The Project: Parts Fifteen and Sixteen

Part Fifteen

With Marie insisting on bringing her a snack of fruit and cheese in lieu of the dinner she turned down, and Pat checking in on her twice to see if she was all right- and still in place, J.J. remained in her room all evening. Restless and unable to remain in the bed since she wasn’t sleepy, to keep her mind occupied she whiled away the time studying, reading, writing in her journal, and returning phone calls.

The last received call was from Chase, begging her to use the remote to buzz him through the back gate. He wanted to sneak in and see her before he and Chance left Los Angeles to return to boarding school in the morning.

Their being good friends and having been together when she got hurt, she could understand his concern. If the shoe was on the other foot, and it was him unconscious and being shoved into an ambulance the last time she saw him, she certainly would have been anxious to set eyes on him again.

To her adventurous nature, his had been an intriguing proposal. She really did want to see him, too, before he left, but she figured she had done enough to get on other peoples’ nerves that day. She turned him down, assured him she was fine, and told him they would have to wait and see each other on his next visit home.

Before turning in for the night, Marnie came across to reveal that Chance had been on the phone with her, pleading his case and trying to get her to let him in. It seemed both brothers had been operating in tandem, banking on the hope if one of them managed to gain entry, then they both would, which was typical thinking for the Barnett twins. According to Marnie, there was no way on her end that Chance getting inside was going to happen. It would have entailed her letting Chance in through the back gate and then attempting to sneak out of the house to meet him because Pat definitely wasn’t going to allow him to come up just so they could kiss and, in her mind, “have pseudo-sex”.

Marnie said as much as she might have wanted a ‘proper’ goodbye, seeing as how she and Chance were going to be separated for so long, it wasn’t worth it to get caught wrong yet another time by Pat. That black leather belt with the silver buckle, as well as the threats to use it, were still fresh in her mind. But, she said she made up for it with Chance by talking dirty to him over the phone for a few minutes.

That should hold him.

“Whatever, Marn. I guess one good thing about talking sleazy to a boy, as opposed to acting sleazy, is you don’t have to worry about getting knocked up or catching clap, especially not by doing it over the phone.”

Yep, as long as you’re on your cell so that nobody else in the house can click in while you’re doing it, and you make sure to watch around yourself to see who might be lingering nearby, trying to listen in.

“That’s just too much effort.”

It’s fun, though, J., and you sleep like a rock afterward.

“It’s called afterglow. I read that it’s what happens after good sex; has to do with the rush of hormones and stuff. The two of you would be snuggling and falling asleep together if it wasn’t that your lover is on the other end of the phone as opposed to the other side of the bed, or probably more like you, the back seat of the car.”

Don’t make me say it to you, J.J. Hart. You know I will.

“Save it for Chance, girlfriend. He would take you up on it in a heartbeat; he’s been panting and drooling behind you for at least two years now. You two can have your little afterglow and then sleep soundly. But when you’re all knocked up and everything in a couple of months, you’ll be alone in New York, all by yourself, trying to explain it to Pat. Then she’ll send for the Duchess as backup- you know they aren’t going to let me come- and you’ll be hemmed up, on your own, with both of them….”

As she stood at the window, looking down to the driveway, her mind drifted back to the places she had been trying so hard all evening to avoid: back to HartToy, Chris, and to her parents. What could be going on that was taking them so long to get back? Had Daddy found what he was looking for? Would Chris be returning to the pool house? Would Claire be with her?

For a moment, that disgusted, sick feeling tried to creep up on her again, but she cut off its advance by switching tracks of her train of thought.

When Daddy did get home, and he asked her again about Genie, how much could she get away with not telling him? For some reason, even though he wasn’t the tougher parent, with him, she didn’t utilize the loophole theory as often. When he said “no” about a thing, and it wasn’t often that he said it, “no” was exactly what he meant. With him, “no” and “don’t” weren’t so open to interpretation, semantics, or creative thinking on her part. When he forbade something, it went beyond being because it was improper, or unhealthy, or even unsafe. When he put the hammer down, it was because he had a strong negative hunch about it, which meant the matter wasn’t open for discussion or analysis, much less deviation.

But she had loopholed this one. To reverse it at that point would be total, abject disobedience. Her father wouldn’t know she had been out of order, but she would, and she didn’t operate in that manner. Finding a loophole was one thing, but outright insubordination was another. And on top of that, with Jonathan Hart, who could tell that he wouldn’t know? And then, his wife could be just as bad, or maybe worse, when it came to setting a person up.

“You cannot hide things from me, Justine. I almost always know when you do wrong things.”

No matter how clever she considered herself to be, whether it was a good thing or something a tinge unsavory she was into, the Duchess almost always managed to find out about it.

“What’s done in the dark, J.J., will eventually come to the light.”

Her father’s words were proving eerily prophetic.

Just deal with it when the time comes, J. Explain yourself, and let the cards fall like they fall. It’s not like they can lock you down from much; you only have one good eye.

Perhaps the injured eye would buy her some sympathy.

…well, sympathy from Daddy at least….

Feeling twitchy and on edge, she raised her arms above her head and rose up on her toes to reach for the ceiling. She stretched her body out until it trembled with the tension. Then slowly, she rolled her feet down flat to the carpeting again, relaxing her muscles. She flexed her fingers and toes, and then rolled her shoulders and her neck. That very last movement wasted no time in reminding her that her head still wasn’t one hundred percent. Slightly dizzy, she felt her way to her desk and dropped heavily into the chair. The bump caused the computer to wake up and tell her she had new messages waiting in the queue.

She clicked over, scanned the list, and smiled when she found the username she had been looking for.

J.J,

What in the world have you done?

I go away on a job for a couple of days, get back, boot up, and find this. First 9/11 scaring the hell out of me. Now you.

I would hate to see eye under that patch, but I know it’s got to be bad. You should be more careful. You’re getting too old for that kind of stuff. What did your mother say? I know she freaked. After he found out  you were basically okay, that he didn’t have to take anybody out for deliberately doing it, and you got it fighting, your father was probably okay with it, wasn’t he?

I already shot Alph a E letting him know he has one coming from me when I get back. He knows better than to do stuff that gets people, namely you, hurt. I’m one to talk, though. But mine came from a fall off a ladder. (See attachment) Not big, just a little inconvenient for the moment.

Say “hi” for me to everybody. Tell Marnie I said to behave in New York. She won’t have you for a buffer with Aunt Pat.

Miss you a whole lot, girl. Keep a better eye out (seeing as how you only have one left) for flying objects, take the medicine like you are supposed to, and listen to people when they tell you things.

Tommy

P.S.  Do you know anything about my mother and Marcus? His name has come up in passing a little too often lately when she and I talk. Also, I thought I overheard something while my grandmother was here, and she was talking with my uncle.

 

Not even for you, Tommy.

Without hesitating a moment even consider doing otherwise, she resolved to leave the “P.S.” alone. That wasn’t her business, and whatever she knew, she didn’t really know; there was only conjecture to go on, and that wasn’t enough to get her involved in “grown people’s business”.  If Tommy picked up a scent, it was a trail he would have to follow on his own to the source.

No way. I have enough problems of my own.

She downloaded the attachment, and found it was a picture of Tommy, grinning and shirtless, sitting on some worn stone steps in a pair of his trademark faded jeans with his left wrist in a small cast. Typical of him. He hadn’t offered any explanation whatsoever of the nature of the injury, how badly he hurt it, if it was a bad sprain, hairline fracture, or an actual break. Nothing.

But if he was in a cast, it had to be a break. Being a wrestler and kind of ‘hard’ in general, Tommy tended to “suck it up” when injured or ill. As much as he could, he shunned medicine, band-aids, wraps, and the like. He preferred to let nature take its course, and apply pressure to cuts or work his way through pain. That cast had to be there to reset something that was out of place. It was a good thing it was his left wrist, and not his right. Tommy was right-handed, and he needed that hand to do the things he most enjoyed, drawing, painting, and riding that motorbike his uncle made sure he had at his disposal when he got there.

Studying his face, she focused first on the contented look in his eyes, then on that smile and those dimples, thinking how much she missed them. He had only been gone a few months, but it seemed like a year already.

Hmmmmm, you don’t look too bad without a shirt, Tommy boy. In fact, these days, you’re looking pretty darned good. Love all that hair. On your head and on your tummy.

Umph.

Get a grip, J. It’s Tommy.

_____________________________________________________________

“What if they don’t get back until daybreak?” Bill asked from the couch where he lie, stretched out on his back. “I’m tired, babe. Let’s just go. I’ve been up all day, at the airport, running with kids; I want to get into the bed.”

Pat was returning to the great room from the foyer. “No. I’m staying over here until somebody else grown gets back. I told you, Carolyn Barnett called down here earlier, looking for Jennifer, to turn in her own kids. She told me those twins of hers are out there in the streets, and she’s sure that at some point they’re going to end up down here, prowling outside the gates, trying to try to get J.J. or Marnie to let them in. When it comes to Chase and Chance, I can’t be sure which one of those girls might have a weak moment and try me. Chase and J.J. are as thick as thieves, and Chance and Marnie have the raging hots for each other. If I go over to that guest house, for sure it will be open house over here.”

Bill snickered at that. “Babe, Marie’s here tonight. The girls aren’t crazy.”

“The hell if that’s so.” Pat sat down on the couch across from him. “Marie is diligent and keeps a good eye out, but once she turns in, she’s in. I was sixteen once. Those twins are very charming, very cute, and obviously, loads of fun. I’d have let them in. I was as crazy as J.J. and even swifter than Marnie. Housekeeper or not, if it were me, and I was sixteen, as soon as opportunity presented itself, I’d ease my way out of here and down to that back gate. By the time anyone missed me and caught up to me, it would be worth my getting caught. I am not taking one thing for granted with them.”

“Pat, it’s late. Security is at both gates. The girls have been off the scene and quiet for a couple of hours now.”

“Yes, it’s late, and they have been mighty quiet for a while; I haven’t seen either of  them, but how much do you want to bet that they aren’t asleep? And don’t think I’ve forgotten that J.J. has remote access to those gates.”

“Pat, come clean. It’s not the girls. You lit a red-hot fire under them earlier, and I’m sure it’s still smoldering. It’s Saturday, and Marnie passed through here in her robe and slippers and face cream on her way to the kitchen for cookies and milk at around seven-thirty. By now, she’s probably been asleep for a while. And J.J. has been upstairs all evening. She’s on that medication, so she’s probably down for the count, too. You miss your work, you miss being in the thick of things. You just want to be over here, with your nosy self, so that you can find out what’s going on, what’s happened at HartToy, and what’s up with Chris Allen.”

“All of that, too. That Chris is interesting. This latest thing makes her even more so. I sure would like to know the thinking behind that.”

He noticed that she didn’t address missing her work or New York, but he did take note of her mention of Chris. “Don’t press her, Pat. It’s her story. Her business.”

“I won’t press.”

“Promise me you won’t even ask.”

When she didn’t respond right away, Bill opened his eyes and turned his head to look directly at her. Pat had slipped her feet out of her shoes. She had her head back, resting on the arms folded behind it, one leg was crossed over the other, and she had her eyes closed. He could also see her faint, but calculating smile.

“Pat, I know that little shit-grin of yours only too well. If she winds up coming back here, I want you to promise me, out loud, that you’ll leave the girl alone. You’ve been on that phone all evening. I saw you, and I heard you. You’re wallowing up to your nostrils in, “I want to know”, and it’s practically drowning you. Promise me, babe.”

With an impatient huff, she sat up and allowed her foot to thump to the floor. “Oh, all right. I won’t ask. And you make me sick.”

He relaxed. Closing his eyes again, he turned his face back toward the ceiling. “I’ll help you feel better later. I promise.”

“You can wipe that shit-grin off your face, William McDowell. When we do go back across and get into the bed, I’m going to roll right over to my side of the bed and go to sleep. I promise you.”

“Um-hmm. Afterward, you will. We’re two people with definite, overdue needs, Mrs. McDowell.”

“Ms. Hamilton, to you, this evening.”

The console buzzers in both the kitchen and the foyer sounded, popping the two of them into upright positions. Pat continued up and hurried around the couch and into the foyer to answer it.

“Just wanted to let you know that Mr. Lamb is on his way up, Ms. Hamilton, with both Ms. Allens and the nurse,” a male voice reported from the front gate.

“Thank you.” Switching the intercom off first, Pat cranked her arm, slot-machine fashion. “Jackpot!”

_____________________________________________________________

After sending Tommy’s picture to the printer, J.J. clicked off that message and began scrolling through some of the others. A few minutes had gone by when the small buzz and the light flashing on her house phone console let her know that someone was coming through the front gates. She got up and went to the window to wait and see who it was. When August Lamb’s car pulled up behind her father’s parked car, she was slightly disappointed. But her spirits lifted a bit when he got out, went around to the passenger side, and opened the door to help Chris out. The back doors opened, and Eva, the nurse, and another woman got out.

Claire!

Throwing on her robe, J.J. tiptoed out of the room into the dark second floor hall.

_____________________________________________________________

Pat didn’t realize Bill had gotten up and was right behind her when she went to answer the console buzzer in the foyer, so it startled her when he caught her by that animated arm, causing her body to jerk in response to his touch.

“Damn, Bill, you scared me.”

“You just bring yourself back in here, put on your shoes, and get it together. You made a promise, and now you have to keep it.”

He guided her back into the great room where she stepped into the black patent leather loafers she’d left by the couch. She straightened her blouse and pants and then with her fingers, fluffed out and pulled back her hair.

“Now take a deep breath.”

She sucked in deeply, held it a moment and then let it go. She straightened her back and lifted her chin, assuming the regal, imposing persona of Patricia R. Hamilton.

It tickled him to watch her do that since he was so intimately acquainted with the other sides of her, the parts she tended to keep shielded from the general public, sharing them only with the people she loved.

_____________________________________________________________

After creeping toward the banister, J.J. stopped just far enough back from the rail to not be easily detected, but close enough to see the front door.

_____________________________________________________________

By the time the knock sounded, Pat was already back around the couch and on her way to personally answer it. But Marie emerged from the kitchen via the door under the main staircase, placing her a few steps in front.

Bill lengthened that distance by taking Pat’s arm and pulling her back to him to whisper next to her ear, “Remember your promise.”

“Okay, okay.” Her hushed voice sounded her impatience, but she slowed her steps, allowing Marie to open the door and admit the four who had driven up from the gate.

In the bright light of the foyer, the resemblance between Chris and an visibly uneasy Claire Allen was strong and immediate.

As greetings and introductions were being exchanged, none of the adults downstairs noticed the teenager watching them from the shadows above.

_____________________________________________________________

J.J. had been surprised to see Marie enter the foyer. It was late, and normally if the housekeeper was home on a Saturday night, she would have been in her room. But apparently, with all that was going on, she was still up and on duty. That made sense, though. They had house guests. Marie would stay up until the lady of the house got home or until Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill went back over to the guest house, which under the circumstances, Aunt Pat wasn’t likely to do until the Duchess made it back.

Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill entered the foyer from the great room. Uncle Bill had Aunt Pat by the arm, and it appeared that he was holding her in check. That made sense too. From the phone conversation she’d overheard, it sounded as if Aunt Pat had Chris in her sights. When Marie opened the door, Eva ushered in Chris, and August brought in the other woman, who judging by the look of her, had to be Chris’ sister/daughter.

_____________________________________________________________

Pat invited everyone into the great room to sit down, wondering to herself why it was August had brought them back to the main house rather than taking them straight to the pool house to spend the night. Once everyone was seated, Marie offered to fix the newcomers something to eat, a suggestion Pat confirmed. Marie went into the kitchen, discreetly closing the door that was customarily left open, behind her.

When Bill made the offer of drinks. August took him up on a scotch. Chris, Claire, and Eva settled for water. Pat turned it all down. She was honed in on the Allens, and she could feel Bill honed in on her.

“We were hoping that Jonathan and Jennifer would be back,” August said as he settled himself at the bar where Bill was fixing the drinks. “Chris wanted to speak with them. I guess they shouldn’t be too far behind. When we left, things were pretty much winding down.”

Pat took a seat on the arm of the couch, right next to where Chris was sitting. “I spoke with Jennifer earlier. She said that a lot was going on.”

“A lot did go down,” August said, glass in hand, making ready to end his official part of the night. “But I think we’re a lot closer to figuring this thing out.”

“Good,” Pat said,  and she turned her head just far enough to take in Chris and Claire, neither of whom was looking at her or at each other. Chris was leaned more in Pat’s direction, braced against the large couch pillows. Claire sat next to her, but hunched over, with her hands clasped in her lap. After checking on Chris, Eva took a seat in one of the high backed chairs over by the piano, which put her unobtrusively out of the main action, but afforded her a clear view of her noticeably flagging patient.

_____________________________________________________________

J.J. left the front hall and crept around into the pitch black loft. She crouched down low to the floor. From some distance back, she was able to see between the rails and down into the great room as everyone came in, and Pat and Marie helped them get settled. She focused in on Chris and Claire. Her gut told her it was true; they were mother and daughter.  As both of them had their dark hair pulled back, she could see it in their similar features. And she felt it in her bones. Chris was more dominant, more sure, like a mother would be. Claire’s body language, her downcast, shy eyes and clasped hands, it was subordinate body language- like a daughter… a daughter with issues.

Going by age, though, they should have been sisters. Claire appeared to be late twenties at the least, early thirties at the most. From what she knew on her own of Chris, the length of time she had been told she had been at HartToy, and judging by her appearance, Chris couldn’t be more than her mid-forties, if that. The years between them, even with the wider than usual gap, should have made them sisters, but they weren’t. Of that she was certain.

Aunt Pat was definitely tuned in. Years spent with her writer mother and editor aunt taught J.J. to read them. Aunt Pat was good; she wasn’t being obvious with it, but from up high like she was, she could see Pat surreptitiously studying the Allen women. Mr. Lamb also had his eye on Chris as the nurse attempted to check her over, but Chris wasn’t having it. Covering her mouth with her hand, J.J. pressed back a giggle as she watched an annoyed Chris wave the woman off, telling her she was fine, a gesture with which she could certainly sympathize. She, too, preferred to be left alone when she wasn’t feeling well. The nurse said something to Chris, and Chris answered her with an irritated nod. The nurse huffed off and sat down in one of the chairs, leaving Chris alone, but keeping her within her sights. Even from up there, though, it was clear that Chris wasn’t at her best.

Curiosity, and probably that medicine she took, really did have her feeling thirsty. J.J. vacillated for a moment between going on down or returning to her bedroom. Of course, nosiness won out in the end, but she decided the best course of action would be to take the interior stairs down to the kitchen on the pretense of getting something to drink.

As if that couldn’t have been done in her own den up there. But then, she didn’t keep milk in the fridge in the den.

She backed farther into the darkness. Crawling on all fours to the hall, her long robe giving her fits in the process. She didn’t stand upright again until she was back around the corner, safely out of sight of those below. Using the interior staircase, she went down to the kitchen.

Marie was there, reaching up into the one of the cabinets.

“J.J. Hart, what in the world are you doing down here at this time of night?”

“I was thirsty. I wanted some milk. And maybe a couple of cookies.”

“You know full well your mother doesn’t like for you to have cookies and junk this late. You should have eaten your dinner. I told you skipping dinner would catch up with you. That fruit and cheese weren’t going to hold a growing girl like you. Let me fix you a sandwich. I’m going to make some for the others.”

“What others?”

Marie put the platter in her hands down on the counter, and placed one of those hands on her hip. “Please.  We have company, and that’s why you’re down here. Cookies and milk, my foot.”

J.J. smirked, biting her top lip with her bottom teeth. Then she placed her finger to her lips. “Shhhhh, don’t tell.”

“Nope.” Marie shook her head. “Your Aunt Pat told you to stay put in your room. You are supposed to be upstairs, and upstairs is right where you are going. You will not be down here eavesdropping.”

“You’ve closed the door,” J.J. said as she pointed to it. “I can’t hear them, and anyway, Aunt Pat said  I couldn’t go out of the house tonight. She didn’t say that I had to stay in my room. Come on, Marie. I’ve been flat on my back and up in my room all day. You know how much I hate that. And it’s Saturday, too. I shouldn’t even be home yet. Please. I’m going stir crazy. I have some things on my mind that I could use a good diversion from right now. Let me stay down here and help you. I’ll stay right in here, mind my own business, and help you with the sandwiches. We could help each other. Please. I’ll be good. I’ll stay in here the whole time. I promise.”

Marie stood studying the tall girl in the blue bathrobe and slippers, pouring a glass of milk for herself at the kitchen table. She was more than fond of J.J., and although she was careful not to indulge her, it had always been a hard struggle to be firm with her. But as J.J. was getting older, that was becoming even more difficult, but in ways, a lot less necessary.

J.J. was evolving into a delightful young woman. She had come past that difficult, petulant, early adolescent stage, and was growing up, becoming so very much like her mother had been when she first came to Willow Pond: willowy, charming, spirited, and so pretty with all that dark red hair and that brilliant smile. Having raised J.J. from a baby- heck, from before she was a baby- her attempts at professional objectivity were now nearly impossible to achieve.

With that one blue eye pleading so pitifully with her, she caved. J.J. had been relegated to her room for hours, and such close confinement was a particularly hard thing for that young one to take. She did have an active mind, one that tended to get her into trouble when her hands were idle. Besides, having slept so much during the day, it was unlikely that she would be going back to sleep for a while that night. With her injuries, she wouldn’t be able to slip out for one of her late night relaxation swims that she thought nobody was aware of.

“All right, you can stay and help me. But you keep yourself over here and away from that door. Under no circumstances are you to leave this kitchen unless you’re going back upstairs and to your room. And when you do, you’ll go back up those same stairs you used to come down. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, I hear you.” J.J. was grinning as she practically skipped across the kitchen to the refrigerator. “Tell me what you want me to do. What kind of sandwiches are we making?”

Shaking her head at that lush ponytail, long grown out from the single finger-curl it had once been, Marie watched as J.J. collected items from the refrigerator shelves. Sixteen with a black eye on a Saturday night and not the least bit fazed about it. Pure tomboy. Knocked out and in the emergency room in the morning, downstairs and meddling in other peoples’ affairs that night. Only her J.J.

She chuckled to herself and went back to what she had been doing. That girl probably would end up in that living room before the night was over. Like both her parents, when J.J. set her mind to do a thing, it usually happened. But her getting into that room with the others would be someone’s else’s doing, not hers.

As she took down plates, glasses, and napkins, J.J. brought over to her the bread, cheese, and some of the condiments they would need.

_____________________________________________________________

Once they rounded the curve after crossing the bridge, the cars came into view. First Bill’s rented Cadillac parked in front of the guest house, then August Lamb’s four-door positioned behind the Rolls and Marnie’s BMW in front of the main house.

Jonathan pulled the Mercedes in, stopping behind the large Buick. “The gang’s all here. Good to see Marnie made it in relatively early this evening.”

“She didn’t go out,” Jennifer said, recalling in her head the earlier phone exchange. Thanks to Pat, Marnie and her well-being had not been on the forefront of her mind until that moment. “Pat kept her in after she came from the park. She said it was because she wanted Marnie to work on getting packed. I think there was more to it, but if so, Pat might as well get used to it. Marnie will be her little handful once they get to New York.”

“Little handful? You know you’ll be on consult.”

There remained a bit of an undercurrent of tension between them, but she had to smile at what he said. “The only consult Pat will need on Marnie is her own recall. Pat used to be Marnie.”

At the front door, he stopped and turned to her before twisting the knob. “Straight up the stairs?”

“I think we’re going to have to deal with what’s going on downstairs first, Jonathan. August is likely here. Maybe Chris and Claire are too.” She turned to fully face him and took one side of his unzipped windbreaker in hand to get his complete attention. “About Chris and Claire-”

She read, “I know”, in his face before he said it.

“You do?”

“Yeah, I do,” he said, but sounding as if he regretted it. “I was there when you asked her about it. I had just made it to the doorway of the back room. I came looking for you right after it happened, to make sure you were alright, and I heard. I went away to keep from embarrassing her in the event she didn’t want me to know. I didn’t think you saw me.”

“So you did come.”

His brow furrowed as if he was irritated or confused by the implication behind her statement. The sudden expression, uncharacteristically directed toward her made her a little uneasy. “I didn’t see you. I- I thought-”

“Of course I came, I heard the shot. I left you on that side. How was I going to stay away? How could you think I would have stayed away if I thought you were in trouble? My being upset with you or your being angry with me wouldn’t have changed that.”

“I- I didn’t think you would have. But when I didn’t see you- When so much time had gone by, and it wasn’t until I made Ken bring me to you that-”

Placing both hands firmly on her shoulders, he drew her closer to him, and she saw the weariness in his face, in his eyes.

“Jennifer, when you found me with Alice, I had been in Chris’ office, seen  you, left there, and made August take me down to find Alice. By that time, I’d had it. Too many members of my family had been put in jeopardy. You’re better with nuts and bolts matters- how things fit together, like with Chris and Claire. I’m better with technical matters, so I went to find Alice and to try to find out why this stuff has been happening. But you and Pat are right. We do work better together. Listen, I’m sorry about handling things the way I did earlier today. All I can tell you is, I didn’t have any real answers for you, and I’m not sure how or if we would survive if I let something happen to that girl. I know how much you love her.”

If it hadn’t been so painful for her to witness, she thought she might have been fascinated by how that man, her wonderful, but macho husband, managed to so artfully dodge expressing his own pain and insecurities. He had been frightened. Frightened of losing his own lifelong project, his family. It was what he had been working to achieve since his days as a lonely daydreaming child.

Past precarious experiences, especially his recent frightening and debilitating illness, had taught her that there was nothing he really feared except losing her. She was solidly assured that his love for her was absolute in spite of his sometimes confounding behavior. And now that they had her, losing that girl of theirs had become an even greater fear. J.J. might not have been planned at the time that she arrived in their lives, but she had always been tentatively penciled into her father’s blueprints. He might have tabled her at one point when it looked as if she might not be, but she hadn’t been erased completely. Once he actually had her, once she was an actual, living, breathing part of his life and his family…

… with those blue eyes of hers… and his….

Too many times in recent memory, her young life had been threatened in some way. Too many times, Jonathan’s ability to protect her had been challenged. He’d had a hunch about those dolls, one which he hadn’t completely followed until after that morning. She tried right then to imagine what it must have felt like for him to walk up to find J.J. injured at that park. He hadn’t said, but if she had been unconscious at the time, he had to have had a moment where he thought she was- Maybe that wasn’t the first time he’d been faced with-

She reached out and slid her arms inside his jacket and around him. “We both love her, Jonathan. I understand. But you have to remember, she’s-”

“Ours,” he finished as he returned the embrace. “I love you, and I’m sorry.”

“Me, too. I’m so sorry, too. Let’s get inside and see what’s going on so we can get upstairs to that teenaged problem of ours.”

But he didn’t release her. Instead he kissed her, deeply planting and liberally fertilizing one of oral caresses that sent his sentiments all through her, making her knees go weak even if she might be angry with him at the time, which she no longer was. In that moment, she realized once again how fortunate she was to be married to a man she loved, who loved her and wasn’t afraid to say that he was, and who could play that kind of music in her heart after so many years together.

The light over their heads flashed on and then the door swung open.

“Look, I kept the kids in tonight so I wouldn’t have to be dealing with waiting up for them, and trying to keep them from necking and carrying on in a car on the pretense of saying goodbye. I come to put the light on for you, and here you two are on the front stoop, feeling each other up. Haven’t you had enough of that after all this time? Jeez-us.”

Jennifer pulled away from Jonathan and brushed her way past Pat, muttering, “You should hope you and Bill are so lucky.”

Jonathan merely grinned and winked, leaving Pat to close the door behind him.

_____________________________________________________________

Jonathan headed for the bar where Bill and August were already seated and Marie was setting out dishes around a platter of sandwiches with Eva assisting her. Chris and Claire were on the couch. Jennifer took off her sweater and was getting ready to sit down with them, when Pat caught her by the arm before she could.

“I need to talk with you,” she whispered. “Alone.”

She practically drug Jennifer back into the foyer, around the staircase, and through the door under the stairs that led back into the kitchen. They stopped in the short hall, in front of the powder room.

“Look, I need to tell you that the Squirt knows about Chris and Claire.”

Jennifer gasped before bringing her hand up to her mouth. “How? Oh my God, she was right there when you asked me, wasn’t she? What has she said?”

“Yes she was there, and you know her; she hasn’t said a word about it, but we both know that she heard what we said and that she’s processed it.”

Raising that hand to her forehead, Jennifer blew out a deep breath. “If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. Pat, how am I going to explain to her that someone I told her is Chris’ sister, is actually her daughter?”

“Just tell me the truth, like you usually do,” a small voice advised from the other side of the powder room door.

The door slowly opened to reveal J.J. standing there. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I was already in here. Honest. You can ask Marie. I’ve been helping her with the food.”

As the two speechless women watched her, J.J. washed her hands, dried them and then stuck them down in her robe pockets to exit the powder room and return to the kitchen where she had evidently been eating at the table. She sat back down to her snack, placing the untouched half of her sandwich on a napkin and sliding it to her mother who had dropped down in the chair next to hers to wearily rub at her forehead.

“J.J. what am I going to do with you?”

“Just love me. Here, Mom, eat. This is turkey. I know you’re not big on meat these days, but turkey is pretty lean, and I know you probably haven’t eaten anything.  You never do when you’re busy.”

“Where’s Marnie?” Jennifer was still rubbing at her brow. “Up there on the phone?”

“No, she’s sleeping. I checked on her before I came down. When she couldn’t go out- Aunt Pat made us stay home-” J.J. momentarily cut her eye over to Pat who shot her a look that said, “Don’t go there” before she proceeded with her story. “Marnie got depressed and went to bed. We missed ConnieMac’s back-to-school party, and Marnie missed out on seeing Chance again before he left to go back up to school. She said since her life wasn’t worth living tonight, she was going to bed. That there wasn’t anything left to do except sleep until tomorrow came.” J.J. leaned forward to peer more closely into Jennifer’s face. “Does your head hurt?”

Pat sat down on J.J.’s other side. “Why in the world aren’t you in bed? I thought I told you to stay-”

“-in the house. You said I had to stay in the house. You told me to go to bed earlier, but you didn’t say I had to stay in the bed or in my room. I’ve been in bed, and I opted to stay in my room all day, but I eventually got bored. I was tired of it, and I needed a change. I came downstairs to get some milk- and, I guess, if I’m to be honest here, because I saw we had company. Marie said she had to make sandwiches for our guests, and because I didn’t have dinner, she asked me if I wanted her to make me one. I offered to help her, and she let me.”

J.J. turned toward her mother. “But I haven’t been out of this kitchen, Mom. I promise you. I didn’t eavesdrop. I wasn’t butting in. Marie wouldn’t have let me even if I had tried. She didn’t even let me help take the food or the dishes out. But I did overhear what you said to Aunt Pat on the phone when you called. That wasn’t on purpose. I had given the phone to Aunt Pat like you told me. I just happened to still be there, and I heard it. So, like, is it true about Chris being Claire’s mom?”

“Yes, J.J., it’s true.” Nobody noticed that Chris had pushed open the door from the great room. At the sound of her voice, all eyes turned to her. “I’m really her mother.”

While Jennifer and Pat found themselves at a loss for words, J.J., sandwich in hand, casually greeted her. “Hey, Chris.”

“Hey, J.J.,” Chris said in an equally casual manner. “I’d heard that you got hurt this morning. What have you done to that eye? How are you feeling now?”

“It’s just a little shiner. An accident while we were fooling around at the park. School stuff; no big deal. I have to wear the patch to keep the light and dirt out of it for a while. It’ll heal up. I’m feeling all right. What about you?”

“I’m feeling a lot better, but that looks like more than just a little shiner.” Releasing the door, allowing it to swing back into place, Chris came to the table to stand over Jennifer. “I’d like to talk with you. About Claire and me.”

“You don’t have to do this, Chris,” Jennifer said. “It’s not something that you have to tell any of us. You’ve been put through an awful lot today.”

“But I want you to know. I waited over here for you to get home so that I could. I didn’t hide it in the first place; it was hidden for me. We, Claire and I, have been going through some things for years. It’s time to let go of what should never have been this kind of secret. If you don’t mind, since she’s here and she already has a piece of it, I would like for J.J. to know the whole truth. She’s told me that you- to put it in her words- ‘keep it real’ with her. I think that’s a good thing. My mother was like that, too. Since she’s here, and she already knows, I’d like the opportunity to do the same with J.J. She’d likely find out anyway down the line, so I’d prefer for her to hear it from me.”

Jennifer silently turned to survey J.J. for a moment, and then she looked across to Pat who raised her eyebrows in “Why not?” fashion.

“All right.” Jennifer sighed and picked up J.J.’s glass of ice water. “Did you drink from this yet?”

“See any backwash crumbs floating in it?”

“Ugh.” Without checking, Jennifer grimaced and put the glass down.

“How is your headache?” Chris asked.

J.J. leaned in. “I knew you had one. You always rub your forehead like that when you have one. Are you okay? Did you take your medicine in time?” She pushed the half sandwich farther over so that it was directly in front of Jennifer. “Maybe you need to eat. You get those things sometimes when you do too much, and you don’t eat.”

“Justine Hart, am I going to have to remind you yet another time who your mother is? I take care of you. I am the mother in this pairing.”

“But that doesn’t mean that I can’t look out for you when you need it. That’s why you have me in your life. Daddy can’t do it all. Eat.”

Smiling a tired, but amused smile at the exchange, Chris put forth one request. “I’d like for it to be just us. Not the guys, if you don’t mind.”

