The Project: Part Two

Part Two

 

Maybe I should have said, “No.”

Then again, maybe not. One doesn’t have to have anything to do with the other.

It can’t be connected to that.

It can’t be.

How could it? Why should it?

Maybe I should check it out and be sure it doesn’t.

Maybe I’ll just wait until it goes down, and then see.

_________________________________________________________

“Pat, are you up?”

Ohhhh, dammit, Jennifer. What the hell do you think? Somebody there had better be dead or hurt real bad.

“Sorry. The time difference slipped my mind. I forgot you don’t get up early on the weekends, even though it isn’t all that early there and you should be up.”

No it didn’t slip your mind. You are the queen of time zones, so you are fully aware it’s the dark of night here in Boston, as far as I’m concerned. Waste that lie on someone else, Edwards. You’re waking me up, whispering in this telephone because you don’t want Jonathan to hear you’re sneaking to call me.

“Why should I be sneaking or whispering? I’m downstairs, Pat.”

And that’s by design, too. He doesn’t get up all that early on Saturday mornings either if he hasn’t set up a golf date. Come to think of it, what in the world are you doing up at seven-something in the morning on a Saturday?.

“Calling you before Jonathan gets up, like you said. Did you find out anything?”

Did I call you?

“No, but I thought you might have gotten busy and forgotten. I guess I was hoping…”

You know me better than that. I wouldn’t leave you hanging. Nothing more than what you told me has turned up so far. I’ve put The Mole on it, though. If there’s anything else to know, he’ll find it. Now hang the hell up, and let me go back to sleep.

“Okay Grumpy.”

Yeah.

“Morning, mom,” J.J. said in greeting as she entered the great room from the foyer on her way to the kitchen. Third bounded past her, headed for his water dish in the kitchen. “You’re up early. Did Marie get off to go to her sister’s?” she asked without really stopping.

“Yes, she did,” Jennifer answered as she hung up the phone, got up from her desk, and followed J.J. into the kitchen.

She sat down at the table while J.J. went straight for the refrigerator.

“Where’s Marnie?”

J.J. came to the table with the carton of orange juice.

“In the mirror, where else?” she answered. “For somebody so short and small, it takes her forever to get ready to go somewhere. I went in there to see what she was doing, and she had tried on and taken off three pairs of jeans and was trying on a fourth pair. I think she brought her whole wardrobe with her for this two week stay.”

She was at the cabinet with the glasses. “You want some juice, too?”

Jennifer shook her head and waved her hand. “No, I’ll wait and eat with your father when he gets up. Has Marnie said if  she’s has spoken with her mother lately?”

J.J. sat down at the table to fix her drink.

“Not since Thursday; Marnie’s boycotting her. She called her mother the last two times they talked, and her mother was in a hurry both times, talking about she was just leaving out or something and didn’t really have time to talk to her. So Marnie said she wasn’t going to call her any more. She told me she was going to wait and see how long it took for her mother to call her. She’s talked to her dad, though. She talked to him just last night. He thinks he’s found a condo in Boston that he likes.”

“And while we’re speaking of girls talking to their fathers-”

The glass J.J. was bringing to her lips stopped in mid-air.

“-when you’re out today, you remember what I told you.”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me, J.J. Hart. You and I both know why you summoned your father up to that room after dinner last night. You asked him some more about that incident which I told you to leave alone, didn’t you?”

For a moment, J.J. said nothing. Then she mumbled, “He tells you everything,” before taking her first long drag. “I can’t believe how he folds when it comes to you.”

“He told me nothing,” Jennifer said. “But you just did. He didn’t say a word about it. He didn’t have to; I’ve been your mother a long time.”

J.J. sighed at having once again let her mother maneuver her into giving herself up. It happened all the time.

“I love you, too, mother,” she allowed in the most arid tone possible.

Marnie entered the kitchen from the back staircase. She was dressed in a pair of low slung jeans, a casual button down shirt, and just the right amount of makeup for a sixteen year old. The morning sun streaming in through the bay window that looked out onto the patio glinted off her precision cut mahogany bob. Like always, she was chic and polished, definitely an uptown girl. Her sharply honed attention to her appearance made Jennifer smile. Among other things, that was a trait she admired in Marnie.

“Morning, Mrs. H. You ready, J.? We said we’d meet them at the I-Hop at eight. Kendra just called to see if you and I were still coming.”

J.J. stood up, straddling the chair to down down her vitamin with the last of her orange juice. “Yeah, I’m ready. I sure hope Hector doesn’t take it there this morning. Watch the news at noon, Mom. He and I might be on it, if he does.”

Jennifer slowly shook her head as she watched her feisty, pony-tailed daughter step over the chair and cross the kitchen in those tight black jeans and that ‘Dodger blue’ baseball jersey with “HART” emblazoned in white block letters on the back. As she turned  around to come back to the table, J.J. unclipped her Dodgers’ cap from her waistband and put it on her head, threading the ponytail through the opening in the back. Looking at them standing together before her, J.J. and Marnie, heiresses both, were a definite contrast in style. Where Marnie lived for clothes and fashion, unless J.J. were dressed up, aside from an affinity for good shoes, she had never really given a damn.

“So what are you girls’ plans, and how long do you think you’ll be?”

“We’re meeting the crew at I-Hop first.” Marnie answered. “For breakfast.”

“Then we’re going to do the shopping part of the project so we can figure prices and stuff.” J.J. said.

“Then we’ll probably have lunch somewhere to eat and go over our budgets.” Marnie continued as she pulled her keys from her purse. “Figure out what we can afford and what the kid will have to do without. Then I need to do some for real shopping for me.”

“Shopping?” J.J. cried. “You have enough clothes upstairs for you to stay here two months without repeating an outfit. What else could you possibly need?”

“For one thing, a notebook for Econ. Ms. Calvin said anybody who didn’t have a separate notebook for her class on Monday was getting detention, and that b-uh woman is not catching me slipping. You know her eye is on me. Of course, if I happen to see a few other things along the way, while we’re out…”

“I’ll probably end up hanging out, Mom. I’m not doing any real shopping. Whatever the case we’ll keep in touch with each other, and we figure we should be back home by three, four, or so.” J.J. said as she grabbed her house keys and her backpack purse, slinging it onto her shoulder. “We can still go out tonight, right?”

“I said you could.” Jennifer answered. “Your father and I will be out, but you two know your curfew.”

“Thanks for extending it ’til one, Mrs. H.” Marnie said. “We won’t mess up.”

Passing Jennifer, who was still seated at the table, J.J. kissed her on the cheek as she and Marnie left the kitchen with Third trotting behind them.

“Be careful.” Jennifer called. “Phone if you find you need us for anything.”

“We will!” she heard J.J. say before the front door closed.

“They are really growing up.” she thought to herself as she got up from the table.

It didn’t seem that long ago to her that the two of them were very little girls, splashing under the sprinklers or in the pool out back, or skating and playing on the driveway out front. Now they were young ladies, driving themselves in a car down that same driveway and out into the world.

… and only God really knows where….

That teenagers said one thing, but did a whole lot more was a fact of life not lost on her. After all, she’d been there once in life herself. J.J.’s inherent wanderlust was understandable.

She got up and put the coffee pot on.

A short time later, she was headed up the front staircase carrying a serving tray.

________________________________________________________

Jonathan awakened to the hand that was gently patting his upper back, the sweet kiss being pressed to his cheek, and the realization that he’d been dreaming about Chris Allen.

“Wake up, darling.” was the incongruous, but welcome whisper in his ear.

Opening his eyes, slowly separating himself from the dream and his waking world, he could see the red of Jennifer’s robe and the clock on the nightstand, which said that it was earlier than his normal Saturday waking time. Earlier than hers, too. Jennifer normally slept in quite late on Saturdays, especially when he was accompanying J.J. to track practice or a meet or going golfing himself. Figuring that she must have something on her docket with which she needed his help in doing, wearily, he drug himself up while she left him to go around the bed, back to her side, and he assumed, into her dressing room.

That he’d been dreaming about Chris bothered him some, mostly because he couldn’t clearly recall the details. It made sense that she was in the forefront of his mind, being that he’d been with her on the day before, going over that baffling situation. But everything about the dream was fuzzy and becoming fuzzier the more he struggled to bring it back into focus. He only knew that it had been about her, and that it had been mildly disturbing; as if she had been in some sort of trouble.

Thinking about Chris again led him to thinking about J.J. She would probably be occupied most of the day, like she was a lot lately, so this Saturday wouldn’t be spent with her. That was something else he found disconcerting. J.J. was growing up, getting a life of her own. Their Saturdays together had always been special to him. He wondered if, when things came up to put them off spending that time together, she missed it as much as he did.

Freshly scrubbed and having taken care of his immediate personal needs, he reentered the bedroom to see what Jennifer had planned so that he could shave and dress accordingly. What he found said that in his pajama bottoms, he might already be appropriately attired. She was back in bed, back in the nightgown he’d relieved her of the night before. Sitting up, braced by a couple of the bed pillows, she was working a newspaper crossword puzzle. Her hair, which had been pulled up into a tight knot minutes before when she woke him, was now loose. Casually tousled and wavy, as if she’d just shaken it out, it softly framed her face, falling down onto her shoulders and the pillows behind her. It had grown out over the summer, and he was glad that she hadn’t yet gone her usual route of cutting it once autumn rolled around. Those long, toned, bare legs were bent at the knee with the paper before her resting on her thighs.

At moments like the one he was experiencing, he liked to think of her solely as a woman. Not as his wife, not as his partner of many years, not as the mother of his child; but as a woman, one he didn’t know, one he had just come upon for the first time with a world of possibilities before them if allowed the good fortune of getting to know her.

The attraction and his subsequent physical reaction was always as strong in those instances as it had been in the beginning.     They reaffirmed for him that, without a doubt, she was the one meant for him.

Still so lovely. Simply amazing.

In the middle of the bed, between her and his side of it, a breakfast tray stood on its extended wooden legs. It held a large bowl of fresh fruit, a plate of sliced bagels, assorted tins of cream cheese, a carafe of coffee, and two cups. That all said that Marie had to be out for the day. Jennifer no longer made much attempt to bother with the stove, not even for breakfast. If J.J. was home, hungry, and out of the bed, she might have breakfast started. Sometimes it was on him. If Jennifer was attempting to cook anything, J.J. would be reaching into the cabinet for a bowl and a cereal box. Unlike him, she no longer tried to try to spare her mother’s feelings about the quality of her cooking.

“Real is real, Daddy. My mother is talented and capable and smart and good-looking, but she cannot cook- period. As much as you like eating, it’s totally obvious to me that you did not marry her for her cooking.”

And it was ‘totally obvious’ to him he did not want to ask J.J. what exactly she meant by that. Jennifer was entirely too thorough with that girl about what went on between the sexes.

“I thought you wanted me up?” he said as he approached the bed.

Then instantly tickled by the unintentional double entendre and the look on her face as she caught it, he sheepishly grinned as he joined her on the bed. “Don’t say anything.”

She softly chuckled, “I wouldn’t touch that one with a ten foot pole.”

“Oh, yeah?” he winked as he took up a bagel, spread it with strawberry cream cheese, and then held it out to her. “And what if I had the ten foot pole?”

She accepted a small bite of what he offered and answered around it, “Then I wouldn’t let you near me. I know my limitations.”

He laughed at that. “I thought you woke me up because we were going out.”

She shook her head. “I woke you up because we don’t get many mornings like this, here at home. One where we’re here alone together with nothing immediate planned for us to do. Marie’s already gone, and so are the girls. I saw them off a little while ago. They said they’d probably be out all morning and maybe most of the afternoon. They left here going to meet the gang for breakfast, then they’re off to do the shopping thing for the project, and then, they said, they’re splitting off from the boys, and maybe each other, to do some ‘hanging out’ by themselves.”

“It’s nice that they have so many friends and such interesting things to do.” he said polishing off the first bagel half and preparing another. “Ah, youth. The most carefree times of their lives, they’re having right now. I hope they make the most of it.”

When he could feel her looking, he glanced over to indeed find those most expressive eyes bearing down on him. “What?”

“You miss her, don’t you? You two haven’t had a Saturday together since we came home from your being ill.”

He shrugged, put the bagel down, and went about fixing coffee for both of them. “I guess, but it’s not like we can fly for a while, not with me grounded like I am for the time being. I don’t want her going up with anybody else, except Jack, and I wouldn’t put him out like that. J.J. has her hours in, so it’s not like she’s falling behind or losing flying time or anything. And then too, she has her things to do. I guess I should get used to it. There’ll be a lot more Saturdays like this than the ones she and I have had.”

She put the paper down on the night table on her side of the bed and turned her full attention to him.

“Do you remember how it was? Our lazy Saturdays mornings up here, when we didn’t have anything to do, nobody we had to get up to see to, no where to go? Max would usually be out at the track with his buddies, and we’d be home alone.”

