The Project: Part Eight

Part Eight

Since he didn’t see her in the lobby when he arrived at the hospital, Jonathan was sure he and August had gotten there before Jennifer and Pat. He hadn’t explained a whole lot to Jennifer when he had her on the phone, so he was certain she would have waited for him to arrive to ask him about it before going up to Chris’ room. While August went ahead of them to assess the security situation on the third floor, he remained down there.

It was the height of visiting hours, and the lobby bustled with activity. As far away as he was from the actual business of the hospital, the pervasive antiseptic smell worried his nose, whipping up flashbacks from his own recent admission, fueling to his already antsy disposition. In his restlessness, he alternated between sitting in one of the many chairs to aimless pacing as he watched for Jennifer through the window panels and the glass doors facing out to the front drive, thinking how he was spending far too much time in hospitals these days.

Again, he considered Jennifer’s concern that he had returned to work too soon, and again he speculated if she might have been right. He didn’t feel badly at all, but he had to secretly admit it was wearing on him. However, if he hadn’t come back on his own, all of what had gone down in the past couple of weeks would have drawn him back anyway. He employed competent individuals who carried out their responsibilities faithfully, and he could easily have issued his orders and requests from his desk in the loft at Willow Pond. But he wouldn’t have been content with sitting at home while so much was going on out beyond the gates that concerned Hart Industries and the people involved with its operation, not to mention everything else that was going on in the world that affected everyone.

Two Hart employees dead: one murdered and the other presumed drowned. Another hospitalized.

Had Chris just gotten lucky and escaped the fate intended for her? That goose egg to the back of her head wasn’t self-inflicted or the result of a fall. “Blunt force trauma” was what the report said. Inflicted by whom? Where? When? Why?

He thought about J.J. and how quiet she had been at breakfast. In sharp contrast to her careful observation of her Aunt Pat on the previous mornings, that morning it was as if she was avoiding Pat. J.J. seemed more focused on her mother. But then, she hadn’t said very much to anyone at all during the meal.

After his conversation with her in the loft on the night before, he worried that with school, the FACS project, 9/11, and all the stress that accompanied them, she might have too much on her mind and on her plate at that time. He hadn’t seen for himself that black sedan she mentioned to him, but others had. It wasn’t something she imagined, and he was proud of her for noticing it, as well and for once, not second guessing herself. When it came to Jennifer, J.J. was unusually vigilant. He was that way with both of them.

Standing at the windows, his hands down in his pockets, that troublesome scenario played back for him.

Andy Seagren, a person from Jennifer’s past, came back into their lives and wound up pulling that bizarre stunt at the Mission Street Ball that resulted in Jennifer’s poisoning and subsequent illness.

The entire weird sequence of events began with those pictures J.J. had taken at school. Although she was sick enough from the chemical Seagren used to subdue her to have been hospitalized, Jennifer insisted upon remaining at home to recover. He worried over her decision to not stay in the hospital, fretting that she might be depriving herself of the immediate care she might need. He had no idea the devastating effect the entire thing would have on J.J.

Within those first couple of days, it seemed J.J. turned into an entirely different person. She became quiet, withdrawn, and almost skittish. She kept almost exclusively to herself, startling easily if approached. She ignored most of her phone calls, wouldn’t see anyone, and refused to go to school. The one day he forced her to go, she was found by her friend, Tommy, outside the school building, trying to hail a cab to get back home. Tommy got her back inside and took her to their counselor, who called for him to come get her.

Her rosy complexion turned sallow, and her bright eyes went dull and lifeless. She refused, absolutely refused to go in to see her mother.

“I can’t. It makes me sick to see her like that, Daddy. I just can’t”

“She wants you.”

“I can’t. Tell her I love her, but I can’t go in there.”

He made her, but she wouldn’t go anywhere close to Jennifer, choosing instead to sit on the edge of the chair by the window, clutching her arms around herself in obvious discomfort. When her mother finally released her, she bolted for the door.

At Jennifer’s urging, he got her to write her feelings into her journal. As Jennifer instructed him to do, he sat with her to make sure she did it.

He thought he would die watching her tortured, teary face and trembling fingers as she attempted to get it out. The first time she jumped off the bed to run to the bathroom, he started after her, but she slammed the door on him and locked it. He could hear her gagging and retching, and he leaned against the door in sorrow for her.

It wasn’t until that day, after asking to check her journal entries- also at Jennifer’s instruction- that he realized J.J. was blaming herself for what happened to her mother. That was why she said she couldn’t go to or stay with Jennifer; she was blaming herself for not looking after her. She thought she was the reason it had happened, and she wrote she wanted to die behind letting her mother down.

When he heard the toilet flush, the lock click, and then the water running in the sink, he opened the door and went in to her. She was sagging against the sink, splashing water on her face. As he handed her a towel, and then a cup of water to drink, her drawn face and unsteady hands told him his child was an angst-ridden mess.

Helping her back into the room, she was fly-weight in his arms; it felt like she lost at least twenty pounds in that small amount of time. It took everything he had to force her back to writing rather than giving in and allowing her to rest. She was sick physically and mentally, but writing was the only way she was going to get well. She blamed herself, and he didn’t know what to do for her to get her to see things otherwise. She wouldn’t talk about it, and he found he couldn’t talk with her about it.

He, too, had been sick over Jennifer’s getting hurt, somehow feeling that, in some way, he too had let her down. He should have seen it coming. Seagren had been a former lover. It wasn’t the first time he had come into contact with someone with whom she once had an intimate relationship. Neither of them had been children when they met, so it was inevitable that the past would reach out and touch them from time to time. What they had between them was solid, built on trust. He’d never been jealous in those situations; after all, it was to him only that she’d consented to be his wife. But as her husband, it was his duty to protect her, and he’d let her down.

That poison had to come out of J.J. Jennifer said writing about it was the only way it was probably going to happen at that time; J.J.’s pain was too private for her to talk about it with anyone. He completely understood that about her. In that, she was his child.

The physical purging continued until he feared having to seek emergency treatment J.J. for dehydration. She was wasn’t eating, becoming weaker, more listless, and increasingly silent; isolating herself from even the dog.

Finally, almost like an apparition, she appeared in their bedroom one night as they slept.

He heard the door when it pushed open, and sensing her presence, he remained still, pretending to sleep as she squeezed in and crept across the room. She approached their bed from his side, and didn’t say or do anything as she stood over them for a few moments. Then, just as silently as she entered, she went back out. He had never known her to do that. She never, ever came into that room without knocking, and rarely did she come to them at night. He had been holding Jennifer as she slept in his arms. He hoped seeing her mother safe with him would bring J.J. some comfort.

But it wasn’t until Jennifer was well enough to force J.J. into sitting down with her and talking that J.J. started on her  way back to herself.

There was a magic between those two, a connection only they shared that he surmised to be the mother-child thing. Their relationship hadn’t always been smooth or easy, but it seemed from the first minutes of her life, J.J. recognized exactly who her mother was, and bonded with her. Things were much better and getting stronger between them, but they still sometimes had their tenuous moments; J.J. was still a mess, and Jennifer still wasn’t having it. Whatever else might be going on between them personally, J.J. was always protective of Jennifer. This time had been no different. Not for J.J., and certainly not for him. Somebody, for some reason, had their eye on one or both of them, and he wasn’t risking either of them.

He turned away from the window and drifted back into the lobby. As people passed him, a few held their eyes on him a bit longer than normal, as if trying to figure out if or from where they knew him. It was amusing, and strangely, after all the years it had been happening, it still made him slightly uncomfortable. The attention was easier to take with Jennifer by his side. She usually deflected it from him, and as she was far more comfortable in the limelight, he was more than willing to leave her to it.

A couple he was acquainted with from the country club came in, and for a few minutes he got caught up in unavoidable conversation about the tragedies in New York and D.C. He had just gone back to sit down again when he spotted the welcome slender figure crossing the drive. He smiled, mostly in response to seeing  she had finally arrived, but also because she still drew his objective attention. If he wasn’t looking for her, even if he didn’t know who she was, he still would have noticed her.

She wore an ivory pants suit with a topaz blouse, the first few buttons of which were open, revealing a chunky gold choker and a tastefully enticing glimpse of chest that teased of good things to come to whoever might be so privileged to be there when those other buttons were undone. She had one hand in the pocket of the pants, her ivory envelope purse that matched her leather pumps, tucked under that arm. That thick, shoulder length hair he so adored shined like polished copper in the afternoon sun. As she approached the revolving glass doors, a brightly patterned silk scarf thrown over one shoulder flowed in the breeze behind her. She moved like a dancer, light on her toes, her back straight, her head held high; a definite standout.

And she was his wife.

Studying her, he could understand Andy Seagren wanting her once he saw and spoke with her again. He could almost sympathize with Seagren’s desperate attempt to have her to himself again.

“Infinity,” he thought, recalling J.J.’s friend, Teddy’s assessment of her appearance when she teasingly called him on it on the night of the summer country club dance after he had given J.J. a ten on hers.

Definitely. The sight of her had him talking to himself.

Better be taking good care of yourself, Hart. Eat right and get plenty of exercise, or in a few years, you might be looking and feeling more like her grandfather than her husband.”

Seagren took away an injured jaw that night. He was damned lucky to have not  lost his life.

Stupid son-of-a-bitch.

As she emerged from her section of the  door, it was evident from her sudden bright smile that she hadn’t seen him until that moment.

He greeted her with a quick kiss to her lips and then a slightly longer one to her cheek. “Hello, darling. Where’s Pat? I thought she’d be with you.”

“She was with me, but I dropped her off at the house before coming here. She wanted to be there to pick up the girls from tutoring when it was time.”

“Pick up the girls? Has something happened to the car?”

She smiled again, placing a thoughtful, amused finger to her lips as they moved over to the same corner they occupied a few days before and took a seat.

“It seems Auntie Patty drove the girls to school this morning after you and Bill left. She said it was because she thought she might need a car, and since Marnie’s was just going to be sitting on the school parking lot all day, she kept it. I know better than that, Jonathan. Pat wasn’t planning to go anywhere unless it was with me or with Bill, and Bill had business. I’m certain Marnie, or maybe even Marnie and J.J., have done something, and taking the car away is Pat’s way of handling it. Before it’s all said and done, I’m breaking one of them down. I’ll probably do Marnie; she’s the easiest.”

He sat forward in his chair, clasping his hands before him, his eyes dancing with the merriment generated by her relentless curiosity.

“If it was me, I’d leave it alone,” he said. “Pat is plenty capable of making either one of them, for that matter both of them at the same time, tow the line. If they’ve done something, and she’s handling it, I’d accept it as one less thing I had to worry about. They respect and mind Pat. Besides, Pat could use the diversion right about now.”

“I guess,” Jennifer sighed in reluctant resignation. “You’re probably right. But something is going on. Did you notice how quiet J.J. was at breakfast? She’s never that quiet when Pat’s around. Marnie was awfully subdued as well. I know something’s happened. I wonder what it was.”

At her continued speculation, he could only shake his head at her.

“What?” she asked with a quick tilt of her own head. “What have I done?”

“You just hate being left out of the loop, don’t you? It’s killing you.”

Faced with her own nosiness, Jennifer laughed. “It is. You know I think I’m the only one who can run things when it comes to them. So what’s the story here? What in the world would make the doctor tell her about what happened? I thought he wanted to wait until Chris was better?”

They both settled back into their chairs as he answered her.

“I don’t know all of it. He just told me that he did, and that shortly after, she became very agitated and started demanding to be let go. I waited for you to get here. August went up to check with security, but we thought it might be better if you were the one who went to Chris. I came to see her earlier today, before the doctor went in to her, but she wasn’t giving anything up to me even then. I don’t guess I could blame her. I mean, I am her boss. She’s only going to say so much to me.”

“Well, I’m the boss’s wife.”

“Yes, but you’re also Jennifer Edwards, the woman who can make her way into the hearts of the best of us who try to hold out.”

She brushed her hand down his arm while she quietly admitted, “I didn’t do so well with Claire this morning. Not at all.”

“She’s scared, Jennifer. Whatever she’s into, she’s into it with heavyweights, and she has reason to be scared. I put a call in to Knight Shipping, trying to get a line on Marston. I was going to make out like it was a business call, but Liz said he wasn’t there. The secretary would only take a message. She said it didn’t sound as if he was expected back any too soon.”

“I know you haven’t had a chance to see Claire yet,” Jennifer began.

“I didn’t want to spook her. I wanted you to go to her first, and then I figured maybe I’d go down and meet her together with you afterward.”

“Did anyone say anything to you about her face, Jonathan?”

“What about her face?”

“She’s got a black eye. I asked her about it, but she wouldn’t say anything. In fact, she wouldn’t say much to us at all. She was quite defensive.”

“A black eye? So, her, too?”

She shrugged.

“Pat was with you? You say Claire wouldn’t say much. Pat didn’t go ‘bad cop’ on her, did she?”

“She wanted to, but I wouldn’t let her. It was all I could do to hold her off. We’ll go back and try again with her tomorrow. So tell me about Chris. What do you think happened to upset her?”

“Langford said about an hour after he informed her about 9/11, she suddenly became extremely agitated, trying to get out of the bed, almost fighting with the nurse, demanding to be released. That’s when we got the call.”

“I see. Sounds like the lady might have had a revelation.”

Jennifer stood up from her chair, adjusted the scarf on her shoulder and smoothed her slacks. “Are you coming up to the room with me?”

“I’ll go up with you onto the floor,” Jonathan answered as he also stood. “But I’ll let you go in alone to speak with her. I’d like to see the doctor if he’s still here.”

______________________________________________________

J.J., finished with her young charges, watched as three of them headed for the door where their parents’ cars waited right outside at the curb to take them home, and the other three, residents of St. Augustine’s Mission Street Children’s Residence made their way up the hall and to their quarters. She enjoyed her work with them. In her hand, she held a folded piece of paper one of the little boys, who was currently a temporary resident due to an unsuitable family situation, had handed her on his way out.

At the end of the hall, the three she released were met by one of the assistants who waved to her to let her know that she had them. She ushered them through the set of double doors that separated the academy from the residence hall. The three who had gone outside were climbing over into the cars. She went to the doors and waved to the parents while surveying the rest of the parking lot.

With her responsibilities met, she went back into the room where she had been working with the children on their math, to gather her own things. It wasn’t until she was inside and alone that she unfolded the paper in her hand. She found that Melvin had drawn a large heart in red crayon, and inside of it, he’d fashioned a crude picture of a girl with a long ponytail on what she assumed was a horse. He’d written, “Miss J.J.” and had an arrow pointing to the girl. Underneath the heart he wrote, “Thank you for teaching me nice.”

Having worked with Melvin for those couple of weeks, and familiar with his reluctance to put pencil, much less crayon, to paper, she knew that he spent a lot of time, as well as a lot of thought into drawing and coloring that for her.

Grinning, she touched it to her lips. Then she carefully refolded it and stuck it down inside the notebook she used to keep notes on each child she tutored. She thought about how when she was little, she used to write notes to her mother after getting into trouble with her. She used to draw pictures on hers, too, and lots of hearts. She wondered if her mother kept any of them.

“I just saw the last of my rugrats off.”

It was Marnie, coming into the room with Jaden in one hand and her tote bag in the other. “They got a kick out of my baby boy. The girls wanted to hold him, and the boys wanted to see how he worked. It wasn’t easy getting them to do their reading lesson.”

“I don’t think Sister Anastasia thinks very much of this project,” J.J. said as she gathered her things and put them down into her backpack. “Did you see the look on her face when we all came in with the dolls, and I was telling her what it was all about?”

“That’s her problem.” Marnie checked her face in a mirror affixed to the classroom wall. “Maybe if she wasn’t so uptight and stiff, she wouldn’t have had to become a nun.”

“My mother says it’s a person’s life calling to become a nun, Marn, not a life sentence for being a prude.”

“The Duchess would. That sounds like the writer in her, making being a nun sound all noble and romantic and everything. I say it has to be that you’re scared of men or something. I mean, why else would you do something like that? Men and women were meant to hook up, not deprive themselves of each other. If you’re a nun, you can’t even kiss guys or get caught lusting after them, even in your heart. I’d die. I’d just plain old, flat out die.”

J.J. laughed, “You probably would, and then go straight to Hell without passing go.”

“Wearing gasoline soaked drawers,” Marnie added.

J.J. nodded, “Designer ones, of course.”

“No doubt, J.”

Marnie turned from the mirror to J.J. “In Sister Anastasia’s day, people probably came up pregnant, and didn’t even have a clue how it happened. People didn’t talk about that kind of stuff back in the olden days, much less practice at it beforehand like this project kind of has us doing. Where’s Genie?”

“Daria baby sat for me while I was working with the little kids.”

Marnie’s eyes widened. “Daria? You let that crazy heifer watch your kid?”

“Yes, and she’s not crazy. She has problems, but she’s sort of sweet once you get to know her.”

“Operative words, ‘get to know her’. She made it pretty clear to me that she couldn’t stand me, and that was just fine with me. A kid only gets one time to call me a “rich bitch”. I mean, I am one, but that’s not for her to say. Since I couldn’t go there with her, I just left her alone. I don’t want to get to know her.”

“Marnie, you’d be resentful and stuff, too if your father was in prison, your mother died of an overdose, you got taken away from your older sister because she was living foul, and the rest of your family didn’t want you because they had issues of their own or because they resent your being biracial. They all signed off on her and got her sent here. It’s a wonder she does as well as she does.”

J.J hefted her book bag onto her back, and she and Marnie headed for the classroom door where the rest of the tutoring group from their school gathered in the hall, making ready to leave.

“You have more patience than me with those hardcore ones, J.,” Marnie said. “You were made for this. Maybe you should consider being a teacher.”

