The Project: Part One

Back to school, J.J. and Marnie’s involvement in a class project results in a learning experience for everyone. 

Part One

When he was finished, he closed the back flap and snapped it shut. Then he packed the unit into the crate, making sure that it was securely wrapped and snugly fit down amongst the rest before sealing closed the lid. That crate he placed with the other nondescript sealed boxes waiting transport to the loading dock and then shipment.

It was very late, much later than he normally stayed. Most everyone else had gone for the day.

In the parking structure, although he was confident that it was over, and that he had done a good job of following through on it; his hands still shook a bit as he fit the key into the lock of his car.

A noise.

The slightest sound of someone there, and instinctively, he turned his head in that direction. 

A confusing sharp blow to the forehead abruptly ignited a shooting orange/red flame; the shock of it, freezing him in place. White hot, a rocket exploded in a million brilliant, blinding colors, right behind his eyes.

____________________________________________________________

“J.J., I know you’ve shown me this formula six times, but I still don’t get it.”

J.J. Hart stopped her search at the computer to look down to her friend who was on the floor with  her books and papers scattered about as she struggled over her math homework. Although she was academically strong and generally a quick study, math didn’t come as easily to Marnie as it did to her.

“Skip that part, Marn. We’ll come back to it. You’ve spent too much time on it, and your brain is probably locking you out. Do something else for now.”

“Good idea,” Marnie answered, pushing that notebook away from her and closing the math book. “That works for me. I’ve got Econ homework up the butt. I can do that for now. I don’t know how or why they assigned me to that fat bitch Ms. Calvin again. She hates me. When she saw me come in the Econ room that first day, she gave me the eye right off, and I knew I was done for. When I went in to see Grimsley about it, she pissed me off, talking about she wasn’t going to change my schedule just because I had a personality conflict with a teacher. What kind of counselor is she, if she doesn’t realize what this kind of situation could escalate into? There was all that drama between us when I had Calvin before. How am I supposed to do my best if the teacher hates me?”

“Maybe Ms. Calvin hates you because you called her fat to her face last semester, Marnie.”

“She called me hot and fast in front of the whole class, so I called her fat. She’s lucky I didn’t call her a bitch to her face because she’s that, too. I still don’t think it was fair that I got in trouble, but she didn’t. She called me names first. I was just reacting to what she said.”

“You are hot and fast, Marn.”

“And she’s real fat, so what’s your point?”

There was a knock at the bedroom door, and before either of them could answer, it opened. Both girls stopped what they were doing to look up at the woman who stood in the doorway, one hand on the knob, the other riding her hip.

“Look,” she said.  “I just got off the phone with your FACS teacher. I cannot believe you two. Home Economics? I can’t think of a single reason why either of you would sign up for that class outside of the fact that you and all of your cronies managed to land in it at the same hour. I’m telling you both right here and right now, there had better not be the first problem with this. I’m saying it loud and clear before any of it gets started. Mrs. Leonard phoned me to say that neither of you have returned the permission form for the class project. I haven’t seen any such form. Where is it?”

The girls first looked to each other, then it was J.J. who finally answered.

“It’s not Home Ec any more, Mom. It’s called Family and Consumer Science now. And we didn’t want to participate. She said that project was elective if our parents didn’t okay it. She said that we could do a research project instead. We opted to do the research. I told her that.”

You opted? Without consulting me? You told her that?”

J.J.’s cheeks reddened. Marnie, still on the floor, dropped her eyes to the carpet.

Jennifer Hart came all the way into the room to stand over her daughter and her daughter’s best friend.

“So tell me, how was I supposed to nix or okay it if I haven’t even been made aware of it? Justine Hart, you know better than to not give me the things that are sent home with you for me. Junior in high school or no, you’re not grown. Mrs. Leonard says that you’ve had this form since the first day of class, and that she’s been reminding you two every day since that it needs to be returned. Haven’t I  told you about making somebody’s job harder than it has to be? Both of you, get those forms out this minute and hand them over.”

J.J. got up, but Marnie hesitated. “I- I was just waiting until my father or my mother got back from their trips, Mrs. Hart. I was going to show it to my Dad when he got back, and I went home.”

“You,” Jennifer pointed down to Marnie and then to the expensive designer tote bag over on the bed. “your parents left you and that car here with me rather than with your stepmother because they know how you are and how you get. They told me that I can treat you just like you’re mine while they’re gone. Now, I’m a woman who believes in people having choices in their lives. I’m going to give you one right now, Miss Benson. Either get me that form or lose the car.”

Without further protest, Marnie got up and headed for the bed where J.J. was already digging through her backpack. They handed the two sets of stapled papers to Jennifer who left the bedroom, closing the door behind her. The girls waited a reasonable amount of time before speaking again.

“We’re toast, J. I told you we were going to get busted.”

“Yep,” J.J. nodded. “We’re done on both sides. I really didn’t think Leonard would care enough to call after we told her we’d do the research. I mean, why should she care about if we do that stupid project if we’re going to do the research instead? My mother’s going to give her consent. You know she is. Especially after we held out on her like that.”

“Well, she can sign me up if she wants to,” Marnie sniffed as she got back down on the floor with her books. “But I’m telling you, if she does, I’m not acting right.”

J.J. sat back down at her desk, swiveling around to the computer screen.

“Me, neither,” she said as she resumed her work.

____________________________________________________________

When he was finished looking over the paperwork before him, Jonathan Hart lay it down on the coffee table and reached to pick up the other one.

“They’re both the same,” his wife said to him from where she sat next to him on the couch.

He left off picking up the other packet and instead lay his head back, running both hands through his hair. She watched him closely, taking silent inventory of his appearance, his body language, and the expression on his face.

“You didn’t eat very much tonight,” she said, brushing her fingers across his cheek. “Are you sure you’re feeling all right? I don’t want you pushing yourself too soon.”

Opening his eyes, he smiled at her. “I’m fine. Don’t be a worrywart.”

And he admired, as he always had, how she could fold her legs in that lotus position. It made him smile even more when he thought of how their daughter, J.J., had inherited her mother’s unique physical agility and flexibility.

Relaxing in the den after dinner, they sat together as he perused the FACS class proposal, the papers she had gotten from J.J. and Marnie. They detailed the junior class project and requested parental permission for the girls, who had returned upstairs after eating, to participate in it.

“I don’t know about this,” he said finally, sighing heavily. “I’m not sure I want them playing around with stuff like this. They’re only sixteen.”

He turned toward Jennifer.

“Tell me something. Why in the world did they sign up for this class, even as an elective? Home Ec., Family and Consumer Science, whatever it’s called these days; it’s not like either of them is ever going to be in a position to really need it. Marnie certainly won’t, and J.J. already knows how to cook and clean up behind herself.”

Jennifer leaned forward, placing a hand on the forearm which rested across her thigh.

“First of all, Jonathan, they signed up because they thought it would be a Mickey, an easy A, and because most of the Wild Bunch managed to get into the same class at the same time of day. It struck me as odd when I asked to see J.J. and Marnie’s schedules and that class was on it. When the teacher called today, on a hunch, I just happened to drop some names, inquiring as to who else was enrolled in that class for that hour. Sure enough, it was almost all of them.”

He rolled his eyes to the ceiling at that information as he continued to listen.

“But from what I can see, Home Economics is more than just cleaning and cooking now. I looked over the course syllabus and the prospectus for this project. It’s being approached more like a science now, and this project has been designed to cross the curriculum, a two-week collaboration between several teachers and disciplines. They’re going to be learning some real practical life skills that every kid needs: how to budget, manage money, plan for balanced meals, time management, problem-solving, interpersonal communication; the things they’re likely to encounter as soon as they go off to college and begin cohabiting.”

His posture stiffened and his head snapped around toward her. “Cohabiting? Cohabiting with who?”

Immediately reading his mind, and tickled by his automatic alpha/paternal reaction, she placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, gently patting it. “With college roommates, darling. In a dorm room. Same sex. Surely you remember how that goes.”

“Oh.” He relaxed, nodding his understanding as he sat back again. “Yeah, okay.”

He turned back to the papers, taking up one set. “So what’s your specific reason for having these two participate in this project?”

“Well, I think it will help J.J. and Marnie with their perspectives. I want them to see first-hand how much they don’t want to complicate their lives by getting too heavily involved with boys and trying to be grown too soon. We can tell them things, explain to them, try to talk to them all we want, but nothing beats hands-on.

The way this project seems to be laid out, the kids actually spend two weeks being responsible for running a household while they continue to do all the things they normally do. They and their “husbands” will have to sit down together in math and econ classes, write a financial plan, and set up a schedule to manage their time. In social studies they’ll have to decide roles, occupations suited to their interests, and so on. In Lit they’ll be studying relationships and communication skills. It all sounds quite interesting.

“My hope is that when this is over, they’ll be pushing boys, partying too hard, and all of that to the side and be begging to go to college. J.J.’s not so bad about the boy thing, but lately I get the impression that she’s really not that keen on the idea of attending college. For some reason, I get the distinct feeling she’s developing some other plan. I’ve really been sensing it since she came back from Sabrina’s this last time.

“And Marnie, well, we won’t even go there.”

As she was breaking it down to him, she noticed his posture gradually softening. When he turned to face her again, that familiar twinkle sparkled in his eyes like tiny crystal chips, illuminating his naughty, lustful smile.

“It’s a good thing you and I weren’t in this class, doing this project together, isn’t it? Talk about honing your real life skills.”

“Jonathan,” she blushed as she poked him in the shoulder. “Leave it to you.”

He wrinkled his nose and put his arm around her to draw himself closer to her and to speak into her ear.

“Playing house. Slipping around. Me in my raggedy gym shoes sneaking onto Briarwood Estate. Us, you and me, Princess Guinevere and Oliver Twist, meeting up together in your daddy’s stables to study together. Your old man would have-”

Shaking her head, she cut him off.

“Pa never would have consented to my participating in something like this. I would have been the lone someone, sitting in the library, doing the alternative project your daughter and her cohort up there were trying to ease into. I cannot begin to imagine if you and I had met as kids in school and were assigned to this project together. If there was any chance of me picking you for my class husband for two weeks… jeez, I can just hear my father fussing at me about you, “I do not want that Hart scamp anywhere near these grounds or you, do you hear me, Jenneefah?”

Jonathan snickered and kissed the tip of her nose. “If you and I got put together for a project like that, um,um,um. Oh, the possibilities.”

Her amber eyes danced with the wickedly delicious images her husband’s suggestions generated in her fertile imagination.

“My God,” she chuckled. “My father would have had a bloody fit. He’d have completely forbidden me to see you, and of course, that would have compelled me to get out to somehow meet you.”

“You sneaked out to meet boys? Is this yet another secret revealed about the lovely, but elusive Miss Jennifer Edwards?”

“Of course I didn’t. I didn’t even like boys until I was way older, Jonathan.” She looked into his eyes. “But I’d have done that with you if we had been kids together. I know I would have. We’d have been great friends.”

“Yep,” he nodded. “More than friends and you know it. I’d have slipped you off, down to that place by the pond you like so much.”

“But you might not have found me so attractive at that time in my life,” she cut in. “I was a lot skinnier then, not quite what you’d call in full bloom. I was nothing like your child is at sixteen. I didn’t quite come into my own until I was-”

“I wouldn’t have cared. You were still you, and I’m sure that even without all the rest, you’ve always had those eyes and that smile. And then, out there, all by ourselves, under the stars, we-”

She shook her head, again.

“For sure, Pa would have followed us down there and caught us. He’d have shot at you, and then I would have ended up in that convent school in the Swiss Alps he was constantly threatening Pat and me with. And then Pat would have been as mad as a wet hen, cursing me out because she would have had to go, too- fussing about how she didn’t even do anything, how it wasn’t even her that time. It was two for one way back then just like it is now with those two upstairs.”

Jonathan added, “And then once Max found out, he’d have boxed my ears good. Girls and gambling, they always got me in trouble with Max. He swore they’d be my downfall. It’s a wonder I didn’t wind up hearing impaired.”

Clasping hands, they collapsed into each other with laughter.

After a few minutes, wiping at her eyes as she regained her composure, Jennifer returned to the matter at hand.

“Seriously Jonathan, I just want to dip these girls here in a vat of reality for a minute. I think it will be an enriching, enlightening experience for them.”

Still grinning to himself, Jonathan pulled his pen from his breast pocket and signed both forms himself.

“J.J. is not going to like this,” he observed. “and Marnie is going to go kicking and screaming. But since you’ve explained it to me like you have, I don’t think it’s too bad an idea after all. I mean, seeing as how Teddy is in Massachusetts, Tommy’s in Spain, and Chase and Chance are in San Francisco; that narrows the list of usual, cruising-my-house suspects for me.”

He finished signing and sat back to put his pen inside the inner pocket of his jacket. She started to, but then decided against telling him that she suspected J.J.’s reason for not participating in the project was most likely the absence of Tommy Steele.

Tommy had certainly been with the group that previous school year when the decision to select that class had been made, but none of them knew at that time that he would be living on an entirely different continent when it came around for them to actually take it. There was no doubt in her mind that J.J. Hart would have gone through with participating in the project if Tommy Steele was on hand. She would have had no problem with playing the role of wife with him as the husband for two weeks. But, with him gone, just as Jonathan said without realizing how on the mark he had been, that particular suspect was out of the picture. Subsequently, J.J. Hart was no longer interested in domestic life. With Tommy, she would have been comfortable. With anyone else, she wouldn’t, not even for pretend. Marnie, most likely, had never been particularly interested in any aspect of it at all, but just like her and J.J.’s other escapades, it was two for one.

“As my little sweeties upstairs, sweating bullets, would say,” Jennifer thought, “whatever.”

Taking the papers up from him, rearranging them back to their original order, she said aloud to her own husband, “If those two want to continue driving themselves to and from school in that car, they had better do it and act as if they like it. They signed up for this class, they knew what they were subject to be getting themselves into, and they’re going to live up to their commitments.”

“Well, darling, in all fairness, the teacher did give them an option,” he reminded her.

“Yes, but they tried to be slick with that option. They should have given these forms to me when they first got them. The teacher said she handed them out on the first day of class, and here I had to go begging for them. If they had done the right thing and explained things to me, I might have been more inclined to cut them some slack. But they’ve gotten themselves locked into it now by trying to be grown and thinking they could get around me.”

“You’d think they’d know by now,” he sighing as he got up and reached back for her hand to bring her along with him. “Come on. Let’s go up there, crack open the door, toss this stuff inside, and run.

____________________________________________________________

“J., you’re Catholic. I’m Catholic. How we going to have a baby between us and not be married?”

“It’s just pretend, and don’t try pulling the religion card out on me, Hector Diaz,” J.J. warned as she pushed the taller, much heavier boy away from where he stood blocking the door to her locker. “I go to church far more often than you do, and I do well to go twice a month. My decision is final. I don’t want to be married.”

“It’s because I’m Puerto Rican isn’t it?” Hector insisted, leaning over her locker door once she opened it to put her things inside, exchanging them for what she would need later at home. “I bet if I was Tommy-”

The look she gave him cut him off. She stared down her friend for a long moment before chastising him.

“Don’t try pulling the race card either, boy. You know that doesn’t even fly with me. I just don’t want a husband, Puerto Rican or otherwise. If I have to go through with this project, then I plan to do it single. Regardless of the kid, the most we can be to each other is significant. And just for the record, Tommy is of Spanish descent, too.”

“Not full, like me.”

“Full, three-quarters, half – I wouldn’t hook up with him like that either.”

“I thought you were going to fun, J.”

“I am going to be fun. I’m just not going to be married. It isn’t personal, Hector.”

“You didn’t say that when we was together, all hot and sweaty, up in my room, making-”

“Shut u-u-u-u-p, Hector,” she sang as she stuffed her backpack. “Don’t even go there. This is just a school project; in all the times I’ve been to your house in real life, I have never everseen or been inside your room. Do not- I repeat- do not let your imagination get carried away. Besides, you decided to be a musician for your career when she made us choose. That means you’ll be traveling, living hand to mouth, gone all the time. That’s no basis for a marriage.”