Pat shot a volunteering hand into the air. “I can take care of that.”

Chris thanked her and started back toward the door to the great room.

Jennifer picked up the sandwich half J.J. had given her and took a small bite. J.J. slid her the water. “Here. I didn’t drink from it yet. For real. You take it. I’ll get another. So, did you and Daddy make up? Is he here?”

“He’s in the other room,” Jennifer answered with a roll of her eyes at J.J.’s insistence upon ‘mothering’ her and her irrepressible nosiness. “With Mr. Lamb and your Uncle Bill.”

With Chris gone, Pat leaned across the table on her way up from her chair. “You know I would have jumped on you, Jen, if she had taken you up on not telling us after she came in here and offered like that. Here I’ve been sitting, practically losing my mind with waiting all night to get the details. Then, when the details walk in here and just about sit in your lap, you go and try to turn them down.”

“I didn’t want to know if she didn’t care to share it, Pat.”

“Well, I didn’t give a damn. I do want to know- regardless. I’ve been waiting a mighty long time for this.”

J.J., for her part, had finished what was left of her sandwich and was at the sink washing it down with a fresh glass of water. The cookies, she decided to save for later. She wanted to leave room to digest the story. Listening to the adults talking, her mind was racing a mile a minute.

I’m with you, Aunt Pat; I’m dying to know. If Chris had said okay to keeping it to herself, I’d have been forced to take a shot and go there with my mother, too.

… and to think, I didn’t even have to go out of the kitchen. It came right up in here to me.

_____________________________________________________________

“I’ll put Chris and Claire in the den,” Pat said. “Does that sound okay? We can all go in there; it’s cozy, and that way the guys don’t have to leave.”

“That’s fine. We’ll be there in a minute.” She gestured for J.J. to come to her as Pat left the kitchen.

J.J. returned to the table, sat down, and scooted her chair a bit closer.

“Listen, I know that I don’t have to tell you that whatever you hear tonight is to be held in the strictest confidence, but I’m saying it anyway.”

“I understand.”

“Not even Marnie.”

“Marnie won’t care. I told you, Connie’s party was tonight. It was the last back-to-school party of the year, and Marnie had this killer outfit picked out; Chance was home and was going to take her, but she didn’t get to go. She’s been in her room, sulking all evening. She’s not thinking about any of this. The party and not going to it was what sent her to bed. That’s all she cares about. She doesn’t even really know or care about Ms. Chris, let alone her sis- Claire.”

“I just want to be sure that you to understand that it’s an honor that Chris wants to include you. It’s an honor to all of us that she trusts us enough to provide us with the personal details of her life.”

“I know that.” J.J. leaned forward in her chair, inclining her body toward her mother. “But I guess that means you don’t you trust me.”

Jennifer tilted her head in question, causing J.J. to cock that one eyebrow. “I’m talking about you and Daddy. Did he say ‘sorry’ to you? Did you make up with him? Don’t you trust me with those details?”

Bringing her hand back to her forehead, Jennifer dropped her head in exasperation. “Oh, give it up, Justine. Haven’t we-”

Reaching out for the hand cradling her mother’s head, J.J. tugged at it to pull it away. “Mom, I’m not asking to be nosy. Really, I’m not. I’m asking because I care. I know you say that sometimes wives and husbands have to disagree, and that I shouldn’t worry about it or involve myself when you and Daddy do it, but it does worry me. It does involve me. We’re a family, and family cares what happens to each other.”

“J.J., you’re sixteen years old- and only three months worth of sixteen at that. You are far too young to understand the dynamics. You can’t- Sweetie, it’s not your problem. You should be going on with your life and allowing your father and me to work out our own problems without you worrying about us.”

“You can tell me all you want about how it’s not my problem, and as a teenager, I probably shouldn’t really even care, but I do. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. You got that headache because you got mad at him; he stomped down the stairs like he did because he got mad, maybe at you, but I find that hard to believe. I get mad about things, too, in the same way and to the same degree as both of you, so I know how it feels to be so angry. I know it’s supposed to be out of character, but I’m a sixteen-year-old who happens to love her parents, and who doesn’t mind admitting it out loud. You guys fought over me this morning. Since it turns out I’m fine, that’s not worth fighting over. I want you two to go back to being like you always are, happy and in love.”

Jennifer squeezed J.J.’s hand with the hand J.J. still held in her own. “You never give up, do you?”

“Nope.” J.J. slowly shook her head. “Not when the matter is worth so much to me.”

“Come here to me, girl.”

J.J. got up to stand over her mother. Jennifer took both of J.J.’s hands in hers to look up into her face, and she sighed at the sight of it. “I really will  have to get used to my daughter in a Jolly Roger-like eye patch.”

Impishly grinning, trying to smooth the concern from her mother’s forehead and mind with it, J.J. pulled one hand loose to pat Jennifer’s cheek. “Don’t worry. I won’t be looking like a pirate forever, Mom. The black eye will be gone before you know it.”

“I certainly hope so. Why you had to wait until you were sixteen to get something like that is beyond me.”

Jennifer pushed herself up from the chair and wrapped an arm around J.J.’s waist as she started walking with her toward the patio door. “J.J., you and your well-being are worth fighting over, even for me to argue with your father over, but it was more than that; it went much deeper than that. You can’t possibly understand, but that is really not your concern. For the record, if it will make you feel better, we aren’t angry with each other any more.”

“Good.” J.J. wound her own arm around Jennifer and lay her head on her shoulder. “I’m glad.”

“Just so you know, you have an ophthalmologist appointment on Monday, right after school. I’ll be at the curb. Do not keep me waiting. And why is your hair crimped so hard like that? I hope that’s not some new style.”

“Aw, come on, Mom, an eye doctor? Dr. Kate said it would heal by itself. I don’t need to see any more doctors. Besides, I signed up to do some mixing in the sound booth after school on Monday. Some of the video sound crew and I are working on the music for a sports video we’re making for the track teams.”

“You will do what I tell you do. Just un-sign yourself when you get there on Monday morning. There will be no mixing for you after school. The video can wait. Knowing you and your technological skills as well as I do, the crew needs your expertise to proceed anyway, so they will definitely wait for you. You and that eye will be in my car and on your way to a specialist to have that cornea checked thoroughly.”

“But they already checked it thoroughly.”

“You heard what I said, Justine.” Jennifer took the super wavy ponytail in hand. “Now what about this hair? I’m not very fond of this look. What have you done to it? Say, you’ve got a little scratch and some bruising on that cheek, too. I didn’t notice that before. You’re probably still turning purple underneath the surface from that blow you took.”

“I didn’t dry my hair after my shower. I just two-part twisted it real tight, and put it up wet so that it wouldn’t be on my back. I don’t like that feeling, getting my gown and my robe all damp and everything.  When it was drier, I took it down. I’ll smooth it out with the blow drier in the morning. And the scratch will heal. Why is it that you notice every little thing about me? Why do I have to go to another doctor? Why can’t I-”

“Shush, you.” Jennifer stopped walking to pull J.J. around to face her. “You know the drill. To whom does all of you belong and until when?”

“To you,” J.J. mumbled as she tried to avoid her mother’s demanding gaze.

“Until when, I asked you.”

“Until I’m eighteen.”

“And don’t you forget it. Now let’s go around to the den and see what’s going on. And when we get there, J.J. Hart, do not ask a lot of questions of Chris. In fact, don’t ask any. If you have questions, you and I can talk later.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

With a hand to J.J.’s upper back, she eased J.J. through the patio door.

“Why aren’t we going through the living room? It would be quicker. How come we’re going around from the yard?”

“Are you starting with the questions already? I thought I told you about that.”

“You said not to ask Chris. You said I could ask you.”

“Because it’s girls only. The guys are in the great room. If we go this way, we can avoid their questions.”

J.J. was only too happy to go along with that plan. Although she was prepared to face her father, she was more than willing to put off for as long as possible the inevitable overdue inquisition. Pushing her hands back down into her robe pockets, she went with her mother around the house, to the side deck, and into the den where Chris, Claire, Pat, and Eva were waiting for them.

_____________________________________________________________

“What are they doing?” August noticed when Pat exited the kitchen, and he watched her as she quietly escorted Chris and Claire into the den.

As they crossed the great room, Chris gestured to Eva who had been seated next to August at the bar. Eva slid off the stool and joined the rest of the women. The door to the den closed behind them.

“Whatever it is, it obviously doesn’t include us,” Bill said. “I just hope they hurry the hell up. I want to go to bed, but Pat will kill me if I leave here without her.”

“Whipped already, huh?” August teased.

Bill chuckled and then confessed, “That girl had me whipped a long time ago. Just don’t tell her I said that, okay?”

Jonathan’s thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. His eyes briefly flitted to the ceiling and then, without a word, he left his spot behind the bar and walked into the foyer. The two remaining men could hear him as he went up the front staircase.

“Now what’s he up to?” Bill asked

“I don’t know,” August answered as he added more scotch to his glass. “But from the look of him while he was in here with us, he has a plan about what he’s going to do when he gets there.”

_____________________________________________________________

In the den, Chris and Claire were seated on each end of the couch. Eva was in the chair by the fireplace, which put her closer to Claire. Marie was also there, setting down on the coffee table a set of coasters next to a covered serving tray. As they came through the outside door, Pat was walking back into the room from the door leading out to the great room, stepping aside a bit to allow Marie to go back out to the great room.

“I wondered where you two were, ” she said when the deck door opened and they came inside. “I was looking for you in the kitchen.”

J.J., propelled and guided by her mother’s hand on her shoulder, crossed the room to go over to the empty easy chair positioned at the end of the couch closest to Chris.

“We came around the long way to keep from having to answer any questions,” J.J. heard her mother answer while she was busy surveying the scene. When it was indicated that she should sit down on the hassock in front of the chair, J.J. pushed it out of the way, opting instead to sit on the floor between her mother’s legs with her back leaned against the footboard of the chair. Somehow, in the setting in which she found herself, that seemed a more comfortable, and perhaps more secure, position.

She noticed how her Aunt Pat had conveniently situated herself in the only nearby space left, on the arm of the couch right beside Chris.

Zeroed in… loaded for bear….

For a few uncomfortable moments, the silence in the room was so pervasive it seemed to take the form of yet another shallowly breathing, curious person, apprehensive, but at the same time eager to hear what Chris had to say. From her spot on the floor, J.J. considered Chris, who sat staring down at her restless hands, and she was reminded of herself in those times when her mind was hard at work summoning the words needed to share something deeply personal. Sympathetic pains cut like hot knives through her butter-soft heart, and almost before she could think it, she heard her own voice saying, “It’s okay.”

The other woman on the couch, Claire, had been staring hard at her. Feeling that gaze intensify after she spoke to Chris, J.J. shifted to Claire. For a long moment their eyes locked, Claire’s in defense, and J.J.’s in defensive curiosity. Chris was still her girl; the jury remained out on Claire. From what she knew of her up to that point, Claire wasn’t sitting all that well with her.

But, then again, if she belongs to Chris… If Chris has brought her to back to the house with her…

What’s with the black eye? Wonder who clocked her? Her boyfriend?

Maybe Chris, for getting on her nerves one time too many.

The gentle, but definite tug at her ponytail, a subtle gesture of reminder, brought her back to the moment. It seemed Aunt Pat had caught onto her and Claire’s visual stand-off, and that must have been what got her mother’s attention and caused her to use the ponytail to ring the bell in her head, thereby ending the round.

J.J. turned her attention back to Chris, as did everyone else.

Chris was smiling a tired, but sincere smile. “Thanks, J.J. It really is okay. It’s just that I’ve never really spoken of this to anyone except Claire. After it was all over, to some extent even before it was all over, I didn’t even talk about it with my parents. I just hope that what I’m going to tell you won’t upset you too much. I hope you can understand.”

Immediately taking offense to what she interpreted to be a patronizing reference to her youth and assumed naivety, J.J. lifted a defiant chin. “Don’t worry about me; I’m not a child. Please don’t go discounting me at the last minute.”

Unh-uh, nada baby, I’ve come too far and gotten too close to be turned back now.

Chuckling softly, Chris seemed to relax. She sat back on the couch as she pulled the rubber band from her own ponytail. She shook down her hair, and in doing so she returned to the take-charge Chris Allen J.J. knew.

“You are an absolute, total mess, J.J. Hart.”

When J.J. felt the toes of her mother’s left foot slide underneath her left bun, nudging her back into her earlier silence, she, too, relaxed, melting back against the footboard, leaning into Jennifer’s leg and resting her head against her knee.

Pat, apparently running out of patience, leaned in. “Look, are you going to keep stalling or what?” earning her a sharp look from Jennifer, which she totally ignored.

Chris turned and slowly rolled her eyes up to the woman hovering over her. Then, she inclined her own body toward Pat until they were almost face-to-face. “It’s killing you, isn’t it?” she said.

J.J. flinched, and she felt her mother stiffen. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it when Claire flinched, too, and the nurse tried not to smile. Nobody ever went after Aunt Pat like that. Well, nobody except the Duchess, but she had license to do that. It made J.J. wonder if Claire was over there thinking the same thing about Pat going after Chris. Chris, she deduced, much like her Aunt Pat, had to be a pretty tough woman to go up against.

“Yes,” Pat continued to lean in, giving no sign or backing off or budging. “So get on with the story.”

It was all J.J. could do to keep from rubbing her hands together in gleeful anticipation. This is way too good.

Instead, she folded her arms and settled even more against her mother’s leg.

“I was twelve when I went to live with Chris.”

The unexpected voice drew the focus of everyone in the room to Claire. “But even before that, I always felt I didn’t belong in the place where I was. I think I always knew something wasn’t right.”

____________________________________________________________

When he hadn’t seen them go into the den with Pat and the others, he assumed that he would find Jennifer and J.J. together in that bedroom. But arriving on the second floor, Jonathan discovered the door to the room open and nobody in immediate sight inside. Genie, however, was tucked securely inside her plastic carrier, which was on the chair.

On his way over to the doll, the sheet of paper lying in the printer output tray on J.J.’s desk snagged his attention, causing him to stop in his tracks.

What in the- ?

He picked it up and held it to the light of the desk lamp to examine it more closely, to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.

Aw, Jeez….

For a moment, he wrestled with what to do with it. He started to put it back in the tray and act as if he hadn’t seen or touched it. After all, it was in J.J.’s room- her sanctuary. It was on her printer, which was on her personal desk.

But then he changed his mind.

After all, it is my house, and I am her daddy….

Folding the paper, he pushed it down into his pants pocket before continuing over to the chair.

“I hate to do this to you, baby,” he whispered to the doll as he pulled back the blanket and scooped her up with one hand. “But this is something Granddaddy has to do.”

To be sure he was alone, he passed through the bedroom, the bathroom, and peeked into J.J.’s other room. When he saw it, too, was empty, he placed Genie on the daybed and looked around for something to aid his planned efforts. A nail kit lie on the end table by the couch. It appeared to be the same one Jennifer had caught J.J. attempting to use on Genie earlier that week.

The file was all he needed. Sliding it from its spot in the case, he returned to the daybed and the doll.

_____________________________________________________________

“No!”

Chris immediately broke off her mild confrontation with Pat to twist around to Claire. “You don’t have to do this. I volunteered to tell them.”

Waving her off, Claire feinted from Chris’ reaching hand and slid as far as she could in the other direction. “You’ve always taken on everything, while I’ve done whatever I wanted. I need to do this, Chris. Let me. You always take up for me, protect me, save me. It’s time I started looking out for you when you need it and pulling my weight. It’s like you said earlier, we’re women now. It’s time I acted like one. Please let me do this.”

Before Chris could comply with the request or give her consent for her to continue, Claire forged on with addressing the group. “It wasn’t that anyone treated me any differently, or that I was in any way neglected or made to feel like the odd man out; I just knew that I didn’t quite fit in the place I was supposed to be occupying. It wasn’t until the accident and I went to live with Chris permanently that I learned what had happened, that nothing and nobody was what or who- that it was all a lie. A lie invented to spare Chris and me. If I hadn’t been so persistent in my demands, in my snooping around- if I had just listened to you, none of this-”

“It was bound to come out,” Chris interrupted. “Something like that doesn’t stay hidden; we’ve both seen it hasn’t.”

She moved toward Claire and then bid Pat to take a proper seat on the couch. Pat got up from the arm and sat down in the spot Chris made for her, but immediately resumed her “Okay, out with it” body language.

Chris inhaled, exhaled, and then she let go. “I was thirteen when Claire was born; I’d had a birthday by the time she actually arrived.”

“Twelve,” J.J. whispered in wonder, but loud enough for the others in the quiet room to hear. Jennifer discreetly smoothed her hand down J.J.’s ponytail causing J.J. to snap her hand up to her mouth in a futile effort to catch what had already escaped.

“It’s all right, J.J. That is awfully young to have a baby, but that’s what happened. I was young, appropriately naive, and I wound up being taken advantage of by someone I thought I could trust, but found out too late that I couldn’t.

“My father was a private investigator who contracted out to people all around the world. My mother was a  teacher, so she could get work anywhere. We lived in Colorado, but a lot like you, as a young kid, because of my father’s work and my mother’s versatility, I got to travel all over with my parents. I’d gone to school in a lot of different places, I could speak a couple of languages besides English, learned fast, and I knew enough of a couple of other languages to get by. I wasn’t a kid who needed a lot of company or for whom putting down roots in one place was a necessity. I liked being in different places; home was wherever my parents were. As a result of my experiences, I had different interests and perhaps a more global perspective than most kids my age. At twelve, I was tall for my age, sort of on the quiet, observant side; I guess what I’m saying is because I’d seen so much and done so much, I was more reserved for a child my age. I didn’t play very much, and I found kids my age to be, well, silly. I looked, and maybe I came off as a lot older than twelve. But I was still only twelve.”

J.J., seated on the floor at her mother’s feet, had drawn her knees up to her chin and she had her arms wrapped around her legs, locked in place by her tightly laced fingers as she listened. She nodded her head in understanding. “I know exactly what you’re saying. I think people think that about me at times. That I’m older or more worldly than I really am because of my height and-”

Then her voice broke a little and she buried her face for a moment behind her knees, but she lifted it when her mother leaned forward to briefly massage her shoulders.

“I know about what happened to you,” Chris admitted, noting J.J.’s reaction and Jennifer’s concerned response to it. “Being security, and you having been the focus, I was made aware of it through the grapevine. That’s kind of why I wanted you here. People- guys can get the wrong idea, and you have to be careful.”

J.J. nodded again.

“Anyway, my father was commissioned for a long-term job in San Francisco. It was for a shipping company there. The owner’s family was pretty well-off, and he and my father were on friendly terms. My father consented to  work for him as sort of a favor to him. It was such a beautiful city, and my parents felt it would be a wonderful opportunity for me; so we all packed up and went. We weren’t poor. In fact, I later found out that my parents were pretty well-set themselves, but they didn’t have nearly the money as this shipping owner had. He put us up, and being there with them, we got to do and see some pretty fantastic things- sort of like you do, J.J., with your parents.

“I was very close to my father. I was even named for him. He was Christopher Alexander. I am Christina Alexandra- Big Chris and Little Chris. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to do everything he did, be everywhere he was. When I grew up, we were going to have our own agency, C&C Investigations.”

For a moment, Chris had to stop and gather herself. That was an old dream, one she hadn’t thought about in a long while. She cleared her throat to rid herself of the surge of angst and to be able to speak again. “But it didn’t work out that way.

“The owner had a son. He was older than I was, nineteen at the time, and he was home from school for the summer. Despite the age difference, his father had been so nice to us and so generous, I had no reason to distrust or fear the son. Whenever he came around or we were in the same places, he was always very nice to me. Treated me like a little sister, taking me places, showing me around. I don’t know if he knew exactly how old I was, but I’m certain that he knew that I was too young for him. At that time, I wasn’t even thinking along those lines. I was a kid, doing kid things. I was curious, adventurous; I was athletic, kind of on the tomboyish side, and I liked doing and seeing things. He was fun, adventurous, and attentive; I thought of him like a big brother.

“One weekend, my parents and I were at the marina visiting with some other family friends, and I ran into him. He offered to show me the new speedboat his father had recently purchased. It was only a few slips down, and I loved speedboats, so I went to see it. We got there and he invited me onboard. The next thing I knew he was taking off with me. I was a little nervous because I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. When I agreed to go to the boat with him, it was only because I thought I was going to take a look at it and come right back, so I didn’t check in. Even though he had pulled off, I thought I was okay because I was with him.

Then he got me out on the water, took me way, way out, and suddenly it was as if I was with a stranger. His entire- his everything changed. He started coming on to me, telling me how pretty I was, how sexy I was. My God, I was twelve! By that time, I was confused and scared to death. I’d never had anyone, any boy, much less a man, act like that toward me. I didn’t know what to do or how I was going to get myself out of it. He told me to do what he said or he would toss me overboard, and nobody would ever know about it or suspect him because nobody knew that we were together. I could swim, but I knew there were sharks.” She closed her eyes. “When he got all up on me, that was when I smelled the liquor on him. He’d been drinking.”

When she opened her eyes again, J.J. was riveted to her and to the story. Where earlier her body had been more relaxed in her upright sitting position, it had since gone rigid. Her eyes had narrowed, and the color had drained from her face, leaving it almost translucent. She was still holding herself, apparently braced against what she was being told, and maybe against her own bad memories.

Chris wondered if she should go on. “Are you okay, J.J.?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” J.J.’s voice was terse, but firm. “I told you, please don’t worry about me. I can handle it.”

She looked to Jennifer for confirmation. Jennifer, who had also gone a shade beyond pale, waved a hand in consent, and she picked up where she had left off.

“It happened. I let it happen. I just didn’t see what else I could do. I blamed myself for going off with him, for not telling anyone where I was going; I didn’t know what else to do. I blamed myself for being stupid and allowing him to get me into such a vulnerable position. All of my life, my father had been teaching me about people, about the things I had to watch out for, but I trusted this person, and all I could think was that I hadn’t followed the rules, I hadn’t checked him out. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going and with whom. I’d let my guard down, and he had me completely cut off and boxed in.

“But I had also been taught by my mother the things that could happen to a girl. She encouraged me to talk to her about matters that caused me concern, and all my life, she’d impressed upon me that I should come to her and tell her immediately if someone touched me inappropriately. She’d warned me that I since I didn’t look my age, and I was becoming attractive, that some guys might mistake me for being older, that I needed to be careful. But, I remembered she also said that I should never be afraid or ashamed to come to her right away if something did happen.

Afterward, he made me clean up, and he brought me back. He threatened me that if I told, nobody would believe me. And that if they did, and they came after him, something bad would happen to me and to my parents. Big Chris, in my eyes was invincible. I wasn’t scared about anyone doing something to him or to my mother. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing more he could do to me; I was already done. My mother would believe me about what happened, so I went straight to her and told her. She told my father, and my father went straight to his father.”

“You’re talking about Marston Knight,” Pat interjected. “Marston Knight, Sr.”

The name caught her off guard, not to mention that it was the woman next to her who had uttered it. Where before the expression on Pat’s face had been almost accusatory, it had changed to what appeared to be concern, perhaps even compassion.

“You know him?”

“Yes. We go back a way, but I haven’t been in contact with him in years. Is he this child’s grandfather?”

“Yes, it was his son who assaulted me. Mr. Knight, Sr. is Claire’s grandfather. Marston Jr., M.J., is Claire’s father.”

Pat pursed her lips, and sat back, closing her eyes while rubbing at her forehead. “Do go on.”

“Well, Mr. Knight was devastated, as were my parents, of course. He wanted to do the right thing by me, but he also wanted to protect his son from prosecution. My parents wanted M.J.’s head on stick, but more than that, they wanted to protect me from the trauma of talking to the police, going to court and all of that. M.J. hadn’t beaten me physically. Even in the- well, the sexual act, he hadn’t been overly brutal. I didn’t fight him, so he didn’t have to be. All of them wanted to keep it private. Of course, at first I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I certainly didn’t want to be involved in talking to anyone other than my parents about it, much less hashing it out in public. In the end, Mr. Knight made a financial agreement with my father to keep quiet. He sent his son away to Europe to go to school and to live, and we went back home to Colorado.

“Then, a month or so later, we found out that as a result of the incident, I had conceived a child. Mr. Knight flew in after my father contacted him about it. I wasn’t allowed to be a part of their talks, but I later learned that Mr. Knight came to my parents offering to pay for an abortion. My mother said she didn’t want that for me. She was sort of on the holistic side, and she thought it would be healthier and more natural for my body and my mind if I went through with the pregnancy and had the baby.”

“At twelve? Thirteen?” J.J. cried with an astonished, close to angry look in her eyes. “That’s natural?”

“She thought it would be better for me physically and psychologically than my undergoing an abortion after having had my body and my mind assaulted once before, J.J. The female body is designed to bear children. Girls that young have had babies for centuries. My mother felt that having an abortion would have been the more unnatural thing, like having yet another thing ripped from me. She and my father decided not to use the law to prosecute M.J., but my father, it turned out, made sure the Knights paid in full after the pregnancy was discovered.

“My parents took me away, out of the country, to have the baby. The dock thing my father had been working on had South American implications, so he took over that end of it. He and my mother arranged to stay in a small village near Peru while I was secreted away to a woman who lived up in the mountains. She was a midwife, but she’d gotten older, wasn’t really traveling around practicing her craft anymore, and preferred her solitude. My father knew people everywhere, so it was somehow arranged that I would remain up there with her in her care.”

J.J. sat all the way up. “By yourself? Just you and the midwife lady without your parents? All young like that and pregnant? Without your mother? Weren’t you scared?”

Jennifer leaned down and whispered next to her ear, “I thought we talked about questions.”

J.J. quickly twisted around to her as if suddenly remembering what she’d been told. “I’m sorry. But she was so little and by herself.”

First checking out Claire, who had heard the story before and appeared unaffected by the retelling, Chris turned back to the other mother and daughter in the room. “It’s fine, Jennifer. Let her ask what she needs to ask when she needs to ask it. I don’t mind answering her.”

“You might regret that. This one can come up with some questions that boggle the mind.”

Chris smiled at that. “I’ve been interviewed by the young lady once before. She’s curious, but quite the professional. She’s been taught well. And I fear there’s very little that shocks me any more. I don’t believe in leaving people in the dark about things that matter, and I’m sure that J.J. there is feeling as if I wasn’t quite up front with her. I need to clear that up.”

She shifted her focus down to J.J. “I was scared, but I think my being so young worked in my favor. Fear comes with age and living. There are a lot of things that I don’t really remember about that time. There was a lot I didn’t really know, so I didn’t have to fear it. I do remember being a little lonely, but being so happy when my mother would come to visit me and bring me my schoolwork and books to read. She didn’t want me falling behind in my studies. I remember that my father didn’t come to see me after the first few times. I figured out that it was because he couldn’t stand to see me pregnant. He would write me letters and send them to me via my mother. He would always claim to be busy and unable to come, but I knew why he didn’t. He always made sure to tell me how much he loved me and how proud he was of how brave I was being.”

“Didn’t it hurt you that he didn’t come?”

The softness in Pat’s tone seemed incongruent with the lack of warmth she had become accustomed to in her, and Chris found herself strangely touched by it.

“At first, but like I said, I understood. My mother and the Señora made it all right. The Señora was very kind to me. She didn’t talk a lot, but she treated me very well and took good care of me, almost like a mother. She knew that I just was a baby myself.

“I loved the mountains, the fresh air, the cold, cold water, doing things with our hands and living off the land. There was no TV or radio, no stereo or telephones, but there was a brook that ran nearby, and there were birds. We seemed so near the sky, that I could almost reach out and touch the clouds. She had a dog, too. Some kind of big, old yellow dog that she called ‘Perro’.”

“Dog,” J.J. translated with a small smile. “Very creative.”

“Yeah,” Chris chuckled. “I thought so, too. Perro took to me and followed me around everywhere. I think he knew that I was a little girl in trouble, and he looked out for me, too. I believe that being up there, alone with her, away from people, their prying eyes, their disapproving looks, and having a chance to heal with just my mother and the Señora was ideal for me. No public scrutiny, no police mess, no court ordeals, not having to face my attacker, not having to be constantly faced with the hurt in my father’s eyes.

“It was my parents who decided to keep Claire and raise her as their own; I had no say in that. They explained to me that even though the baby had originated in an undesirable manner, it would still be ours. I was their only child, and as the child I was having would be a part of me, it would be part of them. They said they had talked about it and decided they couldn’t live with the idea one of their own wandering around out in the world thinking it didn’t have anyone. My mother had some sort of condition that made conception of children nearly impossible. She managed to get pregnant and have me, but I’m told she nearly died doing it. I guess, after that my parents took extra precautions to insure that it didn’t happen again. Keeping my baby and raising her as their own was a way for them to have that second child they couldn’t have themselves and a way for me to remain a child myself.”

“What’s done in the dark.” J.J. murmured it to no one in particular, but it was loud enough to be heard by the others. The faraway look in her eyes made it sound as if she was reaffirming something to herself.

After waiting to see if J.J. was going to elaborate, when she was sure that she wasn’t, Chris resumed speaking.

“Their plan was for me to stay sequestered up in the mountains. My mother, in the meantime, would be down below pretending to be pregnant. When the time came for me to deliver the baby, she would come up to be with me and return to town with the infant she’d allegedly given birth to. I had arrived in South America and gone up to the Señora separately from them. Nobody down below knew that I was there. They had to establish the expecting couple facade, which is why I was away from them, and they didn’t stay with me up in the mountains. My mother coming up to see me could be explained that she was seeing the Señora about the progress of her pregnancy. It was all my father’s doing. When Big Chris put a thing together, he did it all the way.

“Claire was born up in those mountain, late at night. All I mostly remember about it was that there were candles all around me, little halos of bobbing, yellow lights; the Señora wanted Claire to have what she termed a “peaceful birth”. And I remember the pain. I remember it hurt really bad, way worse than cramps, and I was glad my mother was there with me. She said Claire didn’t take long to be born, but I don’t remember. I just recall that the baby was so little. My mother said she barely weighed five pounds. She let me look at her, but she wouldn’t let me hold her. Instead, she took her right away and made that baby her own. It was because she didn’t want me to bond with her or for the baby to bond with me. The baby was my sister, she informed me right off the bat. She was the mother, and I was her big sister. I was never to forget that. Being an obedient child, I did as I was told.

“I didn’t know my father was there in the house with us until after they got me put back together and had washed Claire up. He came into the room to see me. I hadn’t laid eyes on him in months. It was the first, the only time I ever saw him cry. He tried not to let me see him, but I did. He wanted to see how I was and to tell me ‘Happy Birthday’. He hugged me, and his voice was cracking when he said it. You see, I turned thirteen that day.”

_____________________________________________________________

It was the thirteenth birthday party they had given, and as usual, the guests had been animated, noisy, diverse, and plentiful. As J.J.’s mother and unofficial hostess, she had been busy making sure that there was enough food, that the music stayed clean, and that J.J,, the official hostess and guest of honor, was being a lady. Jonathan hadn’t been still since the first deep boom of the sound amplifier. J.J. Hart was thirteen, cute, and she had chosen to have an evening pool party that year, complete with live D.J., to celebrate her birthday.

Jonathan patrolled the grounds that whole night, keeping an eye on things, specifically on the boys orbiting around his newly adolescent daughter. But somehow he missed his own boy, Tommy, sketching that picture of J.J. in her bright red bikini as she lie poolside, stretched out on a chaise lounge.

In complete innocence, that night while they were in J.J.’s room as J.J. was getting ready for bed, she had shown her the drawing.

“Look what Tommy made for me.”

Tommy- the Kissing Bandit- Steele hadn’t missed a line, a curve, or a dip anywhere in his rendering of J.J.’s rapidly ripening thirteen-year-old frame. The boy was a definite budding artist who obviously harbored a quiet, but deep appreciation of his subject.

“You’d better let me keep that, sweetie.”

“Why? It’s just a picture. Did I do something wrong?”

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong, but it might make your father nervous if he saw it. You should probably let me hold onto it for a while.”

“You’re not going to throw it away, are you? I really like it.”

“I promise you, I’m not going to throw it away. I’m just going to keep it for you until he gets over being so nervous about you.”

“Daddy shouldn’t be like that about me. He knows I can take care of myself. If he’s worried about me getting fast about boys, like Marnie, he shouldn’t. I don’t even like boys that much yet. Most of them are too arrogant and nasty-minded to be overly-interested in, plus they stink.”

Then she climbed over into the bed and pulled up the covers. Minutes later, exhausted from the night’s festivities and from being thirteen, she was asleep.

Since then, she had worked hard at impressing upon J.J. that it wasn’t always about the girl liking the boy…

… sometimes it wasn’t about anybody liking anyone….. 

Thirteen.

At twelve, she caught J.J. and Tommy sharing a first kiss, an incident she still hadn’t shared with Jonathan.

Jennifer combed her fingers through the thick, overly-curly tresses between her knees. How in the world would she and Jonathan have handled a scenario like the one Chris had just described if it involved J.J.?

…Jonathan’s rage. His tears….

Her own.

As if reading her mind and sensing her mother’s anxiety, J.J. leaned all the way back against the chair and consequently, against her leg. When she felt the hand smoothing her head, J.J. reached up and for a couple of moments, she held it there.

When Jennifer looked up from J.J., she found Pat watching the two of them. When their eyes met, a small, appreciative smile crossed Pat’s lips. It made her wonder if Pat was thinking of her own little girl, the one she lost before she could even hold her.

At the same time, Chris had reached for Claire’s hand, and she held onto it as she continued speaking.

_____________________________________________________________

Jonathan, seated on the daybed, had removed the last garment, the tiny facsimile plastic diaper.