As they stepped into the hall, a smallish, skinny girl, about twelve or so, with bronze skin and soft, fuzzy hair that was almost the same color, was coming toward them, making her way through the small group of teenagers. She was carrying Genie pressed to her chest in one hand with her bag hanging from that arm, and her plastic carrier in the other hand. She stopped and placed the carrier on a nearby table. Then she carefully placed Genie inside and tucked the blanket all around her. When she was finished, she handed the bag and the carrier to J.J. murmuring with a small smile, “Thanks.”

J.J. accepted the carrier. “I appreciate you watching her while I was working, Dari. That helped me out a lot. I hope she wasn’t a lot of trouble.”

“Nah,” the girl said, waving her thin hand, “she was fine. I like that she can do all that stuff she can do. It’s been a while since I played with a doll. That one is great. I kept her with me back in the kitchen while I did my homework, so she might be smelling  like spaghetti now. I wouldn’t let the other girls touch her. They wanted to, but I wouldn’t let them.”

“All that crying didn’t get on your nerves?” Marnie asked.

The girl turned a disdainful eye to Marnie, slowly sweeping her gaze up and down Marnie’s person before answering, “All what crying? I said she was fine. All she did was smile when I pressed her tummy, and slept. What you think? She’s gonna cry because she’s with me?”

Marnie’s mouth fell open. “No, I was just-”

Turning back around to J.J., making a crystal clear point of dismissing Marnie with the motion, Daria said, “See you next time, Miss J.J.”

She walked off in the same direction as the other resident children had gone. The older kids  gathered in the hall since her arrival, watched her until she went through the double doors at the end.

“She’s a trip,” Philly observed from where she stood next to Marnie. “I don’t know how you deal with her, J. Well, I see Hector’s here. I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow.”

She left them, going through the glass doors to the lot where the truck waited at the curb.

“I don’t care what you say, J.J. Hart,” Marnie fussed. “That little nasty brat has issues. It’s obvious she can’t stand me; I don’t know why, and I don’t care, but she needs to watch her step with me. I haven’t done or said any of the kinds if things I could do or say to her.”

“You might mess around and get your butt kicked doing and saying stuff to that one, Marnie,” Deon warned as he helped Charmaine with her J.J. Hart-like load of books, putting some of them in the backpack on her back. “That little girl looks like she doesn’t play. She might live here now, but she’s fresh out the ‘hood. Is somebody coming to get you guys? You need a ride?”

“I don’t think she’s as hard as she acts,” Charmaine observed, as Deon balanced the books that were left in her arms. “I think she acts hard to keep people off her.”

Marnie nodded. “Well, it’s working.”

“No thanks,” J.J. said in answer to Deon’s question-invitation to her and Marnie. “Aunt Pat’s coming for us.”

Waving to them, Deon and Charmaine left, moving out with the others who were leaving and had their own rides.

“Daria didn’t care too much for me either, at first,” J.J. said to Marnie as they slowly made their way to the door, following behind Deon and Charmaine. “She was real defensive, wanting to try to make me argue with her and everything. I just ignored her. It didn’t take me long to figure out she didn’t need math help; she was just coming down to start trouble.

“I would be trying to help the little kids I was assigned to, and she’d be muscling in, disturbing us, trying to make them act up. Finally, I talked to one of the lay people in the residence hall about her, and they told me he is usually the one the younger kids turn to for help. I figured it out that she must have been jealous, and that was her way of acting it out; so I got the idea to let her help me. Daddy says if you can’t beat ’em, find a way to join ’em. I figure that works in reverse, too. So far, so good. We at least talk now; she told me all that stuff about herself without me even asking her. When I got here this afternoon, she came to me and offered to keep Genie for me.”

“And you trusted her?”

“Yes, I did, Marnie. She’s okay. She actually had me laughing, telling me about Sister A’s reaction once she left us and went to the back to the kitchen, talking about it. Dari was in there and heard her. Then she came and told me what she said. That’s when she asked if she could keep Genie for me. Dari just needs somebody to be in her corner, that’s all. From what I’ve heard, there haven’t been that many folks in there lately. Her so-called family turned her out, and she gets in trouble here a lot because of her attitude and things.

“Sister A told my mother that she’s probably going to be here a while because of her anger management and social problems. She’s seeing a therapist and a social worker from Catholic Services. It’s going to take a special somebody to want to take her home as a foster kid. My mother says she’s kind of too old to be adopted, and even though they signed off on her, she does still have family to whom she’s genetically and emotionally attached, which could mean extra-added drama for whoever takes her home.”

They both saw it when Marnie’s car arrived at the curb.

“Seems funny,” Marnie said, “to be watching my car pull up rather than being the one pulling up in it,”

“Could be worse,” J.J. replied as she went through the door Marnie was holding open for her. “She could have told on you and kept the car.”

“That’s true. Hey, J. It just occurs to me. How come Daria had Genie all that time, and she says she didn’t cry? Come to think of it, what’s Genie doing smiling? Genie has never, ever smiled the whole time you’ve had her.”

J.J. held up her hand. “Don’t ask questions, Marn. That way, you don’t have to lie if you get asked about it.”

Marnie grabbed J.J. by that upheld arm, preventing her from walking, pulling her close to whisper, “Where the hell were you and Hector at lunchtime? What were you doing? What’d you two do to Genie? You can sucker Hector, but you cannot sucker me.”

J.J. pulled away from her grasp. “I told you, it’s nothing you need to be concerned about.”

“And I’m telling you, J.J. Hart, if you mess around and get me locked down-”

Both girls, noticing Pat watching them, straightened up and made their way to the car. J.J. got in the back, immediately checking the rear view mirror. When she finally spotted what she needed to see, she relaxed.

Daddy was the man.

Sitting directly behind Pat, just before she took her eyes away, she caught her aunt’s eyes watching hers in the glass. For a moment, each set locked on the other. Then J.J. turned away and sat back.

______________________________________________________

It was dark where she was. Not completely dark, but darker than it normally was.

Normally?

She was alone in the quiet, the dimness… in the silence… in the… mysteriousness?

There was a hall… of sorts, and she was at work. Yes, it was work, but in the dark?

…Saturday.

“I’ll come by your place tomorrow, Chris, and we can talk. Would that be all right with you?”

It was Jennifer Hart’s voice talking to her. If that was Saturday, “Tomorrow” would have been Sunday.

And talk to me about what? J.J.? Work? Whatever it was that wouldn’t come?

Broken pieces in need of arranging and some glue to hold them together. In the meantime, the jagged edges cut at her.

The walls of that hospital room were closing in, and she felt as if her lungs wouldn’t fully inflate, but the doctor and the nurse wouldn’t let her go. They wouldn’t let her out of there, and they wouldn’t tell her anything, so she got up and walked as often as she could.

Pulling herself off the floor, confused as to how she’d gotten there, and thus, she’d been scared in the place where she was… dark, too dark… she had to get out of there before he came back….

…who? … before who came back? He? She? Who? Definitely somebody.

Swirling, dizzy, but get out of there…

… home… safety is at home… be safe once I’m home….

… pain… blinding pain accompanied by floating iridescent orbs that got bigger and bigger, moving faster and faster… can’t see for those damned floating lights….

To recover, she had been put to sleep, and consequently, had lost three days of her life. Her car was wrecked, gone. She had been driving it when it wrecked, of that she was sure, even though she didn’t remember the actual crash. After that, the doctor made her sleep because of the bump she could still feel on the back of her head, near the base of her skull. Whoever hit her- someone had hit her- knew what they were doing.

Just didn’t do it well enough….

In those three lost days, she’d been told, the entire world changed. They kept her sleeping so she wouldn’t be there to witness it. The Trade Center, the Pentagon, thousands of people in the buildings, on those planes, witnesses and victims- innocents in the area at the time, and those touched by it all around the world. Dr. Langford said he kept her under because she had her own, more immediate problems with which to contend.

It all had her around the neck, slowly strangling her.

Why?

Why did Claire’s face keep shooting up before her eyes, within those odd orbs of light, licking up between them like a flame from hell?

It got bad while Hart was there. It had gotten much worse since the doctor left that last time.

Why did the mere thought of Claire make her stomach turn with dread and fear? What had that damned girl gotten herself into that she would have to get her out of… once again…

Why did she keep returning to that dark place at work? Where was that, and what had she been doing?

… it all had to be connected to work….

Chris sat bolt upright in the bed, ignoring the sickening vertigo that such an abrupt movement stimulated. She had to get out of there. The only way she could get it all back would be to go where it started. But they wouldn’t listen. Not Eva, not the doctor. They didn’t understand if she had to stay there any longer, it might get even farther away from her than it currently was.

The words squeezed past her clenched teeth, “I need out.”

“It’s too soon,” Eva answered without looking up from the medical magazine she was perusing. “We’ve told you that.”

“I don’t care what you’ve told me. I’m not a prisoner here. I want out, and I want it now. Bring me the damned papers. Now.”

“No.”

“Witch”

“Whatever you say, Ms. Allen,” Eva licked her thumb and turned a page.

Frustrated to the point of tears, Chris flopped back onto the pillows, enduring a second sudden mushroom cloud of dizziness that forced her to squeeze shut her eyes. She threw her arm over them to block out the light and to hide her distress.

No phone, not allowed visitors, a guard in the room, one at the door, and several floors from the ground. From what had seen in the hall, eyes were all around her. There was no obvious way out and it didn’t appear there was anyone she could call upon to assist her, but still, she had to go. In order to get her own life back and to find out what was going on with Claire, she had to get out of there. They did not understand. The world was spinning out of control, hers and everyone else’s, and all she could do was stand- or lie- staring stupidly, uncomprehendingly on the sidelines at the chaos happening on the field.

“Hi, Chris.”

“Jennifer?”

She moved her arm and opened her eyes.

“You’ve been crying.”

“No, I haven’t.” She sat up, wiping at the tears. “It’s sinus. From the air conditioning.”

“Oh,” The other woman nodded. “All right.”

She watched as Jennifer Hart sat her purse down and moved the chair closer to the bed.

“How do you do it, Jennifer?” she asked.

“Do what?” Jennifer asked as she pulled the bright scarf from her shoulder and sat down after moving her purse from the chair to the table next to the bed, placing the scarf with it.

Chris continued to watch her. “You make it all look so easy.”

“Make what look so easy, Chris?”

“So easy to have it all together. Whenever I see you, you’re always so well put together. Not a hair out of place, sharp; you never seem to have a care in the world, like you have a handle on it all. Yet, I know you’re a busy woman. You’re the CEO’s wife, a mother, have a career of your own. I’ve watched you oversee those huge gatherings Mr. Hart has at the house for the company. You probably have to do things like that all the time, yet you never seem stressed out or overwhelmed. You always appear to take everything in stride.”

Jennifer smiled.

“Thank you. It’s not all as easy as it might appear, but Yoga and Pilates are great for relaxation and keeping fit when the stress of it all gets bad. I have to make the time for them, though. And of course my husband makes things easier for me than they might otherwise be. He’s a great help to me, especially with the parenting part of it.

“But I could say the same about you, Chris. I’ve always thought those same things about you.”

“Give me a break,” Chris waved her hand. “I don’t have half the things to deal with that you do. In my case, it’s just me that I have to be concerned over. That and HartToy. Even that Saturday when you found J.J. in my office, you-”

The beginnings of an image flashed hot, blood red, in her mind and then disappeared, cutting off what she was going to say. When it left, it took with it her train of thought.

“You were saying,” Jennifer gently prodded after a few silent seconds.

Unable to get it back, Chris retreated again into the pillows, slowly shaking her head from side to side. “It’s like this all the time. I don’t think I’m going to ever be right again.”

Jennifer placed a hand to her shoulder.

“It’s not been two days since you’ve been back, Chris. I understand that you’ve already asked to check out of the hospital. You have to know that physically you aren’t ready to go home.”

With one finger, Chris gestured to Eva, and Jennifer turned to her asking if they could be left alone. Eva nodded and went out of the room, closing the door behind her.

“Jennifer, I need to get out of here,” she whispered.

“It’s too early yet, Chris. If you went home, you’d need someone there with you for a while, especially at night. You’re not ready to be on your own yet. Be honest. Are the headaches completely gone? The dizziness?”

To herself, Chris had to admit that they hadn’t. She hadn’t mentioned the vertigo to anyone, but when she moved her head, her vision was a couple of seconds behind it. She had done more walking that day than she had since waking from the coma, but she still wasn’t totally steady on her legs, and was glad to have Eva out there with her in case she faltered.

Apparently, Jennifer wanted to hear her admit to it aloud.

“Well?”

“No. But still.”

“Still?”

“Jennifer, so much has happened that I’ve missed. They told me only today about Tuesday’s tragedy. I can’t believe it. I don’t have a television or a radio here, so it’s kind of abstract for me right now. And I still can’t recall what happened to me. It’s trying to come back, but I feel as if I’m not going to remember anything if I stay here much longer. They’re trying to keep me in this sort of vacuum, they say for my sake, but that isn’t really helping. I need to get out of here.

“I need to go back to where it all began. I need to go back to my office. I need to see my car, even if it is totaled. I feel as if I my being here is keeping me from getting it back, I’m too far away from where I need to be, and the longer I stay here, the farther away it’s getting. I get a flash, I try to hone in, but it’s becoming harder, not easier to do that. It’s kind of like my mind is playing a game with me”

Jennifer Hart sat back in the chair and crossed her legs. She didn’t say anything in response, but the look on her face was not one of dismissal or refusal; it was an expression of something more like consideration.

______________________________________________________

After speaking with August about the continued security measures being taken for Chris’ safety at the hospital, Jonathan went in to meet with Dr. Langford. The doctor had just begun telling about Chris’ reaction to the news about 9/11 and her subsequent outburst, when Jennifer appeared at the door to the office.

Both men stood again, and Dr. Langford invited her in.

“Mrs. Hart. It’s good to see you again. Please sit down.”

“How’s Chris?” Jonathan asked as she got settled in the chair next to his. “You weren’t there with her very long. Were you able to make her see reason?”

“I think it was more like she made me see it.”

“Dr. Langford was going to tell me why he decided to go ahead and tell Chris about 9/11.” Jonathan said as he and the doctor took to their chairs once again.

The Harts gave the doctor their attention.

“Well, Eva, the private nurse assigned to her, pulled me to the side and told me that she’s noticed that increasingly Chris has been asking to get up and walk. Eva said she was at first impressed by Chris’ eagerness to work at getting her strength back. Then she said she noticed a pattern in the notes she’s been keeping. Chris was requesting to walk at times that visiting hours are at their peak in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Once she got into the hall, she really didn’t do that much walking. She’d give in to her dizziness and resulting unsteadiness, and ended up more or less lingering. Eva figured it out that Chris was out there to look and/or listen. In the time that she’s been my patient, I’ve become very aware of the fact that Chris Allen is very observant.”

Jonathan was once again impressed and amused by the ingenuity of females.

Leave it to the women. One watching the other, the other watching everything.

“Once we realized that was what she was doing, we weren’t sure what she might have picked up on, not to mention what she might run into.” said the doctor. “The disaster has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue, staff and visitors, and it was just a matter of time before she got hold of some of it. I ran it past the psychologist, and he suggested that we tell her. He thought it best to go ahead and put it out there to her for two reasons. One, if she had already gotten or happened to get a piece of the story, she wasn’t likely to let us know that she had it. The knowledge, even a little of it, might confuse her more. Two, if we told her, then, the long shot hope was that maybe it would loosen something up within her about what happened to her. I mean, there’s no obvious correlation that we can see, but who knows?”

“Did you notice any immediate signs of it upsetting her when you told her?” Jennifer asked.

“No, in fact, she seemed to take it in stride. I explained to her that was the reason we kept her under that extra day, and she seemed to understand and accept that.”

“Then what happened to make her want out?” This time it was Jonathan posing the question.

“I don’t know.” Dr. Langford answered. “Eva said as far as she could tell, it came on all of a sudden. My professional opinion is that the lady is having some recall which has frightened her, but she’s not been forthcoming about if she has. Maybe she’s recalling about that previous accident, the one in which she sustained those older injuries. Had she taken any time off work of late?”

“She used some vacation days about two weeks ago.” Jonathan said. “Just two or three, an extended weekend sort of. Then she was right back on the job. She rarely uses all of her vacation time, and she never takes off sick.”

“Did she say anything to you when you were in there with her, Mrs. Hart, that could shed some light on any of that?”

“Not really, not on that, but talking with her did make me see something. I came over here to propose something to you, Dr. Langford. To get your take on it”

She then turned her attention to Jonathan. “And to see how you felt about it, darling.”

____________________________________________________________

Nothing is going right; it’s just becoming more and more complicated.

It was always a huge risk, but it wasn’t supposed to be this bad or this difficult… wasn’t supposed to go this far.

One thing after another going wrong… whole thing falling in like a house of cards, and still no closer to it.

Timing couldn’t have been worse….

There’s no getting close to her. Hart’s seen to that. Should have known that he’d put the lock on everything once he got in on it… not nearly as sick or slow as the old man presumed… no counting that crafty bastard out… way too smart, too on top of things, too much clout…

… tried to tell….

… if he figures it out….

Oh well, nothing left to do but wait and hope…

…wait for an opening, and hope to try to slide into it when it comes.

Might mean taking somebody else out, but if that’s the only way….

The only way. Up to me to finish what’s been started. Just have to wait for an opening…

…if not, might be me next….

______________________________________________________

“Dr. Langford didn’t seem completely opposed to my suggestion.” Jennifer said to Jonathan.

She watched her husband’s face, specifically that crease in his left brow, as he sat across from her at a table in the hospital cafeteria. They had come down there to talk over Jennifer’s proposal while the doctor took some to time to go over his notes and consider his answer before all or any of them went back in to see Chris.

“Well, what do you think, darling. You haven’t said.”

