Portals: Part One
Monday morning, following J.J.’s birthday party
In the mirror, adjusting his tie and checking his overall appearance, Jonathan mused over events of the past week and weekend. A lot had gone down and been accomplished in that short span of time, but that was often the case with him and his family. A lot could happen with the Harts in a short span of time.
Now it was Monday again, and it was Hart Industries that required his attention. Although it hadn’t been discussed yet, changes were on the wind for him, and everyone else involved, directly or indirectly, would be moved in the direction that wind blew.
For years he’d had it easy. Starting out with Marcus Sr. playing the mature, confidence-inspiring front man, he had been able to take a back seat as Hart Industries became a global force. Then, Jr. had stepped into the shoes left by his father, again allowing him the latitude to operate as he wished- in the background, coming to full fore only when needed, which afforded him a greater measure of flexibility when it came to his family.
But now, the upcoming adjustments in Marcus Jr.’s life would more than likely mean his moving into that front spot full time, possibly for a long while. Which would result in losing precious time with his own loved ones. Seeing as how the name of the building was “Hart”….
Thankfully. Jennifer would be there at the end of his potentially much longer days. But J.J.?
Seventeen now. Her own life. Her myriad academic, athletic, and social activities. Her friends, interests, and responsibilities. Her own car- even though she and it were on hold for the time being. His only child was fast growing up and away. Every moment with her in the upcoming year would be precious. The previous day, the Sunday after her birthday party, had been proof-positive of that reality.
That had certainly been a weird twist in the plot. As much as he would like to stick around and see how things played out, to see if J.J. was okay like Jennifer assured him she was, he was being called to duty elsewhere.
Not cool, but…
As if she had picked up on his melancholic line of thought from out there in the bedroom, which she most likely had, Jennifer appeared, reflected in the glass with him. It was early, but she was already fully dressed for the day. The girls would be off to school soon. They were now old enough to drive themselves; however, Jennifer still liked being up with them on school days to make sure they ate properly and to see them on their way.
She slid in behind him, cozily circling his waist with her arms.
“Ummm, you smell so good. You okay? You’ve been awfully quiet this morning.”
On the same wavelength, just as he suspected.
“I’m all right. Better now, with you in here with me.”
He felt her cheek rest on his back. “A lot on your mind?”
“Some,” he said with a slight shrug as he lightly raked the comb though his hair one last time. “Nothing earth-shattering or show-stopping.”
He turned around to his wife, reversing her hold on him to bring her in close again. “You look beautiful this morning. Nobody would ever know how busy you’ve been these past few days.”
“Well, I thank you for the nice compliment. I’m just glad to have Teddy’s prom and J.J.’s party behind me. Now there’s just this next weekend to get through, then I can breathe freely for a while again.”
At the mention, he had to ask. “Have you checked on J.J.?”
Jennifer shook her head. “No, I haven’t yet. Not since last evening when I peeked in. But I’m sure she’s fine. She has school today, so without a doubt she’s up. She’s not going to miss her classes if she can help it. That girl is too heavily invested this year to slack- not that she ever has when it comes to school, thank goodness.”
He kissed her forehead. “I don’t know how you do it. Again, nobody would know from looking at you.”
“What?” she asked with that slight tip of her head. “Know what now?”
“How well you manage to keep everything and all of us in line, get things arranged, how much you get done, still manage to do your own thing, get it all accomplished and so well.”
She smiled. “Well, last week was all for our daughter. Unauthorized junket aside, she deserved it,” she said before chuckling and adding on, “And this upcoming weekend is for her best friend, our other child.”
Her saying that made him smile. Miss Marnie Elaine could be a complete mess at times, but always a delightful one, and he was grateful to have been trusted with her care. Given her circumstances, Marnie could be so many things, not a whole lot of them pleasant, but within the structure of their home, particularly under Jennifer’s vigilant oversight, she was flourishing. Those two, Jennifer and Marnie, were good for each other.
With an arm still around Jennifer’s waist, he moved them from the bathroom back toward the dressing room. On the way through, he snagged his suit jacket from the valet where he’d hung it earlier.
“Back to J.J.,” he said, pulling it on as he followed Jennifer who had proceeded on into the bedroom proper. “I can’t believe that girl has slept for twenty-four hours.”
“She got up at least once yesterday,” Jennifer said, sounding a lot more comfortable with the situation than he was.