“You’re not going to tee-tee on me are you? Your mommy used to do it to me all the time. As soon as I got the diaper off, she’d catch me. I think she would do it on purpose. She always laughed while she was wetting on her daddy.”

Genie lie face up across his lap. She was awake, and she stared right up into his face as he talked to her, bright eyes so realistic it appeared she heard and understood what he was saying.

With all the jostling he had done with her, moving her from the carrier in the chair to the daybed in the back room, removing her jumper, tee shirt, and socks; she hadn’t made so much as the first peep. There wasn’t a doubt left in his mind that his budding computer genius had done something to alter that doll.

Genie was soft and flexible, very much like a real infant. The tones and the texture of her lifelike flesh made her seem even more real. In appearance and functionality, she was a marvel of product engineering. Looking at her, and speaking of his own daughter as an infant brought back fond memories of time spent with baby J.J. in the room on the other side of the bathroom, back when it was white and yellow and smelled of soft, sweet infant. Now it was sky blue trimmed in eggshell. But somewhere along the line, without his having noticed when it happened, the scent had changed. It still smelled good; it smelled like her, but now it was perfume and talcum powder and scented candles, like a young girl soon to be a woman. When the hell had the smell changed?

Seems like yesterday she was six and looking at pictures in books. Now she’s sixteen and looking at…

Aw, Jeez….

The time was flying by way too fast.

With his index finger, he lightly poked Genie in her tummy in the way that he used to be able to do J.J. Just like J.J. would when he did that to her, Genie smiled.

Oh hell yes. That girl has definitely done something to you. You don’t ever smile.

With both hands, as if turning a real baby, he carefully flipped Genie over onto her stomach. Then he picked up the nail file.

_____________________________________________________________

“My father asked me what I wanted to name ‘my sister’. It popped right into my head, Claire Virginia. Claire was the name of my first, my favorite doll, and Virginia was after my mother, her grandmother, who had been my rock through it all. I was my father’s girl, but I don’t know what that would have been like if it hadn’t been for the mother I was so fortunate to have.

“My parents stayed with the Señora and me for several days, my mother helping the Señora to take care of me and of Claire. I felt okay and I wanted to get up and be with them, but they wouldn’t allow me do anything for the baby. Right after giving birth, I went back to being a child.

“When my parents left to go back down, they took Claire with them. I stayed with the Señora who continued to help me recover. Being so young, I guess I snapped back pretty fast; I hadn’t gained that much weight in the first place- all baby. In a couple of months, when I was completely back to myself, my father came for me. I kissed the Señora goodbye, and he and I flew together back home to Colorado where my mother was already there with her new baby, my little sister, Claire.”

“How did that get past your relatives?” J.J. said to Chris. “Nobody suspected anything?”

“My grandparents were deceased when it all went down, J.J. My father was an only child, and my mother had one sister. I think my aunt might have known; they were kind of close, and I got that vibe sometimes that she might have been let in on it- you know, like sisters would do, but she never let on to me that she did. And she’s deceased now also. Being that we traveled so much, I was never close to any of our other relatives. They lived in other states. At home, we lived on several acres, so we didn’t have close neighbors, at least not neighbors that we were on close social terms with. It was always just us for the most part, the nuclear family.”

“Slick how that worked out,” J.J. said as she tapped a contemplative finger to her chin. “He had to have factored all of that in when he came up with the plan. Your father must have been the man.”

“Like yours is”

“Yeah.” J.J.’s appreciative smile began to bring the color back to her cheeks. “He is.”

“In the fall,” Chris continued, “at the beginning of the next school year, I went right back to school. I had studied hard while I was in the mountains, and my mother, the teacher and ultimate organizer, had my school records in order, so I moved right on up to the eighth grade like I was supposed to. As far as anybody knew, I had been off with my parents on one of their business trips, and I had been home-schooled in another country, which essentially, I had. From that point on, in my head and in my life, Claire was my baby sister. I went back to being Chris Allen, teenager. But I knew I was changed, different, and it was like I had something to prove, or as if I had something I had to overcompensate for. I don’t know why. Nobody said I had to, but it was something on the inside of me that said I had to work harder at everything. Maybe I felt as if I had let myself down or something, and I needed to atone for it.”

She stopped, shrugged, and then sighed. “I don’t know.

“I was always a good student, but afterward, I became an excellent one. In every area of my life, I became driven to be my best. I lettered twice in sports- had a jacket like that one you have, J.J., only not with quite as much decoration as yours. Yours is loaded.”

“Thanks to her father,” Jennifer and Pat said at the same time, both of them earning an exasperated look from J.J.

“I had one, too.” Claire quietly offered. “Whatever I wanted or needed or didn’t really need, but she wanted me to have, she saw to me getting it. I couldn’t have asked for a better person in my life. I just didn’t always see it that way. I-”

When Claire’s voice trailed off, Chris slid her hand behind Claire’s back to rub it, then she picked the story back up.

“My parents, especially my father, were determined that I not be robbed of my childhood any more than I had been. I was still serious and focused, but they encouraged me to be a normal teenager, to do teenaged things. They did not make me any more responsible for Claire than any normal sister would have been for a younger sibling. In fact, when I think back on it, I can’t remember even being made to babysit Claire very often. But as her big sister, I loved her, and I enjoyed spending time with her. My parents always made sure that I was busy and involved in lots of things. I did all the normal high school activities, went to my prom, and finished with high honors. When the time came for me to think about going go to college, they made it clear that I would be going away so that I could be independent and build a life of my own. I did my undergrad work in Boulder, but a couple of years I did some summer work here at CalTech where I started my postgraduate work and earned my Master’s degree.

“When I finished undergrad, I got recruited and picked up by Hart Industries right out of the gate, so I came here to live. Big Chris was ecstatic. His girl working security systems for a major operation like Hart Industries. The original plan was I would do that for a while, learn the business, get my masters degree, and in the meantime, he and I were going to begin working on setting up our own operation.

“I had just bought my first condo, had a good job, was working on my Masters degree, and felt I was on top of the world. Thanks to my parents, I’d made something of myself, and I was able to put that horrible incident behind me, or in light of recent events, to table it to work on myself. I think it made my parents happy to see for themselves that I had made it despite what could have devastated me.

“Then it happened.”

Weary to the point of feeling a little sick, and fighting hard to hold her emotions in check, Chris took a deep breath and pushed on.

“I went home and buried them, arranged for the sale of the house and the property, and then I brought Claire here to live with me. My mother’s sister was still living then. She stayed with us for a little while after the funeral, and she was a great help with all that had to be done to wrap things up, but she wanted Claire to go back with her. At twenty- five and single, she thought I was too young to take on raising a child. Claire was twelve, and as far anyone knew, an orphan. No matter it was my aunt, at the age Claire was at that time, there was no way that I was going to send her away from me. Claire was mine, in more ways than she was aware at the time, I was all she had, and it was my responsibility to keep her safe. It was time for me to take that place in her life. It meant upsetting my aunt some, but there was no way. If nobody else knew it, even if I chose to put it to the back of my mind before then, after my parents were gone, I quickly realized how much Claire was mine… and how much I belonged to her.

Spent, a wave of that earlier dizziness overtook her, and Chris lay her head back on the couch, covering her watery eyes with one hand.

“It was hectic,” she sighed, “and it meant reorganizing my life, but for the first few years, it was pretty good.”

_____________________________________________________________

Still in J.J.’s upstairs den, Jonathan was hard at work. It had been a long while since he’d done anything technological that was so delicate and hands-on. He was amazed by how quickly it was all coming back to him. He had nearly forgotten how good he could be with a nail file and a little time. The fingers were still nimble. It was all coming back….

_____________________________________________________________

As she kept an eye on Chris, Jennifer absently smoothed the wavy red head leaned against her knee. At that point she was concerned for both girls. The big one had been through so much, and with her hand she could almost feel the thoughts and questions ricocheting inside that little one’s mind. Although J.J. had taken a few shots there in the room, without a doubt there would be a lot of discussion later with that one, not to mention precocious adolescent commentary, once they were alone. With Chris, her hope was that she hadn’t physically, as well as mentally and emotionally overextended herself. That was quite a story to have shared with people who had essentially been strangers to her until just a few days before.

In fact, with the exception of Eva, who had retained her stoic, unreadable demeanor throughout, she was concerned about all of the younger women in the room. Seated behind J.J. as she was, she couldn’t really see her face, but she was aware of the visual confrontation of sorts between Claire and J.J. It had been going on the entire time. She could understand J.J.’s curiosity over Claire, and perhaps her defensiveness toward her out of loyalty to Chris, but why would Claire be so interested in J.J.?

Jennifer returned to studying Chris who still had her head back with a hand over her eyes; the woman was drained and for a moment, she considered calling an end to the discussion, but just then Claire leaned over to Chris, asking, “Are you all right?”

Chris nodded without lifting her head or taking the hand down from her face. When Claire asked her for permission to speak, Chris replied, “Go ahead, if you want”, and Jennifer thought it oddly remarkable that now that it was out in the open, with them so physically close together, how much they did seem a lot like mother and daughter, especially in the way that they related to each other. The scene in the bunker earlier that afternoon was vividly playing in her mind. Chris had been as firm with Claire as she might have been with J.J. had they been in that situation and operating under those circumstances. It had been that way with them not a few weeks before in that bedroom in Las Vegas when she’d had to restrain J.J. to ensure the murky air between them got completely cleared.

Mother and daughter…a tricky thing indeed at times, even under the best circumstances….

Claire turned away from Chris to sit forward again. Resting her elbows on her thighs, she slowly rubbed one set of fingers up and down the other as she appeared to be searching for what she wanted to say.

For days, she had been stubbornly silent, insisting that she had to speak with Chris before she could talk with anyone else. Well, she had spoken with Chris. Now, apparently she felt ready to talk with them. She had volunteered to do it, had been granted permission to do it; her time had come.

As Claire sat there, Pat’s eyes speared the back of her head. Pat had little tolerance for lightweight, flighty, or shallow females, and so far Claire had been fitting herself into that precarious category with her.

Finally Claire spoke, her soft, trembling voice communicating her uneasiness.

“During these last few days, I’ve- I’ve had time to consider a lot- a lot of things. I’ve heard it said that hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I’ve come to find that to be a very true statement. In my anger and confusion, I’ve done a lot of messing up.”

Chris appeared to tense and for a moment, it seemed as if she was going to try and sit up in protest, but Pat clapped a hand to her shoulder stopping her from moving out of the more reclined position she had taken. “Let her get it out,” she whispered to Chris. “She’s grown now.”

Apparently heeding Pat’s advice, Chris relaxed after a moment. She lay her head back again and closed her eyes. Claire, oblivious to the action behind her, continued to stare down at her hands as she went on with what she was saying.

“Like I started to say earlier, before the accident, nobody ever treated me any differently. I had plenty of love and support, maybe too much of it. But ever since I can remember, I always felt that there was something not quite right about me. I thought at first it was maybe because I was born so late, and I was out of step. Or maybe that I had put my family out of step by showing up when I did. It was just a feeling I had; nobody ever made me feel that way. I had no idea what the real story was until Chris told me, and she didn’t tell me right away. I had been with her a few years before she broke the news to me, and then it was only after I’d put my nose where it shouldn’t have been.

“When I came to live with her, Chris had that first small apartment. With all my belongings, which she insisted I bring with me when she moved me in with her, it got to be too small, so she moved us into a larger apartment. She did everything to make me comfortable and to accommodate me in my loss, even giving me the big bedroom because I had so much stuff. Like a kid, I took for granted that was how it was supposed to be.

“She sent me to the best schools in the area, private academies. She wanted me to have the best of whatever there was to have. I won’t say she spoiled me, but she was very conscious of and attentive to my needs and interests, and I had a lot of them. Unfortunately, it got good to me. The more she gave, the more I wanted, and the harder she worked to make sure I got it. The harder she worked, the more of her time it took, and the more I resented it. The other kids had parents, and they had mothers who didn’t work for a living, like the mother I once had or I thought I had.

“When you’re a kid, you want to fit in. In spite of everything that was done for me, I never felt as if I did, anywhere. At home, growing up before the accident, Chris was always so much older and smarter. I could tell that Dad loved her more, or maybe differently than he did me, but that was okay. I figured it was because he’d had her so much longer, so of course they would be closer. And anyway, I was close to Mom, but she held me so tightly. Everything I did was closely monitored, my every move was dictated to. At the time, I didn’t understand why that was. I didn’t know about what had happened to Chris, and I didn’t know how much that had affected Mom.

“I could visit with friends, but Mom preferred that I had people over to our house. The night of the accident, the only reason I wasn’t at home or with her and Dad was because for the first time in my life, they let me go to a sleepover at a friend’s house. Chris was living here in California at the time, but of course, she flew in right away. She picked me up from the Scotts, took me home, and told me what happened.”

At that point Claire noticed J.J. recline all the way back as she squeezed shut that one uncovered eye. Her mother smoothed a hand over her forehead and asked if she was all right. J.J. told her she was fine before lifting her head again to speak.

“It’s just that I’m listening to you, and it hurts so bad to even imagine what that must have been like. To- to have your parents one night, and to lose both of them before you could get up in the morning. I’d die myself  on the heels of something like that.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

To the surprise of everyone it was Chris’ voice that spoke out. “Whoever came for you, especially if it was your Aunt Pat, they wouldn’t let you die. They’d wrap you up, take care of you, and make sure that you made out all right. On the inside, you’d hurt like everything, but you’d move on because you’d know that you had to. You’d do it because you’d understand that was what your parents would want you to do, it was what they raised you to that point to be able to do. Good parents raise their kids to be capable of surviving on their own, like mine did with Claire and me. Like yours are doing with you. Once you got past the initial shock and pain, you’d eventually come to realize that.

“My parents, through what they tried to do with us, allowed me the relatively natural progression from child to woman. It kept Claire safe within her own family, and when the time came, it allowed me to finish raising Claire when they couldn’t. They’d set the foundation for that. And if something were to happen to her, you’d see that your mother has done that with you, too. I think she knows first-hand what I’m talking about.”

J.J. immediately sat forward.

Still talking from her reclined position, her hand still over her eyes, as if she could see J.J.’s reaction, Chris answered J.J.’s unspoken question. “Your mother told me about losing her own mother when she was very young. I figure she must have some inkling of what it feels like.”

When J.J. leaned her head back again to look up into her mother’s face as if she were checking on her, and when Jennifer nodded down at her in the manner that she did, Claire could see that it wasn’t just she and Chris who had stories they usually kept to themselves.

“So when did it go bad?” Pat asked, directing the question to Claire. “What precipitated that? And what’s going on now with all of this?”

Claire sighed as she resumed her slumped position. “I know that I seem to be meandering, but I have to go back some to get where I need to go. See, in high school, I was pretty popular. I got in with a fast, free-spending crowd. They had nice houses- some even lived in mansions. They had cars, credit cards, horses, traveled everywhere, got whatever they wanted. But Chris held me in check all the time. She made sure I had nice things, took trips when she had the time, and that I was exposed to art, culture, etc. She saw to it that I could do a lot, but she didn’t go crazy with it. Still, looking back on it, she did an awful lot for me that was beyond extra.

“She would always tell me that she sent me to those schools for the education, not to be spoiled and shallow like some of the people I was palling around with. She bought me nice things because she thought I deserved them, and she wanted me to feel good about myself, but she wasn’t going overboard with it because she wasn’t concerned with impressing anyone. ‘We don’t have their money’, she’d tell me when I would start pushing at her that so-and-so had something and I wanted one. She would say, ‘And even if we did have their money, you wouldn’t be getting all of that. It isn’t necessary and it isn’t healthy’. That would get on my nerves.

“In my head, I’m doing the math. I knew she had sold the home property in Colorado, and she had inherited all of the assets from my grandparents- at the time, they were our parents- plus she had a good job. With my kid-mind, I figured her for loaded, but that she was holding out on me. When I was sixteen, all of my friends were getting cars. I wanted one, too, but Chris wouldn’t let me. She said she couldn’t afford it. That made me really mad.

“One day when she was gone, I went into her files. I wanted to see if I could find out how much money she really did have socked away. See, I’m the granddaughter of a master security person, the daughter of his daughter; I knew how to get past locks. I broke into Chris’ safe and found out she not only had the money to get me a car; she could have bought fleets of cars-”

Pat leaned into Chris, nudging her. “Knight, Sr. paid your parents off initially, and he kept paying over the years, didn’t he?”

“All of Claire’s life, he’s been paying,” Chris wearily answered. “When it came to me, he’s been a decent man. Initially, he paid my father a couple million to keep quiet when the attack happened. It was supposed to be for me, to compensate for my ordeal, and to send me to college. When it turned out I was pregnant, and that I was going to have the baby, not abort it; he paid my father another million for the disruption to my life and to take care of me and my medical needs. Once Claire was born, every year on our birthday, he would send us twenty-five thousand apiece. He did that until Claire turned twenty-one.

“After my parents’ accident, I learned through my father’s attorney that Big Chris had put the whole thing in trust for us. He never used any of it; he and my mother took care of Claire and me themselves. By then, my father had informed me of the arrangement, but he never told me how much was there; I never wanted to know. I earned scholarships for college, so I didn’t need it for that either. I didn’t want Mr. Knight’s money. In the back of my mind, I think I didn’t want the Knights being able to make any claim on Claire. If I didn’t take his money, then they had no say when it came to her.

“It was important for me, and later for me to teach Claire that we earn our own way. In my book, it builds character and makes a person, especially a woman, stronger and more confident in her own abilities when what comes your way is what you earned. I tried very hard to impress that upon Claire, and I think she understood the principle behind it; she’s always worked. But that’s a tough concept to accept when everyone around you is being handed so much.”

Claire slowly shook her head. “No, no, don’t make excuses for me. I did what I wanted to do; I always have. I believed what I wanted to believe, and lived how I wanted to live.”

Then she again raised her eyes to address the group. “I confronted Chris with what I’d found out about her finances, accusing her of being greedy and selfish, of hoarding the money and being a miser when we could have been living like my friends. I began to make fun of her for working all the time, for being a lonely, boring plodder when she didn’t have to be. But she wasn’t one to argue. She’d let me get it off my chest, then she’d say what she had to say, quietly dismissing me and my claims without any real argument. She never got outwardly angry with me, and that would make me angrier than anything.”

“Humph. Dismissed,” J.J. softly snorted, cutting her eyes and tipping her head a bit in Jennifer’s direction, “sent packing without a proper goodbye. I can certainly feel your pain on that,” and got her ponytail tugged one more time.

Despite her morose, when Claire noticed that small backward jerk of J.J.’s head, she had to suppress the tickle at the sight before pushing on.

“I started to resent Chris. Where I once enjoyed being with her at home, at her work and learning all the things that were going on there, I started to stay away. I began pushing at the rules she had set down for me. I challenged everything she said. Finally, I blew up at her over the car issue again. I was seventeen going on eighteen, and she offered to buy me a used car when what I wanted was a new one like my friends were getting. I knew perfectly well that she could afford to buy me one, and I felt I deserved it. I was an honor student, a pretty decent kid as far as staying out of trouble in the streets went, and I thought I had been patient enough. I didn’t realize then that what I thought I should be rewarded for was an expectation, not something exceptional.

“Well, I accused Chris one too many times about keeping from me what my parents had left for me, and that’s when she sat me down and told me the truth, that she was my mother. That my whole life had been a lie. She told me how we came to be sisters and why.

“I think some part of me always knew there was more to us than what was on the surface. I remember when Chris left to go away for college, for a long time afterward, it felt as if a huge hole had been dug into my life. I can remember crying for days. She would occasionally send for me to come spend time with her on campus, and I’d love to go. Not so much to be at the college and feeling grown-up, but because I was with her. When Mom and Dad were killed, and Aunt Lucy was talking about taking me with her, I was all set to fight her on that. I was going with Chris. There was no place else I would have ever considered going. I was already making plans to run away to Chris before Chris bucked Aunt Lucy, and told her that she was taking me.

“In telling me about us, Chris told me about the money and from where it had come. That huge account I found was the money my paternal grandfather paid to her. She said it was because she had been so young, and that was his way of making it up to her and my grandparents. Like my maternal grandfather, Big Chris, she had never touched any of it to use for us. She had my portion of the Knight money put in trust for me until I turned twenty-five, which she let me have when that happened. Chris, it turned out, had been raising me solely on the money left to her from her parents’ estate and her own earnings.

“After she told me that, I walked around in a daze until I graduated high school. Then I went off to college determined that I wouldn’t be back. I couldn’t make heads or tails of my life or my relationship with Chris. I can’t really say that I was angry with anyone. I wasn’t disappointed or upset either. I don’t really know what I was. Confused- maybe numb- is a better term for it. Chris was still who she had always been to me, but somehow she wasn’t. She wasn’t my sister; she was my mother, but she wasn’t; my mother was dead. It took me years, in fact maybe I didn’t come to really understand until these past few weeks, to realize that it didn’t matter. Mother or sister, Chris always been my protector, my guiding light, my friend, and if I’m truthful about it, my hero.”

“What Chris left off in telling me about my father was that he had actually raped her, and that he had been so much older at the time. I always assumed that it was one of those things that just happened between a young boy and girl that resulted in an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. She also didn’t tell me that my father didn’t know I existed. You see, although he banished him to Europe for it, my grandfather never told his son that he’d fathered a child when he assaulted Chris.

Of course, my maternal grandparents didn’t want him knowing about me and possibly laying any claims to me. Chris was too young to do anything about it, even if she had wanted to. When she was old enough, of course, she didn’t want contact with him on any level or for him to try to get in touch with me. He didn’t know about me until- well, he didn’t know.

“I could always tell when I shouldn’t push Chris, not that I was always mindful of that ability to sense it. But the matter of my father was one area that certainly came across very strongly as one I shouldn’t pursue with her. However, once I left home, I started to do some investigating on my own. But all trails led right back to Big Chris and Virginia being my parents. Except for my grandmother’s medical records.

“Like Chris told you, she couldn’t have more kids. I found out she had something like an aneurysm that was being monitored and controlled, but that couldn’t be repaired. Having another baby threatened severe medical complications like a stroke or something, or perhaps even death. My grandmother wouldn’t have risked that, leaving Chris motherless. I don’t think she would have purposely taken that kind of chance. Getting me, like Chris said, was her second chance at motherhood even though it came, unfortunately, through her daughter.”

Pat sat back and folded her arms as if she were thinking, but she didn’t say anything. Jennifer cast her eyes in that direction, as if she and Ms. Hamilton already had a handle on something she’d said.

It made her wonder what else they knew. Ms. Hamilton had admitted being acquainted with her paternal grandfather. In what way were they acquainted? Did she have some other information that she wasn’t sharing? She definitely appeared to be the kind of person who would hold back. J.J.’s aunt? Did that make Ms. Hamilton Mrs. Hart’s sister? They didn’t look like sisters.

She and Chris did look like sisters, but in actuality they were mother and daughter. Who could tell anything about people from looking at them?

“What happened in the mountains?” Jennifer asked. “When you and the other girls were in college that first year? Chris told us that there had been some trouble. Does that have anything to do with what’s going on now?”

“I went on summer holiday with two girls from college, Octavia Dash and Alice Rangel. Alice and I were more friendly with each other than we were with Octavia, but we all had fun when we were together that first year. Chris and I, being away from each other for a time, had come to, I guess, more amicable terms. Despite my ambivalence, I did miss her. She called regularly to check on me, and we were talking and getting along better than we had in that last year I was living with her. She liked that I had done well in my freshman year, so when I asked her about taking the trip with the girls, she let me go.

“We toured some, visited a few cities, and then decided to go to the mountains. That was something I’d always wanted to do, but Chris never really had the time to take off and do that sort of thing with me. I knew about the dope, but I had put that to the back of my mind. When you’re young, you know everything and you think everyone else is stupid. Besides Alice and I weren’t in on that part of it; Octavia and the guys were, so I figured it wasn’t a big deal. I thought the most Alice and I would do would be to go up there, hang out, and have a good time. Octavia was flush with cash; she was always talking about her rich Daddy. Alice and I had jobs at school. We worked hard and we were smart with the money we were sent and with what we earned. I had always had luck with attracting guys. And Alice, even though she was kind of shy, wasn’t a nun, nor was she a dog, so off we went.

“To make a long story a bit shorter, we got so far, and the two guys we had gotten to know- more like Octavia had gotten to know- who were supposed to be leading us on the mountain hike to make the score were missing one morning when we woke up. We got up, and they were gone, but for some reason, Simon had left his knapsack behind. I looked inside and there were all these wrapped squares, like bricks. Kind of felt like blocks of freeze-dried coffee. We opened a couple, and found out it was the pot and we thought, cocaine. Weren’t sure about that last thing, but we knew what the real purpose of the trip up there was supposed to be, we figure it for coke; it was the hard drug of choice back then.

The next thing we knew, out of nowhere, we were surrounded by all these guys with guns who we thought were drug agents. I guess we’d been set up. We found out later that those so-called agents had killed Simon and we never knew what had happened to Rod until he turned up years later at HartToy.”

“They had him, too, beat him bloody, disfigured him, but he managed to get away,” Chris droned without sitting up to do it.

“I never asked-” Claire hung her head, avoiding looking at Chris. ” We- I never asked you how you got us out.”

For the first time, Eva spoke. “You all were set up all right, but not just for the drugs. You and Alice were going to be sold, especially Alice, the blond one and then you, the pretty one. Octavia was in on that. They had you two staked out the whole time, but we couldn’t get close enough to you to warn you without giving ourselves away. It was a ring, involved in snatching young, white, preferably blond and-or pretty female tourists and selling them for the purpose of-” Eva stopped and looked over to J.J. “Well, they would just be sold. When the two guys left, supposedly leaving you for the take, we were able to get Rod out once he got away from them, but not Simon, who was actually in league with the human traffickers. He trusted them, and they killed him and they put you girls in that prison for drug possession, but you weren’t going to be there long, if they had been able to have their way. We knew where you were; we made sure that they were aware that someone in the US had been alerted to the fact, to put your captors on point that you were already missed. Then we had to work fast to get you out.”

“We?” Claire asked. “Who is we, us?”

“Private security,” Eva answered. “Your- Chris ordered it. You think she was going to send you all that way without having someone keep an eye on you? I didn’t know then who the people involved were. I was contacted through a third party and just took the job. I didn’t know you or Chris from anybody else. That’s how I liked it, completely objective. I had your picture; you became the body I was put in charge of watching. In fact, I had forgotten all about that until this job came up and the pieces and the people started coming back together.”

Eva leaned forward in her chair, aiming herself and her next comments directly at Claire. “Look girl, Ms. Allen was ready to kill somebody for you. I understand they had to talk her all the way down to keep her from coming for you herself. Even when she was told that we were there keeping an eye on things, it took a whole lot to get her to stay put and to allow cooler heads to prevail.”

Through all of that, Pat remained leaned over Chris, but it now seemed more a protective measure, as opposed to subtly threatening as it had been earlier on.

Pat spoke into Chris’ ear. “How did you get her out?”

“Money talks.” Chris didn’t lift the hand from her eyes as she spoke. “I had plenty of it. Remember?”

Pat lifted Chris’ arm away from her face. “You didn’t use all of it on her little tail did you?”

Chris opened her eyes. “I didn’t, although I would have used every dime of it if I’d had to. My father taught me to negotiate. Start small, and work up only if you have to, he used to say. I’m sure that you, of all people, are aware of how a little bit can go a long way with the right people. I used the some of the interest I’d been accruing on the principle. I’m not as tight-fisted and plodding as some people believed. Grease a couple of the right dry, itchy palms, and you can get done whatever you need or want done; you don’t have to offer the whole pot up front. But if it had come to it, I honest to God would have given it all up to get her back.”

Claire’s cheeks flamed bright crimson as she watched and listened to the two women next to her talking. For the first time, Pat smiled down at Chris and nodded her head. “You are my kind of girl.”

Chris chuckled and then slowly sat up a bit to be able to address Eva. “You know, I picked right up on there being something more to you. I sensed right off that you were security. Without a doubt, you’re a trained nurse, but you’ve been security trained, too. So, you’ve known all along about us, Claire and me?”

“Not all along, Ms. Allen. And I didn’t have the story of the true relationship between you two until just now. Like I said, I didn’t put both of you together at all until I actually saw her in the flesh again.” Eva tipped her head in Claire’s direction. “The day she came to the hospital to see you.”

Chris took hold of Claire’s arm to get her attention. “You came to the hospital?”

Claire nodded but did not look up from her lap. “As soon as I got here.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Chris scanned the other faces in the room, stopping at Jennifer. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that?”

“We couldn’t,” Jennifer answered. “We had to let you tell us what you remembered before we could fill you in on anything, including telling you about Claire’s having been there at the hospital. She did come, though. I saw her.”

Claire looked up from her lap over to Jennifer. “I didn’t see you, Mrs. Hart.”

“I was in the hall. I had been there earlier, sitting with Chris, but I had stepped out of the room for a moment. When I saw you exit the elevator, I stayed in the hall to give you some privacy. But I could see you through the window while you were inside with Chris.”

Dropping back into the cushions, Claire hung her head. With her shoulders so slumped, she seemed to melt into the couch, tears coursing down her cheeks.

“If you came to me,” Chris said. “Then why weren’t you there when I woke up? Only Jennifer was with me when they brought me back. Where in the world had you gone?”

“I- I guess, I-” Claire brushed back that shorter lock of hair from her eyes that had worked its way loose from the ponytail, but she didn’t bother to wipe away her tears.  “Chris, by that time, I was probably hiding out at the hotel. I was so- just so scared he’d find out I was gone and come after me. Even before I heard about the accident, I was on my way to you, to warn you. I was flying into New York like he sent me, more like ordered me, to meet the guy who was supposed to pass me some insider information, but I had no intention on following through or on staying there. Father or no father, I wasn’t getting into anything like that with M.J. or with anybody. I’ve worked too hard at building my business reputation to get into something like that. Plus, if you found out I was doing something like that, you would have killed me.

“When Ken got in touch with me about your accident, I was already at the airport waiting for my flight to the States. I made it to New York, and I phoned my grandfather from there to let him know about you. He set up the hotel room here for me, and he had a car waiting at the airport to bring me straight to the hospital. But once I got there I couldn’t stay. You were still in the coma… all those machines… and you had those cuts on your face. I couldn’t bear looking at you like that and thinking I might have been the cause of it.

“I found out about what M.J. had done to you after you came to try to get me away from him, before I figured out what a pig he really was. The houseman told me. That’s when I overheard him on the phone, talking with someone, plotting about something that had to do with Los Angeles and Hart Industries, and I knew things had gone too far. I knew I had to get out of there.

“When I told finally told him that I didn’t want anything to do with him or his schemes, that’s when he hit me. He hit me and told me that if I didn’t do what I wanted him to do, then not only would Chris be disgraced at Hart, she’d be dead.”

At Claire’s mention of having been struck by her father, Pat’s eyes narrowed to slits, while Chris dropped her head back again, and Jennifer and J.J. brought shocked hands up to their mouths.

“His hitting me the way that he did, then hearing about your accident, I was pretty sure that it was all part of his getting back at us.

“I just felt so guilty. I knew from my dealings with Octavia that Rod had been sucked in by Octavia over some debt he owed her from the mountains thing way back when. I believe she paid to have his face put back together. My connections said she had him working on something for M.J. When I first got wind of it, I was still trying to make my myself known to the Knights, so I didn’t care. Alice phoned me and told me that he’d shown up at Hart. That he’d gotten in touch with her about something shady that had to do with Octavia and Hart, but I figured if something were to come of it, then maybe it would be a security breach and at most, Chris would lose her job, which would give her time to have a life. I mean, it wasn’t like she couldn’t afford to get fired.  I had no idea it was so much bigger than that. In the end, I was even thinking that the thing in New York, you know, with the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and all those planes, might have had something to do with M.J. and Octavia, that’s how crazy paranoid I was getting.”

“What would make you come to that connection?” Pat asked.

“Yeah,” J.J. seconded, causing Jennifer to lean all the way down so that she was next to her ear and whisper, “You want to back up some, Miss Nancy Drew.”

“My fault,” J.J. quickly apologized over her shoulder. “Got caught up again. And that would be Ms. Nancy Drew.”

A tiny snort of laughter escaped through Chris’ nose as Pat’s head snapped around in J.J.’s direction. “I see that earlier head injury is still plaguing you, Ms. Squirt, causing you to forget some things that Aunt Pat just happens to remember.” And she raised those eyebrows two quick times for emphasis, sending J.J. into immediate contrition.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Pat, everybody. I won’t interrupt any more, I promise.”

After holding J.J. in her sights a significant moment or two longer, as if sealing the deal, Pat returned to Claire. “Now, you were saying?”

“I need to back up some first,” Claire began without hesitation. “”See, I before all of this, before I left home for good, while I was still in high school and after she’d let me in on her being my real mother, I had bugged Chris and bugged her to get her to tell me who my real father was. Up ’til then, she’d never told me his name. Finally, after all my badgering I guess, she broke down and told me his name, ‘Marston Knight’, but she wouldn’t elaborate beyond that.

“From that tidbit, though, I was able to do some investigating on my own. I found out that around the time that I would have been conceived, my grandparents and Chris were in San Francisco, visiting the Knights- the shipping company Knights- when there was a huge dock thing going on that involved graft within the pension funds of some of the big shipping companies, including Knight Shipping Lines and Hart Shipping Lines. Hart got my attention because Chris worked for Hart Industries, and Knight because of the name. Marston Knight, Sr. was the owner of Knight Shipping. I had to be on the right track, but I let it ride for then. I didn’t do anything at all with that information until after I got out of college, was working, and had come into my trust. That gave me the money and the maturity, and the nerve to fully do what I thought I needed to do.