Jonathan sighed and took another few moments before he finally spoke. When he did, his words came slowly, as if he was still considering each one of them even as they crossed his lips. The change in his manner of speech made her focus in upon what he was saying even more closely.

“Looking at just the surface of it, Jennifer, I’m inclined to say okay. But there’s a lot more to consider.”

“Such as?”

“I haven’t had a chance to tell you this, but Martin turned up this afternoon.”

“The missing guard? Has his wife been notified? She has to be worried sick about him. What did he have to say for himself as to where he’s been?”

“Yes, the missing guard, and the only person he’s talking to these days is the coroner. He washed up this morning.”

“My God, Jonathan. What in the world is going on?”

“I don’t know. I’m waiting to hear back as to the cause of his death. When found, he had a lot of money on him, too.”

“This all must have something to do with HartToys, then. I can understand now what you meant about there being a lot more to consider.”

He nodded once, shifting his body in the chair, then leaning in toward her. She reached for his hands which were clasped before him on the table and covered them with hers. “Jonathan, tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Well, of course, I’d love to have Chris come to stay with us, Jennifer. I certainly think that her getting out of here will facilitate her memory. You know that I can personally sympathize with what she told you: the longer she’s here, the farther away from her things seem to be getting. That’s because here in the hospital, she’s so far removed from everything. There’s not much to jog her powers of recollection. She probably will do better if she can get back to where she was; that helped me.

“But how do we know that going back there won’t put her in jeopardy? How do we know that bringing her home with us won’t put us in jeopardy? I’m not speaking so much about you and me, but more so, J.J. and Marnie. They’re kids. For their protection and security, we haven’t filled them in on everything, although I have the feeling that J.J. is quietly piecing things together for herself.”

To that Jennifer nodded. That sounded exactly like their daughter. J.J. would, on the surface, listen to and obey what they told her. But that wouldn’t stop that active mind of hers from continuing to go over whatever the subject at hand happened to be or keep her from seeking and going through those “loopholes” she utilized to do things her way. With the current matter being Hart-related and so intriguing, there was no way that J.J. Hart had left it alone mentally.

“Jonathan, is Eva really a nurse?

Jonathan moved his hands so that he could interlock his fingers with hers.

“She is a nurse, but she’s also a trained bodyguard. What makes you ask?”

“Chris told me that she thought Eva was a guard. She picked up on that right away. Like Dr. Langford said, she’s very observant. That leads me to believe that she’s holding back on something. Maybe she doesn’t have it all together yet, ad that’s why she isn’t saying, but something got her going and is making her want out of here. Jonathan, what if Eva came with Chris? She’s already assigned to her. We could put them out in the pool house. You already have the grounds covered. The pool house is way to the interior, off the beaten path, and with Eva out there with her, Chris would have the medical help she needs as well as the personal coverage.”

Jonathan shrugged, “I guess. I could also put some manpower on the inside of the gates, although you know how much I hate that.”

“I know, but maybe it won’t be too long before we get all of this sorted out. I feel as though she’d loosen up and talk more with me away from here. As it is, she makes me put Eva out of the room when she speaks with me here. At the house, she could sit outside in the fresh air, she’d feel more at ease, which couldn’t help but facilitate her recovery.”

“It also puts her in line with J.J. Hart, Jennifer. How do you propose that we handle that? You don’t like her close up and personal like that.”

“Well, I can’t keep her a baby forever, as much as I’d like to prolong it. I’m going to have to talk with her, I guess, and get her to understand how much this is not something to play with. I’ll have to hope and pray that she hears me. If Dr. Langford okays it, I really think it’s the best thing. In my heart, I believe Chris and Claire Allen are going to be key to solving this thing.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Woman’s intuition.”

Gently squeezing her fingers between his, he quietly acquiesced, “Then I’ll have to go along with it. I have never been one to try to argue against a woman’s intuition. It started with Anastasia’s hunch that my going with Max would be a good thing, and it’s never let me down since then.”

Crinkling her nose at him, she smiled. “It was a woman’s intuition in London all those years ago. I’m still here. It doesn’t let me down either.”

He winked and smiled back. “Like I said.”

“Hate to do this to you, baby.” J.J. said to the doll on her lap as she pressed the wet cloth to her naked backside, causing her to cry. “But we have to keep up the facade. Can’t have my mother picking up on the fact that you’ve undergone a transformation. It’s bad enough that Marnie has an inkling of it.”

After a few minutes, she removed the cloth and refastened the dry diaper.

“I don’t know what’s harder,” she muttered as she replaced the tiny rompers, kissed Genie, and placed her in her chair. “how you were before, or making you act like you did before. But if the Duchess gets wind… I guess I could probably explain it as you’ve finally adjusted, but I don’t think she’d buy that for long, so you’ll just have to work with me on this. After all, I’ve been putting up with you all this time.”

As she returned to her desk and her homework, she couldn’t quite understand why she felt somewhat badly about what she was doing with the doll, not to mention how trying it was to have to remember to do it.

She found herself becoming even more attached to the doll since that afternoon up in the sound booth. Despite the earlier crying fits, Genie had been growing on her, and caring for her had become almost routine. Her mind straying from the history homework before her, she put the pen down, dug into the back of the book to extract a folded piece from between the pages, and leaned back in the chair. It was the picture that little Melvin had drawn for her.

She liked kids; she liked working with them and being with them. Thanksgiving and Christmas had always been her favorite times of the year, partly because of the volunteer work she helped her parents with at Mission Street’s residential hall.

Daria came to mind, and in contrast, she could clearly see how fortunate she had been in life. The life one was born into really was the luck of the draw. There was no reason, other than fate, that she was J.J. Hart and Daria was who she was. It was also fate that had to have put the two of them together.

Until she met Daria, she really hadn’t gotten too involved with the reasons that put kids at Mission Street. She’d once assumed that they were all orphans, like her father, but she later learned that a great many of them weren’t. Some of them were kids who for one reason or another had been taken from their parents or guardians and placed in the system. Of those there were a some who were only there for a time, until their people could get themselves together. A few, like Daria, had relatives who weren’t in a position to keep them or simply flat-out didn’t want them.

How bad did that make a person feel?

To have people, know you had them and where they were, but to also be aware that because of the color of your skin or some other crazy reason that was outside your control, they didn’t want you? What did it feel like to have a father in prison for killing someone or to have a floozy, drugged-out half-sister who had the nerve to look down on you because her father was white and yours was black? Looking at it from the outside in, J.J. could see that Daria had gotten the upper hand having been taken out of the situation she was in and given another chance. She intended to let Daria know that- and to keep telling her that- once the time was right. She knew that she would have to wait until she was sure that Daria was going to be receptive of it from her.

Girls had to look out for each other.

She leaned her head way over the back of her chair and closed her eyes.

All those kids in New York and DC whose parents haven’t come home yet, and who won’t ever come home.

Being who she was, she understood that she could easily not see or be touched by any of that. She could live in Bel Air, go to school up there, stay on her side of LA, be aloof to the rest of the world, and never have to deal with any of it. She could very easily exist in that kind of “Paris Hilton/rich girl bubble” that she noticed her mother’s face frown upon when she was reading something in a newspaper or magazine about ‘that girl’, her sister, and their ‘ilk’. But she was glad that her parents weren’t letting that happen with her.

Her father had always been the one to most strongly insist on her being allowed to be herself. Despite the fact that it was her mother who mostly oversaw her education and made most of the decisions in that area, her father had been the one to insist upon her going to school with regular kids. At least, sort of regular kids; it was with gifted and/or talented kids, but they were students from all kinds of backgrounds, which he thought was also an important part of his kid’s education.

Her mother insisted upon her learning when traveling. She encouraged her to read extensively, and to volunteer her time for various causes. It was her mother who set it up for her to spend time with kids who didn’t have it so well. Jennifer Hart was the chief administrator of the Mission Street Foundation, and it was she who implemented the tutoring program, which in actuality turned out to be a sort of student/cultural/ informational exchange. The tutors were learning a lot from their tutees.

Sister Anastasia, the academy’s principal administrator, oversaw the program’s day-to-day functioning, which ensured there would be no monkey business on either end- with the teens or the little students. Aside from having to come into contact with Sister Anastasia more regularly than she liked, it was a rewarding experience.

The old nun appeared before her closed eyes.

Sister A.’s blue eyes crinkled in the corners just like her father’s when he was listening to her and trying not to smile at something she was saying. Sister’s eyes had done that while she was telling her about the project that afternoon, even though the Sister was trying to give off a strong air of disapproval.

Funny I should notice and remember a thing like that. Teddy planted that mess about her eyes in my head.

She shook that image off.

No connection. No connection. Can’t be.

Teddy. He phoned while she was at tutoring, but as she had been in the middle of helping with some homework, she hadn’t answered, and she had yet to return the call. She had sent Tommy an email the night before, but so far, no response.

Talk about disparate.

Both those boys came from clearly different backgrounds, but they were both her friends, filling important roles in her life. Neither of her parents censured her friendships, male or female, nor did they try to rigidly regulate her social life. For that she was grateful. She knew plenty of kids who weren’t allowed to go into certain areas of the city, couldn’t freely associate with certain types of people, certain ethnic groups, religious affiliations, and on and on.

How boring is that?

She thrived on those differences and had learned so much from her eclectic associations. Dancing with Deon was exhilarating as was talking sports, playing cards, and sneaking the occasional cigar she bummed off him. Sidney was a chapter all to himself. Hector and Philly, Tiffany and Britt, lived on her side of the world, but even so, all of their lives were so different. Charmaine, who was never afraid to voice her opinion on the black experience, had broadened her perspectives in innumerable ways. Tommy had been her first close friend from “the other side of the tracks”, but he taught her so many small, finer things about life. Cold cereal, motorcycles, and Bazooka bubble gum immediately came to mind.

And kissing.

Both her parents were accepting of whoever she brought home. Her father was popular with all of her friends; everyone was crazy about him. People liked her mother, but it was different with her. She was respected and admired, but she tended to not get real involved except when it came to Marnie, and sometimes Charmaine, who was dead serious about her writing. That girl was good. She was going places, even the Duchess said so.

In turn for her parents’ tolerance and graciousness, she tried to be reasonably good, to listen and obey, and to not shame them. She worked hard at making them proud of her and to not upset them unnecessarily. That was why the loophole theory got called into play so much, increasingly so as she was getting older. Utilizing it allowed her to follow her own mind and to get things done without being outright disobedient. She was pleased with herself for having helped put Genie out of her misery. The hunch she had turned out to be valid, but would that eventually lead to trouble for her down the line? Just because she employed the loophole on a thing didn’t always mean she would make it through before the knot slipped and became a noose.

Aunt Pat.

Aunt Pat hadn’t said anything to her. Not at breakfast. Not on the way to school. Not on the way home. Was she mad at how disrespectful she had been to her on the day before? Was she disappointed about how her only niece wasn’t facing up to her problems or living up to the expectations she held for her?

Or was Aunt Pat simply tripping over her own problems and it just looked like she was  taking it out on her?

I love her so much.

Aunt Pat never hesitated to call her out when she thought her wrong, but this was the first time she challenged her personal integrity.

I don’t want her to be mad at me or to be disappointed in me, but I don’t know what to do to change anything in her mind about me.

When the quick twist to her heart squeezed her closed eyes further shut, a tear struggled free from a corner of one eye.

Can’t think about that now. Seems like I’m crying all the time lately. I hate that.

She swept it away.

Sitting forward on the chair, rolling closer to the desk, she moved the mouse to bring up the sleeping computer screen and clicked onto the latest online edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Right away, a headline caught her eye:

“Local Man Found Drowned”

Followed by that name:

… an employee of Jonathan Hart Industries…”

Pushing the history book all the way to the side, she planted her elbows in that spot and rested her chin in her hands to lean in and read it all.

______________________________________________________

Chris was so taken with how well the couple in the room with her complimented each other, she almost didn’t hear what they were proposing to her once Eva left them all alone.

The Harts were a handsome people, somehow even more so when they were together. Apart, they were each striking in appearance, warm and gracious in manner, but together, they were downright captivating. In the brief time it took them to enter the room and come to her bedside, his chivalry toward his wife and her appreciative glow at his attentiveness defined them to her as a unit. As Jonathan Hart stood where he had positioned himself behind and over the chair in which Jennifer Hart was once again sitting, she could easily see J.J. Hart in both of them:

Her mother’s face, smile, and hair. Her father’s darker coloring- J.J.’s tones fell somewhere in between both her parents- his shoulders, and carriage. Her mother’s expressive mannerisms, her father’s distinctive gaze, and their combined charm and congeniality; when it was all said and done, that girl they made together was going to be one interesting woman, to say the least about her.

“I don’t know about this,” she finally managed to utter.

She really didn’t. There was too much she didn’t know or didn’t remember, and she couldn’t be sure, at that point, which was which. There was even more that she didn’t want to say.

There was an awful lot to be sorted out, and with the news of the national disaster, a lot to digest. Undoubtedly, this thing they were calling 9/11 because of the date it happened, would have Mr. Hart professionally preoccupied. That preoccupation would have Mrs. Hart vigilant about him, his health, and about their household. Whatever the case, she couldn’t be sure her personal difficulties wouldn’t cause further complications for the Harts, the latter being something she definitely did not want to have happen.

“What problem would you have with it, Chris?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t want to impose.”

It was the best she could do in terms of explaining herself. As soon as she said it; however, she sensed it wasn’t going to fly with them.

She was right.

“We wouldn’t have proposed it,” Jennifer Hart said, “if we felt it would be an imposition. We thought you’d be more comfortable recovering with us than in here.”

No truer words, but….

“Anyplace would be better than in here, but you two have your own affairs with which to be concerned. I’m not so s-”

Jennifer wouldn’t allow her to finish.

“Dr. Langford doesn’t think you’re ready to return to your own home, but he agrees it may indeed do you some good to get out of here. He’s run it past the psychologist who concurs that a change of venue would be good for you.

“Our pool house is a fully equipped living space. You’ll have your privacy there, we have a cook for whom one more won’t be a problem; you’ll even have a hot tub and a mini-gym out there. You can work those muscles you haven’t been using in these past few days and then relax and loosen up afterward. The doctor will send your nurse out to stay with you. She’s agreed to go should you decide you want to make the move. There’s a second bedroom out there that she can have for her own, so you won’t have to be up under each other constantly. When you feel up to it, you can walk around outside to exercise your legs. I’m sure being out in fresh air will facilitate your getting better.”

“I have to admit, it’s hard to argue against what you’re offering, yet-”

“Yet?” he asked. “Chris, look. I’ve been caught once in that fog you’re in. It wasn’t fun at all. I don’t know what that would have been like if I hadn’t been allowed to get better at home. Jennifer stuck right by me the entire time. Now I know that for you, our house isn’t home, but it can be the next best thing. We’ll both be right there sticking by you.”

From what she had already been told, he did know, and since he did, he could understand and maybe help if she got into a real bad bind. It was then that she decided to take the chance and let him in.

“Mr. Hart- Jonathan, I don’t know exactly what happened to me or why it happened,  but it was no accident that it happened. Something bad went down with me, and to be honest with both of you, I’m not so sure that I’m not a part of it. I hope I’m not, but right now I can’t be sure of it. I’m not sure about anything. In other words, I’d hate to be bringing danger to you and your family. You have yourselves, as well as J.J. to be concerned over, and I definitely don’t want to put her in harm’s way. In light of that, maybe my being at your house isn’t such a good idea. I think we might all be better off if I remained here.”

“Since 9/11, Jonathan has our house guarded like Fort Knox, Chris. If it’s safety you’re concerned over, you’d be safer there than here, and we’d be more comfortable about things if you were there with us.”

“And my confidence is in you,” he said. “Something may have happened. It might have been bad, but we don’t think you’re involved in whatever wrongdoing might have gone on. We want to help you get better and to get back to yourself. That’s not going to happen until you can remember. Jennifer helped me to see that it’s probably not going to happen in here. Please take us up on this. We’ll feel better about things if we know that you’re in the best possible situation. This isn’t it.”

Thinking it over, for a few minutes she didn’t say anything. Then she tried her last line of defense. “What would I wear? I don’t have any of my things except the robe and slippers and the toiletries you brought to me, Jennifer.”

“I did happen to notice some awfully attractive jogging suits hanging in the closet from where I got that robe. They would be comfortable for what you’ll be doing,” Jennifer readily answered. “With your permission, I’d be happy to get them and whatever else you think you’ll need. We can send out for anything else that might come up.”

“I don’t think this is a deal you can reasonably turn down,” Jonathan urged.

Chris felt the fortress she had been attempting to erect around herself slowly eroding, much like a lone, left-behind sandcastle at the beach. The two of them had ebbed, gently pushed, and then washed over her until she found their call irresistible. So handsome and nice that despite their wealth and power, they were genuine and… cute. They were good together, not to mention effective.

She was certain that with them, she would at least be safe… from whatever it was that had her on edge.

“This isn’t fair,” she pouted despite her decision to take them up on their offer. “I’m being double-teamed.”

Jennifer laughed. “Now you sound like J.J. She complains we do that to her.”

“Is she right?”

“Yes, but in the end, we all get out of it what’s best for all of us.”

____________________________________________________________

Marnie had been on the phone when the call came into her room over the intercom.

“Marnie, Mr. and Mrs. Hart would like to see you in the great room. They would like for you to bring Jaden down when you come.”

Hanging up from Chance right away, she jumped down off the bed and into the mirror where she hit her glossy hair a few licks with the hairbrush, and checked her overall appearance.

“What in the hell has J. gotten us into now?” she muttered to her image in the glass. “Why in the world do they want to see Jaden? I bet he’s figured it out. I know Mr. H. has figured it out, and we’re both going down.”

She slipped her feet into the mule loafers she had kicked off earlier. Then she picked Jaden up by the handle of the carrier he was sleeping in.