Going over to her desk by the window, she began shuffling through and stacking some of her papers. “I know she took her meds because I took them up to her to make sure she did. At that time, she got up and went to the bathroom. I had gone into her closet to straighten a few things I could see out of place. By the time I finished and came out, she had gotten back into the bed. I figured she was tired, so I just left her alone.”
“Yeah, but did she eat at all yesterday?”
“I don’t think so. Not unless she went down and got something during the night, which wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for her. And don’t forget she keeps a few snacks- crackers and things- in that sitting room of hers.”
“You don’t think she’s sick, do you?”
Jennifer came back to him and gently tugged at his jacket lapels before pressing and smoothing them back into place. “Jonathan,” the softness of her voice doing to his unsettled spirit what her hands were doing to the cloth he wore, “don’t worry about her. She was exhausted in every way she could be. I saw the crash coming before we even went to Boston. She needed that rest. Your baby will be fine.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” he grudgingly conceded. “Come on, I probably should be getting on the road. Traffic will be a bear, it being Monday and all.”
He turned to go to the bedroom door but felt her pull on his sleeve to stop him.
When he turned back around, her eyes spoke to him before she did. “Darling, we’ll all be fine. Yes, you will probably be busier than before, but we’ll make the most of every available moment, you and me and the girls. We owe Marcus this.”
She always knew just what to say when it needed to be said.
And time had proven that he could trust in it.
He followed her out into the hall and down the stairs, ready to face the day.
From inside J.J.’s sitting room, Marnie knocked on the closed bathroom door. When she didn’t get an answer, she cracked it open and peeked inside.
The door on the other side, the one that led into J.J.’s bedroom was also closed. However, the air in the bathroom felt a little humid; the shower had been recently used. J.J.’s bath towel felt kind of damp, and the edges of big mirror hadn’t fully recovered from having been steamed up.
She tapped her knuckles against the wood of the other door. “J., you up?”
“Yeah, Marn,” the voice said from the other side. “Come on in.”
J.J., fully dressed, was standing at her cluttered desk when Marnie entered the room.
Relieved to see her friend up and about, Marnie closed the door behind herself. “Good morning,” she said as she approached, trying to be discreet in making a visual assessment of J.J.’s appearance. “How you feeling?”
J.J. briefly looked up from what she was doing. “Good morning to you,” she said before returning to filling her backpack. “I’m fine. What makes you ask?”
Marnie, momentarily stunned by the question, stopped in her tracks. “You do realize it’s Monday, not Sunday, don’t you?”
“Yeah, and? You see me packing this bag. Of course, I know it’s Monday.”
Marnie pursed her freshly glossed lips, sucked her teeth, and rocked her head as she spoke. “Girl, you were asleep for an entire twenty-four hours- knocked the hell out- people calling me all day to find out why you aren’t answering your phone, and you’re questioning my asking if you’re okay?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” J.J. said with a shamefaced grin. “Thanks for caring. But like I said, I’m good. Actually, it wasn’t quite twenty-four hours. I’ve been out of bed a good while this morning, and I did get up a couple of times yesterday. Kept sitting and laying around and then falling back to sleep, so I never made it out of here. What did I miss?”
“Sounds like you must have been real tired, then. You didn’t miss much. Just driving your new car, Pat and Bill leaving, and… well… Tommy… spending the night… here… that’s all.”
J.J.’s hands froze on the zipper she had been tugging closed. “Who spent the night here?”
“You heard me. Tommy did.”
“J., it could only have been the one night. Saturday, or depending on how you look at it, Sunday morning after the party.”
Closely watching J.J. as she remained motionless over the backpack, Marnie figured her for being over there, adding things up in her head.
“How do you know?” J.J. finally asked when she resumed working on the zipper. “You saw him? You talked to him?”
Marnie shook her head. “Uh-uh, he was gone by the time I got up. I went down in the morning, after I got up and got dressed, and I happened to overhear the Duchess filling Pat in on his having been here. They shut up about it once they noticed the kid in the room, but I got enough to know he stayed overnight in the den. I must have been good and tired after the party, too; my guy radar didn’t go off and alert me to a foreign male presence in the house. So, Tommy came here after he called you, and I left to go to bed?”
“He said he wanted to talk, so I told him to just come on over so we could talk in person.”
“J, what the hell did he need to talk to you in person about at three o’clock in the morning? You are forever doing something. You were already in trouble over Teddy. It must have been urgent if you let Tommy in at that time of night to do it- talk, I mean.”