“Yeah,” he smiled. “Those were nice days. Just you and me and whatever we wanted to do.”

“However we wanted to do it. For however long we wanted to do it.”  She raised her eyebrows three quick times. “We do have the Kelsey’s tonight, but I’ve cleared my schedule for the rest of the day. What do you have planned?”

“Not a thing.”

He couldn’t help but notice how that one satin strap had fallen down off her shoulder, causing the bodice of her gown to dip even lower than it was already designed.

“Last night. All day today. I’ve never been able to say no to you. You are going to kill me, Mrs. Hart. I’m not a young man any more.”

She leaned over the tray to bring her face closer to his. “Yes, but if you were to go, what better way to do it, Mr. Hart? Especially for you. I know how much you love to do it.”

“With you.” he said, his voice suddenly husky with the urgent rush of desire.

In one rotating movement, he had the tray on the floor and then her in his arms. Locked in the first shared kiss, they shared the first intimate embrace of their morning.

________________________________________________________

The hostess escorted them to the rear of the restaurant, the area to which larger groups of young people were usually relegated.

“Why are we always having to be in the back?” Marnie fussed under her breath. “Is this like the kiddie table section or something? What? Are we an embarrassment? Our money spends like everybody else’s.”

“It’s cool” J.J. said. “It’s like the back of the school bus on a field trip; you can have more fun. Don’t sweat it. It’s a small thing.”

“Hmph, yeah, like my tip will be, huh?” Marnie grumbled.

Several tables had been pushed together to accommodate their potentially large party. Quite a few had already shown up. J.J. immediately spotted Philly at the table, but not her big brother, Hector. When Philly looked up and saw her approaching, she went straight into it.

“I tried to get him up, J. Honest. I told him to get up and come on. He rolled over, pulled up the covers, and told me to get out, so I did. I called Deon to come get me so Hector could have the truck should he change his mind and hoof it over here. When I left, I think he was still in the bed.” She held up her cell. “Here, call him. Cuss him out.”

“Don’t feel bad, J.” Kendra called from across the table. “I don’t know where Percy is, either. I talked to him last night, and he was supposed to pick me up at seven-fifteen this morning. At a quarter to, I ended up calling Philly and coming here with her and Deon. Percy knows better than to be late picking me up. If he don’t make it here, he’s got a real down home cussing out coming.”

“That’s okay.” J.J. said to Philly, gesturing for her to put the phone away and laughing at Kendra while pulling out a chair and sitting down.

She and Marnie greeted the others who arrived before them, and then she turned back to Philly, seated next to her.

“I’ve got something for Mr. Hector if he messes around and leaves me hanging this morning.” she said. “But I don’t think he’s that crazy.”

“If you say so.” Philly said before turning around to compliment Marnie on the silver and turquoise bracelet she was wearing.

Big Percy, the star linebacker for their school, hustled up, breathing hard, to the table, talking to Kendra.

“Why you leave me? I went by your house to pick you up, and your mother said you had already left. She had her attitude on and everything, getting on me about how I was supposed to be there at seven-fifteen, and I was late, so you left.”

“You were.” Kendra said. “And I did. I don’t wait around for guys. My mama isn’t raising any fools.”

“Whatever.” Percy said going around the table to get to his seat next to her, greeting the others as he did. “You knew I was coming and how I run late sometimes. You didn’t have to get a ride from nobody else. Now that’s another mark on my record with your mother. She’s not all that friendly to me to begin with.”

“All the more reason for you to get it together then.” J.J. advised. “What’s up, Percy?”

“J.” he nodded to her in greeting. “Where’s your man?”

“I don’t have a man, Percy. I’m single for this thing. I thought I made that clear in class yesterday.”

“Your significant other, then, Miss J.”

“Asleep, I’m told.”

“Marnie!” Sydney cried as he made his entrance. “Looking good, girl.”

He slid into the empty chair next to hers. “Are we going to tear up the stores or what?”

“Or what.” Marnie answered as she continued perusing a menu. “You’re on your own. It’s a boy. I told you, I don’t shop for clothes for boys. I’m just along for the ride and a grade.”

While the others talked and laughed around her as they waited for a few more to get there before placing their orders, J.J. took advantage of her single status and the empty chair on the one side of her. Opening the folder containing her paperwork for the project, she took out several sheets of paper. Holding them low in her lap, she used the idle moments to skim those newspaper articles she’d downloaded before leaving home that morning.

________________________________________________________

Temporarily sated, slowly returning to his sensibilities, Jonathan reached and pulled the top sheet over himself and over Jennifer who lie on her side, tightly spooned inside the curve of his damp, cooling body. He thought she’d fallen asleep, but when she folded her arm over his and sighed contentedly, he realized that she hadn’t.

It was wonderful being there alone with her and leaving the world with its worries outside that door. It felt good to forget that uneasy feeling pervading his being, if only temporarily.

The phone rang. Not wishing to disengage himself from her, he ignored it and instead buried his face into the moist and fragrant warmth of the exposed skin of her neck.

“Aren’t you going to get that?” he heard her ask.

“Get what?” he murmured into her flesh.

“It could be important.”

“Not as important as what I’m into right now.” he whispered as he began nibbling at her earlobe.

The telephone continued to ring.

“What if it’s the girls?” she nearly hummed as her upper body writhed to the sensuous attention his tongue was paying to the inside of her ear. “Maybe you should at least check the caller I.D.”

“It isn’t the girls.” he said, leaving her ear, trailing his tongue down her neck, then kissing her shoulders and her back. “Too early for them to be having the kind of trouble they’d have to call one of us for. Besides, there’s enough of them out there together to handle whatever they might get into and to cover for each other, if they do get into something. If it’s the car, they’ve got the guys and two American Express Cards. We’re the last somebodies they’d call and risk being made to stay in afterward. And if it’s that they’ve been picked up, then with the police they’re in the best possible hands until we feel like getting to them.”

“Oh, Jonathan.” she softly chuckled. “We’ll know who it is for sure in a minute when the answering machine kicks on.”

“No we won’t.” he answered. “I turned the volume all the way down. No interruptions from the outside world whatsoever.”

“Not even from J.J.?”

“Nobody’s here today except you and I.”

“Not even your baby?”

“My baby can handle herself. She’s proven that to both of us.”

“What if it’s about what happened at HartToys?”

“Nothin-n-n-ng, I said.”

“Mmmm, I like that.”

The phone stopped in mid ring and clicked over. She took his hand and moved it from where he was caressing her belly, holding her close, up to her breast where her fingers instructed his as to what she wanted them to do. In that, he was her willing pupil, only too happy to oblige. A slight movement of her hips and his stomach muscles convulsed with the answering surge of passion shooting down through his gut and into where he most needed and wanted it to go.

Damn, she’s so good. I should be too old to do this so soon after the first one, but….

…apparently, I’m not… what a woman….

Without ever having left each other from the time before, to his delight, she backed farther into him and gradually they picked up the rhythm, continuing right where they’d left off.

He loved when the second time happened that way, like the first time never ended.

… what a woman… so very, very good….

________________________________________________________

“Sid’s riding with me.” Marnie said to J.J. as the group made ready to leave the International House of Pancakes to begin their shopping trip for the project. “His sister dropped him off here and kept the car. Since Hector didn’t show, you’re coming with us, right?”

“I guess so.” J.J. answered. “I’m not getting a bad grade. Somebody has to do it. I guess it’s on me.”

At breakfast, she had been the only one without a partner. In her head, she could hear her mother: “I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”, and that reverse challenge only fueled her resolve. Nobody got the best of J.J. Hart. Not Hector. Not J.J.’s mother. Not circumstance.

“Yeah, I’m riding with you and Sid.”

“Good for you.” Marnie grinned. “The hell with Hector. Sid can shop for the boy by himself. I can help you hook up our girl. It’s two for one on that, too. Say, what do you have in that folder you keep reading? Aw, no, look, I’m telling you, J.-”

“Hush, Marn.” J.J. said, walking off from where Marnie stood fussing. “Let’s go.”

________________________________________________________

No police today. No detectives. No questions. No problem.

What in the world did Hart think he’d find yesterday that the police hadn’t? And Lamb?

Zale’s digging, but that’s no real worry. There are other, more important things to worry about. Other, more important things to take care of.

The business wasn’t quite finished. Dead men could not tell tales, but  there was still that one loose end.

________________________________________________________

“With my tastes,” J.J. thought as she wandered through the rows of cribs, changing tables, brightly colored chests, chairs, and  other assorted baby furnishings, “I’ll have to hope I’m either real fortunate economically or that my parents are real excited at having a grandkid when the time comes.”

Although the project guidelines stated that they were only supposed to come up with a baseline amount for what it would take to outfit a nursery, anything that really appealed to her seemed to always be the most expensive items.

Must be the Jennifer in me.

She, Marnie, Sidney and some others from the group had been to two stores before coming to this one. At the children’s clothing store, Sidney and Marnie had one of their frequent fallings out when Marnie was more interested in helping her in the girls’ section than she was with assisting Sidney on pricing things for ‘their son’ in the boys’ department. Now that they were at the furniture store, Marnie was more in her element, so she was off with Sid. Furniture and accessories didn’t necessarily have to be gender dictated.

J.J. smiled to herself, thinking about Marnie, as she examined the different types of strollers.

For somebody who put up such a hard front and cursed like a whole band of pirates, Marnie had a surprisingly soft, feminine nature. She loved girl things; pink, lacy, delicate things. The “Hello Kitty” line by Sanrio was her favorite. For years, she had been building her collection of the various items. Her bedroom at her father’s house was a shrine to it. Staying with them at Willow Pond for those two weeks as she was, she brought her Hello Kitty house shoes and nightgowns. She carried a Hello Kitty checkbook in her purse, and her car keys were attached to a soft, fuzzy Hello Kitty keychain. As she hated complete darkness, she also brought with her a nightlight. It, too, was of the Hello Kitty line.

As a little girl, Marnie played with dolls and girl toys. Hers had different outfits, strollers, cradles and everything, all of which Marnie utilized with them. In retrospect, although she never said anything to that effect, J.J. suspected that back then Marnie used to think her strange for having a train set running on the floor, remote controlled cars, and a mobile of assorted airplanes suspended from the ceiling in her bedroom. Her dolls would sit idle on the shelf until Marnie would visit. At their tea parties, which only happened when Marnie was over, their imaginary husbands would be her loving, cooperative partner, and the guy Marnie cursed out and fought with on regular basis. Even as a little girl, Marnie had already perfected her obscene oral craft and was pure entertainment with it.

After the unfortunate hostage incident in the closet, which resulted in Jennifer Hart finally taking the dolls and all their accessories away permanently, it was Marnie who had been most devastated by that action.

“J.J., what did she do with all of them? They were so pretty. You had so much stuff for them.”

“I don’t know. She put them in a box, and she took them away. She said that I wasn’t playing with them right.”

“Don’t you care, J.J.? You don’t have no dolls or doll stuff in here any more.”

“Marnie, I don’t care. I didn’t hardly play with that stuff anyway. When I did, I got in trouble over it all the time. My mother said I didn’t take care of them good, so it’s probably better that they’re gone. I like my other toys way better anyway. Not baby dolls and junk.”

The memories made her wonder what kind of mother she might one day be to a little girl? What if she ended up with a little girl who did like dolls and doing ballet and listening to opera? Well, she could do that stuff with her Grandmama Jennifer. By that time, Grandmama would have been waiting a mighty long time for a girly-girl like her.

And who would that potential daughter’s father be? Would it be someone she currently knew? Teddy, perhaps? He’d have to do some growing up, if so. Or would it be someone yet to come into her life? When that time came, would she be walking around by herself, like she was now, getting ready for her child-to-be, doing it all on her own? Or would the guy be someone who would change her mind about marriage and commitment? He would have to be one hell of guy. Hector certainly wasn’t making the job he had cut out for him any easier.

That she was there in that situation was all Tommy’s fault. Tommy was the one who finally talked her into taking the class with the rest of them. Her plan for an elective had been  put in for a student aide position and use the relative freedom that came with it to her advantage. Marnie had already backed off the aide idea when she saw Ms. Calvin was a candidate for being assigned one. But, at that point, she hadn’t come away from the idea for herself. When nobody else was able to wear her down about taking the FACS class, there Tommy was at the locker, looking down at her with those serious hazel eyes of his, flashing those dimples, and speaking in that quiet, sensible way he would when he was trying to get her to see reason. Or, more to the point, see things his way.

It was just like the Duchess said, although she would never admit it out loud to anybody on earth: Tommy Steele could talk her into anything. Now he was off in Barcelona, living the life, and she was in Baby World doing something nobody could ever have convinced her, not in a jillion years, that she would be doing at sixteen on a warm, sunny Saturday.

But it was good Tommy wasn’t there at that moment. He would never go along with what she had planned. As it stood, Hector was gumming the works by not showing up.