Hector snorted, ” I cannot believe you said that. You of all people.”

“What?”

“Your mother travels all the time, and she’s good and married. Your father travels a lot, too. I don’t see it cramping his style. You chose to be a writer for your career for the project. So, what, you aren’t ever going to have to travel?”

“Yeah, but I won’t be living hand to mouth because I’m good at what I do.”

“Like I won’t be?” he challenged.

She disregarded him, and kept talking.

“I know first hand that I can work and travel with a kid. I don’t want a musician for a husband. Musicians live primarily for their art. They sleep all day, stay up all night, acting all Bohemian-getting high and messing around with groupies and doing all kinds of bizarre stuff in the name of free expression.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing, J.,” Hector grinned. “My father’s a musician. My whole family’s in the business. They ain’t like that- well, most of them aren’t. Isn’t that kind of stereotypical?

“It isn’t for you, Hector. I know you. You already sneak and smoke cigarettes, despite the fact that you run track. And I could have sworn I smelled weed in the truck the other night when you rode by the house.”

“That wasn’t me. That was my cousin, Orbicio, who was with me. He’s into that. They drug test us athletes, remember?”

“Yeah, and he’s a drummer, if I’m not mistaken. As a musician, you’d get caught up in the life, too, and I’m not going to be bothered with that.”

“So there’s no talking you into marrying me even though you’re having my baby next week?”

“Nope.”

“Philly married Deon.”

“So?”

“What will our parents say?”

“I don’t care about that,” she answered. “If I’m old enough to live on my own, work, have a kid, and be forced into this stupid project; I can make my own decisions about my marital status, too.”

“What am I going to tell my friends? Everybody else is married. They’re going to think I’m some kind of wimp for not being able to talk you into marrying me. Like I can’t handle my woman or something.”

Reaching up, she patted his cheek. “Sounds like a personal problem. Deal with it. Do like me; make your parents pay for making you do this and not the research paper.”

He nodded in agreement with her at that. “Bet, J.”

As J.J. hefted her bag onto her shoulder, Hector assisted her in getting it fully positioned on her back and the strap around the other shoulder.

“Damn, J., This thing’s heavy.”

He held onto it, bearing the bulk of the weight until she was standing and could adjust her posture to accommodate the bag. “You should get the kind with wheels since you carry so many books. And in your condition-”

Immediately she cut her eyes to him.

“First of all, Hector,” she began, pointing her index finger into his face. “let’s get something straight, out in the open once and for all. I only told you the kid was yours. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not really sure whose it is exactly. You see, I slept al-l-l-l-l-l around, with al-l-l-l-l-l your friends. And secondly, for real, you can lay off that “in your condition” crap. This is just a project for school. Don’t get carried away and make this hallway here become a domestic violence crime scene.”

“You know it’s my kid,” Hector cooed behind her as she walked away. “Why else would you pin it on a lowlife musician like me when you could have put it on anybody else? Besides, I know you, J.J. Hart. You ain’t all out there, doing just anybody. You ain’t even cut like that, and you know it. I’m the only man in your life, J. At least for the next two weeks.”

“Whatever,” she called behind her. “You just make sure you have your profile written out for Social Studies class in the morning. She’s not cutting us any slack for starting late. We have to have it turned in first hour, right after homeroom, and I’m not getting a bad grade on this because you didn’t hold up your end. See you out on the track.”

“In a minute,” he called behind her as he watched her walk away.

As he stood there, in his mind he could very well see J.J. Hart doing the same thing to and thinking that same way about some guy in real life. Of all the girls with whom he was acquainted, that one definitely had her own mind. She went her own way and would one day be able to afford to pay her own way. Being the significant other to an independent girl like that, he figured, should probably be real easy. J.J., being who and how she was wouldn’t make too many demands of a lowly, footloose musician.

____________________________________________________________

This is too cute, Jen. So, they spend a week getting it together, and then a week with a kid between them. Home Ec has really evolved.

Not quite a week. They’re coming into it a couple days late since they didn’t give us the paperwork until last night. And it’s not Home Ec any more. It’s Family and Consumer Science now, Pat.

Oh my, so we’ve gone politically correct there, too, have we?

I guess. J.J. just called me, totally disgusted with all of it, and with me and Jonathan for making her go through with it, claiming she thought it was going to negatively affect her track practice session this afternoon. She tried to pull the ‘psychologically damaged’ and ’emotionally scarred’ cards when she had me on the phone.

Not again. Tell her I said those are getting pretty old and frayed. She might want to invest in a new deck.

She told me that she drew her friend, Philly’s brother, Hector to be her domestic partner. It seems our child doesn’t want to be married to anyone. The teacher tried talking her into it, but she wasn’t having it. She says she’s staying single, then she made sure that she called me to tell me that. I think she thought I was going to fight her on it, but I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. I can’t wait to see Jonathan’s reaction to this. Pat, she is such a character. She doesn’t care what anybody thinks of her. I have to give it to her for that; a little heathen sinner, for sure, but she follows her own mind.

We all were heathens at some point. Hell, some of us still are.

Bill’s going to make an honest woman of you in a little bit. How’s the place coming? Will you and Bill be honeymooning there the whole time?

Bill’s in Maryland now. He’s been spending a lot of time there lately. He goes to meet the decorators, let them in, and oversee the work for which I’ve contracted. He’s left the interior decisions to me. He’s having a lot of landscaping done, as well as some exterior work on the house and the other buildings. Eventually we want to put in a guest house, too. I’m going there to meet him this weekend, but then I have to come right back here on Monday. I think we’ve settled on Antigua for right after the wedding, and then after that, we’ll spend some time at our place if most of the work is done by the time we get back.

It took you years after I moved out to get that one apartment the way you wanted it, Pat. And it’s never been done to your total satisfaction. You’re still always doing something on it.

Yeah, but this time I’m not having to buy the unit over my head and on both sides of me. This time the walls and ceilings and things I’m having ripped out are all in one place. Bill’s having a fit, but I don’t give a damn. If he wants me to live in the country like that, then he’s got to give some. I need to be comfortable. That house will probably be an ongoing project, too. I don’t care for the floor plan. Too choppy. Speaking of comfortable, did J.J. say how Marnie made out in the draft pick?

Oh, this is good. J.J. said that Marnie pulled Sidney.

Gay Sidney?

The one and same.

That should be real interesting. Two divas, one household.

I can’t wait for the girls to get in this evening to hear how it went today. They have track practice after school, so they won’t get in until later. J.J. was so bent out of shape over her father signing the papers. Marnie got locked in, being that she’s under my care. I overheard her telling J.J. that she knows she’s being paid back for something she’s done wrong and didn’t get caught doing at the time. It seemed mighty funny to her that the two weeks she’s relegated to my house, are the same two weeks the project got assigned. J.J. told her that it  probably was for something she thought she’d gotten away with.

No better for Marnie’s fast behind. You need to go ahead and adopt her. If it wasn’t for you, there’s no telling how messed up that girl would be now. Why is Marnie at track practice anyway? Marnie doesn’t run track.

First of all, Marnie has the car. The girls have been driving themselves back and forth to school while she’s here with us. That’s been a godsend for me. I’ve been holding taking it away from them over their heads to keep them in line, but there’s no way I’d stop them from driving. Not having to break up my day to deliver and retrieve J.J., I’ve gotten so much done.

Why don’t you just break down, go ahead, and let the Squirt have a car of her own?

I can’t. First of all, I told her seventeen, and now I have to stick to it. If she gets it into her head that she wore me down- nope, can’t do it. And then too, it’s because she’s empowered enough, Pat. Her daddy has her flying jets, and I’m still having a hard time with that one. God only knows what else he’s taught her to do. Thanks to him, she already knows how to drive; it’s just a matter of her becoming legal. I’m letting her get her driver’s license. That’s enough for now. I can wait another year before I have to be worrying about her racking up speeding tickets.

You’re the boss. Now when she gets that license and starts racking tickets up in your car…

Then she’ll be back on foot, and she’ll be twenty-one and purchasing her own before she gets a car. But getting back to Marnie, she’s the track team manager. With J.J. making captain this year, it works out that they’re together anyway. Marnie goes to all the practices to conduct team business. She’s quite the diplomatic little dictator. Right now she’s in the middle of getting them ready for the first big meet. She insists on dress codes, standards of behavior- if you can believe that- coordinating, etc. She’s very well connected, so she also coordinates the fundraising for them. They have an excellent team in terms of their abilities and their discipline. Because she’s so effective at what she does, the girls pay attention to her recommendations. All the parents are quite impressed with her leadership abilities. For such a young girl, she’s already pretty good at managing.

That one has definite potential. I’ve spied that in her already. So, she picked Sidney. I wish I was there in LA to see that play out for myself. They didn’t have Home Ec projects like this when we were in school, did they?

Jonathan and I were laughing about that last night. If Home Ec had been like this, I might not have struggled at it so hard.

If it had been you and Jonathan, you’d have all out flunked. How long ago was that? Let’s see, J.J. would be about forty now, wouldn’t she?

As if you and Teddy Bear wouldn’t have been sneaking in conjugal visits. You almost were, and that wasn’t any project- other than the one the two of you were working on, trying to make me a voyeur in the process while playing lookout for you.

Yeah, well you failed miserably at that. Good thing Tommy’s gone, isn’t it?

I’m not touching on that with you, Patricia.

I’m just saying. That boy sure is fine, Jen, and you know it. Pretty dimples. Quiet, sexy ways. Oooh, strong, muscular thighs. Nice tight ass…

Pedophile.

Say what you want. My eyesight may not be what it once was, but I compensate for that with top of the line contacts, which means I can still very well see what looks good- young or otherwise. And speaking as someone whose sampled it in her lifetime, even though it’s been a while, some of that young stuff-

Patricia!

Well anyway, take good notes, Jen. Keep me posted on the project’s development. How’s Jonathan these days?

He didn’t sleep too well last night, kind of restless, but other than that, he seems fine. I imagine it’ll take him a week or two to get back up to full speed.

Keep an eye on him. You know how he is.

I will, old girl, and I do know. How long will you be held up in Boston?

Until the 11th. I’m going to Maryland on the weekend, but unfortunately, I have to be right back here on Monday morning. But bright and early on the 11th, I have a morning flight out to D.C., right into the arms of the one I love. He’s meeting me there. Love you, old girl. Until next time.

Love you, too, Pat. Until.

Jennifer hung up from her friend, but she remained seated at her desk.

It wasn’t at all unusual for Pat to ask after Jonathan; the two of them had been great friends from the start. But her doing so brought him back to the forefront of his wife’s uneasy mind. Something was going on with him; she could feel it, and it was more than the fatigue she expected.

Jonathan was on the rebound from a recent serious illness which was at first believed to have been his heart. After being hospitalized, it was found to have been something other than that, but while it had him down, that virus had been just as debilitating. He had only been back to work three days, returning sooner than she thought wise, but after being cleared to do so by his physician, that was exactly what he did. It was what she anticipated he would do.

As it was, once he was released from the hospital, she’d kept him out at the beach house in Malibu for a few days before allowing him to come home to Los Angeles. Jonathan was not a man to sit idle for too long. He loved and needed his work, and aside from the stress she felt it would inflict upon him, she had to admit; the work was good for him.

But the night before, he hadn’t slept well, which was unusual for him. He tossed and turned, and at one point she woke to find him sitting in the bedroom’s bay window. Even though, at the time, she wanted to get up and go to him, her instincts kept her in the bed. Something was bothering him They had spent most of that previous evening together, but he hadn’t said a word during that time that would lead her to believe that anything was amiss. It wasn’t until they were in the bed together that she even sensed there was anything wrong. He didn’t stay in the window long after she discovered him there, but when he returned to the bed, he didn’t hold her the way he normally did when he fell off to sleep.

Something was definitely wrong.

And, she figured, some things never changed. If there was anything to it, he wasn’t going to let her in on it until he was ready. She was reassured by one thing; however, it probably wasn’t anything to do with his health. Based upon the quality of his private physical performances since the very night of his release from the hospital, his own well-being would not be what was on his mind. It had to be related to business, and for that, she would just have to wait him out.

In the meantime, she would have her own hands fairly full. There was the unwed rebel mother to deal with and Sidney’s wife-husband-whatever.

____________________________________________________________

“So now we’re sisters-in-law,” Philly Diaz said to J.J. Hart as they changed out of their school clothes into what they were wearing for track practice. “Of sorts.”

“Of sorts,” J.J. agreed. “I’m not marrying Hector. I stuck to what I said. He didn’t like it, but he just had to go along with my decision. After last period, he was at my locker still trying to talk me into it. He used the religious reasons thing, the what would our parents say angle, but then he messed up and went to what would his boys say. He lost me for real with that one.”

“Even not married to him, if you have to have a kid with him, I feel for you, girl.”

J.J. finished tying her laces and stood up from the bench to tuck in her tee shirt and adjust her shorts. “Why do you say that about your own brother, Phil?”

“Because he is my brother, that’s why,” Philly answered as she slammed her locket shut. “I know him. Trifling is the kindest way I can put it about him. You’re going to catch hell once they assign us kids. Hector practically breaks his ankle, turning and running off to keep from having to baby sit our little brothers. I always get stuck with them, even though Raphael and Carlos are boys and Hector is the oldest. He thinks because he’s a senior this year he’s not supposed to do anything like that any more. He always manages to weasel his way out of having to do anything. “Cause he’s a boy, he gets away with it. I’m telling you, it’s murder being the only girl smack in the middle of a bunch of boys. Even with housekeepers and stuff, you still get stuck with grunt work. He’s going to try it with you, too. I know it. You mark my words.”

“I don’t know if I’d want a guy watching my kid anyway,” J.J. said as she put her things away and secured her own locker. “To me, they’re all irresponsible, especially when it comes to things like that. The kid could be right next to him, smoking his cigarettes and drinking his liquor, and he wouldn’t notice it for the game he was watching on television or the headphones he had on his ears..”

“Not Sidney,” Marnie grinned from where she sat on the bench amidst the runners getting suited up for practice.

“I said guy, Marn.” J.J. turned all the way around to face Marnie. “Your situation isn’t quite the same as everyone else’s. In your case, Sid probably is the better parent.”

“Whatever, J. It worked out for me. He’s all excited about taking care of the brat. I’m letting him have full custody.”

Charmaine came around the corner, wrapping a rubber band around her thick braids, pulling them up into a ponytail. It was obvious that she’d been listening to what was being said.

“I sure am glad I decided not to take that class with you all. I can’t think of one boy in this school that I’d even pretend to be married to. Marnie, you and Sid? Full custody? Aren’t you and Sid living together?”

“Nah, when we wrote up the profile for our lifestyles, we put in that I found out he was gay, so we split up. We’re still married, but we don’t live together. I’m seeing other guys. He’s seeing whoever.”

“Then you’re going to have to figure in child support if Sidney has the kid full time, and you don’t reside with them. He has to be compensated. We learned that in beginning law last year.”

“I’m not paying a damned thing,” vowed Marnie in her most business-like tone, giving Charmaine, who’d sat down on the bench next to her, the hand to emphasize her point. “I’m the real, actual female. Sid may want to be a woman, but for now he doesn’t qualify as one because he doesn’t have the right equipment. He’s a man. Women don’t pay child support- just men.”

J.J. snorted, “At your house, maybe. Your father just lets your mother get away with that to keep the peace.”

“And how are you going to play Sid and that baby like that?” Charmaine wanted to know. “If it was the other way around, you’d have a hit  put out on him if he held out child support payments from you.”

“Like I told you, Charmaine DeJean,” Marnie argued. “I’m the female. He’s supposed to pay me. If I don’t have the kid, I don’t have to pay child support, and I’m not going to pay any child support- period.”

This time Charmaine gave Marnie the hand and then turned back around to J.J.

“So, J., I heard you scandalized the FACS class by opting for single motherhood. I bet Ms. Leonard tried to have a baby herself about that .”

