Celebrating Seventeen: The Party- Part One
The mirror ball-spangled spotlights and the music followed J.J. up the walkway where, joined in her rhythmic backward glide by a few other fedora-adorned, sequined moonwalkers, she boogied over to the soundstage. Waving to the cheers of her guests, she climbed the stairs and grabbed the lone empty mike up front to officially greet everyone and welcome them to a good time. Then she introduced the band, one of the best house groups from the “17/20 Club”, an extremely popular entertainment spot for people seventeen to twenty- the wanna-be but not-yet-legally-grown group.
Marnie initiated the contract with them to play for the start of the party. Since she was now seventeen and operating on the up and up inside that facility, she could and did take public credit for making that happen.
She was sixteen when she accidentally let the cat out of the bag to those who mattered that she had been frequenting the club since she was only fifteen. The incident led to Daddy Hart figuring out for himself how Marnie was being admitted even though she was underage. The conclusion he arrived at, had him in Marnie’s room demanding that both his sixteen-year-old girls check in the two pieces of Hector’s boys’ best handiwork in their possession.
That had gone down the previous fall, but now they were both seventeen and a little more legal- in that area, anyway.
While J.J. was up there on stage, the bandleader, Angelo, joined J.J. at the mike and presented her with a huge, glitter-gold key to the 17/20 Club along with her own official membership card.
“J.J. Hart, you been waiting a while for this. Tonight, you officially graduate from hanging out and partying in the parking lot to hanging out and partying with us on the inside!”
She probably could have finagled admittance way before her time, too, but for her, that would have been too big a risk to take. Getting busted using a fake I.D., especially for that purpose wasn’t eee-ven worth it. One could never be sure who might casually mention having seen her there and indirectly- or worse, directly- have it get back to one of her parents.
It also would have been putting the club owner’s livelihood in jeopardy, a thing she had become extremely conscious of not purposely doing.
Besides, the occasional hang in the parking lot with the other “children” hadn’t been so bad; in fact, depending on who was out there with her, it was usually a lot of fun. Being part of the ‘inside’ crowd wasn’t as big deal for her as it was for Marnie, but it would be nice to legitimately experience it firsthand.
… and perhaps work her way into a gig in the sound and technical effects booth, which were of much greater interest to her.
To more applause and shouts of congratulations, she thanked the young man, waved her hat to the crowd, and after hanging the key on the mic for everyone to see and slipping the card into her pocket, she left the stage.
Parachute pants, mini-skirts, leg warmers, shoulder pads, teased big hair and mullets and Jheri curls- lot of them wigs, animal prints, gold chains, velour jogging suits, hoop earrings, Members Only jackets, neon scrunchies, bright, shiny, glittering, and colorful; all the popular eighties trends researched and posted as wardrobe suggestions, were well represented as she worked her way through the yard.
She stopped several times to mingle and/or marvel at hairdos and outfits until she reached the side of the pool house, the spot under the amber floodlight that over the years had become her crew’s established area, their designated “spot”. It had been set up- furnished and outfitted- precisely for her, her immediate friends, and their comfort.
Tiffany and Ollie, she had seen together out in the crowd. Supposedly, those two had sort of agreed to cool it as a couple, but Tiffany, she suspected, wasn’t all the way on board with that. The girl would have the whole summer in front of her to get Ollie back in her corner. She was graduating high school in June and would be off to college in the fall, too, which, according to Marnie, would put Tiff back on a more level playing field with Ollie.
Flashes of all the possible upcoming scheming and finagling on Tiffany’s part had J.J. involuntarily shaking her head at the various hair-brained plots and strategies likely thrown into the mix by the others to aid and abet Tiff in her quest. And Marnie would be right up in there, playbook all dog-eared and annotated.
Have at it; I cannot be bothered with that mess. Whatever will be is going to be without all those machinations and shenanigans.
At one of the tables sat Charmaine, her cousin, Deon, Brittany, and Brittany’s cousin, Philip. Deon, already dealing a hand of cards, briefly looked up from what he was doing when she walked up.
“What’s up, J. We tried to wait for you to get over here.” he said around the unlit Black and Mild clamped between his teeth. “Tried to get you in on the first round, you being the woman of the hour and everything, but my man over here,” he tipped his head in Philip’s direction- ” the new guy on the scene, was talking junk, pocket itchin’, all anxious to get started, so-”
J.J. shot a sympathetic eye to the back of Phil’s head as she assured Deon, “That’s all right. Go ahead. I’ll get mine in later.” Then she added, ” Just don’t light that cigar. At least don’t light it where you can be seen. And you can be seen just about anywhere out here. My daddy has cameras all over. He probably has two or three of them trained just on this corner.”
Unfazed, Deon patted the left breast of his wide-lapeled, sequined blazer.
“Saved a couple for you, J. You can indulge tomorrow when the cameras are gone and you’re out here just chillin’, comin’ down off this party. Looks like it’s gonna be live, just like always.”
“Big” Percy, sporting a black bucket hat matched with a black sweat suit accented by several thick gold chains, entered their area with Kendra on his arm. She appeared to be his cute, colorfully dressed 80’s groupie, which, in J.J.’s opinion, wasn’t that far off the present reality mark.
They both greeted her, and Percy handed her an envelope that she put with the others in her inside pocket while she made quick note of their cozy body language. That triggered her next out-loud thought.
“Say, where is Marnie?”
Charmaine, seated at J.J.’s elbow, arranging the cards in her hand, answered.
“Don’t know; haven’t seen her. She’s usually already outside, set up, and over here holding it down by the time we get here for your parties. I thought she must be coming out with you this time. Real nice suit, J. Got that serious “Queen” of Pop/ Cab Calloway thing going. Scarf’s a real nice touch.”
Marnie’s odd absence conjured up the image of Aunt Pat’s face, more so the look on it when she turned around at the front door, which in turn shot a startling jolt of realization, streaking down another track, straight through her brain-
Aw man, I cannot believe-
Yet another important thing that, in the underlying current of distraction still pestering her, she had overlooked.
She gave Charmaine’s heavily padded shoulder two quick taps, telling her, “Thanks girl,” with the intention of taking off to go and fix things.
“No prob,” Charmaine replied.
But just then, Sidney and his entourage showed up, all of them elaborately outfitted and meticulously made up- glitter, wings, sequined jackets, knickers, stockings, and everything else- bearing artfully-wrapped birthday gifts for her.
Despite anxiety insisting she immediately address the problem at hand, deeply ingrained manners held J.J. in place. Sidney’s squad never minded being that kind of different. In fact, they took great ‘pride’ in it, and she always found their irrepressible nerve delightfully amusing.
Accepting Sid’s kisses to both her cheeks, she directed the group to the table where presents were being placed and invited them to make themselves comfortable over in the spot. Sid and the boys, after greeting the others present, decided instead to join the larger crowd, and they took off.
With everyone in her circle occupied, J.J. removed the fedora, leaving it on the table with the gifts. For what she had to do, she didn’t need the wind drag.
“You guys, I’ll be right back,” she said as she passed the card players, who deep into that first intense hand, silently waved her on her way.
Again, it was somewhat tedious politely getting through the growing crowd, but this time she didn’t stop, or even slow, to socialize. When the way before her cleared enough to do so, she broke into a trot to take the walkway around to the side of the house where she loped up the deck stairs to re-enter the den.
A lamp in a far corner by the bookshelves afforded just enough light to see the closed door on the other side. Nobody was in there yet, but it wouldn’t be empty long. Smooth jazz, voices and laughter from the great room indicated the crowd inside the house was increasing, as well. Diversity in interests and conversation among the grownups would eventually facilitate the need for some of them to spread out into that space.
In a few long strides, she crossed the room and grabbed the doorknob, but to her surprise the thing twisted on its own in her hand. The door swung open with such force, she had to jump out of its way.
When Jonathan went out of the front door upon their return to the first floor from getting dressed for the party, Jennifer proceeded into the great room.
What had at one time simply been a few parents temporarily lingering for a quick drink and chat after accompanying their offspring to J.J.’s parties had, over the years, developed into a much-anticipated cards, billiards, and good company cocktail party. In the spirit of the birthday girl’s selected theme, most of the assembled adults had donned eighties outfits, too.
… at least one leisure suit… a couple of his-and-her matching sweat suits… a gaudy, gold-colored rope chain nearly lost on an obscenely hairy chest… shoulder pads galore… a pair of already kicked-off, spike-heeled black patent leather stilettos leaned against the coffee table, right next to Carolyn Barnett’s bare feet… a couple of airbrushed tee shirts with hilariously rude messages….
Although it had been over a decade since she had last worn the like, in the midst of this motley group, she didn’t feel the least bit out of place in her retro leather pants and jacket ensemble. In fact, looking around herself, she felt pretty good in it.
Just as the music outside ramped up, and the adults on the inside immediately picked up on the tune as well as the signal that the party on the outside had officially begun, she spotted Fee on the other side of the room. The significance of the “Smooth Criminal” soundtrack reverberating through the floorboards wasn’t lost to her, or apparently on Fee with whom she momentarily locked a meaning-filled eye.
It took a few minutes for her to greet her other guests as she made her through the room. She had just reached the card table where Fee was seated when she glanced behind herself just in time to catch Pat entering the doorway from the foyer. Always at her best in a social setting of any kind and already acquainted with several people, Pat sauntered in and began working the room.
“That is your friend-sister, isn’t it?” she heard Fee ask. “Justine’s godmother?”