Hector was clueless about how she covertly operated. Him, she could maneuver. Tommy wouldn’t have gone for it at all. He would have been suspicious right out the gate, asking a million questions, not doing what she needed him to do, acting like a big brother or a father or something. Since Hector hadn’t shown, all during breakfast she had to mentally work out a Plan B, and what she came up with wasn’t as sure a thing as Plan A would have been with Hector. Marnie knew her method of operation like Tommy did. She asked a whole lot of questions, too. But, unlike Tommy, who would take matters into his own hands  and deal strictly with her, and wouldn’t rat her out to anybody in the end, Marnie could be broken down if it came to it. All the Duchess had to do with Marnie was close her up, one-on-one, and that girl would be peeing herself and singing like some little jailhouse snitch.

She hadn’t spoken about what she planned to do with anyone except the other necessary party. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

It wasn’t like she was being directly disobedient in following through on it. It wasn’t as if her obvious purpose was to insert herself into it like she’d been warned not to do. After all, how could she? That part of it was locked up tight. All she would be doing would be working on the project that they insisted upon her participating in. How could that be wrong?

Now if something else happened to come out of it….

“J.! Finally! I thought that was Marnie’s car out in the lot. I been looking for you everywhere. I’m sorry. I overslept. Philly told me to get up, but I worked a gig with my old man last night, and I forgot I had to be here, so I kept sleeping. Then what she was saying soaked in, and I remembered, and got up. I been everywhere trying to find you guys. I was too scared to call your cell; I knew I had messed up again. I’m sorry. I know you’re mad at me for real this time.”

She was too relieved to be mad at him. With Hector in picture, it was back to good old Plan A.

________________________________________________________

“I think you’re trying to kill me, Mr. Hart.”

She allowed her head to loll back on her neck and then roll slowly forward. With her eyes closed, she was even more fully aware of the warm, tingling feeling coursing through her recovering body.

“Who’s on top of whom?” she heard him ask. “I believe that spending this morning together in this way was your idea.”

Her head still hanging down, slowly she shook it. “You didn’t have to take me up on it.”

When he laughed, she could feel it beneath her. “You’ve been with me long enough to know that if you propose it, I’m going for it.” He lightly popped her on her rear end and said in challenge, “Getting old? Can’t take it?”

“Never.” She opened her eyes and smiled down at him.

Exhausted, finishing amidst a tumble of twisted satin sheets, the down comforter which was half on the bed and half on the floor, and the tossed assortment of pillows, Jennifer allowed her upper body to ease forward until she was cheek to cheek with her contented, adorable husband.

She closed her eyes again and monitored the beating of her heart in comparison to the strong rhythm of his. He was fine, and of that she was glad. It was a thing of which she had to keep reassuring herself, at least for the time being. Every time she thought about how close they’d come just the month before…

“I love you.” she whispered in earnest, barely able to move from temporary fatigue and her own state of deep satisfaction.

In response, he tightened the arms that were already around her, bringing her even closer. From that, she knew the same thoughts were running through his mind. What, she wondered, would they do without each other?

A quick glance at the clock said that it would soon be noon.

“I’m famished.” she said into his chest.

Reaching with one arm to the side of the bed, he attempted to hand her the banana that was on the tray he’d earlier moved to the floor. With her hand, she eased his offering away.

“I’ve had enough of that sort of thing.” she said in explanation. “I need something a bit more filling.”

“I should think you’ve had enough of that, too.” he replied.

“Jonathan, you have the filthiest, most dirty mind.”

“Yeah, but you love me for it, Red. And for the record, I’m not the one who’s mind went straight to thinking about she’s had enough banana in that context, am I? Personally, I wasn’t even thinking along those lines. I was strictly talking fruit.”

“Sure, you were.” She rolled off him and slid out of the bed, noticing her cell phone blinking on her night table. “I’m going to take a shower. Want to go out for some lunch?”

“That’d be great.” he answered. “But I think I’m going to lie here until you get finished. I’ll go in after you.”

“Why not with me?” She winked on her way around the bed, headed for the bathroom.

“Are you kidding?” he asked, turning over on his stomach and scrunching a pillow under his head, watching her as she passed. “I need time to recover. I keep telling you that I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m not getting anywhere near you until you put some clothes on.”

“Chicken.”

When he heard the shower going, and the shower door slide closed, he sat up to check the caller I.D.

In the bathroom, standing outside the closed shower, she was pressing the button on her cell to listen to the message from Pat.

________________________________________________________

“Since Hector’s here now, I’m going to ride with him.” J.J. informed Marnie as everyone was leaving the furniture store, heading for lunch. “We have a couple more things to check out.”

Marnie was skeptical. J.J. hadn’t gone off on Hector like she thought she would once he turned up as late as he had. The calm, accepting reaction wasn’t sitting right with her. It wasn’t J.J.’s style when it came to errant males, especially not one who’d been messing up with her as badly as Hector had in recent days. Surely, she thought, J.J. should have snapped at him at least once. It simply was not sitting right.

“Things like what, J.?”

“Things.” J.J. answered. “I’m not satisfied that these are the best stroller prices. And we still have to reconcile our budgets. Since we aren’t a married couple, and with him being late and all, we have to catch up and then we need to check things a little more closely. You know, make sure stuff lines up.”

“Um-hum.” Marnie answered, closely checking out her friend’s face for signs of deception. “I’m warning you, J. You’d better be on the up and up.”

“What?” J.J. cried, appearing offended, backing up from where she’d been leaning into the driver’s side window of Marnie’s car. “What could I possibly have up?”

“This is me you’re talking to, J.J. Hart.” Marnie declared, not buying the innocent act one bit. “We’ve been doing wrong together for a long time. I can tell when you’re onto something, and you are. If you get us in trouble, and we can’t get out of the house tonight, I’m kicking your ass. When that happens, I don’t want any hard feelings afterward. That’s why I’m letting you know beforehand that’s the way I’m going to handle it.”

J.J. folded her arms and looked off. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know damned well what I’m talking about, J.”

“You have a paper to write anyway, Marnie, while you’re worried about getting out. I heard the Duchess tell you last night that you had to redo it again.”

“I don’t do homework on Saturdays. That will have to wait until tomorrow.”

“She’s gonna ask you about it, and if you didn’t do it, she’s gonna make you.”

“Tomorrow night, I said.”

“Whatever.” J.J. declared, snaking her neck for emphasis.

“Whatever.” Marnie retorted, returning the neck gesture as she started her car. “Look, hit me up on the cell if you end up needing to be baled out. BUT if the Duchess is involved in it by that time, don’t call me. Hit Jesus up instead, ’cause that’s who you’ll be needing. She told you.”

When Marnie pulled off, she left J.J. in the parking lot standing with her long legs apart and those arms still folded. Sidney watched her out of the rear window.

“You two are a trip, Marnie. Like sisters. What is J. trying to get into?”

“Something she shouldn’t.” Marnie answered. “And she’s going to take me right along with her. I just know it. And the bad part, Sid, is I have to hold her up in it, because she damn sure would be getting my back if it was me.”

________________________________________________________

“Small world, Jen. Turns out The Mole knows your security chief over at HartToys personally. They were good friends at one time; went to school together. He hears of her every now and then. Sees her sometimes at security conventions and things. He says the word he hears on, or should I say under, the street is she’s got trouble.

“My source wasn’t sure, but he thinks it’s man trouble. Maybe an affair gone bad, blackmail, or a retribution type thing. She’s been trying to keep it quiet. I can’t say that it’s related to the murder at HartToys, but that’s all I have to give you so far.

“He says that she’s good people, very reliable, stellar personal reputation and utterly professional, but who knows what happens when the panties get hot?

“Well, I’m on my way to Maryland. I’ll get back to you if more comes my way.”

Jennifer clicked off the voice mailbox on her cell.

In the shower, her overworked muscles being gently kneaded and massaged by jets of warm water shooting from the side walls, she smiled thinking of Pat. That woman could put her hand on, or get the goods on, anybody in the world. If she wasn’t personally acquainted with the individual, then inevitably, she knew or could locate someone who was.

What kind of trouble could Chris Allen be having that she had to hide it?

Despite the soothing heat and the steam, that old, involuntary, haunting cold shiver momentarily overwhelmed her. If it was man problems, an affair gone bad- that could indeed be embarrassing, potentially troubling, maybe even dangerous. Chris worked hard to get where she was, and for a person in her position, there were so many angles from which one had to keep watch. A female executive  had to be so careful. There would be so many people taking potshots for so many different reasons and from numerous unexpected directions. No matter how much times had changed and thinking had evolved, it was still true that a woman couldn’t operate like a man.

So unfortunate, but so very true.

And was it all related? Was it in any way connected to what happened to Paul Rider? Could it be about Chris Allen and Paul Rider? There was only way to find out; get to Chris and talk with her, woman to woman.

________________________________________________________

After a couple more stops to look at a few more items on the “needs” list that took them to one of the outlying suburbs, J.J. and Hector, riding together in Hector’s truck, headed back in the direction of home. It was a little past twelve in the afternoon, and it was time for J.J. to make her move.

“Hector, I have our two budgets. I can work things out by myself since I’ve already done the research. You can drop me off, and I’ll do it.”

“I feel bad, J. You’ve already done most of the work on this part. You fixed up my other stuff. I know I been slacking. I want to help.”

“There’s not really anything for you to do at this point. I just need to look at our figures, put them together, make some adjustments- you don’t have that much to adjust, anyway- and put it to paper. I don’t need you for that. I’ll need you more next week, when we have the doll.”

“You mean the baby.”

“I mean the doll.”

“Okay, so what do you want to do now? You want to go get something to eat?”

“No, I’m not all that hungry.”

Not wishing Hector to have to be involved in her decision in any way should someone ask where she had gone, J.J. asked to be taken to the coffee shop across the street from their school, which wasn’t too far from where they were. In silence, he drove her there, pulled up in front, and stopped.

“Why here?” he asked.

“I just need some time by myself.” she answered. “I have some things besides the budget for the project that I need to work out. I think pretty well here. It’s a great environment for that sort of thing.”

“Is everything okay, J.? You seem real preoccupied.”

“I’m fine, Hector. No problem.”

“How’s your friend, Teddy? Are you two still talking? You guys doing okay?”

“We’re good. Still friends. Is Bianca giving you the time of day yet? What about you and Carmelita? She’s still giving me dirty looks. I wish you’d tell her something.”

“As a matter of fact, I’m taking Bianca to the show tonight. And you said my notes wouldn’t get me anywhere. And tell Carmelita what? She ain’t my girlfriend. She wants to be, but she ain’t. I’m into Bianca.”

“Carmelita doesn’t seem to be getting that, Hector. You might need to specify what you just said to me with her before she makes an issue of it with Bianca. Or more importantly, with me. I will go off on her if she brings it to me, and you know I will. It’s getting on my nerves.”

“It’s not my fault she’s crazy.”

“It’s not mine either, but she isn’t listening to me. You’d better tell her something.”

“You mad at me about all of this, J.? Too bad our parents are making us do this, isn’t it? It’s a mess.”

When she looked over and saw the genuine concern on his face, J.J. almost felt sorry for him. Hector was nice, he was fun, and he could work magic in the music studio- a wizard with the synthesizer. He couldn’t help it if he was a trifling teenaged boy and operated in the manner that he did. She almost wished she could let him in on that in which he was already participating, without knowing that he was.

“No, Hector. Honest. I’m not mad, although I am going to say to you that you’re going to have to come some if we’re going to get through this project without me ripping your head off.”

“I’ll do better, J. I promise. Even though you wouldn’t marry me, we’re in this together. How are you going to get home from here?”

“I’ll call Marnie when I’m ready. She’s staying at my house this weekend, so she has to go back there at some point. I’ll just have her pick me up.”

“I don’t know, J. I hate leaving you like this. By yourself. If something happens to you, your old man will have my head if he were to find out that I was the last one with you, and I left you.”

She opened the door to the truck and got out. “I’ll be fine.” she assured him as she pushed the door back shut. “Don’t worry about Daddy or me. I’m just going to have a coffee and Danish and chill for a bit.”

“All right. But if you can’t get Marnie, promise me you’ll call me. It don’t matter what I’m into. I’ll come get you.”

“I will.” She said as she backed away with a small wave. “You go ahead, and get on with your day. Maybe we’ll see you and Bianca tonight when we’re out.”

He waved and pulled off. She went into the coffee house where her friend Tina, the cashier was working behind the counter.

“Hey J.J. What brings you up in here on a Saturday? When I was a Junior like you, you couldn’t get me anywhere near school on a Saturday unless I had business there.”

“Hey Tina. I was over this way and just thought I’d stop.”

Tina leaned over the counter. “You little liar. You don’t have a reason on earth to just be over this way on a Saturday at this time of day. Who was that I saw you pull up with in the truck?”

“So like, who died and made you my mother, Tina?” J.J. slyly smiled. “You sound just like her, and you see everything.”

