”

J.J.’s hand shot to her mouth. “Oooooh, Mom!”

“You heard what I said, and I meant it.”

“So, for real, you’re not going to tell me anything about anything?”

“So for real, I’m going to tell you to be good and to not let me or anyone else catch you lip-locked with Teddy.”

“Okay, I won’t let anyone catch me.”

Jennifer eased J.J. in front of her and her down the stairs . She followed, shaking her head at the scamp in front of her and at everything else facing her.

_________________________________________________________

He waited and watched. She was good, really good. With all the people in the house and her arms full, she made it to the garage without anyone seeing her.

But then he was good, too. Nobody, not even the woman he was following, had seen him either.

He watched from the cracked door until she had her load carefully placed in the trunk and then closed it. Like a panther after unsuspecting prey, he made his move. Crouched, gliding around the Range Rover and the other car, he focused on the passenger side door. Once there, he snatched it open and slid into the seat next to hers. She stiffened in open-mouthed horror. He held up the white handkerchief he’d been using to wipe his brow while in pursuit of her.

“I come in peace,” he said as he waved the small cloth. “So, where are we headed, Cordelia?

“We? You nearly scared me to death! Have you been tailing me all this time? Spying on me?”

“Yes.”

She released the breath she’d been holding and he saw some of the sudden tension leave her body. “Mr. Hart, you are shameless.”

“Sorry, but it was the only way for me to keep up with you. Again I ask, where are we going?”

“Who said we were going anywhere? You have a wedding rehearsal to attend. A child who needs you to be here.”

“Seems as if you and I have a more pressing engagement,” he said. “Besides, I’ve been in and have attended enough weddings to know the drill. All I have to do is stand there next to the groom. The child is with her mother, which is probably a way better person for her to be with at the moment. Now about this engagement you and I have…”

She looked away. “You don’t know where I’m headed. I could be going to visit friends, and you and I don’t keep the same company.”

“In this instance,” Jonathan gestured with his thumb toward the back end of the car, “I think we do. Now if I come right out and ask you what’s going on, I’m sure you aren’t going to tell me. Maybe that will be because you don’t want to or maybe it’ll be because you can’t. But whatever the case, I’m along for the ride, whether you like it or not.”

Cordelia gripped the wheel with both hands and stared ahead for few moments. Then she dropped her head, slowly shaking it as she spoke her resignation to the situation. “It won’t do any good to argue with you any further, will it?”

“Nope.”

She started the car and pressed the remote button to signal the garage door. “When Mrs. Hart finds out you’re another somebody gone AWOL, she isn’t going to like that one bit. Please understand you are going to have to deal with her, not me.”

He really hadn’t thought about that part, but he was already in the car and hopefully on his way to solving some of the mystery enveloping them. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, Cordelia.”

“And I’ll be praying for your safe crossing, Mr. Hart. I have a feeling you’re going to be standing knee-deep in need of a good word or two on your behalf.”

“I’ve got a couple of markers up there I can call in.”

“I’ll bet you do.”

Cordelia twisted around to back the car out. Within that mixture of good cologne and fresh hairspray she gave off, he also thought he detected an odd hint of relief.

_________________________________________________________

About two hours before the ceremony….

She hoped against hope all the way over to Pat and Bill’s, but Jennifer was not surprised to get there and find out that the pair still had not arrived. With Marnie in the car with her, and glued to her side once they arrived at the house, she was well aware of the girl taking her cues from her, so she concentrated on maintaining her calm, collected composure. Doing that became even more important once she fully realized the state of affairs inside.

All of the technicalities for the wedding ceremony were in place and being handled. That also didn’t surprise her. There were competent people in charge of every aspect of the operation, and all of them were under the direct supervision of Elise Lawton. With Peter, Lisa, and Jonathan there to oversee things until she arrived from Briarwood, she had been confident that nothing along those lines would go awry. But Bill and Pat’s continued absence, along with their maddening silence had everyone agitated and wondering what to do in terms of going forward when, in truth, there really wasn’t anything any of them could do but go forward.

To make sure all the principal parties understood that, she’d called them into the library for a brief meeting. She dispatched Shane, Finn, Teddy, and Duncan to summon Jonathan, who oddly wasn’t up front to meet her when she got there, nor had he surfaced since. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what time her car would arrive for rehearsal. She asked the housekeeper, Sarah, to summon Cordelia who had been containing herself to the master suite on the second floor or in the servants’ private areas of the house.

The boys returned a short time later, breathing hard from running, but without Jonathan. According to them, he didn’t seem to be there. Where could he be that four eagle-eyed, long-legged teenaged boys couldn’t find him? Surely he hadn’t vacated the premises. Surely he wasn’t that much into tempting fate. And if he did leave, where in the world had he gone and why?

This better be good, Jonathan Hart. Damned good.

Then Sarah came in to personally deliver the news that Cordelia also seemed to be missing. She said Cordelia returned right before lunch from her morning outing with Rosa and Walter, but  she’d gone straight upstairs and hadn’t been back down. With everyone else in the house busy with their own obligations, it wasn’t until then that Cordelia’s presence had been missed.

Maryland was not Cordelia’s neck of the woods. If she did leave the house, where would she have gone? It was winter. There was snow on the ground, and this was the country. Cordelia always made it  clear she was a city girl, a native New Yorker. The snow she’d be used to, but where would she go to on her own in rural Hillhaven? How would she even know where to go?

It came to her.

Quite a coincidence, that.

Maybe, just maybe, Cordelia had with her a six-foot, blue-eyed tour guide.

“Jennifer!” Marcia, blew into the room like a sudden, rogue wind. “Where is Pat? I’ll bet she’s still not here. I told you last night she was going to pull something crazy. She’s probably ditched poor Bill, and headed for the hills, and he’s out there looking all over for her like a fool. I’ve been calling her all morning, without an answer. Just how long are we supposed to put up with her rude nonsense?”

Jennifer bit back an outraged, “We?”

It was all right if she was upset with Pat, but that was an in-house upset, between herself and Pat. She briefly endured Marcia’s hug and her simpered, “You poor thing”, before shimmying out of the other woman’s grip. “No worry, Marcie. Pat and Bill are on their way.”

She sounded so convincing to her own ears that it almost had her reassured for a moment. “Look Marcia, I need you and Dave to go out back and mingle with the guests. You’re acquainted with a great many of them, and you have a way with people. It will help me out a lot. I have a few things to attend to here, and then I need to meet with the wedding party and Elise.”

“Is Dora here? You don’t need help with anything here in the house?”

Jennifer had hooked arms with Marcia to guide her back to the door to the front hall.

“Dora is out back with Lisa and Peter. With you and Dave out there as well, we can be sure the guests will be comfortable. That will be on less thing I’ll have to be concerned over. We have plenty of help here in the house.”

Her father, Dean Marchand, Ms. Smythe, and Benjamin Bach were already being escorted down the hall. Figuring Pa for not taking lightly the change of venue for the nuptials, she breathed a sigh of relief over not being seen by him. She did, however, notice how the Dean’s arm rested on her Pa’s in the same way Ms. Smythe and Benjamin’s arms were entwined.

Too much.

She shook off that twinge of negativity attempting to make another inroad on her disposition and realized if those four were there, then J.J. also had arrived.

And Marnie, who had been her shadow since they got there, was no longer with her. She peeked back into the library. The boys were there, but not Marnie. She stepped back into the hall just as one of the women hired to help for the occasion came out of the step-in guest closet.

“Did you happen to see two-”

The woman pointed to the closed door of the small reception room.

_________________________________________________________

It was all J.J. could do to adhere to expected decorum as she waited for the driver to show up at the limo door to open it for her rather than throwing it open herself and making a run for it. She accepted the white gloved hand extended to her and as gracefully as her jangled nerves allowed, she exited the vehicle, conscious of and grateful for the strip of carpeting protecting her heels from the ice-melting salt mixture underneath it. She hitched her dress and quickly crossed the short span between the car and her godparents’ home. She didn’t look back for her four elderly fellow passengers; at the moment she needed a break from them to regroup.  Several attendants had been waiting outside for their car to arrive, so the others had escorts to help them into the house. As for her, she didn’t need it.

Half expecting Teddy to be there, it was Marnie awaiting her in the foyer. A calming shot in the arm that intensified when Marnie pulled her close.

“J., I’m so glad you’re here”

“Why? What’s up?”

“Come around here.”

She followed Marnie into the small reception room off the front hall, where once they were inside, Marnie closed the door. In the brighter light and with both of them standing still and facing each other, J.J. right away detected the lack of conspiratory mischief in Marnie’s demeanor. This wasn’t to be the girlfriend collusion moment she thought it might.

J.J. slowly unwrapped herself from the protective stole she’d worn over from Briarwood, mindful of her beaded hair and Marnie’s seriousness. But first, she had her own story to tell.

“Good you got me in here, Marn. My grandfather was ready to go ballistic when I had to tell him why the car was turning up in here rather than at Hillhaven Chapel. He was about to be livid, and I didn’t even have anything to do with it. I was only the messenger. It took Dean Marchand to talk him down. I owe her big because Mt. Edwards was ready to blow. The Duchess got one in on me with that. I think there’s been too much drama and too many changes for Pa’s normally quiet and placid lifestyle. He hasn’t said a whole lot about any of it that I know of. It was overdue, I just didn’t want the spleen juice spewed at me. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and away from him. Remind me to thank the Dean. So, what’s going on, Marn? Why are we in here?”

Marnie leaned in and like J.J. had when talking to her, she kept her voice low.

“It’s crazy, J. Guests are arriving, going right to the tents for pre-wedding cocktails, but half the people who should be here are not.”

Eyes widened in realization and then disbelief, J.J. grabbed onto Marnie’s wrist. “You mean to tell me Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill still aren’t here? What the heck?”

Marnie’s finger shot to her lips. “Shhhh!” She pulled J.J. away from the door. “What the heck, for real, J. It’s not just them, though. Billy and Tom are missing, too. Apparently they’ve been gone since yesterday, and-”

J.J.’s waving hand cut Marnie off.

“This is a dumb question, I’m sure, but did anybody try calling the two of them? They’re probably just in the city, shacked up with some bimbos or sleeping one off or something. You know how guys are. They’re single. It is the weekend, and a holiday weekend at that.”

“I don’t know about phone calls, shacking up, or any of that. I only have the bits and pieces I managed to pick up before I knew it was time to go because it was getting too tense in the room. But that’s not all. They’re not the only ones. Cordelia isn’t here.”

“I thought Cordelia was with Rosa and Walter. Maybe she’s over at Pa’s house with them?”

“Then if so, why didn’t she come over here with you guys?”

” ‘Cause Walter and Rosa are coming on their own in their car. She would come with them. Maybe she’s still there with them.”

“I really don’t think that’s the case.”

“How come?”

“Your father is AWOL, too.”

At that news, J.J. dropped into a nearby chair.

“Be careful, J. Don’t wrinkle your dress or mess up your hair. You look so pretty with your hair like that. I knew you were going to take it down from like it was when we left the salon. It was too- too- elegant, maybe elaborate, I guess for you- no offense.”

“None taken,” J.J. muttered as she cradled her chin with her thumb and index finger. “I hated it. I tried, but I really, really hated it. I took a shot going in to the Duchess to get her to redo it after I took it down. All she could do at that point was either kill me or redo it. I’d have rather been dead than to come out in public or have my picture taken looking like a 1960’s Barbie or somebody.”

She looked up to Marnie. “Daddy, Marn? You sure?”

Marnie nodded.

“So what about my mother?”

“She’s here. And so cool and classy that it’s scary. She got here, found out what was up, and then called a meeting. She told everybody we’re sticking to the plan. Lisa was a nervous wreck with the boys and Pat and Bill not here yet, so your mother told Peter to take Lisa out to the bar and keep her there to help her nerves and to make sure the guests, particularly the McDowell people who’ve flown in, get comfortable. Ms. Lawton, the coordinator, was trying not to have a fit while she held her part of it down. Your mother smoothed her out, told her she was doing a good job, and sent her on her way to continue keeping order with the hired staff. Then Marcia got here and started in on the Duchess about Pat not being here and how inconsiderate it was, but I don’t think Jen wanted to hear it.”

“How come you don’t know that for sure?”

“Because I got the hell out of there at that point. The Duchess is the one holding everybody together right now, but she’s mad as hell underneath. I can tell. You know how her jaw gets?”

“Um-hmm.” J.J.’s fingernails tapped against the glass protecting the mahogany tabletop. “You say Cordelia is gone?”

“Yeah.”

“And Daddy?”

“As far as we know. All the guys went looking in the places they thought he might be, but he didn’t turn up. I think that has your mother the maddest, her husband taking off like that.”

“That’s the surest ticket to get him drop kicked by her. This is not a good time for him to be doing something crazy or spur of the moment. But if something came up that he needed to see to, and he didn’t have time to let her in on- And you said Billy and Tom?”

“Yes! I already told you that, J.” Marnie tipped her head to one side. “Say, what are you thinking? What? I can see it working inside your head. J., I’m not getting into anything with you.”

She came even closer and leaned down. “But while we’re on the subject of getting into something, did I tell you Duncan got his hair cut? Oooh, he is too cute, all clean shaven, in his tux, and everything. Da-a-a-an-n-n-ng. Oh, and Teddy. Girl, you are in for a treat right there.”

“Marnie, can please we stay foc-”

The knob turned, the latch clicked, and the Duchess stepped into the room.

She closed the door behind her.

_________________________________________________________

“I’ll be praying for your safe passage, Mr. Hart. I have a feeling you’re going to be standing knee-deep in…”

… It.

Jonathan dropped his forehead into his hand to smooth the tense creases.

What he did had to be done for the sake of many, but would it be understood? Maybe in the long run, but at the moment, he was likely dog meat in one set of brown-gone-to-ash grey eyes.

A cool set of fingers placed themselves on the back of his neck, communicating their understanding of and sympathy for his plight.

Continuing to cradle his head with the one hand, he patted his breast pocket with the other, drawing added reassurance from the contents, certain that if it came down to it, he could count on the little redhead to try to run interference for him, even if it meant putting her own self at risk of catching flack from the redhead in charge.

_________________________________________________________

Jennifer silently assessed the impeccably dressed, wide-eyed girls staring at her from the other side of the room. J.J. had to have just arrived, and already she and Marnie were closed up in a room with their heads pressed together, no doubt comparing notes and lining up the day.

“What are you two doing in here?”

“Nothing.” In stereo.

The swish of satin was all to be heard as Jennifer slowly crossed the divide. She stopped at the occupied chair and moved her hands to her hips to address her daughter. “I assume you’ve been briefed on the situation.”

“What situation?”

Jennifer closed her eyes and mentally counted to ten. “Justine Hart, please do not make me reach down there and strangle the life out of you. I’m not a violent person under normal circumstances, you know this, but being that these are not normal circumstances, at this moment in time not even you are safe from-”

“Okay, okay, yes, I know what’s going on, Mom. Marnie’s filled me in.”

Opening her eyes again, she found J.J.’s raised hands signaling her surrender, and Marnie’s eyes peeking out over the back of the chair.

She reached for Marnie, taking her by the arm to bring her out of hiding and gestured for J.J. to get up. Then she drew both girls close to her sides. “Listen. I came in here to say I have too many unaccounted for bodies for you two to go holing up anywhere. I need you to be where I can see you so when this show does get started, I don’t have to go looking for you.”

The quick look exchanged between the girls said they hadn’t been expecting to hear that from her. Their reaction made her wonder about the conversation being had before she came into the room. Those two didn’t need much opportunity. A whole lot of details could have been shared in the span of time between when she missed Marnie and she found her with J.J. in that room.

She turned to J.J. “So how did Pa take it when you told him about the wedding venue?”

“Whew! That was something.”

“I’m sure you effectively handled it.”

“I don’t know about the effective part.”

“Just tell me.”

J.J. exhaled and launched into it.