J.J. continued adjusting her ponytail so that it was caught up in the band that held it together, forming a loose bun to keep it out of her way during the practice session.

“She tried to talk me out of it,” she finally answered. “I think she was scared of what my parents might think of her letting me do that.”

Britt, who’d been quietly getting dressed on the other side of Marnie offered, “Your mother probably is going to be scandalized, J. You know how she says you’re always doing something outside the box.”

Charmaine snickered, “I know Ms. Leonard was nervous about that, considering who your mother is. Hey, J., remember that email I got last year, that one where your mother was fitting into the categories?”

An abrupt burst of laughter bubbled past J.J.’s lips, “Yeah, the one about, ‘You know you have a black mother when..,’ She was number eight: “All your friends cover for you and try to keep you out of trouble because they know your mother, and they know how she is.”

“Number eighteen was the killer, though, J., Charmaine gasped between giggles. “All the white ladies in the office are scared of her, and all your teachers make sure you stay on point because they don’t want to have to deal with her about you.”

“Hell,” Marnie grinned. “the counselors, administrators, black, white, Hispanic, Asian -shit, me. Mrs. Hart  isn’t black, but she’s no joke. I’d rate her right up there with your grandmother, Char. But without the Bible.”

It was a few minutes before any of them could speak again for the laughter and tears. Finally, J.J. managed to wheeze, “I called my mother already, and told her what I was going to do. I got her out of the way right off the bat. I didn’t want Leonard calling her up again. It’s bad enough that I’m roped into this mess because of her.”

“No!” Britt cried. “You called and told her. Wha’d your mother say?”

“Not much,” J.J. answered. “She was like, “I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”  I’m like, “It’s just a school project, how much could I be getting into?”

“She didn’t check you for getting smart?” Marnie asked.

“I was careful with my tone,” said J.J.. “With her, it’s all about the delivery. Whatever. I’ll handle it okay. I’ll handle Hector, too, if he tries anything. I’m real interested in these dolls we’ll be using, though. They say they’re real high tech, just like real babies. I’ll be glad when they get here, so that I can check them out. I love stuff like that.”

Charmaine patted J.J. on the back. “You know you’ll be breaking down and doing a dissection.”

“Nah, they probably have them wired or something to keep people like me from making any adjustments on them.”

The girls, dressed and ready, started toward the door to go out onto the track.

“I can’t imagine. Dolls that actually wet and crap and get sick,” said Britt. “Ms. Leonard says they even get diaper rash. They have to be fed, and they can run temperatures, as well.”

“Cry, too,” Marnie added. “That’s another reason why I’m glad Sid’s doing it. I couldn’t stand having to be bothered with a crying baby. I need my beauty rest at night. I remember when my brothers were first born, crying and crapping everywhere. At those times, I was always glad to go home to my mother where I was the only child.”

J.J. stopped in her tracks. “Wait a second. Who here in this crew has ever changed a diaper in real life?”

Only Philly raised her hand.

“I feel sorry for the rest of you all’s babies,” Charmaine said, shaking her head as she exited the door first, followed by the others.

“Yeah, I think I do, too,” J.J. murmured.

____________________________________________________________

A death within Hart Industries. A murder. That hadn’t happened in years.

Jonathan Hart sat at his desk in his office high in the Hart Towers. For the umpteenth time, he pondered the details of the police report which had been placed on his desk the day before. He was also bothered by the fact that once again he was holding something back from Jennifer, even if the reason was justifiable.

Having just returned to work from being ill, he didn’t want her any more worried about him than she was. Although there didn’t seem to be any lasting after effects of the virus which had taken him down for those few dark days a couple of weeks before, he could tell that she still wasn’t quite at ease with what happened with him, or with what could have happened to them. His own minor insecurities over being sick, he could handle, but having her frightened and stressed out over his welfare wasn’t something he was ready to go through or to put her through again. Aside from the illness itself, her being worried had been, for him, the most trying part of being down for the count. How she watched him and was so sensitive to his well-being since then was the toughest part of his recovery. She loved him, and he deeply loved her for it.

The young technician’s body had been discovered by security two nights before, during routine late rounds. One bullet to the forehead, the man was found lying next to his car in the employee parking structure at HartToys, the division of Hart Industries which developed and manufactured hi-tech playthings and gadgets for kids and adults, as well as for commercial and educational use. His pockets had been gone through, but his wallet, containing a large sum of money wasn’t taken. It was found underneath the body, which judging by its twisted position, had evidently been turned over during the search.

According to what Arnold pulled up on him so far, he was a promising computer programmer and microchip specialist who had only recently been hired. Reviewing the preliminary personal background check, run when he came onboard, didn’t reveal anything that would even remotely explain why someone might want to kill him.

Jonathan placed the police report back on his desk and pushed back to recline his chair. He was tired, glad for the silent phone. He finally had Liz intercept his calls with the message that he would get back to the caller at his earliest convenience- which wouldn’t be until the next business day, at least. He’d sat in on several meetings with the police, security, department heads, and anyone else concerned with the incident itself or who might be affected by it. HartToys, like Hart Technologies, out of all the thirty-two interlocking companies which made up Hart Industries, was his pet. He had always personally overseen those two divisions. Hart Technologies was where he got his start, and HartToys was where he had his fun.

But this wasn’t fun and it wasn’t funny.

This kind of thing was supposed to be over and done with in his life. Jennifer never really liked the “things” that used to frequently come their way, but she tolerated them because she loved him and because despite her more cautious nature, she, too, craved excitement and intrigue. But once J.J. entered their lives, she’d put that outright recklessness behind her. When she first proposed to him that their lives would have to change in that respect,  she said it was because she didn’t want to put the baby at risk. In time he came to recognize that it was also because she was concerned about herself, concerned about not jeopardizing her chances of building and maintaining her relationship with her daughter. She was no longer willing to purposely involve herself in risky behavior which might result in her being taken away from that child in the way that her own mother was taken away from her.

She felt that way about J.J.’s father, too.

With this last scare, his being sick, behind them she wouldn’t want him involved in looking into this. But he was involved. HartToys was his concern, and so were the people he employed there. The police were handling it, but there was only so much they could do. There was only so deeply they could dig, and they wouldn’t know all the places in which to do it. Only he and the people he had in place to handle such internal matters would know where and how to look.

Sighing, he picked up the phone and clicked into his personal line to the house. He decided to check there for her first. It wasn’t a conversation he wanted to send to her cell, while she was out and about, engaged in something from which this matter might break her focus.

There was no way to avoid telling her, and to put it off any longer could prove hazardous. If she found out on her own, which as more time went by, increased in likelihood given her numerous contacts in the media, there would be red hell to pay all over again. He managed to skirt by it not too long before when she found out about him teaching and allowing J.J. to fly, jets no less. She’d also inadvertently  discovered that he only pretended to take his medication while in the hospital. There had been other things held back from her as well, but that time she cut him some slack because he’d been sick.

This time, he doubted Mrs. Hart would be so forgiving- or pliable- if she were to discover that she’d been left in the dark once again, and it was he who switched off the lights.

When she picked up, he exhaled, grateful for not having to hold onto to it any longer.

____________________________________________________________

“I don’t know what it’s all about, and no matter how careful you try to be, you never know who might be listening in,” Jonathan said to his wife who was sitting across the small table from him wearing an anxious expression on her face. “That’s why I couldn’t tell you this over the phone. It’s why I asked you to meet me here.”

After phoning Jennifer and making arrangements to get together in a neutral location, he held off on filling her in on why he had her come down to the restaurant until after the waiter took their meal order. Her radiating impatience was practically palpable; the waiting was killing her.

“The girls hadn’t gotten in yet,” she said.

“They’ll be all right, Jennifer. They have cell phones. If something’s wrong, they know to call. And when they do get home, Marie will be there. This couldn’t wait any longer.”

“I knew something was bothering you.” Her tone was low, but tense. “Jonathan, what is it?”

“There was trouble at HartToys the other night,” he answered. “A murder.”

“A mu-” She cut herself off when his raised hand signaled her to do it.

She leaned in even closer to whisper, “Who, Jonathan? When? What happened?”

Scanning their immediate surroundings, moving only his eyes, he whispered his answer.

“I only know that it was one of the technicians. Guy named Paul Rider. Fairly new, non-descript. So far, nothing stands out about him. It happened night before last. Bullet to the forehead. All we know is it wasn’t robbery. Allen said it looked like some kind of hit. Nothing was taken from the guy. The actual facility was locked up tight. You can’t get inside the building proper without inputting a personal code, and it appears that robbery wasn’t a motive since Rider’s wallet, stuffed with money, was still with the body.”

“Maybe the killer thought he brought something out. Had something on him,” Jennifer suggested.

“We’re exploring the possibilities,” he sighed. “I just had to let you in on it, and let you know where things stood.”

“It happened night before last, and you’re only just telling me?”

He reached across to take her hand, and he held on to it when she attempted to pull it back in reflex irritation.

“I didn’t want you to worry,” he explained. “It was a knee-jerk reaction, darling. You know how I am. Ever since I got cut loose from the hospital, I can feel you watching me, and I know you’re already concerned that I’m pushing too hard and too fast. This was only going to add to it.”

“So why tell me now?”

“Because I didn’t want you to hear about it from somewhere or someone else. Even though it didn’t happen right here in LA, you being who and what you are, there was the strong chance that you’d run up on it on your own. If that happened, I didn’t want you to get the idea that I was holding out on you.”

“Well, weren’t you? We spent all evening together last night, but you didn’t say a word. In bed, you tossed and turned, couldn’t sleep, and still you didn’t tell me. Jonathan, when are you going to-”

“Now, right now, Jennifer. I’m letting you in now. And I’m asking you to not worry. Things are being handled.”

“By whom, Jonathan? You and who else? There are plenty other people who are better qualified to handle it, but can you promise me that you won’t be knee deep into it with them?”

He continued to hold onto her hand, but dropped his eyes down to the table cloth.

“Jennifer, I don’t make promises I can’t keep. You know that. The best I can do is tell you that I’ll try my best to not get too involved. But we are talking about one of my people here, and it happened in one of our facilities,”

He felt it when she sat back in her chair, and he looked up from the table over to her face when her fingers relaxed between his.

“I guess that’s the best I can hope for,” she sighed in concession. “At least you’re being up front about that part of it.”

Then she asked, “What are we going to do about J.J.? I don’t want her involved in this in any way. We haven’t had to be bothered with anything like this since we had her. She gets hold of it, and who knows. You know how she is; she’s just like you, Jonathan. Both of your middle names should have been Trouble.”

Before he could suppress it, a mischievous grin dripping paternal pride spread across his handsome face. At the sight, she dropped her forehead into her hand.

“Jonathan, you are absolutely hopeless when it comes to that girl. I mention her to you, and you go right from responsible adult straight into her willing accomplice.”

“What can I say?” he shrugged, finally releasing her hand. “That’s my baby- all Hart. We’re- how does she put it- two for one.”

“Damned right,” she whispered. “But I’m telling you one thing, we better come up with some kind of plan. She’s on that internet all the time. She’s bound to run up on the story, if she hasn’t already.”

“Believe it or not,” he said. “I’ve already considered that. I’m figuring the best thing to do is  just go ahead and tell her ourselves.”

Jennifer nodded. “I think that’s probably best. If she finds out on her own, we’ll never know it. She’ll never let on to us that she knows. She’ll be slinking around, scouring online newspapers and websites, snooping, trying to eavesdrop in an attempt to get some fertilizer for that seed she’s uncovered.”

Jonathan smiled his broadest smile. “And that’s what makes her our kid.”

“Yes, Jonathan, but that also tells me that there’s no predicting what she might take upon herself to get into. We need to tell her what’s happened, and then we set some parameters.”

“She’s so into school, her activities, tutoring, and now her project these days, Jennifer. Maybe she won’t even give it much thought once we tell her and get it out of the way. She’s got Marnie there at the house with her, too, diverting some of her attention.”

“Jonathan, please. This is J.J. Hart we’re speaking of, the princess-soon-to-be-queen of multi-tasking. When we get to her, you do the telling, and I’ll set the parameters. Busy or no, if she finds it intriguing enough, J.J. will find the time to get into someone else’s business. A murder? At her daddy’s facility? Please. I can see J.J. eating this one up. If she does, she’ll have Marnie right with her. And oh yes, there’s something I need to tell you about your daughter and that project.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It seems she’s decided that she doesn’t want to be married to Hector. That’s who she got partnered up with. She’s opted for single parenthood, so now you’re the father of an unwed mother.”

“Aw, hell, Jennifer. I told you I wasn’t so sure I wanted her playing around with this. Now she’s gone and taken this thing to a whole other level. We might have made her do it, but I see she’s going to do it on her terms. I should have known.”

“She’s your baby,” Jennifer reminded him. “All Hart.”

____________________________________________________________

“How many times was he shot?” J.J. asked. “Where, what part of the body, I mean? What have the police there said about it? Do they have any leads? Did you go there and visit the crime scene yourself, Daddy? Are you going to go, if you haven’t? Did Forensics take pictures? Did they show them to you?”

Jennifer, seated next to her bathrobe-clad daughter on the one couch, reached out and placed a hand firmly on J.J.’s shoulder.

“Easy, sister.” She pulled the girl back from where she was leaned forward, looking as if she was ready to leap across the coffee table to her father who was seated on the opposite couch with Marnie, who was also dressed for bed.

The Harts had come right in from their late dinner and evening out together and called the girls down to speak with them about the incident at HartToys. They had come to the agreement to not let it wait until the next day. As well-connected as J.J. and Marnie were, they felt it would be best to get the matter out into the open with them as soon as possible.

“The police haven’t said much, and no, I haven’t been over there yet,” Jonathan answered. “Marcus went as soon as we got word, and he stayed all day yesterday. He and our security chief at HartToys, Chris Allen, met with August Lamb when they returned to the downtown office. I’ve only spoken directly with August, and I don’t know about any pictures. Your mother and I just wanted to let you know in case you read it somewhere. We didn’t want you to be wondering.”

“Or doing anything crazy,” Jennifer added while noting that Jonathan didn’t answer J.J.’s question about if he was planning to go to the Simi Valley plant to look into things himself.

“What could I possibly do?” J.J. asked, careful to keep to a minimum any outer evidence of her inner annoyance at her mother’s constant pulling on the reins. “I’m at school almost all day, and with all I’m into, it’s usually after six, close to seven, when I do finally get home. By then I’m too tired and have too much homework to do to be acting out over anything else.”

“Was the guy young, Mr. H.?” Marnie asked. “Did you know him? Was he cute?”

“Does it matter?” Jennifer and J.J. asked in unison.

Momentarily chastened, Marnie leaned into Jonathan’s arm, which he then put around her, administering a quick hug of understanding of her one-track mind in that area.

“If it wasn’t robbery,” J.J. said. “What else could it have been? Who would want to kill a toymaker?”

“The police will find out,” Jennifer  replied. “We’re leaving it to the police. This is all just FYI as far as you two girls are concerned. You just go on with your regular program.”

“What else could I possibly do, Mom?”

“I’m just closing the gate, J.J. You stay on this side of it.”

As J.J. slid her eyes away from her mother in exasperation, “Whatever” seemed to blink in neon green letters from the thought bubble over her head.

“How was track practice?” Jonathan asked, deftly switching the subject. “I know it’s early, but how are the girls looking so far?”

“They’re always good, running-wise,” answered Marnie. “You can’t even tell that J. hurt her ankle this summer.”

“Did you wrap it like you’re supposed to?” He asked J.J. “Like Elias told you? I didn’t pay for a trainer to get you back up to speed, for you to be going out and messing up by not doing what he suggested.”

“She wasn’t going to,” Marnie answered before J.J. could speak. “but I made her.”

Jonathan rubbed her silky head in approval. “Good looking out.”

J.J. stuck out her tongue at Marnie and mouthed, “Little rat.”