“When it comes to you, Miss Hart, I do. So spill it. Who was he?”

“That was just Hector, Tina; Philly’s brother. You know him.”

“Oh, well, I guess that’s all right then. Say, he’s not trying to talk to you, is he? You know what I’ve told you about getting too involved with the fellas, especially ‘locals’.”

“Talk to me? Hector? Tina, please. It’s about this project. That’s it. We had to do a shopping thing this morning, and he got all over my nerves with it. Completely absent- MIA all the way. Showed up after I had most of everything done. If Hector was trying to talk to me before this morning, we’d be over by now. After all I’ve been through with him these last few days, if I didn’t know it before, I know for sure now that he is not my type.”

“I’m glad to hear that, then.” Tina said. “Those boys can wait. Heard from Tommy lately?”

“He’s fine. He’s emailed a couple of times and sent me a picture. He’s a lot better than me. He’s over in Europe, sailing, traveling, and I’m stuck here in LA, doing this project stuff.”

“Your mother’s smart to make you do this. Maybe if I had gotten a practice run at it, I wouldn’t be doing the real thing now; trying to go to school, work, and raise a baby all at the same time. It’s a lot better now than it was, since that grant came through for me, but it’s still no walk in the park. Don’t get me wrong, I love my little boy, and I wouldn’t trade him for the world, but motherhood’s hard, J., especially when you’re real young, don’t know enough, don’t have yourself together, and the father of your baby isn’t worth two dead flies. You want something to eat?”

“May I have a medium Columbian- cream and sugar- and a raspberry Danish? I just need a quiet spot to think in for a little while.”

“Your booth is free.” Tina said, gesturing to the farthest rear booth where J.J. normally held court during the week. “How are you getting home to Bel Air from here? Marnie coming for you? Your father? Your mother?”

“No, I thought I’d phone for a taxi. I don’t really feel like anybody.”

“Your parents let you take taxis, J,?”

“Sure. I’m not a baby, Tina. You said you read about me in the paper, so you know I fly jets. What’s a taking a taxi to that?”

“I guess you have a point.”

In the booth reviewing her notes, J.J. thought about what Tina said. She liked Tina a lot, and was glad for her when that surprise educational grant appeared for her out of nowhere. It allowed her to not have to work so many days and to put her little boy in daycare, thereby freeing up her mother during the day and easing some of the tension between them. Watching Tina struggle to handle her affairs and listening to the things she had to say almost always left her in a reflective state.

When her coffee and Danish were half-finished, J.J. used her cell to phone for the taxi. By the time she was finished with her snack, Tina was calling to her from up front, telling her that her ride had arrived.

“Girl Power.” Tina said to her as they hooked baby fingers in their usual parting gesture. “Stay strong.”

“Girl Power.” J.J. grinned in return before rushing out of the door. “See you on Monday.”

“Where to?” the driver asked as she slid into the back seat of the car.

She gave him the names of the two cross streets in Ventura County, which she’d pulled up on Mapquest that morning before leaving home. Getting out at that nearby intersection, she planned to walk the rest of the way.

Should she somehow be called on it, she had in place a solid, justifiable reason for going. Once she got there, what she hoped to see or to find out beyond that, she wasn’t so sure. She only knew that she had to go, and that the way she was doing it was the only way to get on the inside.

________________________________________________________

“Darling.”

Jennifer was stepping out of the shower, drying herself, as Jonathan entered the bathroom, calling for her. Immediately, she could tell by the look on his face that their lunch date was not going to be.

“That call,” he said. “I’m going to have to go into the office for a while.”

“Oh Jonathan, on a Saturday?” she complained, and then she immediately apologized. “I’m sorry. I know how much you hate to do business on the weekend. It must be pretty important.”

“Yeah, it is.” he answered as he walked past her to get into the shower himself. “I’m sorry about lunch.”

She waited for him to elaborate on the change in plans, but he didn’t. Instead, he slid shut the door and turned on the water. That crease in his left brow hadn’t escaped her attention, nor did the fact that she wasn’t asked to accompany him.

“It’s just as well.” she thought to herself as she made her way to the dressing room, pulling the other towel from her hair. “I have things of my own that I’d like to look into for which I don’t need an audience.”

________________________________________________________

“I thought this was where you all would be.” Hector said as he approached the table at the outdoor taco stand where he found his sister with Deon, Sidney, and Marnie and some others. “I took a shot and came on over here. I was hoping this was where you were. I felt like Mexican.”

“I guess you did.” Philly said. “I feel like that all the time. Where’s J.J.?”

“I know you did not let that girl get away from you.” Marnie said to him, her words sounding more like a warning than a question.

“I dropped her off.” Hector answered as he slid onto the bench with them. “She said she wanted to be by herself. You know how she gets sometimes.”

When he sat down, Marnie stood up. “Dropped her off where?”

“The coffee shop by the school.” Hector replied offhandedly as he surveyed the menu. “She said she wanted to work on our budgets by herself, and that’s where she wanted to go, so that’s where I left her. She said she’d call you when she was finished and ready to go home.”

Marnie whipped out her phone and pressed a speed dial button.

A couple of seconds later, she snatched the phone from her ear, mumbling, “I knew it.”

She stuffed the cell back down into her purse.

“What?” Hector asked.

“That girl has the nerve to not answer me. I hit her up twice and got her voice mail.” Marnie fussed as she raised her large Coke from which she took a hefty swig. “Leave a message, my ass. Her not picking up says all I need to know. I knew she was going to do it. I knew I should have followed you two. That girl left home this morning with the plan already in mind to pull this.”

She grabbed her keys from the table as everyone else stared at her in surprise.

“What?” asked Hector again, clearly dumbfounded. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No.” Marnie declared. “I did. Look, Deon, Hector, Percy, one of you take Sid home. Sid, you get my tab. I’ll see you later.”

They all watched her get into her car, and drive out of the lot.

“I figured she was going to stick me with this bill.” Sidney said. “The little gold-digger.”

“Did I do something wrong?” Hector asked one more time, but with even more concern.

“If you did, we’ll find out tonight.” Philly answered as she pulled Marnie’s untouched fries over to her spot while Hector lit into her uneaten, still steaming chicken quesadilla plate.

“You can ante up for those.” Sidney let him know. “Since you’re eating them.”

“She told you to pay for them.” Hector reminded Sidney as he blew on one of the flaky wedges to cool it off before popping it, whole, into his mouth.

“Okay, I’ll pay” Sidney sniffed. “But that just means I own you today. You’ll have to be the one to take me home.”

“If it means I can eat this for free.” Hector said, making quick work of scarfing down the rest. “I’ll drive you. As long as you stay on your side, keep low so my boys who might not understand don’t see you, and you keep your hands to yourself. You know I don’t swing like that, Sid.”

“Hmph, you aren’t my type anyway.” Sidney turned up his nose at Hector while the rest at the table snickered over the entire exchange.

“If it happens that J.J. and Marnie don’t make it out tonight,” Philly continued after the brief diversion, once she regained her composure. “And their phones are switched off, we’ll know what’s up: they got caught wrong by J.J.’s mother. We’ll get the play-by-play of how it went down, for sure, from Marnie at lunch on Monday.”

________________________________________________________

Chris Allen sat in her office, poring over the police and private investigative reports regarding the recent unsettling incident in the employee parking structure. The latest one wasn’t very much different from the first. Arnold Zale hadn’t added anything new since his initial check, but she knew that he was supposed to still be looking into it. Zale and his group were methodical and thorough, and that had her worried.

Most Saturdays, she could be found at work, even though most of HartToy employees didn’t work weekends during that time of the year. It was her habit to come in for a few hours on Saturday mornings and stay until early afternoon, completing paperwork, tying up loose ends left dangling from days prior. There had been a lot of them from this particular preceding week, and some couldn’t be finished off just yet. Those she had to put to the side for the time being, though she detested having to do so. It wasn’t her style to leave things undone.

It was going on two in the afternoon. Normally, she would be making ready to leave, but she had reason to hang around a little later that day. There definitely wasn’t any reason for her to want to rush home. After placing each report on top of its respective folder to keep them in order, she leaned back in her chair to reflect on things.

Time had gone by so fast. It seemed just yesterday, she was fresh out of college and eagerly looking forward to being where she currently was, working security systems for a solid, established company, and in charge of it all. That was what she set out to do, and she was proud of having achieved that goal. As a young woman, she hadn’t given much thought to how being female would fit into that picture. Since then, she’d learned that her gender would indeed be a factor in that equation and in ways dictate the course of her life, but it wasn’t something she let stand in her way. What did gender matter if a person was capable, was sure of what she wanted, and was the best person for the job.

But what had she given up to get what she wanted? How had her personal life been affected by her professional position? Were the things she was currently feeling like she’d missed out on things she really wished she had? Or was it simply middle age creeping in on her, causing her to second-guess decisions made, decisions which until only recently she’d found satisfying? It hadn’t ever been easy being Chris Allen, but then doing things the easy way had never been her style either.

Sitting at her desk, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored frame of the photograph of her parents which she kept on her desk. In the reflection, even she could see that she wasn’t a bad looking woman. She had always been confident of her intelligence and her abilities. A pragmatic person by nature, most of the decisions she made were usually made after a great deal of thought.

Most of them….

Why, she wondered, couldn’t life stay neatly packaged? Why did it have to ooze and seep past set boundaries, threatening to contaminate those things one was able to keep confined, clean, uncompromised? She so detested messiness and disorder.

There came a knock to her office door. As her secretary was off, she got up to answer it herself. Only one person could be on the other side. She’d left word downstairs at the gate, and only that one person would be allowed to come that far into the building. This would be a welcome diversion from business as usual.

Opening the door, she admitted with a wave of her hand, her fresh-faced guest with the big, bright smile.

“Hi, Ms. Chris. I got here sooner than I thought I would. I’m not too early, am I?”

“Hi, and no, you’re not too early. I told you I’m flexible on Saturdays. Long time, no see, my friend. I’m excited that you thought of me for this. Come on in, J.J., and let’s get this interview you need for your project started.”

________________________________________________________

Being that it was Saturday and traffic subsequently lighter without the normal daily commuter traffic, Jennifer found the drive from Bel Air easy and pleasant. Although she’d been living in Los Angeles with Jonathan for many years, she still found the lush California landscape to be among the most beautiful she’d experienced in her lifetime of travel. The HartToys facility in Ventura County was located in one of the most picturesque settings of any Hart division. She always enjoyed going down there, though it had been a while since she’d done so.

Being the weekend and downtime, it would be the best time to catch Chris alone. Even though she was going in unannounced, she was certain that, if she were there, Chris would stop what she was doing and see her. With her secretaries off for the day, she’d be in her office by herself, so they could, hopefully, talk undisturbed. As a writer, getting people to open up had always been her strong suit. It had been her greatest asset back when she worked as a reporter. Women, especially younger women, seemed to inherently trust in her.

If it turned out that Chris wasn’t there in her office or in the building as she hoped, as the boss’s wife, she could always just have a look around. It wasn’t like she wasn’t curious to see the scene of the crime for herself. But she sincerely hoped to catch up with Chris and sit down to talk.

Thinking back on how and why Jonathan delivered the bad news to her in the way that he did, she considered if maybe it would be a better thing to get Chris out of that office and into somewhere more neutral. She decided to table that decision until she got there and could see how it was going to go between them.

The last time she’d seen or spoken with Chris Allen had been at a company function Jonathan arranged at the house during the holiday season the previous year. After years of knowing her, she found the HartToys security chief to be an intelligent, interesting person despite her somewhat frosty aura. They shared an easy, cordial, albeit professional more so than friendly, relationship. In many ways, watching her come up through the ranks, Chris reminded her a lot of herself as a young woman. She was smart, hardworking, dedicated to her craft, and largely private. Despite that last thing, or perhaps because of it, Chris drew attention, both male and female attention.

As an attractive, mature, single female, to a lot of people she was a novelty, a curiosity, something that needed figuring out. Nothing irked worse than when conversation about and around Chris focused not so much on her considerable intelligence and accomplishments, but more on why such an attractive woman had never married, didn’t have children, or didn’t at least have a man of her own, a regular, by her side. From what she recalled from her own experiences in that arena, some people could have a lot of nerve and not much tact when it came to voicing their opinions on that sort of thing.

Working in her executive capacity for Hart, Chris had been all over the world, traveling mostly on her own. She didn’t seem to have any reservations about showing up at Hart Industries’ social functions unaccompanied. Invariably, she’d be bearing that air of cool confidence brought about by experience and maturity, but which was often mistaken for aloofness. Distinctively attractive and successful; single men, the more self confident ones, were drawn to her. Married men eyed her and were intrigued by her. Observing her at that last holiday function, and noting the male reactions she garnered, it was evident that most of those men found Chris Allen intriguing. Many of them probably mistakenly considered her, in her older single-woman status, an easy mark and desperate for their company.

How arrogant.