“Well, of course I didn’t say anything to him about the chapel on the way over, so it wasn’t until the car turned up in here that he got wise. See, I figured it best to not say anything ahead of time; just let him work it out for himself, and I was praying he wouldn’t work it out until it was time for us to get out of the car. The timing was almost perfect. When I did have to tell him about the change of venue, he was really mad, about to blow for real, talking about it wasn’t proper and all. But then Dean Marchand got him off of me.”

“Dean Marchand?”

“Yes, she told him I couldn’t have had anything to do with it, and he shouldn’t be going there with me about adult matters. I guess he heard her; he backed down. In the end, I caught a little collateral shrapnel, but dodged the direct hit. I think he’s lining that up for you and Aunt Pat.”

“I’m sure he is, and I, too, will be dodging that direct hit for as long as I can.”

Like a soft tap on the shoulder, the pensive voice from her other side got Jennifer’s focus. “Aunt Pat owes you big, Mrs. H.”

And in an instant, she was transported back to the top of the stairs in Pat’s apartment, watching Marnie come out of Pat’s bedroom. She’d moved it to the back of her mind that Marnie harbored her own private worries over Pat.

“Two for one, Marnie. Isn’t that what you and J.J. always tell me?”

“I know, but this is big, way huge, and now all these other last minute developments. It’s all got to do with Aunt Pat, and you’ve been carrying her for a long time now. Looking after her, trying to figure out what’s up with her, running around looking for her. You two are best friends, and you’ve been all this time getting her back, but she’s got to be getting heavy on yours.”

“We don’t have much farther to go on this road. What’s going to be at the end of it, remains to be seen. In the meantime, you girls make it easier for me, and be where I can find you. All right?”

At the door, before she opened it to the outer world again, Jennifer checked out the girls, fluffing and smoothing their hair, adjusting straps, and using her fingertips to smooth makeup.

“You two look really nice,” she said. “Pat will be so proud of you.”

“She’ll be proud of you, too, Mom,” J.J. asserted. Then she boldly hiked up the embroidered bodice of her mother’s dress. “The girls are showing off again. Just because they’re over eighteen and grown and everything, they think they can act out whenever they feel like it.”

When Jennifer raised a hand as if she were about to swat her, J.J. feinted back and out of her reach. Marnie giggled at the two of them. Jennifer held her hand out, pointing the girls to the door. “Let’s go, you little clowns.”

The four boys stood waiting in the hall just outside the room. Marnie immediately sashayed right into the center of the main group. Teddy grinned at the sight of J.J., his eyes going right to that hair as he held out to her a small box Jennifer assumed held a corsage.

She continued past the children without comment or even acting as if she’d seen the exchange between her daughter and her friend-escort, certain that was what J.J. would have wanted her to do. It was nice that at his relatively young age, Teddy already possessed such gentlemanly manners. But then, his father had also been a very personable, charming, and socially adept young man back in their prep school days. No doubt Teddy Jr. inherited some of those same attributes from his father. But had he also inherited those other traits that so attracted Pat back in those teenaged days?

If so, he’d better keep them in check.

Or get kneed where it counts, if not by her, by me once I get finished with her.

Then she checked herself.

What’s with all the aggression, old girl?

Or at least she thought she was checking herself. She even looked around to make sure it really was her own inner voice she was hearing.

The front door opened and along with the cold air, Billy and Tom, came in. Tom halted in his tracks when he saw her, but Billy used his larger body to press him forward, talking as he did so.

“Hey, Aunt Jennifer. Sorry. We got delayed.”

They were dressed in their tuxedos, but there was something rushed about their aura. They weren’t even wearing overcoats despite the frigid temp and the snow on the ground. Billy practically shoved a nervous Tom past her and toward the knot of young people still in the same spot where she’d left them, furthering that hurried, evasive impression. But not given a chance to speak, much less to ask where they’d been, they would have to be Lisa’s mystery to solve. As for her, it was two missing pieces recovered, four to go to complete the picture.

And that one piece was an integralone.

Before she could fully recover from Billy’s and Tom’s abrupt entrance and departure, or start on her way again, the door was opened again.

“Jen!”

She had to bend a little to accept and return Betsy’s hearty embrace and careful kiss to her cheek.

“Don’t want to smudge your makeup. You look so beautiful, like you should be the bride.” Betsy reached behind her. “Let me introduce you to my friend.”

The distinguished, salt and pepper-haired gentleman towered over Betsy, his eyes and his smile so warm and engaging that Jennifer barely heard Betsy introducing her as ‘Mrs. Jennifer Hart’ to Dr. Alexander Christian Maria Riesch.

She accepted the large hand offered to her. “It’s Jennifer, Dr. Riesch. Betsy has spoken very highly of you to me.”

“And it is Alex, Jennifer. It is so good to finally meet you. Betsy talks about and quotes you all the time. I feel as if I already know you.”

While one of the temporary butlers approached to take the newcomers’ coats, Jennifer subtly checked out her cousin’s companion. Betsy, of course, had spoken of him in their frequent phone conversations, but the name little prepared her for the actual man.

Goodness, score one for Bets.

At the same, she sensed two warm and getting warmer blue homing lasers locking all of them in their sights.

Yet another thing.

But, one that she didn’t have the time or the energy to do anything about.

Betsy’s problem, not mine. I’m full up.

_________________________________________________________

Sensory overload. Too many things at one time.

To counter the sudden perception of light-headedness, J.J. kept one hand gripped to the stair railing.

First it was Teddy, transformed into his more refined tuxedo persona, waiting just outside the door with a boxed corsage he held out to her. He looked older with the curls clipped and temporarily tamed, every bit the matinee idol heartthrob or polished theatre persona he might well one day become. As he slid the pretty cream colored rose and dusty miller arrangement onto her wrist, she worked at regulating her breathing to keep the trembling in her stomach from working its way into her arm. It would be embarrassing to no end to let Teddy, not to mention any other small and nosy party who might be looking on, know that he could do that to her.

What happened, she wondered, to that ambiguity she earlier felt about him? What happened to how troublingly indifferent she’d felt about his visit?

And who knew Duncan could clean up like that? In a tuxedo now, with the thick shaggy locks back to their natural brown and considerably trimmed, he was nothing like that pasty, dramatic Goth she had coffee with up on 72nd in Manhattan a week ago. The boy had morphed into a preppy, successful young entrepreneur, which as it turned out, wasn’t a bad look on him at all.

A fact, of course, not lost on Marnie. Finn was supposed to be her escort for the wedding, but now it appeared Duncan might be getting some of that action. Since their initial meeting, Finn’s initial interest in Marnie seemed to have waned, died down to accepting Marnie as family. He probably wouldn’t care much about sharing her attention. Based on earlier inquiries, it would probably be perfectly fine with Duncan if things played out that way.

But what would Aunt Pat have to say about that?

You should have been here, Aunt Pat. But you weren’t and so….

And what about the purchaser of that Tiffany bracelet on Marnie’s wrist?

… just a little no-help-for-her harlot Jezebel.

She was about to shoot Marnie a discreet “behave yourself” stare when out of no where Billy and Tom rushed up to join their group. Before they could open their mouths to ask, the silent warning from both older brothers immediately shut down the eager younger brothers. Billy’s face told all of them not to ask where they’d been all night.

“For the moment”, was J.J.’s immediate mental reaction to Billy’s silent order, but then her eyes met Billy’s.

“Jen!”

The voice drew her from searching Billy’s face to a spot farther up the hall. A sumptuous fox fur coat with a turned up collar hurried in the front door, giving hugs and talking a mile a minute.

Typical of Bets, but the man behind her?

The tall man.

The tall, dark man.

The tall, dark, and good-looking man from what J.J. could see while trying not to be obvious about it.

Jeez, score one for Bets.

So focused on the newcomer, it was a moment or two before she noticed her mother noticing her.

“Is that Betsy’s husband?”

Teddy’s whispered question, in conjunction with getting caught staring, startled J.J. into a minute twitch.

“Sorry, J., I didn’t mean to-”

She patted Teddy’s arm. ” ‘s okay. No harm done. No, Betsy’s not married.”

“Boyfriend?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

Betsy’s relationship wasn’t Teddy’s business, but before the night was out, she would be making it hers. In the meantime, though….

J.J. reached for Teddy’s hand, locked her fingers between his, and pulled. “Come on.”

“Where are you going, J.?” she heard Marnie ask as they passed the others. “We aren’t supposed to be wandering off.”

“I’m not wandering off,” J.J. said over her shoulder. “I’m not in the wedding, so I don’t need to be front and center like you. Besides, I have my cell if anybody specifically needs me.”

“I’m just saying, J.,” Marnie warned. “Don’t come back in here with your riding boots on again.”

Dismissing Marnie with a wave of her free hand complete with the single discreetly extended digit, J.J. tightened her grip on Teddy with the other and quickened her step.

“J., you keep dragging me from place to place. Mind you, I’ll go anywhere you want to take me, but can I at least have a heads-up about where we’re going right now? And look, I don’t want your mother coming after me for anything that has to do with you. I mean, she appears to be a real nice lady, but I can tell she can probably go there with you or with somebody over you. I do not want to be that one.”

J.J. continued walking, practically trotting, snatching Teddy around the first corner and into a long hall. Out of sight of the others left behind, she stopped and whipped around to look him in the face.

“Scared?”

“Of course, not.”

“I didn’t think so.” She poked him in the chest, just below his expertly fashioned bow tie. “See, that’s why I liked you from the first time I met you when you were sneaking into our room at Gresham Hall. I had you figured you for a chameleon, just like me.”

He grinned and in a flash, grabbed both her hands to pull her close. “You are a chameleon, J., but you’ve got me beat on that, believe me. You’re way prettier.” He pulled her closer. “So, you do like me.”

Her face burned with the blush she prayed didn’t show as much as she felt it, but determined to maintain her otherwise cool outer composure, she raised that one eyebrow at him and shrugged.  “You’re all right.”

She allowed him to pull her even closer. “Just all right, J.J. Hart? Is that all I get?”

Somewhat unfamiliar with the layout of her Aunt Pat’s new home, or where people could be in it, to keep things on the up and up, J.J. pulled back without answering, but kept hold of one of Teddy’s hands to resume pulling him along.

“Here you go yanking me around again, J.  Can you please tell me where we’re headed?”

“We have to get out back. We have things to do, to arrange, remember?”

“Oh yeah, I remember.” He gave her fingers a squeeze. “And for the record, I guess I can accept being ‘all right’ for now, as long as I’m the most all right for now.”

She returned the squeeze.

Sensory overload, for real….

_________________________________________________________

Through the dining room and the glass double doors, J.J. and Teddy entered the canvas passage that would take them to the tented reception area on the rear grounds.

“The house looks like a movie set, J., just perfect for a wedding, but a whole lot of work with all this added construction. It’s winter, but it’s so warm inside this tube; you can’t tell. Your aunt and uncle sure have gone to a whole lot of trouble to pull this off. Why didn’t they just make it easier on themselves, and hire out a reception hall?”

“My aunt does things her way, and it’s rarely the easy way. Uncle Bill has been with her long enough to know how to pick his battles. She wanted the reception held here, in their new home, and here is where it’s happening.”

“But now they’re getting married here, too, instead of at the chapel.”

“Like I said, Aunt Pat does things her way.”

“So how come she isn’t here?”

“Who says she isn’t?”

“Your mother. She called everybody in to a meeting with her, and said your aunt and uncle aren’t here yet. Besides, if she were here, Ms. Hamilton would have sought me out by now.”

“You’re that special, ‘ey?”

“No, you are. She would have to get with me to make sure I knew the ground rules for being with you here at her house, as if your grandfather or your father wouldn’t have already covered that agenda item. The last time she saw me she asked if I was still coming to be your escort. She had that look in her eye.”

At the mention of the look her Aunt Pat had given Teddy, one that J.J. could clearly see in her own mind, she snickered. “Aunt Pat does like to add her own personal touch to things.”

“So why isn’t her hand personally in this today?”

“It is. You just can’t see it right now.”

“That sleight of hand thing seems to run in the family.”

J.J. laughed again. “Whatever, Teddy.”

“And speaking of sleight of hand, your father is MIA, too. Your mother made us go and look for him, but it was pretty clear he’d taken off even though nobody saw him leave. What do you figure is up with that, J.? What’s up with all the missing people? Do we really even need to be making these arrangements we’re about to make?”

Uniformed attendants swung open the next set of double doors as they drew closer to the other end. J.J. took advantage of that distraction to speed up a little and thereby duck Teddy’s questions, questions for which she didn’t have any answers or for which she would divulge any information if she did. Like her mother said, everything was going down as planned until they were forced to do otherwise.

The scene on the other side took her breath away, but she had little time to appreciate her gorgeous surroundings or the string quartet subtly providing audio to the elegant ivory and rose ambiance.

“J.J.!”

She squeezed Teddy’s hand even tighter and leaned in to him. “My Aunt Marcia. Smile, look pretty, say as little as you can. She’s dying to get into my business.”

Teddy lowered his chin to whisper from the corner of his mouth. “And I take it you don’t want her there.”

“Elementary, Watson.”

“Gotcha, Sherlock.”

While she accepted the hearty hug from her Aunt Marcia, over the woman’s shoulder, J.J. scanned the large room.

Among the crowd gathering for the wedding ceremony, she spotted many familiar faces. She pinpointed the Dean, Ms. Smythe and her Uncle Benjamin seated at the table to which she and Teddy were assigned, the one right below where the wedding party would later be seated. Pa was not with them, but since he was part of the wedding party, she surmised he was likely being accommodated elsewhere until it was time for him to walk Aunt Pat down the aisle.

When Marcia released her and moved her back so she could check out her and Teddy together, she lost sight of Betsy and her tall companion just as she’d honed in on them.

“So, J.J., this is your young man. Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

J.J. stubbed out the flash of annoyance when it flared at both the question and the interruption. Then she switched her total focus to the business at hand. “Of course. Aunt Marcia, this is Theodore Baxter, my friend and escort for this evening. Theodore, this is my aunt, Ms. Marcia Niles.”

Teddy took the woman’s hand and gave Marcia a small, but gallant bow. “It’s very nice to meet you, Ms. Niles. And I would appreciate it if you called me Teddy.”

“And it’s very nice to meet you, Teddy. J.J.’s told me a little about you, but why don’t the two of you come over and join us at our table? J.J., Dave hasn’t seen you since you were a little girl.”

Lacing her arm around Teddy’s, J.J. smiled as graciously as she could. “Thank you, but I think I really should circulate some first. There are quite a few people here that I need to speak with. Would you mind if we made our rounds first, and then Teddy and I join you and Uncle Dave?”

Before she could secure the loophole she was using to get away from Marcia by visiting the tables she really did need to visit, she and Teddy first had to slip through said loop to take care of their most pressing business. As soon as Marcia left them to go back to her table, J.J. moved Teddy in the opposite direction, toward the velvet ropes currently separating the makeshift altar from the seating area.

_________________________________________________________

Forty-five minutes before the ceremony….

Jennifer ducked into Pat’s office, hoping to snatch a few minutes alone.

JUST like her father. The least little bit of intrigue, and the first opportunity they get…

Forehead in hand, she sat on the nearby couch arm. At the same time, Pat’s high back desk chair spun around.

“Jennifer?”

She hadn’t even noticed the active computer screen or the woman sitting in front of it.

“Dora! Why are you still in here? I thought you’d gone out already. I sent Marcia and Dave, thinking you were out there.”

“I had some last minute things to check on.” Dora sent the computer to stand-by and came to sit on the couch. “So what brings you in here? Not a migraine starting up, is it? It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if you are getting an ugly one with all you’ve been put through.”

“No, not a migraine. I’m fine on that. On the other hand, I don’t know when I’ve been so frustrated and angry.”

“With Pat?”

“With Pat, Bill, Cordelia, Jonathan, and J.J.”

Dora tipped her head to one side. “Pat and Bill, I can understand. But the last three, what have they done?”