“If we get in trouble, I am going to kill that girl,” she vowed to the doll as she headed for the bedroom door. “Kil-l-l-l-l her.”

____________________________________________________________

You know, J., it just dawned on me that you named your baby after me. Maybe you were thinking about me in this project thing all along.

“Named her after you? Her name is Genevieve.”

Yeah, but you nicknamed her ‘Genie’. Isn’t that what you call me?

(Laughter) “I hadn’t even thought about that.”

Maybe not on a conscious level.

“Could be. How’s Kyle?”

Pretty good, considering. He’s still upset that he can’t go see his father. He doesn’t need to go, though. The man is pretty bad. It shook me up.

“Really?”

Yeah, it’s like everything on him is broken or cut up. He’s even being helped off and on by a machine to breathe. I’m glad he spoke to Marnie, but J., he had to have had somebody dial and hold the phone for him. He can’t do anything on his own. He’s going to need to go to physical rehab once they cut him loose from the hospital, which won’t be for a long time, I don’t think. My dad says he’s probably going to have mobility problems for a long time, too, if not forever. My father went to see to the car so Marnie’s mother wouldn’t have to go, and he says he doesn’t know how Mr. Benson wasn’t killed in that wreck.

“It wasn’t his time, Teddy, that’s all. I think we all have a predetermined time and way in which we’re supposed to check out, and when your number is up, that’s it. That explains to me stuff like what happened with Aunt Pat and with Marnie’s dad missing those planes. It simply wasn’t their time.”

You’re deep, J. I like that so much about you. You make me think more about things.

(Grinning and blushing, butterflies going crazy) “Whatever, Teddy.”

Marie’s voice speaking to her over the house intercom cut into J.J.’s phone conversation.  “J.J., your mother and father want to see you and Genie in the great room right away.”

“Gotta go, Teddy. I’m being paged.”

I heard. ‘Right away?’ What did you do?

“Nothing anybody can prove. Talk to you later, maybe before I go to bed.”

I miss you, J. Take care of my namesake.

“You are so crazy, Teddy. Miss you, too.”

J.J. got up from the desk, her mind awhirl with questions.

Why do they want to see Genie? What do they want with me? No way could they know.

Stopping to take a deep, deep breath, she held it and then slowly exhaled, allowing her body to relax and her mind to slow down.

If that turns out to be what it is, play it off, J. Just play it off.

She reached in and removed Genie from her carrier.

__________________________________________________________

The two girls met in the second floor hall, both of them toting the dolls in their plastic carriers and realized they had both been called down to the great room in the same manner. Genie was crying.

“Oh, don’t even try it,” Marnie hissed, gesturing toward J.J.’s doll. “You made her do that for effect. They already know what you did to her. That’s why they told us to bring the kids down.”

“Hush,” J.J. hissed back. “You don’t know what it is that they want, so don’t go down there, acting all guilty and stuff. They’ll smell a rat and start working us both over, fishing for something they don’t know for sure what it is. Nobody knows anything, so just play along until we see what they want. There’s no way anybody can know that I did anything or if I did anything. In fact, you don’t even know if I did anything for sure.”

“I’ll tell you this much,” Marnie said, pointing a finger up to J.J.’s face. “I know we’re going to be fighting big time if I end up on lockdown this weekend, J.J. Hart.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” J.J. muttered just under her breath as she pulled Marnie by the arm toward the front staircase. “You remember what I said about playing it off, and everything should be cool.”

__________________________________________________________

In the great room, the Harts were seated together on the couch waiting for the girls to come down.

“Yes,” J.J. said as they entered the room from the foyer. “Marie called up to our rooms and said you wanted to see us and the dolls.”

“We do,” Jonathan said, ushering them in with a wave of his hand, then gesturing to the couch opposite of the one he and Jennifer were seated on. “Set the dolls here on the table and have a seat.”

They placed the dolls side-by-side on the coffee table in between themselves and the adults. Third, who had been on Jennifer’s lap getting his ears scratched, defected for J.J. upon seeing her come into the room.

J.J. sat, leaned forward on the edge of the couch, assuming an attentive position that practically mimicked her father’s. Third attempted to jump up on her lap, but denied, he settled for situating himself at her feet, lying across her shoes. With one hand, she picked up the ear scratching where her mother had left off. Marnie sat down, sliding all the way back and crossing her legs. In that position, her feet didn’t quite reach the floor. When Jonathan chuckled at the sight, she blushed and grinned.

“I can’t help that I’m short, Mr. H.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “We love you anyway.”

Once the girls were settled, Jennifer began explaining to them why they were there.

“We called you down because we needed to discuss some things with you.”

At that point, both sets of youthful eyes focused upon her. J.J. stopped petting Third, and using that hand, she made him understand she was finished with him. He went and settled himself next to her side of the couch.

“First of all, Marnie,” Jennifer said. “Your grandparents have arrived in Los Angeles, and they want to speak with you and with all of us. They’ll be coming over later this evening, but before they get here, we wanted to see what it is for sure that you would like to do.”

“About what?” Marnie asked. “What did my grandmother say to you?”

“About your living arrangements. What would you like to do? Do you want to remain here with us, or since they’re here, would you like to go to Texas with your grandparents? As you know, they’re taking your brothers back with them. You’re a big enough girl to make that decision, if it’s put to you. It’s being put to you for good and all right now.”

The two girls looked to each other, and then Marnie shifted back to Jennifer.

“What would you want me to do, Mrs. H.?”

Marnie squirmed under the intense, but warm bronze, she noticed- not cold gray- scrutiny she was getting from her friend’s hard-to-read mother.

“I’m asking you, Marnie. We need to know what it is you want to do before your grandmother gets here.”

Marnie spoke softly, barely making herself heard. “If you’re asking me, and allowing me the choice-”

“Speak up, Marnie. We need to hear your answer clearly and know that you mean what you’re saying.”

Marnie continued, but in a much stronger voice. “I’m saying, Mrs. H., that if you’re allowing me the choice, I’d like to stay here. I don’t want to go to Texas. In Texas, even though I love my grandmother and my family there, I’d have to start my personal life, in school and stuff, all over with people I don’t know. I’d rather stay here with you, Mr. H., Marie, and J.

“I have my school and my friends here. It’s bad enough worrying about my father and everything. I don’t want or need the added stress of trying to start all over in a strange place with strange kids. I know how I am, and that probably wouldn’t be a good thing for anybody involved. Then too, I want to maintain my academic status. I’m ranked pretty high, in the top fifteen out of two-hundred something in the class right now. That might change if I have to start over in another school. If I stay here, I have a good chance of gaining on that.”

When Jennifer smiled and said, “Good answer”, behind what Marnie said, all of them heard Marnie exhale in relief.

“Are you all right with that, J.J.?” Jonathan asked. “This needs to be a family decision. If Marnie stays, it’s likely going to be for a good while, and you two are going to have to be sisters as well as friends.”

J.J. turned around to Marnie for a moment, and then looked back to her father. “I told you before, Daddy, I’m fine with it. Marnie and I have already discussed it, and we both think that’s what’s best. Sisters fight sometimes. Friends do, too, so we might fall out from time to time, but like sisters and friends, we’ll get past it. Whatever happens, it’ll be okay. It’s cool with both of us.”

“Marnie, you do realize that I am- we are- going to treat you like you’re ours while you’re here,” Jennifer warned. “And J.J., “two for one” is going to take on a whole new meaning because I know full well how the two of you conspire when you’re together, and you’ll be together on a full time basis.”

J.J. and Marnie, although how they were seated, couldn’t see each other’s faces, both looked off in subtle exasperation at the same time.

“Conspire,” J.J. muttered, shaking her head.

“We’re just victims of circumstance most of the time,” Marnie explained, holding up her hands to emphasize her point. “It isn’t planned or anything. Stuff just happens, and there you are, both of us getting blamed for what the other one did. Most of the time, it isn’t even coordinated or anything.”

“I’m just letting both of you know,” Jennifer declared with a nod of her head. “It’s ‘Two for one’ from here on out, definitely. Keep that in mind when those ‘circumstances’ you mentioned happen to rear their ugly heads, begging you to take a shot at them.”

J.J. shook her head again while Marnie huffed, snaked her neck, and cut her eyes before speaking again.

“Mrs. H., Mr. H., you don’t have to worry about me. You’ve been kind of treating me like I’m yours for a while now, and it’s been fine. I understand the rules of the house, and I’ll do my best to abide by them. I might mess up sometimes, but it probably won’t be on purpose. If I do mess up, you can punish me, if you need to; I’ll understand, and I won’t kick about it.”

Then placing her hands on her thighs, she leaned forward, donning her most beseeching expression.

“So, look, seeing as how I’m going to be yours and everything this coming weekend, can I go out with Chance on Saturday night? He’s coming home from school on Friday to see me, and he’ll be here ’til Sunday.”

This time it was Jennifer who sighed and rolled her eyes. “We will discuss that later, young lady.”

“When Chance Barnett does roll into town,” Jonathan said. “Tell him to come see me ASAP if he’s planning on trying to take you out somewhere.”

He turned his gaze to J.J. “And his hustler brother, too, if he’s coming home with him and has any intention of trying to take you somewhere.”

“Daddy, it’s not as if you don’t already know Chase and Chance,” J.J. fussed.

“It’s because I do that I’m saying what I’m saying,” Jonathan answered.

J.J. turned just her head slightly to mutter to  Marnie, “Told you.”

“The other reason we called you both down here is to tell you girls about a decision we’ve made. It will indirectly affect you, and we’ll need your complete cooperation in it.”

While Jennifer spoke, Jonathan lifted Jaden from his carrier. He removed the doll’s cap and then turned him over. J.J. noticed what he was doing, switched her attention to him and watched him as he read, then copied the numbers and letters from the back of the doll’s neck onto a notepad he had next to him on the couch’s arm. He put Jaden back and repeated the action with Genie, who had quieted down as she was bringing her down the steps.  She breathed a silent sigh of relief when Genie began wailing again. She arranged that square of Wet-Wipe in Genie’s diaper to touch the ‘skin’ of her bottom if she was held a certain way, thereby assuring that familiar cantankerous reaction in her to which her parents were accustomed.

“Ms. Allen is going to be coming here,” J.J. heard her mother say and that drew her focus from her father, back to her mother.

“Ms. Chris? Here? How come?”

“It will be better for her,” Jennifer answered. “She’s going to be staying out in the pool house. It’s to help her with her recovery. The hospital isn’t the best place for her right now.”

Out of the corner of her eye, J.J. continued to monitor her father’s actions. When she saw he wasn’t lingering over Genie any longer than he had Jaden, with some measure of relief, she shifted wholly back to her mother, asking, “Is Ms. Chris well enough to leave the hospital? Is her memory any better?”

“She’s not one hundred percent.” It was Jonathan who answered her as he tucked Genie back in, and the doll stopped crying. “And her memory is still a little foggy, we think. It’s hard to be sure what she actually recalls and what she remembers that she just hasn’t mentioned to anyone. It’s sort of a wait and see situation. It’s going to be important that you watch what you say around her. You’ll have to very careful you don’t unintentionally feed things to her.”

“Does she already know about 9/11?” Marnie asked.

“She’s been told,” Jennifer replied. “It was quite disturbing to her, which was one of the reasons why we decided to invite her to stay here. It’s quieter. She’ll have her nurse rooming in with her to see to her physical needs. The doctor will keep in touch with the nurse, and if necessary, he’ll come here to her. We’ll take her in to the hospital for her check-ups when she needs them.”

“She’s in a bad place mentally more so than physically,” Jonathan explained. “I know exactly what she’s going through. I had an accident once, a head injury that caused me to have amnesia for a short time. I’ll tell you, that was not a fun experience at all.”

J.J.’s eyes widened. “For real? When? You never said about that. What happened to you? Were you hurt bad? What did amnesia feel like? Did you know who you were? What all did you forget? How long were you clueless?”

Jennifer, tickled by her daughter’s rampant curiosity evidenced by the sudden barrage of questions, decided to pique it further. “Not only did he not know who he was, he even forgot me.”

“Aw, naw!” both girls drawled at the same time, waving their hands in dismissal of such a far-fetched notion. “You? No way!”

“You have got to tell us about this,” J.J. said, sliding all the way back onto the couch, getting settled in for a story. “And right now.”

__________________________________________________________

It was late. Marnie’s grandparents had come and gone. Pat and Bill had returned to the guest house.

She finished her last journal entry of the evening, and had gotten through two chapters of the book she was currently reading, but Jonathan still hadn’t come up to the bedroom. Concerned, Jennifer got up, put on her robe, and went in search of him. Stepping out of the bedroom, checking down the long hall, she could see it was dark on that far end; he couldn’t have been in the loft. Of course, that darkness didn’t mean that Marnie wasn’t down there in her room with the light off, in the bed, under the covers and on the phone. But after all that had gone down that day, Mt. Marnie Elaine, Phone Junkie, wasn’t a hill she was willing to take on that night. She let that one ride. After all, it was Marnie, not her, who had school first thing in the morning.

She did; however, notice the light under J.J.’s door and thought about how J.J. occasionally fell asleep over her schoolwork. Crossing the hall rather than going down the stairs as she intended, she knocked and then peeked her head inside. J.J. was seated at her desk. As the door opened, J.J. clicked off the computer screen she was on, and for some reason, mother’s intuition nudged and whispered that the little redhead had been delving into something she shouldn’t have been.

“J.J., what are you doing still up? May I come in?”

“Of course.”

J.J. swiveled around in the chair to face her. “I had some last minute research to do. I was just about to get over into the bed.”

Jennifer entered the room and sat down on the side of the bed. Pulling back the covers, she patted the bottom sheet in indication that J.J. should get in.

“School research or Hart Industries research?” she asked the girl.

J.J. approached, untying her robe as she came. When she took the terrycloth garment off, she pointedly dropped it over her mother’s lap before getting into the bed and pulling the covers up to her chin.

“Just research in general,” she answered once she was in the bed. “Nothing earth-shattering or important. Just something that was on my mind.”

“Where’s Genie?”

J.J. pointed to the tiny fold-out crib in the dim far corner. Third was over there lying next to her.

“Quiet for once,” Jennifer noted. “I know you’re happy about that.”

“For once,” J.J. seconded. “And I am. I put her on her stomach. That makes a difference, I’ve noticed.”

On her stomach, the wet-wipe in her diaper hovered above Genie’s bottom rather than pressing against it as it did when she was on her back. She would cry during the night only if she wet for real.

“You know what we’ve told you about leaving things alone, J.J.” Jennifer warned with a lift of that one eyebrow. “We meant that.”

“I’m not bothering anything, Mom.”

“You’d better not be.”

“I’m not. I just like to read, that’s all I was doing over there on the computer. I’m glad you’re here, though. I have some stuff I want to ask you.”

Studying her face for a moment, Jennifer could see J.J. was sincere, and that she wasn’t just trying to deflect the conversation from whatever it was she had been into on that computer.

“Should I lie down for this, my daughter?”

“You should probably get comfortable, my mother. I’ve been saving up.”

Jennifer stood, moving J.J.’s robe from her lap and placed it on the foot of the bed. Then she went around to the other side.

“We’ve all been kind of busy and preoccupied,” J.J. continued as she shifted around to face in that direction. “You and I haven’t had a lot of time together, and when we were alone at the coffee shop, I was in the hot seat at the time and couldn’t open up like I really wanted to. I had to concentrate on what was going to get me out of Dutch with you at the moment. Besides, then it hadn’t all happened yet.”

Jennifer stepped out of her slippers and stretched out on her back on top of the covers.

“Before we get started, I will say this to you, Justine Hart,” she said as she adjusted the pillows behind her. “It’s only September, and you’ve skipped school twice this year that I know of without having been punished for it.”

J.J. immediately went into protest mode. “Aw, come on, Mom. The other time, I was in the tenth grade. That was last school year. Last school year shouldn’t count. I’m in the eleventh now; it’s a whole new school year, and I should be starting out with a clean slate. I didn’t know you were making the list cumulative. Even at school, they keep the disciplinary file from year to year, but they start you off new every semester.”

“I’m just letting you know you’ve reached your cut-class limit with me, young lady. You know how I feel about you and school. If it happens again, this year or next; I don’t care when or what the reason, if I find out about it, you are in for it. Are we clear on that?”

“Yes ma’am,” J.J. answered with a contrite bowing of the head.

“All right, then J.J. Hart. Proceed.”

J.J. drew her legs up, crossing them under her.

“Mom, do you understand terrorism at all? I mean, do you understand what motivates people to use that particular tactic? I’m asking you, because you’ve done research and reporting on that kind of thing. You’ve gone into war-torn countries after the fact and interviewed people who were a part of it or victims of it. Can you tell me something about why people think killing other people is justified by their beliefs?

“I think I can get a hold on dying for a cause; that’s not to say I’d do it or that I buy into the notion, but I can’t see killing, for any reason, a whole bunch of people who haven’t done anything to you. What in the world does killing innocent people prove? I especially don’t understand how anyone can tie that into religious ideology.”

“J.J., terrorism is about people being so radically tied to their beliefs that in their minds they see killing random or selected people as a way to gain attention and respect for those beliefs. Despite perceptions, it’s not about religion; bottom line- it’s politics sometimes dressed up in religious garb. It’s a power play meant to frighten people, governments, nations into behaving in a certain manner or to see things the terrorists’ way by whatever means possible.

“It doesn’t make sense to me either, sweetie, but that is what it is. You and I come from an entirely different mindset, one that respects human life and makes attempts at respecting the rights of others to have certain beliefs, even if we don’t buy into them, as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others. Thus, for us, terrorism doesn’t make sense. It does for the terrorists. It’s about perspectives. I’m not justifying it; I’m just saying that’s the way that it is. In short, I’m answering your question the best that I can.”