Pat said Chris had trouble. Man trouble. What could a smart girl like that have gotten herself into? Girl? Chris was a woman.

But also like Pat said, when the panties got hot, the usual reliable guard sometimes came down, as well ….

In reality, if Chris really was anything like she had been, nothing could be farther from the truth when it came to being an easy mark or desperate for male company. Before meeting Jonathan, the single life had been quite satisfying. With such a full schedule most of the time, abject loneliness was rarely an issue. Chris did not seem, to her, to be discontent with her situation. She lived well, owning a fabulous condo overlooking the valley. She had a good job, was successful in her chosen field, always seemed confident, upbeat and happy, and she went her own way. No ties. No questions. No messiness. No responsibilities outside of those related to family and self- and family understood.

There might be guys in her life, but that was personal, nobody’s business but her own. Looking back on herself, again in comparison to Chris, she figured Chris for not wasting a lot of time on the obvious wrong ones, and leery of those who might be closer to right, especially as she was getting older. Under most circumstances, at the stage of the game she was in, it was probably best not to let any one of them get too close and risk giving the impression that any claim could be staked on the life she’d made for herself.

That sudden, involuntary shudder. That flash of ugly recollection, and for a moment, glad to be sitting at a red light, she had to close her eyes to deal with it.

She’d long ago reconciled herself to the fact that it would probably never completely go away. Twenty-six, almost twenty-seven years later, at certain moments, it still plagued her. Despite Jonathan coming into her life, erasing the surface hurt and anger, tiny jagged shards still remained imbedded in her mind. Under certain conditions or aggravated by particular images, they pricked, and occasionally stabbed, at her psyche.

Jonathan.

How blessed she was to have him. What would life have been like if he hadn’t happened to her? Would she still be single and content with it? Or would she have given in and settled for the sake of safety and relative security? Even as a woman content to be single, she longed for that one right man to be a part of her life. For a long time, that particular fulfillment had proven itself elusive.

Trial and error… error and trial.

Stop it, Jennifer. Stop it.

Or would she have continued that slow death march she had been in London trying to resist going with, after-

Thank God for Sabrina, and for Pat and Marcia.

Thank you, God for sending me into Jonathan’s waiting arms.

Thank you for allowing him to remain here with me.

He hadn’t said anything more about why he had to go into the office, and of course, she hadn’t pressed him on it. He’d give it up when he could. Whatever it was, it had to be big. It was corporate policy that his weekends were not to be disturbed for business unless it was absolutely, positively, one hundred percent unavoidable. It had been that way with him long before J.J., and once that little girl entered his life, it was practically etched in stone and hanging in the lobby of every division of Hart Industries around the world. The CEO’s family came first, and one did not ring his phone on the weekend unless there was simply no other way to handle whatever was happening.

He pushed himself so hard.

I love, I love, I love that man.

Who would have thought back then that Jennifer Edwards, I, would one day be married almost twenty-six years to the same man and mother to anybody?

Not me. Not back then.

A sixteen year old child. That girl. That unpredictable, independent, smart, nervy, incorrigible, scamp of a teenaged girl. A Jennifer/Pat/Sabrina/Suzanne product, a Chris in the making; a young Jonathan Hart in jeans and a tee shirt, but with a ponytail hanging out of the back of a baseball cap.

Only difference was J.J. wanted babies; she said she wanted more than one. She hadn’t, however, said word one about a husband.

J.J. Hart was crazy enough and nervy enough to go through with something like that. She was willful enough, and would be affluent enough to pull something like that off on her own. Already she was practicing on it. Jonathan might not have seen all the way through it; he might have believed her when she said it was just for the project, but J.J.’s mother saw clear through all of it and through her. That one was formulating a plan, a position, a stance for her future.

All of J.J.’s heroes, if they could be called that, were women- strong, independent women. She took definite issue with male egos and society’s double standards in regard to women. It wasn’t wise to talk with her about the subjugation of women in other cultures or religions if one wasn’t ready for a lengthy discourse. Bringing that topic up around J.J. was a tirade waiting to have its button pushed. No matter how much she tried to counterbalance it with J.J. through example and explanation, the contradictions and inequities J.J. could see for herself within the doctrines of the Catholic Church, were putting her off church and off organized religion in general.

As her mother, she was at least grateful that it was only church that J.J. seemed to be rejecting. She knew that J.J. still held a fundamental belief in a higher order, and that was a good thing. A girl needed to believe in something greater than herself. Even in the most well-appointed lives, there came moments when circumstances were more than one could handle on her own. At those times, with no one and nowhere else on earth left to turn for help, the only place left to look for support and guidance would be to the heavens.

“Mom, how come I can’t just believe? How come a person has to belong to a certain group to believe? Can’t I just be me and think like I want to think, without having to be affiliated with a bunch of other people?”

One had to believe in something greater than herself. As long as she believed there was something bigger and greater than she.

My sweet girl.

Look out for her, mama. She’s a mess, but she’s ours.

Keep an eye on her, Lord. She’s fast getting away from us. I can feel it.

Would that one be coming home to her parents one day, sitting the two of them down to tell them that they had a grandchild on the way even though there was no husband, boyfriend, significant other in sight or on the horizon? After all, she had her own way of doing things, and they weren’t necessarily conventional.

No, J.J. would at least have the significant other. He would have to be quite significant in order to get that close to her. Like her father, J.J. pushed hard and she kept her guard up. Only a very select few got past it. J.J. wouldn’t bring a child into the world with a man who wasn’t someone she felt would be a real father to her child, regardless of their marital status. He’d have to be someone who valued her, her perspectives, who understood her, and understood the importance to her of him being a good father to her child, and vice versa.

Tommy.

Thomas Jordan Steele… conveniently stashed thousands of miles away in Spain…

… for now…

… but when he did come home…

… on the pill, the patch, or something, for sure….

I wear glasses, not contacts, but I’m not blind either.

Sitting at a second light, waiting to make a left onto the street that would take her to her destination, the red BMW convertible blowing past her through the intersection, going a bit too fast, caught her attention.

What in the world?

I know good and well that wasn’t- It can’t be.

No, not way up here.

But as soon as the light changed for her, before oncoming traffic could even start to cross the intersection, she whipped that turn, heading in the direction of that little red car she could still see in the distance-

Fast trying to get away from me, but not fast enough just yet ….

-making every effort she could to catch up to it.

________________________________________________________

“How’d you get all the way out here, J.J.?” Chris asked as she sat down in her chair while the CEO’s daughter got herself arranged to conduct her interview. “I didn’t think you were driving yet.”

“I’m old enough, and I can drive, but I don’t have my license yet.” J.J. answered. “I took a taxi to come here. I was out all morning with the guy who’s my partner in the project. We had to do some comparison shopping- it’s a long story, but it was all for this project. He drives this big SUV, and I didn’t want him burning up his gas to bring me all this way- he wouldn’t have accepted any money from me, so I had him drop me off, and I took a taxi from where I had him to leave me.”

Chris nodded as she surveyed the tall, thin teenager with the freckles on her nose and all that hair. J.J. Hart was essentially still a baby, didn’t even have a driver’s license yet, but she could fly jets. She’d already established herself over at Hart Technologies as a computer prodigy. It was said that she was extremely intelligent, and from her own interactions with her, Chris could see the validity in those claims. She could also see that in J.J., Jonathan Hart was quietly putting together a heck of a unit himself.

“This thing sounds kind of involved, J.J. Isn’t this a bit advanced and risqué for a high school project? I thought they were promoting abstinence and that line of thinking in high school these days. I’m surprised that they let you all get this involved.”

“See, Ms. Chris,” J.J. began as she placed her questions sheet and notepad on the table in preparation to work with them.

“Chris. We’re both big girls now.”

J.J. smiled up at her. “Okay. Chris, the school I go to is kind of progressive. The curriculum is a bit more advanced and therefore, more realistic than most high schools tend to be. We do a lot of hands-on activities that other schools probably wouldn’t touch. We’re into simulations and real life issues.

“Like, for example, I almost got into big trouble at the end of last year for writing an article for the school paper about how only pushing abstinence as a means of birth and disease control wasn’t really an effective way to address young people about sex if adults really want them to listen. I wrote that grownups need to get real about stuff like that, quit playing like they never did it or thought about doing it when they were young, and deal more with teaching us how to better protect ourselves should we choose to have sex.”

“Shoot,” She casually waved her hand in the air. “While they’re preaching abstinence, half the kids they’re talking to have already done it.”

Shaking her head in amusement, Chris fought to retain her serious demeanor as J.J. kept up her candid explanation.

“Well, a few of the parents got mad and said that I shouldn’t have been allowed to publish that article because it went against the abstinence thing. They thought I was saying that it was okay to have premarital sex. I wasn’t. I was just saying that abstinence didn’t work for everyone. Not everybody thinks that having sex before marriage is wrong, and because of that, we all need to deal with that reality. I had a couple of incidents happen around me that really made me see how true that was. Some kids could really have messed up their lives. The journalism faculty ended up coming to my defense with those parents and the school board. The faculty said that what I wrote was true and that they stood behind me because they see every day that simply saying, “Don’t do it.”, wasn’t doing it. That’s the kind of school I go to. It’s real there. For the most part, it’s what makes me like school.”

“So, what do you think so far about this project you’re doing?” Chris asked.

“It’s okay.” J.J. answered. “A lot of work, but I won’t really know how I feel about it for real until Monday.”

“What happens Monday?”

“We get the kid we’re supposed to have between us. It should get real interesting then.”

“I’ll bet.”

J.J. pulled a small recorder from her purse and set it on the table. “Do you mind if I tape our interview?” she asked. “That way, if I miss something while I’m taking notes, I can have it for later.”

“It’s fine. Do what you need to do.”

Chris continued her surveillance of the girl across from her. She had removed the baseball cap she wore when she arrived, and when she did, it almost startled her how J.J.’s blue eyes had that same disturbing intensity as her father’s. Having been with Hart Industries for such a long time, she’d known J.J. all of her life, and had been afforded the opportunity to watch her as she grew from an infant into the young lady sitting before her. J.J. had always physically resembled her mother, but even as a little girl, it was obvious that she had a personality that was all her own. Never had she been as outwardly soft as her mother appeared to be, even though that softness was a highly deceptive aspect of Jennifer Hart’s true persona.

Not having been with J.J. in a while, not since the holidays, she could see that she was changing and evolving. Kids her age seemed to morph into someone else every six months or so. As J.J. was getting older, it was becoming more and more apparent that there was something about her that was and was going to be very much like her father. It was an air of almost macho charisma and self-assuredness. Maybe it was her direct manner of speaking. Definitely the way that she looked at a person was every bit Jonathan Hart.

“Can I ask you something before we start, J.J.?”

“Sure.”

“What made you think of me for this interview?”

“Part of the project is to find someone to interview who’s living the sort of lifestyle you’ve chosen for yourself for the assignment. You’re the kind of woman I admire. Whenever I’ve come here, even though you might be busy, you always take time to talk with me. When I see you, even when you don’t know I’m looking, you’re always on point. You really know your stuff. When you were at the house for the party last year, and you came up to my room to see me, that was something you didn’t have to do, but you did it.

“You’re here, doing a job that is typically assigned to a man, and you do it well. I hear people talk about you, and I can tell that they respect you. You’re single, but you seem okay with it. People like you, but they don’t know your personal business. You are all of that, you do all of that, and on top of it all, you’re pretty. That being pretty thing doesn’t seem to get in your way. I like that about you. That’s how I want to be for this project. It’s how I want to be in real life when I’m a woman.”

“Well!” Chris exhaled as she blushed. “Thank you for such nice compliments. Maybe I’m assuming, but I thought you were married for the project. Didn’t you tell me that it involved you and your partner having a child between you? What’s your profession?”

“I chose to be a writer, like my mother, hence this interview. I also chose not to be married for the project, even though Hector and I will have the kid.”

Chris sat forward in mild surprise. “They let you get away with that?”

“They had to. This is supposed to be about real life, and that happens sometimes in real life. Who knows? It could happen to me. You ready?”

“If you are.” Chris answered as she sat back, getting prepared to talk about herself and to again take visual inventory of Mr. Hart’s fascinating, free-thinking daughter.

There was a lot going on in her life, and it was true nobody knew her business. It was how she tried to keep her life, each part in its own individually wrapped package. One thing didn’t have anything to do with the other. She could only hope that things stayed that way. She found it hard to believe that with all that had gone down, J.J. Hart was there solely for the interview. But so far, she hadn’t said or done anything that would lead her to believe otherwise.

________________________________________________________

“Oh… my… God.”

Marnie checked her rear view mirror before turning onto HartToy Industrial Boulevard and noticed the Mercedes behind her, turn signal flashing like radar, indicating that it, too was planning to use the same road.

A second quick check confirmed it: “2HARTS”

My ass is fried. How in the hell am I going to explain this? How freaking bad can my luck be?