Jennifer realized Dora hadn’t been there for the meeting in the library, so she wouldn’t be aware of the most recent gaps in the wedding roster.

“Jonathan and Cordelia are now also missing from the house, and as usual, I can’t get J.J. Hart to keep still to save her life, which in this instance, just might be the risk she’s unwittingly taking.”

“Where’s J.J. gotten to?”

“I told her to stay close, but Marnie just informed me that she and Teddy have taken off to the reception area. I distinctly told her to stay put here in the house.”

Dora took hold of one of Jennifer’s agitated hands to calm it. “Jen, it’s all right. J.J.’s not in the wedding, and I’ve seen the young man. He’s handsome, she’s pretty, and they’re teenagers. It’s only natural they’d like some time to themselves. Once things really get started, there will be precious little opportunity for them. And J.J. has, from the time she was a little thing, always done things her own way. If she’s gone to the reception tent, she’s essentially where she should be, and she’s out there with a lot of other people who know her. How much can she get into? As for the others you mentioned, I’m sure they’ll be here. One thing I’ve always admired about you and Pat and your family is how well and how much you care for each other and how you honor your commitments to each other. Whatever is going on, I’m certain every single one of them is thinking of you and quite conscious of your being worried over them.”

“Then why aren’t they here?”

“Can’t answer you that, but I can tell you those frown lines between your eyebrows don’t go with your wonderful look. You make me so sick. I don’t know how you do it, but you always do.”

Jennifer slowly smiled. “Thank you, that’s nice of you to say, but you’re avoiding my question.”

“Look, Jen. We both know Pat is a stickler for keeping to a plan. Bill is with her, so he’s covered. Cordelia will turn up because Pat is going to turn up, and Jonathan is going to be wherever you are, and you are here. You have done a Medal of Honor job of keeping everyone calm and focused when we could be up to our ears in utter chaos. Just keep doing what you do.”

Elise Lawton stuck her head in. “Mrs. Hart, the reverend has arrived. He wants to speak with the group, and then it will be time for everyone to get lined up.”

Jennifer inwardly steeled herself. After all, her father and his justifiably impatient questions would be waiting for her in the library.

A reverend, not a priest. A tent, not a chapel. A wedding, but no bride or groom.

Before they started toward the door, Jennifer took the opportunity to hug the ever-faithful and optimistic Dora. “Thank you for the pep talk. I needed it. But please tell me one thing before we go out there.”

“If I can.”

“What’s wrong with Pat? You tried to tell me something when I arrived that day in the office, but she came out too soon and cut you off.”

“I’m really not sure, Jen. Could be legal, could be medical, could be mental-slash-emotional; in my humble opinion, there have been indications of all three. But she’s extremely private about personal matters. I have been her executive secretary for decades, handling a lot of her personal affairs in the course of juggling the professional ones, but there are places in her life she doesn’t allow even me to go. If you don’t have the answer by now, then I doubt anyone does.”

“Except perhaps…” Jennifer thought to herself as she and Dora left the office. After all, the family dynamics were rapidly changing.

She and Dora parted company in the hall.

In an effort to avoid arriving guests and buy herself a little more time, Jennifer took the roundabout way to the library, a detour that had her pass the living room. She found herself standing before the portrait of Pat.

Please hurry, or this is going to turn into the most lavish, expensive, cocktail party I have ever attended.

“She’ll be here in time. Don’t worry.”

Somehow Marnie had managed to ease up behind her, and had once again established a position right beside her.

“I’m not really worried about her being here, Marnie.”

“I know, but she’s all on your nerves just the same. I’m sure she couldn’t help how this has turned out, cutting it close like this, but she has her reasons.”

“I’m sure she does; I only wish I knew what they were.”

“You will in time, Mrs. H.”

She felt Marnie’s small fingers slide between hers and hold on. “It’s time to line up. Ms. Lawton said so. And Mr. Edwards is looking for you.  I think that preacher wants to pray over us or something.”

“Reverend, Marnie. I guess we should go in then.”

Jennifer kept hold of Marnie’s hand as she turned around, vowing to herself how, whenever Pat turned up, she was going use that same hand to truly wring her neck.

“Two for one,” Marnie quietly reminded her as they headed for the library. “For you guys, too.”

_________________________________________________________

J.J. made her rounds of the reception tent, greeting the guests she recognized and speaking with those she didn’t, but who recognized her. To keep people from asking potentially intrusive, embarrassing questions, she sent Teddy ahead of her to their table. Walking away from a group of tables filled with Pat’s executive office staff, she could see Teddy visiting with Billy and his brothers, who had situated themselves way away from their parents who were currently still talking with people at the bar. Duncan was with the  guys. She really wanted to go over there with all of them, but at the moment, she had something else to handle.

She weaved her way toward her own table with her sights set on one of the latest arrivals. Betsy saw her coming and discreetly ducked her head. Fixated on her cousin, J.J. barely noticed the two men at the table stand. She was practically at Betsy’s side before she realized the taller man had come around Betsy to pull out the empty chair. He held out his hand in greeting. “You have to be Justine.”

Betsy’s guest. Accent. Heavily German. He took the hand J.J. offered. “Elizabeth speaks so much of you,” he said. “Even if I hadn’t met your mother first, I would have known you.”

The strongly positive, reassuring vibe he radiated took J.J. by surprise. A very odd thing indeed for her to sense so strongly from someone she only just met.

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” she said before briefly flitting an accusing gaze down to Betsy.

Betsy wasted no time in introducing Dr. Alexander Riesch.

“Call me Alex. Please.”

“Only if you call me J.J.”

She found his dark eyes intelligent, his smile warm… disarming even.

“Justine is a very lovely name, but I have to admit I feel as if I am already acquainted with Miss J.J. Hart”

Caught at the rare loss for words, J.J. cut her eyes at Betsy one more time before she managed to say, “Thank you”, to Betsy’s friend.

As she sat down, from the corner of her eye, she saw it when Teddy’s hands placed themselves on her chair, and how he subtly edged Dr. Riesch back toward his place on the opposite side of Betsy. Making amused mental note of the exchange, J.J. filed it and then leaned in to Betsy while Teddy took his seat on the other side.

“So, you know in a few we’re going to have to excuse ourselves and make that trip to the ladies’ room, right, Bets?”

Betsy inclined her head in J.J.’s direction. “It’s not that big a deal, J.”

“Then why did you keep this under wraps? You’ve been all up in my affairs, but you haven’t said one word about your gentleman caller.”

“Gentleman caller? You read entirely too much.”

“Read the play and saw the movie. Love Tennessee Williams. Don’t change the subject.”

“Later, J.”

“Count on it.”

Betsy slyly grinned. “Cute as a button though, isn’t he?” She cast a glance past J.J. to Teddy. “Like yours.”

“Later, Bets.”

“Count on it.”

The Dean and Betsy’s father were trying not to be obvious in snatching glances at them during their whispered exchange, but their efforts hadn’t been lost on J.J. The Dean appeared pleased and impressed by Betsy and her companion, but Uncle Benjamin didn’t seem quite as at ease with the situation. Betsy, J.J. surmised, must have pulled a fast one on her father, too. Betsy was known for having overcome a lot of difficulties and for having accomplished many good things in a relatively short time, but landing a handsome German doctor was an entirely new and unexpected achievement.

And he came to be with her at a wedding?

Whoa.

A buzz at her side. It was the cell phone stashed in the folds of the satin sash at her waist. J.J. fished it out and held it low by her side to check it, then she pushed back her chair.

“Excuse me. I’m afraid I’m being summoned.”

Uncle Benjamin and Dr. Riesch immediately stood. Teddy jumped up to help with her chair. “Want me to come with you, J.?”

She briefly squeezed his forearm as she gathered her long skirt with the other hand. “No, that’s all right. I shouldn’t be long.”

She felt the anxious stares from two tables following her, the unasked questions feverishly scratching at her back as she moved away from them, but she had to go. From the time she could understand the concept, her father had been teaching her a marker held had to be honored, particularly at the point it was being called in.

I should have known checking for a night light being on wasn’t going to be enough.

If it wouldn’t have been a severe breach of decorum, or certain death should she get caught by her grandfather or the Duchess, she’d have removed her heels and taken off in her stocking feet to get there faster.

_________________________________________________________

Jennifer sent Marnie into the library first.

It would take a miracle….

The week should have been fun-filled. Thanksgiving should have left everyone with memories of warm, fuzzy moments spent in the bosom of family. She and Pat should be standing together right now, checking each other over, sharing last minute words and a hug or two. Instead, she stood alone in the hall, dreading having to face Pa with only God and Bill informed of Pat’s whereabouts.

Jennifer took a very deep breath to brace herself. Then she then pushed open the door and went in.

Only the bride was missing from the bridal party, which included Dora’s young grandchildren, the flower girl and the ring bearer, . The little girl was over by Marnie getting last minute pointers and reassurance from her, while the little boy, carefully balancing the pillow on the flat of his palms, waited in line with Finn. Elise Lawton was pinning a boutonnière on the reverend’s lapel while two photographers moved about the periphery of the room, snapping candid before-ceremony shots.

Her father, debonair in his cutaway tuxedo, stood by himself over by the fireplace. Jennifer headed straight to him.

“Pa?”

He smiled when he saw her. “You are stunning, darling. As though you might be the bride.”

She straightened his tie, not that it really needed it. “Would that were the case. You look pretty handsome yourself, Pa. Honestly. I haven’t seen you look so well in a very long time. What’s your secret?”

“No secret. Merely a change in attitude, my darling, or perhaps a shift in my thinking. I feel so much better these days about a great many things. At long, long last, I have learned to appreciate rather than regret. It took too long to realize that I have so very much for which I need to be grateful, much more than I have to regret, and perhaps now I have not enough time left to enjoy.”

“Pa, don’t.”

He held up his hand. “Please don’t chastise me. I am only saying I intend to relish to the fullest what is left of my life.” Then he gently fitted a finger under her chin, “In so many ways, I have my darling daughter to thank for all my joys,” and he kissed her forehead.

“Come,” Stephen said, offering an arm to her. “It’s time for us to join the others.”

She wrapped her arm around his, appreciative of the physical support. She also appreciated that he hadn’t launched into the barrage of ill-tempered questions she anticipated over the bride’s absence or the fact that a reverend rather than a priest was leading them in prayer, although it left her a bit stunned and off kilter. Once the prayer was done, her father silently escorted her to the end of the bridal party line to whom Elise Lawton was imparting final instructions.

Nobody seemed concerned that the bride, the central figure, the reason for all of them being in that room and in that line, wasn’t with them. That her elaborate oversized bouquet was the lone arrangement left in the florist’s box.

Her throat tightened, and as if he could read her mind, her father used that one arm to bring her closer and brush his cheek against hers.

“It will be fine,” he said into her ear. “You have promised me as much, and so it will be.”

_________________________________________________________

The ushers had officially opened the velvet ropes to the wedding area, and people still milling about were taking their seats at their tables. J.J. focused on appearing dignified in her rush to get back.

Teddy stood and pulled out her chair. “Everything okay, J?”

“Everything’s fine,” she said as she arranged her skirts and got settled. “I was needed  up at the house. I left too soon. Some loose ends had to be tied up.”

“I guess it’s about time to start then.”

Betsy’s statement sounded more like a question to J.J.’s ears, but she decided not to hear that part of it. “I guess,” was all she said in answer.

_________________________________________________________

In the canvas corridor, Jennifer continued to hold onto Stephen’s arm as the doors closed behind Marnie and Finn. Doubt began making an inroad as the line moved up and Elise readied the ring bearer to make his trip down the center aisle.

Maybe I should have called it all off. Perhaps I have put too much faith in Pat’s reliability.

The ushers opened the doors. The boy squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and gallantly stepped forward, one practiced step at a time.

Who’s going to meet that little fellow on the other end?. He’s supposed to stand with the groom and the best men. Well, there is Peter still here as one best man. And Finn will be there, too.

Jonathan Hart, I am going to let you have it good when I do catch up to you.

The doors opened again, this time for the flower girl. A dainty thing, all of four and in love with the full-skirted rosy tulle over satin formal dress she had on. Bailey knew she was pretty and that she had an important job to do. With her basket on her arm, holding a few delicate blush rose petals in her free hand, there wasn’t the slightest hesitation when Elise sent her on her way.

The doors closed behind her, Stephen moved them forward, and Jennifer’s anxiety leveled up with both movements.

This is so out of character. What if something really has happened to her and Bill? Oh God, please.

Her father slowly unwound her arm from his. “You are next, darling.”

He lay his fingers along her cheek. “Say, are you all right? You’ve gone a bit pale.”

“I’m fine, Pa.”

“Are you lying to me, Jennifer?”

The only answer would have been a lie, so she kept silent.

“Were you lying to me earlier, when you told me you believed in Patricia?”

She shook her head. “Of course not. I don’t lie to you, and I do believe in Pat. She keeps her word. She honors her promises. It’s just that-”

The doors opened again, this time for her, the Matron of Honor. Stephen pressed his hand to the small of her back to ease her forward. “Then go with confidence, my daughter. Act with authority. Isn’t that what your mother used to say to you back when you were little and so shy? Believe, my Jenny, isn’t that what she would whisper in your ear before your competitions, your recitals?”

Taken aback by her father’s very unusual, but very true reference to her mother, a bit dazed by the rush of vivid memories and at being referred to by the nickname only her mother used for her, Jennifer was down the aisle and almost to her destination before she realized she’d just passed Cordelia, seated with her brother, Davis, and his family. She was still processing that and moving into her spot next to Marnie when she sensed his presence.

Jonathan, checking her out from his place behind Finn, next to Peter-

And Bill.

Jonathan and Bill, the two of them in the flesh, looking like brothers, and casually in place as if they’d never been missing. As if she or anyone else entertaining the thought were crazy to be questioning their presence.

J.J., as always in these types of settings, amazingly transformed. All dressed up, so ladylike, grownup, and lovely. At the front table with the rest of the family, next to Teddy. The Dean next to the empty seat that would hold her father once-

J.J.- not looking the least bit surprised to see her father and her godfather.

I’ll bet that little sneak-

Too much to deal with right now.

As she struggled to push all of it to the side and concentrate on the essentials, the processional minuet had smoothly transitioned into a recording of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, so finely reproduced that it took a couple of moments to register in Jennifer’s ears that the string quartet was no longer playing.

No wonder he spent so much time out here this morning. And why J.J. Hart broke her neck to get out here so fast.

Hart and Hart technology in collus-

Wedding March?

She opened her eyes. At the head of the center aisle, the ushers were opening both doors. Framed by the flower-festooned arch stood Pa- with Pat.

Both sides of the room stood as the two of them slowly made their way down, Pa, tall and proud, Pat absolutely gorgeous in that custom ensemble, camera flashes lighting them from every direction.

A discreet tap at her side, then a tissue offered from two red-tipped fingers. “You’re going to smear your make-up, Mrs. H.”

She didn’t even realize she was crying. Pat, so regal, so… so there.

At the end of the aisle, Pa kissed Pat’s cheek and released her. But instead of turning around and going to his seat, he headed for her.

“What?” she mouthed when he held his arm out to her. “Who? Me?”

He nodded and she noticed a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He leaned forward and whispered into her ear, “Someone really loves you, my darling. Someone other than your old Pa.”

He took her bouquet from her and gave it to Marnie before leading her away and taking her to stand next to Pat.

“Don’t ask,” Pat handed her one of what turned out to be two separate, but identical bridal bouquets she was carrying.

“But it’s your wedding.

Pat winked. “Two for one, old girl.”

“But-”

Pat’s spoke lightning fast, hissing from the side of her mouth. “Married. Long Island, last Wednesday, Justice of the Peace. Here for Pa. And you. Details later, promise.”

Jonathan and Bill joined them, each man next to his partner, accompanied by the buzz of surprised puzzlement from the tables behind them. As if he’d heard Pat’s rushed clarification, Jonathan took another small sidestep and inclined his body toward Jennifer.