“Yes.” Jennifer answered, her eyes still on Pat. “That’s who that is.”
“I remember her from the last party,” Fee said. “Like you, she is a looker. Different kind from you but striking in the same sort of can’t-miss way.”
Without a doubt, Pat was wearing that black cat suit. Buttoned low at the breast, she had it stylishly cinched at her waist by a wide gold lamé belt with a huge rhinestone encrusted buckle. The turned-up collar drew attention to her oversized gold earrings while that chunky choker made her slim neck appear even more svelte. Carrying an unlit cigarette in a long black holder that Jennifer hoped she was only using as a prop, Pat looked every bit the diva she had been two decades back when she patronized the hottest, high-end discos in New York, “networking”- her claim for why she so frequently could be found in them- more likely indulging a couple of her more unsavory pleasures of that time in her life.
“Is the white patch in her hair natural?” Fee leaned in a little
closer to inquire.
“Yes,” Jennifer answered as she slowly lowered herself into the empty seat by Fee still watching the woman who was, indeed, her ‘sister-friend’. “Back when we were teenagers at school, she once tried to dye it to match the rest of her hair, but that part only turned a kind of greenish-grey color. And that was, of course, long before punk was a style.
“After that incident, after she came off detention, had to pay a whole lot of money, and lost some of her hair in the effort to get it back to its original color, she embraced it for the birthmark it apparently was meant to remain. It’s become her hallmark.”
Fee chuckled. “Having that was likely a little startling for people when she was a young girl, younger woman, but it’s quite becoming on her now.” Fee placed a hand on Jennifer’s forearm and leaned in even closer to add, “And speaking of becoming, Jennifer-”
The touch and the pause turned Jennifer all the way around to face Fee who finished what she started. “I have spoken with her already.”
“I know. I saw the two of you from my bedroom window as you were crossing the driveway a few minutes ago.”
“She met me at the door when I arrived and had me go back outside with her. She wanted to talk with me, so she took me down by the water. So peaceful and quiet there. She had a lot on her mind.”
“Indeed, she did, and she does,” Jennifer privately mused.
To say the least about her, J.J. was discerning about with whom she placed her trust. And that young mind was vast and capable enough to have a whole lot on it.
Despite the turn the conversation had taken, or maybe because of it, she was finding it hard to not give in to the hints of goading merriment in Fee’s wise eyes. She and Fee had developed a relationship, the strength of which surprised even her. Evidently, so had Fee and J.J. The older woman gave good counsel in the art of dealing with a strong-willed, impulsive daughter.
What, pray tell, did she say to the strong-willed, impulsive daughter about her mother?
“You mentioned something about ‘becoming’,” Jennifer ventured.
Fee removed her hand. She shifted in her chair and crossed her arms on the table in front of her. “I did.”
When it didn’t appear the woman was going to elaborate on her own, Jennifer felt compelled to urge her on. “Well?”
Fee laughed. “She just is. Very much so.”
What Fee said was not in reference to J.J.’s age or appearance, of that Jennifer was sure, but two could play the ‘cagey’ game. “Her outfit, you mean?”
Fee’s maddeningly cryptic volley to the question served: “In so many ways.”
And with that, Jennifer lowered her head, ran a hand through her hair, and sighed.
Fee always spoke slowly, deliberately, as if her thoughts took their own sweet time to perfect themselves in her mind before becoming the words that left her mouth. The fortunate saving grace in that- the wait was usually worth it for the listener.
Lifting her head once more, Jennifer planted an elbow on the table, pinched her chin between a thumb and index finger, and fixed her eyes on Fee’s face to wait her out.
“She worries about things, Jennifer,” Fee finally said after a time, “things that one would think would be outside her immediate understanding, or even caring. At her age, most young people, most teenagers, still largely exist in a sort of self-possessed vacuum. It’s the nature of a typical child’s development. But not so much Justine, I have noticed. That one is very old in her mind. Her thinking. Her caring. She worries very much about you, again, in a way much older than she her years.”
“About me? I don’t know how many times I’ve told that girl about trying to be the mother between us.”
Fee’s smile was like one bestowed upon a young child struggling with a difficult concept.
“No, Jennifer. About her relationship with you as a person not necessarily as your daughter. She loves you. She respects you, the person, as well as her mother. The former, maybe even more so.”
“I guess she told you about her latest escapade.”
Fee nodded and snickered a little. “Yes, she did. She craves your respect, Jennifer-”
“I do respect her; she knows I do. She just insists-”
“and your understanding of her, I believe,” Fee continued, “in the part of her that isn’t so much like you. Or perhaps-”
Jennifer leaned in when Fee stopped and gave her a curious look. “Or perhaps?”
Fee returned the gesture, leaning in on the arms resting on the table. “Or perhaps, now that I think a little more on it, that part of her that is so much like you.”
Both sets of eyes had only a moment to meet before being interrupted.
“Good evening, Fee, Mrs. Hart.”
Brenda Steele, mother of Fee’s grandson and J.J.’s good friend, Tommy, had arrived and come over to the table. “Do you mind if I join you?”
It shocked Bill to see J.J. jump back from that den door when he swung it open.
Caught off guard and a little stunned at finding his intended objective inside the house and in that room rather than outside where he expected she would be, and that he had startled her, he immediately grabbed hold of her arm to steady her.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. I thought you’d be at your party.”
She fanned herself while blowing. “H-h-hey, Uncle Bill, I-I-I had to come in to look for you.”
Releasing her arm, he closed the door. “I was coming to find you.”
“Yes, you. So, what gives? I’ve been here all day, and you haven’t once spoken to me? Haven’t even phoned over to the house to say so much as ‘hello’. What did I do to you that I’m getting the silent treatment?”
When she dropped her head, he saw he had clearly struck a nerve in the girl, and he found that oddly gratifying. J.J. had never been an easy one to pin down, and the older she was getting, the harder doing that was becoming.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, still looking down to the floor. “It’s definitely not the silent treatment. I wouldn’t do that to you. Ever. I’ve just… I’m… it’s just….”
She raised those serious blue eyes to his face. “I know they told you what I did.”
J.J. Hart looked more and more like her mother every day, but those eyes- every bit her daddy. Direct and unreadable most of the time, but every now and then so deep and soulful to those precious few allowed to get that close up and personal to their owners.
Of course, he had been informed of what she did, but dealing with her on it was somebody else’s job. That wasn’t his real role in her life; he only stepped into those shoes when he had to, and tonight was not one of those nights.
“Yeah, Pat told me, but what’s that got to with me? Or with you and me? Look, I’m not mad at you- well, not mad much. You do know better than to go that far without telling anybody, but-”
That precious, pained, confused, pitiful little face.
He stepped forward and opened his arms. “Come here, girl.”
“Please know I wasn’t dissing you,” she said as she hugged him. “I would never do that to you, Uncle Bill. As soon as I realized-”
The earnestness he heard in her words, that tiny crack in her voice twisted Bill’s heart, and he instantly regretted coming at her in the way he had. In reality, his concern for her emotional state had far outweighed any upset he might have felt; her silent absence from him was in no way typical. No doubt, his goddaughter could occasionally be a pistol, but she had the biggest heart when it came to loving her family and respecting their feelings.
“Hush,” he whispered, “I know you wouldn’t leave me out in the cold. I was just kidding about gunning for you. I was really only coming out to say hello, to tell you to have a good time, and to give you this.”
He dropped an arm to give her the envelope he pulled from his back pocket.
“Thank you,” she said as she accepted the gift from him and Pat and slid it into an inside pocket of her blazer, “for this and for not being mad at me for not coming to find you before now.”
“Never,” he said, cementing his assurance with a wink and a smile.
The immediate business out of the way, he took a step back from her to take all of her in.
Time had certainly flown. There was a time, not so long ago, when nobody acquainted with J.J. Hart and how she operated would have dressed that particular girl in anything white, much less in an all-white suit. But there she stood, wearing it well, and so far, spotless.
… every bit her mama….
Poor Jonathan, it’s no wonder-
I’d be in constant kill-mode, myself.
Who am I kidding? Already am, and I’m not even her daddy.
“Snazzy suit, J.,” he said aloud to her. “If I had known, I’d have brought you a hat this year, too. A white felt fedora this time, to finish it off.”
“Got one,” she countered with a smug grin.
She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her pleated pants and rocked forward on her toes, just like her father sometimes did when gloating about getting one over on somebody.
Valentine’s Hart. Definitely.
“I left it outside when I came in to find you,” she said.
Bill tapped his forehead with an index finger and pressed it lightly to hers. “Great minds.”
Then he leaned in and down some to her. “You did mess up, but tell me this; how come you’re ducking your daddy this time?”
That dropped her back down on her heels. “Huh?”
He leaned in even closer. “You heard me. Look, I understand you dodging your mother; I might, too, in your place, but your daddy says he hasn’t seen you at all today. Says you haven’t really been talking to him since you got back from the trip. So, since when has that been the case between the two of you?”
She again hung her head, but Bill persisted. “I asked you a question.”
“I don’t know,” she murmured. Then she sighed and admitted, “It’s just been a mess, Uncle Bill. I- I- I guess I just didn’t- I know Daddy came up to see me earlier today. Marnie saw him and told me he did, but Aunt Pat had me closed up in the room with her at the time, and I guess he heard she did, so he went away.”