Marnie waved her hand at J.J. and continued, “I’ll just be glad when this FACS project is finished so all the drama can stop and we can concentrate on something else. The guys were using the track today, too. All during practice, people were either fake-courting, or it was just one domestic dispute after another. Deon and Philly are sickening as the pro football player and his Latina wife. All the Black girls want to cut him and the Spanish girls want to cut Philly. People have been set up with other people’s real life girlfriends and boyfriends. It’s a mess, and a riot at the same time. Nobody can keep a straight face or be serious about anything right now.”

As if something suddenly occurred to him, Jonathan abruptly switched his attention from Marnie over to J.J. “I’ll get to you in a minute,” he said, pointing to her but turning back to Marnie, whom he asked, “So, who’d you get for a husband?”

“Sidney,” Marnie grinned at him.

“Sidney? Sidney’s your husband? How did he even get thrown into the hat for that posi-”

“Jonathan,” Jennifer cut him off.

“It’s cool, Mr. H. There were a few others who got hemmed up at the last minute, like us. We got to make three suggestions for who we wanted out of the leftovers, then Ms. Leonard made the final choices. She said she was playing the part of Fate. I had chosen Steve, my regular stand-by, Gary, the fine quarterback- he decided to do the project once he found out I was doing it- and Sidney; he’s a lot of fun. She ended up putting me with Sid. Probably ’cause I’m the only one who can take his temperament. We’re married, but we’re split up since he’s gay.”

Jonathan’s eyes rolled at that, but Marnie, not missing a beat, kept right on with her explanation.

“Since Sid is going to have full custody of the baby, I don’t have to do hardly anything. I so lucked out.”

“I’m telling you, Marn,” J.J. said. “you gotta pay child support.”  J.J. turned to her mother. “She thinks she shouldn’t have to pay because she’s female. I keep trying to tell her.”

“And I keep telling you, I’m not,” Marnie vowed as she sat back and folded her arms for emphasis. “I meant that.” She shifted her gaze to Jennifer. “If you guys were split up and he had J., would you pay child support, Mrs. H.? I know you wouldn’t give Mr. H. a dime, would you?”

Jennifer merely shook her head- at Marnie.

“And you,” Jonathan turned back to J.J when he was done checking out Marnie’s attitude and the strongly offensive language being communicated by her diminutive body. “Who were your picks?”

This time J.J. sat back and folded her arms.

“I didn’t pick anybody. When I didn’t, Ms. Leonard gave Hector to me.”

Gave him to you? Okay, so why Hector, if you didn’t pick anybody?”

“Because she said since a kid goes with it, I had to have a physical partner. She wouldn’t let me go with ‘Anonymous Sperm Donor’, like I wrote down.”

She felt it when her mother discreetly nudged her in the side, and she saw the slight widening of her father’s eyes, both reactions generating a mild inner satisfaction as she went on with her explanation.

“And I guess because Leo-, Ms. Leonard knows Hector and I are friends, and that we get along, she assigned us together. Besides, he was just about all that was left by the time she got to me. See, Hector didn’t pick anybody either. He was going to do the research project with me and Marnie and the other hold-outs, but his parents- his father– pushed him into doing the project, too.”

Getting over his initial shock at the sperm donor comment, then highly amused by J.J.’s rare, but obvious irritation with him, Jonathan had to force his voice into sounding serious.

“And I understand from your mother here, that you two aren’t married at all. Is that how we raised you, J.J.? To have a kid without benefit of marriage? Is that the example your mother and I have set for you?”

J.J., her arms still folded, folded her legs, and then shrugged.

“Stuff happens. It isn’t always about how you’re raised or the examples you’ve had in life. Sometimes life deals you a hand, and suddenly it’s about what you believe for yourself and how you feel in your heart. You go with your hunches and work with what you have. You make the choice to not pull from the pot and risk making things worse. Even with a baby, I don’t want to be married to Hector. I don’t want to be married to anybody at all.”

“For this project?” he asked, surprised but intrigued by her stubborn attitude; it was every bit her mother, as well as the insight and truth her words conveyed. “Or for real?”

For a long moment, the two sets of blue eyes locked on each other as Marnie and Jennifer watched the unfolding Kodak moment in rapt fascination.

Finally J.J. answered her father. “For the project.” And it was another long moment before the azure standoff was mutually terminated: He nodded; she checked out her fingernails.

But everybody present in the room understood that with J.J. Hart, what she believed and how she felt in her heart really were all that mattered. This was merely a project for school, according to what she’d said aloud. The jury was still out on her real life.

Through all of it, however, Jennifer couldn’t help but feel that with the latest turn of events at Hart, things might be just getting started.

____________________________________________________________

I like how you handled your father. You stuck to your guns. He was tripping on the sperm donor thing. I thought I’d die. You are so crazy, J. Did you see how the Duchess never batted an eye?

She knows me; she doesn’t shock very easily any more. And yeah, well, Daddy’s my boy and all, but I’m still mad at him for signing those papers and selling us out like he did. He knows full well that this isn’t my scene. She talked him into it. He let having the hots for the Duchess cloud his mind.

(Following a naughty snicker) Maybe it won’t be so bad, J. You got Hector. I got Sid. At least we’re stuck with people we know and like.

Yeah, but in a situation neither of us wanted any part of- married- and with kids. I can already cook and keep house. You can’t, but you’re no doubt going to have staff to do it for you. We should have taken the Student Aide positions they had posted, like we started to, rather than going along with the group and taking this crap class.

Un-uh. Calvin had her bid in for an aide, and you know who would have gotten stuck with that miserable cow. She would have special-requested my ass, just to make memiserable for a whole semester; you know it likes company. And then Grimsley would have gone right along with it. She’d have set me up like that just to get back at me for making her have to counsel with me all last year. When I saw Calvin’s name, and that we didn’t get a choice over what teacher we got set up with, I was through with choosing Aide for an elective. FACS was looking pretty good.

You kept getting in trouble, Marn. Grimsley had to keep counseling with you, if for nothing else, because that’s what she’s supposed to do with repeat offenders like you. It wasn’t like you were listening or taking any of what she said in her sessions with you to heart. You had been in there so much until she was probably just reading off the script by the time the end of the year rolled around. She probably would have fixed you up with Calvin- as payback for wasting her time.

The hell with that and you, J. I was just being me. If people wouldn’t bug me, the real me wouldn’t always be coming out, and Grimsley could have gotten on with her day. But no way was I putting myself into position for a chance at getting stuck with being an aide for Ms. Calvin. I hate her. I’d rather be doing what we’re doing.

You’d have been doing the project anyway, Marn. I hollered when you tried to rat the Duchess out to your father over the phone, and he told you he would have signed you up, too, if he’d have been at home.

And the hell with him, too. So what did you think about that murder thing? Don’t even try denying it; I know you’re over there thinking about it.

My mother told me to leave it alone.

Since when does that stop you from thinking about something?

Not over the phone, Marn.

We’re on the cells.

You never know. She’s Mr. Technology’s wife.

Yeah, you do have a point. Good night, J. Get me up when you do. It takes me a little longer to get ready than you.

It’s all that primping you do, like there’s somebody good to be primping for at school. I’ll hit your cell when I wake up. I have that early breakfast meeting at the coffee house with the financial committee for Homecoming, so I need to get there a little early.

All right. In the morning then. Don’t spend too long thinking about that murder thing, J. You need your sleep. I know you, and I know how you are.

Good night, Marnie.

J.J. was sitting in the bay window of her dark bedroom when she clicked off from Marnie, who was in bed down the hall in the guest bedroom she’d long ago claimed as her own. She smiled to herself when she thought about how Marnie’s father stashed her there with them while he took Kyle to Brookfield, his new boarding school in Massachusetts, to help him settle in.

Marnie and her stepmother didn’t get along at all, and in the two weeks he had to be away, left to themselves, the two of them would have killed each other. Marnie’s mother was also out of town, not that being with her mother would have been any better. Now that she was older, Marnie ran roughshod over her mother when she was with her. After getting caught on the streets at all hours, riding through the streets of LA in that car, Marnie would have ended up at 3100 Willow Pond Drive, anyway. She’d have gotten that call on her cell from the Duchess, flagging her in. Marnie might be sixteen, but she still needed a keeper when her parents were away, and there was only one person suited for that job.

And that one person was down below, slowly strolling away from the house arm-in-arm with her other half. J.J. watched them as they went, noting their matching red bathrobes and that they even stepped in time with each other.

It would never happen like that again. That was once in anybody’s lifetime- theirs and their kid’s. It wouldn’t happen like that again for anyone. Ever. J.J. Hart didn’t believe in magic. She did believe in fate, though, and not even fate could roll the dice so fruitfully that way twice. Not in anybody’s lifetime.

They were headed for the pool house. She watched them all the way, until they disappeared inside.

No way would it happen like that again. Those two had been together forever, but they were still holding hands and making eyes at each other. She’d seen the exchange between them after she said that to her father about not wanting to be married to Hector for the project.

It made her wonder what that would have been like if they had been having that conversation for real. She could tell that her father was playing when he asked her those questions earlier, but was there real meaning behind them? Did he really think she needed to be married to have a child? Of, course he did, at least on the surface. What father wouldn’t?

But how would he really feel if his daughter came to him with that kind of news; she wasn’t married, but it was his only/ first grandchild she was carrying? Would he be angry? Would her mother be disappointed? Being who they were, would it matter to either of them, really, as long as she had her ducks in a row when it went down? If she was old enough, mature enough, educated enough would they be shamed by it? She’d never thought of her parents as being the kind of people who cared what other people thought of them. But being who and how they were, that never seemed a problem for them. To her, they appeared to be the kind of people that other people wished they were. What would they make of an unwed, pregnant daughter? Would they be embarrassed by something like that?

You think too much, J. Just like Marnie said. Just like everybody says. Just like you know you do.

She climbed down out of the window and got over into the bed, with the intention of trying to sleep, but finding her thoughts of the man who’d been shot overriding that desire. Who had he been? Why had it happened? She could picture him lying in a pool of blood in that parking structure she knew so well. What else was there to it that her parents hadn’t told her? It was obvious that they hadn’t said everything. They’d told her just enough to let her in on it, but not all of it. Both of them should have known that holding back would only make it worse.

Resisting the urge to get out of the bed and do it right then, she resolved that some time at school the next day, she’d begin her cyber digging.

When she drifted off to sleep, her mind was still at work, but off on another track.

Why the pool house… You’ve got a room, for Pete’s sake… sure hope Marnie didn’t see that.

No way were they out there just talking. If Marnie saw them go there, she’d surely be running that mouth about it in the morning…

… if she didn’t hit her up on the cell before that…

As if on cue, the cell buzzed on her nightstand. She turned over on her other side, ignoring it.

____________________________________________________________

“Sperm donor, Jennifer?”

Jonathan directed that question to his wife as he stood in the bathroom mirror shaving, getting ready for work. She was styling her hair after blowing it dry. He watched in admiration and appreciation as she stood upright from under brushing it and then shook the fluffy red mane until it fell down into place.

“How is it that at sixteen our daughter knows about sperm donors?”

“I wondered how long it was going to take you to bring that up,” she answered as she checked herself out in the mirror, using her fingers to arrange a few stray hairs. “I must say, you did well. You at least held out overnight.”

“I had other things occupying my mind last night. At that time, I was otherwise engaged.”

Moving from the counter to right behind him, she pressed her towel-wrapped self against him and spoke into his ear. “Too busy being a donor yourself?”

His eyes met hers as they peeked over his shoulder into the mirror he still faced.

“Can we keep to the subject at hand?” he asked, moving her nimble fingers away from playing against his lower belly, where she’d slid them underneath where he had his bath towel tucked to keep it snugly wrapped around his waist.

“I thought I was,” she smiled.

“You know what I mean.”

She moved away, back to her spot next to him at the vanity and began working on her makeup.

“J.J.’s very bright, Jonathan. She reads all the time, and she notices everything. If she’s interested in something, she’ll read and research about anything on the subject. I rarely censure her any more, and it probably wouldn’t matter if I did. She has an enormous intrinsic need to learn. It drives her.”

“Does she have to know so much about that kind of thing?”

“She’s fascinated with biology and genetics.”

“And any gaps she might have after reading and researching on her own get filled in for her by another very reliable source.”

“What’s a mother for?” she said to his reflection. “I won’t have her operating on false or misleading information. Keep in mind, you said it yourself, she’s your child, which means she’s not afraid to try too much of anything. It’s better that she be armed with the right stuff when she does.”

He stopped and took a good look at her as, bent over from the waist, she worked on her face in the mirror. She was wrapped in that bath towel and nothing else with the same red hair and freckled skin as his daughter’s, same general build, and the same long legs.

“I’d rather not think about that,” he replied, at which she raised her eyes to his reflection and smiled at the sight of his reddened cheeks.

“Do you think she actually wrote ‘sperm donor’ down as a choice and gave it to the teacher?” he asked.

She chuckled, “I don’t doubt it for a moment. That girl has no shame, and she didn’t like it at all that we made her participate like we did. Using a sperm donor and then when that didn’t work, choosing to be a single mother for this project, those are her ways of acting out her irritation. Ms. Leonard called me about it to clear it with me, but J.J. had already phoned and told me herself by then. I think J.J.’s personality and nerve make Ms. Leonard nervous.”

Jennifer suddenly stood upright and faced him, mascara brush in hand. “Jonathan, don’t tell me that for once you’re scandalized by something J.J. Hart has done.”

“I won’t say that I’m scandalized, but she did kind of catch me off guard with it,” he answered as he rinsed the remaining shaving cream from his cheeks and chin.

“Things sure have changed,” he continued as he dried off on the hand towel she then offered. “I can’t see myself writing something like that down for Anastasia when I was in her class. Or any one of my teachers when I went to public high school after I went to live with Max. Can you picture Anastasia’s face at the mention of sperm, much less a donor for it? Boy, that time the cop brought me back to Mission Street after the usher caught me with what’s-her-name in the balcony at the movies- I thought sure that Anastasia was going to kill me.”

“Scandalized?”

“Totally. But it was worth getting the yardstick over.” He wrinkled his nose and grinned in happy memory. “Back then sex, babies, none of that was discussed in school. Certainly not in Catholic school and not too much in public. Based on my formal education, I shouldn’t know anything along those lines.”

“A lack of formal education in that area doesn’t seem to have hurt you any.”

“Thank goodness for balconies, back seats, and hands-on. And you should talk. Prep school didn’t stunt you any, Miss Edwards. I’m sure that stuff wasn’t on the menu at the Gresham Hall Preparatory School for Girls, either.”

“It wasn’t.” She sent him an air kiss. “It’s a gift. A natural ability.”

He returned her gesture. “And the two of us together…”

“So, J.J. gets it honestly.” she summed up, shooting his soaring ego right out of the sky with it. “It’s genetic.”

He slumped against the sink with the resultant pang of paternal angst. “Oh God, I hope not. Not my baby girl. I’m not even real comfortable with her playing house like this, even if it is for school.”

“She’s not going to be a child much longer, Jonathan. I keep telling you that. I suggest you stop resisting getting yourself ready for it.”

“Jennifer, I don’t understand. How can you be so calm about it? She’s your kid, too.”

Turning to him, sliding her arms around his waist to hold him close, she looked up into his face.

“Because even though she is my daughter, I see her as a person first. A beautiful, intelligent, funny, incorrigible person who every day reminds me more and more of her beautiful, intelligent, funny, incorrigible father.

“Like her determined, headstrong father, whatever choices she makes in life will be her own. She doesn’t follow; she isn’t easily swayed. I don’t worry so much about that sort of thing with her.

“For a girl, sexual relationships are emotionally and physically invasive, and J.J. Hart isn’t going to easily let someone get close enough to get inside her heart or anywhere else right now. When she does, however, it will be the one she wants to be there, and probably who deserves to be there. When that happens, there won’t be anything you or I will be able to say that will matter to her or that will change her mind about it.

“But, Jonathan, that time is not now, and  I don’t think it will be for a while. But when it does come around, I’m comfortable that she’ll enter into it knowledgeably and of her own will. Like you, she doesn’t do things she absolutely does not want to do. The things she does, she does them because it’s her will to do them, and nobody else’s. She wouldn’t even be doing this project if there wasn’t some part of her that was intrigued by it, even if that part of it happens to be simply keeping us off her back.”