“It had festered in my mind for years. I had mulled it over and over, and it wasn’t until a year or so ago that I decided to actually act upon it. I figured if I got to know that part of my family- if indeed that was my family, I would finally belong somewhere. I could put my life in order. I had a few friends, I’d had relationships, but I just couldn’t get it together personally. There was something not quite complete about me, and it made me push people away.

“And then, too, the prospect of having a wealthy father- that was right up my alley. I couldn’t understand why my maternal grandparents and Chris had kept me out of my father’s loop all that time. Of course, I didn’t have the whole story, and I wasn’t trying to understand anything. I just wanted what I wanted.

“The odd, coincidental thing was, Octavia ended up getting picked up by Knight Shipping, but on the European end. I wound up working in Europe myself- I have been for a few years now- and even though Chris had split the three of us up after the freshman incident in the mountains, we had kept in touch. Of the trio, Alice and I were still closer, but I kept up a casual contact with Octavia. She had good social connections and always had an in with the better crowds. With her connection to the Knights and the possible connection I had to them, of course, I went ahead and contacted her.

“I had no idea at the time that she was having an affair with the man who would turn out to be my father. I was aware that she maintained relationships with wealthy older, married men all the time, but believe me, I had no idea the Pandora’s box I would be opening up in getting involved with her in this. To this day, I’ve never mentioned to her or to anyone my relationship to the Knight family. In the end she got it all wrong, but I didn’t try to change her perception of things. I’m pretty sure that M.J. didn’t do anything along those clarification lines either. But I’m getting ahead of myself with that.

“I arranged for Octavia to throw some Knight work my way to get me into the door. I broker stock and commodities for the European ends of some major Stateside corporations. Octavia manages a lot of that kind of action for Knight Shipping along with some other companies, so that was easy enough to set into motion. Since I was in Europe, that could be arranged without Chris’ knowing what I was doing, or so I thought. I wasn’t aware that my grandfather and Chris had been communicating together all along.”

“So did you have something going with old man, Knight? Or was it just business?”

Chris cut, then rolled her eyes over to Pat. Along with her pursed lips, her entire face loudly expressed her exasperation with the question directed to her.

“Business.” she answered. “Strictly family business. He was Claire’s grandfather, the only other person in the world who knew who she really was. While I was in Colorado after my parents were killed, he got in contact with me, and of course, at first I was resistant to him. I remained that way for a very long time, but he persisted in trying to get through to me. Once I truly understood and believed that all he wanted was to be kept informed about Claire, and not take her from me or to start any kind of relationship with her, I gradually let him in. She had lost enough, and was eventually confused enough; I didn’t want anything or anyone else coming along and making it worse for her.

“It turned out that Mr. Knight only wanted to be kept abreast of how she was, what she was doing, and to receive the occasional picture or two. Despite how it was that she came to be, he always acknowledged Claire as his grandchild. But I think he understood that his actual position in her life was tenuous at best, and that with how he had set it up for his son’s sake and for mine, he would have to remain a silent, distant grandfather.”

“But he genuinely cares for you, too, Chris,” Claire interjected. “He respects you. That’s why he did all the things for us that he did.”

Chris waved her hand and lay her head back, sighing, “Whatever. I didn’t and don’t really care about that. All that mattered to me was seeing that you didn’t get screwed up any worse than you were by the mess that was made. Go on with what you were saying. You need to get to the heart of the matter. These people don’t have all night. J.J. needs to get her rest.”

J.J. sat straight up, giving Chris and Claire her full attention. “Oh, I’m fine. Don’t let me worry you. Tomorrow’s Sunday. I don’t have school, so I can sleep in. I’m injured and on meds; that means church is probably out, too.”

“Hush, magpie,” came the discreetly soft order, issued from behind her head.

At the same time, without turning away from Chris and Claire, Pat snapped, then pointed a warning finger behind her. Obeying both commands, J.J. pressed her lips together and shrank back to lean once again against Jennifer’s leg as Claire picked the story back up.

“I went back and forth with Octavia on some deals for a couple of months or so, and then she invited me to meet with her in the States. We had legitimate business to transact, and she said she wanted me to meet someone she was seeing. She’s liked impressing people with the guys she dated and the names she could drop.

“The first time I actually met my father was at the corporate apartment Octavia told me that she owned, but that I later found out was her boyfriend’s place to stash her. She introduced him to me as ‘M.J.’ At the time, neither of them seemed too anxious to go beyond the initials, you know, like when the situation isn’t quite right or when it’s a cheating type thing. But Octavia couldn’t hold out. As soon as she could get me off to ourselves, she wasted not time in letting it ‘slip’ that the guy was her boss and that, surely enough, he was married. See, she has a thing for married men, especially rich ones that provide for her. With her, it’s probably psychological, the past repeating itself. To be honest though, I like wealthy guys, too, but I do draw the line at married ones.

“Anyway, from that information, I deduced that M.J. was short for Marston Junior. Up to that point, I had no idea at all that there was a junior. I only knew of Marston, Sr., and until that night I had always assumed that Marston, Sr. was probably my father, even though that would have made him obscenely older than Chris to have been with her. Meeting M.J., that opened up other, more plausible avenues of possibility.”

Claire shifted her gaze from looking out into the room at nothing in particular to back down to her lap. Her next words came slowly, almost in a murmur.

“When all your life, you think you know your father, your family, your world, and then you find out you don’t… that you don’t know anything… it’s- it’s the strangest thing in the world to stand before the man who fathered you, to know in your heart that’s who he is, and to realize that the man doesn’t have the first clue who you are.”

She sighed, threw up her hands, and then dropped them at her sides as if she were tired and running out of steam. “And then to later find out that he had no idea that I even existed…”

“At least yours had an excuse.”

Pat’s tone was cold and the sharp edge of it sliced cleanly into Claire’s aura of despair. “Sometimes the man who fathered you knows exactly who you are, he knows where you are, and that you’re out there alone, and still he doesn’t give a damn. It think that might be a whole lot worse. Get over it.”

For a very long moment a vacuum-like, stifling void overpowered the group, as if a switch had been flipped to suck the air and the life from the room.

It was Jennifer’s voice that allowed everyone to breathe again. “How did he find out who you were, Claire?”

And it took another long moment for Claire to gather herself, wipe her face with her hands, and resume speaking again.

“It turns out that Octavia had been working me as much as I was using her. I never talk with anyone in depth about Chris, and especially not about her work. Not sharing personal information like that was something that I had been taught by my grandfather, Big Chris, and then had it reinforced by Chris, never to do. But Octavia already knew that Chris worked for Hart Industries, which I found out was her underlying reason for making it so easy for me to get Knight work. She was getting close to me so that she could get close to Chris and then to Hart. She’s always hated Chris, who made no secret of how much she disapproved of her.

“M.J. has had it out for Mr. Hart ever since his cracking of that dock scandal almost took his father’s business under. Even after all this time, Knight Shipping has never gotten back to the strong market position it held before that time. M.J. blames Mr. Hart’s blowing the whistle on the pension scam for that.

“Octavia blames Mr. Hart for her father’s subsequent overseas exile, and therefore his absence in her life. She overlooks the fact that she was born outside of her father’s marriage to someone other than her mother. She ignores that her father was a crook who stole from Mr. Hart’s company, and that he had to leave the country to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted and going to jail. She refuses to accept that Mr. Shell’s treatment of her mother probably had a lot to do with her committing suicide, and that he didn’t have to do anything at all for her once her mother was gone, leaving her and her half-brothers behind. Even though he didn’t have anything to do with her personally, Mr. Shell did make sure that Octavia was sent to and raised in that convent school after her mother was gone. From what she told me, her father took good financial care of her during her childhood despite his never personally seeing or interacting with her, and when the time came, he also paid for her college.”

Pat frowned. “All on money he and Knight, Jr. were siphoning off from the shady dealings they’ve had going all over the world. Into illegal everything, I understand, once the two of them got together to do business. He was fired from Hart and ended up working with Knight.”

Chris slid her eyes over to Pat. “How is it you know all of that?”

Pat shifted her own eyes down to Chris. “The same way that you do. Still waters run deeply, only my currents have been carving bedrock a bit longer than yours.” She nodded to Claire. “Keep going. Answer Jennifer’s question.”

Claire sighed. “Well, once Octavia hooked up with M.J., Hart Industries evidently became their mutual target. It was as if they were obsessed over getting some kind of revenge. Hart Industries is a healthy, successful corporation with an ethical man at its helm. That’s a rare commodity in today’s world. They couldn’t seem to stand that about him. When Mr. Hart got sick last month, and it was all over the news, they were wishing him dead. I’ve never seen such hate. But when I look back on it, everything, despite my attempts at maneuvering things , was really all so- I hate to keep saying it, but its the only word that fits- so coincidental.

“About six months ago, there was a huge party at the Knight estate, which is actually situated just outside of San Francisco. It was a big corporate to-do, and Octavia invited me to attend to do some networking, she said. Of course I was more than eager to go. I didn’t tell Chris I was coming to the States or anything; when I got here, I went straight to San Francisco. About halfway through the evening, Marston Knight, Sr. made an appearance. At the time I didn’t know that it was a rare appearance. In recent years, he’s taken an absolute back seat when it comes to the business. M.J. runs the company now; his father is largely retired and dabbles in his own interests, leaving the shipping, and whatever other dealings to M.J.

“All that time, I’d been considering what I needed to do to make myself known, and then all of a sudden there he was. My grandfather, standing across from me, staring at me. He knew me right off. I was by myself when he came up to me and called me by my name. He told me who he was, and asked me about Chris. He said that he would have known me anywhere.” Claire dropped her face into her hands for a moment. When she lifted it again, her hands and her face were again wet. “I was such an idiot. I wanted so much to belong somewhere.”

“Wanting to know who your family is doesn’t make you an idiot.”

J.J. was still leaned against her mother’s leg. The serious expression on her face and intensity of her words got everyone’s attention. “I know I said I wasn’t going to talk any more, but I have to tell you that I totally understand that part of what you’re saying. When it comes to that kind of thing, people can tell you to ‘mind your own business’ all they want, and you might pretend to do so, but you still want to know. You almost have to know. You feel like part of you is missing. The not knowing, what you don’t know, people just don’t understand; it is a part of you, not something left back in the past. You want, you need to find that missing part so that you can know yourself better. I understand that totally.”

Even Pat had turned all the way around.

Jennifer leaned forward a bit to try to see into J.J.’s eyes, then she raised her own eyes to Claire, who was once again studying J.J. with that same quizzical expression that she’d noticed before.

“Thank, you, J.J.,” Claire managed to choke out as she wiped her eyes with the tissue Pat handed her from the end table. “But I got sucked in by that. I wanted a family so badly. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t also want what I thought that family could give to me socially and materialistically, as well. Even though I’m grown, I can’t help but remember how out of place I felt in high school with my friends, girls like you, and how much- I, I wanted-

“I was elated when my grandfather acknowledged me. We exchanged information, and Octavia must have seen us talking and doing that. That very night, after the party, she phoned me, all excited that I had gotten the attention of ‘old man Knight’. She had no idea what the real deal was, and, of course, I didn’t tell her either.

“Over the next few days, my grandfather and I talked back and forth. I went back to London, and despite his telling me he was retired, he suddenly had ‘business’ there We began to meet a couple times a week for lunch. He wanted to know all about me, he seemed to genuinely want me to be a part of his life. After a few meetings, he told me that he had plans for me, so he thought it was time that my father got to know me. But he failed to tell me that my father didn’t know about me. He didn’t let me in on the fact that the money given to Chris over the years was actually my father’s trust fund. He didn’t tell me that he had taken away his son’s trust because his son had taken away my mother’s innocence and part of her childhood. I didn’t know that I was part of the reason for my father’s angry relationship with his own father, his desperate attempts at keeping his personal finances and the business afloat, and consequently, I didn’t understand that was why Chris had chosen the detached, overachieving life she had. I didn’t know any of that going into it.”

“Did your father know about losing his trust?” Jennifer asked. “But then I’d have to assume he did. He’s a very grown man. Why did he think his father took it away?”

“I’m sure he knew why his father sent him away, Jennifer,” Chris answered. “He more than likely did the math; he just didn’t know it was being funneled to me.”

Chris patted Claire’s arm to signal her to keep going.

“It made him furious to find out, but all I had at that point was my naive notions of how I came to be and the thought that I had finally found the family and the lifestyle I believed I was born to have.

“One night, not too long ago, my grandfather invited me back to the States. He wanted me to come to the San Francisco mansion for dinner. I didn’t realize that he had also invited my father. When we were all together, he blindsided my father with me. I guess once it was brought to M.J.’s attention, he could see that I resembled Chris. He went pale for a moment, and then… I guess reasonably… he just didn’t know what to say. After all those years, he’d probably put Chris and what he did to her to the back of his mind, and then there I was, his daughter, sitting there in the flesh looking back at him. He didn’t know.

“He excused himself, jumped up from the table, and didn’t come back. It was embarrassing and humiliating, and my grandfather spent the rest of the time trying to make it up to me. Later, when my grandfather and I were talking in his study, M.J. came back, looking for me. He was white as a sheet as if he’d been sick. He apologized for his abrupt departure, saying that it took him by surprise. He explained that he never knew that Chris had been pregnant with his child, never knew that she’d had a baby by him, and apologized again for being absent from my life. I thought he was sincere. At that point I still didn’t know the details.

“I called Chris that night and told her where I was and who I was with. More like  I taunted her with it. After all she’d tried to do to keep us apart, I had outwitted her and gotten my way. Pandora’s box, I tell you. I had opened Pandora’s box and let all the bad things out. I swear I just didn’t know it. It turns out, she had just gotten back from London, looking for me. She’d already gotten wind of what I was into.

“When Chris asked me what my grandfather had told me about M.J. and her, I answered that he hadn’t said anything. Stupid me, I assumed that she was asking because she was ashamed about sleeping around when she had been so young. I never imagined-

“She insisted that I get out of there. She told me that it wasn’t safe for me to be there. Of course, I wasn’t aware that Chris not only had a line on M.J.’s dirty dealings, but she also had one on me. She was aware all of along of what I had been doing. She let me go ahead with my plans, but when she could see that I had gotten in too deeply, she went to London to warn me to leave it alone, but she missed me. On the phone that night, she warned me to get out, to get off the estate and away from M.J. I thought to myself that she was telling me what to do in an effort to protect her own image. I flatly refused to leave. By that time, my grandfather had offered me a suite in the main house on the estate and a stateside position, he’d moved me in and was arranging to send abroad for my things. I was staying put.

“I didn’t even think any more about what Octavia might have going at Hart. I’d put that out of my mind. I had the life and the family I thought I wanted, and my world was good. What did I care about HartToy?”

Pat nudged Chris. “Is that when you tried to go and get her off the estate yourself?”

Chris again rolled her eyes. “I’m not even going to ask this time how you knew that. Yes, that’s when I went. I hadn’t seen M.J. since that day on the boat, but he knew exactly who I was when I got there. He maintains a home on the grounds of his father’s estate, so it was inevitable that I would run into him. But it wasn’t him I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for Claire. I went to try and reason with Claire’s grandfather. He and I had been talking, we were on reasonable terms. I thought he would listen to me.

“My hope was that Mr. Knight would see it my way and could talk her into leaving, but he was so enamored of her. She’s his only grandchild, a pretty, smart, accomplished young woman, and he loved the idea of her finally being there with him. She, just like she’s said, loved being there. In the meantime, Octavia really was taking hold of the wrong end of the stick. She assumed that Claire was being ‘kept’ by Knight, Sr. When I got there, she assumed I was.

“I’m thinking that once M.J.’s father told him about Claire, M.J. got distracted by the whole thing. My guess is in his distraction, M.J. began being less attentive to Octavia as he focused more on keeping Claire’s true identity and what he did to me from Octavia, and perhaps his affair with Octavia away from his wife. Octavia maybe took his sudden inattention to her for his intention to begin an affair with Claire.

“Then I arrived, making matters worse for him. M.J. and his wife didn’t have any children together, but she had two of her own from a previous marriage that he helped raise. Those kids’ father was active in their lives, so M.J. never had to fully assume that paternal role. Now that they’re grown, M.J. and his wife lead separate lives, so she’s rarely there on the grounds any more. But for some reason, probably financial and I guess moral, I don’t think he wanted her, or anyone else, to know about Claire or me. He’d had a straight shot at the Knight fortune until Claire showed up. He started in on me as soon as he could get me by myself, telling me to get me and my ‘bastard child’ off his property. Sorry, J.J.”

J.J. merely nodded. “It’s okay.” And she eased away her mother’s hand when Jennifer reached for her shoulder. “I’m really okay, Mom. I’ve heard that term used before. ‘Bastard’s’ a man-made term to put blame for something where it doesn’t belong; it has no real meaning. Anyway, he had a lot of nerve, Chris, coming at you with that.”

Chris shrugged. “People give you what they have to give you, J.J. They can’t do better if they don’t have it in them.

“For two days, I tried to get Claire to come home with me, but she wouldn’t budge. Despite her grandfather inviting her to stay and welcoming her with open arms, her being there wasn’t a good thing, I could feel it in my bones. It went beyond my not wanting her there or any personal resentments I might still be harboring. Some things just aren’t meant to be.

“The final straw came when M.J. turned it around and actually tried to come on to me. Can you believe that? First he threatens me, calls our kid a bastard, and then he invites me into his bed for ‘old times’ sake’, as if we’d once been lovers or something. Talk about your split personality. Of course, I was repulsed. Then some goons tried to rough me up and scare me off the grounds. They cornered me while I was walking back to Claire’s wing, coming from telling Mr. Knight that I was planning to leave and asking him to look out for Claire since I couldn’t talk her into going with me. They threatened to hurt me if I didn’t leave the premises by morning. They said it might work out that I had a bad accident like my parents did, and I’m thinking to myself what would they know about that?

“Well, whatever the case, after all that happened by that time, I was livid. My parents? Was there some connection? I’d been looking into it, but- I-  Once I got away from them, I walked out to M.J.’s house, asked to see him, and I kicked… his… ass. He got in a few good licks and got me down, but then he said something to me about letting me have it again like he did on the boat that first time, and that it would be better this time because this time I was grown. The son-of-a-bi-, the man hadn’t been drunk enough to not remember that he’d raped a child. I just saw black after that.

“When it was over, I left him curled up on the front lawn, holding his nuts and crying the way he left me all those years ago. I let him have it like said he’d ‘given it to me’. I bet you he won’t be having any kids behind that. You know, looking back on it, it’s funny how none of the servants came out to see what was going on. They had to have heard us going at it, knocking things over in the vestibule, falling out of the front door. I’ll tell all of you, I don’t know what kept me from pulling that gun out of my pocket and ending it for him. I had taken the gun with me with the full intention of blowing his damned head off, but I never even took the thing out of my pocket.

“After that, I returned to the house, packed my things, and left. I didn’t even say goodbye to Claire. I just left her there. I didn’t know what else to do, but once again, I had gotten too close to losing me over her. M.J. should have been dead that evening, and I should be in jail right now. I don’t know what kept me from killing him. But in the back of my mind, I guess there was some awareness that if I had taken him out, then that would have left Claire with no one, at least no one I fully trusted to have her best interests.”

Pat slipped an arm behind Chris’ shoulders. “”That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. You were supposed to kick his ass, bare-handed, fair and square. If anything, you should have pistol-whipped him with it. Shooting him would have been taking the easy way, and it doesn’t sound as if that’s your style. Besides, I think the doing it the way that you did it got your point across to him a whole lot better.”

Chris nodded as she smirked up at Pat. “I think so, too.”

“Yeah, so do I.” J.J. said. “He had it coming big-time. An eye for an eye, so to speak.”

Claire picked back up with her story.

“Well, it wasn’t long after Chris left that M.J. started putting the pressure on me about her. At first, he was very nice, almost overly solicitous. Then gradually, as early as a couple of days after Chris took off, he began showing up in my wing, pumping me for information about her, her job, her life. I knew something was in the works, and I tried to hold back as much as I could, but he kept pushing and pushing. I tried staying near my grandfather, but he was too old to be of much help. M.J. was calling the shots, and what he said was how it went. I soon found myself practically a prisoner on the estate. He monitored my every move. From the outside, it probably looked as if I was being well-cared for, catered to, but in reality, I was being brow-beaten. With me in the picture, whatever assets his father had, he was afraid that some of them would go to me. He didn’t want me getting anything. He said I wasn’t to expect to get anything. I told him that wasn’t why I was there, but he didn’t believe me.

“It was M.J. who finally broke it to me how it was that Chris got pregnant with me.”

At that, J.J. flinched, then cringed. “Your father told you?”

“Yes, J.J., he did. In explicit detail. He said his father broke it to him that I was the reason his trust hadn’t been available to him when he came of age, and it was why he had been cut out of his mother’s will when she died. I had been written in instead. It seems I had a grandmother who knew about me, too, but who I never got to know. M.J. blamed Chris for my being in the world and for his father’s personal estrangement from him. He resented not being told about me, and he resented my grandfather’s attentions to me once I arrived at the estate. He said that if it had been left up to him, if he had known she was pregnant, he’d have kidnapped Chris, put her in a sack, and drowned the two of us before I could have been born.”

“Your father?” J.J. was now leaned forward with that one eye stretched as wide as it would open.

“Yes,” Claire uttered, hissing through her gritted teeth as tears squeezed from between her closed eyelids to flow freely down her cheeks. “My father.

“I was angry. So very angry. But believe it or not, I was angry with Chris, not M.J. I was angry with her for leaving me behind with him. I was angry with her for being who she was, for getting pregnant with me with a man like that, and for being so strong and so capable afterward. I was angry with her for being so right all along. I know that sounds irrational, but that’s how I twisted it around in my mind. I still resented Chris for working so hard for Hart Industries. It seemed to me like she gave all of her life to Hart, to those people she worked with, and to those damned toys.”

Claire reached for and clasped Chris’ hand.

“What I couldn’t see for looking at myself was that Chris, through pushing herself so hard, had found a way to keep herself sane. As long as she had her work, she could forget about other things. Just as she said about me, aside from me, she, too, was alone in the world. Even though she could easily have done so, she never forgot about me or pushed me off on anybody. I was too focused on myself and what I thought I didn’t have to see that I had Chris. I had all that I needed the entire time.”

“Feeling boxed in at my grandfather’s, after overhearing that call, I flew back to London after telling M.J. that I needed to get back to work, but he came behind me, tracking me down at my flat there. By that time I’d cooled off some, and was beginning to see how stupid I had been. When he got there, he started up that same controlling crap, trying to get me to use my influence and the fact that I was female to work some insider crap he had going in New York.

“I think M.J. had picked up on my misplaced anger with Chris, and tried to play on it, letting me in on the insider deal he had going and telling me what he needed me to use my connections to do. At first he was being nice, like it was father-daughter conspiracy-type thing, but I wised up to him trying to use me real fast. I told him I wasn’t doing it. That was when he hit me and told me about what he’d done to Chris and what he should have done to both of us. He said that I owed him. He said his father had given his trust fund to Chris for me, and I owed him big. He said that Chris had left because he’d beaten her into leaving. But I knew that for the lie it was; I already knew about the fight, but that Chris had gotten the best of M.J.. Still, once M.J. hit me and told me he’d have me killed if I didn’t go through with it because I knew too much, I was scared to death. I played along with him as a means of getting out of there alive. Like I said before, he was monitoring my every move. It’s a good thing that I had taken leave from my other accounts because I haven’t had time or the heart to do anything since then.”

“Your grandfather phoned me,” Chris cut in. “He left me a message saying that he sent you to New York.”

Claire shook her head. “M.J. sent me. My grandfather probably told you that to keep you from getting upset. He knew why you left, but he knew you would leave her and come looking for me again. He probably didn’t want to involve you.

“Anyway, I told M.J. I had to fly to Paris first to meet with a client, and then from there I’d go on to New York to do his bidding. After he left me, I flew into Paris, but I flew right out again, back to London. I needed to go the flat and pick up some of my things. I was coming home to Chris, if she’d have me, and I didn’t know when or if I was ever going back. I had to make the flight to New York for the sake of appearances. I was at Heathrow, waiting when I got the call about Chris. It shook me to my core. I was sure M.J. had figured me out for double-crossing him, and that he’d followed through on his threats to hurt me by trying to kill Chris. I just knew he’d rigged that car.

“I phoned my grandfather to let him know, and then I sat there numb with fear and praying that I got on that plane before M.J. sent somebody looking for me or God forbid, showed up himself.

“While I was sitting there, it all came flooding back to me, the stuff with Hart Industries, Alice, Rod, and all. That’s what I’d overheard M.J. talking about that day. He had been talking about blackmailing someone at Hart into killing Rod, who had changed his name to Paul Rider, because he wasn’t getting back to him about something he’d been ordered to do. Octavia was supposedly lining some things up. They’d gotten to someone in security. I called Alice to find out if someone had been killed. She said they had, but that she couldn’t talk about it. I thought that her not talking about it was something security related. I didn’t suspect then that they might have gotten to her, too. I saw her tonight;  she was with me when we saw you and Mrs. Hart with Octavia. Alice said to me that she’d done some things, but she’d done them to protect you, Chris. They had to have gotten to her. Alice wouldn’t do anything wrong on her own.

“Blackmail, killing people, selling illegal arms to foreign concerns, drugs; I found out too late that my father was deep into all of that. My grandfather is content with tending his gardens and allowing M.J. free reign over everything related to Knight Shipping. M.J. is running it into the ground, but my grandfather seems oblivious to it. I’ve done some things in my lifetime, some of it I’m not so proud of, but I’d never do anything that I thought was illegal. Not after that mess in the mountains, and I certainly wouldn’t do anything to get you hurt, Chris. I was coming home to you, but- but you- you almost weren’t there. I didn’t mean for all of this to happen like it did. I didn’t mean for him to hurt you again. I didn’t mean to bring him back into your life after you, Mom, and Big Chris worked so hard at keeping him out of it.”

“He won’t be hurting you, Chris, or anyone else,” Pat said, her words sounding like a declaration.

Claire turned around and Chris raised her head to look in Pat’s direction. “You know?”

“You do, too.” Pat said in answer to Chris question. “Don’t you?”

Claire turned all the way around to Chris to lean against her back and ask over her shoulder. “Know what?”

Chris released Claire’s hand and twisted in her direction to put an arm around her. “M.J. is dead, Claire. He’s out of our lives completely. The night of the accident, your grandfather called me to let me know that you had left. He said that he’d sent you to New York, but that M.J. had gone after you. M.J. went to New York himself, thinking you were there. It happened that he was in the Trade Center at the time of the terrorist incident.”

“Even though he knew you weren’t there, Mr. Knight went to New York because he wanted to catch up to his son to keep him from doing something stupid,” Pat said. “Your grandfather got there on one of the last planes allowed to land. He wasn’t injured in any way. Unfortunately, though, he ended up being there to identify his son’s body.”

Chris gave Pat one more questioning squint before turning back to face Claire. “Look, I am really sorry things didn’t work out for you the way you wanted them to with M.J. I’m sorry for everything that’s happened in your life and for all you’ve gone through. Maybe things should have been done differently. But if they had been, then maybe you wouldn’t have been, or you and I might never have known each other. Sister, daughter, whatever; you are here, and have always been, my Claire.”

At that, whatever had been holding Claire up all that time left her. When she broke down completely, Chris’ wrapped both arms around her and held her tightly.

Discreetly bumping her leg against J.J.’s side, Jennifer signaled J.J. that it was time for her to head upstairs. Without a moment’s hesitation, J.J. pushed up from the floor and excused herself. As she passed them to leave, she briefly squeezed both her mother’s and her Aunt Pat’s hands when they extended them to her, mouthing, “Good night” to them, and “Thank you” over her shoulder to Chris who, although she was still holding a sobbing Claire, looked up at her and nodded one time in acknowledgment.

_____________________________________________________________

She waved and called out, “Good night” to her Uncle Bill and to Mr. Lamb, both of whom were seated, having drinks at the bar as she headed for the spiral staircase. For once, she was glad to be the kid who got sent to her room.

Too, too much drama.

Her sister… really her mother. She’s got to be thirty-something, and for almost all that time, her father never knew she existed.

Sort of like Tommy’s situation, only in reverse… and  a whole, whole lot uglier… Tommy was an affair and Mr. Steele was at least aware of Tommy and was interested in him, even if he did stay in the shadows….

Like Tommy’s father, Claire’s father was dead. Only M.J. was dead as a result of 9/11.

And his own scheming… Wonder why he was coming after Claire in New York? What was he planning to do? Was he going to do something to her?

Oh well, it doesn’t matter. He got his….

… at least Junior is out of their picture. It’s good Senior knows Claire is okay. Maybe now they can move on… build some kind of relationship….

It had all definitely been a lesson for her in listening, following rules and cues, and in carefully choosing one’s associates.

Claire’s so-called friend… crazy wench… almost getting Chris and my mother killed. I should have been there….

Suddenly very tired, slowly making her way up to the loft, J.J. realized that she was actually at odds with herself over the issue of Claire’s father being dead. Her upbringing said that she should feel sorry for someone losing his life in that horrific manner, but somehow it seemed that Marston Knight Junior had gotten as he had given. In life, he had been a terrorist of sorts, and it turned out that he’d died at the hands of terrorists.

An eye for an eye.

But Sister Anastasia insisted people didn’t get paid back for their sins while they were on earth. And she had read it for herself that the Lord said vengeance was His in the kingdom of Heaven.

But if he’s God, then it seems to me  He can take it out on the person wherever and whenever He wants, down here or once you cross over. He’s in charge of that, not us… I don’t care what the book says… He can do you whenever or wherever he wants to, if you’re acting crazy, and he’s sick of you… just make you come right on into the house and get yours. He’s God.

… it’s all too deep. My head hurts. I’m going to bed, for real.

Turning the corner from the loft library, she saw Marnie’s bedroom door was still closed, and there was no light coming from underneath it. But light from her den was shining out into that part of the otherwise darkened hall.

…ooh, sure am glad the Duchess isn’t up here right now. I knew I left the light on in my room when I went downstairs, but I didn’t think I’d left this one on. She’d be fussing and stuff, getting on my last nerve, being all on me about my ‘leaving lights on all over the place’… as if my daddy worries about light bills… some people just like to fuss….

But she decided to cut through the den to switch off the light and then return to her bedroom through the bathroom.

Jonathan carefully sifted through the assorted pieces neatly arranged on the daybed in search of anything out of the ordinary. Although he had been so sure, and had felt in his heart that there would be something, it appeared that he had been wrong. As hard as he had been dissecting and checking, scrutinizing every single component, there didn’t seem to be anything sinister or unusual in that dismantled bit of feminine technology.

“Daddy!”

Startled, he whipped around to find J.J. in the doorway, staring at the daybed over which he was standing. “What have you done!?”

“J.J.?” But her horrified expression rendered him speechless beyond acknowledging her presence.

Then she was next to him; he hadn’t even seen her cross the room.

She swept an outraged arm over the gutted remains of what had been her school project. “Why did you do that to her?” And then she took another step toward him.

“You could have just asked me, Daddy. Genie was mine. You didn’t have to do that to her. I would have told you if you had let me know that you were looking for something instead of trying so hard to keep stuff from me.”

She was crying and the sight of her tears, knowing that he caused them, savaged his heart. She snatched off the eye patch to wipe at her other eye and flinched in the effort, obviously having forgotten the extent of the injury to it.

“Men,” she spat up at him. “You think you know everything and can just run over anybody and how they feel to get what you want. I’m not stupid. For the past few days I could see you were onto something. You and I were together all morning. If you thought something was up with Genie, all you had to do was ask me. You know, I asked her to go easy on you, but my mother had a point, and she was right to have gone off on you like she did.”

She pulled something out of her robe pocket. Reaching for and grabbing his hand, she shoved whatever it was into his palm. Then she whirled away from him, around the foot of the daybed, and went into the bathroom. Seconds later the explosive slam of wood against wood let him know that she’d reached the other side and had shut him out of her world.

It was the second time that day that he had been cut off in that manner by one of the Hart women. Evidently he’d messed up again.

The room was spinning. Dropping into the chair by the window, he had to remind himself to breathe as he wiped the perspiration from his forehead.

First Jennifer. Now J.J.

Jeez….

Too tired and confused to focus on any one thing, it was a few minutes before he noticed the feel of a sharp edge pressing into the skin of his clenched hand.

_____________________________________________________________

After J.J. had been sent out and Claire had calmed some, Eva, who’d gotten up, suggested to Chris that it was time for her to call it a night.

“You’ve you’ve put yourself through too much, Ms. Allen. I have to insist.”

Claire pushed back from Chris, wiping at her eyes and attempting to compose herself. “She’s right. You need to get some rest. I’ll be okay. It’s you we need to be concerned about right now.”

Pat was already at the door leading back to the great room. “Let me see if August is still here so that he can help you with Chris.”

“I don’t need any help.”

Despite her protest, however, Chris made no effort to get up from the couch. Instead she leaned back into the cushions and closed her eyes again. “But if August is still here, I would like to talk with him.”

Jennifer got up from the chair and followed Pat to the door. “I’d better go and make sure that young one of mine hasn’t strayed off the path I sent her on. She’s not real good about keeping to the straight and narrow without adult supervision.”

In the great room, August and Bill were still at the bar. “I hope you saved some of that for us,” Pat said in a tone just above a whisper after closing the den door behind herself and Jennifer.