That revelation triggered a snicker all the way up from Bill’s gut. Pat hadn’t said a word about any conversation she had with J.J., but in his head he envisioned the look on his wife’s face as she headed up those front stairs to get to her beloved, but footloose, gadfly godchild.
“Don’t laugh,” J.J. said. “It wasn’t funny. I’ll bet she could hardly wait to get to me once she heard about it, could she? ‘Specially since I was with Duncan.”
“Practically foaming at the mouth all the way here, sweetheart. The Duncan thing didn’t help you any. Hope she wasn’t too hard on you.”
J.J. slowly shook her head. “No. Her, I can take. But my mother-” She raised her eyes back to Bill’s. “-that’s another story. So, where’s Daddy now?”
With his arm about her shoulders, Bill turned her around to move her toward the back door. “The last I saw him, he was out front. But, you get on back out there to your guests. We’re good, you and me. Your father won’t mind the wait.”
She gave him a peck on the cheek and thanked him again for the card and for not being mad at her for not seeking him out earlier.
“No problem,” he said as he remained inside the door frame, allowing her to step past him onto the deck. “Go on and enjoy your party. Put all that other stuff out of your mind for the time being. It can all wait.”
Standing there before him, her hands back in her pants pockets, she shrugged. “I guess I might as well. It’s not like the other stuff is going anywhere, is it?”
He laughed, slowly closed the door, and stood there with his hand on the knob for a moment. He sincerely hoped his godchild would be able set her troubles aside for a little while, at least until her party was over. J.J. loved and was close to both her parents, and it was clear to him how much it bothered her to be out of favor with either of them. Having been there and done that with two boys of his own, he understood that even the best of kids- which J.J. Hart really was- messed up sometimes. But turning seventeen only came around once in life.
And, bottom line, it wasn’t him or her father J.J. had the most difficulty facing in those times. Jennifer Edwards Hart would be the force to be reckoned with when it came to her and her daughter. Justine Jennifer had really, really taken it there this time.
That was his goddaughter’s problem. He had cleaned up that bit of urgent business. Now there was an even more pressing matter to which he needed to attend- the feisty Spanish woman on the other side of the door, waiting for him. As he passed her on his way into the den, she brazenly challenged him to the rematch he told her she owed him after she cleaned him out at J.J.’s last birthday party.
Not one to keep a lady waiting, he headed back to the party on the inside of the house.
Once the door closed, J.J. took enough time getting to the stairs for her godfather to get completely back inside and to be sure he was not going to double-back on her for anything. As soon as the lock clicked, she hit the ground running, and instead of returning to the party, she headed for the front of the house.
When she reached that last turn and peeked around the corner, the first thing she noted was the number of adults outside. It was mostly- actually all- men, but that wasn’t so strange. She had been around long enough to notice that people did that sometimes in social settings- the males gravitating to one place while the females got together in another. It did make her a little skeptical when Uncle Bill said it, with card playing. and no doubt gambling, going on inside the house that her father would still be outside.
Maybe, she began to worry, he wouldn’t be out there after all.
For just a second, she stepped back, tightly closed her eyes, and crossed the fingers on one hand, earnestly putting her bid in for him out there. The need to get to her father was even more pressing after having gotten things right with Uncle Bill, but she wanted to catch her father more on his own rather than in the middle of entertaining. And definitely not if he happened to be in the company of her mother.
Wish made and sent, she peeked out again.
In the distance, flashlight beams sliced like Star Wars light sabers through the night, directing cars to parking spaces. Parked vehicles lined the edges of the lawn and the driveway as far back as the bridge. Knots of teens made their way up the drive, headed to the back of the house. That they were being sent up the walkway on the other side, past the guest house, worked in her favor. She would not be deterred from her current objective by having to play hostess.
Using the big sumac under the front bay window as cover, she carefully panned the area for her father. She heard him before she saw him- something about the timbre. As far back as she could recall, his voice had always been unique to her ear, allowing her to locate him by sound even if she couldn’t immediately spot him. He was on the other side of the drive, down from where she stood, inside a group of guys who were going to have to do without him for a few minutes.
She stepped out from behind the bush and crossed over.
As she got closer to them, she recognized Mr. Lamb, her “Uncle” Marcus Borland- her father’s board chairman, Mr. Barnett- the twin’s father, and a few other men she didn’t personally know but recognized as being from the upper ranks of her father’s security team.
But then, with particular delight, she singled out one very welcome male figure not a part of that last bunch.
“You all can go back inside, Mr. Hart. We’ve got this.”
Jonathan kept his arms folded as he declined his security chief, August Lamb’s suggestion. “You guys can go on in and get something to eat and drink,” he said to the men gathered around him. “Jennifer has everything set up. Lots to eat and drink. Cards. The pool table is ready. There’s no need for you to hang around out here. I just need to give it a few more minutes for my own piece of mind.”
Chuck Barnett shrugged. “I can wait. I need to see how long it takes Chase to get here, anyway. Carolyn and I left both of them at the house getting dressed. They said they were right behind us, but I can’t ever tell with those two. I saw the car pull in not too long ago- that was probably Chance running to get to Marnie. Chase told me he had a couple things to do, so he was coming on the bike. Can’t ever tell with that one of my kids. If you don’t mind, I’ll just hang out here with you a little while longer.”
“Me, too,” seconded Marcus. “I can give it a few more minutes, too.”
“Well, they have it handled down at the gate,” August conceded, signaling his decision to stay put as well. “Besides, Chris radioed to say she was taking a golf cart down there just as I was coming over here with you. She’s not on the clock, but-”
Jonathan was pretty sure August would prefer being down at the gate, too. For certain Marcus would rather be inside the house. Given the reason he and they were out there on the driveway, it said a lot to him that they chose to stay. As for Chuck Barnett, his boy would get there when he did. Chance had always been the more predictable of Chuck’s twins. Added to that, Chance had a feisty, very cute, and very flirty brunette reason for breaking his neck to make it to the party in a timely manner. Chase, on the other hand, would arrive whenever he was done with whatever it was he was into.
Chase and Chance were close brothers, but Chase harbored a strong tendency to follow an often unorthodox, personal beat. But there was nothing in the world so important or distracting that he would completely skip out on J.J.’s party- not if he valued his life. She would have Chase’s head prominently displayed on a stake at the front gate if he did, and he was quite aware that she would.
At that point, though, he would have preferred being in the house himself, with Jennifer, nursing a drink, snacking, and enjoying their guests. He was especially eager to get in on the action at the card tables, as well as the pool table. It had been a while since he indulged those two of his favorite recreational activities. However, that nagging hunch bugging him since early afternoon continued to insist that he stay where he was for the time being.
Standing inside the group of select individuals with whom he had been sharing his concerns, something moving outside that circle but within the periphery of his vision caught his attention. Tilting his head just enough to see past one of the heads blocking his view, it surprised him to see J.J. approaching, crossing over from the other side of the drive.
Thwarted in his earlier attempt to catch her alone to see where her head was, he had resigned himself to putting off getting with her until the next day. J.J. had been keeping that red head low for way too long. It was understandable that in growing so much closer to adulthood, she would be pulling away a lot more, but still he found it disturbingly odd her shutting him out in the way she seemed to be doing, especially under the current set of troubling circumstances affecting her existence.
Now locked in his sights, even to him-her daddy- the girl was striking in that all-white zoot-like suit, and for a quick second, he found himself wrestling once again with how painfully quick it seemed his little “Hart” had sprung up on him.
She halted for second, then her face abruptly lit up, her steps considerably quickened, and with arms outstretched, she cried, “Russell!”
Standing directly in front of him, Russell Thomas’s back was to her, so he wouldn’t have noticed anyone headed his way, but at the sound of her voice, he broke into a grin right before he swung around.
“J.J. Hart! As I live and breathe. How long has it been? Look at you! You sure are a sight for sore eyes. Can I get a hug?”
But then Russell abruptly snapped back around. “That is if you don’t mind, Mr. Hart.”
Smart boy, that one.
Not totally feigning the stern frown he assumed for the young man’s benefit, Jonathan ordered him to, “Make it quick.”
“It’s so good to see youuuu!” J.J. squealed as Russell issued that brief hug and wisely turned her loose. “I didn’t know you were in town! I thought you were still in Europe.”
It was through one of J.J.’s school picture antics that Russell had entered the Hart Industries “family”. For months, he had been working abroad, heading up the technical end of a Hart Industries-related film project in Cannes. In his relatively short time with the digital imaging division, he was proving himself a valuable asset to the international group as a whole.
“After all, you invited me, so let me first wish you a very happy birthday, J.” Russell said after taking a discreet step back from her. “You know I wouldn’t have missed your party for anything in the world. We were pretty much finished with the job over there, and I had to come back here to sign some papers for the last of the work I’m having done on the beach house, so I arranged to do that this weekend to make sure I was in town.”
Renovations and new construction had been going on at Russell’s Malibu beach house, off and on, for almost a year.
“Everything should be just about completed by now, isn’t it?” J.J. ventured.
“As if she doesn’t already know for herself that it is”, Jonathan thought as he oversaw the interaction.
For J.J. to not have slipped out there on her own or with Marnie to see how the work was proceeding on her friend’s new home would be highly unlikely. That question to Russell was nothing less than amusing. Pure J.J.
When Russell confirmed her question, she took the inquiry a step further.
“So, does that mean you’re coming back here to live in it sometime soon? And while you were in France, did you get a smart and pretty girlfriend to come over here and spend time in it with you?”