“I’m glad you can be so calm about this, Jennifer. If it was just me on my own with it, she and that face and that body would have me a basket case by now.”

“I can easily handle all of that and J.J. It’s funny, you’d think it would be the other way around, but the older she gets, the easier she’s becoming- for me. What I’m not calm about, Jonathan, is this thing at Hart and you. I can tell that getting to the bottom of it is still on your mind.”

“Were you trying to divert my thoughts when you took me out to the pool house last night?” he asked, kissing her forehead. “By the way, thank you for the wonderful massage… I loved that new oil… and for everything else you did to relax me.”

But she was not to be distracted by his gratitude, the kiss, or the other physical overtures he was attempting to press upon her.

“Jonathan, promise me you won’t get in deeper than you have to. Leave it to the police and to Security to handle.”

“No deeper than I have to,” he vowed, looking down into her soulfully pleading eyes.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Although they shared a kiss to seal the deal, in his heart, he prayed in earnest that nothing came up to make him have to break his word to her.

____________________________________________________________

“Why, oh why are boys so trifling?” J.J. wondered to herself as she looked over the papers that Hector stuffed into her hand right before they left the lockers to go to their respective homerooms. That was the class where attendance was taken and other housekeeping and record-keeping chores were completed before reporting to the first academic class of the school day.

Hector had missed the breakfast meeting at the coffee house where, as the captain, he was supposed to represent the interests of the boys’ track team. When she met up with him in the hall at school, and called him on it, his response had been, “Aw girl, you had it handled. Just tell me what happened. Whatever you and the girls are going to do, that’s what we’ll do.”

He was referencing her being the captain of the girls’ track team as well as the financial officer on the Homecoming Dance committee.

“You got my back, girl.” he’d said as he clapped her on the shoulder just before he turned his assignment over for her to submit to their Social Studies teacher.

Comparing her own work to his, where the personal profile she had completed for herself was neatly typed on the template Ms. Leonard had provided to them for the FACS project, Hector had scribbled his out in pencil on sheets of wrinkled, dog-eared loose-leaf paper. It looked to her as if he had done it over the steering wheel of his truck while sitting in the parking lot that morning.

“A senior,” she scoffed, shaking her head in disgust. “Not a complete sentence or bit of end punctuation to be seen anywhere.”

She raised her hand.

“Yes, J.J.,” Ms. Bartholomew said when she looked up from the daily attendance roster she was completing and noticed the arm waving in the air.

“May I go over into the computer lab? I just noticed where something is messed up that I need to correct for first period.”

“Sure, J.J.,” the woman answered. “Go ahead. But don’t stay in there and be late for first hour. I know how you get around computers.”

“Thanks,” J.J. replied, gathering her things and getting up. “I won’t be late.”

“Your mother said leave it alone, J.,” Marnie whispered from the desk next to J.J.’s.

“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” J.J. whispered back, almost hissing with annoyance. “For your information, I have to punch up this crap Hector’s trying to hand in, getting us a bad grade. This is why I hate group and collaborative projects. I haven’t had a grade lower than an A in any class since I’ve been in high school, and I’ll be you-know-what-ed if I’m going to get a bad grade in an elective class like FACS because of somebody else’s laziness. I’ll knock Hector’s dullard head off first. This part is for Social Studies. He must be crazy, turning in junk like this connected to mine in an academic class.”

“Do what you gotta do,” Marnie said as she continued applying a thin layer of top coat to her already shiny nails. “Sid did ours after I gave him my stuff. But don’t you mess around, doing stuff that gets us put back in the car with the Duchess.”

Marnie, well aware of J.J.’s almost obsessive attention to the quality of her schoolwork, was even more conscious of J.J.’s mother’s consistency in following through on her threats. “I’ll cover for you in Social Studies if you’re a little late, so they won’t be phoning her up and getting it started. That’s all we need.”

“I won’t be late,” J.J. assured her. “I have the template on a disc in my notebook. All I have to do is fill it in- better than this mess.” She held out the rumpled sheets of paper at which Marnie frowned. “But if you happen to see Hector in the hall on your way to class, you be sure to tell him-”

“-you’re kicking his ass. I know, I know.” Marnie said, waving her off and drying her nails at the same time. “Go ahead. Hurry up. You’re wasting time.”

____________________________________________________________

Alone in the computer lab, J.J. had the machine booted up, the template loaded, and was finished fixing up Hector’s work with a few minutes to spare before the bell signaling the end of Homeroom. She sent the repaired profile to the printer, popped out her disc, and clicked onto the internet.

“Won’t hurt to take a peek.” she said to herself as she typed “Simi Valley News” into a search engine and then immediately bookmarked it when it popped up. She also called up and bookmarked the “Ventura County Star”. Then she emailed the new hyperlinks to herself to have at home. The various Los Angeles papers were already saved as “Favorites” on that, her computer of choice in the lab and on her home computer.

Going back to the “News”, scrolling down, she caught a quick glance of a headline alluding to her subject of interest. Skimming the accompanying article, the words HartToys and Jonathan Hart Industries confirmed that she’d found what she was looking for, but the bell rang before she had the opportunity to peruse it more closely for exact details. Fighting her natural curiosity, she logged off the computer and organized her things again. It was too early in the school year to be using up one of her three grace tardies. She might need to exercise upon them in a more desperate situation later on.

Snatching Hector’s now neatly typed profile from the printer on her way out, she headed for class, determined to make it back to that lab before the day was over. She could better concentrate there. At home, she would be contending with either her mother or Marnie, and she didn’t want to have to be bothered with their intrusive nonsense.

____________________________________________________________

Allen heard the voice before the secretary could buzz the intercom to announce their guest. There was no mistaking that distinctive timbre, and although the visit wasn’t scheduled, it wasn’t at all surprising to hear it. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that the man would want to come to check things out for himself. Even though he was in charge of it all, hands-on was not in any way beneath him. It was just one of the many things that made working for him so gratifying.

“Of course.” was the answer buzzed back.

Standing and pulling on the suit jacket hanging from the back of the chair, Allen came around the desk, making sure to check her face and hair in the oval mirror on the back of the office door as she approached it. She was just about to reach for the knob when it opened, admitting Jonathan Hart followed by August Lamb, Operations Chief for Hart Industries Security. As head of security for HartToys division, Chris Allen held an important position within the company herself, but her heartbeat quickened some in the commanding presence of the CEO, as well as that of her own immediate superior. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged and then all three sat down in the conference space set up within her office. Although the table was round, there was no doubt as to who was at its head.

Mr. Hart was recently returned to work from a brief, but serious illness. As far as she could see, however, if one wasn’t personally aware of it, that wasn’t something that could be picked up on from his appearance. He looked the picture of mature, virile vitality. An imposingly good-looking man with a full head of silver-streaked chestnut hair, very direct crystal blue eyes that appeared to be focused on one thing while they, in fact, took in everything around him, and that dazzling, engaging smile. Trying not to be too obvious in checking him out, she noted that, as always, he was tastefully and expensively dressed, but in a subtle, understated manner. The navy shoes he wore matched exactly with the color of his double breasted suit. The man even smelled good. His easy, personable manner, was a welcome contrast to his crisp Brooks Brothers appearance, and it served to make him just that much more attractive. Definitely debonair.

She consciously suppressed a sigh.

“You know I had to come.” he said sitting back, crossing one leg over the other. “Once I got word.”

Allen nodded, not quite sure what it was about his eyes that always made her so uncomfortable when he focused them on her. “I figured you would, regardless of the fact that you’re just getting back to work. How are you feeling these days, Mr. Hart?”

“I’m great.” he answered. “And it’s Jonathan. It’s good to be back, but I have to say that I wasn’t anticipating walking right into something like this.”

“I’m sure that you weren’t. But who knew? I mean, there was nothing at all to signal it. We haven’t had an incident like this in years, not since the Robbie the Robot thing back when I first came onboard. Even in that situation, we had inklings of a problem way beforehand. Everything is locked up so tightly now; there are so many controls in place. So far, there’s nothing we can see that led up to this.”

“What was he working on?” Lamb asked. “Anything out of the ordinary? Something new from Development maybe?”

“Robotics.” Allen answered. “He was instrumental in developing and implementing  computer chips and digital components used in the more advanced units. Nothing exactly new, really. Improved perhaps. Enhanced maybe, but not new.”

“Specifically?” Hart asked.

“Well, he was on several different projects at the time of his death. All of them having to do with improving movement and reaction. A lot of rights-protected stuff. Top secret. We thought that might be an angle, but so far we haven’t unearthed anything. The physical plant itself didn’t seem to have been disturbed or breached in any way that night. Once he was on the other side of that elevator door, in the parking structure, it was if he’d left one world and entered into another.” Catching herself, she drew in breath. “Ooh, I’m sorry. Pardon the metaphor.”

“No offense taken.” Hart smiled, obviously amused by it and her reaction to it despite the gravity of the situation, much to Allen’s relief.

“Did he have family?” Hart asked. “Have you been to see them, if so?”

“A wife, according to our records here.” she replied. “But estranged, according to Arnold Zale’s investigation into the matter. We didn’t go see her because we haven’t been able to locate her. In fact, to my knowledge, the body is still at the morgue, waiting to be claimed. One of our people did the identification, but as far as I know, that’s all there’s been since then.”

“Would it be possible for us to see his actual workspace?” Lamb inquired

“Sure, but the police have asked that we not disturb anything there right now. It’s roped off and being guarded right now, but I’m sure it’s okay if the CEO and the Chief of Security have a look.”

Hart stood, which drew the other two to their feet.

“Well, we can’t have that body just left, abandoned at the morgue.” he said. “We take care of our own. August, call Zale and put him on the family/relative angle. There has to be somebody. In the meantime, Ms. Allen, you and I can go down to his work station. I’d like to take a look for myself.”

“All right.” she said, accompanying Hart out of the room. “But it’s Chris. I ask you to do that every time. Please. Call me, Chris.”

“Chris.” he replied, followed by that smile.

And it took another conscious effort on her part, a very strong one, to hold back the sigh.

____________________________________________________________

“J., can you help me with my budget?” Hector asked as he entered the sound booth in the music room where J.J. was already at work.

Her back was to him, so she couldn’t hear him for the headphones she was wearing. When he tapped her on the shoulder to gain her attention, she jumped.

“What, Hector?” she cried, snatching the pads from her ears after turning around and seeing that it was him who was so rudely taking her away from where she wanted to be. “You know better than to bug me when I’m working in here.”

“Aw girl, I’m better at this than you. I can show you all you need to know.” Hector sat down next to her at the sound board. “I need you to help me right now.”

“With what?”

“My budget. It ain’t workin’ out like I have it written. I’m not going to make it on what I got set up for myself.”

“I told you that you were going to be living from hand to mouth. That’s why I didn’t hook up with you legally for this project thing. You don’t handle your business. I like a man who I don’t have to lead around, who can handle his own affairs.”

“Come on, J. Help a brother out.”

“I’m an only child. Besides even if I did have a brother, incest wouldn’t be my thing.”

“I’m supposed to be your man.”

“Not according to Carmelita. She had the nerve to come up to me, warning me to not get too attached. I tol-l-l-d her, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t have a thing to worry about; I wasn’t even going to pretend to get attached to your sorry hide.”

He made a face at her. “Forget Carmelita. I think she’s stalking me. We don’t go together or nothing. Are you going to help me or what?”

In response to his question, J.J. put her headphones back on, and cemented it with, “I’m busy. I have to finish working on perfecting a bridge for this tune.”

He pulled the headphones from her head entirely. “Let me do that. You look at my budget before we both get a bad grade. You know if mine isn’t right, yours gets marked down too.”

“That’s freaking blackmail, Hector!” she exclaimed, grabbing for the headphones he held above her head, just out of her reach. “I want to make my own music. You do your own budget. The last time I looked at that mess you wrote up, I told you, the amount that you allotted for rent would have you living in an old abandoned school bus. Then, you were too busy writing that hot note to Bianca, who’s not thinking about you. You need to cut back on how much you spend on food and entertainment, and put more to your living expenses.”

“I have to eat, and it ain’t entertainment; it’s my livelihood. I’m a musician. Clubbing is what I have to do to make it. And Bianca is hot for me. Look, we’re going to flunk this part, J., if you don’t help me out with this.”

“We?” She snatched from his hand the papers he was waving around. “You make me sick. I bailed your butt out this morning when you handed me that junk you were trying to turn in for a profile.”

“What? I finished it. It was done. What did you have to do to it?”

“It was crap, Hector! It wasn’t typed. You didn’t even use the format she gave us. You just scribbled it out on lined paper in pencil like some third grader, and had the nerve to tell me to turn it in with mine, looking like that. I took it to the lab and typed it out on the template you should have used. I had to edit it and everything. It was borderline illiterate. You should be ashamed.”

“Good looking out on that.” he said, patting her on the shoulder, donning the headphones he’d taken from her, and then swiveling away from her to the sound board, expertly flicking switches and sliding levers. “See what you can do with that budget. I’ll finish you up here. You’re good with numbers, I’m the bomb with the notes, musical ones, that is.”

For a moment, all she could do was stare at his back, shocked by his macho nerve. Finally, in total frustration, she smacked him hard across the shoulders with his own papers, an action which garnered no reaction on his part whatsoever. He continued with what he was doing, oblivious to her and the outside world, his head bobbing and his body swaying to the music- her music- which was now playing into his ears and head. Hector loved it like she did, and also like her, he had a gift for it. He simply wasn’t as academically motivated or inclined.

Staring down at the jumbled list of crudely written notes and figures, which had evidently been erased and rewritten several times in several places, she twitched her shoulders and stamped her foot in aggravation and surrender. Storming out of the booth, she returned to the outer classroom.

“You get your arrangement together, J.J.?” Mr. Washington asked as she smoked past his desk where he sat, looking over some papers.

“No.” she answered as she dropped down in front of one of the classroom computers. “But I’m sick of this arrangement I have with Hector and FACS class. This isn’t working out, and it hasn’t even really gotten started.”

“Domestic issues already?” the teacher smirked, well aware of the situation of several of his students participating in the project and how it was affecting their behavior and participation in his classes.

“For real, Mr. Washington. Every day I’m stuck doing this thing- and it’s only been two- my position that I’m not EVER getting married- to anybody- is that much more reinforced. I don’t need or want a man leaning on me, slowing me down, and Hector is getting awfully heavy. He’s naturally slow.”

Mr. Washington could only shake his head. He’d never met anyone like her; smart- old smart- talented, self-confident and definitely a tough cookie. For a rich mans’ daughter, J.J. Hart was nobody’s aloof, pampered princess. With her self-reliant attitude and low key manner, if one didn’t know, they wouldn’t know.

But the low key thing made sense. She was a lot like her people. The Harts were loaded, but they lived up to their name. J.J., like the rest of the student body, probably had no idea that the sound booth she’d just walked out of and that computer lab she spent so much time in were the result of her father’s philanthropic generosity. He’d shown up, in person- no entourage, no bodyguards, just him- late one evening to present the music department with a wish list that he wished be kept quiet. He and a group of corporate benefactors saw to the computer lab, the network, and its satellite equipment.

The English Department and the library were just as quietly benefiting from the knowledge and expertise of Mrs. Hart and her many friends in the literary world as well as from a trust she’d set up for those departments in the name of her mother. The only stipulation the Harts made on any of it had been that there be no fanfare, no thanks, and no special treatment for their girl. Their explanation had been that they knew a good thing when they saw one, and they wanted to be of assistance in keeping the programs already in place state of the art and running, so that other kids could benefit from them in the way that J.J. had.

If one didn’t know, they wouldn’t know.

Making a visual check of the other students working on various assignments in the room, he glanced back at that redhead with the magic fingers seated at the computer, and then went back to the paperwork before him. Somebody, he figured, someday, was going to fall in love with that girl and his heart was going to catch hell. Lord help him if he messed around and finally convinced her to marry him. To keep up with J.J. Hart, that would have to be one hell of a man.