She pulled to the curb, and as if it had a homing device, so did the Mercedes. Switching off the engine, Marnie melted into the seat and lay her head on the headrest. Closing her eyes, she popped open the locks and awaited the inevitable arrival of Armageddon.

The passenger door opened. The sound of the leather seat stretching and the car’s slight downward movement indicated the presence of her expected guest. The passenger door closed, then a bare arm coiled itself around her bare shoulders.

“Where’s your girl?” The question was posed close to her ear as the subtle, but familiar perfume wafted its way to her nostrils, causing her already tense tummy to churn one good time.

“I don’t know,” she answered without opening her eyes. “Honest, I don’t.”

Long fingers smoothed her wind-tousled hair. “Then what brings you all the way up here, and to this particular street, if you don’t know where she is?”

“I was just taking a shot. Honest. I really don’t know where J.J. is.”

“And why is that? You left home together. Surely she told you what her plans were.”

“No, she didn’t. I swear it. She was with Hector at the furniture store the last time I saw her. Then later, Hector showed up without her at the taco place. He said she wanted to be dropped off, but when I tried to call her to get her exact location, she wouldn’t pick up.”

“So, you naturally suspected she came here?”

“I didn’t say all that. I was out for a ride, and I just happened to end up here. I told you I wanted to go shopping.”

“So you came here, forty miles out of Los Angeles, to this street, to do your shopping?”

By this time, Marnie had given up trying to keep the trembling from being noticed.  The voice speaking to her had grown increasingly soft, almost sinister, while it moved in closer and closer to her ear. She didn’t dare open her eyes for fear of looking right into the ones she didn’t want to see.

“I said, you’re shopping? Here, on this street, Marnie? I don’t see any shops. I’ve been coming here for more years than you’ve been alive. I’m not aware of any shopping to be done down this road. You know something I don’t?”

“I was- I mean- I- What can I say, Mrs. H? It’s two for one. You know how it is. I got worried. But I’m not lying when I tell you I don’t know where J. is. For real.”

“You say she didn’t answer her cell?”

Marnie hesitated and then finally shook her head, offering in a near whisper, “No Ma’am, she didn’t.”

“And that led you to believe she had come here?”

It took a tightening of the fingers of the hand on her own upper arm and the vise-like hold on her shoulders to make her nod.

“She said nothing to you about it?”

When she didn’t answer right away, the grip tightened even more, and Marnie caved.

“I swear, Mrs. H. Not a word. I’m just guessing, that’s all. Hector didn’t show until late, and J. didn’t even go off on him when he did show up. She was quiet like that all morning at breakfast. I know when she’s scheming. She goes all quiet, kind of like Mr. H. does when he’s got something on his mind. I was just hoping if she did come here, I could see her, and make her go back with me. Pleeeease. You’re not going to put me on lockdown, if she is here, are you? Please don’t take the car away. I didn’t even do anything. I was trying to do right. I real-l-l-l-ly don’t want to go on lockdown.”

“Open your eyes, girl.” the voice ordered as her body was slightly shaken before the arm released her.

Marnie opened her eyes to find herself face to face with Jennifer Hart who was still leaning toward and over her.

“Go home,” she said. “Wait for me there. If J.J. is here, I’ll handle it.”

“What if she isn’t? What if it turns out  she didn’t come here. Am I still in trouble for being here?”

“Then you two won’t have anything worry about. That’s IF she isn’t up here.”

“If she isn’t here? But I didn’t even do anything,” Marnie moaned. “I didn’t do anything except try to make her be right.”

“It’s two for one,” Jennifer Hart replied as she opened the door and got out. “Go straight home, like I told you.”

“But I didn’t get the notebook yet that I have to have for class.”

“Depending upon how things turn out, if you don’t get it later this evening, I’ll take you to get it tomorrow.”

“You?”

The woman nodded. “Yes, me, in my car.”

Marnie put her key in the ignition and sighed. “Okay.”

Making a U-turn, she left J.J.’s mother standing on the curb in much the same way sheleft J.J. in that lot at the furniture store earlier: arms folded, long legs spread apart, watching her drive away.

Approaching the stop sign at the intersection, she was already planning all the ways she was going to kick her best friend’s ass if it turned out she was in that building… like she was absolutely certain she was.

____________________________________________________________

“Now that we’ve got the technical things out of the way, there’s a couple of other things I need to ask you.  It might be that they’re too personal. They’re for the project, but they’re for me, too. If I’m cutting too close, just tell me. I can be too blunt sometimes, I know it, but I don’t always realize that I’m being it when I am.”

Behind her hand, Chris chuckled to herself. One thing she had always liked about J.J. Hart was that she didn’t put on airs. The girl definitely knew how to cut to the chase.

“It’s okay.” she said. “I get accused of being too raw at times, too.”

“Raw.” J.J. grinned. “That’s a word that gets assigned to me a lot. I thought that was our word, my generation.”

“If the shoe fits,” Chris smiled. “Any generation can wear it.”

“Okay. Here it is. Do you think you could have achieved all that you have if you were married and had children?”

Chris sat back on that one, drawing a finger thoughtfully to her chin. “Honest answer, or one for a teenaged girl’s project?”

“Honest answer. This teenaged girl needs truth in her life when it comes to stuff like that. I get sick of “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.” That’s not always true. I know that my mother cut some stuff back and out when she had me. Raising me herself, like she has- no nannies, nursery school, or any of that stuff she could have used- that was unavoidable. Tell me what you think for real, Chris.”

“No, J.J. I don’t think I would have. I’m able to do what I do because I don’t have a husband or children for whom I have to be responsible while I try to do my job. The work situation just isn’t the same for a woman, I don’t care who it is that’s trying to tell you that you can have it all. You can, but for a woman, it comes at a price and it depends upon what you consider to be all.

“You see, a man could have this position, and still have a wife at home to have his babies and take care of them and run his household while he is splendidly successful in the workplace. For a woman, it isn’t like that. A woman, first of all, usually has to have her own babies, and once she has them, I feel she needs to care for them. Day care and all of that can be good, but it’s not the same as mother, and that supplemental stuff should only be for so many hours a day, if that. It has to be tough, trying to work and worrying about who has your kids and if your kids are all right. There are stay-at-home Dads, but I think even in that situation, the mother still finds herself stretching it a bit thin.

“For a woman, J.J., something would have to give. She either gives up something on this end, or she gives up something on the other. I don’t care how much money she has, how strong she is, how smart she is, or how far she thinks she can spread herself out; she can’t cover it all, thoroughly, all at the same time. A man can’t either, but then he’s not expected to. For a woman, the job part, the mother part, the wife part- one of those areas is going to come up short. I wanted a career, so I ended up choosing to have a career over all the other.”

“Okay,” J.J. nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer she received. “This is the thing I really need to know, but now, remember, if I’m being nosy, just tell me.”

“All right.”

“Do you ever feel cheated because of the choices you had to make as a woman?”

Before Chris could articulate an answer to the question, her radio crackled. “Ms. Allen, you have a visitor here at the gate. It’s Mrs. Jennifer Hart.”

She noticed J.J.’s eyes widen at the name, while her own blood pressure quickened as her mind questioned why the woman would be there to see her.

Figuring it had to be about J.J., “Fine,” she spoke into the radio on her desk. “Please see to her getting in and up here.”

She clicked off and turned back to J.J. whose face had paled considerably and was, although she was trying hard not to, showing signs of sudden nervousness.

“Is your mother here to pick you up?” she asked.

“She might be,” J.J. answered. “But that wasn’t the plan I had in mind for getting home.”

“J.J., does your mother even know you’re here?”

J.J. shook her head.

“Why didn’t you tell her you were coming here?”

“Because she told me to leave the murder thing alone. I didn’t want her to think I came here to ask you about that. She wouldn’t have let me come if I had told her I was. She would have thought the interview was just an excuse to get in here.”

Chris leaned forward. “Tell me the truth, did you really come here to interview me, or did you come because of the incident?”

“I came for the interview,” J.J. answered, making sure to look Chris in the eye. “That’s for real. Everything I said about that and why I chose you is true, but I was hoping to segue my way into that, too. I won’t lie to you about that. Chris, she’s going to kill me for being here.”

“Let me handle it,” Chris said, sitting back in her chair and folding her hands across her abdomen. “Turn the recorder back on, and let me answer your last question.”

J.J. pressed the button and picked up her pencil.

Chris sympathized with the slight shaking detected in those baby smooth, slender fingers. Jennifer Hart, she imagined, was a force to reckoned with as a mother. Although she had never been the recipient of it nor been witness to it, she sensed she was that as a woman, as well. At that moment, she was glad she followed through on granting J.J. Hart her interview. In light of all that had gone down, at first she hadn’t been sure it would be wise to allow her to come out there, but the kid was so cute and so smart, her questions so well-thought out and refreshing, she was happy to have gone through with it. It took her mind off things, and strangely, had also refocused her attentions and priorities.

“Yes, J.J.,” she began. “Sometimes I do feel a little cheated. Maybe cheated is a bit strong. Stifled might be a better word for me. There are things I can’t do that a man could get away with. There are certain codes of behavior I have to observe because I’m a woman who values her reputation. There are facets of my professional reputation that I have to be mindful of to which a man wouldn’t have to give a second thought. I have to be smarter, more diligent, more everything because to be anything less would be blamed on my being a woman, and I won’t allow that to happen. Because I have to work so hard, I’ve had to move some other things I would like to have had in my life to the side. There wasn’t time for them.

“Also, guys tend to be intimidated by me, I think, because of the choices I’ve had to make for myself. I think it speaks to them of my having certain beliefs for myself that the average guy isn’t equipped to handle. That could just be my opinion. But, bottom line, J.J., the choices I made once I was grown, were mine. I wonder about them sometimes. Occasionally, I speculate on what might have been, but I don’t regret having made them.

“Now, J.J., can I ask you a quick question?”

“Yes?”

“Why didn’t you interview your mother for this project? I should think she would have been a perfect candidate for the perspective you’re looking for. She’s seen it from both sides, and she’d have been a whole lot easier for you to get to.”

“She was a good source,” J.J. answered. “Excellent, even. But I didn’t use her because I already know her answers; I’ve been interviewing her all my life. And as to getting to her being easier, like you, I don’t always take the easy way.”

At the knock, J.J. visibly stiffened. Chris casually gestured for her to get up and go to the door.

“Me?” J.J. whispered. “Let her in?”

“Yes, you. Go on,” Chris urged from her chair. “Trust me.”

Easing up from her seat, J.J. crossed the office, took a deep breath, and opened the door.

Jennifer Hart stood on the other side, and it was readily apparent she was none too pleased to find her daughter in that office.

________________________________________________________

First Hart. Then the girl. And now the wife.Guess that’s to be expected since Hart’s name is on the building.

Too many Harts coming and going in recent times for complete comfort.

One more loose end eliminated, but no closer to it.’

_________________________________________________________

What are you doing, Jen?

“I’m getting dressed to go out. Jonathan and I have been invited to dinner at the home of one of his business associates.

I’m sure he’s all enthused. I know how much he likes that sort of thing. Business dinners for him are right up there with root canals.

“That’s about it.”

Listen, I’m not going to hold you. I know you’re busy. I don’t have anything new on that project you’ve put me on. I just wanted to let you know that something’s come up, and I have to be in San Francisco to see Marcia and some of her people on Wednesday. I told her I’d come to her this time rather than her coming to me like it normally happens. It’s been a while since I’ve been to her place. I thought I’d fly into LA on Tuesday, spend the night with you so that I can see the girls, and then you and I could drive up to see Marcia early Wednesday morning.

“That sounds real good, Pat. I bet Bill’s not too happy with that switch-up.”

No, but I promised to make it up to him when I got back from California. We’ll make a long weekend of it then. He’s not hard to please, and besides, he’s up to his elbows at “Hamilton-McDowell Farms”. He has enough to occupy him there until I get back.

“Hamilton-McDowell Farms”, I love it. Wonderful name. Listen, I have a mouthful to tell you about your goddaughter and her cohort. There’s not enough time right now. But it’s so good. Nobody anywhere could write a script or a story this crazy. These two can make you so angry while at the same time you’re laughing your eyes out at them and the things they do. Pat, they are absolutely ridiculous with it. I swear I know how Pa must have felt with us.”

If it’s the two of them and some trouble, it’s got to be good.

“I almost can’t hold it, but I just don’t have time to roll it all out the way that it happened. There are parts I have to act out for you.”

Well, save it for when I get there. You go ahead, Jen. Bill and I are going out to a restaurant he’s discovered here that he wants me to experience. I hope he’s not going to have me eating hippo or something. He likes to experiment.

“Never heard you complain about a man who likes to experiment.”

If it’s my food he’s experimenting with, you’re going to hear me complain.

“Oh, okay then. So, how’s the house itself coming?”

Nicely. It’s coming along nicely. It’s beginning to feel like our home. Can’t wait for you to see it. Look, you and Jonathan have a good time. I’ll talk with you on Monday, or before that if I hear anything more.