Russell laughed out loud. “You are not going to stop trying to get me hooked up with somebody, are you?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I think you’re too nice a guy, and you’re doing too many interesting things to not have anyone special to share them with.”
Jonathan inwardly shook his own head at his daughter’s impertinent nosiness as well as at his protégé’s good-natured patience with it.
“I still don’t have time,” Russell explained. “Not to give to a serious girlfriend or even to spend at the house very much. As it is, I’m headed back to Europe on Monday, and talking to the boss here, it looks like I’ll probably be over there another couple months. He keeps me hopping, but that’s okay; I’m learning so much, sometimes my head swims, but I know I’m growing.”
“Daddy’s like that,” J.J. said. “I get that feeling with him sometimes, too.”
At hearing her say that, something clicked in Jonathan’s head as she continued bombarding Russell with questions.
“So, is the fixed-up house just going to sit there once it’s finished?”
“No,” Russell said. “Actually, my oldest sister is moving in next week. See, she got divorced last year, and she retired from her job In Chicago. Her kids are practically grown and on their own away at school, so she decided she wanted a change of scenery. A spot, she said, to do some writing she’s been wanting to do for years. Since I needed somebody to hold things down for me while I’m gone- and when I’m back, too, since I’ll probably just be in and out most of the time, her situation turned out to be a win-win for both of us.”
J.J. nodded her grudging approval. “Well, okay, I guess a big sister will have to do for now as far as a special woman goes in your life.” Then, putting her face closer to Russell’s to mischievously squint and wiggle her nose at him, she asked, “So, how soon after she gets here can I meet her?”
Jonathan slowly rubbed at his forehead. It wasn’t only in appearance that his precocious, charming daughter so greatly resembled her precious mother.
For his part, Russell merely laughed. “Any time you happen to be out that way this summer, J. In fact, I’ve already told her to be looking for you to be dropping in to pay a call because you’re that kind of nice-nosy.”
“Good looking out on giving her the heads up,” J.J. grinned up at him, “because you and I both know I will be making my presence known. I’ll take her some chocolate chip-macadamia cookies. Marie showed me how to make them, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But-”
Caught up in his daughter’s interactions with Russell, it surprised Jonathan when she abruptly turned away from Russell to come to his side where she immediately wrapped her arm tightly around his.
“Do you guys mind?” she said to the others. “I really need to borrow my dad for a few minutes.”
And without waiting for an answer from the others or from him, she nudged their arms into his side to get him moving along the privet hedge and down the steps leading to the pond.
As soon as she it felt graciously feasible, Jennifer excused herself and left Fee and Brenda alone at the table. Although she found herself a little frustrated being left hanging at a most intriguing point in her conversation with Fee, she figured Brenda likely had more pressing and personal matters to discuss with Fee.
While she had been otherwise engaged, the great room party had been smoothly progressing.
Pat was now perched on the bench in front of the fireplace amidst a group of animated women seated on both sofas. Several in that group were affiliated with the literary field in one way or another, which placed Pat solidly in her element.
At the other three other card tables, players focused on their hands and the cards being played, each intent on the securing the pile of wrinkled bills in the center. Over at the bar, all the stools and the spaces in between were occupied, so the two bartenders busily filled requests. The same was true for the steam table set up at the rear of the room where the furniture had been cleared out to make room for a dining and dancing area.
On her way through the room, she stopped here and there to mingle with some of the guests arrived after her first pass through. Then, her good friend, Carolyn Barnett, drink in hand, padded over to her.
“I see you looking at my feet, Jen.”
Jennifer chuckled and fingered one of Carolyn’s huge gold earrings. “Love these. I didn’t mean to be obvious, but I did see some rather nice patent leather high heels sitting cast-off and all alone when I first came down.”
“Yeah well, nice or not, we couldn’t get along, so they had to go their way while my feet and I went ours. I have to tell you, Jen, you’re killing it in that black leather. Like always, you’re making the rest of us look like refugees from the thrift store. Jonathan know you’re wearing that outfit tonight?”
“Yes. He was with me when I put it on.”
“Oh! I see. And you’re all cleaned up, re-dressed, and down here already?” She leaned in closer. “A quickie, huh?”
When Jennifer’s mouth fell open, Carolyn snickered then lightly patted her upper back. “It’s okay. We’re all aware of how it is with you two, and that’s a beautiful thing, my friend. The rest of us should have it so good- and so often. But seriously, come here a minute.”
She pulled Jennifer over to the piano bench where she had them both sit.
“Look Jen, what I want to tell you is I know it was last minute, but I can’t thank you, Jonathan, and J.J. enough for helping Chase out with his prom.”
“J.J. was glad to do it. Jonathan and I understood the bind he was in. Marnie’s going anyway, so it’s really no trouble.”
“Jen, he is my first-born child, the one I prayed for, but Chase Charlton Barnett drives me crazy. I told that boy, after he and his original date fell out, that he was not going stag- taking pictures looking like the Sheik of Bel Air with a harem on both arms.”
Amused by the image Carolyn painted of her charming, but the more free-spirited of her twin sons, Jennifer nodded, “Yes, that was probably his plan B once plan A collapsed.”
And she privately thanked the heavens once again that her child with Jonathan Hart was female. Chase could easily have been Jonathan’s son, making her his mother. As it was, J.J. Hart was proving to be just as charming, independent, and free-spirited as Carolyn’s firstborn, but being female, it was Justine Hart’s mother who had her number. Had she been born a boy, at seventeen and looking like his sexy father-
Lord, have mercy.
At this point in the young man’s life, Jonathan would have been on his own, for the most part, with that.
“And I am willing to bet he purposely aggravated that girl to the point she cut him loose just so he could show up solo and flirt with everybody’s else’s date,” Carolyn went on. “I don’t know what do to with that Casanova of mine. Most mothers would prefer their teenaged sons not get too serious about any one girl, but that boy- I wish he would get a steady girlfriend for once- a level-headed one that would help settle him down, get into his books rather than on a boat or that motorcycle. I still can’t get over his sitting out a year before starting college or the fact that Chuck is letting him do that. ”
Jennifer reassured Carolyn that despite her frustrations with him, Chase was a decidedly good kid and the last-minute prom request really had not been a problem. After all, the Barnetts were practically family.
From J.J.’s infancy, Carolyn had served as her unofficial west coast godmother, although Pat took strong exception to sharing the title, unofficially or otherwise. J.J. was the daughter Carolyn didn’t have. And it wasn’t as if J.J. didn’t have plenty of formal wear at the ready, so the prep work for another prom wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Since she and Jonathan already planned to transport Marnie to San Francisco to be Chance’s date, J.J. accompanying Chase settled the issue of what to do with her that weekend.
Not to mention that it would serve to inadvertently prolong her upcoming penance.
Bill came into the room, seemingly from the den, and went right over to Fee. Anticipating a continuance of the previous year’s hilarious fireworks between those two, Carolyn excused herself and scurried over to join the game soon to start at that table.
Accepting a drink from the tray of filled glasses offered to her by one of the roving attendants, Jennifer got up from the piano bench. As she continued her rounds, she noticed Jonathan was still missing. Surely, she would have seen him had he come back in. He had to still be outside, but that wasn’t like him- not with gaming, food, and drink going on in his living room. When she passed the front window that last time, he had been out front with August Lamb, Chris Allen, and some others on the security team.
Maybe he had gone around to the back. One of them needed to check on things with the partiers. There was plenty of security out there, not to mention the remote surveillance being conducted in the dining room, but still…
She could go out there on her own, but a united parental front was their usual way of doing it at J.J.’s parties, at least for their first appearance of the night.
Since she was already in the foyer, she decided to see what Jonathan was up to that was keeping him so long. She opened the door just in time to catch the back of him and that white suited figure go arm-in-arm through the privet and disappear from sight.
It happened that Russell Thomas and Marcus Borland were walking up to the house, so instead of stepping outside to check on her family, she welcomed the two men and went back to her guests.
The vast frontage of the Hart estate usually rendered that section of Willow Pond Drive quite dark and lightly traveled at night. On this special evening; however, headlight beams illuminated the wooded area on both sides as muffled voices, laughter, and strains of music emanated from the line of waiting cars, livening the area considerably. Uniformed security just outside the open gates checked for either the RSVP-provided wristbands or printed invitations and corresponding credentials from the occupants of each vehicle before granting permission to drive onto the grounds. That made for somewhat slow-going, but it was what the Harts required for admittance to this year’s party for their daughter.
From her spot in the golf cart pulled up beside the guard’s booth, Christina Allen had a clear view out to the street.
She had come to the party as an invited guest, not in her official capacity as a Hart security executive. However, after being told of Mr. Hart’s principal concern for the evening, she had fallen right in with the rest of the team despite being told she didn’t have to do that.
Ken Matheson, her right hand at HartToy, the Hart facility for which she was responsible, was inside the booth. They talked as they both kept an eye on operations at the end of the drive.
“It scares me to think how much Hart must lay out for his kid for these shindigs,” Ken was saying.
“Well, it’s not like he can’t afford it,” Chris replied without taking her eyes off the front. “And she is his only child. Besides, from what I know of her, J.J. works hard in school and in the community, she seems pretty responsible- she got her dad down that time he had that health emergency in the jet- and from my own interactions with her, she comes off as really grounded despite all of this.” Chris spread her arms for emphasis and continued, “considering her father is the CEO, J.J. Hart could be real entitled and nasty-spoiled like a few of the other exec’s kids, but she isn’t. And it’s only once a year he and Mrs. Hart do this.”