Slinging the ponytail off her shoulder to hang down her back and out her way, J.J.’s fingers skimmed over the keys, her fingernails clicking, tapping out like a Morse code, her anger and frustration.

“What’s next week going to be like with the kid?” she wondered to herself. “If it’s like this now with just us? Philly said Hector was going to be a trip. She should know. I’m not getting married or involved like this for a long, long time. I could not be bothered with this kind of interference on a permanent basis.”

As she worked, she thought about when she was little and at home with her mother all day while her father was away at his office. She could recall her mother at her desk, on her computer, trying to work on her writing while at the same time keeping up with a small child. She considered all the running around her mother did and had always done for her father; picking up his suits from the cleaners, ordering his shirts from the tailor, keeping up with what he ate, small things like straightening his tie before they went out, big things like lining up the details when Hart Industries had functions at the house or elsewhere, taking care of his personal correspondence, making and going with him to his medical appointments since he’d been back from the hospital – it was a lot, too much to be doing while keeping up with herself and a kid.

Then she thought about how her mother was always behind her. Pushing her to do well in school, to be a lady and not so much a tomboy. Making sure she held her tongue when she really wanted to just let it rip. Trying to keep her from becoming a Jezebel or a harlot. The Duchess spent a lot of time, talking, explaining, pulling back on her, making her slow down and/or not do some of the things she liked doing because she considered them too wild, or too dangerous, or too common for her daughter to be doing. She did those same things with Daddy, slowing him down, fussing about the wrong/ dangerous/ reckless things he did, wanted to do, or attempted to do; making him do what she thought he should do to take better care of himself.

Way too much intervention for her over stuff that wasn’t directly related to her. How did Jennifer Hart do it, and not walk around annoyed and feeling put upon all the time?

“Forget that.” J.J. whispered to herself as she quickly rearranged Hector’s mish-mash of notes and figures so that they made more sense and balanced out. “There’s not that much love or patience in me. I can’t be bothered with looking after somebody else like this all the time; I can barely take care of myself. And I don’t want some oaf of a guy all in behind me, needing me, wanting something from me, keeping me from doing what I want to do. If it weren’t for this grade…”

If my mother did say something to him about the HartToys thing, Daddy probably isn’t paying that much attention to her about it.

Much like his daughter.

I know good and well she told him to leave it alone, too.

Taking a quick peek around herself, she could see that everyone else in the music room was occupied with their respective tasks, including Mr. Washington. As soon as she finished with Hector’s budget, and checked it over, she sent it to the printer. Then she clicked over to the internet, immediately inputting, “Murder + Jonathan Hart Industries+ HartToys” as key words in the Search box.

I’ll bet anything that’s where Daddy is right now.

When her results popped up, she leaned in.

____________________________________________________________

What makes you think that’s where he is, Jen?

Because I know him. When I was talking to him about it, I could see that he heard me, but that he wasn’t listening. He had that look in his eye like he was just humoring me. He’s over at HartToys right now, and you and I both know it.

Well, you married him. You went along with his craziness up until you got the Squirt. Then you expected that he could just turn it off? It’s who he is, Jennifer.

I know that. I accept that. But unfortunately, it’s how his child is, as well. She’s probably somewhere at school, on a computer, being nosy herself. She’s turning out to be just like him. Curious to the point of it being precarious.

Nothing you can do about it except what you’re attempting to do; stay on top of it. She’s gifted. Gifted kids can be strange and relentless like that. Like we were. I’ll put my feelers out, like you asked. I can go deeper than you can with my inside track with the wire services.

I know; that’s why I called you. And I also know that you’re busy. I appreciate your doing this for me.

Just a matter of putting a few people on it. It’s what they get paid to do, And it’s not for you. I’m just trying to keep a good friend and his kid from getting taken out by someone else I love, who’ll go to jail afterward. And then where would I be? Out here all alone. I don’t visit people in prison, Edwards, just so you know.

Funny, Patricia. I just worry about those two, that’s all. They have no brakes when it comes to sticking their noses in places they don’t belong.

Whatever you say. Listen, how goes the class project?

Hector is on J.J.’s nerves. In her estimation, he’s already playing the deadbeat. As far as Marnie goes, it’s business as usual. She does her schoolwork, so her profiles and budgets and things are all caught up and turned in. But she’s gotten into trouble twice for not participating in the child care lessons. The second time, I had to threaten to take the car away from her again.

(Laughter from the Boston end) What happened?

Well, she figures since she’s not going to have custody of the “baby” next week, why should she practice changing diapers and all that? First I got a call, then finally she finally brought home a citation note from Ms. Leonard saying that she was demonstrating a “distinct lack of commitment” to learning how to care for a child. When Jonathan asked her about it, she simply admitted that she hadn’t been committed to it from the beginning, which was why she signed up to do the research project. It cut Jonathan’s breath off, she was so up front and nonchalant about it.

(More laughter) That sounds just like her. Blunt as hell. I’ll bet Sidney was all in there, learning, wasn’t he?

Of course, which was why Marnie thought she didn’t have to. In the end, Jonathan told her to “pretend” to be interested, make the grade, and not risk being put back on foot- as if I would really do that to myself.

What about the Squirt? What does J.J. have to say?

Believe it or not, she likes kids. She enjoys working with them in the tutoring program over at Mission Street, but of course they’re older children. But she hasn’t complained any about the child care lessons in FACS class. However, she did say she wished they were working with the actual dolls they’d be using next week. They’re supposed to be like real babies according to the brochure she brought home. She said that in class, they work with regular dolls and it isn’t the same. The kids treat them rough, make mistakes, drop them and what have you, and there’s no immediate repercussions except for the teacher fussing at them. J.J. doesn’t think the lessons are real enough, and therefore, they aren’t really taking.

She’s so old.

(Chuckling on the LA line) Yes, our baby came here old, didn’t she, Pat?

I remember, from the start she was such a serious little baby. Such sober, observant eyes. I knew right off that she was going to be very intelligent- and old beyond her years.

The kids have to go shopping this weekend to put together costs for a layette and to decide how they’re going to fit it into their budgets. They have to keep a journal of their experiences, starting with the shopping trip. I want so badly to see what J.J. has to say in hers.

You know Marnie’s probably isn’t going to be fit to read, not without sunglasses and earplugs.

(Mutual laughter on both ends.)

Well, I know you have a million things to do and so do I, so I’ll let you go. You’ll phone me if/ when you find out anything more than what I told you?

You know I will, old girl. And you keep me posted about the girls. Love you, Jen.

I love you, too, old girl. Talk to you later.

Jennifer clicked off from Pat and pressed the button that would connect her to the direct line to Jonathan’s desk. When his voice box told her that he was sorry he missed her, she didn’t leave a message at the tone. Switching off from that line, she connected to Liz, his personal secretary, who informed her that he was out of the building, but that she was certain he had his cell phone with him. She thanked Liz and then tried August Lamb’s office. He, too was out of the building, which, as far as she was concerned, confirmed her suspicions. There was no need to try Jonathan’s cell. She didn’t want to speak with him that badly, and it wasn’t like he was going to volunteer where he was, if that was where he was. She wasn’t about to call him up and ask him; that wasn’t her style. Besides, she already knew. He and August- there wasn’t a doubt in her mind as to where her husband was.

“How was your lunch, Mrs. Hart?” the waiter asked as he removed the finished plate from the table.

“Everything was fine, as usual.” she smiled. “It was delicious.”

“I’m glad. Is there anything else I can get for you? Coffee? A bit of dessert?”

“No, just the bill, please.”

When the waiter left her side, she quickly checked her face in the mirror of her compact. Lipstick, she’d need some. That would require a stop in the restroom on the way out. There were two more stops she had to make, and then she had a three- thirty interview appointment at the country club and a five o’clock committee meeting.

She already had a hundred things to do. Keeping track of Jonathan Hart and his daughter made one hundred one and one hundred two.

____________________________________________________________

“Good morning, Mr. Hart.”

He shook hands with Ken Matheson as they passed his office on the other side from where they’d just come, but on the same floor. Matheson had come on with Chris all those years ago, and was now her right hand in HartToys security.

“You look great.” Matheson said.

“I feel good.” Jonathan answered. He really did.

As he moved through the immense HartToys facility with Chris Allen leading the way, he was impressed and satisfied by what he saw. With the advent and subsequent popularity of electronic toys and gadgetry, things had really taken off. What started off as a lark acquisition, had grown into a major division within the Hart Industries conglomerate. Many of the  faces he passed were long familiar to him. The people who came to work at Hart, usually stayed.

As they proceeded on, He also realized that it had been quite some time since his last visit. That last time, he had come with J.J.

For Christmas that year, as one of her gifts, she’d received from her godmother, Pat, a toy robotic dog, which totally fascinated her. So much so that as soon as she was off to herself, much to her mother’s consternation, she took it apart to see how it operated. But that was how it had always been with that girl.

When J.J. was only an infant, he noticed how she would study her playthings, especially the moving or noisy ones. It was beyond unusual. First it was with her eyes, then she began to reach, to try to touch things, at what Jennifer said was a terribly early age.

As she got a little older, God forbid a toy should talk or do something out of the ordinary around J.J. Many a string got snapped, button jammed, wind-up wand sprung, object-filled sphere cracked open, in her attempt to see what was inside or how the toy did what it was doing. Once she learned to manipulate tools, starting with sticks, rulers, pens, pencils, or nail files; it was all fair game. He and Jennifer began to refer to her incessant tendency to take things apart as her “dissections”.

When J.J. “dissected” her very first computer, Jennifer was outraged by what she took for “irresponsible nosiness”. Passing by J.J.’s room and seeing her surrounded by the various component parts, which she was closely studying, Jennifer fussed at her about what she’d done, and then threatened her with severe punishment if she wasn’t able to put it all back together. When J.J. assured her mother that she could, Jennifer gave her twenty-four hours to do so. That was on a Friday evening. Early on Sunday, when she went back into J.J.’s room to wake her for church and to check on the situation, she found the child sitting at her desk, quietly doing her homework on the intact, apparently fully functioning computer. J.J. was nine at the time.

Since then, she’d honed her skills to the point where she was sometimes employed by the Hart Industries computer scientists to do some of their grunt work with the machines. She was learning a lot and learning fast under the pretense of having fun, while at the same time earning her own money. He liked that his daughter enjoyed earning her own money.

On their last trip to HartToys together, he took J.J. to where the electronic and digital components were developed which operated her toy dog and other like toys. She was able to see for herself how they were put together from beginning to end. As he watched his daughter’s eager eyes, he was thankful for all the things that had fallen into place for him within his lifetime. They enabled him to give such a bright, promising young girl the hands-on experiences that would lead her to being the intelligent, creative, productive adult she had the potential to become. He wished all kids everywhere could have such rich opportunities, but since that wasn’t practical or possible, he made an internal promise to his own daughter that all she had coming, she would get. Through her, all whom he had the wherewithal to influence, he would.

And through providing it for her, he’d given that last thing his best shot. In his life, he had been extremely lucky. The name on the front of the building through which he was walking said so. It was a luck he believed in sharing around to other kids who weren’t as fortunate as his own.

“We’re going to have to take the elevator from here.” Chris Allen said to him. He worked in the passkey protected area.”

“I’m following you.” Jonathan replied, conscious of the eyes that were following him as he passed through the various areas of the building.

He was accustomed to it; it went with the position, but the staring still made him a little uncomfortable. One could never be exactly sure why people were staring, and that knowledge, or lack thereof, was somewhat disconcerting. Especially considering the circumstances of his being there.

On the elevator, once the doors closed, he took quick stock of his companion in the car. Chris Allen was a tall woman, a nice-looking brunette with serious brown eyes, who was probably now in her early to mid forties. Her stylish, but business-like burnt orange suit and matching pumps complimented her skin tone, eyes, and her hair while at the same time conveying an image of authority. He noticed that her well-manicured fingers were in constant motion, playing with the pen she carried, brushing unseen lint from her skirt, fiddling with her shiny hair. He knew that she was single, that she didn’t have any children, and that neither of those things were out of choice on her part. It was how the cards had fallen for her, like they did for a lot of smart, assertive, independent-thinking women. For some reason, looking at her caused J.J. to momentarily come back to his mind.

Chris had been with Hart Industries for over twenty years, always in HartToys security. Fresh out of college with a criminal justice degree, she had come on at time when that wasn’t an area women typically ventured into. But she had proven herself determined, knowledgeable, and vigilant. Very little got past her, and it wasn’t long before her presence was well-established within the company. When the position opened up after the retirement of the first security chief at that facility, it was a no-brainer that Chris Allen be moved into the position, in spite of her gender raising a few, more conservative, eyebrows. Even August Lamb had been in her corner, and male or female, he was a hard man to impress.

When the elevator stopped and the chime sounded to confirm it, the doors didn’t open until she entered a series of numbers and letters into the keypad on the wall right next to them. Then she had to slide a card she wore on a lanyard around her neck into a slot on a box affixed to the mesh gates on the other side before they could actually exit the car.

“Too bad about all of this.” she said. “But I’m sure you understand.”

He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to. They both knew. He had been the one to sign off on all of it.

Although it was busy up on that floor, it was almost unnaturally quiet. It was the sound, and strangely, the smell of great minds at work; Like electricity coursing through wires, he could feel it. It seemed he’d always felt it. At one time in his life, he had been driven by it.  Being in the midst of it again, he realized how much he missed that atmosphere, and he reveled in the sensations he was suddenly experiencing. It brought back memories.

Upon marrying Jennifer and purchasing the house at Willow Pond, it quickly become clear who was superior to whom when it came to minor repairs requiring a screwdriver, pliers, or a hammer. He had been flabbergasted by her knowledge of tools and her ability to use them, something she said she learned from her mother. The girl couldn’t cook a lick, but she could fix a leaky pipe, unclog a drain, turn a screw or two, and hammer a nail like an expert. But it was he who was master over the technical matters, the wiring, and/or electrical issues. That was his forte. That is, until J.J. came along. It was already obvious from her tinkering and “dissections” that she had the potential to outstrip even him. Jennifer often referred to him as “the sorcerer” and to J.J. as his “willing apprentice” As CEO now, so far removed from it most of the time, it felt good to be up there, back in the thick of it.

He followed Chris though a narrow “hall” formed by rows of large, cluttered cubicles on either side, full of computers, monitors and other digital equipment. As he passed, he acknowledged with a nod, a small wave, a smile, those lab coats which deigned to recognize him. Almost no one actually spoke, but he didn’t feel unwelcome. These people were a different sort. Words weren’t important to them, the blips, beeps, and buzzing emitted from the assorted machinery around them meant more. They were occupied, busy in their own world, developing, creating, experimenting. Trial, error, and fascinating results were what mattered to them, not some mere human in a good suit. And he was glad of that. HartToys, Hart Industries as a whole, hired the best. He didn’t care if they never acknowledged him, as long as they gave their all and kept their divisions at the top of their game.

Rider’s cubicle was on the end and way over in a corner. As Chris told him before they left her office, it was roped off with that infamous yellow “keep out” tape. It was dark inside. Uniformed security guards sat in folding chairs at either side as that “office” was located at the juncture of two halls. One was stationed at the door, the other at the wall that faced out to the passing hall. They both stood when he and Allen came into their view.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Allen, Mr. Hart.” the man sitting in the doorway said as he extended his hand. “Good to see you, Mr. Hart.”

“Thanks. Think we could get some light in there?” he asked of the guard and Chris at the same time.

The guard looked to Chris who answered, “I don’t see any harm in that.”

She used the pen in her hand to reach inside and flip the switch. One by one, the florescent lights flickered on, revealing the same type of organized, busy clutter as the other cubicles they passed. Chris moved back, allowing Jonathan to step up to the tape crisscrossing the door and stick his head inside.

____________________________________________________________

“Marnie, you and Sidney will be having a boy.” Ms. Leonard said from her desk where she sat reading from her notes, announcing the gender of the “child” each set of “parents” would be assigned the following Monday.