“We’ll both be needing it,” Jennifer seconded as she and Pat approached the men. “August would you mind helping Eva with Chris? She’s exhausted and she needs to get to bed. She should probably be driven out to the pool house rather than walking on her own out there. I think her head is still bothering her a lot.”

With one hand, Pat took the drink Bill had in front of him while she placed the other on August’s shoulder, causing him to look her in the eye. “She says she wants to speak with you.”

“Where’s Jonathan?” Jennifer asked as she accepted the ice water Bill pushed in front of her.

August slid off his stool, pulling his car keys from his pocket. “He went upstairs a while ago and hasn’t come back down. I’ll drive the car around the side and pick Chri- them up from there.” Grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair, he hurried to the front door.

In the meantime, Pat knocked back Bill’s drink in one swallow. Then she set the empty glass back down in front of him. “Did the Squirt come through here?”

“Few minutes ago,” Bill spoke while checking out the glass and his fiancée in awe. “She went up the back staircase. Damn, I just poured that one, Pat.”

“Pour another and then come on. I’m tired, and I want to go to bed. You drink too much anyway.”

“I drink too much? You want to go to bed?”

Pat was already on her way into the foyer; Bill got up and followed. “I’ve been out here all this time waiting for you because you wouldn’t let me go to bed. Now I have to go because you’re tired and want to go to bed. It’s always what you want.”

“Get used to it.” She didn’t stop walking and she didn’t turn around to say it. “That’s not subject to change because I am the queen. And just so you know, it will be what I want once we’re on the other side of the driveway tonight, too.”

Jennifer was amused to see how, hearing what Pat said, Bill picked up the pace and nearly pushed Pat through the front door. It was just closing when the loud slam over her head made her catch her breath and then had her taking the back stairs up to the loft two at a time.

_____________________________________________________________

“Go back to bed. It’s all right,” Jonathan was saying to Marnie at the door to her room.

“I heard a door slam, Mr. H. It was door wasn’t it? Not a gunshot.”

“You’re just dreaming, sweetheart,” he told her. “Go on back to bed.”

Jennifer eased him back and putting an arm around Marnie, she escorted her into the bedroom and the bed. “Go on back to sleep. You’re just tired.”

“I know I heard something, Mrs. H. It woke me up. Is everything okay?”

“It’s fine.” Jennifer pulled the covers up on the teenager and tucked them around her shoulders. “You have a lot to do tomorrow. You get your rest tonight.”

” ‘kay.” Marnie snuggled back down and closed her eyes.

Jennifer turned off the light and went back to the door where Jonathan was still standing, looking more haggard and worn out than she had ever seen him.

As soon as the door closed, Marnie pulled her cell phone from underneath the pillow and pressed that most-used speed dial button, the one she didn’t need light to locate.

Dream, my ass. Somebody is going to tell me something….

_____________________________________________________________

“Are you all right? Jonathan, what in the world is going on?”

“I think I might have found what everybody has been looking for.”

He spoke in a whisper as he took her by the arm and walked her up the hall and into their bedroom. When she turned on the light, he showed her what appeared to be some sort of computer part in the palm of his hand.

“Where? Oh, no, not Genie.”

He shook his head. “Genie’s mother. Where were you?”

“In the den with Chris and Claire. Tell me what happened.”

Jonathan sat down on the side of the bed, but she remained standing, taking concerned note of how listless and defeated he appeared.

“I came up here and took Genie apart to look for something- anything. I’ve had that strong hunch that whatever it was had to be with those dolls. Alice said as much, and that cemented it for me. It’s all been coming right back to those dolls. I got Genie broken down, but didn’t find anything. Then J.J. came up and saw what I had done. Jennifer, I swear I didn’t know she had become so attached to the thing. She’s never cared for dolls, and I mean, she was so against doing the project in the beginning. I wasn’t aware of how much things had changed for her. I didn’t think- I- I- just didn’t-”

She smoothed her hand across his brow and then lay it against his ashen cheek. “It wasn’t just that, Jonathan. She’s processing a lot of things right now, one of which is probably the fact that she disobeyed us. That doll’s demeanor has decidedly changed since the first days that J.J. had her, and we both know what a computer prodigy she’s always been. We had our suspicions. Did she get that thing out of the doll? What is it?”

When he took her hand and pressed his lips to her fingers, she sat down next to him.

“I believe it’s a processor of some kind, but I can’t be sure. New stuff comes out all the time, and I’m kind of removed from the nuts and bolts of things these days. I didn’t get a chance to ask her where it came from. She had it in her robe pocket. She gave it to me and ran away in tears. I’ve never made her cry before. Over a doll?” He shrugged, hung his head, and sighed. “Go figure.”

Jennifer wrapped her arm around his back. “It’s more than the doll, but I’ll fill you in on that later. Are you okay?”

“No, but there’s not a lot I can do about that right now. I’ve got to get to the bottom of all of this.”

“So what now? The lab?”

He turned to her, searching her eyes. “It’s nearly midnight.”

She smiled and then winked at him. “So when has the time of day ever stopped us when there’s work to be done?”

He brushed his lips against her cheek. “That’s why you will always be my girl. No matter what, you’re always there when I need you. Is August still here?”

“He’s here, but he’s busy with Chris.”

“I need to let security know that we’re coming into the facility. Downtown is as tight as a drum these days. Even I need top clearance to get in.”

“Then call August if you have to and just have him set it up. He doesn’t have to actually go with us. His people are in the building already. You and I won’t sleep until all of this is over anyway.” She ran a hand through his tousled hair, smoothing it out to its normal style. “And from the look of you, you could use a good rest. But you won’t get it until you can turn your mind off about all of this. Get your jacket, call Dr. Westlake, too, if you need for him to meet us there, since he’s the one who ran that last test and then let’s go.”

_____________________________________________________________

J., what the hell is going on? And ‘nothing’ is not the answer I want to hear.

“Crazy stuff, Marn.”

What kind of crazy stuff? Can I help? Need me to come over there?

“No, not now. Maybe after I’ve thought about it all some more.”

Was that you slamming that door that woke me up? Are you crying?

“Yeah, I slammed the door, but no, I’m not crying. Daddy took apart Genie, and I went off on him about it, that’s all.”

Went off on him? You, on your father? You’re lying about the crying, but I’ll let you have that. Why did you go off on him? You knew he was going to do it. He had it done to the rest of the dolls, so why would you think he wasn’t going to do it to Genie? I know it was probably a little disturbing to see her in parts like that. It was for me.

I didn’t tell you, J.,  but I saw Jaden’s cap and his outfit on the table when I looked through that window in the tool house. I knew it was him all taken apart like that, and seeing it kind of hurt my stomach some. But I figured your father must have had his reasons for ordering it like that. After all, you said that they’re his products, so that means he can take them apart if he wants or needs to. Maybe it was that they were defective or something and he didn’t want to come out and say that and scare the school or something. You know how people are so quick to sue over stuff like that, especially if they know you have something they can get.

J., you’re just tired, on drugs, and tripping. You need to go to bed.”

“Yeah, maybe so, Marnie. See you in the morning.”

In the morning, girlfriend. But if you need me before then, just hit the cell.

J.J. placed her phone on the night table, got off the bed where she had been lying in the dark on top of the covers, and went to sit in the bay window. Third, who had been on the bed with her, followed her to the window and jumped into her lap to finish getting his ears scratched while his mistress continued her contemplating.

There was no way that she was going to be able to go to sleep. Too much was going on in her head and in her heart. She had been angry at the sight of Genie, disassembled on the bed like some benign machine in need of inspection, but after all, just as Marnie said, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t been expecting it. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know that her father wasn’t onto something and those dolls were at the center of it. Everything had been building and leading up to it. And besides, Genie was a doll, not a real baby.

So why had she been so shocked and upset when it happened?

Because he had invaded her space to do it? Because he hadn’t asked to do it? Because in some way, it wasn’t right the way that he did it?

But then, she hadn’t been quite right about things either.

She shuddered at the thought of what her father would say to her once he had time to recover and put it all together. What would her mother say to her about taking off the way that she had on her father. Neither of them tolerated fits or tantrums or rudeness. Never had. The back of her head dully throbbing, she relaxed into the pillow propped against the window frame.

The motion lights flickered on outside, bathing the driveway below in light. Third alerted, his ears shooting straight up like darts from his furry head as he uttered a small warning “yip!” J.J. shushed him and sat back up to see what was going on. Her parents were down there, climbing into the Mercedes with her mother getting behind the wheel. The car started, the headlights came on, and they took off down the drive.

They’re probably going to the lab.

Her insides twisted into a hard, painful knot.

Too, too much drama… I know for sure I’m never going to sleep now….

Abandoning the window, she pulled back on her robe. Figuring a walk out back might do her some good, she put the eye patch over her injured eye. Then she slipped on a pair of footies and stepped into her slippers. Passing the desk on her way out of the room, as an afterthought and in search of solace, she looked into the printer tray.

Hmmm, I thought I left it there….but maybe I didn’t….

Sitting down at the computer, she pulled up the picture from where she’d saved it on the hard drive, sending it to the printer.

I remember printing it. I must have put it up someplace. I’m always doing that, hiding things from myself when I’m frazzled like this….

For a few moments, she took comfort in those eyes and those dimples. Then she folded the picture and put it in her robe pocket.

Picking up her cell and clipping Third to his leash, she went through the door, punching up Teddy’s number as she traveled the back hall and down the spiral stairs to the great room. To avoid Marie or anyone else who might still be up, she entered into the now empty den to make her way outside.

Like she could sometimes be, Teddy was a night owl. It was Saturday, and Brookfield Prep School gave its seniors an extended curfew on the weekends. He was probably still out and about, hanging somewhere in downtown Boston. She hoped he wasn’t on a date with some girl. She wanted him to be free to talk for a while with her about things that weren’t so deep, like she and Tommy might have done if he weren’t so far away and off limits.

_____________________________________________________________

As Jennifer drove, she snatched frequent, anxious glimpses at Jonathan. He had gotten into the car, immediately reclining his seat some to ride with his head back and his eyes closed. She could tell by the tension in his brow and from the set of his jaw that he was troubled.

He said that he made J.J. cry. That had to be killing him. One more thing heaped on his full plate, and at the moment J.J. was probably the only thing on his mind.

All of her life, Jonathan’s aim for his only child had been to keep her happy and content. As her “Daddy”, he spoiled J.J., indulged her, made her laugh. Because she was so clever, he taught her things she had no business learning, and thus often ended up conspiring with her to cover up things neither of them had any business doing. At times he’d had to be her father and reign her in or discipline her, which he had no real problem doing, but this had to be the first time that he’d angered and upset her enough to make her cry.

He couldn’t know her tears probably weren’t entirely the result of something he’d done. J.J., in her intelligence was consequently immensely insightful, sometimes too much so for her own good. After all that she had been made privy to that evening, it wouldn’t have taken much for her to form the analogy in her head of Chris’ violation of her person by a man to her own violation of her personal space- by a man. No matter that the man in her situation was her beloved father.

From the time she could form a substantiated opinion on the subject, probably beginning with kindergarten when she began mixing daily with other children, J.J. had never held the male species in general in very high regard. She resented the universal double standards applied to the sexes, and being forced to conform to society’s ideas of what a girl should be.  Because so much of her upper academic life was spent in the company of males, being made to constantly prove herself in that world, she was especially sensitive to any one of them doing to her what she did not choose to have done. She made no secret of her feelings on the matter, and had to some extent, already publicly established her firm position along those lines, earning the respect of both her peers and adults. Everyone in her immediate circles were well aware that J.J. was a girl around whom casual disparaging remarks about females should not be made. In that, J.J. Hart, in her mother’s estimation, was already on her way to being a powerful woman.

Only a precious few were aware of the very vulnerable little girl that resided behind that deceptively tough facade, that pretty face, and underneath all that hair. Inside that young woman’s body, J.J. was still very much a child, one who was slowly, but carefully, feeling her way to adulthood, and for that Jennifer was grateful.

Everything in it’s own time, in it’s own season…

Poor Chris… in either place, hers or her mother’s, I don’t know what I would have….

Oh God, please continue to allow my girl time to grow up… with me….

J.J. loved her father, but up in that room, for those few moments, he had been just another man running roughshod over a female. Jonathan’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

Jennifer sighed with her understanding of J.J. and in sympathy for the pain the misunderstanding was causing her husband.

“It wasn’t you, Jonathan. She wasn’t angry with you.”

“You weren’t there. You didn’t see her face. You didn’t hear what she said.”

“What did she say?”

“I don’t even really remember. All I can see is her face and that she was crying.”

“It wasn’t you she was angry with, darling.”

“You weren’t there, Jennifer.”

“Yes, I know I wasn’t. But I do know what was going on in her head. You see, she was with me in the den with Chris and Claire. Chris told us what happened to her that caused her to have Claire at thirteen.”

He sat all the way up, his wide eyes reflecting in flashes the street lamps they were passing. “Thirteen?”

With one hand to his chest, she pressed him into reclining again. “Sit back.” But she could feel him continuing to stare in awe in her direction.

“Can you tell me what she said?”

By the time they were being waved into the parking garage by Hart security, the sheets of tissue Jonathan had been pulling from the console to wipe at his forehead and neck had been pressed into a hard, damp lump in his sweaty palm.

_____________________________________________________________

Clicking off, J.J. stuck the phone down in the pocket of her robe. Teddy hadn’t picked up. More than likely, he and his cell weren’t in the same place. They seldom were.

I don’t even know why he has a cell for all the good it does him. He’d do better with a pager, but then it, too, would be buzzing in the darkness somewhere, on its own. He wouldn’t have that with him either.

The night air was crisp. Pulling up her collar, she was glad for her full length terry cloth robe and for having the presence of mind to put the socks on. She liked taking walks by herself on cool evenings. The estate was heavily fortified on all sides, so she never feared for her personal safety. She usually had Third with her when she cut out like that, and although he was tiny and would be little physical help to her should something happen, he was very observant. He’d let her know in enough time in the unlikely event they should both need to take off and run.

Leaving the deck, she took the walkway that led to the back end, past the pool, and toward the mountains. In the daytime, she preferred walking out to the gazebo in the big garden, but she liked it out back at night. The wrought iron bench was a good place for a girl with a lot on her mind to sit and think. Her father had those powerful lights installed into the side of the hill, and at night they shone up and out into the distance, making the scenery on that end breathtaking and almost surreal.

Daddy.

When her stomach began to tighten, she pushed his face to a dark place in the back of her mind.

Passing the pool house, she noticed that the lights were on, and Mr. Lamb’s car was still there. She wondered if Chris was going to tell him about her and Claire.

Probably. It’s out there now.

And it struck her as strange how much she’d seen of Mr. Lamb on the grounds of Willow Pond ever since Chris had her accident. Of course, the 9/11 thing had gone down right after that, putting everyone on point, including the security on Willow Pond. But for some reason, he seemed to make it his business to be where Chris was.

Maybe I’m just imagining that….

Unh- uh, I don’t have much of an imagination. Never have….

She craned her neck at the pool house window as she passed by. The blinds were drawn; she couldn’t see anything. But the plate on that car said it was definitely his.

In-n-n-n-n-teresting….

Third tugged her over to the bushes and as she waited for him, she wondered what would happen with Octavia. And that technician, Alice Rangel. It sounded as if she had been roped in. Octavia; however sounded as if she was in deep. After all, she seemed to be involved in the murders.

I wish they had told more about that part of it.

But maybe it was good that they hadn’t. The bits she’d been told were heavy enough.

Twelve.

Although she was now sixteen, she could remember twelve. At twelve, the big event had been getting caught in the gazebo kissing Tommy.  When her mother walked up on them, catching them in the act, she thought the earth would open up and swallow her whole. It didn’t, but the incident changed her. She hadn’t forgotten it or the subsequent talk she’d had with her mother about saving her kisses for the right person at the right times and for the right reasons.

At the same age, Chris had been raped- by what amounted to a grown man in relation to her- and made pregnant. No matter how hard her parents tried to cover it up and make her life what it should have been, having that happen to her had been the end of Chris’ childhood.

For herself, she tended to divide her own young life into before and after- before age fourteen and after. It was at fourteen that the light had come on and things were forever changed in her mind… when her mother almost died because of her.

It wasn’t your fault.

That’s just what they told you to make you feel better. You know what you did.

You saved her life.

I’m the reason she almost lost it.

Then she pushed those thoughts away as well.

Tugging at the leash, forcing Third to break off his olfactory affair with the shrubbery, she continued on down the walkway, moving away from the main house, the pool house, and toward the back end. Without the buildings and with the scarcity of trees in that area, it was becoming breezier down there. With her free hand, she pulled closed the lapels of her robe against her bare chest. As she did so, in the distance,  she thought she could see someone standing at the rail that bordered the “drop off” end of the estate, the one that kept a person from falling over the abrupt edge of the hill into which those lights had been imbedded.

She stopped to make out who it might be.

The figure was that of a woman. She left the rail, went to the bench, and sat down. From the dark outfit and the flipped ponytail, she could tell that it was Claire.

Thinking that perhaps she might want to be by herself, and still not quite sure how she felt about her, J.J. turned around with the intention of starting back.

“J.J.? Is that you?”

When she turned back around in response to being called, she found that the woman had stood up again and was beckoning to her. “Don’t let me run you off.”

J.J. scooped Third up in her arms to keep him from jumping on or sniffing out Claire once they got to her, and she started again in that direction.

“I didn’t want to disturb you. I was just taking my dog for a little walk,” she said when she reached the bench.

Claire held out her arms. “He’s so cute. May I hold him? I love dogs.”

Taking a second to size her up, J.J. handed Third to Claire and sat down on the bench, arranging her robe to keep the air off her legs. “I love dogs, too. Dogs and horses.”

Claire sat down with Third, scratching at his ears. He curled up in her lap, making himself comfortable, lifting his head to shoot Claire a look that said, “Keep it coming, girlie.”

J.J. shook her head at him. “He’s so spoiled, it’s not funny. Just plain ruined.”

Although it was late night, the lamp over their heads and the spotlights made seeing each other easy. J.J. took the opportunity to study Claire. It was the first time that she had been that close to her.

“What?”

Caught off guard, J.J. immediately looked down in embarrassment. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. I just can’t help noticing how much you look like Chris.”

Claire smiled. “I was checking you out with your mother when we were in the den. You look an awful lot like her, but it’s funny, I can see your father in you, too.”

“Really? The blue eyes, right?”

“Yes, but not so much the color. I know he has blue eyes, but it’s the way you look at people. You and your father look at people the same way. It- it almost hurts.”

“Hurts?”

“Um-hmm. I can’t explain it, but it’s clear you’re his kid. You move and you ask questions like him, too.”

“You know my father that well?”

“I met him, close up and personal, not too long ago. He came to see me, was trying to help me, but I wouldn’t let him at the time. I didn’t know him, so I didn’t trust him. But he’s very handsome and quite persuasive. I’m just extremely stubborn, as you’ve probably heard and figured out for yourself.”

J.J. wanted to ask Claire more about her encounter with Jonathan Hart. Where had he come to see her? What had he asked? Under what circumstances had he come? But when Claire didn’t offer any more than she had, J.J. didn’t feel comfortable asking any of those questions. Instead she went to a place the two of them had already sort of  gone.

“You were on a mission, Claire. You had something you wanted to find out. I might have done some of the same stuff in your place.”

“Who were you talking about when you said that to me about understanding someone wanting to find their people, J.J.?”

J.J. kept it casual, checking out her fingernails, rubbing at them with the pad of her thumb. “Nobody in particular. I just wonder sometimes about my grandparents, my mother’s mother and my father’s parents. All of them were gone before I was born. I wish I could have met them, that’s all.”

She could feel Claire staring at her, as if she were trying to see if there was more to what she said. But that was all she was giving up. She wasn’t sure how much Claire knew about her father, if she knew about him being an orphan and all. To talk about her feelings on the matter, to say what she planned to do and when, would be telegraphing her moves, a thing she didn’t believe in doing, especially with a person she didn’t really know. She didn’t believe in luck, but she did believe that talking too much about a plan in development could throw a “spanner”, as Pa termed it, into the works.

“You just seem such a secure kid, J.J. Surrounded by lots of strong, influential people. Living like this, I wouldn’t expect that you would have an understanding for something like that. It seems like you have it made.”

J.J. smiled. People who couldn’t know otherwise were always saying that to her.

“It’s all relative, Claire. You have always had the same; like you said, you just didn’t realize it until recently.” J.J. remained on her end of the bench, but rested her arm across the bench of it, inclining her body a bit more toward Claire. “May I ask you something? You can tell me to buzz off if I’m being too personal.”

“Go ahead.”

“Are you sad about your father? I mean, after all that happened?”

Claire hesitated, seemingly considering her response before she spoke. “About M.J. being dead? I don’t think so. After all’s said and done like it is, I think I’m happier that it’s my grandfather who’s still with me. I just hope he doesn’t hold it against me that M.J. lost his life coming after me.”

“I don’t think he meant you any good. M.J., I mean. Maybe your grandfather knew that he didn’t and that’s why he went to New York. You know, to warn you or something.”

Claire sighed and sat back, still hugging Third, “I don’t know. I can’t worry about that now. I’m more concerned about what’s going on here. I have a lot of fence mending to do with Chris.”

“One more thing.”

“What?”

“Did you look anything like M.J.? When you got to meet him, could you see yourself in him?”

“Do you see yourself in your father, J.J.?”

“Yeah, the color of our eyes, the things we like to do, and a lot in the way that we think.”

The question and her own answer to it started J.J.’s stomach churning again. She had to close her eyes for a moment and will it to stop. While she did so, she could hear Claire’s wistful response.

“Yeah. I think those last two things you said were M.J. and me, unfortunately. As far as looks go, he and Chris have similar physical features; dark eyes, hair, tall and slim, I could be either of them, but I guess in looks overall I am more like Chris. Do you ever wish you were more like your mother in the things you like to do and how you think? She seems like a kind and very genuine person. I know she’s talented. I’ve read some of her stuff.”

“In ways, Claire, but not really. I love my mother for who and how she is. I suppose I’d like to one day be the type of lady she is and be respected like her, but that’s about it. Looking like her is enough. She’s her, and I’m me, we kind of meet in the middle. What about you?”

Again, Claire was staring her down in that odd way she had in the den. “Damn, you’re awfully sure of yourself for somebody so young.”

J.J. negated that with a wave of her hand. “Not really. There’s just some things I’ve come to terms with. Been forced to. But you go ahead. Your turn. What about you? Do you wish you were more like Chris?”

“Until all of this happened, I used to think that the last person on earth I wanted to be like was Chris. Now I understand that the person I should have been modeling myself on, and that I probably have been modeling myself on without knowing it, is Chris.”

“You say ‘Chris’. You call her ‘Chris’ all the time. She’s not your mother to you, is she?”

Claire shook her head. “Chris gave birth to me, but my mother is dead. In my mind, in my life, my grandmother was my mother. Big Chris, my grandfather, was my father. But knowing what I know now, I have to wonder how they really felt about me. Chris is more than a sister to me, but she’s not my mother. She was too young. I really wasn’t supposed to be.”

“Yes, you were. If you weren’t, then you wouldn’t be here. Things happen how they’re supposed to happen. Your grandparents had to love you. If they didn’t you would have felt it. You said you knew you didn’t fit, but you also said that they didn’t treat you any differently. You can’t fake love, Claire. If they had been faking it, you would have known, and you would have said.”

J.J. broke off talking to slowly shake her own head. “Forgive me, but this has all been so weird. A whole lot to take in.” Then she caught herself and quickly added, “But I’m sure it was a whole lot more to have lived through.”

Once again, Claire began staring J.J. down, this time looking her right in the eyes, causing J.J. to flinch and ask, “What?”

Claire spoke slowly, her tone sincere and serious. “You are so fortunate. You have it made, J.J. You live like this. You can have whatever your parents will allow you to have. You’re smart and you’re cute. On top of all of that, you have a mother who obviously loves you and protects you. And to finish it all, you have a father who has been crazy about you all of your life. I can remember when I used to see you when he would have you with him at HartToy. You were a very little girl, and you were busy- just all over the place, but he was so proud of you. He took you all around, showed you off, could hardly take his eyes off you. I could tell you were going to be a smart girl. You looked like your mother even then, so I knew you would be pretty. Jonathan Hart was your father. The kind of man he is, with the kind of love he had for you, you couldn’t help but turn out all right. It’s important for a girl that she has a good father.”

J.J. felt as if she’d been punched in the gut by Claire’s words, but she managed to stutter, “Was big Chris, your grandfather, was he good to you?”

“Yes,” Claire answered, going back to fiddling with her hands and her fingers the way J.J noticed that both she and Chris did when the subject they were discussing was difficult. “Looking back on it, the best. I was young when he was killed, but I remember. I had a very good foundation with both of my grandparents. Considering how I got here, they had to be terrific people to have accepted me the way that they did. Then Chris took over and was a very good conductor herself. I chose to go off the track.

“Don’t make stupid mistakes like me, J.J. Stay the course that’s being drawn for you. Don’t ever purposely hurt the people who love you.”

“I think Chris forgives you.”

With one hand, Claire reached over and pulled on the lapels of J.J.’s robe, securing them more tightly against her chest. “You should go back. It’s pretty cool out here. And what did happen to your eye?”

“I got hit in it this morning. We were having a school picnic and LA East invaded us, trying to kidnap our dolls. They were HartToy, so you know I wasn’t having it. A projectile of some kind caught me and then I hit my head and knocked myself out.”

Claire grimaced and then grinned. “Homecoming? Footfall season? Mascot crap?”

“Yeah,” J.J. said, beaming in naughty collusion. “You know about that?”

“Been caught up in a couple of homecoming fights myself.” Claire rolled her eyes to the heavens. “Boy, those were the days. I was a cheerleader, and I always dated a quarterback or linebacker or somebody else big on the team- changed boyfriends like socks back then- so you know I had to be right up in the thick of things. Even got picked up in a sweep once, after a game went really bad. August had to get me out of the clink. The cop was a friend of his, and they got it swept under the table. Of course, Chris gave me hell, fussing about she sent me to good schools to avoid that kind of thing. High school is high school. Kids are kids. It doesn’t matter about the school. Things happen.”

J.J. laughed. “Yep. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid the getting picked up part of it though. Lady Luck really does stick by me. I probably would have been hauled in with the others this morning if I hadn’t been unconscious at the time.”

“That really isn’t funny, J.J.” But by that time, Claire was chuckling, too.

“Then why are you laughing? You know how it is.”

“I shouldn’t be telling you things like this. Not after all I’ve put you and your family through. Now here I am corrupting you with my high school stories.”

“I’m glad you did, though,” J.J. said, taking Third back from Claire and setting him on the ground. “Shows you’re human. I needed to see that side of you. Thanks. Can I ask you one more thing?”

Claire was already on her feet, and she looked down on J.J. who was still seated. “What’s that?”

“Your friend, Alice Rangel-”

“She’s going to be okay, I think. Chris will look out for her like she does me.”

“And your friend, Octavia?'”

“She’s not my friend.”

“Your acquaintance, then. What happened to her? Is she the one who Eva shot?”

“Yes. She’s in bad shape, but Eva didn’t shoot to kill her. She shot to stop her from hurting Jennifer or Chris. But I wish-” Claire cut herself off and looked away.

“I know,” J.J. said as she stood up and put a hand on Claire’s arm to get her attention. “Me, too.”

At the pool house, they parted company. August Lamb’s car was still parked in front.

J.J. was on her way back to the main house when the phone began buzzing against her hip.

_____________________________________________________________

When the buzzing on the night table next to her head woke Marnie, for a moment she was confused by the dimness around her. Even with the night light it was too dark to be time to get up. She raised her head to check the clock, and remembered out loud to herself, “Two hours. I have to wake up J,” and that’s when she noticed that it was the cell not the clock that was buzzing. Irritated, she snatched it up and checked the number, “Teddy?”, and clicked it on.

“This is Marnie. What?”

“Marnie. Teddy here. Look, I need you to check on J.J for me.”

“I was going to. I don’t need you waking me up to tell me what to do. I’ve got the clock set to do it every two hours.”

“Why do you have to check on her every two hours? Is she sick or something? I knew she wasn’t sounding right. What’s wrong with her? Is she sick, I asked you?”

“No, no, she’s not sick. You had her on the phone with you, and she stopped talking?”

“Yeah, she had called me, but I was out and didn’t have the phone with me-”

“Naturally.”

“When I got in, I saw she had phoned, and I hit her back. We were talking. She was sounding kind of funny, sort of slurring her words, and then she just stopped talking. Is she okay? Why are you checking on her every two hours? I tried calling her back, but I can’t get through. Nobody’s picking up on her house line either. All I could think of was to phone you.”

Without answering him about the every two hour thing, but assuring him she’d call him back when she knew something, Marnie hung up from Teddy, switched on the lamp and got up. Pulling on her robe and stepping into her slippers, she opened the bedroom door and went across the hall, into J.J.’s den. Turning on the light to be able to see, the parts that had been Genie were still spread out on the daybed, and despite her concern for J.J., for a moment she felt bad for J.J.’s father.

J.J. could be something else when riled up, and she had become pretty attached to Genie, especially once she got her “adjusted”. Mr. H. had probably been so rattled by J.J.’s going off on him that he didn’t even think to ask her what she knew about Genie or if she had done something to her. J.J. hadn’t said what her father’s reaction had been. The whole scene had to have been pretty bad for it to have made J.J. cry.

Don’t ask, don’t tell; ignorance is bliss. J.J. hadn’t ever shared with her what she’d done to get Genie to “act right”, and she hadn’t asked. Doing it that way meant that no lies had to be told. If she didn’t know the particulars, she certainly couldn’t say what happened, and that was exactly how she liked it.

On her way out of the den, entering the bathroom, she switched off the light in the room she was leaving. Opening the bathroom door which led into J.J.’s room, she found the bedside lamp still on, but the bedcovers were rumpled as if J.J. had been lying there but had gotten up. Her robe and slippers were absent, as was J.J.

Where is that girl? It’s the middle of the night, and she’s somewhere bumping around with that medication in her system. She’s supposed to be injured, up here, and in the bed for me to wake up. Teddy said she was slurring her words. Judging by his questions, she hasn’t said anything to him about what happened to her. That girl is somewhere asleep… at least I hope it’s that she’s asleep….

The last time that they’d talked, J.J. had been upset. Maybe, Marnie figured, J.J. couldn’t sleep at that point, and she went downstairs to watch television. J.J. had been resting or asleep for a good portion of the day, and then when she was asleep, she had been being awakened off and on. Her regular slumber patterns had to have been thrown off. Maybe she went downstairs and fell asleep talking to Teddy down there.

The house was quiet as she took the front hall down to the main staircase. One of the master bedroom doors was open, which meant that Mr. and Mrs. H. couldn’t possibly be in there. They never left the doors open when they slept. Often, if they were in there together during the day, they closed the doors behind them. If the door was open like that, and the lights were off as they were, then nobody was in there.

She peeked over the banister that looked down into the foyer, trying to hear if anyone might be in the great room. When she couldn’t detect any voices, she went on down the stairs. She peeked out of the front window and saw that Mrs. H.’s car was gone.

They must have taken off again.

Then she continued into the great room. The lamp on the nearest end table was on, but no one was in the room. She checked the den, but the lights, as well as the television, were turned off. She flipped on the overhead light to be sure, but J.J. was not in there on the couch or in the big chair.

Not wishing to chance waking Marie, she only peeked into the kitchen. It, too, was dark, so J.J. obviously wasn’t in there. Going back into the great room, she climbed up into the bay window behind the piano and pushed the curtains back to check the pool area, but there was no movement out there. J.J. was so unpredictable, but with that eye and the time of the year that it was, it wasn’t likely that she would take a nocturnal swim.

Her concern increasing as to where J.J. might have gone, Marnie went to the front door, Not fond of darkness, especially being on her own as she was, she only ventured out as far as the driveway. She looked down one side and then the other, but there was no sign of J.J. or of anyone else for that matter. The front grounds, as far as she could see were quiet and serene.

Wherever she is, Third must be with her. That’s something.

When J.J. moved, Third generally went with her. Marnie noted that he hadn’t been in J.J.’s bedroom when she had gone in there, and he hadn’t come out of any corner he might have been sleeping in to see what she was doing as she passed through the house.

Why would in the world would she be out here, walking the damned dog in the middle of the night?

“What in the world are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

The spoken question, practically echoing her thoughts, had Marnie jumping out of her own skin.

It was Bill, standing in the doorway in his pajamas, calling across from the guest house. Marnie, fortified by his presence and her trust in him, high-tailed it over there to the doorstep.

“Looking for J. She’s not over here, is she?”

“No, as far as Pat and I knew she was in the house when we left from over there.”

A disheveled and sleepy-looking Pat pushed her way from behind Bill. “What’s going on?”

When Marnie looked uneasily to the ground, Bill answered for her. “She says J.J. is missing from the house.”

“What do you mean she’s missing?”

“She’s not in the house, Aunt Pat,” Marnie reluctantly admitted. “I looked everywhere inside except down in the wine cellar. I’m not going down there by myself, and I don’t know why she would either at this time of night. Teddy called me. He said he was talking with her, but then all of a sudden she stopped, and he couldn’t get her back on the phone.”

Pat grabbed Bill by the arm and pulled him back in the house. Seconds later they were back, dressed in their robes and slippers.

“What time was it when Teddy called you?” Pat asked as she stalked across the driveway toward the main house. “The last thing Jen told J.J. was to go to bed. You two can drive somebody absolutely crazy. I could strangle you both with my bare hands. You’ve been on my nerves all day, just one thing after the damned other.”