“Yeah well, did you see that sound stage out there?”
Chris shook her head. “I didn’t get that far before I came out here. Big?”
“Like for a rock concert. That whole party layout blew my mind. I mean how many acres does Hart have? It’s like a huge festival or something. Like freakin’ modern day Woodstock, but in Bel Air.”
“I doubt seriously it’s anybody’s Woodstock back there, Ken,” Chris said through her laughter. “I cannot see Mr. Hart- no, Mrs. Hart putting up with any LSD, weed smoking, liquor swigging, or any free love in her backyard. Why do you think we’re all here tonight?”
“You’re right. I understand Mrs. Hart’s the one to worry about when it comes to protecting the kid,” Ken said. “People take it for granted it would be him, but-”
“Look,” Chris said, cutting him off as she craned her neck to see while pointing to the street.
A distinctive silver sportscar slowed to a crawl, rolling past the vehicles in the driveway. For a moment, it appeared the car was going to stop, but after a second or two, it resumed its cruise and disappeared from their sight.
Ken looked down to Chris who was already looking up at him.
“Same one?” he asked.
Chris swung her legs around to the running board of the golf and got out.
“There’s not that much coincidence in the world or out of it,” she said, briefly reaching back in for her walkie-talkie. “It’s got to come back this way. When it does, if it slows like that again, I’m flagging it down to ask a couple friendly questions.”
Ken watched her slowly go down the drive, speaking into the device in her hand. To the untrained eye, she appeared to just be on a stroll to the front, but Ken was well aware it was anything but that.
J.J. hustled her father down the steps and over to the same bench by the water where she had earlier taken Fee. But once they were seated, even though there was so much her heart wanted to say, she found herself uncomfortably lost for words. It was the closest she had physically been to her father since their return home from Boston.
In her head, Fee’s voice urged her to speak what was on her mind, but everything up there was spinning too fast, shooting off in too many directions, ricocheting and sparking everywhere.
“Okay, you got me down here,” she heard him say through the fog. “You’re still shutting me out? I could have stayed where I was for this. You could still be out back at your party.”
Brought back to the moment, she shrugged then quietly admitted, “I’m not shutting you out. I just didn’t- just don’t know what to say now that I brought you down here.”
Even in the night, with only the amber lamplight from overhead allowing her to see him, that steady steel blue gaze bore its way clear down to her soul, freeing the stifled words.
“Daddy, I- I- I just don’t know how to start.”
His voice was firm, but fortunately, still all Daddy to her ears.
“J.J., you and I have never had a problem talking, even in the worst of times. And just so you know, this is not a ‘worst of times’ thing for me, if that’s what you’re worried over.”
She jerked in surprise. “It’s not?”
He shook his head, and the ever-so-slight smile playing in his eyes and on his lips relaxed her some. “No. sweetheart. Not for me.”
He slid a little closer and lay his arm across the back of the bench, essentially over her shoulders. “I will say; however, that I wish you had been more up front about what you planned to do. I don’t like that you chose to sneak off like you did.”
“I know. I just wasn’t thinking at the time, Daddy. I really didn’t mean to break your trust; I would never deliberately do that. I just so badly wanted for Teddy to go.” Then she quietly added, “But to be completely honest, I really wanted to go myself.”
“I already figured that,” he said. “The problem with the plan was, you two got caught at it.”
“Cold busted,” she admitted. “In the most bizarre turn of events ever.”
“Ever,” he concurred. “Even I have to say that’s what it was. So, alright, you didn’t talk to me when you should have; talk to me now. Tell me how it all went down, so I can understand.”
“See,” she began, her hands involuntarily springing into action to aid her in the explanation, “it was at the last minute that Teddy’s gig at that club came up. He actually had turned Duncan down on it at first because so much had been put into prepping for his prom, into his mom and sisters making plans to travel to Boston, and into his father, you and my mother getting me there to go with him. I was the one who finally talked him into taking the spot. It was such a good opportunity for him, and I didn’t want him to miss it on my account. He didn’t really care about missing the prom, but at the point the cancellation came up, it was too late for him to back out of going in order to fill the spot without it affecting everybody else, especially me.”
“Then why didn’t you just tell us that was the plan?”
Her hands dropped to her lap and she shrugged. “You know why.”
“Because Teddy’s father wasn’t aware of what was going on with Teddy?”
Head lowered, she nodded. “That and-”
“Because you didn’t think your mother and I would have let you go if you told us?”
“Yes. Especially my mother. She always-”
“J.J., your moth-”
The walkie-talkie on her father’s hip crackled: “Front Gate to Hart.”
He snapped the unit from his belt and clicked in. “Hart.”
“Subject possibly just spotted, sir. Second time around.”
She recognized the voice speaking back to him.
“On my way.”
He stood and reached for her hand.
“I need you go back to the party,” he directed, putting himself behind her after pulling her to her feet.
A no-nonsense hand clamped itself to her shoulder and guided her to and up the stairs. “We’ll finish this chat later. Bottom line- I’m not angry over what happened, but do not do it like that again. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Daddy, I hear you, and I won’t. Is something wrong at the front gate?”
“Just some business I need to handle.”
At the top of the stairs, he climbed into one of the golf carts parked right at the curb and started it. “You look very nice, J.J. Now you just go on back to the party, forget about all the other stuff, and have fun for tonight.”
“Thank you and okay.”
She started in the direction he told her to go, and he pulled off, headed in the toward the bridge.
Something wasn’t right. The look that came to his face when he got that message wasn’t one she often saw, but she was familiar enough with it and the change in his demeanor to easily interpret both. Whatever was going down at the gate was something he really didn’t like.
Or maybe someone he really didn’t like. Could it be-
It couldn’t be.
Oh hell, what if-
As soon as the cart made the right turn at the bridge road, she doubled back. Giving it just enough time for her father to have cleared the pond and be on his way down the road to the front, she jumped into the other golf cart and took off behind him.
Hold on. Were those sideburns?
Once she had seen Russell and Marcus inside and made another hostess pass through the great room and foyer, Jennifer decided to go to the kitchen to see how things were going there.
For the birthday parties, Marie stayed on for the weekend. She was charged with working with the outside catering, as well as supervising the staff assigned to keeping the guests inside the house well-fed, watered, and comfortable. As usual, the ever-capable housekeeper had everything well in hand.
After a quick peek out of a window, which really didn’t reveal a whole lot to her other than the immediate yard filled with milling teens, Jennifer used the pass hall to go back up front. Just as she entered the foyer, she ran into Pat.
“Where are you on your way to?”
“Sort of looking for you and on my way out back,” Pat said. “I take it you didn’t do a wardrobe check before Thelma and Louise came down on their way to make their grand entrance.”
“Ahhh, Marnie.” Jennifer smiled as she recalled that quick glimpse she had gotten of her young charge.
“I noticed her crossing the hall as I going into my room to get dressed. I thought what she had on at the time was a little skimpy, but I admit, I didn’t get a real good, up close look at it.”
“Skimpy? It was a freaking sash, Jen. Might as well have been a damned belt. She made it just this far-” Pat pointed her unlit cigarette in its holder to the bottom step, “and I marched her hot tail right back up to change it. I was just now on my way to check to make sure she hadn’t come back in and shimmied her behind into that first one again. Come to think of it, though, she probably wouldn’t have been able to, seeing as how she had it Velcroed to herself. Say, where’s Jonathan? Chuck and I are waiting for you and for him so we can get a game started. We’re behind. Fee and Bill are already at each other’s throats, and Carolyn’s over there with them and Brenda.”
But Jennifer remained hung up on that one thing she heard.
Pat waved a dismissive hand. “Long story. I’ll fill you in later.”
“What about my child, Pat? Did you check her outfit? Was she appropriate?”
“Yours was fine as far as I could see. White zoot suit. Spats, too, I think. Boobs put up for once. She looked really good in all that white with that blue scarf. She has her nerve, though, trying to make it through the whole night in white.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what I saw. Definitely your kid in the style department- maybe not quite your style- but tasteful just the same. Definitely her. Where is Jonathan, I asked you.”
“He was outside with security, I guess briefing them on the areas he wanted look after the most. But the very last I saw of him, about fifteen minutes or so ago, his daughter was taking him down the pond stairs.”
“Taken? By his daughter? J.J.? Shouldn’t she have been out back?”
“She should have,” Jennifer said, heading for the front door. “But since when has she ever stayed put? She’s been emotionally shut down for a while now. If you think about it, it makes sense that she would go to him first; that would be the natural order of things for her given her current domestic situation. Let me see if he’s returned.”
She opened the door and peeked out in time to see a golf cart take off from the curb, but no Jonathan. She closed the door and turned back around.
“Guess he’s not,” she said taking Pat by the arm. “Let’s go make a quick check on Miss Marnie Elaine and the party together. Maybe by the time we come in from out there, Jonathan will be back inside and we can get the game going.”
She and Pat were halfway down the pass hall before it dawned on her the driver of that golf cart had been dressed in white.
Jonathan stopped just inside the gates, parked the golf cart, and walked out to the security booth.
“What’s going on?” he asked Ken.
“A silver Viper went past. Since this street is on a cul-de-sac, we expected it to come back if it wasn’t a resident or a visitor to one of the houses down there. It went by once and came back, but then it just passed by again, which would make this a second time around. Slowed down quite a bit this time, too. Chris called you?”