“Shit.” Marnie whispered under her breath. “A boy? Sid, if I thought I wasn’t sure before, I know you can have the kid now. I’m glad this isn’t real life. No way am I getting all fat and stretched out and stuff to end up with a boy.

“What you got against little boys?” Sidney whispered back. “You sound like it’s some kind of problem.”

“I already have three brothers. They’re okay as brothers, somebody else’s kids. Having boys for kids has to be boring. You can’t dress them up or do their hair and nails. You can’t buy boys cute, soft stuff, like Cabbage Patch dolls, Hello Kitty stuff, lacy socks and panties, and all of that. With a boy, it’s a tee shirt and some pants and a Tonka truck or two, at best. They’re mannish and bad and dirty. Just boring as hell.”

“Your brothers, maybe. They got cute clothes for boys, too.” Sidney insisted. “I’ll have him hooked up. You’ll see. Tommy. Calvin. FUBU. Nike. Fila. The bomb haircut. I already got my boy lined up.”

“Hector, J.J., you’re getting a little girl.” Ms. Leonard called out.

“Aw, no!” Hector quietly groaned. “A girl?”

“And what’s wrong with a girl?” his sister Philly demanded to know.

“Deon and Phylicia, you’re getting a boy.”

“Yesssss.” Deon cried out in contrast to Philly’s disgusted huff and folding of arms upon hearing the gender of their “child”.

“What’s wrong with a boy? Hector asked, mimicking Philly’s voice.

Philly flipped an obscene, one-fingered gesture to Hector and then pushed Deon off when he tried to put his arm around her in patronizing consolation.

“How come they get the boy?” Hector asked aloud, directing his question to Ms. Leonard, who ignored him and kept on with what she was doing.

“Steven, Brittany; a girl.”

Not getting a rise out of the teacher, Hector then nudged J.J. who was seated next to him at the table, reading something she had stuck in one of her folders which was down in her lap. When she didn’t acknowledge the nudge, he leaned over and whispered in her ear.

“We got this girl, ain’t nothing I can do about that now, but you know you’re going to have to go back to the well next year and get me a boy.”

To which she finally elbowed him back, saying, “Leave me alone, Hector.”, while leaning in the opposite direction, still reading, but folding up the back flap of her folder as if she didn’t want him to see what she was looking at.

“I’m telling you, J.J., I ain’t going shopping for a girl.” Hector declared. “I’m a real man.”

“Shut up, Hector.” J.J. said, her attention still inside her folder. “And I’m telling you, you are going shopping. Bright and early. I already have the stores picked out. Don’t make any other plans, real man.”

“What’re you reading?” Marnie asked, leaning in from J.J.’s other side when J.J. pressed against her. “Your nose has been down in that ever since you got here.”

J.J. snapped shut the folder. “Nothing.”

“Yes, it is! I saw that. Nothing, my ass. Oooh, I’m telling the Duchess. You were reading about what you’re not supposed to. J., if you get us in trouble-”

“Marnie, I can read if I want to. And you’d better not tell. Nobody said I couldn’t read about it. If you rat me out, I’ll tell the Duchess about-”

“Read about what?” Hector inquired, pawing at the folder, drawing the attention of the others at the table.

J.J. smacked his hand away. “Stop it! You make me sick, Hector.”

“Umph, mighty snippy today, J.J. Hart.” Sidney offered from the other side of Marnie. “I’m scared of you, Miss Thing.”

“Stay out of it, Miss Thing.” J.J. shot back at Sidney, causing the others at the table to snicker and laugh, including Sidney himself.

“You all stop that talking and playing back there.” called Ms. Leonard as she stood up from her desk with a stack of papers in her hands. “Now pay attention. Here are your guidelines for your shopping trips tomorrow. There’s a list of all the things you’ll need to figure into you budgets. You must stay within your budgets.”

“Hmph, what budget?” J.J. sniffed, cutting her eyes to Hector. “You were cutting so close I don’t think you’ll be able to afford to breathe.”

Hector returned the sniff. “I ain’t going anyway. What would I look like going to Babies R Us?”

Marnie was still on her tangent, hissing out of the corner of her mouth. “J.J., I swear to God, if you get us put out of the car-”

“If you get another citation,” J.J. sassed back. “We’ll be out of the car anyway. Hush, like the teacher told you, and pay attention.”

“You’re on your own with this girl stuff, J.J.” Hector warned. “If I gotta do this, I wanted a boy.”

“And I don’t want to be here at all.” was J.J.’s response as she eased back open the folder she’d been perusing. “It’s obvious we don’t always get what we want, so like I told you before; deal with it.”

Hector looked down his nose at his strong-willed, sharp-tongued project partner. His lip curled in a teasing smirk.

“You know what, J.? Your father should have sent your mother back to the well when he got a girl, a red-headed girl, on the first go ’round. That’s why he ain’t got a boy today. Fooling around with uppity women like you. He didn’t put his foot down. That’s what I say about-”

“I know we are not going there, Hector Jorge Guillherme Diaz.” J.J. bristled as she slammed closed her folder and slowly turned her entire body in his direction. “Redheaded? Put his foot down? Uppity women? Now you know better than to bring my mo-”

“J.J.” Ms Leonard called to the back.

She didn’t have to say anything more than that to let the table in the back know that she was growing impatient with them. When a teacher specifically went for J.J. Hart, that was usually a warning to the entire group seated around her.

“Yes, Ma’am.” J.J. answered, backing down off Hector, but nodding to him in a manner that let him know she wasn’t finished with it.

When Hector tried to hand her the guideline sheet being circulated by the teacher, J.J. snatched it from him and stuck it behind the papers in that folder down in her lap, to which she had returned her attention. He laughed and tried to pat her on the back, but she shrugged him off and kept reading.

____________________________________________________________

Down in the parking structure, Chris Allen watched Jonathan Hart as he inspected the roped-off scene of the actual crime. Outlines drawn on the concrete floor depicted the position of the body and the location of the car beside which the body was found. An X indicated where the shell casing was found. Official police investigators had been out more than once, examining the immediate area. What Hart thought he would see by going down there on his own to look it over, she couldn’t imagine, but those disturbing blue eyes were all over it, soaking up everything. It wouldn’t surprise her one bit if he were to run up on something the police had missed.

August Lamb had since joined them. He stood opposite Hart, outside the barricaded square. She kept her eyes on both men, trying to gauge from their reactions, their body language if anything registered with them. Hart would be the harder read, and because Lamb was taking his cues from Hart, although he appeared to be making a visual inventory of his own, there probably wouldn’t be a lot to be gathered from observing him either.

“Well?” she said after a time. “Either of you care to share your observations?”

August remained silent. Jonathan shook his head, “I just needed to see it all for myself, I guess.” He turned to August. “We need to be getting back.”

They shook hands with her and thanked her for allowing them the tour. She promised to keep them filled in on any new developments as soon as they went down. It was Hart she watched as the two men headed off, she supposed, in the direction of their car.

“So handsome and so nice.” she thought to herself, and this time she didn’t have to hold back the sigh.

____________________________________________________________

“So what did you find out?” Marnie asked her unusually quiet friend as she drove them through after school traffic, on their way over to the Mission Street Academy and Residence Hall of Los Angeles, where they took part in the tutoring program their school sponsored with the elementary school students enrolled there

“About what?” was J.J.’s response to the question.

She didn’t raise her head or open her eyes from where she was leaned back on the headrest, the wind whipping freely through her ponytail, as they were riding with the top down.

“You know what I’m talking about. That stuff you downloaded about the murder that you were looking at all through class. I know you’ve been going over it all day if you did it this morning in the computer lab.”

“I didn’t download it this morning. I didn’t print it out until fifth hour when I was in band. You saw me in seventh, and I had Quantum II for sixth, so you know I didn’t get a chance to look at it good until you saw me. And then there were so many interruptions that I still haven’t had a good look at all of it.”

“Come off it, J. You get more on the first quick pass of something than most people get in an all night cram. Come clean. Wha’d you find out?”

J.J. smiled. There was no fooling Marnie.

“Not much more than Daddy told us. It’s an inside job, though.”

“How do you figure?”

“I just feel it, and it makes sense. You don’t just waltz in and out of HartToys, not even the parking structure. It’s locked down too tightly for somebody to get in and out of there without being seen. It’s not an open structure where you can climb in from outside. All the entry and exit points are manned, and you have to have I.D. on both ends. There’s another structure for visitors, and the two aren’t connected. Somebody on the inside did it, or they know who did it, and they’re in on it.”

“You’re going to be just like your father when you grow up.” Marnie grinned. “My father told me once, that your father was almost a detective himself before you were born. He and your mother were always involved in police stuff. You look at what’s going on around you just like your father does, and you don’t take no for an answer, like him. You might look like the Duchess, but you got, I don’t know, I guess you’re nosy and nervy- like your father. Sometimes I think you were supposed to be a boy.”

“I can think of worse people to be like.” J.J. smiled again. “But not a boy. I was definitely supposed to be a girl. I’d never want to be a boy.  ”

They drove into the parking lot of their destination. Marnie found a spot, pulled into it, and shut down the motor.

“Look what Charmaine gave me at the lockers before we left out this afternoon.” J.J. said, handing Marnie a small card.

“A business card?” Marnie grinned as she examined it. “Charmaine E. DeJean, Esq. of the firm DeJean, Sung, Edelman, and Landers?”

“Char, Kim, LeeAnn and Tiff. Charmaine said they’re set up to accept our business, should anything come up next week. If Hector acts up some more, he’s going to be their first case.”

“This is turning out to be some project.” Marnie laughed. “Talk about crossing the curriculum. I bet the teachers didn’t see that one coming. Come on. We’re cutting it close, and if Anastasia says one thing out of the way to me today, we’re going to end up back in the car with the Duchess for sure. I don’t know how you roped me into this. I don’t like kids that much, I’m not particularly religious, and Sister Anastasia doesn’t like me. That last thing doesn’t help at all.”

J.J. got out and came around the car to where Marnie was waiting for her.

“The kids are crazy about you, Sister Anastasia doesn’t like anybody under twenty-one so her not liking you isn’t personal, and you need all the Jesus in your life you can get, Marn.”

As they walked toward the doors of the academy, a bright flash of sunlight glinted like a beacon off the Hart Towers standing tall in the near distance, catching J.J.’s eye and causing her to wonder about her father and what he might have found out and/or done since he last spoke with her.

At that moment, she wished she was older.

“If I was,” she thought to herself, “I’d be working right alongside him up in those towers, helping him to figure out what happened.”

____________________________________________________________

“So what did you think?” August Lamb asked his passenger who sat next to him, staring out of the window with that intense expression creasing his left brow.

“I’m worried.” was the answer.

“Now that’s not something I’ve heard you say very often in the time I’ve known you. Why?”

“It’s an inside job. The police aren’t ready to draw that conclusion just yet, but I am.”

“So am I.” August said. “And that is a worry.”

____________________________________________________________

Dinner that evening was a late and quiet affair. Everyone seemed into themselves and their own thoughts.

By the time the girls made it in from tutoring and then J.J.’s driver’s training course, Jennifer and Jonathan were in the great room waiting for them, and Marie had dinner waiting in the kitchen for all of them. They were halfway through the dessert before anyone said anything of consequence.

“So how goes the project?” Jonathan asked.

“Okay.” Marnie answered. “I have all my stuff turned in. I cooperated even though I found out my kid is going to be a boy. I didn’t say anything rude out loud about it or get into any other trouble today.”

He smiled and patted her head, a gesture Marnie loved; she beamed behind it.

“That’s an expectation, Marnie.” Jennifer reminded her. “Not a feat.”

A skeptical look dimpled Marnie’s cheeks. “We are talking about me, Mrs. H.”

“Well, Hector and I surely aren’t going to make it.” J.J. declared. “He is dead weight.”

“Not keeping up his end still?” Jennifer asked.

“His front, his sides, his top, his bottom- none of it.” J.J. replied. “It’s only been a couple of days, and I’m sick to death of him. He’s my boy, and I love him dearly as a friend, but as a partner on a school project- I shudder to think what next week’s going to be like.”

“You have the card.” Marnie said. “Just sue his a- him if he acts up some more, like you said you would.”

Jonathan looked up from his plate. “Sue his a- him?”

“Um-hmm.” J.J. reached behind herself and dug down into the back pocket of her jeans. “Charmaine and them have started their own law firm.”

“J.J., Charmaine and them?” Jennifer tsk, tsk’ed from her side of the table. “My word, the wonders of public school.”

“Charmaine and the girls in business class.” J.J. corrected herself. She handed her father the business card she fished out.

He read it, grinned, and handed it off to Jennifer who also smiled as she read it.

“What a mess.” she chuckled. “You kids are something else. I am so glad I’m not one of the teachers caught up in this thing. This all has the potential to become a real pot boiler.”

“If Hector keeps playing with me, the lid’s going to blow off the pot.” J.J. warned. “By the way, you’ll be having a granddaughter, I’m told. Hector was really tripping about that. Which reminds me,  I owe him big for something he had the nerve to say to me.”

She lay down her fork and pushed back from the table. “Well, I’m done. I have homework. May I be excused?”

When her mother nodded her consent, she got up.

As she passed by her father on her way to drop her dishes off at the sink, she discreetly bumped his arm. Then she left the room entirely. A couple of minutes later, Jonathan excused himself, turned in his dishes, and went up the back staircase, leaving Marnie and Jennifer at the table. Both of them turned to look at each other, and nodded.

“Birds of a feather.” Marnie quietly remarked drawing a smile from Marie who’d been hovering in the background, and had observed the nearly imperceptible exchange between father and daughter for herself.

“Conspire together.” Jennifer sighed, completing the adage.

____________________________________________________________

“Okay, so how much trouble is this conversation going to get me into?” Jonathan asked as he entered J.J.’s room and closed the door behind himself as she indicated he should do. She was seated on the hassock, waiting for him at the foot of the chair she was gesturing for him to sit down in.

“Since when are you scared of a little trouble?” she grinned that mischievous, goading grin that he’d become a sucker for. Resisting it wasn’t something he had an easy time doing.

“Since you and I narrowly missed getting blasted by it that last time.”

“You narrowly missed, maybe.” J.J. said. “I got blasted out full force.”

“Well, I was the one who ended up in the hospital and then had to worry about being discharged from it because I just knew your mother was going to kill me over you once she had me off to herself.” he answered. “What’s up?”

She leaned forward, placing her elbows on his knees and folding her arms. “I just need to ask you a couple of things. I need a guy’s perspective. Tommy’s not here to ask, so-”

“Oh, so now I’m playing second fiddle to Tommy?”

“Nooooo.” she giggled. “It’s just that I usually talk to Tommy about this kind of stuff because he can see it from a contemporary male perspective, but you’ll do for this. It’s a guy issue, but not necessarily a teenage issue. You might even be better for this given that you’re so far removed.”

“Gee, thanks.” he said in his driest, most sarcastic daddy-like tone. “I’ll do my best.”

“See,” she started, “This has been bugging me for a couple of days. Today it’s worse. I can’t figure out what the deal is, and I was hoping you could fill me in.”

“What is it?”

“Okay, the other night I was talking to Teddy, telling him about being mad at you for making me do the project.”

“I didn’t make you.”

“You signed the paper. That was your name, “Jonathan Hart”, on the line.”

“Your mother sometimes signs my name to things.”

“Don’t even try it. It was your handwriting.”

He tried not to smirk. “Go on.”

“Well, last night I was talking to him again, telling him that Hector and I got put together for it, and that I thought it wasn’t going to be so bad if I was going to work with him, and I think Teddy got mad.”

“What makes you think he was mad, J.J.?”