“Dearly Beloved,” the Reverend began, “we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this most welcomed company to rejoin…”

Jennifer, still attempting to digest Pat’s staccato earful, only caught that last word.

Rejoin?

A quick sidelong check detected a flash of “Gotcha” from that eternally handsome profile.

“We are here today, before God because marriage is one of His most sacred wishes, to witness the reaffirmation of vows of both William McDowell and Patricia Hamilton McDowell and Jonathan Hart and Jennifer Edwards Hart. This occasion marks a celebration of love and commitment with which these men and these women continue their lives together. And now, through me, He further solidifies these most holy bonds.

“Who has given these women in marriage to these men?”

“My late wife, my granddaughter, the friends and family gathered here today, and most wholeheartedly I have.”

Jennifer struggled to stay focused and not look back at her father and J.J. How many times had J.J. Hart voiced the wish she could have been present at her parents’ wedding? For sure she had been harboring at least partial knowledge of what was presently going on, which would explain all the recent increased involvement with her father. And how much did Pa know about it? Did that explain his more relaxed demeanor?

It doesn’t matter.

It hadn’t happened the way it was supposed to, the events leading up to the moment unfolding quite differently than expected, but the end was blooming more delightfully than she ever could have hoped. Pat and Bill had made it, in every sense of the word. For added benefit Jonathan was there next to her, also right where he should be, where and when she most needed him to be.

And apparently where he wanted to remain. As did she.

“These relationships,” the Reverend continued, “stand for love, loyalty, honesty, and trust, but most of all friendship. Before they knew love, these individuals were friends, and from those seeds of friendship grew their destiny and I am certain, the destiny of many others assembled here today. Beloved, do not think you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, shall direct you as it has and continues to guide William and Patricia and Jonathan and Jennifer whose unions we celebrate and reaffirm today.”

“I love you always,” Jonathan whispered when he slipped the ring he took from his inside pocket onto her left pinkie, “even if you’re mad at me right now. Thanks for saying ‘yes’ and not leaving looking silly in front of all these people, not to mention my kid. She’d have ragged me forever.”

“I’m not angry,” she whispered. “At least not any more. Too happy and relieved to be angry.”

After all, who could say “no” to those eyes.

Certainly not I.

In an futile attempt to divert the tears, Jennifer finally glanced over her shoulder to her family’s table. The happiness in her father’s face and the sweet kiss blown from her daughter’s palm was all it took to ease her over the edge and into the emotional abyss she’d been trying so hard to avoid, only to be rescued by her husband’s loving arms and his kiss.

_________________________________________________________

The Reception…

There had been no receiving line; Pat and Bill were too sore to stand, shake hands, and talk with people for the length of time it would have taken. Instead, after a few pictures once Jennifer returned from fixing her face, and a brief meeting with the family to inform them of the reason for the change in plans, an general announcement was made to the guests that the brides and their grooms would be receiving from their table.

When the last of the guests walked away, Pat leaned in to Jennifer. “Some hunk Betsy snagged for herself. A German physics scholar, no less. Distinguished. Good-looking. Big.”

Jennifer nodded. “Um-hmm. Your neck hurts, too?”

“Just a little stiff right now. Can you believe J.J. and Marnie? Those two already have guys crossing state lines and, apparently, ready to risk a life to get to them.”

“Um-hmm.”

“I’d shake my head, if I could. Here I was worried about Finn with Marnie. I must be losing it, Jen. Duncan-damned-Sinclair, can you believe it? Did I not specifically and personally order that joker to stay away from Marnie? Now look. Has shown up, dusted off and spiffed up, at my house to do it, and right underneath my nose. I almost didn’t know him when he tried to breeze past me. I nearly took him for normal.”

“He is normal, Pat.”

Jennifer peeked past Pat to Marnie who was seated on Pat and Bill’s other side with Finn. “And Marnie has grown up quite a bit since she’s been with you. She’s a lot more settled, more mature in her thinking.”

“Hmph, I’m not sure if that’s an altogether good thing, considering her ‘mature’ interest in the opposite sex, and their obvious strong attraction to her. Don’t think I’ve not picked up on Sinclair cutting his eyes up here to her or her cutting hers down there to him.”

“Whatever the case may be in that, I do believe Miss Marnie Elaine is picking up some of her mentor’s ways. You know, making her own decisions and going with them. Playing the lone wolf. Doing things her way when she sees no reason to do otherwise.”

Pat planted her hands to the table and used them to slowly shift her whole body around to face Jennifer. “Look, I know I messed up. I’m so sorry. For everything. Are you very angry with me?”

“Admittedly, I was,” Jennifer said as she visually inspected her friend. “But in retrospect, I believe I was more worried than angry. Now I’m just relieved. You and Bill made it here in one piece and relatively undamaged after all it turns out you’ve been through. Instead of pussyfooting around it, making small talk, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened.”

Pat sighed as she turned back around in her chair to tell her story.

“Well, see, we had worked things out and were on our way to the airport from the apartment when we ran up on a patch of black ice on the freeway. We started sliding and ended up in a ditch or a gulley or something with the car on its side, nearly flipped. I don’t know how we managed it, but no other cars were involved even though we skidded across two lanes to get where we ended up. They had to right the car before they could pry open the doors and pull both of us out. I’ll tell you, it’s confirmed my commitment to Cadillac. Somehow Bill got loose of his seatbelt before we left the road and managed to throw himself across me. Then the air bags inflated. First time in my life being pinned underneath a man, and I didn’t enjoy it on some level.”

Bill, although he didn’t appear to have been listening, smiled and briefly hugged Pat with the arm draped across the back of her chair.

Jennifer tried to maintain her serious demeanor as she shook her head. “Pat, honestly.”

“That is honestly, Jen. When everything all of a sudden went black, I was sure death had finally caught up to me, but then I heard Bill ask if I was okay. That was when I realized the black was him on top of me blocking out the light, and that I was holding my breath, not suffocated. I don’t know how we came away without a scratch, but here we are. Yet another affirmation, I have to take it, that I am supposed to be here and here with Bill McDowell.”

She lay her hand on top Jennifer’s and squeezed. “I left you hanging, and I’m sorry. For this one, I’m forever in your debt. You did a beautiful job, and I thank you for holding it all down. I figured you would be angry with me, but I was confident you would keep the train on the track just the same.”

“You would have done it for me had it been the other way around, and I was happy to do it. I’m grateful to you for the check-ins; at least I knew you were alive, but I do owe you big for not answering my calls. You saw it was me. Why didn’t you at least pick up and fill me in?”

“Because it was you, the woman of a thousand questions and a million ways to break a person down. I knew you were already worried about me when you followed me all the way to Long Island that night. If I’d called you after the car accident, no matter how much I tried to reassure you, you and Jonathan would have been breaking your necks trying to get to us, and if you told the rest of them, they would have wanted to come with you. There was also Marnie to consider. She couldn’t take another car accident. You would have had to tie her down. The two of you were needed here to keep everyone in line. Bill and I would have come in last night, but those damned doctors insisted we stay for observation until at least  morning, so Bill called in the grandsons to help us get back. That Billy can certainly wheel and deal. The boy has nerves of steel- definitely his grandfather’s progeny. He and Tom got clearance and flew us in this morning.”

“And I take it Bill didn’t call Jonathan because you told him not to.”

“Jonathan would have been just like you. In fact, that one did wind up making it to us. Busybody that he is, he scouted out, stalked, and then tagged along with Cordelia when I called her to bring my dress to the hotel in the city. I had the hair and makeup people meet us there, too. Your husband missed his calling as a P.I., I’m telling you. But seriously, Jen, I couldn’t have taken talking to you. You would have broken me down, and I really, really needed to focus so I could make it here.”

Pat closed her fingers even more tightly around Jennifer’s. “Edwards, I’m telling you. I have never in my life been so mixed up and messed up as I’ve been for the past few weeks. Thank God I’ve had looking after Marnie and her affairs to deflect some of it, not mention Kyle and his. Not to mention this big lug next to me.”

“It’s all right about all of that, Patricia, but you still haven’t filled me in on the original reason for-”

The house lights dimmed.

J.J. and Teddy, who they hadn’t noticed get up from their table, were now standing together in the center of a spotlight trained on the middle of the empty dance floor. When Jennifer glanced back at Jonathan, he winked and tipped his head to turn her back around.

“Good evening,” J.J. said into the microphone in her hand. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here for this most wonderful occasion. Tonight is kind of a dream come true for me. You see, as a little girl growing up, I would look at my parents’ wedding pictures and wish so much that I could have been there to witness the ceremony. Crazy, I know, but that was my wish. You see, my father and my mother have this marvelous story, how they met, got married, and how they’ve remained a romance novel in progress. I can’t tell you how proud and honored I am to have become part of the plot.”

A titter of laughter rose from the crowd and a round of clapping emanated from the family table complete with a couple of “Here, here’s”.

“Thanks to my father,” J.J. continued, “who has always had a way of making many of his daughter’s dreams become reality, I have not only witnessed my godparents get married today, I was also present as my parents’ renewed their vows. Promises made and making the effort to keep to them, says a lot these days. I am fortunate to have in my life so many people who exemplify the best of commitment. I’m privileged to have been born into a group with such admirable integrity. Aunt Pat, Uncle Bill, Mom, Daddy, I didn’t know what to give you for a wedding present that you don’t already own. In each other, you already have the best. So in the end, I decided all I could do is give you a little something from this Hart.”

The first notes, soft, mellow, and amazingly clear swelled like a live orchestra to fill the room, the intimately familiar melody triggering a fresh round of tears in Jennifer’s eyes.

“Oh my goodness.” She leaned into Jonathan’s shoulder, whispering, “No, she hasn’t.”

“Yes, she has, darling, the instrumental and the vocals; she arranged it all with her school and had it mastered in Hector’s father’s studio.”

Teddy crooned the song’s distinctive opening, “Now…”

J.J. joined him, both strong young voices blending and complimenting each other as they delivered their gift, the song from the original wedding ceremony twenty-six years before.
-when it rains I don’t feel cold

Now that I have your hand to hold

The winds might blow through me

But I don’t care

There’s no harm in thunder if you are there and

Now

Now when we touch my feelings fly

Now when I’m smiling I know why

You light up my world like the morning sun

You’re so deep within me we’re almost one

And now

All the fears that I had start to fade

I was always afraid love might forget me

Love might let me down

Then look….

The teenagers gestured to first to themselves and then to the bridal party to express,

 …. who I found

Jennifer slipped Pat one of her tissues.

And now,

Now when I wake there’s someone home

I’ll never face the nights alone

You gave me the courage I need to win

To open my heart and to let you in

And I never really knew how until now

No, I never really knew how ….

Before J.J. and Teddy could finish the last perfectly harmonized line, the guests and the wedding table, including Pat and Bill, were on their feet, bursting into applause with the final,

“…until now”.

Teddy briefly hugged J.J. to him and kissed her cheek. They bowed in tandem to the guests and then similarly saluted the wedding party. The brides and grooms shared a quick kiss and then the two brides embraced.

“When?” Jennifer whispered in Pat’s ear while she had her in her arms. “We keep getting cut off.”

“Tonight,” Pat said through her tears, “when all this is done.”

_________________________________________________________

After Dinner….

More pictures taken, bouquets thrown, toasts made, testimonials given, the first dance completed, and all courses of the sumptuous dinner consumed. The live quartet had given over completely for the night to the medley of recorded classics. In sharp contrast to the earlier part of the day, everything that evening had gone down perfectly, not the first hitch.

Full from his meal and satisfied with having all the pieces back in place, Jonathan took stock of everything going on around him. Of particular interest to him at the moment were the interactions of the two women next to him. He couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but going by their body language- what he could see of it out of the corner of his eye, he could tell they were on a scent. Pat snagged a nearby attendant and whispered in his ear. Down on the main level, Betsy’s date was escorting Dean Marchand onto the dance floor.

Jennifer patted his thigh. “Jonathan, shift over one.”

He moved into the seat vacated by Peter, who with Bill was off visiting with the McDowell Aviation guests. Jennifer slid into his chair leaving an empty seat between herself and Pat.

The attendant Pat spoke with appeared at Betsy’s side. He said something to her that made her look up. When she did, Pat crooked a finger at her.

With that, Jonathan took his own opportunity. “I’ll be right back, darling.”

He left the table to go below where he carefully wound his way through the seated guests and then through the swaying bodies on the dance floor, which included Marnie and Duncan. He made eye contact with the latter before tapping his intended target’s shoulder. “Mind if I cut in?”

Teddy instinctively inched his body back before turning his head. “Just a second; I’ll have to ask the lady.” Teddy turned back around to address his partner. “J.J., this gentleman would like to finish this dance with you.”

Over Teddy’s shoulder, J.J. eyed her father up and down. “I guess it’ll be okay. He looks safe.”

“Safe?” Jonathan scooped J.J.’s hand from inside Teddy’s and moved in to slide his other arm around her waist. “Come on you.”

Teddy, brushed aside by his elder, slowly shook his head in surrender and blew J.J. a kiss over her father’s shoulder before walking away.

J.J., for her part, fell right into step with her new partner. “Unforgettable, it certainly has been,” she said. “I love this song, especially this Nat King Cole version. Nobody does it like him. He has just the right timbre and inflections for the velvety lyrics.”

And you have a great ear and a way with words, yourself, Jonathan thought as he gazed at her. And growing up so fast, in so many ways, your Daddy can hardly keep up.

“You and Teddy did a wonderful job, too”, he said aloud. “I’m very impressed at your arranging long distance to coordinate with Teddy, and of course I loved the selection you two performed for us. That was very special. It sounded as if you and Teddy had been working together on it in person for weeks rather than a day or two. And then the songs you chose for the recorded music, just perfect, J.J. It’s all been perfect. Your Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill are really touched by your selections. Particularly that Fifth Dimension recording. Now that,” he wrinkled his nose at her, “was absolutely brilliant.”

J.J. softly sang the first line of the song. “Bill! I love you so. I always will.”

She stopped signing to snicker mischievously. “I knew it would catch them completely off guard. As soon as Mr. Washington played it for me, I knew that one had to go into the lineup. Uncle Bill’s expression was priceless when it first started playing. Then when he stood up afterward and toasted it, talking about the ‘Bill’ in the lyrics should have been ‘Pat’ because she was the one that had to be talked into getting married, and Aunt Pat gave him that dirty look, I thought he was going to be singing some wedding bell blues for sure right there and then.”

Jonathan laughed. “Me, too. Have I told you I am so proud of you, your music, and all you’ve done?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t necessary. I’m just glad everything worked out so nicely in the end. I was sure my mother was going to let you have it good when you all of a sudden showed up out of no where at the- at the- the altar, I guess. ”

“For all practical purposes, it was an altar.”

“For all practical purposes, you took a huge chance. You were AWOL, and you were AWOL at the worst possible time, but I have to give you mad credit for nerve.”

“I had urgent business that needed my attention. I prayed hard we’d get here on time, and that she’d forgive me once we turned up.”

“Well, she seems to have gotten over it. She didn’t embarrass you in front of the reverend like we both know she could have. She’s sat next to you all this time without going for your jugular. As for the music, I tried to match the songs up with the occasion, but more so with the main people involved. It all had to be classy, but cool, like you guys.”

“Well, you and Mr. Washington did a very good job. And speaking of cool, I have to tell you, what’s left of that cold of yours kind of gave you a little Karen Carpenter effect when you were singing her song.”

J.J. giggled into her father’s chest before looking up to his face again. “Nice compliment; I’ll take it gladly. Now that girl had some pipes. It’s really sad what happened to her, but my mother says there was a lesson in it for the rest of us about balance, keeping the grass green on both sides. So I guess, in light of what you said, some good came out of having caught the stupid cold. I got nervous for a minute there, thinking I might not be able to swing it. ‘Now’ isn’t the easiest song to sing even when you’re at your very best. Thank goodness for Cordelia and Rosa coming through with the herbal tea and the lozenges to help my throat not be so raspy. We at first planned to do Etta James’ ‘At Last’, but after Teddy got here, we switched. I thought ‘Now’ was much more appropriate and meaningful. My mother was really surprised, wasn’t she? I mean about the vow renewal. She wasn’t anticipating that. I knew she was going to cry when she found out what was really going on. She’s so sentimental.”