Marnie had to skip-walk to keep up with her. “He just called. I got right up to go look for her. I didn’t even do anything this time, Aunt Pat. Teddy called, I already had the clock set to do her two hour wake up, but when I went in her room, she was gone.”

But Pat wasn’t hearing it. “You know good and well it’s two for one, Marnicia Elaine Benson. If I do one of you, I’m doing both of you. When I find J.J. Hart, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

“But that’s not fa-”

“I said hush.”

Bill followed both of them, carrying a flashlight that he’d brought out of the guest house with him. Just as they all crossing the drive, two headlight beams illuminated the sky as a car crested the bridge and started down the hill toward them, coming from the direction of the front gate.

_____________________________________________________________

Driving back from the Hart Towers, home to Bel Air, Jonathan hadn’t said a word. In the passenger’s seat this time, Jennifer was better able to keep an eye on him. His cheeks had not regained their normal ruddiness; in fact, his entire face was still as drained of color as it had become when the mainframe in the dummy lab at Hart fried right before their eyes once Dr. Westlake inserted the item that J.J. had turned over to her father. They’d found it, the piece containing that malicious, destructive code that was drawn up in those papers Jonathan and August had found and which had been replicated in dummy lab #1 earlier that week.

Chris said that she remembered finding the papers in Rider’s office and sticking them down inside her shirt right before being struck. She didn’t remember putting them in the door of her car, but she said it had to have been an automatic move on her part because that was where Jonathan had found them inside that folder along with that list of names and businesses written in code. M.J. and maybe some of his cohorts had huge plans for shutting down Los Angeles. Had that been part of the terrorist action that had fortunately malfunctioned? Or had it been the actions of one sick mind? Whatever it was, it was in the hands of the police and the FBI at that point.

But J.J. Hart had obviously been walking around with that thing for several days, an item for which people were willing to kill.

From looking at him, she couldn’t tell if Jonathan was angry or afraid. Although fear wasn’t an emotion characteristic of him, her bet was on the latter. The things that had been going on in his public and his private life weren’t typical, and they had been enough to elicit that reaction in him. This latest thing directly involved J.J., and in the past hours, he had been put through some perilous paces when it came to her.

Earlier in the week, Jonathan told her that she, Pat, J.J., and Marnie were being followed by someone. J.J., he said, had even taken note of it and had let him in on what she had seen. It seemed Pat had pulled his coat on it, too. She considered herself to be observant, but on top of being observant, both Pat and J.J. were naturally suspicious, a tendency she did not share with them, so they tended to notice things that she didn’t. She hadn’t seen what they saw and told Jonathan about, but he and his security people had been on top of it the entire time. Thank heavens for all of them.

The idea that J.J. was actually in possession of what these people might have wanted, and that she hadn’t told anyone about it, had to be frightening to him. J.J. couldn’t have known what she had.

Or could she? J.J. was plenty smart, but also plenty protective. She knew that there was a lot going on with the adults in her life. They all had their problems and their various concerns in the terrible week before. J.J. knew that her father had a lot on his mind. Maybe she had been waiting for the proper moment.

It was good that it was late and the streets were relatively clear. She hoped if they got stopped, that it wasn’t by a cop Jonathan didn’t know, or by one who didn’t recognize him. That wouldn’t be pretty.

Why were you speeding, sir?

Because I’m in a god—-d hurry, and because I am, you need to be in one, too. Just give me the f—–g ticket and let me be on my way.

Then he’d take off, burning rubber, in the same hurry he had been in before being stopped. For such a normally charming, congenial man, under the right set of stressful circumstances her husband could do a complete and totally shocking about-face.

From where and how had J.J. gotten hold of that thing? How long had she had it? What had she done with it in the time that she had it before turning it over to her father? It wouldn’t have been unlike her to have examined or poked around with it. However that girl had come by it, for certain she had utilized one of her “loopholes” to do it. J.J. was not deliberately disobedient, but she was creative. If she got it out of that doll, then it wouldn’t have been unlike her to have employed someone else, Hector most likely, to do the dissection while she orchestrated his moves. Hector was good with his hands, had been eager enough to get back on J.J.’s good side to go along with whatever she said, and he was oblivious enough to not have given the operation a second thought once the deed was done.

Yep, it had to have been Hector. And a loophole.

Security had the gates swinging open as soon as they pulled up to them, and she breathed a sigh of relief. They had made it home safely and without incident.

“Jonathan, are you angry with her?”

He continued staring straight ahead as he traversed the winding main road to the house. “I don’t know if I’m angry with her, scared of her, or if I should kiss her. One thing’s for sure, she and I have to talk.”

“You can’t be confrontational with her.”

“I’m her father. I can be what I need to be.”

“She’ll shut you down.”

“And I’ll turn her over my knee. She’s not too big or too old for it. And by the way-”

He dug down in his pocket, flipped on the vanity light over their heads, and handed her a folded paper, which she opened.

“What happened to his wrist?”

“His wrist? The hell with that! Where is his shirt? Where’re his shoes? Why is he sending her beefcake shots of himself? Why is she printing them out? In color?”

“Where did you get this?”

“From her printer.”

“While you were in her room when you weren’t supposed to be, doing things she’s told you  she felt you didn’t have a right to do?”

“It’s my house. I did have a right and a reason to do what I did. And let’s not forget, she’s my- our daughter.”

“It’s her space, Jonathan. It’s her choice. Your taking the picture doesn’t change the reason why she thought it important enough to keep, Tommy is her friend; she misses him. You took that one, but how much do you want to bet she’s probably already printed out another one?”

“Tommy is seventeen. I keep telling you, I know what it’s like to be seventeen and male. Nothing short of predator.”

“And I keep telling you, J.J. is J.J. She is sixteen years old, smart, stubborn, and opinionated. Whatever she’s going to do or not do at this point is no longer up to you or me. She does what her head and her heart tell her to do. The incident this evening with that chip or whatever should be case in point. She’s not someone you can dictate to, and you, being her father, know that.”

She took a second look at the picture and smiled. “Besides, I don’t think this was intentional ‘beefcake’, as you call it. This is classic Tommy and J.J. They’ve always been informal, in fact quite casual and comfortable with each other, but supportive. She sent him a picture of herself this morning, showing him she hurt her eye. He probably sent this back to her to show her she wasn’t alone in being injured. So, what happened to him?”

“Fee says he fell off a ladder and fractured his wrist. Not a bad fracture, but it had to be set just the same to insure it heals correctly.”

“I see you cared enough to phone his grandmother to find out.”

“What can I say? He’s still my boy, but I’ll bet you I’ll yank his chain about my daughter just the same as I would any of the others. He’d better be glad he’s in Spain.”

She refolded the picture, reached over and pushed it back into his pocket. Then she sat back, thinking to herself, “That boy’s mother and grandmother knew what they were doing. And so did you, Jonathan Hart, whether you want to admit it or not.”

As they came down on the other side of the bridge hill, they were surprised to see people out front. Pat, Bill, and Marnie, all three of them froze in place as the car approached.

“What’s going on?” Jennifer wondered aloud. “Why are they out here? What’s Bill doing with a flashlight?”

She let the window down to speak with Pat. “What’s happening?”

“Probably nothing,” Pat answered as she bent at the waist to address both of them. “Marnie said the Squirt’s missing from the house.”

Jonathan’s eyes darted past Pat as if he were already looking for his daughter. “This late?”

Jennifer leaned back a bit to see around Pat. “You’re sure you looked all through the house, Marnie?”

“Yes, ma’am. I looked in all the places I thought she might go. Except the wine cellar. I wasn’t going down there by myself. I didn’t figure her for being down there anyway. Teddy said he was talking to her, and then she stopped talking. He got worried and called me to go and look in on her. When I did, she was gone.”

Jennifer’s mind began flashing snapshots of the other places on the estate to which J.J. might venture. What was disturbing was that J.J. had always had a tendency to fall asleep in odd places, and she was generally a very sound sleeper. With that medication in her system, she could be deeply slumbering anywhere on the grounds. But then, they did have other guests, ones that child of theirs would definitely pay a nocturnal visit if provided the opportunity. “Did anyone check out at the pool house?”

“We’ll go,” Bill said, reaching for Pat to take her with him.

“She might have gone out to the gazebo,” Marnie offered. “She was having some issues earlier when we talked. She might have gone out there to think or write or something.”

“It’s kind of cool out here for that.” Jennifer reached out to draw Marnie to her. “Was the dog in the house?”

“No, Mrs. H. He must be wherever she is. He’s definitely not around. If he was, he would have come out when I was going around the inside of the house.”

“That girl, that girl, that girl, ” Jennifer sighed, getting out of the car. After closing the door, she leaned back inside the open window to Jonathan, catching the worried, guilt-ridden look in his eyes. “I’ll go in and check the surveillance camera out by the gazebo. Don’t worry, darling. She’s here somewhere. No matter how upset she might have been, she’s not one to run off. She promised me a long time ago that she never would again.”

Then she turned back to Marnie. “You come on back inside with me and go up to bed. We’ll find her.”

As the others went in their separate directions, Jonathan pulled the car up and parked in front of the house. Pat and Bill had gone around the side of the house where the guest house and the small gardens were located. He decided to check out the other side.

He was passing by the lit pool area when, from the corner of his eye, movement caught his attention: a set of small pointed ears and then hairy eyebrows peeked up from one of the chaise lounges that was faced away from him. Then the dog jumped over the arm and bounded, more like bounced, across the lawn, over to him.

He bent down and allowed Third to jump up into his arms.

“Hey boy,” he whispered as he gave Third’s ears a quick, but deep scratching. “Is that your mistress you’re keeping an eye on over there?”

J.J. was all the way down in the chair, curled up and fast asleep. Third’s leash hung from the arm of the chair, and J.J.’s flip cell phone lie open in the grass where it had evidently slipped from her ear and fallen.

Well, looks like that Teddy got left hanging, too. Not even the guys can win out when sleep calls for this girl.

Putting the dog down, he squatted next to the chair, first picking up and shutting down the phone, tucking it into his jacket pocket and then attaching Third back to his tether.

“Hey,” he whispered into J.J.’s ear as he lightly smoothed his hand over her head. “You. Wake up.”

She stirred a little. He squeezed her shoulder.

“Hey. It’s me. What’re you doing out here? Wake up.”

Without opening her eyes, she reached up and wound an arm around his neck, pulling him to her.

“I’m so sorry, Daddy. Please forgive me.” Then she pressed a kiss to his cheek and hugged him again.

All he could do was hug her back and tell her, “It’s okay”, while thinking to himself, “Me, too.”

_____________________________________________________________

When her parents finally left her, J.J. remained seated cross-legged on her bed for a few minutes, processing everything.

She’d had an idea about it all, but then she really hadn’t.

As she explained to them, she suspected that there had been something about the dolls that was worrying to her father; he hadn’t taken down those serial numbers from Jaden and Genie in the great room that day for no reason. She had removed something, or rather had something removed, from inside Genie that shouldn’t have been there, which had apparently had been interfering with her functioning. But she hadn’t put any of that together until that earlier that very afternoon when Marnie told her about the other dolls having been taken apart in the tool house. That was when realized she might have stumbled upon something. But there had been nobody to tell except Daddy, and by then he was already gone, evidently to take matters in his own hands. And then, too, who knew at that point?

He had been afraid for her. He was trying to hide it when he had been in there talking with her, but she could tell that he had been. People had gotten killed, he said, and others had tried to kill over what he believed was that one little component.

“Did you try to run it, J.J.?”

“Of course not. I wasn’t going to risk my system plugging in and running something I didn’t know anything about. You’ve always taught me not to experiment like that. You said that was what the dummy labs at Hart were for.”

“So what had you planned to do with it?”

“Actually nothing. I didn’t think anything of it. Genie was acting more like normal, so I really had forgotten about it. I guess if this stuff hadn’t happened, once I thought about it again, I would have eventually given it to Dr. Westlake when you guys let me go back to Hart and to the lab. I probably would have shown it to him right off if I hadn’t been so locked down at the time.”

“Speaking of locked down, Justine-”

That had been her mother, dredging up the technicalities of how she had come by the part in the first place. As it turned out, the Duchess had already given it some thought and figured it out:

“una escapatoria…con ayuda de Hector”

– a loophole with an assist from Hector, her Puerto Rican ex-baby’s daddy. Jennifer Hart had been dead on in her assumption. The only thing she didn’t have was where the act took place and when, but of course, those things were of no concern to her. Her aim had been to make a public issue of the exploitation of said loophole.

But her explanation, which had been the absolute truth, seemed to have saved her skin- and her butt from what could have been a certain harsh sentencing.

“I know you two told me not to open her up and fiddle with her. And you have to admit now, if you look at this thing technically, it wasn’t me who opened her up.”

“Technically,” the Duchess said. “It will be me closing you down if this story doesn’t pan out.”

“Mom, if I was sick, and you knew something was wrong with me, but the doctors kept telling you to leave it alone, “There’s nothing wrong with her; you’re just imagining things, Mrs. Hart, just deal with it”- would you? No, you wouldn’t. You’d keep taking me to doctors, just like you’re doing with my eye. The paper right there says what happened, and that they already checked it, but you’re not satisfied. You’re taking me to an ophthalmologist- a real eye doctor- because you want to be sure.

“Say I was sick, you knew what it was that was wrong with me, and you knew what to do to fix it, wouldn’t you do it? Even if Daddy here said to you not to, to wait for a doctor, but you were sure you knew what it was that was wrong with me, and you had a way to make it better right then, wouldn’t you help me?”

Her mother nodded. It had been a reluctant nod, but she nodded.

And she exhaled.

Her father got that look in his eye when he was proud of her for presenting a good, solid argument. That was when she was sure she was in safer waters and could fully relax.

“That’s what I did for Genie. She was making a weird clicking sound when she cried. Hector noticed it before I did. She’d cry. It would seem like she should stop, but then there would be the clicking, and she’d keep on. It was as if her relays were out of synch or something. I knew that if I could just take a look inside and see what was up, I could make her perform more normally.”

Then her father asked that question she hadn’t been expecting.

“How did you know what was supposed to be there and what wasn’t? What was your control?”

That dirty word Marnie frequently called into play when she was backed into a corner or frustrated to the max popped into her mind, but of course with both her parents sitting there, that was as far as it got. She had to talk fast and hope the answer she gave would fly.

“I looked inside Jaden first to see how he was set up on the inside so that I would know what to look for in Genie. But, Daddy, you didn’t say not to open up Jaden, you just said Genie. And I didn’t dissect him or anything. I just looked and then I closed him right back. And technically, like I said, I didn’t open up Gen-”

It was her father who pressed his finger to her lips and told her to hush. It was clear that he bought it, and that he didn’t care. She wasn’t so sure about the Duchess at that point, but it was her father she had been concerned about. It was to him that it was important she made herself understood. She had angrily accused him of running over her and what she wanted, which hadn’t been true. It was important to her that she made him understand that fixing Genie hadn’t been an attempt to overlook him and what he wanted.

And then she’d apologized to both of her parents for the worry she’d caused them with Genie, with the part she’d taken from Genie, with getting hurt, with falling asleep outside and making everyone look for her… with being rude and hurting her father’s feelings… all of it. She was sorry.

Who in the world knew that a school project was going to turn into such an experience? That it was going to come at such a critical point in all of their lives, and that it would end up involving so many people? It was supposed to only be a two week school assignment, which included one week of imitating adult life. It seemed as if it had been two years.

Momentarily overloaded, she allowed her body to slowly drop back into the pillows as she closed her eyes.

Once again she resolved that being a grownup could wait until it was time. Too, too much drama. She hoped nothing happened in the upcoming few years to force adulthood upon her before she was ready for it.

And despite that pain and eye medication her mother made her take while she was in there, she was never going to get back to sleep.

When she sat up again, she could see Genie’s empty fold-out crib over in the corner where Third was lying. Ever since she brought Genie home, Third had made it a habit to sleep next to Genie’s crib at night. Her parents told her that Third’s father, Junior, began sleeping next to her bed in the nursery rather than his basket in the kitchen once they brought her home from the hospital.

The thought of Junior made her smile. He had been the first dog in her life. She had only seen pictures of Freeway, Sr., but he seemed to have been a very special fellow, too. How could he not have been, what with siring such a lovable line.

I’m glad the project is over. I’m glad all of this seems to be over.

But there were more things to face. Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill were going back to New York in a few hours, and when they left, they would be taking Marnie with them. After that, she and Marnie wouldn’t see each other again until the wedding in Maryland in November. As much as they had been together in the past two weeks and the summer before, not to mention most of their lives, it was going to be hard to be separated from Marnie for that long. Sure, they could talk on the phone as much as they wanted, but it wouldn’t be the same as being together in person, meeting up at their side-by-side lockers in the junior hall at school, or hanging out together with their friends on the weekends. She understood Marnie’s desire to be closer to her father in his time of need, but she would miss her just the same.

No Marnie. No Tommy. No Chase and Chance. School, track, tutoring, weekends, whatever- none of it would be as much fun for a while.

And Teddy was all the way in-

Oh my goodness! I must have fallen asleep on Teddy!

She jumped up, was dizzy a second, and then took her time going over to the desk where her father had set down her cell after pulling it out of his jacket pocket. He said he found it open on the ground when he discovered her asleep out by the pool.

As she checked her last dialed call, she noticed the printer output tray. Inside of it lie a picture of Tommy, and even though it had been pressed out flat, it was obvious that at one time it had been folded and maybe a bit crumpled.

In someone’s pocket perhaps?

What the-

She patted her robe pocket and then pulled out the paper she felt inside. It was the picture she had printed before going outside.

I knew I had-

Daddy.

And for a moment she bristled.

I know he didn’t-

Then, just as quickly, she let it go, chuckling to herself as she placed her picture on top of the one her father had put back. In the face of everything that had happened, after all that had been discussed with her, after all everyone had been put through; it wasn’t worth getting upset over.

Jonathan Hart was only human. He might be top dog and all confident and sure of himself out in the world, but in the house on Willow Pond with his daughter, he was just daddy. Too paranoid, but a doggoned good daddy, nonetheless.

Boys, beware of my father…

… and me… he’s no joke and neither am I.

Opening the top drawer of her desk, she took out the tool kit she kept there and headed for the sitting room.

_____________________________________________________________

Jennifer took her time getting ready for bed. Tired, bone tired, in both body and mind, she needed the alone-time in the bathroom to wind down.

Freshly toweled off from a hot, soaking bath, she sat down at the vanity to slowly massage lotion into her skin.

As she slipped into her gown and turned to the mirror to brush her hair, she thought about Sabrina. For some reason, her aunt had been on her mind an awful lot lately. Sabrina, her guardian angel and protector. She was now into her mid-seventies, but still had that thick head of hair that it was her habit to brush every night before going to bed.

It floated into her mind that her own mother had brushed her long, thick hair every evening, twisting it into a loose braid in preparation for sleep. And then she would call for her so that she could brush and braid hers.

“You do every night, my Jenny. So it shine pretty in the light of day. You have our hair: my mother, mine, Sabrina.”

The sudden recollection was so sharp and so bright that she was forced to blink with it, and the blink brought her back to the present.

And now our Justine.

With her elbow resting on the countertop, she placed her forehead in her hand and for a moment and attempted to will Jonathan in there to rub her shoulders. While she had been in the tub, she’d half expected him to show up and join her.

When he didn’t appear, reflected in the mirror before her, she sighed in resignation,

Just as well. I’m too tired for one of his massages that almost always end up being a whole lot more.

and went back to brushing her hair.

The entire day had been a whole lot more. A lot more than she had anticipated upon waking to it. It had been one of those days that seemed to take a week to unfold, and watching her own face, noting the fatigue she could see in it, she marveled at how much had transpired in less than twenty-four hours. She had truly been put through her emotional paces, had even looked down the barrel of a loaded gun held by a deranged woman whose finger had been on the trigger while hers was on the trigger of her own gun, but now it was over. All the pieces had been located, put on the table, and fitted into place. All that was left to do was to spread lacquer over the whole thing to lock them there.

But that job would be left up to the law and judicial process. The Harts, and the Harts’ people had done their part. Hopefully there wouldn’t be anything more she would be called upon to do or to say. And she really hoped that Jonathan would leave things alone as much as he could. But with him, who knew? He was a grown man, and as much as she’d like to be able to do in some situations, she couldn’t control the choices he made when it came to getting involved in “things” What could be done with a person who didn’t seem to realize his own physical limitations?

A month before, he had been flat on his back in the hospital, hooked up to all sorts of intimidating and frightening machines. But as soon as he was able, far sooner than she thought wise, he had gotten up and was off and running again, seemingly back to himself completely. Then came all of the trouble with HartToy.

Jonathan Hart. He had been the original.

She never met anyone like him. At one point in their lives together, she thought there couldn’t ever, would never be anyone else like him. But now there was. She came in the form of a thin redhead, with his blue eyes and every bit of his nerve, his drive, his resilience, and his basic good heart. His J.J.- their baby, but his girl.

No matter how angry he made her over it, no matter how hard or how often she called him on it, it was a fact that although she was their child, in spirit- and in both his and J.J.’s their minds- J.J. was uniquely his. J.J. was proud of being her father’s only known biological connection, and because of that connection, her father was fiercely protective and very proud of her.

Growing up, J.J. had been missing more than once or twice, and it was usually Jonathan who found her. Like the time she climbed up and got stuck in that tree. Although she could hear and see that she was being looked for, J.J. waited up there all afternoon, stuck to that tree branch until her father came home. She waited for him so that he could come and get her down.

It had been deliberate on her part way back then, and it was no accident that he had been the one to find her that very evening, outside and asleep by the pool. That was how it was supposed to happen. The two of them needed that time alone to mend their momentary rift. By the time J.J. and her father came through the front door after he found and woke her, they were arm in arm, smiling and quietly talking, seemingly right back to what they had always been, father and daughter, Hart and Hart- the charming sorcerer and his most willing apprentice.

J.J. explained that agitated and restless, she had gone out to walk the dog and then must have fallen asleep when she sat down to take a phone call. Once she was found, Pat had fussed about having her sleep interrupted to go on a middle-of-the-night wild goose chase, “lit-er-al-ly”, but on her way out to return to the guest house with Bill, Pat managed to whisper in her ear that August was at the pool house, “still” talking with Chris. The nuance that something going on out there other than Hart business practically dripped from her gossipy tongue.

And she smiled.

That Pat. There was nobody like her either. There was nothing Pat liked better than predicting and watching for an affair to unfold. She was so sure that she was onto something with Chris and August.

Now that would be interesting…. but maybe not a bad thing for either of them. A widower for long enough, August needed a good woman in his life, and Chris could definitely use a man she could trust in hers- in fact, she could use a life. Going that route, pursuing a personal relationship, would necessitate some huge changes in one of, or maybe both their professional lives, but-

She smiled at herself again and shook her head at how quickly she had jumped the gun.

As far back as she could remember, she had always been a romantic- always… always looking for a happy ending in stories,… in life… a lot of the time, getting one where she sought it. Her own life had largely been a charmed one, even she knew that. There had been some darker moments, a few very dark, but for the most part they only served to make the brighter ones shine that much more.

Adjusting her gown and shaking out her hair, she dusted her shoulders and bosom with talc. Then she put her away her things, returning the top of the vanity to its usual order. She turned off the light behind her as she left the dressing room.

In the bedroom, only the light on Jonathan’s side of the bed was on. He had turned back the satin duvet and laid out his pajamas, but he was on his back, lying on top of the other covers, dressed only in his boxers. It appeared that he might have been sitting on the side of the bed and perhaps thought he’d just lie back and close his eyes for a few moments. Although he was normally a very light sleeper, making it difficult to walk up to him without waking him, especially if he’d only just dozed off, when she came into the room he didn’t stir.

The color had returned to his face, which under the lamp light now bore an expression of peaceful repose as opposed to the tired visage he’d worn earlier. But she found the one hand across his chest disconcerting. It stirred those lingering anxieties simmering just beneath her surface. He had been in and out of stressful situations the entire day, in fact for several days, and although he said that she shouldn’t, she couldn’t help but be worried for him. Somebody had to do it; past experience said that he certainly wasn’t going to be bothered with worrying over himself.

Tip-toeing around the bed to his side, she stood over him for a few moments, visually assessing him, wondering exactly how it came to be that he had fallen asleep like that. Had he not been feeling well, or was it that he had worn himself out? Typically, Jonathan had boundless energy, but lately he had been being pushed atypically hard, much harder probably than he would have pushed himself. Not only had his body been taxed, but his mind and his emotions had been pretty well strained, as well.

He was resting on the top sheet and the blanket, so after she lifted onto the bed the leg hanging over the side, she pulled the duvet up. She had it just about over him when his arms encircled her. She was pulled down until she was lying on top of him.

“Jonathan!”

When she looked up into his face, he was smiling that rakish smile. “I thought you’d gone down the drain, you were taking so long.”

“And what if I had? I see how you came looking for me, Mr. Hart.”

“I wanted to. Believe me I did, but I just couldn’t get off this bed.”

When she lifted her chin from his chest, immediately he opened his eyes to meet hers, and she could see  that he had been reading her mind, in the way that only he could. “Jennifer, I’m fine. I’m only tired. I thought you told me that you were going to stop worrying about me.”

“I lied. If you’re so fine, why didn’t you get into your pajamas?”

“Okay, I didn’t put them on because I wanted to give you a thrill. You know, let you come back and see me lying here in all my masculine splendor.”

“You left on the shorts.”

“I always think it’s better to leave something to the imagination, you know, leave a detail or two for you to figure out.”

“You were asleep, Jonathan, and you know it. You didn’t even realize I was there until I was standing right over you. You almost never fall off to sleep like that.”

“I almost never have days like this.” He tightened his arms around her, rocking her a couple of times as he spoke.

“I know.”

She snuggled back down into his chest for a moment allowing him to draw comfort from her and taking some from him. Then she rolled off him and over onto her side of the bed. “Get dressed and get under the covers properly. You’ll be sick for sure, lying there practically naked like that.”

“You sure you want me to get dressed? I only have the briefs, and I could feel that you just have that gow-”

“Get dressed, I said.”

With a sigh, he sat up, reaching for and dragging his pajamas from the foot of the bed.

“Jennifer.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t get the thing with Chris out of my mind. I don’t know how her father coped.”

She was stunned, but not really surprised that with all they had been through that day, with finding out that he had been the target of most if it, that was the one thing that was bothering him.

“He had to have been some kind of man,” was all she could think of to say. “Both of her parents had to be.”

It was true, and it was what she had been thinking the entire time that Chris had been telling her story.

“Money wouldn’t have done it for me,” Jonathan sighed with his back to her as he continued getting dressed. “Even if I wasn’t who I am now, and if I wasn’t in the financial position I’m in. Even if I were just Joe Blow working in a garage somewhere or packing and unpacking crates on the wharf, even if I was unemployed and drawing assistance or something, no amount of money offered would have given my daughter back what she lost. Knight’s old man couldn’t have paid me off.”

“The money might not have, but I think the idea that you could spare your daughter any more pain, that you might have been able to use the money to enhance the rest of her life, might have adjusted your thinking. I believe that was mainly what Chris’ parents were trying to do. That, and to see that their grandchild didn’t get left out in the cold.”

“But every time they looked at the kid, they had to be reminded of-”

“Of the fact that they did the best that they could with a horrible situation, Jonathan. Yes, Claire was the result of an assault on Chris, but she was their grandchild just the same. In the end, they took care of both their children in the best way that they knew how, attempting to spare both of them any more pain. I won’t say it was the best plan, but Claire could easily have been left behind, an anonymous nobody, in South America, and Chris could have returned to the States and gone on with her life, wondering for the rest of her days whatever happened to that baby girl she had. She doesn’t seem like the type who could have put something like that completely behind her, even though she was so young when it happened.”

She stopped for a moment and folded the covers back, neatly pressing them into place across her midsection, riding the wave of nausea and anxieties the “what ifs” were secretly stirring up in her mind, and wondering how what she said was registering with her husband who had grown up an orphan.

“Jonathan, I know what you’re saying. I don’t know how or if I could have handled it if it had been J.J. in that position. I don’t know if we could have been so generous toward the resultant child. I’m not so sure that I would have put my child go through a pregnancy and childbirth at twelve-thirteen, especially under those circumstances. Virginia Allen thought it was the more natural way to go, and I guess I can see that. But in my head, I picture J.J. at twelve, skinny, a mouth full of braces and a head full of questions, a baby herself; as much as I believe in nature being allowed to take its course with her, I don’t think I would have done the same with that.”

She reached over and placed a hand on his back as he was reaching for his pajama top.

“But darling, sometimes you don’t know what you’ll do in a situation until you’re put into it, you know that. We just need to be grateful that we’ve never had to be put to that kind of test. We’ve been fairly lucky with J.J. So far she’s sensible and cautious, and still sort of uninterested in the more serious side of dealing with boys, but there is still a way to go before she’s grown, and even then- Well, I hope to God we never are faced with making or helping to make any decisions of that kind as they relate to our daughter.”

He lie back, resting against the pillows and the headboard to fasten his buttons. “I have to tell you. This morning, when I got to J.J. at the park-”

Jennifer looked up at him in time to see him close his eyes and swallow hard before he spoke again. “And then in the car on the way home from the hospital, J.J. had that doll under her jacket. I looked over there at her with that thing all poked out underneath her clothes. She was sleeping, and she looked as if she- Jennifer, I’m telling you, I had a moment. A really bad moment. Then this thing with Chris and Claire.”

Jennifer pulled herself all the way up and reached over to brush the hair from his forehead. “It was a doll, Jonathan. A project for school. Not anything you have to get yourself all hypothetically worked up over. Your daughter is still very much a child herself. We can’t protect her from everything; isn’t that what you always tell me? But we do the best that we can to make sure that she knows what’s out there that might hurt her. That’s all we can do. Besides, I think she learned quite a bit from that assignment.”

“Yeah, well,” he grumbled as he reached over to turn off the light. “Let’s hope she at least learned how to do a better job of ducking the next time.”

She rolled over, putting her back to him and fitting her body into his as he lie down and pulled her into him. “How about hoping there won’t be a next time?”

“We’re talking about J.J., Jennifer. There will be a next time. And a next. And a next. Her last name is Hart, and that’s not by accident.”

In the darkness and in the midst of her content, she smiled. He was right. There wasn’t any point in placing hope where it wasn’t going to do any good. She was fairly certain that they didn’t have much to worry about in the area of J.J. and boys right away, but fighting, walking on the wild side, being J.J.- that was something else all together.

“Jonathan?”

“Hmmmm?”

“About August and Chris. By any chance, have you noticed anything developing between-”

“Jennifer.”

“Pat mentioned that he was still out at the pool house when she and Bi-”

“Jennifer.”

“Yes?”

“Go to sleep, darling. Let it go.”

Succumbing to her husband’s request and to her own exhaustion, she closed her eyes and allowed the slow mist of romantic ideals envelop her, and the security of being in Jonathan’s arms carry her away from the world’s recent harsh realities.

_____________________________________________________________

Part Sixteen

Early Sunday afternoon

The elegant Rolls Royce crested the bridge hill and glided to a stop at the front door of the main house on Willow Pond. The two well-dressed men in the front seats got out to open the doors on both sides for the three smarty attired females in the back.

“I’ve got a call to return,” Bill said to Pat as he helped her from the car. “Peter is on my voice mail. I’ll take it over at the house. Are you coming?”

“You’ve been on that damned phone all morning,” Pat fussed. “You go ahead and see what your son wants with you. It may be something he needs you to do before we get to him in Reno. I’ll be over shortly.” She reached behind herself to take hold of Jennifer’s arm. “Can we take a walk, Jen?”

Relieving Jennifer of her purse, she handed it along with her own to Marnie as the girl came around the car from Jonathan’s side. “Take these in,” she said to her. “Then you go and get changed. We don’t have very long before we have to leave. I’ll come up and check on you in a bit.”

Without comment, Marnie took the purses and went into the house, closing the door behind her.

Jonathan had been on his cell. A call had come in as just as they were approaching the house. He was clicking off and sticking the phone back inside his suit jacket pocket as he joined the others. “Darling, I have to go out to the pool house for a bit.”

Jennifer turned from Pat to Jonathan. “Something wrong?”

“I don’t think so. Chris just said she needed to see me. She was going to come up here, but I told her to stay put; I would come out there and save her the trip. I won’t be any longer than it takes.”

Planting a light kiss to Jennifer’s cheek, Jonathan started off in the direction of the pool house.

At the fork in the driveway on the other side of the house, Bill headed for the guest house, while Jennifer and Pat kept straight, entering the side gardens on their way to the back end.

_____________________________________________________________

Hearing someone coming up the front stairs, J.J. swiveled away from her computer to face the open door and see who it was. When Marnie flounced past without stopping, she got up to follow her. Once inside her own bedroom, Marnie kicked off her heels and threw her purse onto the bed so hard that it bounced twice.

“I cannot believe your mother made me get up and go to church, J., and not you.”

Grinning, J.J. plopped down on the bed, her freckled nose crinkled in naughty smugness. “I was on meds; I couldn’t go. The stuff makes me sleepy, and she didn’t want me dozing off in church. As if I don’t do that anyway, even under normal conditions. Besides, she probably thought you needed a real good dunking in some fresh holy water, seeing as how you’re going to be away from her for a while.”

“But I’m not even Catholic!” Marnie closed the door to the hall, mindful of not slamming it in her annoyance, and began unbuttoning her attractive coat-style dress. “Although I might as well be, as much as your mother drags my ass to your church.”

“You are so blasphemous! How can you be talking about church and then cussing in the same sentence?”

“Because I’m Baptist.”

“The Duchess has told you and told you, ‘mattress’ Baptist is not considered a denomination. She’s bent on helping you get some Jesus in your little heathen life any way she can.”