“Yes, she did.”
As he spoke with Ken, Jonathan caught sight of Chris out by the curb, watching the uniforms as they checked in J.J.’s guests. From where he stood, he couldn’t see all of it, but he assumed the line was still fairly long, but then, too, it was also still a bit early.
Chris turned around and she must have spotted him; she started toward him in long, purposeful strides. He began walking toward her, but she held up a hand as if she wanted him to stop where he was as she continued in his direction.
“Mr. Hart, I’m going to need you to stay out of sight,” she ordered once she got to him.
Tugging him lightly by the sleeve, she pulled him off to the side as if to speak in greater confidence with him. He opened his mouth to argue, but she looked him in the face and cut him off before he could utter the first word.
“Look, if it is him, I want this guy to stop when he comes back by, so I can see what he’s up to. He’s not going to do that if he sees you. He doesn’t know me, and I’m female- not threatening to someone he’s been described to me to be; no badge, no uniform, a white woman in an 80’s mini skirt- he won’t immediately see me as security; I look like a party-goer in this get-up, so I stand a better chance of getting to him to pull over.”
Jonathan wasn’t buying any of it. The last thing he wanted was for that car to stop if Wesley Singleton was in it.
“Ms. Allen, I don’t care what he wants. I don’t want him to slow down, much less stop. I don’t want him here. Period.”
“It’s ‘Chris’, and you’ll- no, J.J. will never be rid of him if he’s not dealt with directly, Mr. Hart. To do that, we need to know where his head in on this. He knows full well he’s not welcome; he wasn’t invited this time, so why is he here?”
While he admired Chris’ efficiency, her intelligence, her assertiveness in confronting the situation, he couldn’t help seething over her attempt to deter him from directly addressing it- over attempting to keep him from getting to that boy and wringing his damned neck. The gall of that kid to come anywhere near his home- his daughter- after everything that happened.
Red steamed and foamed behind his eyes, threatening to blind him.
Typically, he kept his cool in irritating situations. Being a hothead in his younger days hadn’t gotten him very far, and it was Max who ‘convinced’ him to slowly make the change. It was how he succeeded in business. It was how, over the years, he had learned to conduct his life. Once it became apparent that J.J. harbored that same tendency, he had been actively teaching her the crucial need to check her quick temper in order to stay in control of whatever was going on at the time.
But this knucklehead.
Although he had known the boy all of his life, something about Wesley Singleton had never sat easily with him. Then, after the incident on the bluff where the little jackass had actually come after J.J. with a gun and wound up aiming it at him-
In a single movement, he and Chris whipped around to the voice behind them.
At the gate entrance stood J.J.
“I thought I told you to go to the party. Isn’t that what I told you to do?”
He felt Chris flinch, saw J.J. do it, and realized he was losing his own control.
“I’m sorry,” he immediately said to Chris. He repeated it to J.J. as he gestured for her to come to him. She did so, but slowly, tentatively, and that hurt his heart.
“I didn’t mean to yell at you, baby,” he said when J.J. reached his side, “but why in the hell are you out here? I specifically told you to go back to the party. You’re still insisting on being where you want to be and not where you’re supposed to be.”
“No, it’s not that, Daddy, really. I was just worried about you. You didn’t look or sound right once you got that call from Ms. Chris. I just had a hunch and came out here to see.”
Chris grinned. “You knew it was me?”
“Of course. I know your voice. I was right there with him when you called.”
J.J. turned back to her father. “It’s Wesley, isn’t it?”
Chris answered before he could. “We’re pretty sure it is. The car fits the description, but the windows are tinted. Plus, it’s dark, so it would be hard to see into the car even if they weren’t. We’re waiting for him, or at least the car to see if it’s really him, to come back from the cul-de-sac.”
In the meantime, Jonathan searched J.J.’s face as a startling idea formed in his mind.
“Has he been trying to get in touch with you?”
When J.J. sighed and nodded in answer, he focused hard on not bellowing again. “Why in the world haven’t you said anything to me about?”
“Because he’s blocked on my phone. As far as he knows, I’m not aware that he’s calling. I installed an app that lets me know who it is even if I’ve blocked the number, but the person on the other end isn’t aware of it. Other than it being annoying that he was still wanting to talk, I didn’t think anything of it.”
She slid her hands into her pockets, and exhaled. “But now- with this happening- I guess I should have said something.”
A car from the line got waved in and several voices called out to J.J. She waved with one hand and put it right back into her pocket. Jonathan shook his head.
Who would have thought, seventeen years back, when he held her in his arms for the first time that something like this would be happening to that child, that sweet little girl, his only? And for the second time in those seventeen years.
“If it is Wesley in the car, J.,” Chris was saying to J.J., “are you willing to talk with him?”
Jonathan’s arm immediately shot straight out as if to physically cut J.J. off from the idea. “Hold on. She’s not talking to that fool. She’s not getting anywhere near him. There’s even a restraining order in place.”
To his surprise, he felt J.J.’s hand on his arm, gently but firmly easing it down.
“Daddy, it would be better if I did. He’s not going to stop un-”
“I said no.”
J.J. straightened. Both expressive hands came out of her pocket and went right to her aid.
“You and my mother and a restraining order cannot protect me from everything. Some things I need to handle on my own. He thinks I don’t talk to him because you guys don’t want me to- you specifically. In his mind, he wasn’t invited tonight because my parents don’t want him here- you specifically. Since he’s hanging around here like he’s hoping to see me- or more scarily, maybe Marnie, he should hear it directly from me that I am the one who doesn’t want him here or anywhere in my life for that matter.”
“She’s right, Mr. Hart.” Chris chimed in. “J.J. should be the one to talk with him. Alone. If you go out there with her, he’s going to see you as the reason she’s blocking him and not that it’s her independent choice to cut him off. He needs to hear it from her. It- the whole thing, I mean- needs closure. He needs that closure from her.”
Chris turned to J.J. “You’re totally okay with doing that, right?”
“Absolutely,” J.J. said she moved a subtle step closer to Chris.
They both looked to Jonathan who, after a few tense seconds grudgingly mumbled, “I’m not crazy about this, but-”
“It is what I need to do, Daddy.”
“I’ll be right there for backup,” Chris said. “Again, he doesn’t know me, so he won’t have any idea that I’m riding shotgun, not just hanging out, smoking this cigarette.”
She pulled a slim from the pack rolled-up in her tee shirt sleeve.
J.J.’s eye widened. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t. It was supposed to be for an 80’s effect, but it seems it going to come in handy for this scenario you and I are about to enter into.”
Ignoring the off-topic banter, Jonathan grumbled, “I really don’t know about any of this. But I do know I want it over and him gone.”
There was logic to what Chris said, but that was his kid, not to mention, Jennifer’s daughter being put out there on the line, God forbid, without her knowledge.
J.J. took his hand and lightly squeezed as she assured him, “It’s what needs to happen, Daddy. I need it to stop. You need it to stop. We all do. I need to feel that I did something definite in the effort to get it to stop since it’s obvious the law or that simply avoiding him is not going to do it. I don’t know if this will be the end of it, but at least I’ll know I didn’t run, I didn’t hide. I confronted the problem head on and did the best I could to get him to understand.”
When J.J. and Chris both gave him the look, he sighed, rubbed his temples, and shook his head in grudging final approval. “Don’t take any unnecessary chances with that idiot, J.J. And don’t get too close to the car.”
“Okay.” And she kissed his cheek.
“Get out of sight, Mr. Hart!” Chris called behind her as they walked away from him moving toward the curb.
He slipped into the stand of the trees near the mailbox. As he reached behind his back and into his belt, he swallowed hard to force down that first real, first bitter dose of acceptance of his daughter’s impending adulthood and subsequent independence. Without a doubt, he and Jennifer had raised a smart, strong kid….
But, for the time being, you’re still seventeen….
He removed the safety.
With an arm around her shoulders, Chris spoke close to her ear as they walked away.
“When you go to the car. Keep your left arm close to your body, below the window line and out of his sight. If it gets to feeling the least bit sketchy, extend two fingers. I’ll be watching that hand and those two fingers will be my cue. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
Then she lightly, but purposely, bumped J.J. with her hip. “We got your back.”
Chris had her stand on the lawn beside the driveway as if they were just talking. It wasn’t long before headlights lit the night in the direction opposite of the party line. Not wishing to give anything away, they pretended not to notice, although Chris had positioned herself to see the street. The cigarette now pinched between her lip, expertly hung, as if glued in place, as she spoke.
“It’s the car,” she said. “I think it’s stopping. Yep, the it’s pulling in. Window’s going down. Just be cool.”
“Hey, J!” a voice called. “It’s me, Wesley!”
Involuntarily, J.J.’s eyes rolled up into her head and her fists clenched inside her pockets. “Like I care,” she seethed between clenched teeth.
“Be cool,” Chris urged. “Left hand out. Play it off. You got this, and I’ve got you.”
J.J. removed the hand from her pocket, drew in and released a quick deep breath, then turned around.
Wesley had pulled to the curb nose-in, which put him on the side facing her, inadvertently putting her between him and everybody else behind her. It dawned on her that had to have been anticipated- him doing that- and it was likely the only reason she was being allowed to go to the car alone.
But then, she was in no way alone. Chris wasn’t skinny by any stretch of the imagination, and even if she was, there had never been a hip bone that hard. She figured Chris for someone who always traveled with a ‘little friend’. Daddy, no doubt, had his constant companion back there with him, too. That would be the only reason he had given his consent for her to be on her way to where she was going.