J.J. tipped her head in acceptance of that explanation. “As crazy as that sounds to my ears, Mom, I guess that’s the closest to making sense to me that I’m going to get. It’s just so frightening that we never know when or where they’re going to strike, or even why. A person can leave home with their day and their life all in order, and then, for somebody else’s cause or at their whim, be blown away before they can get back, by someone they’ve never even crossed paths with. It almost makes me want to stay in bed with the covers over my head.

“The only comfort, if you can call it that, I take in it is if I fall victim to a terrorist act, I believe that was how I was supposed to go. We never know when or how we’re going to die, I understand that, but it still scares me that we don’t know when something like 9/11 might happen again and who we might lose to the madness.”

“I know,” Jennifer said, patting J.J.’s arm.

It was all she could say to her. There was probably nothing more anyone could say that was going to make what happened better for J.J. Hart.  Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and how close it had come to her, was indelibly etched in her impressionable mind. Nothing could be done about that except hope that the passage of time would make the edges of the memory less sharp and thereby, less painful for her. In time, J.J. would think less about it, but she would never forget how close they had all come.

Pat.

The thought still made her own heart contract.

“Did Aunt Pat say anything to you about me?” she heard J.J. ask.

It was uncanny how it seemed she and J.J. were often on the same wave length. She would be thinking something, and J.J. would speak on it, although neither of them had shared where their minds had been at that moment.

“Anything like what, J.J.?”

“Anything.”

“No, she didn’t. But I did notice a certain frostiness between the two of you at breakfast this morning and at dinner this evening. What’s going on?”

Since J.J. had lowered her head to look down to her restless hands, Jennifer couldn’t see very much of her face, but she could sense her strong uneasiness. Before she started her explanation, J.J. took a deep breath and exhaled long and hard, as if she had to prepare herself for what she was going to say.

“Well, it started with Aunt Pat coming up here yesterday. She kind of got on me about skipping school and everything. Then she told me I was becoming a coward, and that made me mad. I’m afraid I wasn’t very polite to her after that.”

Jennifer sat forward a bit so she could see into J.J.’s eyes.

“Coward? Pat called you that?”

“Not right out, but she intimated it.”

“That doesn’t sound like her. Tell me what she said, J.J. Tell me how it happened.”

“Like I said, it seems she got wind that I skipped school yesterday, and in doing so, that I also skipped out on my Honor Society meeting. She didn’t like that I cut class. She really didn’t like that I missed my meeting, and she especially didn’t like that I did all of that because I was mad at Hector. She said I let a man make me run. She said I run away all the time when I get angry or scared about something. That pis- made me mad, and I told her it did.”

“Did she care that you were angry about it?” Jennifer asked.

“I’m not sure, but I think it’s more that I was rude to her that she’s not speaking to me now.”

“Just how rude were you?”

“I told her that she runs, too. She does, Mom. When she gets mad or down about something, she closes up by herself in her room or in her office, and she won’t let anybody in to her. You know she does it. I’ve seen her do it. I’ve been there when she’s done it. That’s running away, too, isn’t it? How can she get all over me about it when she does the same thing?”

“Do you think you run away, J.J.?”

For a few moments, J.J. didn’t answer. She continued to stare down to her hands which she first clasped tightly together in her lap. When she began twisting that ring, Jennifer reached in and stopped her.

“J.J.?”

“Yes,” J.J. finally murmured. “I didn’t think so at first, but after Aunt Pat left, and I calmed down, I could see I do. She said to me I would. As much as I hate admitting it, I do run. When things bother me or I’m not sure about them, I tend to move away from them. I might take care of business at the moment, but I don’t stay to face them or to see things through to their resolution, just like Aunt Pat said.”

Jennifer lie back down without comment on J.J.’s assessment of herself.

“What else did Pat tell you? I know she didn’t leave it there. And for the record, your being rude to her wouldn’t upset her. Knowing Pat, she probably thought that part of it was funny.”

“While she was accusing me of it, I tried to deny it,” J.J. said, continuing her description of the exchange. “but Aunt Pat wouldn’t back off. I argued back that I didn’t run, but she kept insisting that I did take off from things until I had to break down and admit to myself that it was true. I didn’t say that much to her, though; I was too mad at her. Then after I told her she did it, that she takes off, too, she told me that she was telling it to me like that because she already knew it was true about her, but she didn’t want me making it a life habit, too.”

At that point, J.J. rolled over onto her side to lay her head on her pillows. “Now she’s not talking to me. I think she’s mad at me. I can’t believe she didn’t mention it to you, especially the being rude part.”

Turning over to face her, Jennifer tapped J.J. on her shoulder to get her to look at her. J.J. raised her eyes to her mother’s face.

“J.J., did you ever consider maybe she thinks you’re upset with her for confronting you with yourself in the way she did, and that she might think it’s you who’s not speaking to her? Have you considered that maybe she’s waiting you out?”

Jennifer watched J.J. mull the notion over until a smile slowly bowed those rosy lips.

“That could be, Mom,” she nodded. “That really could be. I didn’t see it like that. I have such a bad case of tunnel vision.”

“I think you and Aunt Pat can work this thing out, J.J. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Part of fixing a personal shortcoming is recognizing that you have one. You’ve admitted what she told you is true, so I think that puts you on the path to getting stronger and better. The rest will take care of itself.

“When I had you, J.J., we had you, Pat and I. I told you I wasn’t expecting you when you came to me. Once I let her in on it, Pat talked me through the pregnancy; she was my rock in that just as she’s always has been. On the day you were born, she was in Europe on business, but as soon as she could get a flight out, she came back, kicking herself that she’d been away for your birth. She came right up here to this very room, probably in that very same spot that you’re lying in right now- that’s where the bassinette was- and she took you in her arms.

“Right there in this room, she took part of you for herself. You were just a few days old or so, and when she got here, you were sleeping, but she shook you to wake you up and make you cry; she wanted to see your eyes. I was shocked she did that; it made me angry, and I tried to take you back from her, but she wouldn’t let me. She held me off and told me in no uncertain terms that when it’s her and you, that’s what it would be: her and you.

“At that moment, I accepted I needed to share with her that part of you she took for herself. It’s two for one with us, as well. The part of you that’s hers, is hers. I don’t really have a place there, and I’m sure you know it. You and Pat are wonderful together. The two of you have always done your own thing. You and she will in this, too. It’ll work itself out.

“Now what else is on your mind?”

Through her smiling and the warm fuzzy feeling about the Aunt Pat story, J.J. answered, “I’ve been worried some about Marnie.”

“What about Marnie?”

“Did you notice how she was when her grandmother was here this evening? She’s very different with her grandmother; like you expect a girl to be with her grandmother. She was softer, quieter. Even when she was telling her grandparents she didn’t want to go with them, she was respectful, a lot more than I’ve ever seen her be.

“When her grandmother was drilling her all hard like she was, telling Marnie how much of a handful she knew Marnie was, Marnie took her time and explained rather than getting all defensive like she can be when somebody tries to hem her up. When her grandmother called her ‘Marnicia’, and was going over her expectations for her, Marnie only frowned that one time, and that was about the name, not her rules. I can tell she loves and respects her grandmother, and her grandmother loves and respects her. I’m glad they agreed to let her stay here, though.

“Marnie is different with Aunt Pat, too. She loves and admires Aunt Pat almost like a girl does with her mother or a good older friend, or maybe like a real aunt. Like maybe me and Aunt Sabrina. I know Aunt Sabrina’s not my mother or my grandmother, but I love her so much that sometimes- don’t laugh, Mom- but, since they were twins, every now and then I try to pretend in my head that she’s my grandmother. I try to see my grandmother in her.”

When J.J. raised her eyes uneasily to her, Jennifer smiled. “It’s okay, baby. I’ve tried it a couple of times, myself.”

“Good, I didn’t want to think I was alone in that. It’s kind of a weird thing to do. Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, Marnie isn’t any of that with her own mother. As I’m getting older, I’m seeing she never has been really. But lately, she won’t talk, even to me, about her mother. I’ve been going over and over it in my head.

“Mom, you and I are so different than Marnie and her mother. Even Marnie says so. She likes it that you’re the mother with me all the time. I think she likes that I can count on you to be the same all the time. She respects that about you, too, in the way you treat her. You’re always the adult, and she’s always the child. She can’t do or be that with her mother.

“Her mother comes and goes, sometimes she’s the mother, most of the time she’s like a fair weather buddy, but a lot of the time, she’s just not anything at all. She takes off on Marnie without saying anything. Just leaves her there with the help without saying ‘bye’ or anything. When she’s gone, she might call; she might not. She never says how long she’s going to be. Mrs. Tolbert just leaves Marnie out there, like she thinks Marnie can completely take care of herself in her absence.

“Listen, I know I get mad sometimes because I think you hold me too tight. I fuss sometimes because I think you treat me like a baby. Don’t get mad at this, but you get on my nerves sometimes with the way you keep up with me, how you know my schedules by heart, my periods, and all that. When I want to go places, sometimes you ask so many questions, I almost say ‘forget it’ and elect to stay home. But I have to admit to you, I wouldn’t trade any of that for a mother who acts like she doesn’t care at all. I need to tell you something else.”

“What is it, J.J.?”

“Fooling around with Marnie and Teddy and observing their living situations, I’ve given some thought to my own, playing around with different scenarios in my head. When I was a little kid in school, and Thanksgiving time would roll around, the teachers used to go around the room making us say what we were thankful for. I’d make up something. I had a lot of things on my list, but what I really would want to say was that I was thankful my parents weren’t divorced. I couldn’t say that, of course, because so many of the kids did have divorced parents. I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging or anything.

“I am so very glad you and Daddy get on so well, but in those scenarios I mentioned, I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if, God forbid, you and Daddy did break up. I started messing with this as far back as when Marnie’s mother and real father broke up. If it happened like that with you and Daddy, even as big as I am now, I’d go with you, wouldn’t I?”

Jennifer reached out and placed for a moment her hand on J.J.’s cheek.

“I don’t think that’s something you ever have to worry about, Justine Hart, but the answer to your question is, ‘without a doubt’. There wouldn’t even be a discussion on the subject. You’re your daddy’s girl, all right, but I am your mother, and as long as that’s so, that’s how it will be until you’re eighteen. A girl belongs with her mother. You belong with me.”

“I figured that. But listen,” J.J. sat up, crinkled her nose, and nodded her head as she said it, “if for some reason, you guys did break up, and Daddy had the nerve to think he was going to get married again, if there ended up being a stepmother, like a young bimbo second wife, I could give her you-know-what, couldn’t I? And if I did, you’d look the other way and let me, wouldn’t you?”

Jennifer rolled onto her back, casting her eyes to the ceiling while shaking her head. “No comment, Justine.”

J.J. snickered and muttered, “It would be two for one, for real; me and you. If Daddy knows what’s good for him…”

When Jennifer closed her eyes, she could feel J.J.’s eyes on her, and they both smirked.

“But on the serious side, Mom,” J.J. went on when she got herself together. “That’s what makes me wonder about Marnie and her mother, her stepmothers, and this thing with Marnie not wanting to live with or talk about her mother. I was wondering, do you think Marnie’s mother could be jealous of her, and that’s why she does her the way that she does? Could that be why Marnie’s mother went out there to see to Mr. Benson even though they’ve been divorced for years? Do you think she could have gone to make Marnie and the stepmother jealous? Could Mrs. Tolbert be jealous of Karen’s relationship with her former husband? Could she be jealous of Marnie’s relationship with her former husband, even though Marnie is their daughter?”

“Jealous, J.J.?” Jennifer turned all the way onto her side again, a little confused, a lot intrigued, and slightly blown away by J.J.’s lines of thought. “How did you get all the way around to that?”

J.J. scratched her head and screwed up her face.

“Well, a while back, actually last summer in France, I read this book Aunt Sabrina has in her library. It was a first-person story written by this girl who was the baby in her family. There were a lot of girls, I think five before her, and she noticed that as her sisters would get to a certain age, like twelve or thirteen or so, they left home. Just left, and they didn’t come back.

“What the girl realized after a while was that as soon as her sisters got their period, their mother would be through with them and she would drive them out of the house because she didn’t want them around. See, when the sisters were little, the mother’s husband, their father, had walked away, leaving them high and dry. Then, for the money to support them, or her ego, or whatever, the mother started having a bunch of boyfriends running in and out. As her oldest girl reached puberty, she thought she noticed a couple of the boyfriends checking the girl out, which they probably were. Eventually the mother saw the girl as a threat. She got jealous of her daughters being so young and pretty as she was getting older, and she didn’t want them cutting into her action. So as they came of age, she started putting them out on the street. She didn’t care what happened to them or where they went, they just couldn’t stay with her any more.

“The girl who wrote the story said her sisters, out there on their own like that, turned to guys, drugs, got forced into prostitution, got involved in violent relationships, and stuff like that. They would sneak around and keep in touch with her, but one of the sisters, she hasn’t heard from since she left; she’s been looking for her, but she’s afraid that sister is dead.

“She wrote that she became so afraid to grow up and have that happen to her, she hid having her period when it came, and when her breasts started growing, she would tie them down to keep them from showing. She would act like a baby and everything just to keep her mother from putting her away from her. Eventually, though, it happened to her, too. When her mother caught one of her boyfriends trying to come on to her, her mother made her go, not the guy. The girl caught it for a minute, living with one friend and then another until she wore her welcomes out. Finally, she almost went ahead and took up with this guy who she was sure was going to pimp her, but luckily-”

“Wait, wait, wait, just wait!” Jennifer cried. “J.J., what in the world do you know about someone being pimped?”

J.J. cast her eyes down to her mother’s face. “I know enough to know that if I was going to be a hooker, I wouldn’t need a pimp to play the middle man between me and my tricks. If I’m going to be the one doing all the grunt work, so to speak, at the end of the day, I want all the money I earned. I know how to count. I wouldn’t need anybody counting my money for me or issuing out to me a portion of what I earned fair and square. I want the full cut, not a percentage. And for the record, I’d be a call girl plying my trade out of a penthouse, not a street hooker.”

Jennifer closed her eyes, drew in a breath, and slowly let it go. “Pimps, tricks, hookers, call girls, plying a trade; from where in the world did I get you?”

J.J. grinned down at her.

“Mom, come on, Get real. I’m no little kid any more, and this is Los Angeles; you find out stuff. You’ve always said to me that knowledge is power, that if I know what a thing is, then I can’t fall or back into it by mistake. Isn’t that what you’ve always said?”

“Go on with the story, J.J.” Jennifer sighed.

“All right. Anyway, the girl took a shot and went into this church one day. The guy was pressuring her to be with him. She was hungry and dirty, and she didn’t have anywhere else to go; her back was against the wall. Even though she hadn’t been raised all that religiously, when she passed by it that day, the doors of the church were open. She couldn’t think of anything else to do but go in and pray.

“Inside the church she met up with this woman who happened to be working there that day. She was in the vestibule, cleaning up, thus the open doors. The woman saw she was crying and troubled, got her to talk, listened to her story, and then she offered to take her home with her. She treated the girl like a daughter, kept her with her, got her back in school and back on track. The girl went on to graduate high school, got a scholarship to attend college, and in short, lived to write the story.

“Mom, it’s been on my mind. Do you think Marnie’s figured that out about her mother? That her mother’s jealous of her being young and cute, and that’s why her mother does her the way that she does? Could that be why Marnie doesn’t want to talk about her?

“Marnie’s no dope when it comes to figuring people out, and I could see where something like that might weird somebody out. Mrs. Tolbert was around there trying to wear Marnie’s clothes, dating real young men, hanging out until all hours, and all of that. She told me this in confidence, but I really want you to see what I’m talking about- Marnie told me that she thought her mother even tried to come on to Chance once. Mrs. Tolbert got real mad and went clean off on Marnie when Marnie left to go live with her father. The jealousy theory makes sense to me.”

Before Jennifer could open her mouth to voice her surprise and/or her concerns, J.J. read her face and stopped her.

“I know you’re getting ready to fuss about the content of that book, but it’s too late; I already read it. It was deep and sort of disturbing, but it really wasn’t all that racy. I was more interested in the psychology behind the mother’s actions and what happened with the last girl than I was the sordid details. I’d never before thought about a mother being jealous of her daughters, but I guess I can see it happening. It was really eye-opening. People can be such a trip that they’re interesting.”

J.J. put her hand inside Jennifer’s.

“Dealing with you, Mom, it’s hard for me to understand mothers who don’t do right by their children, who do things to harm their children, or to put them in harm’s way. I’m shocked when I hear about people’s mothers and stepmothers calling their kids names to their faces, especially calling their girls obscene names like ‘whore’ and ‘bitch’, and you know, it takes an awful lot to shock me. I mean, how can anybody grown call a kid names like that and expect them to turn out right? If your mother says it about you, then you have to, in some part of your mind, think it’s true, right?

“When they lived together, Marnie’s mother cursed at Marnie all the time like she was cursing out somebody grown. I would just about die when I’d hear her do it. That’s why Marnie is so quick to do it when somebody makes her mad; she learned from example. Even though I kicked about it, I always understood why you never liked me being down there at their house. I guess I am sort of spoiled and sheltered when it comes right down to it.”

Jennifer squeezed the hand that was seeking refuge inside hers.

“In that aspect, J.J., I’m glad you’re spoiled and feel sheltered. I’m happy you understood my reasons for keeping you close. You have time enough to be faced with and to have to wrestle with the seamier sides of life. Even though we try so hard to keep you out of the uglier things, you’ve seen that life has its ways of creeping in regardless. I don’t want to or mean to shelter you. I just want you to enjoy, as long as you can, being a child. It’s such a special time, and it’s the foundation upon which the rest of your life will be built. I don’t want you being naive, but I also don’t want you jaded too soon, like so many kids are these days. It’s a precarious balance.