“Thanks, Pat. I’m looking forward to your visit. The girls will be so excited.”

So am I. I get to see my new “grandchildren.

“One of them anyway. Marnie refused custody of her boy.”

Oh? She did? Well, we’ll deal with that when I get there. Love you, Jen. Have a good night.

You, too, Pat. I love you.

________________________________________________________

The girls stood peeking out of the front window until the taillights of the Rolls disappeared around the bend of the driveway. When they did, Marnie exhaled and melted into the high backed accent chair by the door.

“I can’t believe we’re still alive,” she said. “I cannot believe we’re not on lockdown. J.J, what the hell happened to you this afternoon? I heard you come in with the Duchess. I know she rolled up on you. Where did she find you?”

“Up at HartToys,” J.J. answered, still peering out of the window. “So like what? Did she call you up and ask you about me or something?  Did you come back here without me, she hemmed you up, and made you rat me out? With anybody else, you can lie on cue. With her, you just fall apart.”

“Rat you out?” Marnie cried. “I am so insulted. If it weren’t for it being true that I fall apart with the Duchess, I’d cuss you flat out. When I think of all the stress I’ve been through today because of you.”

“Sorry,” J.J. apologized. “But how else could she have found out where I was? I didn’t tell anybody where I was going.”

“The hell if I know. Like you just said, it wasn’t like you told me where you were going. I had my suspicions but, in fact, I’m only just now finding out this minute for sure where you were. Hector showed up at the Taco place without you, talking about you told him to drop you off because ‘you needed to think’. I figured then that’s where you had gone. I tried to call you and ask you, but of course you didn’t pick up. Then I went to go and try to find you and tell you about yourself, to get you to come back, but the Duchess somehow caught me.”

“Caught you? Where? How?”

“I had made it all the way to the valley. I was just about at the plant. J., she rolled right up on the back of me. I could have killed you when I looked in that rear view mirror and saw her behind me.”

J.J. turned away from the window and sat down on the arm of Marnie’s chair.

“You tried to die when you saw her back there, didn’t you. Sorry about that, too. I had Hector drop me off at the coffee house and then I took a taxi out there. I didn’t want him having to say where I had gone if someone were to ask him, and I didn’t want to be asking him to lie for me. Then I had the taxi drop me off a couple of blocks away so nobody would know exactly where I went.”

“You read entirely too many detective and spy novels, J.”

“Whatever. And then I walked in from there. I needed to see Chris. I had made an appointment with her.”

“For what?”

“I did my interview for the project with her.”

“So why all the secrecy?”

“I had my reasons. Anyway, I just about crapped bricks when, in the middle of the interview, they radioed Chris to say my mother was there at the gate. We were up in her office when the call came in. The Duchess was mad as hell, Marnie, when she saw that’s where I was. I thought sure she had gotten to you and had broken you down, and that’s why she was there. I have never in my life gotten a whipping, but I think today, when I opened that door and she saw me in that office, she was about ready to take that belt from around her waist and let me have it good. What did you tell her about me when she caught you?”

“I was so scared that, fibber extraordinaire that I normally am, I couldn’t even come up with a smidgen of a good lie for why I was way up there. She got out of her car and came and got in mine. Then she did that hugging thing to me that she does to get me to crack. At first, I tried to tell her I was out there shopping. Okay, I know that was dumb, but that was all I had to go with at that moment. Of course, she jumped in with both feet and right away broke me all the way down on that one. All I could do from there was to tell her the truth. I said I didn’t know where you were. I told her I was looking for you, and if it turned out that you were up there, I was trying to catch you to make you with come back. Why the hell didn’t you pick up on the cell? You saw it was me. Why didn’t you at least text me back?”

“Because I didn’t want to lie to you. I didn’t want you involved, and I didn’t want to hear it from you, either. I needed the interview.”

AND you wanted to take your ass over there to find out more about that murder. Don’t even try snowing me on that, J.J. Hart. You were hoping you could work in a guided tour, weren’t you? All this evening, I’ve been on pins and needles, waiting for her to call us in and make us give up the keys. You still got the extra set taped under your box spring, right?”

“Of course.”

“Good looking out.”

“Chris was the bomb, Marnie. You should have seen her. When she heard my mother was there, it didn’t take her but a few seconds to realize what was up, and that I was in big trouble. But she was like, ‘Answer the door and let me handle it.’ I didn’t have any choice except to go along with what she said. Marnie, as much as I can come up with a plan and work it, it never once occurred to me that my mother might end up out there. I was like a deer caught in the high beam headlights of the Merc.”

“What do they call those baby deer, J.?”

“Fawns.”

“Yeah, them. You were one of those up there in that office. The soft, light brown kind with the white spots and the spindly, wobbly legs, with the Duchess in the Merc, behind the wheel doing ninety on the straightaway.”

J.J. nodded, “Yep,” while grinning at the morbid, but accurate mental image painted for her by her friend. “But by the time Chris got through playing it off with her, my mother couldn’t say anything. Chris was so cool, Marn. All the way home, in the car, the Duchess didn’t say anything. I was all sweating, my stomach was hurting, and everything because I thought sure that in private my mother was going to go clean off on me. But she didn’t. It’s like she swallowed what Chris told her about my being there, hook, line and sinker, even though I know she didn’t. I’m not anywhere near crazy enough to believe she did.”

“Wha’d Chris tell her?”

“Well, I opened the door, like Chris told me, and there my mother was.”

“Eyes gray?”

“You know it. Cataract gray. No pupils.”

“Da-a-a-mn.”

“Anyway, Chris invites her in. I had all my interview stuff on the table, including my tape recorder. I was trying to be calm, like it was no big deal that she was there, like it was nothing that I was where I shouldn’t have been.”

Marnie patted J.J.’s hand. “Always the little con. Go on.”

“Chris gets up and comes over to shake her hand and say hello to her, and what a nice surprise it was to have her there. Then, all businesslike, she asks my mother if she would mind having a seat for a few minutes because we were just finishing up the interview for my ‘school project’. So, you know me, I went right into ‘play it off’ mode, too. I pick up my clip board with my note pad, ask my couple of questions I had left, wrote my notes down when Chris answered me. Then I got up, shook her hand, and thanked her for making time for me- just like the Duchess does at the end of an interview.

“Then Chris goes, ‘Since your mother is here, I guess you won’t need me to drop you off after all.’ Like that was how we had it planned all along. I go, ‘No, but thank you for offering to do that for me. You’ve been so kind,’ and that was it. It was beyond smooth, Marn. You should have been there.”

“No, I shouldn’t have. I’m not nearly the play-it-off queen that you are,” Marnie asserted. “I get too nervous when it’s the Duchess I’m trying to do. When she got through grilling me in the car, she told me to come straight home. Now you know, under ordinary circumstances, I might have come straight home after I made a couple of who’s-going-to-know stops. But today, I brought my ass right back here. Your daddy was here, but he must have just been coming back from somewhere because he still had his keys in his hand and was going through the mail, asking me where everybody else was. I almost couldn’t answer him; I was so choked up and bent out of shape.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I didn’t know, and that I had to go to the bathroom real bad. Then I ran up to my room and stayed there. I should be dehydrated from all the times I’ve gone between then and the time you and your mother got back. I heard you come in with her, and I figured you for toast. I knew you didn’t have any business being with her, other than monkey business. I knew she had busted you.

“I wanted to call over to your room so bad. I kept listening at the door to see if I could hear any yelling or anything. When they finally called for us, I was shocked that it was just to tell us they were leaving for the evening and for us not to stay out past our curfew. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t telling me to turn over the keys to the car. That was the last thing she said to me, that if it turned out that you were up there, she would be taking me to get that notebook tomorrow in her car. And even though I didn’t know, I was sure that was where you had went. But now, in light of all of this, I’m wondering what did make her come up there in the first place. It’s not like HartToys is right around the corner from here.”

Marnie sat back and exhaled again. “I can’t believe we’re still alive, J. Pinch me so I can be sure I am.”

“You’re still here, Marn, because I know I am. I’m thinking it must all have been coincidence. I didn’t dare ask her what made her come up there when I was with her in the car, but I really don’t think she came specifically looking for me or for you. I mean, what would make her do that?  As far as she knew, we were out with the crew, working on the project.”

“But what else would make her go all that way other than looking for you? Checking out what happened at HartToy maybe?”

“Maybe, but I’m thinking she came to see Chris. When I got through with the interview and got my stuff together to leave, my mother told me to go and wait for her in the outer office. Then she closed up with Chris for few minutes. I thought she was grilling her about me, but when she came out, I thought I could tell by what they were trying not to say in front of me that they’d made arrangements to meet up at another time. In hindsight, I think it was just bad luck that she ran up on you. She was going to see Chris, spotted the car, and then when I wasn’t in it with you, she put it together that I might be at HartToy, and you had to be coming for me.”

J.J. got up, stuffed her hands down in the back pockets of her jeans, and began slowly pacing the foyer.

“I’ll tell you this much, though,” she said, “we probably should go ahead and lay out some church clothes.”

She pulled a coin out and flipped it in the air. “I got heads that she’ll be getting us up in the morning to go.”

“Heads,” she announced upon catching the quarter, and then holding it out in the palm of her hand for Marnie to see. “I think, too, it might be best if we lay low tonight.”

“Lay low?”

“Yeah, I figure we go out, get something to eat, and bring it back here. You have that research paper to rewrite, and I have to write up my report from the interview.”

Marnie scratched idly at the crown of her head as if considering what J.J. was proposing.

“I have to write my interview report, too,” she admitted. “Shortly after I got here, your Dad came up and gave me the fax from Pat that he pulled off the machine. She sent the answers to my questions back to me. She put a note on it, too, talking about don’t ‘F-up and half-do the report’ since it was supposed to be about her and after she took the time to write out detailed answers for me while she was on a one and a half day weekend in the country with Bill.”

“You and Pat both need your mouths washed out.”

“That’s my girl,” Marnie smiled, her eyes twinkling. “I love me some Pat.”

“So do I. Anyway, Marn, even though she said we could go out, I really do think we probably need to stay in tonight. Something tells me these papers are going to be gone over with a fine toothed comb and a magnifying glass tomorrow. There may be second and third drafts that have to be written.”

J.J. reached for Marnie’s hand to pull her up from the chair.

“Hell,” Marnie said. “Probably sixth and seventh drafts, if Jennifer Edwards Hart is going to be the one doing the editing. ‘Specially after she let our asses off the hook today. J., she made me redo that research paper two times last night. I’m sick to death of looking at it. But,” Marnie stopped and sighed a heavy, resigned sigh, “I guess if I don’t want to see it any more, I better get with the program. There probably isn’t going to be anybody good out tonight anyway. We all have those reports due on Monday.”

“Yeah,” J.J. sighed “And now that it all seems to have died down some, so has my stomach distress. I’m starving. Let’s go get our shoes and stuff, go out and grab something to eat, and get back here so we can get started. Seems a shame to waste a good Saturday night, doesn’t it? Especially one like this, where not one of our folks is home.”

“It does,” agreed Marnie. “Until you consider how bad it could have turned out for us.”

“Definitely.”

They started up the front stairs.

“So, after all of that, did you find out anything more about what happened, J.?”

“Nah, I didn’t get that far with Chris, but I could tell it’s bothering her a lot.”

“Yeah? How come?”

“When I got there, she had been looking at some reports. They were out on her desk; I saw them and recognized right off what they were, but she stuck them in their folders and put them up right after I came in. And when I brought it up to her about my mother not wanting me there because of the murder, she tried to slide past it with me. But I noticed when I mentioned the word, “murder”, she all of a sudden got white as a sheet. She’s good at playing things off, but she’s not that good. I saw it.”

“I wonder exactly what the Duchess wanted with her.”

“No telling,” J.J. answered, “but, I’ll bet big money it was more than just friendly conversation.”

________________________________________________________

Instead of leaving after the departure of J.J. and her mother, Chris remained in her office, thinking about what had just transpired and going over those reports.

J.J. Hart was as cute as a button, and it was apparent that her mother was no plaything as a parent. It was plain to see that Jennifer Hart had been quite unprepared to find her daughter all the way out there, and in that office, but the woman had too much class to embarrass her child in front of company. More likely than not, she held off in the office, but gave J.J. hell in the car once she had her out there.

J.J. for her part, played out her role as interviewer admirably. With her mother looking on, she’d smoothly completed the job she came to do even though she was well aware that her mother was sitting behind her, and highly upset with her.

So, the kid knew about the murder. With her mother on her way up, she’d broken down and admitted that she’d come to find out more about it. Just how much of it did she already know? That little girl was smart enough to have found something out on her own, but know what of it to keep to herself. What a kid.

She picked up a set of papers from her desk, the newest set of reports.

Now it was the ex-wife. She’d been discovered dead, roughed up and killed in her ransacked apartment.