“Whatever. She takes you all the time, and you aren’t that many steps up from being a heathen just like me. You just don’t get caught as much.”

J.J. frowned and snaked her neck. “I don’t know about all that- the not getting caught part, I mean. I get caught plenty.”

“How do you feel, J. Your eye and your head? Are they better?”

“I’m good.”

Marnie hung her dress on the empty hanger inside the lone suit bag in the closet and placed the shoes she had taken off into the space at the bottom of it. Then she zipped the bag shut. “I see they took the rest of my stuff.”

“Yeah, they came while you all were gone to church. When Uncle Bill’s slot got moved up, Marie hustled and had it all ready for them to take to the airport for you. She said the pilots called, and they’re already at the airport getting Uncle Bill’s plane ready. All you have to worry about is your books, that suit bag, and what you’re going to wear on the flight. I gave them your black leather jacket and told them to leave it on the plane for you. It’ll be cool in Reno this evening when you get there, and even cooler in New York, so you’ll need it. You’re eventually going to have to buy a hat and some gloves, I think.”

“Good looking out, J.”

Marnie pulled a sweater on over her head and shook out her hair. “Sister Anastasia was at the service this morning. She asked where you were.”

Upon hearing the old nun’s name, J.J. sat up from her slumped, casual position.

“Wha’d my mother tell her?”

“Your mother and Pat were talking to some other people. Bill was on the phone. I think Pat got pissed off with him because he kept having to leave the service to take calls. On the third one, she gave him a real dirty look, and he didn’t come back. That last time, your father went to look for him, he said to make sure everything was okay. Of course, he didn’t come back either. When I asked if I could go look for them, the Duchess and Pat wouldn’t let me go.”

When J.J. snickered at Marnie’s being restrained on the pew, Marnie gave her the finger.

“Then after the service, I was standing with your father when Anastasia came up and asked him about you, and why you weren’t in church with us. He told her that you weren’t feeling well, but he didn’t elaborate about the whats and whys. I guess he didn’t feel like hearing it from her about how wild she thinks you are.”

“Daddy knows what to say to keep her off him about me. If she knew what happened for real, that it was something other than my being sick, she’d be fussing at him about how he needs to reign me in. Then she’d be calling me up and fussing, getting all on my nerves and stuff.”

“Why is she so interested in you all the time, J.?”

J.J. waved her hand. “I don’t know. I guess because she raised Daddy she thinks she can do me, too. I’ll see her soon enough, at tutoring next week. My eye will still be black, and she’ll be asking questions about the eye patch. It can wait until Thursday.”

Marnie picked up her jeans from the bed and stopped to smile as if something pleasant had just occurred to her. “Your father told me that he was proud of me for doing the project. He said he was happy that I got Jaden back from Sid, and that I took such good care of him.”

“Jaden was a doll.” J.J.’s tone was dry and unimpressed. “He was proud of you ’cause you took good care of a doll.”

“So? Even if he was a doll, I didn’t have to take care of him, but I did, and your father said I did good. He liked that I got him back from Sid, and that I was a good mother while I had him.” She sighed with her happiness. “Daddy Hart isn’t mad at me any more for abandoning my kid.”

“He wasn’t mad at you to begin with.”

Then J.J. hung her head and began twisting her ring on her finger. “I’m sure going to miss you, Marnie.”

With one leg in the pants she was pulling on, Marnie twisted around to see J.J. Then she hopped over to the bed and dropped down next to her.

“I know, J. I’m going to miss you, too. But I have to go. I have to see my father.”

“I totally understand. I told you that before. But I’m still going to miss you being here.”

Marnie finished pulling on her pants and then leaned over to put her arms around J.J. “I won’t be gone long. Before you know it, you’ll be in New York yourself, getting ready for the wedding.”

“Yeah,” J.J. said as she hugged Marnie. “In the meantime, you take good care of Aunt Pat so that she doesn’t freak out and change her mind about getting married. She’s kind of fragile right now, and I have a feeling it won’t take much to spook her out of it. 9/11, missing that flight, the Towers, and all of that will probably take her through a lot of bad changes. She’s got a lot to deal with when she gets back to Manhattan, and she’s going to have a lot of security stuff to do with Hamilton House. There’s the new farm in Maryland, taking care of you, and she still has to get things ready for the wedding. She really likes you, though, and I think having you there, you needing her; that’s going to be good for her. You can help Cordelia help her.”

“Yeah, and I like Cordelia.” Marnie said over J.J.’s shoulder. “Are you crying?”

“No. I’m not crying.”

“Yes, you are. I can hear it. Please don’t cry, J. You’re making me cry.”

“I’m not crying, I told you.” But J.J. increased her hold on Marnie, preventing Marnie from seeing her face. “So shut up about it.”

“Okay,” Marnie whispered as she wiped at her eyes with one hand and patted J.J.’s back with the other. “Okay.”

_____________________________________________________________

Eva answered the door. “She’s right in here, Mr. Hart.”

Although it was his property, Jonathan felt slightly uneasy entering the pool house. It was the feeling one might have when visiting someone else’s home for the first time, which in a way he was. So much had changed. But then again, had it really? The truth had been what it was all the time. The only difference was now it was out in the open.

Sort of.

Jennifer had filled him in, but he would have to wait to see what Chris had to say before he could be sure if her story was something he was supposed to know.

She was waiting for him in the living area, seated on the couch in front of the window while Eva went into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. It was only a few hours later than last he saw her, but physically Chris appeared to have made huge strides toward getting back to herself. In the light of the new day, she appeared more vital and radiant than in the very recent past. She wore her hair down. Makeup accented her attractive features as well as minimized the healing scars left over from her accident. More importantly for him, the life was back in her eyes.

“Good morning, Mr. Hart. I would have come to you.”

“I thought we talked about that, Ms. Allen. After all we are at home.”

“Your home, Jonathan. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to see you.”

“One of the reasons?”

“I owe you an explanation. You’ve gone way out of your way for Claire and me. The least I can do is tell you-”

He held up his hand. “You don’t need to tell me anything. You don’t owe me anything. Where is Claire?”

“She’s with August. He came and picked her up earlier to take her to Alice. He wanted to speak with the two of them together.”

“Without you?”

“Claire and Alice are grown women, and I trust August completely. Whatever comes out of it, it will be the right and just thing. I’ve got attorneys on retainer should it come to that. August will attend to the rest. He’s more objective about things than I can be right now.” She raised her head from staring down to her hands to look back up to his face. “Did Jennifer tell you?”

He nodded. “I hope it is okay with you that she did.”

“I wanted her to. I thought it would be easier, and maybe more appropriate that she tell you. I’m sorry.”

The instant confusion, the sudden weight of it, shifted his head to one side.

“Sorry? What in the world do you have to be sorry about? Seems to me as if you were, and have been, the victim in all of it.”

“I’m sorry that my problems became Hart problems. I’m sorry your family got dragged into it. When he got here this morning, August told me about J.J. having that chip. I had an idea there was something not quite right with those units. There had been too much attention paid to them befo- Well,  I was just getting into it when all of this, my getting hurt, the accident, when all of that happened. I was close, but no cigar.”

“You had the cigar, Chris. We just found it again, lit it, and smoked it for you.”

She chuckled a little at that. “Which brings me to my next point. I’m ready to tender my resignation. I didn’t want to wait for a request to do it. I offer it willingly.”

“Who said anything to you along those lines?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I just figured.”

“Look, I understand that you’re a lady who doesn’t have to work for a living. Jennifer shared that part of it with me, too, but you need to understand, directly from me that leaving Hart Industries, should you choose do that, will be your choice. My hope is that you decide to stay on with us. You are very valuable to us.”

“Jonathan, security at HartToy was compromised by me.”

“Not by you.”

“By mine, then. Claire and Alice.”

“Claire and Alice made some mistakes, but they meant no real harm that I can see to HartToy or the company. In fact, Alice was only looking out for you. Claire- well, let’s just say Claire’s quest and her subsequent actions, I can fully understand and sympathize with. Sometimes people are driven by things that supersede their basic good judgment and reasoning.

“If you would like to pursue some other avenues of life, I’ll understand that, but your position within the Hart corporate family is secure. I am not asking for your resignation, Chris. It never crossed my mind to do so.”

He reached over and placed his hand on her shoulder. “The truth of the matter is that all of what’s happened comes back to me. I’m the one who drew it all to us. In my life, I’ve tried to do the right things personally and professionally, but the reality is that sometimes I haven’t been able to be as nice as I’d like to be with people and in my dealings with them. It’s the nature of big business. In my line of work, one naturally makes enemies. Sometimes it’s intentional. Most of the time it’s inadvertent. When you’re out in front, you have a lot of people with the potential to aim at your back. It’s very true that it can be quite lonely at the top.”

She tipped her head and smiled a wry smile. “Now that’s a concept with which I can certainly sympathize.”

Jonathan took his hand back, and then sat forward to rest his arms on his thighs to speak even more seriously with Chris. “I don’t ever set out to hurt people, but sometimes the circumstances of a situation require that people get hurt. But when people do things to purposely hurt me and mine, I don’t believe in letting it go. I will strike back, and I will be striking to hurt.

“Victor Shell stole from me. As one of my vice-presidents, he stole my trust, and he stole from honest, hardworking individuals who worked for me. I could not let that go. He and the crooks he was working with then, back when your father was involved in the investigation, had ripped off more companies than just mine. A lot of people went to jail as a result, but Shell managed to get out of Dodge to avoid prosecution. We had it set it up that the minute he stepped foot anywhere in this country again, he was ours.

“But we weren’t the only ones who wanted him. Shell had made a mess of his private life, as well. He not only had the corporations and the court systems going after him for corporate fraud, he had three women with child support judgments against him. Two ex-wives and Octavia’s mother, who had those two sons of her own that blamed Shell for her suicide once their father divorced her over her affair with Shell and the outside-the-marriage pregnancy that resulted in Octavia.”

“Mr. Shell took financial care of Octavia.”

“Supporting the girl financially was the least he could do. His other kids had at least one parent left to look after their needs, but that one had been left all alone. He had to steal to do even that. And then he sent money, but he never saw her. He left her out there to be raised by strangers. He’s sending money, cards, presents, but not himself. She knew all the time that she had a father, but that he didn’t want to see her. That had to have been worse than just being an orphan with nobody. It’s no wonder she turned out such a twisted, confused person.”

He stopped speaking at the point. Even he heard and was surprised by the bitterness seeping through in his tone and was relieved when Chris changed the subject.

“I’ve always admired you, Jonathan. I hope you don’t mind my saying this to you, but it’s true; you’re a very handsome man, and I like that about you. You cut a real nice, commanding figure, and I’m not going to act as if I didn’t notice.

“But it was always more than that. In your presence, you made me nervous at times. It was beyond being with the CEO, I never really was concerned about what you thought of my job performance. I always do my best at what I choose to do, so I don’t worry about what people think about me along those lines. My anxiousness around you, I have discovered, was on a personal level, one that I couldn’t get a handle on until just recently. Now I understand what it is. You remind me so much of my father.”

“An old man, huh?”

She made a disparaging face at him. “You know better. You’re way too charming, and busy, and active to be considered old in anybody’s book. No, it’s because my father was a big man like you. Not so much big in size, but in personality and character. You both fill up a lot of space with it. My father cared about people. He cared how they felt. He cared that they made out all right. He went to bat for people, and he knew how, where, and when to hit hard when matters called for it, just like you. That’s why he did the kind of work that he did. And it’s why you’ve always dabbled in it like you do.

“I was lucky to have such a man for my father. Your daughter is very fortunate to have you and Jennifer for her parents. But she’s especially fortunate to have you. A girl’s mother is probably going to be in her corner naturally. But she needs for her father to be there, too. She needs him to be strong, and to be- to be- I guess she needs for him to be ‘right’. She needs him to care about her as a person, not just as his daughter, but as a person who is one day going to be separate from him. In what he did after what happened to me, my father was looking out for me in the long term, not just when I was twelve and in trouble. He made sure I had a fighting chance at normalcy. He made sure Claire had a chance in life, too. I know it probably seems like a strange thing for my parents to have done under the circumstances, but I-”

Jonathan took her hand, stopping her from talking any more. “I understand. It doesn’t need explanation. Fathers do what they have to do, if they’re, as you say, ‘right’. Now as father of Hart Industries and its family, I’m asking you to stay on with us.”

When she blushed and nodded her agreement, he picked up on the relief in her eyes. Despite whatever else was going on in her life, Chris enjoyed the work she did, and he understood that. He was the same way, but-

“But I want you to take a break, Chris. I want you take a couple of months, if not more, and do some things for you. Ken can hold it down while you’re away. August can send him some extra help if he needs it. I want you to use that money you have invested all over the place, but aren’t touching.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Pat told me.”

“How does she know about my investments and where they are?”

“There is very little that that woman doesn’t know or can’t find out about if she wants to know. I’m sure that in all this time, interacting with her as you have been and as astute as I know you to be, you’ve noticed that about her.”

Chris shook her head with an amused look on her face. “I have a feeling that she’s quite a woman.”

“One you should get to know a bit better,” Jonathan said. “I’m thinking you two have an awful lot in common. But getting back to what I was saying, that money is yours. You earned every single dime of it, and despite how you may feel about it, it’s what your father wanted you to have. There is no wrong in your using it. What the hell are you investing and saving it for anyway?

“Chris, money is to be spent and enjoyed. It’s meant to make your life that much better, more interesting, and more comfortable. You have it; spend it. Enjoy it. Life is an adventure, and you’re way overdue. Besides, I think you and Claire need to spend some time together.

“Now I’m a pretty congenial fellow, Christina Alexandra Allen, but if you want to make me upset, you bury yourself in your work again like you’ve been doing, and I’m going to be all over you- just like a father. All of that aside, though, seriously Chris, that money is your father’s legacy to you. It was all he could do to make it up to you for not being able to protect you from what happened. Make him- and me- happy and use it.”

“Well then, Jonathan, that brings me to the next thing I wanted to say to you. I’m going home. As soon as August gets back, he’s going to take Eva and me to my place.”

“Are you sure you’re up to that already?”

“I’m sure. I’ll rest better in my own bed. Eva has consented to stay with me for a couple more twenty-four hour shifts, and then we’ll transition to her only coming during the day. For now, if things work out, and I don’t see why they won’t, Claire is going to stay here in the States. Until she gets all of her things back on this side of The Pond, she’s going to be living with me, so I’ll have her there at night to help me, if I need it when Eva stops coming. I’m going to try not to need it, though. I don’t like being down like this. I’m going home because I believe I’ll get back to myself faster.”

When he didn’t say anything, her forehead puckered in question. “Well?”

He had to suppress the chuckle. “Well what?”

“I expected you to at least try to fight me on it. You want me out of here that badly?”

Then he laughed.

For him, it was fun to be able to catch a smart woman off guard when she was trying to argue a point. His experiences with them taught that it wasn’t always such as easy thing to do.

“Chris, whatever I say, you’re not going to listen to me anyway. You can stay here as long as you like as far as it concerns me, but I live with two stubborn women. I try not to argue with them much because I almost never win. No way am I going to try to argue you down when you have your mind so made up already. And I happen to be a person who doesn’t like to lie around either, so I know exactly what you’re saying about getting back to yourself quicker if you were at home. I couldn’t wait to get out of that hospital where they had me tied down to the bed last month. As long as you and Eva don’t feel you’re rushing it, you do what you need to do.”

He stood up and straightened his trousers. “But I will be checking to see what plans you make for yourself. And as soon as you feel up to it, I’ve made some arrangements for you to replace that car. I’ve ordered some models for you to take a look at.”

“I loved the one I had,” she sighed. “I keep thinking, I had just paid it off.”

“This one’s paid off, too. All you have to do is pick out the one you want.”

“Jonathan!”

“Consider it worker’s compensation. Jennifer and I feel it’s the least we can do to make up for Martin’s wife hitting you in the head and causing you to wreck your beloved Corvette. Sarah Martin knocked you down but not out. You made it to the car and passed out behind the wheel as a result of having been struck by her. That’s when the car left the road.”

Chris sat back to rest against the couch cushions. She folded her arms. “I recognized her skinny legs last night at HartToy. They were the last thing I remembered from that Saturday night. So, Octavia had gotten to all of them; Fred, his wife, Paul, and then Alice. Did she hate me that much?”

“She hated both of us, Chris. She blamed me for taking her father away from her, and she blamed you for causing Claire, her friend, to back up from her. Then she thought you were after her married boyfriend. As I said, Jennifer and I just wanted to do something nice for you after all you’ve been through. You can’t turn it down, so don’t even try. Just say-”

“Thank you, Jonathan. No sense in trying to argue with a hardheaded man either. I thank you and Jennifer and J.J., for everything. By the way, how is J.J. this morning?”

“She was fine at breakfast,” he said as he started for the door. “But that was a few hours ago, before the rest of us went to church, and she stayed home. Checking on her is my next order of business. Given the amount of time she’s had on her own, she could be on the moon by now, even with only one good eye.”

He left the pool house with the sound of Christina Allen laughing behind him, a pleasant, comforting sound. It reminded him of another hearty laugh it seemed he hadn’t heard in a very long time.

_____________________________________________________________

The two women slowly walked across the vast back lawn, making their usual, comfortable small talk.

“I  wonder what the Squirt got into once we left?”

“I told her to stay inside the house and rest, although I started to make her go with us, medicine or no medicine. After that crack she made last night about not having to go to church this morning due to her injuries, I started to march right up to that room, pick out the daintiest, most feminine outfit she had, and make her get into it, eye patch and all. I just didn’t want to be bothered with her whining and acting up, which she would most assuredly have done if I would have insisted. So after she ate, I gave her that medicine for her eye, and then I asked Marie to make good and sure that she kept still.”

“Monumental task you assigned to just one person,” Pat said with a snicker. “That girl is beyond busy.”

“Marie is up to it. She’s been keeping up with that one a long, lo-o-o-ng time. J.J. knows not to get on Marie’s nerves; that’s something Jonathan would get after her about, not to mention me getting on her. I was hoping the drops would make her sleepy and that she would take a nap. At any rate, I think our child has too much on her mind to be doing a lot of moving around or getting into anything today.”

“It has been a helluva few days, hasn’t it, Edwards?”

“I’ll say.”

“What do you think will happen with Chris and Claire?”

“I think they’ll work things out. I don’t feel they’re too far from it. Chris is a reasonable person, and I believe Claire can see things more clearly now. With her father out of the picture, there’s only Chris left.”

“And old man, Knight.”

“And him, but I don’t think he’ll be a problem either at this point. That was his son who died, so he’ll no doubt be in mourning for a while, and it sounds as if he might have his hands full sorting out the messes that might have been made. Once the air clears, he’ll still  have Claire. If she really mattered to him as it seems she did, he’ll still have her. Tell me something, Pat.”

“What?”

“How did you know to inquire about Chris’ mother. Something triggered you when we were in Chris’ apartment that day, didn’t it? What did you find? What did you see?”

“In her drawer. Like you, where you keep your lingerie. She had a little baggie, like a zip-lock. Inside were curls, baby curls, and a baby spoon, just like you have from the Squirt. There was a newborn picture, too, a small one. Only mothers do that, keep that stuff close to them like that, I mean. I still have the curls you-” Pat folded her arms around herself even more tightly. “Thank you, Jen.”

Jennifer put an arm around Pat’s shoulders. “No thanks needed. We were in that together.”

“I think I’m going to have a little talk with Ms. Chris before I go, Jen, just to make sure that she sees things clearly. Life is too short to work yourself-”

Then Pat stopped walking and turned to face Jennifer. “Nothing is ever going to be the same again, is it? Bill says even commercial travel is going to be greatly affected. I’ll probably be getting call after call concerning security issues in my building once I get back.”

“I can imagine.”

Pat shifted gears and resumed walking.

“Bill still has that business in Reno, but we’ll have Marnie in New York to meet with her tutor no later than Wednesday. I’m really hoping to be there by Tuesday, but we’ll have to see how long Bill and Peter need to finish up what they have to do.”

“Well, Marnie has enough schoolwork from her teachers here to tide her over until Wednesday. I’ve spoken with Ms. Haversham in New York. She knows what to expect Marnie to have completed and where she is in her studies.”

When they reached the gazebo, they went inside and sat down.

By that time, Jennifer could definitely feel the nervous energy radiating from Pat. She first felt it at church as Pat sat next to her on the pew flipping through her planner, making notes and frowning to herself as Bill kept getting up to take calls. The two of them, Pat and Bill, were agitated, and she guessed it was largely due to Pat returning to New York. Pat’s office looked out to what had been the Twin Towers, a sight she greatly enjoyed, and from which, Jennifer suspected, Pat drew strength. Together, as young women they watched them go up, and in their completion they how they came to symbolize New York.

What would Pat see when she got back? What picture did she already have formed in her head? The landscape from Pat’s window would certainly be changed. What would that do for her mental landscape?

How much had she followed in the news? Had she even looked? That topic hadn’t been a very strong thread in her conversations since she arrived on Willow Pond. Aside from the aborted trip to see Marcia and the calls she attempted to make in the days after her arrival, Pat hadn’t said a lot at all about business, Hamilton House, or New York in general. Her concern focused more on specific people in her life there: Cordelia, her longtime personal assistant, and Dora, her professional right hand. Instead, she momentarily detached from everything and then jumped back in to immerse herself in their lives and affairs in California.

Pat had been running, doing exactly what J.J. said her godmother accused her of doing. But retreating and then fighting her way back had always been Pat’s pattern; however, the vibe she gave off at that moment felt very different.

“What’s really the matter?”

Pat sat back, taking the time to cross her legs, and stretch her arms across the wooden bench upon which she and Jennifer were sitting.

“I don’t know,” she sighed after settling herself. “I just don’t feel- I just don’t feel- feel like- like me these days.”

Jennifer studied her friend’s profile, searching for something, anything familiar to grab onto, but there was nothing. Pat looked straight ahead, past her and out to the grounds beyond where they were seated as if there was something out there that had caught her attention. As she stared, like a poignant scene in a movie, the cross-breeze gently lifted the hair away from her aristocratic, but expressionless features.

“I don’t know what you mean, Pat.”

“I’m not sure if I want to go back. I’ve been wrestling with a lot of ‘whys’ and ‘ifs’ these past few days, and I’ve been able to answer some of my own questions, but I’m not sure what they all add up to. I mean- you know how you’re always saying that a person has to listen for the messages she’s sent, you know, that sometimes you’re being tapped on the shoulder, but you don’t notice right away?”

“Yes?”

“Am I being tapped, Jen?”

“Talk to me. Tell me what’s on your mind, and maybe I can understand.”

Pat pulled her arms down and uncrossed her legs to draw herself in. She leaned forward from the waist, resting her crossed arms on her thighs. “I don’t know if I know. It’s as if somebody’s trying to tell me something. As if I’m being told to do something else with my life. All I’ve ever done is worked, and I’ve loved it. But now-”

“Now what?”

“In one summer, it’s not yet fall, you know, my whole life seems changed and going in a different direction without telling me that we were changing tracks or destinations. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention; I fell off to sleep and missed my port of call or station or something.”

“Are you talking about Bill?”

With both hands, Pat pulled back her hair and nodded. “Bill, marrying him, a new home, missing that plane- oh God, Jen.” She stopped talking and dropped her face down into her hands.

Jennifer reached out and rubbed her back, but made no attempt to hold her. With Pat, it was enough that she knew someone was there. Pat didn’t necessarily need physical comforting. After a few moments, she lifted her face again, and Jennifer was gratified to see that she wasn’t crying.

“Why did I miss that plane, Jen, when so many other people didn’t? Why wasn’t I there in New York with my people when it happened? Why was I elsewhere, and why was Bill the one to bring me here to Utopia and remain here with me, even when I was being a bitch to him?”

“I’d hardly call this Utopia. With all that’s gone on while you were here, you can hardly consider this an ideal state. The mess with HartToy, J.J. getting hurt, Jonathan and I at odds, the mystery surrounding Chris and Claire- although for you that last thing probably was Utopian- getting into it and figuring it out and all. And as far as being a bitch with Bill goes, if he’s been fooling around with you for as long as you told me that he has, he must love that about you. You’re that a lot of the time, I’m sure.

“The plane thing is not yours to question. What is yours is to listen to your heart. What’s your heart telling you?”

“I keep looking at it. Bill, now Marnie coming into my life. Kyle. Their father. His accident.  9/11. Me and that plane; It’s almost like some weird set of dominoes, set up and then falling just as they’ve been laid out to do. I fell in love with Marnie way back when she was just a little girl coming to visit J.J. when I’d be here, and then as it became apparent that she was going to be a fixture in your lives. Now due to this recent set of grisly circumstances, she’s practically sitting in my lap, and I’m loving it. I resisted becoming emotionally involved with Bill for years, but it was a lost cause. Every time I’d back up, he’d take that many steps toward me until I just ran out of room to run. This last time he literally snatched me back to him.”

“Didn’t you get all over J.J. about running?”

“Only because I didn’t want her to be like me; running away from the things she needs to face, especially the good things she needs to face.”

“First of all, you might run, but you don’t keep running. You stop, turn around and start fighting- or accepting, depending upon the circumstances- after a while. Secondly, you need to listen to yourself, Pat.”

“I’m trying to. But there’s a tremendous ringing in my ears these days. I can’t hear. I can’t think.”

“Yes you can. I believe it’s just that you don’t want to hear what’s being said to you.”

Pat sat upright at that point, turning on the bench to face Jennifer, then admitting to what Jennifer had been suspecting all along. “I don’t want to not work, but I don’t know if I can go back to it. I’m not sure if my heart is in it any more; however, I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Jennifer took one of Pat’s hands in her own, sliding her fingers between Pat’s. “You’ve worked hard all of your life when you really didn’t have to. You had the money and the means to sit and not do a thing, but you didn’t. Instead, you built something out of nothing, and out of that, a lot of people have been elevated to places they might never have gotten, myself included. But I think in doing that, you’ve avoided dealing with you. Maybe it’s time for you to enjoy Pat and to elevate Pat to another level. Last night, when we were alone in the den and you were fussing at Chris for not using that money that was given to her, that was advice you could have taken for yourself, only you weren’t listening for you. Again, you were working for someone else. When you were talking with J.J. about running, your intent was to help her, but it was advice you could have taken yourself.

“You can’t run from Marnie, Pat. She won’t let you. She’s like Bill. For every step you take from her, she’s going to move that many more toward you. She loves you. Bill, like you said, is a lost cause. You know how Jonathan and J.J. feel about you. And you and I are tied at the heart. The only person you have to stop running from is you. Maybe it’s not that you need to retire, you’re really too young for that. Maybe you just need to scale back. But you won’t know anything until you get home. The hard part is going to be when you get home. Wait and see what you feel when you get back there.”

“That makes me nervous, too. I should have been there. My people have been holding up the fort all this time that I’ve been missing in action. I wasn’t there.”

“You couldn’t be there. You had made it to this side of the country, and there was no real, timely way to get you back. If you could have been, you would have been. That’s how you are.”

“I know, but still-”

“Sometimes, Pat, we get removed from a situation for a reason. There was a reason for you to not be in New York when it all happened. Sometimes it’s not about understanding the reason why; it’s about understanding what do to do afterward. Do you stay the course as you’ve been taking it, or do you alter it somewhat to accommodate the present? For you, the present hasn’t shown itself yet. You won’t know what your present is until you get back to Manhattan. You just need to be ready to deal with it when the time comes. I have no doubt you will do just that.”

“But Marnie. You think Marnie will be happy there with me?”

“Pat, Marnie will be happy wherever you are. I’ve told you. She loves you. More than that, she admires and respects you, and that’s saying something for that girl. You two have a lot to give to each other. It’s one of those domino things you mentioned, one that was set up and just fell into place. So, tell me, Patty, what did happen with Marnie that day you ended up coming home with her in her car? You know, when you wouldn’t give me the specifics?”

Pat grinned and shook her head. “Nah, nah, nah, my friend. Um-um. It’s a weak moment all right, but no you don’t. I told you, I handled it, and that’s all you need to know. You’re right. Marnie will be just fine with me. Somebody needs to be the buffer between Marnie, her mother, and the Boston Police Department.”

“Marnie got in trouble with the police here, didn’t she?”

“Screw you, Edwards. My lips and the deal are sealed. Whatever happened is between Marnie and me. And whatever happens in New York will stay in New York. Marnie is mine. You take care of that Houdini-girl of yours.”

“Houdini? Do I detect a story here? J.J. Hart was awfully nervous about letting me speak with you last night. What did she do while I was gone?”

Pat raised those eyebrows and squeezed the hand that still held hers. “What happens with TeePat, stays with TeePat, Mom. Don’t you know that by now?”

With the bright light once again dancing in Pat’s eyes, all Jennifer could do was laugh at the face staring into hers. “I so love you. I cannot tell you how glad that your domino fell this way last Tuesday.”

Releasing Jennifer’s hand, Pat wrapped her arms around her. “Right, smack onto yours, old girl. Just like always.”

_____________________________________________________________

“I was hoping to find you two together.”

The sudden male voice at the door snatched the attention of the two girls seated on the bed, stopping their conversation in its tracks.

After pausing in the doorway for a moment, Jonathan entered the room, sauntering over to the big chair. Removing Marnie’s tote bag from the seat, then pausing a moment to hitch his trousers before sitting down, he casually folded one leg over the other and settled back.

J.J. and Marnie first checked out each other while hastily wiping at their watery eyes. Then together they warily looked to the man who had taken an awfully long time to come in and sit down in the room with them.

“I wanted to speak with the two of you,” he finally said.

“Yes, Daddy?”

“Yes, Mr. H.?”

“First of all, I wanted to come up and personally tell both of you how proud I am of you for successfully completing your school project. Yesterday’s antics at the park aside-” Marnie immediately reddened, and J.J. averted her eye. “- you girls did a very good job of it.”

“Thank you,” they said, but the lingering uncertainty over his unannounced arrival noticeably tempered the enthusiasm of the response.

Jonathan then uncrossed his leg and sat forward, clasping his hands together in a manner that said, “Now lets get down to the real business.”

“Marnie-”

She flinched at the sound of her name. “Yes, sir?”

“Sweetheart, before you leave for New York, I’m really going to need for you to check in that fake I.D. with me.”

Marnie cocked her head to one side. “Fake I.D.?”

“Yeah, you know, the one you used to get you into the 17/20 Club the other night.”

Marnie, backed into a corner, twisted around to J.J seated behind her. J.J. grimaced, shrugged, and looked away.

“Oh, and don’t think you’re off the hook over there,” Jonathan continued, waggling a finger past Marnie at J.J. “Because if she has a phony I.D., then you have one, too, and I’m going to need to collect both of them.”

When J.J. opened her mouth to say something, her father held up his hand to cut her off. “Look, you can come clean, give them to me, and it’ll all be said and done, kept in-house. Or, we can open it up to the public. I can go downstairs, wait for your mother and Pat to get in, and  casually let it slip that it’s just come to me, and I’m at a loss as to how Marnie managed to get into the 17/20 Club, a club for people who are ages seventeen to twenty. She’s only sixteen and won’t be seventeen until next March. Then I can just stand back and let chips, or should I say hot embers, blow their way up here and fall upon whomever they may.”

Marnie snatched up the purse she had earlier thrown on the bed, and J.J. lifted her hips to dig into the back pocket of her jeans, extracting a small wallet. Seconds later they were both up and shoving facsimile California driver’s licenses into Jonathan’s waiting hand. He examined them, holding them up to the window and the daylight, scrutinizing them from different angles.

“Pretty good to the untrained eye, I guess, but I can see it’s definitely the work of an amateur. Nice pictures, though, which in itself should be a dead giveaway. Who did these, and how much did they cost?”

When no answer appeared to be forthcoming, he locked J.J in his sights. Back on the bed, she squirmed uncomfortably under her father’s withering stare until it squeezed the whine, “Aw come on, Daddy. We gave them to you like you asked. Surely you’re not going to make us rat people out on top of it,” right out of her.

Marnie griped in chorus, “That wouldn’t even be right, Mr. H., and you know it.”

Jonathan frowned at both of them. “You two are fine ones to be telling me about what isn’t right.”

At that point, his basic work done, he stood and removed his own wallet from his back pocket. He flipped it open and stuck both cards inside. “Okay. Don’t tell me,” he said. “But let me tell the two of you this. Don’t buy any more of these. Anyplace you’re not old enough to get into without benefit of illegitimate means, then you don’t need to be there. There are reasons for age limits. The Project is over. You go back to being sixteen-year-old girls, in every sense of those words, as of this moment.”

For full effect, he swept his most formidable gaze over both crestfallen teens, putting a definite period behind what he said. But, stopping at his daughter, it occurred to him that for the sake of avoiding any misunderstandings or creative interpretations, he probably needed to further clarify the situation.

“Don’t buy any more fake I.D.’s, talk anybody into giving you a fake I.D., don’t accept any fake I.D.’s anyone might offer you. In short, NO more fake I.D.’s are to be obtained by any means by either of you. Am I coming in clearly?”

“Yes, sir,” both girls mumbled at the same time.

When they could hear him going down the stairs, Marnie whispered. “So, like, which one did you give him?”

“The one that said I was eighteen,” J.J. answered. “If I do myself up right, should I ever need to use it, I might be able to pull off twenty-one. Which one did you give him?”

“The one that said I was twenty-one. I kept the one that said I was eighteen. I figure at this stage of the game, I can get away with eighteen quicker than I can twenty-one, and by the time I really need the one that says I’m twenty-one, I won’t need it anyway because I’ll be getting in everywhere without it. Hell, I got into the 17/20 without any I.D. at all. Dre was on the gate, and he knows me from your party. Didn’t ask the first question. People know me; they let me in. Your father did say no more fake I.D.’s though, J.”