“Sweetie, I don’t know what the real story is behind Marnie and her mother, or what’s going on with her mother and father. What you’ve proposed is interesting, but whatever is going on, it’s their business. I’m just happy your father and I are in a position to provide a safe, secure place for Marnie for as long as she needs it.”

“Like the girl in the story” J.J. said, “a happy ending. When I got to that part of the book, I immediately thought of you and Daddy and Marnie.”

J.J. cocked her head slightly to the side.

“And speaking of Daddy.”

Jennifer immediately released J.J., moving away from her, back to the other side of the bed. “I knew it. I knew you were going to get around to that.”

J.J. flipped over onto her stomach, inching herself back close to her mother who had returned to lying on her back. Taking up the loose end of the belt to Jennifer’s robe, she began idly winding it around her fingers.

“Come on, Mom, I just want to know some basic stuff, that’s all. Just basic stuff.”

“J.J., you are never basic. You never have been basic, especially when it comes to asking questions. Look, before we get started on this track, I’m letting you know right now; I will only tell you as much as I think you need to know in terms of answering you, nothing more. Don’t try to dig past what I say, or I’ll shut you down completely. Are we understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Now where do you want to start?”

“How about with Daddy and the amnesia.”

“What about it?”

“Okay, after he hit his head on the ground and hurt himself, he didn’t know you when he got to the party, right?”

“Right.”

“And he didn’t know who he was, right?”

“Right.”

“So, like, seeing as how he was essentially a stranger to you, and you to him and everything-”

“Yes?”

“Well, I’m wondering, where did he sleep that first night when you brought him home?”

“Next question,” Jennifer nearly shouted, snatching back the belt to her robe from J.J.’s hands, “moving right along.”

J.J. covered her mouth with one hand to suppress the naughty laughter refusing to be held in.

When her mother rebuked her by reaching out and pulling that supporting arm out from under her chin, causing her to fall on her face into the pillows, she rolled onto her back, laughing out loud.

“It’s not my fault! That was you and Daddy playing strangers in the night! I just put one and one together and came up with you two.”

It was a few minutes before J.J recovered and regained her composure.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” she choked, wiping her eyes with a corner of the sheet. “But just I had to go there. I’ve been holding onto it for hours. I knew the answer all the time.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“To see what you were going to say, of course,” she giggled.

“I don’t know why your father sees fit to regale you these things. He knows how you are,” Jennifer dabbed with her fingertips at the tears of mirth formed in her own eyes despite her best efforts to remain serious.

She tried her best not to laugh, but J.J. Hart was a clown, an incorrigible, irreverent clown, and as she was getting older, she was getting worse and more wicked with it. She was so much, too much like her father.

“For real though, Mom, let’s start with Ms. Chris and her sister, Claire.”

“What about them?”

“What’s the real reason why Ms. Chris is coming here, and what’s up with the sister?”

“I don’t know what you mean. What about Claire?”

“I mean where is she and how come she hasn’t been coming around Ms. Chris? Why did Ms. Chris start crying when she recognized Genie as a HartToy, and what did she mean when she started to say that Genie was ‘one of” something? Why did Daddy copy down the serial numbers on Jaden and Genie’s necks when he had us down there in the front room, and how is all of it all tied together?”

Covering her eyes with her forearm, Jennifer sighed, “Who said that it was, J.J.?”

“You know that it is, Mom.”

J.J. smiled at her mother shielding her tell-tale eyes from her; the gesture positively answered that last question even though her mother was trying to evade it.

“Look Mom, just like with anything else, if I know for sure what’s going on around me, then I’m less likely to get into something by mistake or to do something dumb, aren’t I?”

Jennifer exhaled again.

In her head, she could hear Pat saying to her that J.J. wasn’t a baby any more and that she needed to ‘let up’ on her. It was undeniably true. The conversation she and J.J. had just had about the girl in the story, Marnie and Maureen, Jonathan’s amnesia; it all clearly illustrated that the girl’s thought processes and perspectives were maturing and were a good deal more sophisticated than perhaps even she realized. The entire time Jonathan Hart had been relating to the girls the story of his bout with memory loss, J.J. had obviously been sitting over there, adding things up and biding her time on that one question… the minx.

Without a doubt, that was yet another lurid detail from her and Jonathan’s colorful past that would one day come back to haunt them.

And as much as she’d mulled over Maureen’s increasingly odd behavior toward Marnie, even she hadn’t considered a jealousy angle. What J.J. said made a whole lot of sense of that situation.

Her very last statement, the one about letting her in on things, made a whole lot of sense, as well.

“I guess I can’t too much argue with that, J.J.”

It wasn’t as if the girl was going to stop digging or thinking just because they kept silent on things. She wouldn’t stop doing either until she found out what she wanted to know. In light of that, it probably was best to go ahead and be up front with her.

__________________________________________________________

Leaving J.J. well on her way to sleep, she finally found Jonathan outside. It was a cool night, quite cool for her sensibilities, but Jonathan was one of those individuals for whom cool night breezes were refreshing and invigorating. He was sitting under a lamp by the pool, looking over a piece of paper he held in his hands.

“Jonathan, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

He jumped a little when her voice intruded upon his reading. He looked up from it and then smiled at her while folding the paper, which he stuck down in the pocket of his robe.

“You have work in the morning, darling. It’s late. Don’t you think you should come to bed?”

“I was restless.” He took her hand and pulled her down onto the chaise lounge with him, shifting his body to allow her to join him in lying down on it so that they were facing each other.

“I just thought I’d get a little air before turning in,” he said as he kissed the tip of her nose. “I went for a walk to try to wind down, and I ended up here, checking out the pool house to see what else Chris and Eva might need that Marie and the service might have overlooked. Marie did a good job out here. They should be very comfortable. I also arranged for the extra security. Where were you headed?”

“Looking for you, of course. I tried to wait for you, then I got up to come find you. But I got sidetracked by your child. She was full of questions and observations. She’d been, as she put it, ‘saving up’ to talk with me about them.”

“Daughter to mother secrets?”

“Not really. To start, it seems that she and Pat are going through a difficult patch right now.”

“I thought I was feeling a chill on the wind between them. Will you have to intervene?”

“Jonathan, I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. It’s their hurdleThey have a relationship that doesn’t include anyone but them at times. This is one of those times.”

“What did J.J. say happened?”

“Pat told J.J. something she needed to hear about herself, and in a typical J.J. reaction, she admitted she was quite defensive at first, but she told me she can now see the truth in what Pat said to her. They’ll work it out. J.J.’s concern and observations about Marnie were a lot more interesting.”

“You mean, about Marnicia,” he laughed. “Mar-nee-see-ah, I thought Marnie was going to die right there on the spot.”

“Her grandmother is the only person on earth who calls her that,” Jennifer laughed with him. “Marnie never, ever uses her given name. I’d almost forgotten it myself. I think it’s pretty, though.”

“She obviously doesn’t,” he said, though still chuckling. “Every time I picture her face the first time her grandmother called her that with all of us sitting there to hear it, especially Pat; it just cracks me up. What did J.J. say about her?”

She went on to tell him what J.J. proposed about Marnie’s mother and Marnie’s reluctance to speak of her. He listened, and didn’t comment until she had completely finished.

“Hell of an observation. It bears consideration. That young boy Maureen brought to the last country club dance could almost have come with Marnie. I was witness to that. She should have had enough of bringing her paramours around her daughter.”

“I know,” Jennifer agreed. “Marnie was very upset and embarrassed over that last date. I noticed she’s truly been off her mother ever since that night. It’s been heading that way for a while, but it became full blown after the dance. I wound up telling J.J. it wasn’t our concern. I didn’t want her dwelling on that too long.”

“Like that’s going to stop her,” he replied. “I’m just happy Marnie wanted to stay here with us, and that her grandmother stuck to letting her. I think I’d be worried about her anywhere else, even with her grandparents.”

“It’s the daddy in you. You were born to this. Kids trust and love you. She feels secure here with you.”

“Give yourself some credit, Jennifer. You always say it’s me, but those girls love and trust you, too. You do such a good job with the tougher nuts, your daughter being at the head of that list. J.J. tells you things she doesn’t share with anyone else in the world. I know first-hand the kind of trust that takes for a kid like her.

“Marnie trusts you, too. She likes me, yes, but she trusts and respects you. For her, that equates to love. Marnie sees people as people. She doesn’t buy into the notion of wholesale respecting adults simply because they’re older. Marnie is a kid whose respect has to be earned. If you aren’t worthy of it in her eyes, you are not going to get it. I like watching her and Pat together. Talk about two people being good for one another.”

“Speaking of that, did you read anything into Pat asking Lillie if it would be all right for Marnie to visit her in New York?”

“I did, but I don’t know what just yet. She obviously has something on the burner.”

Jennifer nodded. “Go on with what you were saying.”

“Well, I also doubt seriously Chris would have opted to come here had it not been for you. She strikes me as thinking herself emotionally self-sufficient, as well. But when we were with her this evening, I could see and feel she needs someone. She’s got some things going on in that head of hers, and it’s you she feels comfortable with. You definitely have a way with young women.”

“I couldn’t get a foot in the door with young Claire Allen,” Jennifer sighed, sliding her hand inside his robe, taking comfort in the soft hair on his chest and in the warmth of his skin. “I didn’t have a way with her.”

“There’s always tomorrow.” He closed his arms around her and pressed her to him. “At least we know that where she is, she’s safe.”

“I wish we knew what exactly is going on, and why there’s such a need for her to be there in order to be safe, and from whom or what.”

“We will,” he said as he rubbed her back in reassurance. “It’ll all come out soon. I think your idea about having Chris complete her recovery here, away from the hospital is a good one. Maybe once Claire knows that Chris isn’t so deep inside the woods any more, she’ll loosen up and come clean.”

“Um-hmm,” she agreed against his chest, inhaling his familiar, soothing scent. “So what was that I saw you stick in your pocket?”

“Just that list of serial numbers I got from Chris’ car. Like I thought, they were serial numbers for those prototypes. Jaden was on there, but I didn’t see Genie’s number. I don’t know if that means anything. It could simply be that the list is incomplete.”

“Why would Chris have that hidden in the door of her car?”

He shrugged. “Beats me.” Bending down to find her lips with his, he pressed a soft kiss to them.

“Say,” he whispered. “it’s getting pretty chilly out here, even for me. Maybe we should head back in.”

__________________________________________________________

Over in the guest house, Pat was up, pacing again. She waited for Bill to fall off to sleep before sliding out of the bed and coming to the front room to work out her restlessness. There was too much on her mind, and too much going on in her heart. It had been two days since the tragedy, and still, every time she thought about it, her knees went weak with anxiety.

Almost everything she felt was foreign to her. Life and its accompanying circumstances made her strong, tough even. Experience taught her to be deliberate in her actions and certain about her world. She was used to being in control. But what almost happened to her on that Tuesday had in no way been her call. That it didn’t happen, hadn’t been her call either.

The point being driven into her mind, like a railroad spike being hammered through porcelain, was at her core she was still that little girl whose mother didn’t want her. She was the young girl whose father didn’t have time for her, and who once her grandmother was gone, had subsequently been left out there in the elements, all alone, to fend for herself. On her own, she had no right to have made it as far as she had. It was nothing less than sheer chance that put her in Mr. Edwards’ path. With Jennifer entering her life, it was as if someone had finally switched on some lights. It was through that same vein of good fortune that Bill came to her.

But none of that was her doing. She hadn’t worked hard for it and earned it. It was simply how fate played out for her.

But why? And how long could that luck hold? How much longer could she count on good fortune to sustain her?

When she allowed herself to stop and think about it, which honestly wasn’t that often any more, it still hurt that she really didn’t have anyone other than herself. Oh, she could claim Jennifer as a sister, Jennifer’s family as her own. Bill was definitely the man she wanted in her life. His son, Peter, and his family had accepted her fully. But in reality, there was not one other person in the world to whom she could claim a physical connection. They’d all gone on and left her. Even her own child, the one she never lay eyes on, had gone on before her. She was the last of her line, the only Hamilton left, and it had her wondering.

For what had her life been spared when so many others had been taken?

Both her parents died years younger than she was at present. None of her grandparents had been very long-loved either. In her lifetime, she smoked, drank, kept odd hours, partied hard, and conducted her business, as well as her love life, much like a man. Despite all that, according to her last physical, her health was excellent. According to her analyst, her mental health was pretty sound, too. What had she done right that her predecessors had done wrong? Her longevity and vitality could only be attributed to Dame Good Fortune keeping that benevolent eye on her. And maybe to Jennifer constantly breathing down her neck about taking care of herself.

Then came 9/11. How many of her friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had lost their lives while she still had hers? Why had she, at the last minute, been snatched back from sure death? Why was she still there? Earlier, she thought she’d figured out the reasons, but there she was, pacing, up to her ankles in doubt once again.

Bill said air travel would resume on Saturday. He had to be in LA until Sunday, but said he could get her out earlier if she wanted to go. She didn’t. They would be leaving on Monday. He had to divert over to Reno before he could fly her back to New York, and she hadn’t objected to that at all. She was looking forward to the stopover at Bill’s comfortable compound and to seeing Peter, Lisa, and the boys. As much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, she was in no hurry to return to her beloved Manhattan. The uncertainty of what awaited her there had her retreating, running for cover in the other direction.

She could do that; it was habit with her, and she knew how to come out of it in good time. But J.J. couldn’t. She wouldn’t let running be habit with J.J. Whether she wanted to be or not, J.J. would be more like her father. Jonathan Hart didn’t back off anything. In fact, that crazy man walked up on trouble. If need be, he wasn’t afraid to take a stick in hand and poke at it to make it come after him so he could turn around and kick the crap out of it.

“Shit!”

Startled when her cell buzzed and danced across the coffee table, screaming electric blue at her in the darkness, it was right at that moment she realized how badly she had to pee.

The bourbon in the glass she carried splashed onto her hand, nearly extinguishing the red glow of one of Bill’s cigarettes- which he wasn’t supposed to have- but which she found hidden in his toiletry bag, ripped off from him, and had pinched between two fingers.

“Damn.” She danced to the couch, locked her legs together, and snatched the phone up without checking the display. Hurriedly, she pressed the receiver button in an effort to keep the vibrating from waking Bill, who was a rather light sleeper. After two days of intense meetings, he needed his rest.

And after two days of his fussing at her about it, she didn’t need for him to find her out there, restless and imbibing- again.

“Who is it?” she whispered.

“It’s me,” the voice on the other end said, “let me in.”

Dressed in her pink night clothes, still holding the phone to her ear, her unexpected guest stood waiting on the doorstep.

“Girl, what in the world are you doing out here at this time of night?”

“Coming to see you. I knew you wouldn’t be asleep. I needed to talk to you.”

Marnie walked through the open door, past her, and into the house where she took a seat on the couch. “Drinking and smoking, huh? I guess we both have issues.”

Pat closed the door.

She stubbed out the cigarette, put down the drink, and turned on the light.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

“Go ahead,” Marnie answered as she curled up on one end of the sofa. “I’ll be right here.”

As she left the room, out of the corner of her eye, Pat saw Marnie lean over and pick up the half-full glass she left on the table.

__________________________________________________________

It was daybreak, his preferred time of day. Jonathan, having awakened from another fuzzy dream about Chris Allen, lie there, propped on one arm, engaged in his favorite morning activity. He was glad for the sight and glad that it was Friday.

Something about Chris, something deep within his consciousness, had to be bothering him. Why else would he keep dreaming of her? And what had Martin been into that he ended up in the drink? Had he gone in on his own or had he been forced into it? If so, by whom and why? What was the black sedan all about? According to reports, nobody had seen it in a while, but he wasn’t about to let his guard down. According to Zale, the car was a rental, traced back to what turned out to be a stolen I.D. Marston Knight was still missing in action, but had been pinned down as having traveled from Europe to the States on that previous Monday. Since he had business holdings in San Francisco, it was safe to assume that was where he might have been headed. But with Claire was in Los Angeles, it was also a safe bet that he might be tailing her. Men like him didn’t like to let their conquests get too far out of sight.

He trained his eyes back on Jennifer.

Conquest. What a waste of time. So much better when everyone can be who they are and enjoy the similarities and differences. I certainly wouldn’t have you any other way.

He couldn’t imagine Jennifer being some man’s “conquest”. She’d die first, or die trying to get free from the one who would hold her. He wondered if that was what happened to her that she hadn’t shared with him, that thing that continued to occasionally bedevil her.

He had one more day of work, and the girls had one more day of school. Marnie and J.J. wanted to go out on Saturday night. With the Barnett boys in town, they’d probably want to hang out some that evening also. He wasn’t crazy about the idea of J.J. and Marnie being out of his eyesight and not headed for any set location, but they were kids, teenagers, good ones and it wasn’t fair to keep them boxed in. Besides, that had already been taken care of.

Bill said that the airlines would be back in operation that Saturday, so the world would be returning to some semblance of normalcy. There were major security modifications being put in place in the terminals to prevent what had happened from easily occurring again. Since a great many of those changes were going to affect the passengers, they would take some getting used to. Huge delays were probably to be expected in those first few days. He was almost happy about being grounded as he was for the time being, not that he had any immediate need to be flying anything himself.

Jennifer continued sleeping. She was lying on her stomach. Her face, half buried in the pillow, was turned toward him. Although the bed was huge, he liked it that she always managed to end up on his side of it. That was probably because that was usually where she started out; wrapped up over there with him. If for some reason she wound up on her side, come morning, he’d wake to find himself over there with her. This morning, they were sort of in the middle. That was because that was where they ended up the night before, after warming each other up once they came back inside. He had been tired and restless on that previous evening, but he was never too tired or restless for that.