“It was more than just the vow renewal or sentiment. It was everything. She’s been pretty wound up. By that time, her spring couldn’t take another turn.”

“I know. It’s good that final twist was a positive one. Seemed like the story was never going to end. Considering everything that went down and could gone down, it didn’t have to turn out so well. We really do have somebody looking out for all of us, don’t we, Daddy?”

Jonathan didn’t answer. He couldn’t speak for considering the child in his arms.

So smart.

And she’s mine.

His unspoken hope was that the somebody J.J. alluded to continued to be on the lookout and would put in a good word for them if it turned out another one was needed.

“I see Betsy’s up there getting grilled,” J.J. said next to his ear, and he could feel the naughty grin he was certain accompanied her words. “Probably about her date. No better for her, trying to slide him in on me like that. She should have come clean. Been ducking me all night, but that’s okay. She can run, but she can’t hide. He’s very nice-looking, and he seems pleasant. I got a good vibe from him. A professor with a Ph.D. He’s smart, too. So like, did my mother know about him? Did Aunt Pat? You know anything about him? Is it serious? I think it is. That’s okay, you don’t have to tell me anything. Like I said, before the night is over, I’ll find out everything this inquiring mind wants to know.”

Jonathan rolled his eyes to the heavens beyond the canvas ceiling. Inquiring mind, indeed. That part of her, Jennifer’s kid.

“Been ducking me all night, but that’s okay. She can run, but she can’t hide.”

And most definitely his.

Unforgettable in every way
And forever more, that’s how you’ll stay….

A heart wrenching, mysterious week involving all the unforgettable ladies in his life. A taxing, but extraordinary day ending in a wonderful evening. So far, it had all been worth it.

So far.

When J.J. lay her head on his shoulder, he put both arms around her and got the odd hunch she had more on her mind than the things they had spoken about or Teddy.

Close to midnight at Hamilton-McDowell Farms….

J.J. studied Marnie’s back, uneasy about how Marnie was taking the news she had just given her.

For a long time, Marnie didn’t say anything. Just sat there with her head bent low and her hands tightly clasped on top of the desk in their bedroom at Pat and Bill’s house. It was where they had come after excusing themselves from the boys on the pretense of “powdering their noses” when the reception was just about over.

Marnie finally swiveled around to J.J. who was sitting right behind her on the bed. “When did she tell you this?”

“Earlier. Before the wedding. When you were in the library getting lined up to walk in for the ceremony.”

“So, why did you wait all this time to tell me?”

“She told me to wait until things had winded down so you could have a nice time tonight and not have that on your mind. She said she didn’t really want to tell you about the car accident, but there wasn’t any way around that since she and Uncle Bill had to explain to the rest of them why they were gone so long and that they were so moving so stiff because they’re sore all over.”

“Cars,” Marnie muttered, “Car accidents. They are really messing with me and mine.”

“That’s what she said. That’s why she didn’t want you to know the rest until now. She said she’ll come talk with you herself later, but she wanted me to fill you in now so you wouldn’t be broadsided should it somehow manage to get to you before she could.”

“Damn. I hate this for her.” Marnie got up and came to sit next to J.J. on the bed. “How did she look when she was telling you? How did she sound?”

“To tell you the truth, Marn, I couldn’t see her face when she was telling me. I was fastening her- well my mother’s- necklace on her; it was the something borrowed. Pat couldn’t do it herself because her arms hurt to lift them like that and her fingers were stiff, but she sounded kind of matter of fact about it. You know how she is; she’s not one to get too outwardly frantic over anything. And she really wouldn’t about something like this, especially when she’s sharing it with you or me. She’d want us to think she’s taking it in stride, so that we’ll follow suit.”

“In stride, my ass. She’s been freaked out over this for a while, and she didn’t have to say a word to me for me to see it.”

“I have to tell the guys, too, Shane and Finn. The condensed version.”

“That’s all they need; they wouldn’t know what to do with more than that. I saw all the grownups kind of heading out together as we were coming over here. Where were they going?”

“Probably to her. She said to me that she’d tell all of them at one time once the reception was over.”

Marnie tipped her head and eyed J.J. in question. “You mean to tell me she’s held out on the Duchess until now? Man, she might have issues, but she’s also got some huge balls to be doing that to her girl. Jen is going to have a fit on her. Pat should have told her as soon as she lay eyes on her.”

“I warned her, but Pat said she could handle her. Since it didn’t involve me, I left her to it. I just hope I’m around if it goes to blows. I love a good fight.”

Momentarily setting her upset aside, Marnie smirked in mischief. “It’s your mother. You’d have to jump in and help her.”

J.J. waved a hand and shook her head. “Not me. I’ve been taught to stay out of grown people’s business.”

“You never do any other time.”

“In that situation, I would. In the event Pat won, where would that leave me? With her coming after me for coming at her? No way. The smart money on that bout would be in my pocket, and my behind would be on the sidelines getting it divvied up for the payout. My mother can hold her own. It’s anybody’s fight with the two of them, but Pat if did win, she would know she’d been fighting. That’s what she always says about conflicts of any type; you might not always come out on top, but the other party should be half blind, limping, and bleeding profusely when it’s over.”

The girls shared a snicker, but quickly sobered. Marnie stood up and smoothed her dress. “I wish now I was going back to New York instead of home to LA. Where do you think she told them to meet her?”

J.J. got up from the bed, too. “I don’t know. Somewhere here in the house that can accommodate more than a few people.”

Marnie grabbed J.J.’s hand. “Come on. Let’s get to the guys so you can fill them in, and then we’ll all go find the others. ”

_________________________________________________________

The family gathered in Bill’s man-cave once the last of the invited guests departed the reception. Included in the assembled were Betsy and her date, Betsy’s father, Benjamin and Ms. Smythe, and Dean Marchand.

Pat and Bill sat together on the couch. Jennifer took the spot next to Pat, while Jonathan opted for the couch arm on the other side of Bill. Peter, Lisa, and their two oldest sons sat together at the bar. Betsy and her escort, Dr. Reisch, took the love seat right next to the couch. The rest positioned themselves around the room, some rearranging furniture to better hear. Stephen moved his chair as close as he could, situating himself right in front of Pat and Jennifer.

When everyone was settled and quiet, Pat cleared her throat and began. “We, well I-”

“We,” Bill said as he closed a hand over hers.

Corrected, Pat started again. “We owe all of you a debt of gratitude, one that we will probably never be able to completely repay. But please know how much we appreciate your faith in us these past few days and your support of us and the Harts tonight. Everything was so very beautiful, so smoothly orchestrated.” She turned to address Jennifer. “I know I put you through the wringer, you and Jonathan, but part of it was what had to happen to keep you from finding out what he and J.J. had planned for you.”

“Love you, Jonathan!” Betsy called out. “I didn’t see that one coming at all. Neither did Jen, judging from her cute, but rather liquid reaction.”

Jonathan winked at Betsy; Jennifer blushed.

Pat reached her free hand to tap a finger to Stephen’s knee. “You have always been able to see through me, so I figure you’ve been quite concerned about what was going on.”

“A little,” Stephen conceded. “But you had the good sense to phone and take care of the immediate. Then you remedied the obvious. It wasn’t a priest, but any man of the cloth outranks a judge when it comes to a holy institution like marriage. Beyond all of that however, I had the feeling there was more you needed to tell me.”

Jennifer leaned around Pat and cut in. “Wait, you spoke with Pa before the ceremony? But not me.”

Pat looked to the ceiling and sighed. “I knew you would go there. Yes, Jen. It was very last minute, but I had to let Pa know I was on my way. I’m not crazy. You, I can handle; we can argue about it later, but I wasn’t risking coming home to Pa without phoning ahead after being absent without leave for as long as I had been. I’m grown, but I’m not that grown.”

“And well you recognized that, darling,” Stephen said as his eyes cut toward Bill. “For the both of you.”

Jennifer sat back and Pat continued. “You’re all probably wondering why the young ones aren’t here. Well, I left it to J.J. to handle them.”

Jennifer sprang forward again. “J.J.?”

Pat  pressed her free hand to Jennifer’s shoulder to press her back in place. “I summoned her to me as soon as I arrived. By the time Bill, Cordelia, and I-” Her gaze flitted in Jonathan’s direction, “as well as the stowaway member of our party- finally made it in, you were closed up in the library and everyone not in the wedding had gone out to the reception area. I needed to fill J.J. in so she could fill Marnie in.” Pat glanced again to Jonathan. “See, the Squirt’s been holding a marker for me; she knew she’d have to come through for me when the time came.”

“And she would,” Jonathan said. “We take that kind of thing very seriously, she and I.”

“Yes, well, I’ve already told her most of what I’m about to tell all of you. I anticipated she and Marnie would want to spend as much time with Shane, Finn, and their friends as they could tonight since they’ll all be going their separate ways come morning, and I also figured both of them had to be pretty worried, so I told her while I had her in helping me with my jewelry. Over these past few days, I’ve been checking in with them, J.J. and Marnie, just to keep them from completely flaking out and being a problem for you, Jen. But it was mostly the quick check, no elaboration, just enough to let them know I was alive and thinking of them. I did have to go a bit farther with Marnie about that nightlight of hers. Didn’t want her worrying about where I was and then backsliding. She’s come quite far in that.”

Jennifer slowly nodded. “Jonathan and I made that assumption about them based on how unconcerned they both seemed to be, but I didn’t have any idea you’d already actually spoken with J.J. She hasn’t said anything to me, although in all honesty, there hasn’t been much time this evening for the two of us to talk at length.”

“I instructed her not to say anything to you or to anyone. I wanted to talk with you myself. I wanted- Bill and I wanted- to tell all of you at one time so you would get the story directly from us, and you’d know for sure what is going on and what is going to happen.”

Pat paused. She closed her eyes and appeared to have to gather herself before she opened them again and pushed on. “Jen, I was trying so hard to tell you when Bill showed up at the estate and cut us off. Then I- I- fainted or whatever I did- and when I came to, you and Marnie were gone. Bill told me he’d sent you two on to Maryland. That left him and me on our own. I’d been holding it in so long. I was afraid if I spoke on it, it would- but then I woke up and Bill was right there. Just like he was at that crucial last minute in Boston last September.  It was then I truly, truly understood. I realized I didn’t have to be afraid so much any more. I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to tell you, Jen, but surely I needed to tell Bill; he deserved to know. But  before I could explain myself to him, he shut me up. Said he didn’t want to hear it. He had brought the papers with him from Maryland and said he didn’t want to hear anything about anything until after we were married. He threw my clothes at me and told me to get up so we could go find a preacher and get married- that very day.

“I thought he was crazy. I told him he was crazy. I told him he should let me tell him what was wrong before he hitched his life to mine legally and permanently; I didn’t- I don’t know how this thing with me is going to turn out, but he wouldn’t listen. He’d already put Carmichael onto finding someone to marry us. He wasn’t giving me any room to back out of getting married. I’ve never-”

She leaned into Bill’s shoulder. “I’ve never let anyone take that much control over me, over what I wanted to do.”

Bill grinned down at her. “That’s because I’m the boss of you.”

“Bullsh-” Her eyes shot to Stephen, she caught herself, and she looked back up to Bill. “Don’t fool yourself. It was a weak moment.”

Then she went back to addressing the group. “I have never had- I’ve never let- I can’t explain it, but it was right; it felt completely right what Bill was telling me to do, even though he was telling me to do it. It was the holiday week, but the old judge up the road, Judge Gilbertson, used to be one my grandmother’s bridge buddies, happened to still be in town. He married us in his study. His wife, Carmichael, and that da- that Eli stood witness.”

“Who’s Carmichael?” someone asked.

Stephen leaned forward. “Who is Eli?”

“Carmichael is caretaker of my other home,” Pat explained. “My place on Long Island. Carmichael was my grandmother’s housekeeper and personal assistant, and she became sort of a governess to me when I moved in after my mother died. When my grandmother died, she passed to me in trust all her holdings, which included the estate. My father kept Carmichael on to oversee the house and the grounds and to oversee me because he couldn’t be bothered. Once I came of age, I kept the estate mostly for her. It’s been her home all this time. Over the years,  she and it have also been my sanctuary in rougher times. Because of that, I’ve kept very quiet about them.” Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “It’s hard for me to admit, even to myself sometimes, that I’m not made of steel.”

“And Eli?” Stephen insisted, as if he hadn’t heard anything else Pat said following her mention of the name.

Pat pursed her lips in exasperation. “Carmichael’s cat, Pa.”

“Oh.” Stephen relaxed and sat back. “I was only wondering. Stray males lingering about… single older woman on her own… one can’t be too careful.”

Amused titters sounded around the room. When Jennifer’s attention darted from her father to the Dean, there was the briefest moment where both women’s eyes met.

“Now the hardest part.” Pat said with yet another sigh.

She attempted to release Bill’s hand, but he placed his right back on top of hers, maintaining that connection. “Go ahead,” he said. “They need to know, and you need to get it out of you.”

“If only it were that easy,” Pat said. “Well group, it seems I have a mass of some sort in one of my breasts.”
The air left from the room, the resulting vacuum raising Lisa’s whispered, “Oh, no,” to a scream.”

“When?” Jennifer managed to ask.

“It was discovered shortly after I returned to New York after 911.”

“And in all this time you didn’t tell me? It’s November, Pat.”

Pat’s spoke even more softly in her attempt to explain.

“It was just so much at one time, Jen. I returned home to a devastation I’d never before experienced, and that’s saying something for someone like me. I’ve seen with my own eyes wars, atrocities, and the like, but not in my own yard. I wound up having to have blinds installed in my offices to keep from being constantly reminded of what I’d- we’d lost. So many funerals. Too many memorial services. Security upgrades. Meetings to heal and regroup as a company. Counseling sessions for those who needed it- hell, I needed it. Then, I had Marnie with me. And Kyle across the state line. Both those babies needed me. Carl needed me, and poor Bill needed me. Guardianship and Marnie’s other legal matters, which I was happy and grateful to be there for her. She’s been a most welcome diversion.

“Then I got hit with this anomaly. I had to have my annual physical for insurance purposes. I’m always as healthy as a horse, so I wasn’t really concerned going in. I wasn’t expecting anything to result from the tests; that’s how it’s always been with me. Then I got the call about more tests being needed. I told the medical office I’d get back to them to schedule, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.

“As irrational as this sounds, I tried to ignore it, I guess hoping it would go away. Since then, I’ve been avoiding doctors, lawyers, Cordelia’s concerns for me, my own thoughts… Bill…telling you, Jen…. in an effort to get away from it. But things like this have a way of keeping up with a person no matter how hard or fast one tries to run. It comes creeping up in the quiet moments, tapping your shoulder in times alone, taking hunger’s place at meals, frightening away sleep in the dark of night. Before this week, I’d been going through the motions, but-”

Jennifer pressed a hand to Pat’s forearm. Like her father about Eli, she, too, had gotten stuck a couple details behind. “You got that one report back, and you didn’t go in to see what was actually the matter?”

But Pat didn’t go as easy on Jennifer as she had Stephen. “Didn’t I just tell you that?”

“I do not believe you,” Jennifer huffed as she folded her arms in frustration. “It could be nothing.”

“It’s a lump the machine could see; that’s something in my book. I didn’t have one before, and I do check. Anyway, the doctor has been trying to follow up. He recently sent me yet another letter urging me to come in for more definitive testing, but I still couldn’t make myself go. I just stuck it in the desk and, I guess, hoped it would dissolve in there. After all, my family history with this sort of thing isn’t so good, so-”

Jennifer leaned past Pat to address Bill over the concerned buzz from the rest of the room. “Since she told you, I hope you talked some sense into her.”