“He went all quiet. Then we didn’t talk a whole lot after that, like the conversation just died out all of a sudden. He didn’t seem to want to talk to me any more after that. On the way home from Driver’s Ed, I hit him up on the cell, just to fill him in on what was happening here, and to see how he was. But, when I got to talking about the project, he said that he didn’t want to talk to me about that. It was sort of rude the way he said it. I asked him why, and what was his problem. All he would say was that he said he just didn’t. He definitely had an attitude. I don’t understand what I did to make him mad at me. We never fight. I mean, we’re not really fighting, but he won’t talk to me like we normally talk. And he’s about to make me mad with it. I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“The benefit of the doubt, eh?” Jonathan almost chuckled at Jennifer, Jr., sitting at his knee with that genetic bad temper set on simmer.

“What’s up with that, Daddy? You think he might be jealous of Hector or something?”

“Maybe.” Jonathan slowly nodded his head. “Probably.”

“Of what?” J.J. cried as she threw up her hands. “It’s a school project, not real life. He’s met Hector. He knows Hector and I are just friends. He, of all people, knows how I feel about not being anybody’s girlfriend. That includes Hector. Why in the world would he be jealous of this?”

“I think it’s what you just said. He might be jealous of the situation, not so much of Hector per se. He wishes it was him being your partner and not Hector.”

“That’s so silly. He’s way in Gresham, Mass. That’s just childish to get all bent out of shape over something as platonic as me and Hector and this assignment.”

“But that’s how it is, J.J. It’s a guy thing.”

I’ll never understand guys, I don’t think. Not as long as I live.”

“One day you will, when the right guy comes your way. It’ll all make better sense to you when you’re more vested in knowing and understanding.”

“Okay, let me ask you this. I really am trying to get a feel for it. Say it’s you and my mother. You’re both my age and doing this project. She gets assigned to say, some guy- named Felix-”

“Felix?” Jonathan waved his hand in dismissal. “No competition. I wouldn’t sweat a Felix.”

“Okay,” she laughed. “Bruce, then. She gets assigned to Bruce. Tell me how you would feel in that situation.”

“She and I go to the same school, and I have to see her every day with this Bruce character, doing this project?”

“Yeah. But, she’s not your girlfriend- I know that’s probably hard for you to imagine, but she isn’t. You’re just good friends, like me and Teddy. How would you act?”

“I’d keep my eye on Bruce. I’d make good and sure that he didn’t get too attached or take things too seriously.”

“But you’re just friends.”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

“What if you didn’t go to her school? She called you up, and told you about it.”

“And I’m left imagining? I’d probably have the same reaction as Teddy. I wouldn’t want to hear about it from her.”

“All right, but once she told you, and she knew you weren’t liking it too much, what could Jennifer do to make it better for you?”

Jonathan leaned forward and tipped up his daughter’s chin with his index finger, so that they were eye to eye.

“Nothing, J.J.” he said. “It would be my problem to get over, just like it’s Teddy’s. You haven’t done anything wrong. Like I told you earlier, it’s a guy thing. If he’s ever going to be a real man, that’s something he’s going to have to get past. Especially if he’s going to be a man around you. I don’t see you changing to suit a guy, and I don’t want you to. You have to let Teddy and the rest of the guys you might encounter as you’re getting older, grow. They’re not as mature in their thinking as you are. Boys naturally take longer to get it together. They need the time and the space in which to do it. In the meantime, you just keep being you, and doing what you’re doing. You can’t fix up everything for everybody. As much as we’d like to, you and I can’t rule all that goes on around us.”

She smiled and patted the back of his hand. “Thanks. I knew I was coming to the right guy, the answer man. Now that moves me to my next question.”

“Now I’m scared of this one.”

She smoothed the hair on his bare forearm with one hand and fiddled with his I.D. bracelet with the fingers of the other.

“Did you happen to go over to HartToys today? Did you see the spot where the guy got shot? Was there blood still on the ground, or had they gotten it up? Did you find out anything else about the murder?”

He stood up so abruptly, declaring, “Exit, stage left”, that she almost fell backward off the hassock.

“You get me into so much trouble with your mother. She told you to stay out of it. I heard her, so I know you heard her. But what do you do? You get me up here, hem me up, and try to grill me about it. I’ll bet you’ve been on a computer all day, haven’t you?”

“Not all day.” she admitted, grabbing hold of his hand. “Just say yes or no to this, then. That’s all. Just tell me yes or no.”

“What?”

“It’s an inside job, isn’t it?”

For a few moments, he stared down at her as if trying to figure out what he should do. Then finally, that look she gave him, that single lifted eyebrow look she inherited from her mother’s people, had him melting, resigned to his fate, back into the chair with her still holding onto his hand.

“What makes you ask that, baby?” he sighed despite his better judgment.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about all of that, too.” She nodded, leaning forward again with her arms on his knees. “HartToys is among the most secured facilities in the Hart Industries family. I know for fact that the electronic toy industry is a hot market right now, and Hart has developed some top of the line digital units in recent years.

“We’ve established a solid, enviable market position, so it’s important to keep things on the down-low to cut down on spying and thereby controlling our competition. People even have to sign those documents swearing them to secrecy and what-have-you before they are hired. Everything over there is on lockdown. Daddy, you know and I know there’s no way for a stranger to get into or out of that parking structure without being noticed.

“Also, another factor to take into account is that HartToys doesn’t have a very high turnover rate. Most people who come, stay, and they don’t leave until they retire or move into another division of Hart Industries. Not that many new people come in on a regular basis. Everybody knows everybody, and everything is, like I said, locked down. The way I have it figured, if somebody got in to kill that guy, somebody let him in. If that wasn’t the case, then it’s somebody who was already in.”

Jonathan didn’t say anything. He couldn’t.

“All I want you to do, Daddy, is tell me if I’m making any sense.” J.J. urged when he didn’t reply to her explanation right away.

“You’re making sense.” Jonathan croaked as the air slowly re-entered his lungs. “Too much sense.”

He reached down for her ponytail and let the long, thick tresses slowly trail through his fingers as he spoke.

“J.J., be a little girl for now.” he said. “Let me handle this, and let Teddy handle his own problems.”

“I bet my mother told you to leave it alone, too, didn’t she? But you went over there anyway, didn’t you? Didn’t you have to see it for yourself, Daddy?”

“You let me worry about that. Leave all of that to me, it’s my concern. You just keep being your Daddy’s girl and keep having fun being a kid, okay?”

“But was I right?” she pressed.

“No comment.” he answered as he walked to her door and let himself out.

“I knew I was right.” she whispered to herself in self-satisfied glee as she pulled that folder with the downloads out from underneath the hassock. “And what worries you, Papa, concerns me.”

____________________________________________________________

Once he was safely the other side of the door, Jonathan had to stop and regroup.

That girl behind him was so sharp she took his breath away. J.J. was that put-it-all-together, don’t- miss-a-beat kind of smart, like her mother. But she was so much, too much, like him in the rest of it.

Headstrong.

Tenacious.

Relentless.

And inquisitive as hell.

In the matter before them, it was proving that her being so much like him might not be such a good thing.

____________________________________________________________

He hated when Jennifer would have her on punishment when he got home from work. J.J. would be banished to her room, and he wouldn’t be allowed to go to her or see her until dinnertime when she would come down to eat.

He passed by her room on the way to his office in the loft, and he could hear her whispering to him through where she had her door cracked open just enough for him to see one blue eye.

“Daddy!”

It almost killed him to keep going. What Jennifer said she had done was wrong, and she was right in punishing her.

On the way back, going to his room to change out of his work clothes, he heard her again.

“Daddy!”

She was so little. Maybe she was too young to know when she was being sassy. Maybe she was too little to understand the reasons why she had to listen to her mother. Maybe Jennifer was expecting too much from her. After all, she was just a baby.

“Daddy!”

He closed his bedroom door, ignoring her and the fact that he couldn’t breathe for his heart being caught in his throat. Maybe it was Jennifer who needed speaking to. J.J. was only three, a baby. There was only so much she could expect from a little one like that.

Changed, he stepped out into the hall again. Although he knew he shouldn’t, he started for that closed door on the other side. Then, stabbed by his conscience and his loyalty to his partner in parenting, he turned away.

That door behind him squeaked open.

“Daddy!”

He kept walking.

“Daddy!”

He reached the top step.

“Jon’fin!  You hear me. Stop ‘noring me.”

When he turned around, That one blue eye zeroed in on him and deftly skewered his heart.

“C’me’re, Daddy.” she whispered.

She reeled him in, right to that doorway where he stood looking down at her.

“What is it, J.J.? What do you have to tell Daddy?”

“Mommy was mean to me ag’in. I do nuffing to her. She mus’a had a bad day.”

Then a miniature-Jennifer finger and that smile beckoned for him to come in to her.

He obeyed them.

 

After rinsing it, Jonathan rose from the sink to check his face in the mirror. With tears of mirth welling in his eyes,  he had to wipe them away in order to be able to clearly see himself.

“I do nuffing to her. She mus’a had a bad day.”

There had been so many funny moments over the years with that strong-willed girl of theirs. Jennifer and J.J.’s struggle for top seed had been a subtly intense battle, both of them formidable contenders in the rather complex relationship. Things between them had since mellowed and settled into something quite fine, beautiful even, but still somewhat complex at times.

He’d personally experienced so, so many funny, interesting, and touching moments between himself and J.J. in her lifetime. Of late, there had also been some frightening and heart-wrenching ones, as well. He was touched that she’d sought him out for his advice about Teddy. On the one hand, it said to him that she respected his opinion and the man he was apart from being her father. But on the other, it whispered, rather insistently, of her unusual affection for that boy. She was actually concerned about hurting his feelings. That wasn’t like her, not when it came to her dealings with her male contemporaries, the ones on Hector’s level.

“… he’s about to make me mad with it. I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Master Teddy had better watch his step with that one. As far as tempers went, she was her mother’s child.

“I thought you were a nice man, Jonathan, but you’re a heel. I’ll never speak to you again!”

He had been a lot older and wiser than Teddy when Jennifer spat those words at him that afternoon in London as the police he set up to detain her while he took care of his pressing business were driving her away. It had to have been sheer, unadulterated luck that got him over on that one. J.J. Hart had a lot tougher shell to her than Jennifer Edwards Hart ever had.

And she was obviously paying attention to her Daddy’s affairs while fretting over hers with Teddy.

“I know for fact that the electronic toy industry is a hot market right now…”

Evidently, she was doing her homework.

“We’ve established a solid, enviable market position… it’s important to keep things on the down-low… cut down on spying… controlling our competition.”

We have… Our.

At sixteen, she was already on board. Up in the wheel room, observing, taking notes.

“HartToys doesn’t have a very high turnover rate.”

Definitely doing her homework and paying attention.

“The way I have it figured, if somebody got in to kill that guy, somebody let him in. If that wasn’t the case, then it’s somebody who was already in.”

Most definitely his child. Right on the money. Scary… scary.

Occasionally, people who didn’t know him well, asked if he regretted not having a son. It was an irritating question he no longer entertained with a verbal answer, just a private smile. They didn’t know, couldn’t know, that he had one, the best kind. One that didn’t look like a boy, but who thought much like one, a chameleon. A deceptively pretty and charming, but sharp and cunning chameleon. It didn’t get any better than that.

But he hoped she was listening to what he told her about staying out of that last thing.

But why should I expect her to? I damn sure wouldn’t have listened.

That admission made him even more uneasy about her.

As she was getting older, he could see that J.J. was becoming less mindful of staying within set bounds; a thing she had clearly proven during his recent illness. Angry with Jennifer and scared for him, she’d boldly crossed a clearly drawn line, and in successfully doing so, a lessening of inhibitions on her part was most likely the unseen result. That remained to be seen. But she had proven to herself, and to them, just how much intelligence and power she had at her disposal, and it couldn’t be discounted if or when she might flex those muscles again in some other way for some other reason.

It all had him worried.

The outer door to the bedroom closed. It was Jennifer back from delivering to Marnie the edit of her second final draft of the paper she had written for her British Literature class. When he entered the bedroom from the dressing room, she was just getting into the bed.

“So, how did she take it?” he asked. “She thought she was finished that last time.”

“Well, she wasn’t,” Jennifer answered as she moved around underneath the blanket, untwisting her gown from around her legs. “And she took it how she was supposed to take it. She knows better than to give me any face or lip.”

“I bet she had plenty of face and lots of lip, not to mention finger, once you closed that door to that bedroom she’s in.”

“Then that was the wisest time for her to have it.” Jennifer asserted as she finished adjusting her nightclothes. Then she smoothed the covers over her body and turned on her side toward him.

“Marnie’s an excellent student, a good writer, but she isn’t thorough. She does just enough, which is usually much better than average, but not her best. She gets by on her personality. People either like her and let her slide, or they don’t want to have to deal with her, so they let her slide. I don’t like that. It won’t always be that way for her. I want her to do her best all the time. She has it in her to be among the best. I’d hoped she and J.J. would finish at the top spot together, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”

“J.J. could always drop back a few notches.” he teased.

The look she shot him clearly said that was not an option that J.J. Hart would be exercising upon, even if she chose to do so.

“If Marnie can’t be one, then she can be as close to one as she can get. I won’t have her adopting as habit just getting by.”

“I thought you only had one child?” he smiled, laying his palm along her cheek.

“Wel-l-l-ll,” she hedged. “She’s here.”

“And you love her. Admit it. You love having her here.”

“She’s mildly amusing from time to time.” she acknowledged without letting her eyes meet his.

“Come on.” he urged. You can say it. The girl’s grown on you, hasn’t she?”

“I guess so.” she smiled a sheepish smile. “Despite her ways and that nasty little tongue, she’s really quite sweet, and she needs so much. Marnie’s one of those who could go either way. Kind of like Pat was before Pa stepped in.”

“Paying back, Mrs. Hart?”

“Just doing the right thing, Mr. Hart. After all, she is my daughter’s best friend, and I only want the best for my daughter.”

“Both of them, huh?” he said as he leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “I love you. You have such a good, kind heart.”

“So do you.” She replied, catching his lips with hers before he could sit back. “What did our other child want with you?”

“What?”

“Jonathan, I saw her nudge you when she got up from the table. And just like always, you went right up to see what she wanted.”

He laughed a soft self-deprecating laugh. “What can I say? She’s got me where she wants me.”

“Always has.” she said, planting a kiss on his cheek. “That’s nothing new. But I’ll give it to her for having such good taste. So, what is new?”

“She needed a man’s opinion, a male perspective. A little relationship trouble she needed advice on.”

“With who? Teddy?”

He nodded. “Who else?”

“And she called you for that?”

He smirked at the sound of surprise in her reaction. “You jealous?”

“No, just a little taken aback. What seems to be the trouble?”

“His nose is out of joint over her doing her school project with Hector. She wanted to know why he might have a problem with that.”

“Was she satisfied with whatever you told her?”

“Of course. Daddy said it. It must be right.”

Shaking her head, she turned over onto her back. “I see I’m going to have to have a talk with that girl. J.J. is such an innocent. She has got to come to the understanding that she simply cannot tell a guy everything she’s doing. To keep the peace, there are some things a girl has to keep to herself.”

“Oh, is that so?” He rolled over on his side toward her. “You want to elaborate on that?”

“Not really.” she answered with a coy, mysterious smile. “It’s just that sometimes you guys can’t handle the truth, so it’s best in those situation to keep some things under wraps.”

“And what kinds of things are you keeping under wraps?”

“Not a whole lot.” she cooed as she reached for him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pressing the length of her body against his, and then relaxing in his reciprocal embrace. “At least none that concern you and me right now.”

When he ended his inquiry, ceased talking, buried his face in her neck with his hands set on “roam”, she was very much relieved.

He hadn’t mentioned a thing to her that evening about the incident at HartToys, and she hadn’t asked him anything about it. It was hanging off the tip of her tongue and teetering on the edge of her mind to ask if J.J. brought it up with him when she had him up there in that room with her. Without a doubt that little minx had, but to question him about it would have been getting too close for comfort. With his ability to read them, it wouldn’t do for him to be able to look too deeply into her eyes. She hadn’t heard back from Pat, and given the chance, he might have seen her lurking down inside them.

To keep the peace, there were some things girls had to keep between themselves.

Continue to Part Two

 

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