The memory of their lovemaking and her sated, peaceful body language made him smile. Her head rested one extended arm, and one long leg was on top of the covers that loosely wrapped the rest of her body. She said that she got too hot sometimes during the night, but somehow, leaving that one leg exposed eased that sensation for her. Whatever it was, it was yet another one of those tiny intimate details of her life that she shared only with him. It was a privilege he enjoyed and cherished.

He eased back from her face the hair that was keeping him from seeing her brow and her closed eyes. His fingertips brushed across a silken bare shoulder. After twenty-five years, days short of twenty-six, he was filled with wonder at how much she remained such an attractive, sexy woman. To his eyes and to his body, with every day that passed, she was becoming even more sensual and lovely.

He was uneasy with all that was going on around them outside the gates of Willow Pond. That someone was watching her, J.J., or all of them and not knowing why, was unsettling to say the least about it. Chris Allen’s coming to stay with them  was a good thing, but he wondered if that might be a catalyst for something else happening, and if it might bring things closer to home. The items retrieved from the door of her car were disturbing in the uncertainty as to why they were there.

With Knight, Shell, and/or whoever else they might have out there, anything was possible. He was certain that the connection between Knight and Claire was connected to what happened to Chris, but whether or not it was connected to everything else was something that was yet to be determined. There was a whole lot going on, but for some reason, nobody had been able to put a definitive finger on just what it all was, or even what it might be.

Although she was being housed in his building downtown, he still hadn’t met with Claire Allen himself. It dawned on him as he lie there, that he didn’t really know what the girl even looked like in the flesh. He’d only seen pictures of her, and had only managed to catch that fleeting glimpse of her as she jumped into that Caddy that day at the hospital. If nothing else happened to prevent it, going down and meeting her would have to be his first order of business once he arrived at work.

“What’s on your mind, handsome?”

Jennifer yawned and stretched. When she raised her arms and rolled over, the covers fell away from her body, exposing her breasts to him. “Did you sleep well?”

“Thanks to you,” he answered, bending to kiss her forehead. “You know just how to relax me.”

She raised up a little and peeked over his shoulder to the clock.

“It’s still early.” The room was still dim, but he recognized that smile as she moved over some toward him.

Placing her hands on his shoulders, she pressed him into lying on his back and then leaned over him, affording him full view of her ample assets, as well as easy access to them. That she knew what she was doing to him, turned him on even more than he already was at the sight of her.

“Don’t you ever get enough?” he asked, looking up into her smoky, honey eyes.

“Do you?” she winked down at him.

“Hell, no,” he murmured as he held her and dipped his head to begin satisfying his early morning carnal appetite.

Raising to roll over after a few moments, he took her with him until she was the one on her back, all of her from head to foot showcased in ivory satin.

“And God willing,” he prayed aloud as he continued his feasting. “I never will.”

When she opened to him, and he slowly, almost teasingly took her, her resultant gasps and quiet moans urged him to ravage her, but he resisted them. He wanted to take his time to bask in the new morning, and in how exquisitely good things remained between them.

“Ever,” he heard her whisper between breaths next to his ear as she nibbled at his lobe while her hands cradled his head and her body caressed and massaged his. “Forever and ever, Amen.”

No matter what else happened in all of what was going on, meeting Jennifer’s needs and assuaging her peace of mind came before anything.

She wanted Chris Allen there with them, and there Chris would be, but the safety of his family was foremost in all of it. While Chris was there, she’d be considered a part of their unit. Whatever it took, nobody was going to be allowed to get close enough to hurt her or any of them. He’d seen to that. He’d made Jennifer the promise that she didn’t have to worry about him or about anything, and he fully intended to keep it.

Shutting down all outside thought, he melted into her until she was all around him, cutting him off from anything that wasn’t her. At that point in time, nothing else mattered at all.

__________________________________________________________

After washing up and creeping across the hall, Arnold Zale sat down at the computer in his study with a cup of black coffee from the automatic coffee maker he kept in that room. He was an early riser, so there was plenty of time before he had to go into the office. With his family still sleeping, he was alone with his thoughts.

The whole thing was so intriguing that it constantly occupied his mind, and he found it hard to leave it alone.

Switching to the proper screen, he began scrolling through what he’d saved from the night before. After years of research and investigating, he was still sometimes amazed at the lengths to which people went to cover their tracks, especially when those tracks might contain something damning that might be dredged back up later.

On his own, he’d switched his focus back to young Claire Allen. For some reason, he kept coming back to her. It seemed the thing to do.

__________________________________________________________

Chris woke, confused as to why she’d been dreaming about J.J. Hart, that letter jacket she had on, and that doll she’d brought with her to the hospital. The doll was a HartToy, an experimental prototype that was being tried out with those gifted and talented students at her school. they were brand new, practically fresh off the drawing board. The conversation with Ken in the night before had verified that for her. Somewhere mingled in that dream with J.J. and Genie had been her own father, Christopher Alexander Allen.

She lie there, trying to hold on to the details of the dream and her father, but he and they were moving away from her too quickly. As sleep gave way to wakefulness, the dream dissipated like fog lifting with the coming of the sun. Just as it had been since she woke, cloudy and bewildered from the coma, the harder she tried to reach for and hold on to vague details, the faster things got away from her.

What in the world did J.J. Hart and Christopher Allen have in common that would make them turn up in the same dream? Why had she awakened in that cold sweat that had that hospital gown sticking so nastily to her skin. Even though she thought often of him, she hadn’t dreamt about her father in a long while. She’d been named for him, and growing up an only child for so many years, she had been the apple of his eye. She had been and remained to the day he died, a daddy’s girl; there had never been any secret made of that. Even as a grown woman, she admired him and aspired to be everything he had been. Everything she did and continued to do was with the thought in mind that she wanted him to be proud of her.

She suspected that J.J. Hart was a daddy’s girl, too. She wondered if J.J. had the same feelings about her father.

The Harts. She’d be leaving the hospital later that day to reside on the grounds of their estate. Never in a million years would she have ever guessed that could ever happen. Such nice people. She hoped with everything she had, that her being there with them wouldn’t be a problem for them. There were things they didn’t know. There were things she couldn’t quite get a handle on herself, but that she was sure were a problem for her. She sincerely hoped that her problems, whatever they were, wouldn’t become their problems.

She sat up some, closed her eyes and prayed that she and/or Claire wouldn’t be bringing any trouble or danger to such good people, to such a solid family.

She was praying so earnestly that she didn’t notice Eva’s concerned eyes on her as she rocked back and forth with it.

__________________________________________________________

“Pat, I don’t understand why it is that there’s a perfectly good car parked in front of the house, but we had to take the girls to school. Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on with that?”

Pat and Jennifer had dropped the girls off at school, and were headed out to Chris’ place to pick up her things.

“You never could take ‘no’ for an answer. But you’re going to have to accept it this time. It’s not your concern, Jen.”

“Well just tell me this, then. Did they get into some kind of trouble? Is it meant to be a punishment?”

“I said I wasn’t telling you, Edwards, and I’m not.” Pat pulled a piece of paper from the pocket on her purse and unfolded it. “At some point, we have to do some shopping today. The girls need for us to pick up some things for a little gathering they’re having at the park tomorrow morning. Marnie gave me this list.”

“Why can’t they do their own shopping, Auntie Pat?”

“Because, Duchess, they don’t have a car. Now quit fishing.”

Jennifer laughed and Pat turned up the Streisand CD that was playing.

“I haven’t heard her for a while,” she said.

“J.J. put that in the other day.” Jennifer replied. “She loves Ms. Streisand’s work.

“Typical of that old child. I do, too. “Stony End” was one of my favorites.”

“I remember. You used to play it over and over on the stereo until I wanted to scream. To this day when I hear her sing that song, I can recall feeling that way.”

Pat smiled and waved a hand at her. “That’s an updated version there; she was older on that cut, but she still has a fine set of pipes. That timbre…simply unparalleled. She still have the hots for Jonathan?”

Jennifer laughed again.

“They’re just acquainted,that’s all. Besides, she’s married to James Brolin now, a very handsome and distinguished gentleman, and successful in his own right. With all she has, I doubt seriously that she’s ever thought like that about my husband.”

“Say what you want. I know what I saw. She was appreciating what she was looking at that night. If I didn’t know Jonathan so well, I might have been worried. Say Jen, come to think of it, does Brolin ever remind you of somebody?”

Pat waited, but Jennifer didn’t reply to any of that.

Having attempted to fish, but not getting a bite, Pat put the list back in her pocket and lay her head back. It was a desperate play, and once again, she’d failed at it. She closed her eyes, kicking herself for even trying it. If Jennifer hadn’t said anything about it or him in all that time, she probably never would.

After a short time, she turned the radio back down.

“Jennifer. how much trouble do you think it would be to get Marnie’s school affairs together if I was to take her back with me for a little while?”

“Take her with you?”

There it was, Pat’s reason for asking Lillie Benson that question on the night before. “I don’t know. Do you really think this is the best time for that? There’s a lot going on in New York right now.”

“There’s never a best time, Jen. It’s what we do with the time we have. Marnie really wants to see her father for herself. She’s worried about him, and she wants to go to him. It would be an easier thing for her to do from New York.”

“You think she can handle being there with all that’s going on? It has to be pretty crazy there.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think she could. I’ll be there with her. So will Cordelia. If Cordelia can take care of me all the years that she has, she can do the same with Marnie. In fact, I think she’d like having someone else besides me to look after. She gets a kick out of Marnie when she’s visited.”

“How long are you thinking about keeping her, Pat?”

“I was initially thinking a couple of weeks, but after talking to Bill about it this morning, we were thinking maybe until Thanksgiving. That would give her some time to see her father more than once. After the wedding, when Bill and I leave on our trip, she could come back here with you.”

“What would she do about school? That’s two months you’re talking about. One of her reasons for staying here in Los Angeles was that she wanted to maintain her academic status.”

“That’s what I was asking. Is there some way to get some kind of special status for her for those two months, like a sabbatical or like they do for kids in the hospital? Her counselor and her teachers are aware of her father’s medical situation and him being away. They know that she’s in a kind of limbo right now. What if I arranged for a tutor, had the tutor get in touch with the school and line up her current curriculum? Maybe do something online where Marnie can keep up with what’s being done in her current classes so that she could pick right up when she returns to Los Angeles and her school? I’ve already looked into it. If the school agrees, it can be done. Marnie could stay with me in New York during the week and be home-schooled by the tutor aligned with her current studies. That way, she doesn’t have the problem of assimilating into another student population. Then on the weekends, she could go to Boston to be with her parents and Kyle, or she and Kyle could come out to Maryland with Bill and me.”

“What if I say I was looking forward to keeping her with me, Pat?”

“Jennifer, I’m thinking Carl would probably be better for having her closer to him for a while, too.”

“And what about you? You’d be better for having her with you, too, wouldn’t you?”

Streisand sang nearly two more verses of “People” before Pat answered.

“Yes, I would. I like Marnie. I want to help her. It’s as if she knows-”

Pat hesitated.

“Knows what?”

“Me, Jen. It’s as if she knows me, like she can see through me. I haven’t said anything to you about it; you and I haven’t talked a whole lot, but I’m not doing so well behind all of this. Twice since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten pretty low, and both those times, it was she who reached out to me and pulled me back up. She came to me last night-”

“Last night? Last night, when?”

“-out to the guest house after you all were asleep, and we talked. She-”

“She what?”

Pat laughed a small laugh. “She worries about me. I’ve never known Marnie to worry much about anybody except her brothers and whatever boy isn’t looking at her at the moment, but she came to me last night because she said she was worried about me. Never mind she stole my damned drink while I was in the john. Straight bourbon, no ice. As little as she is, she drank it down, whole half a glass and not a lick of shame did she have when I got back, and it was sitting there empty.”

“Bourbon? Straight? She’s sixteen years old. Did you get on her?”

“Actually, no. I’m sitting there too much in shock, respecting her for her nerve and for not choking on it. When I was sixteen, your father’s good old Kentucky bourbon set my throat on fire that first time we got into it. You remember. You got sick and had to go to bed and pretend you had cramps when you were just hung over as hell, and I couldn’t talk right for two days.”

Jennifer snickered. “We were so awful. And we had the nerve to think that Pa wasn’t on to us. He never said anything either, but he was probably down in his den cracking up about how sick we were and why, thinking that it served us right. Are you sure you really want to take on Miss Marnie for that length of time? She can be a pistol, and right now she has some anger things going on.”

“I know about her anger issues, Jen, but that’s another reason why I’d love to have her with me. I think we’d be good for each other. Bill’s going to be tied up working with the FAA once we’re back on the east coast, and he’ll be busy going back and forth with the house. All alone, without him around, or you and your family, it would be easy for me to get wrapped up in misery. Seeing to Marnie would be another focus for me, a positive one. In New York, it would just be she and I, whereas here- well, she’s a little worried about getting in the way of you and J.J.”

“J.J. and I?”

“What you and J. have, Jennifer, is special. You can’t see it because you’re in it, but looking at it from the outside, it’s obvious to the onlooker that it’s just you and J.J. in that. Marnie can see and feel that. Don’t get me wrong, Marnie crazy about you.

“She admires your style, and she respects that you respect her. She knows that you love her, but the reality is, you can’t be anybody else’s mother. You can’t even play at it. J.J. is your only child and you are excellent with her. You’re good with Marnie, but you aren’t what she needs right now. As generous as J.J. tries to be, she really, in her heart, does not want to share you. She’ll spread Jonathan out like jam on a slice of bread and break off a little piece of him to share with everybody in town, but not you. She can’t do that with you.

“J.J. is just like you were when you came to Gresham Hal. Suzanne had done a hell of a job with you, just like you’ve done with J. Nobody else could be your mother once she was gone. Your father couldn’t, not Sabrina, not anybody. Suzanne, your mother, was gone, so you finished raising yourself. J. is the same way. If something were to happen to you, it’s understood that I’m supposed to assume that responsibility in your absence, but she’d never let me be her mother. As close as we are, and as much love as we share, I’d always be Aunt Pat to her. I could guide her and nurture her to an extent, but if something happened to you before she was grown, she’d finish raising herself for the most part. She’d still be listening to you in her head.”

“Marnie’s different from J.J. Right now, whatever is going on between her and her mother, she’s hurting with it. She is looking for somebody. I tried talking with her last night about Maureen, but she shut me down almost before I could get the words out.”

Keeping her eyes on the road, but following Pat’s every word, Jennifer nodded her head in agreement.

“She’s not real happy with her mother these days, Pat. She did tell me that much. She’s very bitter about a lot of things.”

She shared with Pat the take J.J. had on Marnie and Maureen’s relationship that she’d shared with her during their talk on the night before.

“The Squirt makes a lot of sense with that.” Pat remarked when Jennifer was finished. “I used to wonder about that same thing with my mother, whether she thought my coming to her stole some of her thunder, and that’s why she had no use for me.

“At any rate, Marnie is looking for something, and she needs somebody. No offense, but right now, it isn’t you she needs. I can’t be her mother; I’d never try to replace her mother. As long as she has a mother, I’m going to encourage their reconciliation, but as long as she’s reaching for my hand, I’m going to let her hold it. She needs a mentor, a friend. I can be that to her. I can be that for her; I’d like to be that for her. Let me have her for this little time here in the beginning, where it can just be the two of us. She needs someone to focus on just her for a while without the brothers, her mother, the drama, J.J., – just her, alone in someone’s focus. I can do that. I want to do that.

“Jennifer, I need to do that.”

There was a significant pause before Jennifer gave her reply.

“You’re may have to fight Jonathan for her, Patricia. I think he was looking forward to having her there with him.”

Pat reached across the console to place her hand on Jennifer’s shoulder. “Thanks, Jen. As for your husband, he’s no match for me. He might kick a little at first, but once I put it to him, he’ll see it my way.”

She pulled out her phone.

__________________________________________________________

Although his plan had been to go to Claire as soon as he arrived at work, other matters had kept Jonathan in his office for most of the morning. People had been coming and going. He’d been on the phone with the hospital, Ken Matheson, and then Pat. That last call had caught him off guard, but like always with Pat, she’d made plenty of sense and had thus brought him around to her way of thinking. Despite the situation in New York, it probably would be the best thing for Marnie, not to mention Pat.

After taking care of things in his office, he was finally on his way down to the bunker via his private elevator, accompanied by August Lamb.

“Mrs. Hart and Ms. Hamilton dropped the girls off at school. They’re together in Mrs. Hart’s car. The girls have so far stayed put in school. No visits to the coffee shop or anywhere else this morning. Their classes have started, so it’s doubtful that they’ll be exiting the building again until dismissal. Just in case, though, Samms is going to stay and continue his surveillance of the area until then.”

“Good,” was Jonathan’s response to the report August Lamb was giving him from the headset into which the other man was listening. “Is Smith still-”

“Yes, he’s keeping his eye on the Mercedes. No sign of that sedan again this morning. He says he can’t see where anyone appears to be on them this morning. No following patterns from any vehicle.”

The two men stepped off the elevator when it reached their desired location and they had utilized the necessary access codes. Once they cleared the entrance to the bunker, Jonathan turned to August. “I’d like for you to leave me here.”

August stopped where he was and took a seat on the couch in the outer section of the bunker. The guard there signaled to the female guard who was on the inside. She admitted Jonathan Hart to the inner sanctum to see Ms. Claire Allen.

__________________________________________________________

“Are you mad at me, J.?”

Marnie and J.J. had lingered behind the others before leaving the lockers to go to lunch. J.J. had been ready to leave when Marnie asked her to stay back so that she could tell her something in private that had been on her mind all morning. They had given Genie and Jaden to their “daddies”, reassuring the boys that they would be right over to the cafe.

“First Tommy.” J.J. said as she slowly slid down the locker to sit on the floor. “Now you.”

Noting her friend’s dejected reaction and hearing a whole lot in what she said, Marnie hurried to sit down next to her.

“It won’t be for as long as Tommy, J. It’ll just be for a little while, I promise. I’ll be back.”