She had to get her face right, though. There was so much going on inside her head and her gut, none of it pleasant, a lot of it irritating, but it wouldn’t do to look how she felt. That would send him on the defensive.
But then she didn’t want to look pleased to see him either.
Think poker, J. Straight flush. You’re holding it, and he doesn’t need to know you are.
He grinned as she approached, sending her fingers into itching with the desire to slap it right off his face. Why was he there, and what in the world did he have to grin at her about?
“Hey Wesley,” she said, stopping about arm’s length from the car door.
When he made like he was going to get out, she snapped up her right hand. “No, don’t. I can only stay a minute. I have to get to back to my guests.”
“Of which, I guess, I’m not one this year.” He followed the summation with a self-conscious-sounding snicker. “But then, I guess, why should I expect to be?”
Rhetorical questions didn’t need answers; she offered none.
“You’re looking good, J. So, I guess you’re wondering why I’m on this side of town. On your street.”
Although certainly curious about it, she continued to hold her tongue and let him play his hand.
“Looking like I’m stalking your house.”
To that, she did tip her head and raise that single eyebrow, and thought she sensed in response unease snaking its way out of the car and over to her.
She fought back a smirk of satisfaction.
“I’m doing all the talking here. You gonna say anything to me, J.?”
Something in the tone of his question generated a twitch in those two left fingers, but she pressed them hard against her leg to keep them still as she finally answered him.
“We haven’t seen each other or spoken for almost a year, so yes, I am wondering why you’re here.”
“Your birthday was this week. I figured tonight would be party.”
Of course, he knew her party was taking place that night. Who in the Greater Los Angeles area didn’t know?
“My party is tonight, Wesley, but I didn’t invite you this year.”
“Yeah, well, I- I was just passing, by, hoping I could run into you.”
“If you figured my party was tonight, then you cannot reasonably have expected to find me out here as you were ‘just passing by’. It’s stricty a fluke that I happened to be-”
“My good luck,” he smugly interjected, but she in no way acknowledged the flicker of attempted bravado.
“- so, I am wondering why you’re here. It’s not like this street or my house are on the main drag or anything.”
She stayed in place, keeping her eyes on him and his hands. Nothing she picked up on said she needed to fear him. Just the same, she strongly distrusted his motives.
“I don’t know,” he said kind as he dropped back against the seat like a blow-up toy with the air let out it. “I had to- I felt compelled to, at least, drive by. I can’t ever remember not being welcome here. Everything’s fallen apart. I hate that, J. People avoid me. They don’t want to hang out with me. I can’t even get through to you on the phone anymore. I hate that we can’t at least be friends.”
Go figure, butthead.
“Things change, Wes,” she said aloud. “People change. Paths change. We’re not little kids anymore, and we’ve simply grown into very different people. You’re away in college; I’m still in high school. You’re meeting new people, doing different things. I’m still doing my thing here. We’re just on different paths now- actually different worlds.”
“Your father had it fixed this way,” he grumbled, “and you know it.”
Shot fired, she had to stop, swallow hard, and concentrate on not shooting back at him in the way her hair-trigger reflexes wanted to.
She spoke slowly, carefully choosing her words.
“Wesley, please let that line of thought go. You know me better than that. Nobody, not even my father, tells me who to be friends with or who to have in my life. I don’t mean to upset you or to hurt your feelings, but it was my decision alone to cut ties.”
He sprang forward with a look of surprise on his face, and determined to at least appear calm and in control in his eyes, she resisted the instinct to take a step back.
“I miss hanging with you so much, J. I’m really, really sorry,” he gushed as if he thought talking more and faster would get him what he wanted, whatever that might be, “about everything that happened. I really wasn’t myself at the time. I just got into some dumb stuff with some dumb people, but then I’m sure you already know that. I’m better now. I just wish-”
Not interested at all in what he wished, she shook her head to stop him. “Don’t, Wes. It’s okay. I appreciate the sentiment, and I’m happy you’re on the mend, but it doesn’t change anything. Even if none of it had happened out there in Malibu, it probably still would have come to this- to us parting ways. Please try to understand.”
“So, there‘s absolutely nothing I can say to get you to change your mind? To get back on your good side?”
“I really need to get back to my guests. Good night, Wesley.”
Feeling it unwise to put her back to him by walking away, she stared him down until he put the car into gear. She continued to watch until the tail lights were past the line of waiting cars and out of her sight. When she finally turned around, Chris was right there, stopping her short.
“Dang, Ms. Chris! Were you there all the time?”
“No,” Chris said, extending her arm to drape it over her shoulders again and give her a quick hug. “I just hung close enough to try to hear what he was saying to you and to take drastic action if I had to. You were good, J. I like how you kept the conversation on point.”
“I don’t know about good. As for staying on point, there wasn’t a lot I had to say. I just needed him to hear things directly from me so he couldn’t get anything twisted about where we stood. After that, it’s whatever for him if he keeps on.”
“That’s all you can do, J.”
“And speaking of drastic action, Ms. Chris, is that what’s in your pocket?”
Back inside the golf cart, her father rolled across the grass toward them. “You, okay?”
But his question seemed directed to both her and Chris as he swooped down and stopped in front of them.
“She’s fine, Mr. Hart,” Chris answered. “Handled herself quite capably. The young man is gone.”
When Chris nudged her toward it, J.J. climbed into the passenger seat of the golf cart.
“If he knows what’s good for him,” her father muttered. “And it’s ‘Jonathan’. Thanks so much, Chris. I appreciate you keeping an eye on her like you did.”
Chris patted her on the back. “This is my girl, too, Jonathan. And I’m quite sure you had your eyes on both of us the whole time.”
He winked at Chris. “More than just my eyes. You can make book on that. That little fool better be glad it worked out like it did. Now let me get my daughter back to her party before her mother discovers she isn’t out back, neither am I, and I’m left on my own having to explain to her where we’ve been.”
J.J. nodded. “Yep, she’ll swear we were somewhere ‘colluding’.”
“Well, I think she won’t be too far off the mark about it, me included in it, this time.” Chris laughed as she waved them off. “Have fun, J. I’ll be out there in a little bit.”
Making a U-turn on the grass, he drove the cart back onto the pavement, past the cars being checked in, and up the drive.
“You sure you’re okay?“ he asked once they were back inside the gates and on the road leading up to the house.
“I’m good, Daddy,” she assured him although she wasn’t so sure she was. “I’m just so sorry this is happening. It’s like it’s always something with me. I don’t mean to be a pain, honestly.”
“Goes with the territory, sweetheart.”
She wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, and she didn’t ask.
He didn’t say anything else until he had her back at the walkway that she used to come find him. He stopped the cart, but didn’t switch it off.
“All right,” he said, turning to her and looking her in the eye. “I’m sending you to the back with strict instructions- straight from me to you- to stay there. Do you hear me?”
She got out, but before she could start down the walkway, he called to her and gestured for her to come around to his side of the cart. She trotted back to him.
“I want to say one more thing to you.”
He placed both his hands on her shoulders and smiled. “J.J., there is not a thing I would change anything about you. As for your being a pain; that’s not so. Worrying over you, helping you with your problems and with getting things sorted out, that’s what I’m supposed to do; it’s what your mother is supposed to do. We’re your parents, and despite the bumps in the road, we always love you. What I want you to know from me is that I am so honored, so proud, and so grateful to have been allowed to be your father for every single moment of your entire life.”
He kissed her forehead. “Now, go on. Forget about all of that we left down there at the curb. You go ahead and have a good time tonight. Seventeen only comes around once.”
There was nobody on earth like her daddy, but-
“Sideburns, Daddy? Really?”
“Your mother made me wear them.”
She kissed his cheek and left his side to go do what he told her.
Upon realizing J.J. was not in the yard with her guests, Jennifer left Pat out there and returned to the house, the image of that figure in white flying up the drive in that golf cart seared on her mind.
Where in the world could that little minx have been going?
And where was her father?
Both of them completely missing in action?
Somebody is going to tell me something.
A quick check of the great room revealed Jonathan still absent from the group. Had he been in there, she would have easily spotted him or heard evidence of his having joined them- him talking or someone calling out to him. It was never a very quiet thing when a lot of cards were being played for money, and he was anywhere around.
Just as she opened the front door to see if he was back on the driveway, a golf cart whizzed by with someone in white in the passenger seat. She stepped all the way out to see where it went.
The vehicle cruised to a stop down where the house ended and the side walkway began. The figure in white disembarked, and the ponytail swinging out with it confirmed the passenger was definitely J.J. Security lighting on that end of the drive allowed her to make out Jonathan’s form at the wheel.
He leaned over and said something that caused J.J. to stop short, return to the cart, and go around to his side. It looked as if he was saying something to her, then he reached out of the window for her and kissed her on the forehead. J.J. left him then, trotting back around the cart and up the walkway.
She folded her arms and leaned against one of the stone pillars to wait for him as he made the U-turn at the circle. As he drew closer, there was a split second where their eyes met, and she could tell he must have only then realized she was there and had likely seen him with J.J. But true to his smooth nature, he had recovered by the time he pulled up to where she stood. Those bedroom blue eyes swept her from foot to head.
“Hey baby. You sure are looking good tonight. Need a ride?”
Arms still crossed, still leaned against the pillar, she turned up her nose at the offer. “Hmph, don’t think I didn’t see you down there, kissing your other woman.”