J.J. rolled her eyes at Marnie’s unnecessary clarification. “Yeah, it was to talk, Marnie Elaine. It was just catching up mostly since he missed the party. And a couple of issues. We went outside, down to the pond and sat on one of the benches. If I’m honest, though, I guess I kind of called myself sort of hiding him out, but we wound up falling asleep. Daddy came outside and got us.”
“How’d he know where you two were?”
“I think he might have been alerted that Tommy was here, or that he was coming. Security was acting kinda sketchy when I got down to the gate in the golf cart.”
Intrigued, Marnie sat down on the arm of J.J.’s big chair. “This just keeps getting better. So, what happened after your father came out? Was he mad?”
“No. Daddy brought us back to the house. He made Tommy come inside. Said he wanted to talk to him. He sent me upstairs where I got ambushed by the Duchess. Daddy must have ended up having Tommy stay over because he could see Tommy was too tired to be driving back home by himself.”
“He probably was worn out by then, Marnie surmised. “Chase said they came here from the airport after dropping off Tommy’s suitcases and putting Carolyn’s car back that he “borrowed” for the trip- Chase is going to get enough of stealing his mother’s car like that; Carolyn can be lethal, and she’s warned him more than once about doing that. Tommy had spent half a day on that direct flight from Spain to here, and you know he didn’t sleep a wink on it. Then he didn’t stop once he touched down. Not to mention the drama with you and with his mother once he got here.
Marnie’s eyes abruptly widened. Her brow furrowed. “Wait!” She flipped up a small palm. “The Duchess? Ambushed you? Here in the room?”
“Yeah, when I came back up here from being outside with Tommy. She was in that chair waiting for me. You know how she likes to be all dramatic. Trying to catch somebody off guard.”
“Bet you nearly peed on yourself when she caught you off guard, trying so hard to be slick, and there she was, propped up and waiting for your behind. So, what’s the verdict? How much time did you end up getting?”
“A week. Without the car. I can’t drive it until Friday.”
It took Marnie a moment. “Hold on! On Friday, we leave to go to San Francisco for the prom- for most of the weekend! The car is brand new. You haven’t even driven it off the grounds yet.”
Marnie slowly shook her head. “Daaaaamn, J., she got you good.”
“She did. But I saw it coming. I wasn’t really surprised that she took it there. When I saw the car, and Daddy said she was responsible for my getting it, not him, I figured it for being her trump card. It was, and she played it to her total advantage. I couldn’t say anything. I would have done the same to one of my own kids in her place.”
“They’ll more than likely be hardheaded, and slick like you, so you might as well start gathering tips for handling them. So now you gotta walk in and out of the house for five days in a row, just looking at a brand-new car that’s yours, that you got for your birthday, that everybody knows you got, that you can’t drive anywhere.”
“That about sums it up, Marn.”
“Daaaaaaaaaaamn, J. No wonder you slept all day. Depression will do that to a person.”
“I wasn’t depressed.”
“Whatever. I’d have been devastated behind something like that. And the Duchess said it, too? No way to cry or beg my way off the punishment? I’d still be over there in the room, in the bed, covered up and fetal.”
“What you just said. Marn. The Duchess’s retribution has been etched in stone, just like the Ten Commandments- arguing the justice of it or moaning about it won’t change a thing. In fact, that might only make it worse. Kind of like I was blaspheming or something. When it’s all said and done, though, I’ll still have a car of my own that I’ll eventually be able to drive.”
J.J. raised those blue eyes and that one eyebrow to rock her head one time and add, “And when I can…”
Marnie grinned at that. And with Tommy back in town, to boot? Oh, the possibilities for their upcoming summer….
“You think he’ll visit the school today?” she asked.
J.J. hefted the backpack onto her shoulder and grabbed her jacket from where it was hung by its hood on the chair. “Who? Tommy? I have no idea. He might. He might not; you know how unpredictable he can be when it comes to stuff like that. Let’s get downstairs and eat so we’re not risking running late. I’m not trying to give my mother any reason whatsoever to come after me for anything. I’ll be taking my meds, minding my own business, and keeping my head low for the next five days.”
Marnie hopped up from her tufted perch and started toward the bathroom. “I have to get my bag from across the hall. I’ll meet you downstairs. You can drive. I have some calls to make.”
She went back out the way she came in, wondering how long it would take for J.J. to stray from her proposed straight and narrow.