Bill shrank back a bit, the look on his face one of shock or more likely surprise at the affront. He suppressed a grin when Jonathan nudged him in challenge from behind, but kept silent.

It was Stephen this time with the hand to Jennifer’s shoulder. “Darling, leave Bill alone and allow to Patricia finish what she’s saying.”

“Thank you, Pa,” Pat said, snaking her neck as best she could at the woman next to her. “Actually, it was you, Jen, who talked the sense into me. You and Marnie. You’re right about Marnie and her maturity; she had it over me and mine in this instance. I read her note, then I used that number you left me. Everything is in place for my tests. Bill and I have to be in Los Angeles by Wednesday.”

“Los Angeles?” Betsy asked. “Why all the way to Los Angeles?”

Peter voiced the same concern. “Mac, I’m glad you and Dad are going to be on our side of country for a while, and that you’ve made up your mind to face it, but why go that far when your doctor is in New York? What if, God forbid,… I can’t even say it, but won’t you want to be at home to recuperate?”

Pat and Bill smiled at Peter’s first public use of his private nickname for her, but Pat addressed the question. “The post wedding agenda has changed somewhat, Peter. Jennifer’s doctor, Kate Kendall coordinated with my doctors in New York and set up all the tests and any subsequent procedures I may have to undergo to be done in Los Angeles. I like Kate, and I trust her. Not that I don’t trust my doctors in Manhattan, but as I said, there’s another agenda.”

“Another agenda?” Jennifer said, her tone changed to one of concern rather than her previous aggravation and defensiveness. “I left that number for you to call and talk with Kate, for reassurance purposes. I didn’t mean for you to cancel your honeymoon plans.”

“The honeymoon plans haven’t been canceled. And since we’re on the subject, just how did you know I was in specific need of the reassurance of a physician?”

Jennifer didn’t waver at the challenge, or perhaps the accusation behind the question. “I felt it. I felt it all the way in Los Angeles. When I got to you in New York, I could see for myself you were off physically, and your behavior was off as well.”

“Yep,” Betsy seconded. “I noticed it when you came to Father’s with Jen. You were looking kind of thin and pinched. But you’re always prickly, so I didn’t see much change in your behav-”

Pat skewered Betsy with a look that shut her down, then Stephen ended any further debate on the matter. “What Jennifer says is true, Patricia. I too, sensed it.”

Pat shifted around to silently check with Bill and Jonathan.

Jonathan shrugged his agreement with Stephen. Bill quietly offered, “I told you everyone suspected you. You really need to get it into your head and under your belt how much you are loved on so many levels, and not just by me. You are not alone in anything.”

Pat faced forward again, this time wincing with the movement, and again Jennifer reached for her arm. “Still very sore?”

“Somewhat, but it’s getting better. Certain movements kind of catch me off guard. After affect of being bumped around in that car. It’ll pass.” Then Pat held up both hands, getting everyone’s attention with the sudden gesture. “But we’ve gotten off track. I have something I want to say while we’re all together. About that other agenda, my and Bill’s real reason for this meeting.

“All of us are here, together in this room tonight because of two people, Jennifer and Jonathan. In one way or another, each of us is better, more fulfilled, more complete because they made what a lot of people thought at the time was a snap decision to join their lives. When Jen phoned to tell me she’d met the man who would be her husband, I was surprised, but I really didn’t doubt much that she had. Like she said about me earlier, I felt it. All the way in New York from where she was in London, I felt it in my bones that she had done exactly what she was telling me. I knew of the man, but I didn’t know him. However, when I met Jonathan for myself, it only took a few minutes for me to be certain he was the one for Jen. What I didn’t know at the time was that Jen’s right man would eventually lead me to mine.”

Pat stopped to chuckle to herself. She leaned back against Bill to be able to speak directly to Jonathan. “I’m sure Jen was ready to have your entire head at the point you finally showed this afternoon. I’ll bet she looked for you everywhere and was completely fired up at not having found you and having to take a chance and start without Bill, me, or you. I’d have laughed out loud right there in front of God, the preacher, Pa, and everyone if she’d have told you to kiss her behind when you asked her to marry you again.”

Jonathan shamefacedly grinned, and everyone in the room, including Stephen and Jennifer, laughed.

When Pat waved her hand, everyone quieted again. “But in all seriousness, Jen, Jonathan, the two of you are truly an inspiration to all of us. Your lasting devotion to each other, particularly in the days and times in which we’re currently living, is beyond admirable. It’s a genuine testament to what a mature, loving relationship can and should be. I know you’ve given Pa peace of mind in that area.” She smiled and wrinkled her nose at Stephen. “He deserved it after hanging in there with us like he did when we were kids.”

Pat had to pause to allow for the peppering of “Yes,” “For sure,” and “Here, here”, and the clapping of agreement from the Dean and Peter and Lisa before she could finish what she was saying.

“Because of what you have done for all of us, Bill and I wanted to give you something as a token of our deep appreciation. We think we came up with the perfect idea, especially after what he and I have put you through and what lies ahead of us. Now you can’t refuse it; no excuses will be accepted. All the arrangements have been made and put into place.”

She leaned around Bill to again address Jonathan. “I’ve gotten with your secretary and had your schedule worked out. She’s assured me your group will carry on for you in your absence.”

Then she directed her next statements to Jennifer. “I told Marcia’s people she’d have to wait for whatever she might have going with you. She doesn’t know that yet, but she’ll find out once she gets back to San Francisco; I didn’t want to spar with her about it tonight, and I can ignore her calls later. Benjamin gave you the go-ahead on your personal project; I’ll take care of that last part you worked on once he’s finished with it.

“With all of that said, I need to stop procrastinating and proceed with my tests ASAP, so Bill and I are sending both of you on the honeymoon in our place.”

“To Antigua?” Jennifer and Jonathan said in unison.

Bill answered that question. “Yep. Like Pat said, it’s all set up. All you have to do is go. You two deserve this, really you do. If it weren’t for you, last Wednesday would not have happened. Today would not have happened. If it weren’t for the two of you, Pat’s path might never have crossed with mine, and most certainly it wouldn’t have in the way it did. We wanted you to have this from us, and for you two to not have a reason to try to turn us down, so your bags have been packed for you. Your tickets, passports, and a private jet are waiting for you at the airport. You’ll leave shortly and spend the night in New York-”

“At the Carlyle.” Pat interjected, nudging Jennifer in the arm.

“Where you’ll spend tonight and tomorrow to rest up,” Bill continued. “On Monday morning you’ll fly on to the main leg of your trip. The villa is staffed and ready. When you get there, all you’ll have to do is relax and enjoy yourselves for the next ten days.”

“Ten days?” Jennifer said. “That’s a long time for us to be away with the girls going back and restarting their classes, particularly Marnie, her getting resettled and all.”

“Ten days,” Pat declared. “We’d have set it up for the full three weeks, but we anticipated your being concerned about the girls and school, as if I couldn’t handle them and that.”

“We,” Bill reminded her.

“I stand corrected. And it will probably need to be ‘we’, considering who we’re discussing. The girls will be fine, Jen. The four of us will leave here on Monday, and we’ll stop and spend the night in Boston so Marnie can see her father before she heads to the other side of the country. Once we get them home, Marnie and J.J. will be so busy getting caught up on their school work, their activities, and doing my bidding they won’t have time to miss you or to get into anything Bill and I can’t handle. Besides I do need a little more time with Marnie. I anticipated her possibly needing help getting resettled in school and at home.”

When Jennifer’s uncertain stare didn’t let up, Pat first glanced back to Jonathan who gave her a wink. Then she took Jennifer’s hand in hers.

“Look, please let us do this for you and Jonathan. Don’t fight us on it. Just go where we’re sending you, and have a nice time. I’ll have the girls and my husband to look after me. And no matter how this thing turns out, I have the love of all the people in this room- my family- to support me and to see me through it. Then I’ll have you and Jonathan when you get back. It will help me immensely right now if you two are enjoying a little time to yourselves. We all know how much that means to the two of you.”

Pat used Jennifer’s hand pull herself in close enough to privately whisper, “It isn’t being selfish, old girl. Just go. I promise you, I’ll be in very good hands.”

Jennifer raised her eyes above Pat’s head to Jonathan’s face. He shrugged as if telling her the proposal was all right with him. Jennifer then turned to her father who advised, “Your mother and I taught you to accept with grace gifts bestowed upon you.”

Jennifer studied him for a moment or two and then returned to Pat. “If we go, you’ll not keep anything from me. You’ll contact me as soon as you know.”

Pat shook her head. “Nope. I’ll let you know as soon as you return. My issues can wait until then. I don’t want you sitting around, putting off having fun while waiting for me to call. If it’s good news, it will wait and be the frosting on your vacation cake when you get home. If it’s bad news, I don’t want you sitting around worrying, or worse, cutting the trip short, so, like I said, don’t expect to hear anything until you get back. And don’t call a million times checking on the girls. They will be fine. And don’t try to check on me through them because I’ll have that avenue closed off, too.”

“She won’t.” Jonathan said as he got up and came around to stand next to Stephen. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t have time to concentrate on anything except taking it easy while we’re away.”

Stephen rose from his chair. “And as your Pa, I must insist you honor the generosity being shown to you.”

When her husband and her father reached down to her accompanied by a round of applause from the rest of the room, Jennifer used their hands to slowly stand and concede.

“Well, as I seem to be outvoted on the matter, I guess I don’t have a choice. I can’t say I’m not excited by the itinerary, but I am still going to be concerned about you, Pat.”

“You can be concerned; I can’t do anything about that. But by that same token, it isn’t as if you can do anything about or for me, whichever way the tests go. Whatever this is, good or bad or nothing at all, it and I will wait until you get back. You’ll be enjoying the sun, the sand, and your man; I’ll be enjoying the company of my nieces, being pampered by them, and spending quality time with my new husband. Keep in mind, Jennifer Edwards Hart, I am your elder. You have to do as I say.”

“You do, Mom.”

With everyone’s attention directed toward the couch, nobody noticed the group of teenagers enter the room from the other end. The four boys split off and meandered to the side opposite the action, while the two girls went right into the heart of it. Marnie, a little drawn and a lot pale, stopped near Pat and Bill. J.J. passed them to approach her parents and grandfather, but she spoke directly to her mother.

“Aunt Pat is older than you, so you do have to listen to her, but more than that, what Pa said is right.  It’s what you tell me; ‘accept with grace a gift graciously given’. Please go, and you and  Daddy have a good time. Marnie and I will help Uncle Bill take care of Aunt Pat. We have school, our stuff we need to do, and our friends to get caught up on. We both have cars, so we can get around without having to-”

“Wait,” Jennifer said, holding up one hand. “Stop right there. Both have cars? Since when did that little red car of Marnie’s split into two? And when did you get a license, not that it matters in this instance.”

“Well, I just figured since you and Daddy are going to be out of town for a minute, if Uncle Bill didn’t have time, I could get Mr. Barnett to take me to get it. It’s only a formality at this point. Then I could just go ahead and drive your car. You know, to keep it warmed up, running smoothly and everything since it’s winter.”

“I’m not that distracted, Justine. It runs just fine, and my car sits idle in an LA winter, not a Maryland or New York winter, so there’s no real need for warming it. And don’t you forget, I am your elder.”

With a sheepish grin, J.J. hung her head and shrugged. “Just thought I’d give it shot. You never know when or where you’re going to be able to maybe get one in.”

“I do,” Jennifer said with that one eyebrow raised. “When it comes to you I’m always on alert for you attempting to get one in. You just sit tight until I get back in town.”

“Don’t worry, Jen,” Pat said from the couch, “I’ve got that one firmly in hand.”

She was already holding Marnie by hers.

Or it could have been the other way around.

_________________________________________________________

Hours before dawn of Sunday morning….

Pat took her time, trying not rustle the covers too much as she slid out of bed. She pulled on her robe and slid her feet into her house shoes, keeping an eye on the sleeping form she left behind and marveling at how full circle she’d come in only a few days.

With him. With her husband.

She blew Bill a kiss, then tiptoed to the door and left the bedroom.

Peter, Lisa, and the older two boys occupied other rooms on that floor; they wouldn’t be leaving until later in the morning, so she made her way to the main staircase in the darkness to keep from waking any of them. At the foot of the stairs, she switched on the table lamp. The front hall and what she could see of the areas around her had been returned to their pre-wedding state.

Back to normal and ready for whatever lie ahead.

She walked around to her office and closed the door behind her without flipping the light switch. Through the open blinds, amber squares glowed in the distance, from the direction of the old bunkhouse now temporary guest house accommodations for the younger McDowell boys, Teddy, and that damned Duncan Sinclair, all of whom she figured to be awake out there.

Probably propped up in front of one of those video games.

Or if they had gone to sleep, they’d likely dropped off in the spots where they stood or sat, oblivious to the lights they left burning.

Kids.

They would rest on the planes taking them home and be ready to start all over in full effect once they touched down.

Youthful resilience, nothing like it.

She wondered for a moment if J.J. and Marnie might be up, talking, reviewing the past week, the weekend, planning their upcoming days, the return home, to school, to their real life.

Discussing Aunt Pat…  in their real life.

That’s for later, Pat. One day at a time. Take care of now right now.

The Harts and Marnie left last. The girls had already said their goodbyes for the night and gone out to the car. J.J. and Teddy, trying so hard to hide their attraction to each other in the presence of the adults, Teddy settled for a chaste kiss to J.J.’s cheek in the presence of J.J.’s father.

As cute as they can be. God only knows how many hot ones they shared when nobody was looking or they had opportunity to slip off to themselves.

Boy, those were the days….

Jonathan took Jennifer’s arm to escort her through the door, but Jennifer suddenly turned back, threw her arms around her, and  hugged her close. Braced for the expected command to take care of herself and cooperate once she got to LA; it caught her off guard when Jennifer instead whispered a different directive into her ear.

“When you get a minute- and I need you to get one, look under the mouse pad in your office. Since I’m leaving, the matter is yours to handle.”

The girl was one hell of an actress. Always had been. Jonathan and Bill never suspected there was more than a friendly, concerned endearment going on between them.

What was going on?

Pat touched the base of the desk lamp and the light flickered on. She sat down, slid her fingers under the mouse pad, and pulled out a flat, plastic square.

Memory card?

The computer and monitor clicked to life with the movement of the mouse resting on the pad. She slid the card into the appropriate port. Not sure whether it was a document or pictures she should be looking for, she X’d out of the first small screen that popped up and went in through “My Computer” to open the files.

Ah, pictures.

One folder. She double clicked. The first thumbnail alone shoved her backward, crashing against the chair like she’d taken a bullet to the chest.

What in the- ?

A couple of clicks and a drag put her into the program to view the photos full screen and slideshow. Each new frame pulled her body back to the screen. By the time the last frame played, she was completely leaned forward on her elbows.

Well, I will be damned. I cannot believe these two Jezebels playing in my-

She popped out the card and dropped it into her pocket. Then she closed the viewer to switch over and fire off an email.

To: JenniferHart@Hartsystems.com
Subject: Vermin in coat closet
Message: Checked the card you left me. All I have to say is, my God. The Squirt may be only 16, but she wears the sable better than either of us ever did. Did you see where it’s draped to her nearly naked butt? Dangerous curves ahead, I’ll tell you. In the meantime, I’m having said heirloom cleaned and returned to cold storage to hold onto- tightly- until her 21st birthday. By then, I won’t care what- or who- she does with it. It’s obvious she’s forming some ideas of her own about its usefulness. Little does she know her mother has been there and done all of that. And singing ‘Santa Baby’ while half naked? Looked and sounded to me like the Eartha Kitt version. Where did they hear that? I’m almost afraid to ask what the hell they know about ‘hurrying down the chimney’. The Squirt might just tell me.

As for her hot friend with the good legs, the camera, and more boobs and nerve than is good for her- I could have sworn she had a sight set on Billy. Made him dance with her twice. Little no shame harlot thought I didn’t see her. Here I was worried about her and Finn, and she’s skipped right past him and his other two brothers. Can’t blame her for going straight to the top, but I am not having this.