What did she have to do with anything? What could Rider have been into? And was she into whatever it was with him, or did she simply get caught up in his mess by virtue of prior association? After all, they weren’t even together any more.

How much did Jennifer Hart know, and what exactly did she want to talk about? Why would she come all the way out there to see her, saying that she wanted to talk if she wasn’t already onto something? She was a writer, a good one, one who knew how to dig for and find what she wanted. Zale worked for her husband. Hart was known for his solid relationship with his wife. How much of what Zale shared with him did he share with his wife? Well, that part would hopefully be revealed when Jennifer Hart arrived at the condo on Sunday afternoon. Something about the lady had always given her the impression that she was someone who could be trusted.

And Chris Allen didn’t trust anyone easily. Dealing with life had made her that way.

How in the world did that life get so out of hand so quickly?

It wasn’t until the words on the paper started becoming difficult to read due to the oncoming darkness that she realized how much time had gone by. The physical plant, she determined, had to be pretty much deserted by that time. That late on a Saturday, the few people who were there during the weekend would be gone. Because of that, she decided to take a tour of her own. The one thing that hadn’t been pinned down was exactly why Rider had stayed so very late on that last day of this life. Based on what she knew of him and his habits, it had to be due to whatever he was working on.

What exactly had he been doing? What was the very last thing he did before entering that parking structure? Cameras were installed throughout the building, but not inside the engineers’ personal cubicles. Perhaps the answer to her question was somewhere down in his work station. The police had looked. Management had looked. Security had looked But she hadn’t looked, not on her own. HartToys and its people were her babies. Sometimes mother could find things in a room that nobody else could.

________________________________________________________

That girl, that girl, that little girl of mine…

Jennifer still hadn’t gotten over finding J.J. in that office, thereby thwarting her plans to speak with Chris as well as demonstrating to her, once again, just how resourceful and clever- and headstrong- a girl she was.

An interview. For the project. For school. With Chris Allen, a single, successful, female professional; a strong, intelligent woman, with an unusual occupation, and living life on her own; the type of person J.J. Hart would naturally find an intriguing inspiration.

Never mind that Chris just happened to be in the place J.J. Hart wanted to go. It wouldn’t have done for her to invite Chris out to the house, or to arrange to meet with her at her condo. No, that would not have done at all. J.J. needed to get to the scene of that crime, and that was her way of doing it. She wasn’t fooling a soul. For sure she hadn’t fooled her mother.

The little minx.

From what she had seen of it, that sixteen year old had obviously been taking good lessons while she occasionally tagged along with her mother as she went about her work. No matter what was wrong with her being there, J.J. had done an exemplary job of conducting that interview. She asked good questions, which had sounded as if they had been thoughtfully prepared beforehand. She’d listened closely, taken notes; she even had her tape recorder with her. She had been gracious and humble, a total professional.

Reluctantly, but undeniably impressed, was what she had been with her child.

And like everybody else in that child’s life, Chris Allen had covered for J.J. when she found herself a– out. Covered her little, narrow, sassy behind totally. J.J. handled herself admirably, and pulled that stunt off so smoothly even her mother found herself at a loss for words.

If she hadn’t shown up when she did, without a doubt J.J. would have talked Chris into taking her to the crime scene.

If she hadn’t already done so before I got there.

All the way home with her, she couldn’t even start to fuss at her like she deserved. After all, the girl had made it all the way out to HartToy, evidently on her own, on the pretense of conducting an interview, a mission she successfully accomplished. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen for herself in J.J.’s FACS project prospectus that conducting an interview and writing up a report on it was one part of the assignment.

The interview had been a front for sure, but a mighty good one. She could only imagine all the arguments and excuses she might have gotten had she chosen to entertain them.

…I had to have an interview for the project, and this was the only chance I had to get it. I go to school and stuff during the week. There wouldn’t have been time. I only had a week left….

…What better place to interview her about her life choices, Mom, than in her place of business? After all, she is a business woman….

…I didn’t even want to do the project, but you and Daddy made me….

Instead, she kept silent and left that little one to stew in her own stomach juices all the way from HartToy to home. As soon as they cleared the door, J.J. didn’t even bother to try to make it up to her room; dropping her folders and things at the stairs, she made a beeline for the downstairs powder room.

The incorrigible little weak-bladdered minx.

She hadn’t said anything to Jonathan about any of it. To tell about J.J. would be telling on herself, Pat, and perhaps on Chris. Until it all got worked out, these were yet a few more things the girls would have to keep between themselves. The little one could be worked over later. That bigger one was already penciled in.

“What’s funny?” she heard Jonathan ask as his fingers found hers, and he closed his hand around them.

“Nothing,” she answered, only then realizing that she was smiling. “I was just thinking how it’s usually me who gets the headache that makes us have to leave a place early.”

She saw in profile that handsomely mischievous grin form on his lips, crinkling the corner of his eye.

“I figured we’d done our time,” he said as he continued to drive them from the gathering they’d attended at the Kelsey’s in Holmby Hills. “Nate’ss told those same stories at least three times in recent memory, and the older I get, the less tolerant, I guess, I’m getting of that sort of thing. Besides, I was having trouble concentrating. Every time I looked over at you in that gorgeous outfit, I was picturing you out of it.”

“And you wanted to dispute it earlier when I said you had a dirty mind.”

“I didn’t dispute it. I said you liked it that I had a dirty mind.”

She laughed, “Damn right, I do.”

“Honestly, you are so beautiful, Jennifer. You just keep getting better.”

“Well, thank you. But really, you’re feeling all right?”

“Not really.”

Immediately concerned, she turned toward him, leaning in his direction from her seat. “What’s wrong? Is it your head? What hurts?”

“It’s nothing like that. I’m fine, physically. It was that call I got this morning. It’s been on my mind all day. They found Rider’s wife.”

“Yes?”

“In Van Nuys. She’s dead. Shot once in the head, like Rider, but she was roughed up some before. Her apartment was ransacked like Rider’s was when they went to check it out.”

“Oh, my.”

“That’s not all. You know how Zale and his boys dig, and dig, and dig? Well, they found that this guy, Rider has had at least one contact with a someone who has ties to some overseas terrorist unit.”

“Terrorist unit? What kind of contact?”

“There’s something on the wind, Jennifer. A while back, Zale got wind of a high level memo that was supposed to have been suppressed. It was warning of a possible major terrorist strike in this country. He was concerned that no one was making much of it; that the powers that be were electing to overlook it and stick it in the back of the drawer. At the time, even I tried to question it, but I got shut down in a hurry. We went ahead and raised our alerts at Hart facilities around the country and around the world, but so far, fortunately, nothing’s come of it.”

“Why didn’t you mention that to me, Jonathan? How long have you known of this? You haven’t said a word to me.”

“What was there to mention? I was just being cautious. But then, I’m always cautious. I’m not one who sits around thinking that the United States is the only one out there with cunning and some big guns. It wasn’t something I wanted to worry you over. You’d have definitely seen a story in it and would have been digging yourself. Also it wasn’t something I wanted J.J. to get wind of. Global issues of that kind get her to worrying. Remember how she was after the Murrah Federal Building incident? The Trade Center thing in New York? She got onto those, obsessed over them occurring as they did, and over if something like that could happen again; how they could have been prevented. Each time, she was so upset, she almost couldn’t let go of them. She was such a long time getting past them.”

“It’s how she is.” Jennifer replied, speaking quietly. “I hate boxing her up in the package, but that’s part of her giftedness. Kids like her tend to see the big picture and its ramifications when it comes to things like that. They understand global issues, and they’re deeply affected by things that other kids would find too distant, too abstract. I understand completely why you didn’t say anything.”

“Jennifer, it may be nothing, but it makes me nervous that this guy, who worked for Hart, in a sensitive facility like HartToys, has had some communication with those kinds of people. Suddenly, he’s dead- in that Hart facility. Now so is his wife.”

“How long do they think she’s been dead?”

“She was killed after him, they think, but not much after. Maybe a day or so. You said it to me first; it looks like one of them had their hands on something that they shouldn’t have or that somebody else wanted. I keep wondering, what the hell is going on? Is it connected to Hart? Is it not? Is it just coincidence that he got hit at the facility or is it related to something going on there? I know what my instincts tell me, and we both know my instincts are rarely wrong. I went over there with Lamb yesterday, just to see what I could see.”

“And?”

“I didn’t see anything, but I felt it. Jennifer, something isn’t right. I don’t know what it is that isn’t right, but it isn’t. I hate keeping my people on high alert because after a while, they get numb to it. You stay on it so long, it becomes no big deal, and the safeguards you put into place go slack on their own. But I’d hate to get caught not looking. This terrorism thing is a fairly new one on me. I think it’s a new one on everybody. One of those things that happens in other places, not here in the USA. For so long we seemed immune, then came Oklahoma City, and then came that incident in New York, and it was a whole new ball game. We now know that anything’s possible anywhere and from anybody.”

He pulled the car to an empty space on the side of the road and switched off the engine. He reached for and took both her hands in his.

“Jennifer, I’m going to have to go to Washington next week.”

“Washington?”

“Yes, to the Pentagon. I’ve been summoned to do some technical advising, along with a team of our engineers.”

“How long will you be?”

“I don’t know. And because I don’t, I’d like to take you and J.J with me. You’d be able to see your father, J.J. could visit her grandfather, but right now I don’t think J.J. should know anything about the nature of my business. Also I don’t want her to miss any school with the school year being so new. Her being in the middle of that project and all.”

“I understand. We’ll be fine here. It’ll be better that she’s here and occupied with her own affairs. What kind of technical advising?”

“I couldn’t get any real details when we met in the boardroom for the conference call this afternoon. Whatever it is, the exact nature of it wasn’t to be discussed over the wires. We’ll have to wait until we actually get there to find out why we’ve been called there.”

She didn’t anything to that. It wasn’t the first time he’d been called upon to do some technical work or consulting for the government, and it wasn’t the first time that he wasn’t able to divulge the nature of his work to her, either because he wasn’t permitted to or he hadn’t been told of it himself. It went with being the wife of a technical wizard. Leaving the apprentice at home and out of it completely was an excellent move, especially in light of recent developments. At that moment, she was so glad that she hadn’t said anything to him about J.J.’s earlier exploits on that day. He had enough of his own stuff to deal with, and all of that was a lot for a man on the mend. She would take care of the baby Hart.

“I don’t like having to go away with this HartToy thing undone.” he said as if he were reading her mind.

“You have enough capable people in place to take care of that, Jonathan. You promised me you’d let them.”

“All right. I did promise, and I am letting them, for the most part. I’ve got bad feelings about that and about J.J. in relation to it. I don’t think she’s letting it go like we asked her to do. Keep a good eye on her, will you? She’s full of questions about it. Make her sit still, Jennifer. She listens to and minds you better than she does me.”

“She hears you. She minds you. She just does it more creatively with you than she does with me. Don’t you worry about her; you take care of you. You know I’ll be talking with her and watching her. When do you leave?”

“We have to be there Tuesday morning.”

“So soon? My goodness, they want you there pretty badly.”

She pulled her hands from his and placed both arms on his shoulders, lacing her fingers behind his head.

“I’m so proud of you that your opinion and input is so highly regarded. What did I do right that enabled me to snag such a smart fella?”

“I’ve told you before, it was your hard work, your dedication, and what you did to me in the back seat of that Jaguar.”

“Jonathan! You have such a one track mind. For you, all roads lead right straight to that.”

“What can I say? You’ve always had my compass pointing in that direction.”

With her arms still around him she gently shook him.  “I’m serious.”

“All right.”

“Listen, I’m sorry you’re leaving me, us. I hate that all of this is so troubling to you. I wish I could take it all away, and keep you here at home, but it makes me happy to know that we took the time to spend this morning together. I do so love you.”

“Me, too.” he said. “I was watching you tonight at Kelsey’s, listening to you talk, watching people watch you, and I’m thinking to myself, “I am such a lucky man.” the entire time. “She’s leaving with me.” You are so charming, lovely, and intelligent; you’d catch my eye even if you weren’t already always in it. I love you for so many reasons, Jennifer.”

Bringing his mouth to hers, they shared a lingering kiss which spoke of the deep sense of longing already stinging at both of them with just the idea that they were to be parted for a while.

“I know a quiet place where we can go to be alone for a bit.” he suggested, his lips still touching hers as he spoke.

“Where?” she purred suspiciously into the intense eyes looking into hers. “The back seat of this Rolls?”

“Now who has the one track mind?”

“Where then?”

He released her and started the engine. “It’s a real nice place. Gated, private, off the beaten path. Real cozy, with a bar, good food, a stone fireplace with a real fire, and for the time being, it’s all ours. We can be alone, but at one, though, it reverts back to its real owner,-”

“J.J. Hart.” they simultaneously intoned.

At the mouth of Bel Air, just as they were about to make the turn in, Jonathan’s cell phone began to ring.

Continue to Part Three

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