“He said not to ‘obtain’ any more fake I.D.’s, Marn. We already have the ones we have. I mean I’ve never had occasion to use either of mine, but should future need somehow arise, it’s not like we’ll have to run out and pay Hector and them again to get us some more. So technically ‘obtain’ doesn’t apply here.”

Marnie got up from the bed, grabbed her tote from the chair where Jonathan had put it back, and headed for the table to pack up her school things. “You’re a trip, J.”

“Yeah, I know.” J.J. grinned as he folded her arms behind her head and relaxed into the pillows. “But tell me you haven’t enjoyed the scenery along the way.

_____________________________________________________________

Late Sunday night

Jennifer had been away for the day, gone to work on a writing assignment she had taken, leaving him on his own to look after their six year old daughter. He had work to do himself, but it was work he could do from home, so he settled into the loft with a phone, a carafe of coffee, and his paperwork, taking occasional breaks to go down and check on J.J. when the time since her last check on him seemed unusually long.

He heard her running up the back stairs, then her voice excitedly calling to him. “Daddy! Daddy!”

He swiveled around in his chair so he would be facing her when she made it to the top. It was also so she could climb right up into his lap, which she did as soon as she reached him, her small body radiating a moist warmness indicative of physical activity; she smelled of outdoors.

“Daddy, I want one of the puppies. May I please have one?”

“What puppies, baby? Who’s having puppies?”

“Trisha. She and Junior are doing sex; I saw them. Now she’s going to have puppies. Can I please have one when she does? Would you ask Mr. and Mrs. Rogers if it would be okay for me to have one of them? I want a boy puppy.”

“Doing sex”.

His heart had almost stopped.

Trisha was the cute American Kennel Club Yorkie from next door. Evidently she had gotten through the fence to be with their Freeway, Jr., and who was Junior to turn down her request? J.J. said she had been out riding her bike and happened upon them as they engaged in the act. Thanks to her conveniently AWOL mother- who it seemed was often off-scene when such controversial events occurred, and who also didn’t mince words or details with J.J. about biology- J.J. had been very much aware of what they were doing, what the end result might be, and also that it was a private act.

Without disturbing them, she had gotten back on her bike, leaving the two trysting canines to their passion, and headed straight to her daddy. She came right on up those spiral stairs to him to put her bid in for one of the potential offspring.

Rogers had, of course, been none too pleased about the unsanctioned union, but Jennifer, in her unique, diplomatic way, talked him down, making him see that his Trisha had made her own choice. Nature called, and Junior, gentleman that he had been, only bid her welcome and made her at home.

At the memory- his own cavalier take on Frank Rogers’ extreme aggravation and Jennifer’s powers of persuasion- Jonathan snickered to himself. He closed his eyes and lay his head back on the couch, allowing the rum to warm his insides as his mind continued to wander.

And J.J. had gotten her wish. She was sixteen now and that hairy little wish followed her everywhere during the day and slept in her room, most of the time on the bed with her, at night.

It had been the same old story repeating itself, the Lady and the Tramp, the thoroughbred and the mutt, getting together to make something fantastic. J.J. and her pooch, they were both the result of such couplings, and both of them had taken on the finest parts of those from which they had come. Third was the best looking and the smartest of the Freeway line, and J.J.- well, she went without saying.

J.J. and Third had come through the living room a while ago to kiss him goodnight before turning in. There had been many precious nights like those, far more than there would be in the future. She was growing up, and it wouldn’t be long before she would be out on her own.

Without opening his eyes, he reached for the glass on the end table and finished his drink. Then he lay his head back again and allowed his body to relax completely, relishing the delicate crackling from the fireplace, as well as the return of the peace and overall tranquility of his home.

And his life.

After days of noise, house guests, people, police, and detectives coming and going, phones ringing at all hours, lingering questions, harsh words, and hurt feelings; the house was finally back to how it was supposed to be- a safe haven for three Harts. Everyone who didn’t live there on a permanent basis was gone.

Bill managed to wrangle that earlier slot, and he, Pat and Marnie had flown out that afternoon, headed for Reno and then to New York. Pat still had her life, and she had Bill. Marnie still had her father, and she would be in Pat’s care. In New York, Marnie would be in a better position to get to see her father fairly regularly. With Pat, she would get the kind of undivided nurturing she deserved.

August had come back with Claire to collect Chris and Eva and take them to Chris’ place. Chris, Claire, and Alice had each other, and for a time, Eva would be there to oversee all of them. There was a lot more to her role than either of them needed to know. And then they also had August. There was a lot more to him than he thought anyone had noticed. The other principal players in the week’s melodrama were in the hands of the police. It seemed as if everything was going to work out after all.

It was late. Jennifer had turned in some time ago, and urged him to come with her, but there were a few more calls he needed to make, a few more things to put into place. It never ended. He felt tired, but a different kind of tired, a type he couldn’t recall ever feeling before. It was the kind of tired that required he be by himself for a time, as if dealing with anyone other than himself or anything other than his own thoughts would be more than he could handle. From the look she gave him, he could tell he disappointed her, but disappointing Jennifer in the living room was a lot better than doing so upstairs. His “Hart” wouldn’t have been into it. It hadn’t been for a few days.

So tired.

So much to think about, to process, all of it nerve-wrecking and frustrating. The thing with Chris and Claire touched him in a place he usually managed to keep covered and protected. Yes, he could fully understand Claire’s quest and her drive to find out about herself. He could also empathize with her subsequent disappointment. Her experience confirmed his conviction that some things were better left alone. But it didn’t change the uncertainty… and the fleeting pangs of hurt…. At least she had half of her story. However, that part alone was enough to rock anybody’s world.

It brought him back to his own child. How blessed a kid was she? J.J. had it all. Smarts, good looks, two parents who were interested and active in her life, a good home, a rock solid foundation upon which to build the rest of her life.

Look, please just give her the time and the room to do it. I’m doing all I can. Please, please don’t let some jackass come along and derail her.

How blessed had they been to get sent that particular child? Beyond the hard head, black eye, occasional bad attitude, and that damned fake I.D., J.J. Hart was a good girl, and if her father had anything to say or do about it, she was going to remain one.

Boys beware. Be looking out for me because I am watching each and every one of you.

Then he recalled the way J.J. came at him upstairs in that bedroom.

… and for her. She’s no laughing matter either. She’s going to be making demands, and demanding that you live up to her expectations.

But a father couldn’t be everywhere. At least she was sixteen now, and not twelve, closer to being a woman than Chris had been given a chance to get. When Arnold found that tidbit about Chris’s mother’s medical condition- that after Chris she shouldn’t have been able to have any more children- it dawned on him possible answer for Claire’s existence could have been Chris, but he shook if off thinking she would have been too young. At the time, in the car looking at J.J. with that doll under her jacket, he further dismissed that as a feasible avenue to the truth, but since then….

Twelve. No amount of money. Nothing short of Junior’s head, both of them, would do. It was good he was already dead. Even though Chris wasn’t biologically his….

At the thought and the momentary vise-like grip the surge of rage took on his gut, he had to squeeze his eyes closed even more and force himself to switch lines of thought.

Jennifer. His Jennifer…. Her reaction to his not telling her about J.J. That hadn’t all been about him or about J.J.

Like always, he got it that there was something more to it. Something underneath her words, underneath her skin- underneath her emotions, rolling and pushing at them, driving her when it came to that girl of theirs. And it had to have been something serious if after all of their years together she hadn’t shared it with him. He had his suspicions, but he had trained himself to wait, to not to dwell upon his speculations until she chose to tell him exactly what it was.

If she ever chooses….

Jennifer had proven herself to be a good mother to their girl, but her protectiveness toward J.J. subtly extended beyond the mother-child connection. She was fiercely defensive of everything that was J.J., her fine mind, her developing person, and most of all her ability, her right to freely grow into the woman she was supposed to be. Jennifer taught, she nurtured, she guided, but her focus had a lot more to do with J.J. being female that it did with being her daughter. From J.J.’s angry words  to him that previous evening, he sensed that Jennifer had transferred to her daughter some of whatever it was that was driving her. If J.J. ever had a daughter, she would be the same way about her female child. No man would be allowed to run over those Edwards’ girls.

No man.

Stephen Edwards, Jennifer’s father, especially in recent years, had often expressed to him his regret over the way he raised, or he felt, not raised his own daughter after his wife was killed. Edwards might not have been a constant physical presence in Jennifer’s life,  but he had been on the right track about taking care of her person. He insisted upon her developing herself before she tried to be someone’s girlfriend, wife, whatever.

On their last visit to Briarwood, Stephen implored him to do the same with J.J. He could probably see that J.J. was going to be the same combination of brains and beauty as her mother and her grandmother. But it was beginning to look as if that wasn’t really going to be a worry with that one. Jennifer held the reins on that, and from what he could see in J.J. so far, the guidance was taking.

Jennifer… My Jen-

“Darling? Jonathan?”

“Hmmm?” She was whispering in his ear while running the soothing fingers of one hand through his hair as she rubbed at his arm with the other.

“Jonathan, wake up and come to bed. You won’t be able to turn your head in the morning with your neck in that position. Come on.”

He opened his eyes to that face.

He never got tired of that face, the first one or the second, but especially not that one- not the queen of Harts. That face, those eyes, and all of that hair.

Behind her, the fire had nearly gone out, and when he lifted his head, he felt it that she had been right. If he had stayed there much longer, the range of motion in his neck would be decidedly impaired. But at the moment, as tired as he was, all he desired was her up close.

Putting his arms around her, he pulled her to him and kissed her, delighting in her lips and her body immediately melding to his. When it ended, he asked, “Can we just sit here for a minute? I just want to sit here with you, just us, for a little while.”

Her eyes searched his, and then, momentarily confounding him with doing so, she pushed away and got up.

At the fireplace, she stoked the wood and increased the gas to the jets. Then she came back to the couch, curled up next to him, and lay her head on his chest.

A while later, she pulled him a second time from the warm cocoon into which he had retreated, insisting upon taking him upstairs. Without protest, he drug himself up the stairs with her and into their inner sanctum, mindful of something he said to Chris out at the pool house that afternoon.

After getting out of his clothes, he climbed into the bed, gathered his wife in his arms, and slept the dreamless sleep of the bone-weary.

_____________________________________________________________

Finale

Monday Morning

“Whatcha doin’, J?”

“It’s seven in the morning. What do you think I’m doing, Marn? I’m getting ready for school.”

“I’m not. I’ve already been out for a ride on Bucky. Uncle Bill left on business way early, and Pat said I could ride until eight. Then she said I had to come in, have my breakfast, and start my school work. But I came in earlier than she said because I wanted to catch you before you left. I’ll be finished with my work in an hour or so, and then I’m going back riding.”

“That’s what you think. How much you wanna bet Pat’s got something else up her sleeve for you to do? And don’t forget, the Duchess told you to have that work done for Ms. Calvin’s Econ class that you thought you didn’t have to do since you were leaving. She’s going to be calling you and Ms. Calvin to find out if you did it and faxed it back to her.”

“Whatever. I’ll do it as long as I don’t have to deal with that Slim-Fast addict in person, or show up to my math class. That’s all I have to say about it. I don’t have school today or, hopefully, if Uncle Bill works it right, tomorrow either, J.”

“Did you call me up to mess with me, Marn?”

“Sure did.”

“If I cussed like you normally do, you’d be lain completely out. You do know that, don’t you? I have to go. The Duchess is calling me. I think she’s coming. You know how anal she is in the morning.”

“Yeah, I do know. Call me at lunchtime if you can get away and use the phone. Let me know what’s up with everybody. I do want to be kept in the loop even if I’m not there. I’m counting on you, J.”

“J.J. Hart, would you please get yourself off that phone. You still have to eat your breakfast. If you don’t get a move on, you are going to be late for class, and you know that I am not having that.”

“As you can see, Marn, I really have to go.”

“Goodbye, Marnie! Get that report done for Econ! I will be checking!”

J.J. clicked off and was turning around to gather her things for school when she was stopped by her mother’s hands grasping her upper arms, turning her around to face her. At the sight of her uncovered, injured eye, Jennifer grimaced.

“Oh, it looks even more purple this morning than it was yesterday.”

J.J. huffed her exasperation. “Mom, please. The emergency room doctor said it was a deep, deep bruise, and that it would take a while for all the effects to show up. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry about it.”

When she picked up the eye patch from the side table, her mother took it from her and placed it over the eye herself, fastening it behind her head, and securing the Velcro straps underneath the ponytail, which she then fluffed out with her fingers.

“Don’t forget to put the drops in at ten this morning, J.J. I know you don’t like to take medicine, but I’m trusting you to do what you’re supposed to do rather than my going in and giving the drops to the nurse and having her call you down to her office to do it for you.”

“I will, I will. I don’t need any school nurse all up in my personal business. I’ll do it between second and third period, I promise. First it was vitamins, then iron pills, now this. When will it all end? Say, Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What did Ms. Chris and the nurse mean when they said that Ms. Claire and her friend were supposed to be sold that time when they went to the mountains and got arrested? The nurse didn’t want to say in front of me. Sold for what?”

“I don’t know for sure. But it probably had something to do with human trafficking. Sometimes men or groups from foreign countries put in orders for young females, and sometimes very young children and sometimes even boys, to be kidnapped for the purpose of forced marriage, slavery, prostitution, or pornography. There is probably some of it going on here in the States with individuals being brought here from other countries for some of those purposes. It’s a very quiet, but very ugly, dirty practice. They pay people to headhunt, to set these young people up in some way: lie to them, make empty promises, kidnap them. Sometimes they’re drugged. Sometimes, like it almost was with Claire and Alice, they’re trapped into it in some way and spirited then away.”

“I thought that’s what they were trying not to say in front of me. Thanks.”

Clearly troubled by the clarification, J.J. dropped her eyes and then her head in an attempt to keep from transmitting her feelings. Jennifer used an index finger under J.J.’s chin to lift it back up. “What’s the matter? You can talk to me. I don’t want you going to school with distracting things on your mind.”

“It’s nothing. It’s just kind scary, that’s all. Ms. Chris, Claire, Mr. Knight, Jr. The whole world. The people in it. It’s like you can’t ever know who to trust.”

“No, you don’t, sweetie. That’s why you have to be so careful and vigilant. But I don’t think you have a lot to worry about along those lines, though. You have a sort of strong built-in radar for sensing a situation and knowing when you need to back up or extricate yourself. I think you proved that with the difficulties you were having with Wesley this summer. The kind of person you are, it was probably very hard for you to ask your father for help, but you knew when it was time to call in the infantry.”

J.J. chuckled a little and then slowly smiled. “I really love you, Mom.”

Jennifer blinked in surprise at the sudden shift. “What brought that on?”

J.J. wiggled out of the unconscious grip her mother had again taken of her arms and turned away to finish putting her books in her backpack.

“Last night, I was just lying here thinking about things- that question I just asked you, and specifically you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. I honestly don’t know how you do it. You have so many things on you all the time. There are so many people who count on you, me included, not mention my daddy. All week, you’ve taken care of all of us, Daddy, Marie, me, Aunt Pat, Uncle Bill, Marnie. then you took care of Ms. Chris and Ms. Claire. You listened to them, and you genuinely cared about them. They trusted you because they knew they could. I was so proud to be yours Saturday night.

“All summer it’s been one thing after another on you, but you handled your business and made sure we took care of ours. You fussed at us, you ran after us, you fixed us up when we were sick or we were hurting, you always worry about us. Just now, you were getting onto Marnie about her school work, but that’s only because you care about her and what she does. You are so hard on me sometimes, and sometimes it’s nerve-wrecking, but I understand it’s because you only want the best for me. All this week,  you’ve been running around after other people, holding them up, answering my crazy questions and keeping me in check, but still you’ve managed to take such good care of you. You never look like you sweat, but I know you do. Even when your head hurts, when you have to, you still take care of business.

Mom, you accomplish so much, but you do it so smoothly, and with such grace that if I don’t pay attention I might miss it.”

J.J. zipped the backpack and hefted if off the bed onto one shoulder. “I’d better go on down and eat.”

Then she lifted her blue eyes and smiled at Jennifer’s puzzled face. She placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “Relax. I don’t want anything. I just wanted to take the time right now, right here, with just us to let you know that I didn’t miss it. I needed to tell you  I recognize all you do, to thank you, and to tell you how much I love you for it. I’m glad I got you for a mother and not somebody else. I might mess up sometimes, and I sometimes do things I shouldn’t, but you can be sure I always love and appreciate you. I’m sure I don’t say it to you enough. I just wanted you to know that this morning from me.”

She kissed Jennifer on the cheek and then walked past her, out of the room.

Stunned, Jennifer watched the tall, slender redhead in the black jeans and black turtleneck head up the hall and turn to go down the stairs. In her entire adult life, only one had hit the mark, but what a one that little swimmer turned out to be. Jonathan’s girl. And hers.

Momentarily frozen in place, it was only then she noticed Genie. Intact and fully dressed, complete with her yellow rosette headband, the doll rested in the chair right next to Omar, the genie marionette Teddy had given J.J., and the larger, stuffed Hello Kitty, Marnie’s favorite, the one she normally left on the bed in the guest room.

_____________________________________________________________

Jonathan watched J.J. blend her way into the throng of teenagers entering the school building for morning classes. “Do you think she was going for the full swashbuckler effect?”

“I had a feeling she was aiming for a high seas theme when I noticed the single hoop earring, black jeans, turtle neck, and those boots.”

Jennifer, too, been watching their daughter go up the walkway to the school after letting her out of the back seat of the car. “That black leather jacket kind of solidified it for me. But when I confiscated this from her before she could get out of the front door-”

She pulled a black and white paisley bandanna from the pocket of her own leather jacket and held it out for him to see. “-that was the final draft of the characterization she was scripting, as far as I was concerned. You can believe I’ve issued fair warning. She is going to be in a dress and some heels tomorrow.”

He turned away to keep her from seeing the smirk of amusement on his face. “Did you check her bag for the plastic parrot?”

“I’m not having it, Jonathan. I told her that in no uncertain terms. And I see you laughing. She gets this foolishness from you.”

“From me? Whatever you say, Countess Sofia Edna Louise Tolbin.”

She rolled her eyes at him and returned to watching J.J. until she went through the doors. Only he would have enough on her, and have the nerve to throw up to her a few of the personas she assumed for various reasons over the years.

She thought it odd when Jonathan said he wanted to go with them to take J.J. to school that morning after asking her what she had on her schedule for that day. She didn’t have anything especially important penciled in except to take J.J. to the eye doctor after picking her up later that afternoon. Normally Jonathan either left for the office before she took J.J. to school, occasionally he took her himself on his way in, or he would be gone by the time she got back from taking J.J. But then she figured with things getting back to something more like normal, maybe being together as a family was something he just wanted to do.

However, a short time after dropping J.J. off, when she noticed he was driving in a direction not quite toward home, she figured him for having something up his sleeve.

“Where are we going?”

He didn’t answer; he just kept driving, a mysterious twinkle flashing in his eye and in his smile.

_____________________________________________________________

Monday Afternoon

As soon as she entered the lobby of the Medical Professional Building, J.J. spotted Dr. Kendall and waved to get her attention. The doctor broke off talking with her two acquaintances to wave back to the girl for whom she had been waiting.

Kate Kendall couldn’t help but smile as the unorthodox young Jennifer-clone approached. The bright smile, that long, red pony tail attractively contrasting with her all black attire; the boots, the backpack casually slung over one shoulder, a single silver hoop earring and a black eye patch; a fresh faced, pretty little pirate indeed.

When J.J. reached her, they briefly hugged.

“Well hello. It’s so good to see you upright and walking around. How are you doing today?”

“I feel great, Dr. Kendall. The eye is still a little sore to the touch, but I’m not dizzy at all any more.”

“Good. I see Mr. Lamb got you here just fine and on time for your appointment. How was school? Did you have to look long for him?

Locking arms, they started toward the elevators.

“School was okay, just school. My daddy had already told me that I should look for Mr. Lamb to pick me up after school to bring me for my eye appointment, so I knew to look for his car. It wasn’t like I could miss him, though. It was so embarrassing. Mr. Lamb is paranoid about me, so he double-parked right out front where I couldn’t help but see him. He had the light flashing and cars had to go all around him. I made him turn the light off as soon as I got to him. All my friends were giving me the business, and he had the nerve to be laughing himself. It was soooo embarrassing. He told me Daddy said to do it so I couldn’t make out like I couldn’t find him and hook a ride with somebody else to somewhere else. As if I would do that and risk the wrath of Jennifer. Mr. Lamb also said you would be bringing me home.”

“Yep, I’ll be taking you home. I have to go in your direction when I leave here, so it won’t be out of the way to drop you off. But now that you’re on your own, young lady, tell me, what are you going to do with yourself for the next couple of days?”

“What I’m supposed to do, of course. I have school and my activities to keep me busy, and Marie will be at home with me. My parents have their lives. They deserve to feel they can leave me for a minute and not have to worry about me and what I’m into. I didn’t even let Daddy tell me where they were going when he came in to tell me this morning that he was taking my mother away for a rest. I told him I have the numbers if I need them, and they should just enjoy themselves. He knows they can count on me to do the things I’m supposed to in their absence.”

“That’s a very mature attitude to assume J.J. I’m glad to see you taking that high road.”

“Yeah, well, with my father you never know what booby-traps he might have set and strategically placed to check me should I have a momentary lapse and stray off the prescribed path. Then again, in that instance, there would be my mother to have to deal with, so why even try it? Besides, even if I was of a mind to get into something, there’s nobody good around right now anyway. All my partners-in-crime are away for the time being.”

The elevator doors slid open and J.J. stepped in first. When she turned around, Dr. Kendall noticed that her cheerful expression had gone a bit pensive.

“Something wrong? Talking about them got you missing your parents already?”

J.J. sighed. “No, nothing’s wrong. I’m honestly kind of glad my parents decided to take off like they did. In fact, I welcome it. Today in school, I was thinking I could use the room. Things have been kind of tense, and I’m ready to just lay low for a while. I’ve been into enough stuff lately to last me at least couple of months. For now, I just want to keep to myself. I’ll let you take me up here to see about this eye so when she gets back with you, like we both know she will, you can put my mother’s mind at ease. Then I’m not going to do anything else to make her anxious about me. She needs a rest from craziness. They both do.”

“What about your baby?”

“The Project? Oh, that’s over. I kept Genie, but I took her insides out so now she’s just a doll. She’s sitting in the chair in my room, doing nothing. She won’t move or say anything now unless I make her, and I don’t generally play with dolls. No crying, puking, or crapping to be bothered with. I am childless again, Dr. Kendall, and will be for a good while to come. Believe it.”

When the elevator doors opened again, with one hand, Dr. Kendall eased J.J. in front of her smiling to herself at what a fine job Jonathan and Jennifer were doing with that late-in-life girl of theirs and her “insides”.

_____________________________________________________________

Monday Evening

The bungalow was quiet save for the soft jazz tune playing in the background. Lying on his side, propped by one arm and the pillows, Jonathan remained as still as possible to keep from waking his wife. With the dimmer on the bedside lamp at its lowest setting, there was just enough light for him to watch her as she lie on her stomach next to him, the scene before him like one staged by an artist preparing to preserve it on canvas.

The ivory sheet, draped in nearly uniform folds, covered just her lower body with the exception of the leg farthest from him. It rested, long and lean on top of all the other covers. In admiration, he gazed at the slim ankle and shapely calf, the curved outline of her backside beneath the thin cover, and the dip in the small of her toned, freckled back. The tousled auburn mane partially covered her face, then fanned out over the pillow she had scrunched under her head. A well-traveled man, he had seen many marvels of the world, but Jennifer at rest, nude, swathed in satin and blissfully unaware that she was being watched in her sleep was his own personal wonder, a singular, sensual masterpiece reserved for his viewing pleasure only.

The day turned out to be a perfect one. Talking, healing, making love; the first time, him making his sincere amends to her. The second, the time in the shower, her opportunity to “punish” the hell out of him.

The woman could be downright wicked in the shower.

… and I have been a very bad boy for a while now…

Phoning for a light dinner to be brought in, talking, and laughing, they ended the evening holding each other close as they danced to Ella while the fire softly crackled, warming them in concert with the cognac. Then, surprising even himself, they made love yet another joyous time before falling off into a much needed, therapeutic sleep. When he came to again, it amused and gratified him to find her softly snoring; he took full advantage of enjoying the sight before him, using the peacefulness of the setting to reflect.

In the car, on the way over, it took quite a bit of talking on his part to get her to play along.

“Jonathan, I see that look in your eye. Where are you taking me?”

“To a place that will be all our own for a couple of days.”

“A couple of days! Just like that? What in the world will I wear? I didn’t pack anything. All I have is what I have on.”

“It’ll only be you and me, so you won’t need to wear much.”

“Jonathan, be serious.”

“All right. Seriously, Marie packed for you. Your things are already there.”

“Where?”

“You’ll see.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be at work this morning?”

“I’ve decided you were right; I went back too soon. I really am tired, so I’m going to heed your advice and take a few more days to get myself together.”

“What about J.J.? After everything she’s been through, we can’t just leave her by herself all of a sudden like this. It’s bad enough Marnie’s gone from her. What about her eye appointment this afternoon? I need to be there for that.”

“J.J. knows what to do; it’s her eye, and she and I have already talked. She’ll be fine. I’ve made all the arrangements for her appointment. August will pick her up and take her to the doctor. Kate will meet her there and go with her for the examination so all the right questions get asked. Marie will be at the house to make sure all J.J.’s personal needs are met. August said he’ll take J.J. to and pick her up from school personally until we get back. Is there anything else? Did I leave anything out?”

“There you go again, making my decisions for me as they relate to our child.”

“Jennifer, I really thought we could do with some time to ourselves. I wasn’t cutting you out in this; I merely wanted us to take some time off together. You have to admit, I covered all the bases, and J.J. understands how important her eyesight is if she’s planning on getting her driver’s license, not to mention her pilot’s license. She’s got a huge vested interest in doing the right things this time.”

“Jonathan, I don’t know about this. I don’t know if-”

“Jennifer, I do know that I need- we need some quiet time together, just you and I. Don’t you trust me? When I was sick, and you took me away to the beach, leaving J.J. on her own and the rest of the world on the outside, I trusted you.”

“Well, that time J.J. was sent home to be with Pat and Bill. She wasn’t in school then either.”

“But J.J. is under her father’s orders this time. She gave me her word she can handle herself. She’s a big girl now, and she knows what to do. Trust her.”

“Jonathan Hart, where in the world are we going?”

When they reached their destination, she had been delighted with and calmed by his choice. That was when she accepted fully his plan for them to get away from it all.

The Beverly Hills Hotel was far enough for them to be alone, but close enough to home for Jennifer to be able to relax and not be unduly worried about being away from J.J. during the school week. It was also the kind of place a private person like himself could go to recoup his sense of well-being. It took quite a few phone calls to get everything the way they needed to be to ensure Jennifer’s comfort and peace of mind. With the summer she had gone through, she deserved it. Living through the stressful week that just transpired, she earned every bit of it. This was a place of serenity for both of them.

As a suddenly wealthy young bachelor, the huge changes in his life had come faster than he sometimes felt able to handle them. Uncomfortable with the increased attention that accompanied his business successes, he found himself in occasional need of respite from everything and everyone, at times even Max. He would retreat to the renowned, historic hotel which prided itself on protecting the privacy of its occupants. Taking a bungalow there had been far enough away from the maddening hordes to allow him to wind down, but at the same time, close enough for him to keep tabs on the empire he was building.

After his first few times taking refuge there, he began asking to be assigned to the same unit. Back then, he dated a lot, but the bungalow wasn’t a place to which he brought his lady friends. Not even the Greek heiress Nikki Stephanos, the closest he had ever gotten to marrying anyone before Jennifer, had spent time with him there. Jennifer was the first and only woman he allowed into that space with him.

Their first time there, while waiting to close on the Willow Pond Estate, she had been surprised to find that out about him. When she teased him about finally bringing her into his “love nest”, he informed her she was and would always be the only woman to ever spend time with him there.

Over the years, it had come to be understood that when the Harts booked a stay, that same plush, but comfortable bungalow was where they were to be placed. Secluded, peaceful, and quite private- a smaller version of home.

But then anywhere with Jennifer was home.

She stirred in her sleep, and then rolled over, her movements languid, fluid, even sexy as she took the sheet with her, pulling more of it off of him, causing him to scoot closer to her to keep his backside from being exposed to the cooler air of the room.

For him, everything she did was sexy- even at those times she might be angry with him or telling him off about something he had done. Jennifer’s innate lust for life made her passionate about a great many things, and it was that passion, her ability to feel, to empathize, to communicate, and to speak up for herself and for others that he so loved about her. Unlike him, she could easily articulate how she felt and what she wanted. Under most circumstances, she didn’t mind sharing what was on her mind. She wouldn’t hesitate to let a person know when they had crossed a line with her, and best of all, she knew how to tell a person that she loved them.

She certainly knew all the ways to tell him she loved him. Jennifer spoke and understood several languages. He understood spoken French, and bits and pieces of other languages, but the language of love was the one in which they both fluently communicated when speaking to each other. They had been communicating in that manner for over twenty-five years, and were still finding new and interesting things to say.

The most recent problems, the ones at HartToy were hopefully behind them. It seemed all the principals had been accounted for, he story played all the way out. Chris Allen said she was still curious about her parents’ deaths. Had it been an accident, or had Knight Shipping Enterprises been somehow involved in engineering their car wreck in retaliation for the decline in revenue brought about by Big Chris’ investigations and subsequent revelations? Knight Shipping never really recovered from that incident, and then with some of the funds being forcibly diverted to Chris, Jr. and Claire…. But back then Jr. hadn’t known about that last part. Based on what he learned about old man Knight’s actions toward the Allen girls, he doubted Knight, Sr. would have commissioned a hit like that.

After the passage of so much time since the incident, and with M.J. now dead, it might be a question that would never be answered for Chris. He wanted to, and he wished he had, but he hadn’t told her it didn’t matter any more. What mattered more at this point was she and Claire working on the present and the future. Those were the things subject  to change and be made the most of. The past was a fixed entity; it was what it was, and would remain as such. He was acutely aware of the merit in accepting that line of thinking. It was one of the many growing-up truths in which Anastasia, and then Max as his later mentor, had wisely taught him to believe about the pursuit of a happy, contented life.

Happy. Contented. How could a man not be in his position? With the woman next to him, the one who had consented to be his partner for life, how could he have gone wrong with that perfect fit? Despite how his life started, he had always been lucky.

Jennifer came from the best side of town, and he definitely came from the other, but upon meeting at the tracks, the Lady and the Tramp jumped on the train and rode off together to make a wonderful life- and eventually one princess of a puppy.

“Doing sex”

… no baby, it’s making love…

The thought of J.J., her mischievous face, those eyes, and that bright smile made him chuckle to himself. That was his girl.

Eye patches. Fake I.D’s. Pirate outfits complete with bandannas. Loopholes. Her brilliant mind and that glib tongue. Tool kits, computer pictures-

… and damned boys…

Teddy. Chase. Tommy. And who-the-hell-ever else would be coming along to help turn him gray.

That past summer at Briarwood, Jennifer’s father’s home, he had that dream about Jennifer’s mother, the one where she came to him and told him J.J. would give them grandchildren earlier than expected, but not sooner than it was proper.

Earlier than expected. What the hell did that mean? When was “proper”?

Please, please, please just give her time to grow up and have some time to herself first.

J.J. Hart with her nine and a half lives was growing up, but she was still, and would always be his child, the result of his and Jennifer’s love for each other. She was what they would leave the world when they were gone on from it. He would be- they would be, without a doubt, well-represented by her.

My only. …only with you, my darling ….

Jennifer continued sleeping, but turned on her side, facing away from him. Lifting the hair from her neck, he leaned in to nuzzle his favorite spot, reveling in her warm, familiar, comforting scent. She stirred again, this time moving toward him, pressing her backside into him, the suggestion clear.

“Again?”, he whispered into her ear. She nodded. He couldn’t see her smile, but he felt it.

“Jennifer, I love you.”

Her voice, raspy from sleep as she reached back to touch his face, “I know  you do. And I love you, too, Jonathan, with all my heart. I fought you on it, but today has been simply wonderful. Thank you.”

Building a real family of his own, his lifelong project. Fulfillment of the dream began with Max, and then with Jennifer entering his life, the quest had been more than fully satisfied.

J.J…. Pat … and Ms. Marnie Elaine….

Both he and Bill had benefited from Jennifer entering their lives….

“No, Darling. Thank you.”

He moved in even closer, wrapping both arms around her waist to connect to her and to secure and savor their bond. But desirous of looking into her eyes as he loved her, he disengaged from her, rolled her onto her back and then covered her again. In sync with his desire, she opened her eyes to lock gazes with him. She smiled a dreamy smile and whispered something to him in French, but lost in her eyes, her touch, her essence, He didn’t fully catch what she said. But then, it could have been said in plain English, and he wouldn’t have heard it.

Nature called him to Jennifer, and gentleman that he always tried to be, who was he to not fully oblige her?

End

Continue to next story

 

 

 

One Response to The Project: Parts Fifteen and Sixteen

  1. Lesa says:

    I hope Chris and August begin a loving relationship. Chris needs a good, caring man to help her enjoy life.
    Looking forward to Marnie’s adventures in New York with Pat. Pat is fun and hilarious. I love her honesty. Jonathan is so sweet and caring. Every woman needs a Jonathan in her life.

    Liked by 1 person

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