I’m not even going talk about her and that damned Duncan. Good she’s going back to Los Angeles for the time being.

I will deal with both these little hussies.

Have fun. Make lots of love. See you when you get back.

I love you.

She sent it, returned the computer to standby, and touched the lamp base to switch off the light.

But she didn’t get up.

In the dark room she closed her eyes, crossed her arms, and lay her head back.

Justine Jennifer Hart, my godchild, my niece….

My Goodness….

When she paged J.J.’s cell phone upon arriving home for the wedding, J.J. came to her right away. She entered the room in her typical unhurried manner, giving the impression she wasn’t in any way surprised to see her absent aunt finally surfaced in the flesh.

“What’s up, Aunt Pat? I got your text.”

Definitely Jonathan Hart’s child. If she had been wearing trousers at that moment, one hand would have been in the pocket.

The entire time she was laying everything out to J.J., from the accident to the events yet to happen, those intense blue eyes stayed locked on her face. J.J. took in the information, and the directions she was given for disseminating it, with an almost unnerving seriousness.

Almost. After all, she was still just a kid.

But considering the person, she wasn’t really surprised by the girl’s calm; J.J. was born old. And wise.

Without comment on what she had been made privy to, not even as much as an inquiry into her godmother’s current well-being, J.J. removed her mother’s necklace from the jewelry box on the bed and got up with it. She took her time draping the pearls and fastening the clasp. Then those two slender young hands slid onto older shoulders, and the dewy cheek pressed itself against hers.

“Aunt Pat, I don’t believe you’ve been brought this far, or been allowed to make it through so much in these last few months, not to mention most of your life, to be left hanging in the end.”

Soooo much like her father. Not big on religion and its confines, yet grounded in a universal spirituality, a basic common sense and golden rule.

“J.J., if I recall correctly, Moses wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land even though he traveled so far and through so much to get there.”

“Yes, but Moses was a guy, and like a guy, he didn’t listen and he didn’t read the directions. He tried to wing it, second guessed stuff he shouldn’t have, as if he had more sense than God. To the point, Aunt Pat, Moses was not you.”

Helluva girl, that one.

And no, Moses was not me.

Pat smiled and held herself even tighter, reluctantly mindful of the unseen offending presence in the left side of her chest. A quote from a King speech played in her head. King’s final speech…

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.”

Her privileged background should have rendered her far removed from urban strife, but as a young, aspiring journalist, the editor of the Gresham Hall Gazette at the time, she found herself intrigued by world events, particularly social injustices and she often went out of her way to get the details. Her interest in the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t always encouraged, but her insistence upon pursuing her interests and forming her own thoughts eventually earned her the respect of school administration and most of her peers. It definitely led her to the literary path she took in life.

Dr. King hadn’t been concerned about making it to the other side of the mountain once he reached what he considered the pinnacle.

Me, too, Dr. King.

King was dead shortly after he uttered those words. She hadn’t been present in Tennessee that night, but she and Jennifer had been in D.C. for the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. They covered the event for the school newspaper against the advice of school newspaper’s sponsors who feared for the safety of two young, white prep school girls in that “certain sea of discontented Negroes”. Of course, they went anyway. Jennifer also loved a good cause and a challenge. Dr. King’s words and his ideals, so charismatically delivered that day, had permanently etched themselves in her mind.

And ironically, Pa, who they thought would be their greatest obstacle to getting to D.C., actually accompanied them to the Lincoln Memorial that day. He went to insure their safety, but also because he said he thought it would be one of those moments in history that should not be missed.

Pa had that way about him, the ability to see and address what was important even if it meant shifting paradigms for himself. Until very recently, it appeared, he’d been doing that for Jennifer.

The rumination, particularly thoughts of her own relationship with Stephen Edwards, and his with her, brought to mind something she’d almost forgotten to do. Pat reached for the phone, pressed a speed dial button, and sat back to wait for her young, sometimes insecure party to pick up.

A short time later, with mission accomplished, she left the office to walk around to the living room. One lamp had been left on, the one over the her portrait. Standing before it, taking in the colors, the textures, the features of the face staring down into hers, she smiled and nodded once to Bill’s finest material gift to her before turning away and heading for the stairs to go back up.

She tiptoed into the bedroom where she shed the robe and slippers at the door, then crept across the room and eased down onto the bed as carefully as she had gotten out of it. She was settling into the pillows and congratulating herself for the successful re-entry when a large hand gripped her shoulder.

“You all right, Pat?”

It startled her, but she didn’t jump. Instead, she scooted back until Bill’s arms closed around her. He didn’t ask anything else, and it wasn’t long before the familiar low, even rumble reached her ears.

How the hell am I supposed to sleep with that racket right behind my head?

But she closed her eyes anyway and smiled to herself, thinking of the woman in the portrait hanging for posterity over their living room fireplace.

It was still dark, but she was no longer alone in it.

________________________________________________________

J.J.’s head jerked upward. Surprised at having dozed off, she squinted at the numbers glowing next to her in the dark.

They should be there, checked in, and everything by now.

She slid down in the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin, although she was pretty sure sleep would have a hard time getting through. An earlier effort to turn off her thoughts proved largely futile. Too much mental activity on the tracks. The body might have been tired, but her mind wasn’t quite ready to call it a night.

Rather than struggle with another bout with restlessness, eyes still closed, she rolled onto her back and let her head have at it.

Her parents left for the airport shortly after they all returned to Briarwood. The two of them lingered long enough to say a proper goodbye to Pa, and for the Duchess to read the riot act to her and Marnie. It wasn’t necessary; she and Marnie had a lot of serious business to get caught up on once they got back home, and who would be playing around when they had Aunt Pat to be concerned about? And Uncle Bill to answer to should they decide to play around and do something that pissed off Aunt Pat? Who would risk that? They weren’t completely crazy or that immature.

But then, she had to admit, reviewing the parameters prior to an extended parental absence had proven an effective deterrent in the past. The Duchess would see no sense in leaving the door completely open. Or any loophole too wide.

Or noose too slack.

Seemed strange her parents flying to Antigua out of New York when Maryland was a closer shot, not that the difference was all that great in terms of miles or time. Maybe they had a non-stop flight that only left from New York. Or maybe Aunt Pat purposely set it up for them to spend a little of their time alone in Manhattan, one of their favorite cities. At the Carlyle, perhaps, where they hooked up the last time? Where the Duchess wore the fur and not much else to meet her man?

The image sparked a flash reminder of the troublesome missing memory card, which J.J. mentally waved off.

Hmph, she’s gone. By the time she gets back, she’ll have forgotten all about it. Daddy will see to that, although he won’t know that’s what he’s doing. And if she does remember, by the time he gets her home the statute of limitations will have expired.

Good looking out on the trip, Aunt Pat. Nice diversion even though you had no idea you were saving our hides.

Hooking up with a lover in a swank hotel wearing nothing but fur? Delicious. A deluxe suite- or better, the penthouse. Room service, surround-sound playing some slow, mellow jazz tune. Champagne, finger food, and a panoramic view of the city lights at night …. with the music and the man….

Using Teddy as filler for the flight of fancy, J.J. hugged herself through a delightful shudder.

So romantic.

I’m going to do things like that all the time when I’m grown.

Just take off and go where I want to, when I want to, with whoever I want do, and do whatever I want to with whoever.

How nice would it have been to go back to her own apartment after Aunt Pat’s wedding? Everyone could have come over and hung out until they felt like leaving. Or they could have stayed over, talked and hung out all night, and they all could have cooked or had breakfast brought in the next morning.

It will be so nice to not have adults monitoring everything I do. Telling me where to be. When to be there. When it’s time to leave even though I’m not ready to go.

And looking to see how somebody kisses me goodnight. As if I’d let a guy just molest the hell out of me if they weren’t looking.

Two years. Less than two now….

Speaking of….

Teddy had broached the subject of his upcoming prom while they were dancing. He asked again if she still planned to be his date. The original arrangement, made on the fly not long after they met for the first time, had come up a couple of times since. With the prom only a few months away, she figured he wanted to make sure they were still on while they were face to face rather than on the phone.

No need. J.J. Hart kept her word. Even when it secretly scared the daylights out of her.

Teddy’s prom would be her first, but she was well aware of certain ‘expectations’ some boys had for their prom dates. Was that something she and Teddy should talk about beforehand? Teddy was cute, had a good body, was a good dancer, and he was very nice, but she wasn’t on that page yet- not even for him and his nice, good body. But would she be in April? As far as she knew, they wouldn’t be seeing each other again until the week of the prom. What could happen over the phone to move her bookmark?

You worry too much, J. You don’t know how you’ll feel four months from now. Heck, you don’t know how you’ll feel in the morning if you don’t get some sleep soon.

She and Marnie would be at Briarwood until Monday morning when they would fly with Pat and Bill to visit Marnie’s father at the physical rehabilitation center in Boston. It would be her first time seeing Mr. Benson since his accident. She hoped she didn’t embarrass herself, or worse, Mr. Benson. It would be odd and maybe disturbing to seeing someone as animated as Marnie’s father, immobile and strapped to a bed or a wheelchair.

Mr. Benson wasn’t a big or tall man, but he somehow filled a room when he was in it. He laughed loud and a lot, and he lived on his cell. He wasn’t movie star handsome, but he was a nice-looking man, made even more so by his charm and his smile, who dressed very well and oozed confidence. It was easy to see why he was able to get in with women, but it was also easy to see why his more serious relationships hadn’t worked out. He didn’t keep still long enough for that. Mr. Benson was always in meetings at the house, at the club, or at his office, taking off in his car, or on a jet headed to this deal or that. A busy man, he somehow made time for his kids, but did that leave much time for a wife? A hit-or-miss girlfriend or two maybe, but not a wife.

The Duchess would say such things weren’t her business, but her best friend’s father and his ways were right there for her to see. How could she not think about and process the obvious?

Mr. Benson would never have had or made time to take Karen to the Carlyle for a romantic weekend or to go on a spontaneous trip with her to Antigua for ten days, and he wasn’t nearly the CEO of his enterprise that Jonathan Hart was to his.

Different strokes, I guess. It must be hard for Marnie’s dad to have his life so drastically changed. To not be able to do or enjoy any of the things he used to be able to do.

Especially being a man and a father.

Poker face, J. He’s still Mr. Benson.

Wonder if Marnie’s mother will be there?

If she is, I wonder if-

Aunt Pat.

She and Aunt Pat hadn’t had another moment alone since their time together in the bedroom. Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill had been beyond lucky with that car crash. It could have been so much worse for them. They had also been fortunate, blessed even, to have managed to stick with each other long enough to realize how good they were together. Two loners, seeming opposites, but not really.

You’re not going to get left hanging, Aunt Pat.

You are not.

With the click of the doorknob, J.J. sat up and opened her eyes.

A small form slipped in and closed the door. It jumped when J.J. called it by name.

“Damn, J. You scared me. I thought you’d be asleep. Why are you in here awake in the dark?”

J.J. reached for the lamp switch; Marnie blinked with the light.

“I went to sleep for a couple of minutes, but I woke back up. How come you aren’t asleep, and what are you doing coming in here if you thought I was asleep?”

Marnie went around to the other side of the bed and sat down. “Pat. She just hit me up on the phone, cutting into my call, asking about the night light. I didn’t have it on; but I did have the lamp on because I was on the phone.”

“Who were you talking to at this time of night, or morning I guess I should say?”

“Chance.”

“Phone sex, Marn?”

When Marnie shot her the finger, J.J. mocked the single digit with a single snake of her neck and a grin. “So what did you tell Pat about the light?”

“She knows I’m nervous about her. That’s why she called. I told her I wouldn’t put the night light on, and I didn’t want to leave the lamp on while I was asleep, but I don’t want to be in there by myself in the dark, J. Not tonight. Maybe once we-”

“It’s okay.” J.J. flipped back the covers and patted the pillows next to her. “I understand. Come on.”

Marnie took off her robe, slid her cell phone under the pillow, and got in. She lie down with her back to J.J. and pulled up the covers. “Thanks, J. Good night.”

“Good night, Marn. See you in the morning.” J.J. switched off the light, and rolled onto her side.

This time it wasn’t long before sleep rounded the bend. When it pulled into the station, J.J. Hart, baggage secured in the hold, hopped right on board and took a window seat.

_________________________________________________________

The middle-aged woman at the front desk watched the handsome, well-dressed couple walk away. Their odd arrival time had been expected. The person making the reservation explained they would be flying in from an out of state wedding, which also explained their formal attire.

When the two entered the elevator hall, disappearing around that corner, the woman went back to work punching the remaining information into the computer.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Hart”

The name was a familiar one.

The Carlyle hosted wealthy and celebrated guests from all over the world, in all manner of situations. Another well-heeled pair arriving long before daylight wasn’t that significant by itself, but the Harts were a little different. They stood out, and not for the obvious reasons.

She had been on duty for a few of their visits, the most recent one several days back. With Mrs. Hart wrapped to the chin in a sumptuous mid-length sable, Mr. Hart said very little as he rushed through the check-in business before whisking her around that same corner. Without luggage of any kind. And although they reserved the room for a night, they left after only a few hours.

Awfully expensive booty call…

At least it was with his wife.

The woman’s lips twitched in surreptitious amusement at her less than discreet thought.

One might think the suite for this visit had been readied for honeymooners. Popular estimate among the other front desk staff at the time said those two had been married at least twenty-five years.

But did the number always matter? Some people got it right and kept it that way. The lucky ones. And not all of those most fortunate people were rich and/or famous.

An unseen elevator car chimed its arrival. Finished with her task, the woman closed her eyes and inhaled, savoring the lingering aura of romance the Harts left in their wake. At the same time, the middle finger of her left hand rubbed itself against the one wearing the familiar and comforting thick gold band.

The lucky ones. And not all of those most fortunate people were rich and/or famous….

_________________________________________________________

The trip had come as an abrupt but somewhat welcome surprise, and everything after that happened so quickly. When the limo pulled up to the hotel in Manhattan, they could barely recall getting on the plane in Maryland. When they checked in, they were informed their luggage was already in their suite. The elevator doors closed, and the introspective quiet between them continued as the car began its equally silent ascent.

Physically tired, but still mentally wound up from the day, Jennifer considered for the umpteenth time the assortment of last minute details.  Had she adequately covered them all?

It would have been nice to have spent the extra day with her father with whom she hadn’t taken much time on this visit. But then again, it didn’t appear he required the attention. In fact, he was stronger, seemed happier, and sounded more fulfilled than he had in years. He had reproached her about the dinner she and Jonathan missed, but even in that, Pa’s irritation appeared more a matter of form. It helped some to know she’d left him in good company. Not only would he have Rosa and Walter on the grounds with him, but he now also had Dean Marchand and Belinda Smythe within walking distance. And he was walking the distance, another welcome plus. Friends, all they were and all they ever would be.

Pa and J.J.

In parting, Pa voiced his regret at her and Jonathan having to leave so soon, but expressed his great delight at being allowed “his Justine” an additional day. Heartwarming indeed, her father and her daughter getting on so well.

As a little girl, J.J. used to do all she could to avoid her grandfather. His less than transparent unease with J.J.’s boundless energy and his very vocal disapproval of her casual ways and tendency to speak her mind occasionally raised Jonathan’s hackles. But over the past couple of years that divide between Pa and J.J. began closing, and in it’s place a mutual respect and fondness for the best in each other began to grow. Operational differences aside, they had come to recognize their similarities and appreciate the intelligence and worth shared between them.  As the daughter and mother in that familial circle, she took joy in her father’s pleasure with spending time in the company of his only grandchild, and in J.J.’s genuine desire to spend time her grandfather.

J.J.

And Marnie. The girls….