He turned the cart off, got out, and came to stand as close as he could in front of her without their bodies touching.
“Just some small change, sweetheart,” he crooned bringing his face even closer to hers. “Now you, you’re the kind of woman I need. You’re the real thing.”
She kept her arms folded. “So, I see she finally sought you out.”
He moved in closer, placing his hands on her arms to gently, but insistently, pry them apart and press himself against her. “You’re looking really delicious in that leather, Jennifer. I don’t know how I’m going to keep from ravishing you- at least until our guests leave.”
She resisted the natural urge to wrap her loosened arms around him, as well as his blatant attempt to skirt her question. “Don’t try changing the subject, Jonathan Hart.”
“And I want to tell you something else,” he persisted, his lips almost, but not quite making contact with hers.
When the buzz happened, it took a second or two for her to realize it was his phone and not the super-charged energy reverberating between the two of them. She also realized her arms had somehow wound themselves around him.
He fished out the device and spoke into it, “Jonathan Hart.” He briefly listened, then snapped it off and stuffed it back into the pocket.
“They want us out back,” he said, using the one arm he still had around her to urge her toward the door.
“Thank me for what?” she asked again, but the arm around her waist insisted even harder that they head inside and for the backyard.
Once she heard the golf cart pull off, J.J. slowed to take some time going back to the party. She needed the extra minutes to recover her composure as well as reassume her game face for her guests.
With Wesley at the curb, she had donned that calm and confident front for Chris, her father, and the security team as they monitored her being out there with him. Afterward, when Chris and her father asked her about the encounter, she had brushed it off with them. In reality; however, the whole time she was out there with Wesley, red-hot aggravation seethed and bubbled just beneath the surface of her words.
It wouldn’t have done to have let him or any of the grownups out there see or pick up on that. By herself now, on the side of the house, it flared up and raged like an out-of-control California wildfire inside her chest.
Sort of in the shadows and out of anyone’s immediate sight, she stopped, backed further into the dark, and allowed her body to sag against the cool bricks of the house. Underneath a side window, she pressed a hand to her damp, throbbing temple.
The nerve of that S.O.B. to think he could get over on her with that weak, transparent drivel he spewed.
“I hate that we can’t at least be friends”
At least? What more did you ever think it would be? When did I give you the impression it could ever be more than that? How dare you assume-
Trying to get to me with that ‘I’m so pitiful’ act.
“Your father had it fixed this way, and you know it.”
Did he really think her that devoid of independent thought? That stupid or naïve to not see through his crap? That soft in the head or the heart? Himself so incapable of being erased from her life?
A gun for me? Pulled a gun out on my father?…
You have the wrong one, Wes. …the hell away from me that B.S.
I do not forgive. Or forget.
Still holding her forehead, trembling with the mishmash of turbulent emotion, she forced herself to draw in a ragged drag of air and hold it. Rising on her toes, allowing her head to fall back and her shoulders to pull upward until there was no farther she could stretch any part of herself- including her ire- she concentrated on slowly, slowly, slow-w-w-w-w-ly releasing.
Spent, she bent at the waist to recover, to get her breathing in check, mentally invoking that vocal prayer her mother often used in trying times, particularly those where her daughter was the cause of her stress….
… please, just give me strength….
“J.J., what’s wrong? What are you doing around here by yourself?”
Startled, she straightened and opened to eyes to find Marnie coming toward her from the direction of the party, wearing a completely different skirt than the one she had on the last time she saw her.
When she reached her side, Marnie plopped a hand on her hip and lit into her.
“I tried texting you, but of course, you didn’t pick up, so I had to come all the way around here to see if I could find you. What are you doing here and not at the party? Why were you all bent over like that? You better not be sick.”
J.J. exhaled one more time before addressing the barrage of questions.
“The phone is on silent, and I haven’t checked it lately. Then too, everybody’s here, so why would I check it?”
She looked Marnie up and down, stopping at the skirt. “What happened to you? Pat?”
“Yes, Pat. And thank you very much for leaving me by myself like that with her. What are you doing around here, I asked you? I saw you when I turned the corner. Why were you leaned up against the house like that?”
“I just came from out front talking to Daddy. It was a little stressful.”
Marnie rocked her head one time. “Good. On finally talking to him and on it being stressful. I hope he jumped on you good. Serves you right if he did.”
J.J. thought Marnie’s rhinestone-studded kitty-ear headband a fitting touch.
“Whatever, Marn” she said. “And for the record, you were already dead in the water when I cut out on you.”
Having fully regained her composure, J.J. leaned her back against the house again and crossed her arms. “All that was left was for Pat to fish the floating carcass out of the commode and have her way with it. There wasn’t a thing I could do to help you, and since there was no sense in both of us getting caught up, I just kept it moving. Besides, I had already told you that you were gonna get flagged in. It would have been the Duchess if it hadn’t been Pat. She give you hell?”
Marnie tugged at the denim jacket now partnered with a short, flouncy black crinoline skirt, the multiple bangles at her wrists musically tinkling with her movements. “Nah, I didn’t give her the chance; I didn’t even say anything when she twirled that finger to turn me around. I just let her take me on up to the room. Didn’t fix my mouth to try to argue. Just changed into one of my backups like she told me to, let her call me a Jezebel or whatever, and came back down. It didn’t matter; I’m still cute. Hate I lost the fishnets, though.”
“Well when you Velcro some stockings to-”
Marnie’s flattened palm shot up before she rolled her eyes, sucked her teeth, and admitted, “I already know, J. Good thing she made me go up there, though. When I was changing outfits, I realized I hadn’t thought out having to use the bathroom while I was in that other skirt. Anyway, I wasn’t fooling with Pat, arguing with her, and getting put on lockdown-” She stopped to snake her neck before sassily adding, “-with her not-enough-ass in that catsuit she’s wearing.”
J.J. snickered, “I know you kept that fashion critique to yourself.”
“Of course, I did. I’m not closed up in the room with a black eye, am I? The Duchess is sharp though. Caught a glimpse of her on my way out. Black leather suit, J.”
“Black leather? Suit? My mother?”
J.J. couldn’t recall ever seeing her mother in anything leather other than a jacket.
“Jacket and pants, Marn? Or a skirt?”
“Yeah, jacket, pants- and enough ass to fill out hers out, but unfortunately, no whip. You know, for the full effect. Big earrings, though. She is totally rocking the 80’s look. Should have teased her hair up. They wore real big hair back then. Speaking of look, the bands are switching out, and Mr. Washington said he needs you. That’s really why I came up here. Isabella told me she thought she saw you go around the house in this direction.”
At the mention of Isabella Hawthorne, J.J. pushed off the wall.
“Shoot, if Issy is out there, then I do need to get back to the party. She’ll have Mr. Washington or somebody else older and with the desired appendage dragged off into the bushes or behind the sound stage if nobody’s checking her.”
Plus, Russell was on the grounds, and there was no way that hot-pantied hussy was going to be pushing up on her friend. Issy had been asking around about him ever since he gave her a hand out of that swimming pool she somehow fell into at the country club dance last year. Russell might need a girlfriend, be cute, available, and considerably older, but Isabella Hawthorne was not the one for that position- standing up or lying down.
“Tommy’s mother is here, too,” Marnie offered as they started off together toward the back. “I guess she came with Tommy’s grandmother. Saw both of them together in the front room as I was passing through the foyer.”
“Yeah? I didn’t see Tommy’s mother, but I did see and speak with Ms. Fee before I went out to the party,”
She kept it to herself, but after her visit to the front yard to seek out her father, J.J. was pretty sure of why it was she hadn’t seen Tommy’s mother prior to or when meeting up with Ms. Fee at the front door or at the door; Ms. Fee wasn’t who she came with.
They split up once they entered the backyard. Chance, on his way to find Marnie, met them at the end of the walkway. J.J. kept going, headed for the soundstage. It appeared the bands were switching out; through the speakers installed throughout the yard, James Taylor, one of her male vocal favorites, now crooned his prerecorded desire to not be left “lonely tonight.”
Focused on finding her music teacher, when she spotted Mr. Washington up on the stage, she climbed the stairs and went to where he stood offside, fanning through what she assumed was some sheet music while the band got set up with their instruments onstage.
“Hi, Mr. Washington,” she said when she reached him. “Marnie said you wanted me.”
He looked up at her over his half-moon reading glasses. “I need a keyboard.”
“Who better than you?” he said. “You’re first seat any other time.”
Something clicked, and she turned around. That was when she realized the people out there on stage were members of the A Jazz Band, her band from school. Hector, trumpet in hand, waved, “Come on!” at her.
She turned back around to her music teacher. “I thought you were bringing your band, Mr. Washington.”
“I did,” he said, “and I need my keyboard.”
“So, essentially, I’d be playing for my own party.”
“So essentially, who better than you, J.J. Hart? Got a problem with that?”
“Not a one.” she quickly conceded. “In fact, it’s actually right on time.”
With that, she strode onto the stage to the cheers of her fellow band members and their waiting audience. Quickly shedding her suit jacket, she slid into place at the keyboard. She first stretched her eager fingers several times. Then she ran silent scales in several keys to limber up, mentally more so than physically. What better way was there for her to leave her current baggage at the bottom of those stairs she had just climbed than losing herself in her music while rocking out with her peers at her own party?
She raised her eyes and blew a private kiss to the night skies.
Good looking out, You always have my back.