When J.J. hung her head and didn’t say anything, Marnie continued to try to make it better. “Just for a little while, J. Please understand. I need to go.”

J.J. turned to Marnie and for the first time ever, Marnie saw that the look of pain on J.J.’s face creased her left brow, just as it did her father’s when he was worried or upset.

“I thought you said you wanted to stay with us, Marnie. Why all of a sudden do you now want to go with Aunt Pat to New York? What’re you going to do about school and stuff?”

“I wanted to stay with your family rather than going to Texas with mine. If I had gone to Texas, my grandmother wouldn’t have let me go all the way to New York from there to Pat. It was an easier things to do this way. As for school, I won’t miss anything. Aunt Pat said that I could have a private tutor and be home schooled while I was there. If your mother and father say it’s all right, I have to go, J.J.”

“When did you and Aunt Pat talk about all of this, Marn?”

“Last night. I bypassed the motion detectors like you showed me, and went out to her last night.”

Despite her pain, J.J. eyes lit up, just a little, in amusement at Marnie’s mention of bypassing the alarm system.

“Why Marnie? Why do you have to go? Manhattan is probably a mess. Aunt Pat doesn’t know how many of her friends and employees might be dead or how her company has been affected by what happened. She’s not going to have a lot of time for you.”

Marnie leaned in to J.J. “That’s just it, J. It’s not about me. It really isn’t.”

“Then what is it about, Marnie? Help me understand.”

Marnie leaned back against the lockers so that she and J.J. were sitting shoulder to shoulder.

“J., you said to me that Teddy’s been to see my father. You told me that Teddy says he’s pretty bad off. Well, I got to thinking, even though they say he’s supposed to make it, what if they’re wrong? What if my father suddenly goes bad and dies, and I don’t get to see him before that? What if something unexpected happens, and I don’t get to tell my father I love him?”

J.J. didn’t say anything.

“J.J., you have no idea. You don’t know at all what it’s like to have to go through the kind of drama that I do. You don’t know a thing about what it feels like to have to constantly be dealing with parents who act like kids. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who’s the grownup in my situation, and I’m sick of it. My father is the only one who mostly lets me be a kid. I’m his kid, and I have to go to him.”

When J.J. still didn’t answer, Marnie craned her neck a bit to be able to look into J.J.’s face. She was surprised to see a tear sliding down J.J.’s cheek. Startled, she leaned all the way over to put her arms around her. “Oh, I’m sorry, J. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. I didn’t know my going with Pat was going to make you cry.”

J.J. hugged her back with one arm while she wiped at her face with the other.

“I’m not crying because you’re going. You do have to go; I can see that now. I’m crying because I’m so stupid and selfish. I was only thinking about me and about my missing you; I wasn’t thinking about you. Of course you have to go see about your father. Nobody could keep me from going to see about mine if he was sick or hurt. In fact, nobody could when it was me in your place.”

She put both arms around Marnie. “But I’m still going to miss you so much.”

“I’ll miss you, too, J. But we’ll talk every day just like we always do. We just won’t be able to do it in person.”

By this time Marnie was also in tears. “Pat needs me, too, J. She acts like she doesn’t need anybody, but right now she needs somebody to need her in order for her to take better care of herself. Does that make sense?”

Marnie felt it when J.J. nodded.

“To keep her from running.” J.J. thought to herself. “Good looking out, Marn. She can’t run away if she has to stay and look out for you.”

Marnie let J.J. go and sat back to pull some tissues from her purse. She peeled off and handed a couple to J.J.

“Me and Pat can take care of each other,” she said, wiping her eyes. “You won’t mind if I use your godmother for a while, will you?”

Despite her persistent embarrassing tears, J.J. laughed, “After all this time, she’s just as much your godmother as she is mine, I guess. You take her, and I’ll keep the Duchess. That way we should all be pretty well covered.”

“And I can get away from that fat bitch, Ms. Calvin for a minute.” Marnie grinned as tears continued to flood her eyes. “She’ll like that. I know I will.”

“Are you two all right? Why aren’t you at lunch where you’re supposed to be. You two know better. Skipping is skipping.”

Ms. Grimsley, their guidance counselor, had walked up on them without them noticing her approaching. “When I didn’t see you in the cafe, Hector told me that I might find you both up here. Is there something I should know here?”

“No ma’am,” J.J. answered. “We just had some stuff to talk over. A lots been going on. Sorry about skipping. We figured lunch wouldn’t be as big a deal as skipping a class.”

“As much as I don’t want to, I understand,” Ms. Grimsley replied. “You two do have a lot on your plates. I need to see you, Marnie. I just got a call. I hear you’re taking a trip for a while. You should come as well, J.J. This is going to affect and involve you, too.”

“It’s been properly moved and seconded then,” J.J. whispered, nodding to Marnie. “My folks must have agreed to it.”

“Must have,” Marnie sighed as she started getting up. “It must be a done deal. But you know, it isn’t as if we don’t have a party already set up for tomorrow morning.”

J.J. grinned with the realization, “And it’s already set up to be a Going-Away party.”

Fully standing, the girls high-fived each other. “Two for one!”

If it hadn’t been for the fact that they were walking with Ms. Grimsley to her office, and being on the cell during school hours wasn’t allowed (at least not in the presence of the powers that be), Marnie would have already been on hers, widening the scope of attendees for Saturday morning’s festivities. But, she figured, there was always the rest of that school day and that evening.

A few verbal notices delivered to a few key people, addressing the additional element to the gathering already in place, the word would get out, and the little going-away party would be on, for real, big-time.

Yeah.

__________________________________________________________

She thought Jonathan Hart a very handsome man, as far as older guys went. But then she knew, only too well, that handsome only went so far, especially as older guys with younger women went.

Chris said Hart could be trusted. She said he was a straight arrow, a real gentleman. So far, he’d proven as much, but how long could this go on? How long could she continue to hide in this place? His place. How long could she intrude on and count upon this man’s… kindness?

… if kindness really was the only thing behind his show of concern. After all, she was hidden away in his secret room which he seemed to be able to access at will. What if he wanted more? Who would know? Who would care? Who would tell of it? Certainly not the people he paid to watch over her.

No, Chris said he wasn’t like that. She said he loved his wife and that he was faithful to her.

Ha! A married man? Faithful?

Not in the world she lived in.

He seemed uncomfortable when he’d been there with her, as if he didn’t really know what to say to her, or he was uneasy being there alone with her. Maybe it was her face, the condition of it. She didn’t like looking at that herself. Tried to avoid looking at it when she was in that bathroom. It was still sore and still swollen.

The bastard.

All she did was ask, and then….

He let her go after that, but why? There had to be a reason. After the violence, it had been much too easy. He’d been far too accommodating. The car. The suite. It had to be that he had put a tail on her, someone to keep an eye on her, probably put a tail on her to help get him back close to Chris.

Chris.

She said Hart could be trusted, but alone in that room with him she hadn’t trusted him. His eyes were too… deep… too direct… sharp almost, like arrows or… spears… like a father who could see through his daughter’s evasiveness… through her lies… pinning them down and making her face them….

But he was too much of a gentleman to say.

But then, too, what would she know about fathers?

Chris.

What have I done to you? I knew all the time that it wasn’t your fault, but I blamed you anyway. Now here we are, you and I….

Hart was a nice man. Well, on the surface, he seemed a nice man. But the truth of the matter was, no man she knew in his position got there by being nice all the way to the bone.

His wife was a kind lady. Jennifer, she said her name was. One of those women termed as a “fine woman”, a “real lady”. Older than Chris, but still very pretty, very well dressed, classy, and… kind….

Now she had nice eyes… and nice ways. She almost got in, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Nobody could. Nobody could- not even that woman Mrs. Hart had with her, that Ms. Pat Hamilton.

Hamilton had eyes like Hart, only darker and harder. Hers were threatening where his had been concerned. Her eyes were direct, too, but like daggers, sharp, shiny, menacing daggers. That woman had seen through her; she just hadn’t said. The whole time Mrs. Hart was talking, that Hamilton woman stood leaned on the wall with her arms crossed, silent and looking, just looking, looking all the way down through her clothes, past the hidden bruised skin, all the way down into her tortured soul. She knew.

Screw her. Everybody on earth messed up, lied, couldn’t be trusted, and hurt each other from time to time.

Chris.

She should have said. Maybe if she had, some of it could have been avoided.

To Hell with them all.

She hadn’t ever told Chris the whole story, so what made any of the others think they could get anything out of her? For so long she’d gotten away with it. For so long she thought it was her problem only, and that she’d left it behind. Oh well, the deal was done and there was nothing to be done about it now.

And if wasn’t as if Chris had been up front with her.

But the baseline truth of the matter was she couldn’t stay there in that protected cage forever, even if she was an endangered species.

Mrs. Hart was supposed to be back that afternoon….

Maybe….
__________________________________________________________

As J.J. sat in the office with Ms. Grimsley and Marnie, listening while Ms. Grimsley detailed to Marnie the educational plan being put into place for her, her mind wandered off to other things.

Maybe it was a good thing that Marnie was going. With Pat, for once Marnie would be able to be a real only child. There wouldn’t be a mother she had to argue with or worry about. There wouldn’t be a stepmother she had to fight with or have calling her ugly names. There wouldn’t be any little brothers she had to look out for, or a father whose shady behavior she had to be embarrassed over. Marnie would be able to be Marnie. Aunt Pat would let her be that.

And as quiet as she’d kept it; she hadn’t even allowed herself to admit it to herself, she was glad to not have to worry about sharing her mother. She didn’t mind sharing Aunt Pat, but she wasn’t so sure about that with her mother. The opportunity for the kind of conversation they’d had on the night before wasn’t something she wanted to have to give up or have cut into while her mother was tending to Marnie’s needs. With Marnie gone, it would only be her.

The wave of deep embarrassment was warm and somewhat sticky as it sluiced over her. She could feel her cheeks flaming in its wake.

You are so selfish and spoiled.

So? She’s my mother.

Marnie would be better off with Aunt Pat anyway. Aunt Pat wasn’t as exacting as the Duchess, and for Marnie that would work. With her attitudes and her disposition, Marnie needed that kind of latitude. The Duchess’ style worked better with her own daughter.

Her only daughter.

“Are you all right with this, J.J.?” Ms. Grimsley was asking.

“Uh, yes. I’m fine.”

“You may have to fill in sometimes with the faxing and what have you. Can we count on you for that, if need be?”

“Yes, sure. I can do that.”

That much, she could handle. That, and getting herself back into Aunt’s Pat’s good graces.

It was cold there, on the outside.

__________________________________________________________

While Jennifer was in the closet, Pat was perusing the rest of the bedroom, first checking out the things that could be seen immediately: the items on top of the dresser, the nightstands, the books kept on the bookshelf. She examined the plants and the tan decorative candles Chris kept in the bay window where the warmth of the sun stimulated their aroma, sending it in faint sandalwood wisps out into the room. Earlier, on her way into that room, passing through the other rooms and the hall, she’d seen the pictures displayed there. She’d taken stock of them and those in the bedroom.

“She really likes that spoiled little sister of hers, doesn’t she, Jen?”

“I guess so.” Jennifer said from inside the closet. “But Claire is all the immediate family she has left, I understand. I know she didn’t make a good impression on you, but why do you say she’s spoiled, Pat?”

“It’s the vibe I got from her. As if she’s been overly indulged to compensate for something, and she isn’t appreciative of any of it. Maybe because their parents died while she was so young, Chris has been sacrificing herself, trying to make up for that with her.”

“I think your writer’s imagination is running away with you, Pat.”

Pat picked up and studied a picture of Claire and, she supposed, Chris. It had been taken when Claire looked to have been in her early teens. Chris was also much younger in the picture than that photo she had in the folder, the one sent to her by The Mole. Claire was seated on a horse, outfitted in full equestrian gear while Chris beamed proudly up at her.

“Maybe,” Pat said. “But I don’t think so. It rarely does when applied to real life situations. Chris was a young girl, fresh out of college, raising a kid. Look here, horseback riding lessons, college-”

“Claire got a scholarship to college.”

“Whatever. Ski trips to the mountains, trips to Europe-”

“Chris has been to Europe several times also, Pat.”

“On business, Edwards. I read the file. I talked with The Mole. She’s a workaholic, a driven one. All she does is work, no time for play. I guess she didn’t have time, what with taking care of baby sister like she did.”

When there was no comment from the closet, Pat continued on with her assessment of Claire.

“And now the little one is mistress-apparent to that old, gray, limp fart.”

“How do you know he’s impotent, Pat? I thought you said it was just a couple of dates.”

“He gave off desperate, near-impotent vibes way back then, so I know he’s got to be dead down there for sure now. I haven’t seen any pictures so far of Chris doing any of those things I mentioned, just Claire. And there’s not a hint of man in this place. Now you know I can tell about that. Even downstairs in the big room, it’s all Chris and Claire.”

Jennifer stuck her head out of the closet door. “You’ve been down there already?”

“Of course I have. I don’t go anywhere that I don’t check out the premises first. You’re focused. You barrel right in and, like a shot, you head right to where you’re going. Me, I have to check the situation out first. Nice place she’s got here. Basic, practical, but classy and nice.”

Jennifer ducked back inside.

Pat began running her fingers along the undersides of the bookshelves, feeling underneath the lip of the unit’s decorative top and then around to the back of it. She moved on, doing the same with the other articles of furniture, feeling with her fingers in places that couldn’t be seen. With a pencil she found in a cup next to the phone, she dug around in the dirt of the plants in the window.

When Jennifer emerged from the closet and came back into the room, she brought with her three silk jogging suits on hangers and a suitcase. She found Pat on her hands and knees on the floor, peeking and feeling around under the bed.

“What in the world are you doing?” she asked. “Did you drop something?”

“No,” Pat answered in a whisper without stopping what she was doing. “I’m just trying to see if anyone else did.”

“Like what?” Jennifer asked, perplexed almost to vexation at Pat’s seeming invasion of Chris privacy and her nosy, prying behavior.

Pat came from underneath the bed. Still on her knees, she gestured to her ears and mouthed, “Listening devices.”

“In the bedroom, Pat?” Jennifer whispered back.

“Why the hell not, Jen?” Pat whispered up to her. “What better place? To catch pillow talk? You know?”

Jennifer made a face that said, “Oh yeah, good point.”

“It was just a thought.”

Pat continued her feeling around for a few more minutes and then got up. “I guess I am getting carried away. I just don’t believe in being too careful. I have a very suspicious nature, and I have this awfully funny feeling about this whole thing.”

Jennifer  was removing the outfits from their hangers and folding them into the bag. “Pat, don’t you think that someone in her position would suspect something like that herself?”

Pat had gone back to looking around, lifting the tops off bottles, sniffing at perfume and powder puffs, opening drawers in the dresser. “She hasn’t been here, Jen. Anything could have gone down in her absence.”

“But Jonathan’s people have been here monitoring this place night and day.”

Pat shrugged again and went over to the armoire, first opening the cabinet door which housed carefully folded sweaters and knit tops.

“Being that Chris is in security,” she observed, sliding the flat of her hand under each stack. “And she’s one of Jonathan’s top executives at that, I should think this place was probably wired against that sort of thing when she moved in.”

Opening the side drawers, she peeked inside them. “I’ll tell you this much, though, Jen. Somebody obviously has it out for her. Somebody wants something from her, has something on her, or wants her gone altogether. She didn’t hit herself in the back of the head. In this sort of thing, I say find out why, and then the what will naturally fall into place.”

“It’s the mystery writer-slash-editor in you,” Jennifer said as she went back into the closet.

Pat had worked her way down to the third drawer.

“Say what you want, Edwards. You know, this Chris must be anal, too; she actually folds her panties.”

“Not everyone is the slob you are, Patricia. I shudder to think what your place and your things would be like if you didn’t have Cordelia looking after you. Besides, Jonathan folds his underwear. It’s not necessarily anal, it could just be a neatness thing.”

“And Jonathan can be anal about some things, too. Since I’m over here, do you want I should I gather up some undergarments for her? How long do you estimate she’ll be at your place?”

As Jennifer answered her, Pat was carefully feeling down underneath the contents of that drawer, just as she had while in the ones before. When her fingers touched something that didn’t feel like lingerie, she pulled it out just enough for her to see what it was.

“Well, well, well,” she whispered to herself as she checked out her find.

She smiled in satisfaction to herself and then put it back.

“Are we still going over to see Ms. Claire today?” she called to Jennifer.

“Just as soon as we leave here,” was the answer. “Jonathan’s going down to see her this morning, but I told him that we’d go back today and try again with her. We won’t stay long. They’ll be delivering Chris early this afternoon, and I’d like to be there to help her get settled in.”

“Can’t wait,” Pat nodded as she continued collecting items from the drawer for the woman she was suddenly very anxious to meet.

Carrying the things she’d gathered to the bed, Pat lay them down next to the suitcase. “Hey, Jen, I think I’m going to go back downstairs and use the restroom.”

Jennifer returned from the closet to stand at Pat’s side. She carried a few more casual pieces and two pairs of sport shoes. “There’s a restroom right there, Pat.” She tipped her head toward the master bathroom, but Pat was headed for the door to the bedroom.

“Not for what I need to do, Jen. I-”

Jennifer threw up a hand. “Stop! That’s quite all right. No need to be crass. I understand; I’ve known you forever, and I know how last-class you can be. Don’t bother to explain. Just go.”

Halfway down the stairs that would take her to the lower level, Pat had her cell out, pressing a speed dial button.

“Listen,” she whispered into it when the other party picked up. “It’s me… yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m great. Look, I’ve got something I need you to look into- deep into… yeah, same thing, but from a different angle….”

She closed the bathroom door. “I’ve got a hunch…yeah, I want you to check into….”

Continue to Part Nine

 

 

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