It took a minute or two once she left them, but she finally came to the reluctant conclusion she had little to be worried over in leaving them. School, extra-curricular activities, civic obligations, and their friends- more than enough to keep those two gainfully occupied. Routine and responsibility would close any gap- or loophole- inadvertently left open. J.J. and Marnie also had an even more personal matter, one near and dear to both their hearts that would keep them close to home. And there was Bill. With him for added fortification, she doubted there would any attempts to breach established limits.

Pat.

The involuntary shudder finished in a quick twitch of her shoulders.

“Penny for your thoughts, Mrs. Hart. You’ve hardly said a word since we left Briarwood.”

The request came as no surprise. His discreetly vigilant eye had been on her ever since Pat broke her news to the family.

“I don’t seem to recall you saying very much along the way either, Mr. Hart.”

“Touché.”

Jonathan slid an arm around his wife and laughed to himself at her chronic feistiness. Jennifer and J.J., true redheads both, and he was hopelessly in love with both of them.

No, he hadn’t had much to say. He’d been too busy going over it all himself along with trying not to get caught by Jennifer at watching over her.

He figured her silence to be the observable evidence of her internal processing and packaging. She would be mentally sorting things out, bundling and neatly stacking each parcel, putting them all in the proper places in order to leave them for a time and go forward with the plans made for her. Compartmentalizing, a quality he admired in her from the start, was one of her strongest survival strategies. In the worst adversities, Jennifer always found a way to keep it moving.

She hadn’t spent much time with her father, and she didn’t get to properly close out the visit, and that would be worrying to her, but Stephen didn’t mind her leaving so suddenly. Pat had taken care of that. Letting Stephen in on the plan beforehand allowed him time to digest his daughter’s premature parting.

And then the girls. Jennifer would be uncomfortable about J.J. and Marnie going home without her, particularly Marnie, returning to school after a two month absence. But Pat and Bill were going back with them. Pat would see to Marnie getting into step again and staying there. And J.J. could and would take care of herself. And Marnie. And Pat, if need be.

J.J. Hart, thoughtful and capable. Growing up so fast, too fast for his comfort, but that was life. If the cards dealt to her played out as they were supposed to, she had a lot of that life yet to navigate. Her mother was lining her up to be every bit the fine, upstanding lady. His job for the next few years would be to make sure she got lined up to-

“Now what are you thinking about, Mr. Hart?”

“You,” he answered, shutting off and stashing his own musings and mild concerns, shifting total focus to the fragrant and lovely here and now. He kissed Jennifer’s forehead as she peered up him, and he counted his blessings. Their considerable blessings.

The girl was still gorgeous; he was still crazy about her, those eyes, and that hair. He had plans for the hair.

The elevator glided to a stop.

At the doors to their suite, Jonathan abruptly stopped, stepped back, and held out his arms. Confused by the gesture, Jennifer remained in place.

“What’s the matter?”

“We got remarried today. I’m supposed to carry my bride over the threshold.”

She shook her head, waggling an index finger for emphasis. “No thanks. I’ll tell you now the same thing I told you the first time; I’ll walk over the threshold. You can save your back for more important things.” She winked before stepping around him. “As will I.”

This time it was he who shuddered.

A huge, aromatic vase of artfully arranged ivory roses greeted them in the front hall. More fresh flowers in shades of peach and cream awaited them in the front room.

“Beautiful,” Jennifer whispered as Jonathan helped her out of her coat and she stepped out of her shoes.

In the bedroom, along with their luggage, they found more flowers, a cart bearing a tray prepared with assorted cheeses, bread, and fruit, a large box of imported Swiss chocolates on the desk, and an ice bucket on a stand next to the bed chilling a bottle of very expensive champagne and two glasses.

Jennifer slowly turned to take in the plush furnishings, the turned back bed complete with imported mints on the peach satin pillows. “Someone thought of everything.”

“She usually does,” Jonathan said as he plucked the cards from the gift-wrapped package on the bed. “Jennifer and Jonathan,” he read aloud from the first envelope. “You open the box, darling. Surprises are your thing.”

She was already seated with it on her lap.

“This one’s from Pat and Bill,” he reported, “thanking us for everything we did for them with the wedding, telling us not to worry about anything, and to have a good time.”

“Sounds as if they were pretty sure of their success in talking us into doing what they wanted.”

“We’re here, aren’t we?”

When Jonathan slipped that note under the other envelope in his hand, he happened to notice how gingerly Jennifer pried at the taped folds on the box.

“Just rip it, sweetheart,” he said, using his own index finger to do just that with the envelope. “It always takes you forever to open a present.”

Her eyes slid up to his. “I like to take my time. You know, to maximize my enjoyment of the experience.”

“Um,” he grunted with a brief tortured frown at the message smoldering within her sultry tone. “Stop it.”

The wrapping removed, Jennifer lifted the lid and folded back the tissue inside. She smoothed her fingers over blush-colored satin and ivory lace, murmuring, “I cannot believe it,” then she looked from the box up to Jonathan. “This can’t be from- How ever would she-  ”

“Sabrina.” Jonathan confirmed without taking his eyes from the message in his hand.

Jennifer reached up and took it from him to scan for herself. She sighed and held it to her breast for a moment before looking up at him again. “Oh darling, simply one nice surprise after another. You didn’t tell me you’d spoken with Sabrina.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t. I wish I could say I thought of it, but-”

He dropped down to sit next to her on the bed and grinned even more broadly when she held the card so they could both see it. He pointed to a particular line of the spidery, but elegant handwritten script inside.

“Her Justine,” they read in unison.

“J.J. didn’t tell me she’d mentioned anything to Sabrina about our plans. I should have phoned France, but with so much going on, I just didn’t think of it. Looks like my daughter has better manners than her old Dad.”

Winding an arm around Jonathan’s neck, hugged him to her and kissed his cheek. “Well, both of you are scamps for colluding on this whole thing the way you did. I thought something was going on, but I had no idea it was anything like tonight turned out to be. And it looks as if J.J. Hart outmaneuvered even you on this one.”

Jonathan, both tickled and impressed with his daughter’s thoughtfulness and graciousness, momentarily returned to that day at the academy when she gave the earrings to that little girl. “She really is something else.”

Jennifer stood up and lifted out the filmy, full length two-piece garment to hold against her body. “This is so lovely. Sabrina must have sent the box to Pat, and then Pat had it sent here once she got everything all set up. There is nobody in the world like Pat for arranging details, and my aunt has always had such exquisite taste. Oh my, look, I think there’s something else in there.”

She folded back another layer of tissue and lifted the other item out, a pair of ivory satin pajama pants for a man. Jonathan rose from the bed to take them from her, but peeked over her shoulder down to the box. “Where’s the shirt?”

“Sabrina,” Jennifer began as she bent at the waist, reached under her gown, and stepped out of the hosiery she pulled down, “is a seasoned expert on what looks good on a man, particularly one on his way to bed.”

She tossed the discarded lingerie onto a nearby chair. She brushed her lips along Jonathan’s cheek, saying to him, “I think I’ll go slip into something more comfortable,” as she sauntered past him with the peignoir over her arm and her toiletry bag in hand.

He broke off staring at the chair to watch her pad barefoot down the hall to the bathroom and close the door. He nodded to himself.

Um-hmm, think I’ll be slipping into something real comforting myself in a few.

But first….

He hung his tuxedo jacket in the closet and removed from the inside pocket that package he’d been keeping close to his heart. Taking it over to the bed, he slid the lacy bundle under the pillow that would be Jennifer’s.

Thanks for keeping me company these past few days, but I’m good now.

He patted the pillow and stood upright again.

His wife, his woman. She’d been a rock for so many people for so long, thinking about, chasing after, finding or trying to find a way to make things better for someone else.

Well, one good turn….

After shedding the bow tie and undoing the first few buttons of his shirt, he, too, headed down that hall.

_________________________________________________________

Jennifer sponged away the last bit of makeup. She splashed her face with cold water, patted it dry, and then checked out her reflection.

Hmmm, a little shabby around the eyes, but I guess I won’t look completely like death warmed over to him, particularly in contrast to that pretty gown.

Her Aunt Sabrina had provided the lingerie for her first wedding night. That time, though, it had been virginal white, even though Sabrina, of all people, had been well aware…

“You have never been married before, Cherie. There are all kinds of ways to be virgin. And who wants to be that kind of virgin on their wedding night? Get that far, you should already know the quality of the product.”

Jennifer smiled at the memory of that post wedding conversation with her mother’s identical twin. Sabrina. Nobody on earth like her. There never had been.

Then it came to her, chased by a second flash of amused awareness, one that this time forced a bubble of laughter past her lips. At just that moment, the door eased open and blue eyes peeped in at her.

“Jonathan! I could have been indecent.” She watched in the mirror as he came all the way in.

He walked up behind her, circling her waist with his arms and pulling her close to speak right next to her ear. “Indecent? No such word. ‘Indecent’ doesn’t apply to us when we’re together. What’s so funny?”

“Funny?”

“You were laughing when I came through the door; I heard you. It’s my favorite sound, so I’m sure I wasn’t mistaken.”

A little embarrassed at being overheard, she blushed as she relaxed in his embrace. “I was just thinking about something you told me about J.J., and-”

Her hair was still up, and with her back pressed against him, Jonathan wasted no time going to work on her neck and the zipper at the back of her dress.

“And?” he whispered, loving how the timbre of his voice close so to her ear made her squirm against him.

“You told me J.J. picked most of the recorded music.”

“Um-hmm, I did,” he murmured, continuing his attentions to her base of her neck and upper back, “she did.”

The zipper taken care of, he sent one hand into her hair, lifting and spreading his fingers to loosen the hairspray’s hold and eject hairpins, delighting in the feel of thick curls brushing his forehead and cheeks as they fell . “You were saying,” he urged.

For her part, Jennifer struggled to concentrate. “Darling, you and I… we danced tonight-”

“Several times,” he cut in, “if I’m recalling correctly. And?”

He plucked the last of the pins from her hair, and used the other hand to unhook her bra then massage the freed contents, making it even harder for her to keep to her train of thought.

“That one tune, Gino Vannelli, you remember, that song we used to love so much and… and that I was so surprised to hear being played.”

” ‘For Your Love’, um-hmm, I remember. Still one of my favorites.”

His mouth glided over the backs of both shoulders, pressing tiny, warm kisses in their travels, his hand warm, gentle but insistent on her flesh. She leaned forward, pressing her palms to the counter, determined to finish what she was saying before her knees completely gave out. “Actually, Jonathan, the label name was, ‘I Just Want to Stop’ ”

He leaned forward with her, maintaining contact with her body and his attentions to her neck and ear, “I don’t, and I don’t think you do either.”

“Jonathan.”

“Make your point, baby,” he urged, using the arm about her waist to support her and hold her close. “I really need to make mine.”

She talked fast. “Okay, apparently, that song has meaning for your daughter, too. She waited until you and I were in the middle… of… of the floor… I saw her… I…she sent a signal to that corner of the room…, the… the one the music was coming from. She… she… had that song played for us.”

“Nice choice,” he whispered into her hair, using his fingers to comb down to her shoulders what hadn’t fallen on its own.

She didn’t know when he did it, she could have sworn it wasn’t like that when he came in, but through the dress she could feel the unfastened waistband of Jonathan’s trousers against her lower back. When he pulled her even more tightly to him, that wasn’t all she felt.

The room spun.

So long. It had been so long. But eager to have him understand what she was trying to say before giving in to him completely, she turned around to croon to him the opening line of the song.

“When I think about those nights in Montreal, I get the sweetest thoughts of you and me…”

He kissed her cheeks and the tip of her nose. “Me, too.”

Now tightly pressed against the counter, her backside took over the job her hands had been doing in sustaining her body. “No darling,” she insisted, “You don’t get it.”

“Give me a minute,” he said, dipping his tongue into the dewy sensitive spot between her collar bones. “Hell, not even that long. God, you smell good.”

“Jonathan, J.J. figured it out that she was conceived on that trip Max sent us on to Montreal. She specifically selected that one for that reason, that one line. I saw her grinning at us.”

He chuckled. “I’ve told you time and again, you let her in on too much. She’s real good at filling in any gaps one might leave… and so is her Dad.”

He raised his head to look her in the eyes, his expression soft, but serious. “Look, forget about all of that, darling. Forget about anybody who isn’t in this room and about anything that isn’t happening at this moment between you and me. Admittedly, a lot’s gone down, there’s a lot we could still be mulling over or worrying about, but the truth is, we can’t do anything about any of that. It’s out of our hands. What is within our control is us and what’s going on right here. I love you so much, Jennifer, and I want you. Now.”

The full, deep, insistent kiss underscored his spoken longing, snatching her breath away, leaving her barely aware of the satin being slid up her legs. She surrendered to it all, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding on when he lifted her onto the vanity to get the fabric past her hips.

But she did manage to ask, “On the bathroom sink, Jonathan?”

His hands worked at his zipper, “We’ll start here, and see where it goes.”

She backed up just enough to be able to see into his face. “Now how am I going to get my panties off with you so close?”

“Don’t even try it; they’re in the bedroom on the chair. I saw them when they went, not that panties on has ever been a problem for us in the past.”

“No,” she laughed. “It hasn’t, you rascal. But what about the pretty peignoir Sabrina sent? Don’t you want to see me in it?”

He pulled the bodice of her dress forward and slid it down her arms to drape into her lap. The bra he tossed behind him without looking or caring, where it went.

“This,” he said, gesturing with one hand to the length of her mostly exposed body, “is my absolute favorite outfit in your wardrobe, the one provided to you by nature.”

She used her palms to his cheeks to bring his face back close to hers. “You say and do the sweetest things, Jonathan. I love you. Ever so much.”

“For always?”

“Yes. Forever. I promise. And you?”

“Always and forever. Promise.”

She lay her head on his shoulder and whispered into his ear, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but I’m going to need a bit more than if you want to make your point.”

Not another moment did he waste, nor did she in using her own skills to ensure they both took their time and maximized their enjoyment of the experience.

For the next two days.

____________________________________________________________

Finale

Late Afternoon, a week and a day later….

Jonathan looked up from his book when Jennifer, in the poolside chaise lounge next to him, abruptly stiffened and put her magazine down.  He watched her pull her phone from her shorts pocket. She clicked into a text message.

Her head bowed, her lips trembled, and she crossed herself before sitting back with her eyes closed.

Concerned by what he’d witnessed, he sat up.

A lone tear streaked down her cheek, the sight of which made it suddenly hard for him to breathe. “Something wrong?”

“Just a message from J.J.”

“What did she have to say?”

“You know her and how she is. Doing things her own way, loop-holing her way past what she’s been told not to do.”

J.J. had been checking in with her mother every day about that time ever since they left the States, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Jennifer to have gotten a text message from her, but Jennifer was crying this time.

She held the phone out to him. He read the three-word message: “It’s all good.”

He sat back himself and exhaled, fighting the water attempting to form in his own eyes. Gazing past the pool out to the Caribbean glistening in the distance he gave thanks for the woman by his side, and for the girl at home who was doing things her own way, loop-holing it to keep to what he told her to do when he had been so ill and unsure of what would happen: “I don’t care what else is going on or what you have to do, always look out for your mother”.

He thanked the heavens for looking out for all of them. Jennifer could finally fully relax about everything. And so could he.

“It’s all good.”

The details could and would be handled without them. When he reached for Jennifer’s hand, she took his, and they held on.

They remained that way for a long while, silent, contented, and united in gazing past the pool out to the glistening sea, the majestic horizon and beyond, to the hopes and dreams for the future.

End

Continue to next story

 

 

2 Responses to Promises: Part Twelve

  1. Lesa says:

    While the story was a bit drawn out, it filled in many details that caught the reader up if they had only read this part of the series.
    I’m so happy Pat has Bill to help her through her health issue. I could tell by the authors foreshadowing it was possibly breast cancer. Pat has a phenomenal support group to help handle anything.
    So romantic of Jonathan to surprise Jennifer with renewed vows. Their love for each other is never-ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ain says:

    Dragged on too much

    Like

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