And Tommy’s home, too? Yeah, right. Just don’t get me caught up in the inevitable mess.
Jennifer watched from the front door until the lights from the little red car disappeared from her sights. Then her gaze dropped to the Mustang left behind in all its brand-spanking-new glory, and she smiled in self-satisfaction. She had gotten to the door just in time to see J.J. backing herself out of it before going to and getting behind the wheel of Marnie’s car.
No better for you, little girl. Seventeen is not grown. Not in this house, anyway.
But she was glad to have that difficulty behind them. She, too, didn’t like it when she and J.J. didn’t talk.
At last, though, some down and alone time.
Pat and Bill had made it safely to Nevada the night before. Jonathan was on his way to work. Marie would be occupied most of the day, overseeing the different services soon due in to clean and put the main house, the guest house, and the rear grounds back in order. With school and their extracurricular activities, the girls wouldn’t be back until at least early evening. For the first time in a good while, she would be able to focus on her own interests for most of the day.
There was some needed writing she had been putting off for just such a break in external distractions, but for some reason, it didn’t feel quite right with her muse for getting started on it. In the first place, it was much earlier than her typical afternoon “sit down” time. Added to that, a touch of restlessness of spirit was putting her off even the notion of an attempting to set fingers to keys. Several niggling details that had been filed away for safekeeping were now pressing themselves forward, seeking her attention.
Marcus and Brenda.
Maureen Tolbert, Marnie’s AWOL mother….
What in the world could be keeping that woman from contacting her own child- or me- about this upcoming prom? I don’t mind getting Marnie ready for it, but how could a mother…
…. such an important occa…
Let that go, Jennifer. Marnie will be fine. She’s fairly self-sufficient, and she has you and Pat for backup.
Added to it all, that unsettling incident Jonathan shared with her in the bed the night before- way after the fact….
That young man is playing with dynamite, and the wick of this stick of it…
She dug out of her pocket that set of keys she held onto for herself and left the doorway to go out to that lone vehicle at the curb.
The rich, leathery scent delighted her nostrils as she sat back to take in car’s custom interior yet another time in the light of day. Everything with the car had been personally researched and executed according to plan. The entire transaction had been pulled off just as she’d set it up, and that did her heart and her confidence a whole lot of good.
Before Jonathan, while based in New York, she hadn’t needed a car of her own. Once Jonathan entered her life and brought her to California where she would require personal wheels to get around, he had taken charge of those purchases, the first one being a housewarming gift. After that, she would make the selection, and he would take it from there. The Mustang had been her first completely independent vehicle acquisition. Everything about the transaction, including the transport to the estate had been her secret. All of it a surprise for that interesting, but complicated teenager she had never anticipated being mother to, but now could not begin to imagine not being in her life
And who knew the car would so soon serve as the ultimate behavior modification tool?
You backed your little tail right into that one. Practically handed it to me.
That was when she noticed the small, tan object hanging from the rear-view mirror- the Warner Brothers’ Roadrunner figurine, J.J.’s adopted personal track mascot that once hung on her dresser mirror. She had one embroidered on her Letter jacket from school, owned Roadrunner earrings that she wore for good luck at meets, and she had intimated a desire for a small tattoo that she had to be warned about getting before she turned eighteen. Now the thing was hanging in her new car, the car gifted to her by her mother.
A sign? A message of some kind?
Those lyrics began playing in her head…
When I get restless
I got to move somewhere
Yes, I’m a road runner baby…
..I love the life I live
And I’m gonna live the life I love
Don’t want no one to tie me down
Gotta be free, baby, to roam around
All my life I’ve been like this
You can love me at your own risk
When the dust hits my shoes
I got the urge to move
‘Cause I’m a road runner baby,
Gotta keep on, keepin’ on….
… followed up by that strong saxophone riff J.J. absolutely loved and often blasted in that back room of hers, having discovered the song in Jonathan’s vast music collection and claiming the tune as a theme song for herself.
Then, too, there was what she knew herself of what that fleet-footed trickster Warner Brothers cartoon character/mascot represented.
A message in the music?
Jennifer, I think you’re reading too much into this. Letting your imagination and your daughter take off with you.
You need to get on with your day and make the most of this free time you have on your hands.
She got out of the car and headed back to the house, a bit of unfinished business making its way back to the front of her crowded mind.
I think I’ll give Fee a call and see what she has planned for lunch.
Having made it through her first three class periods, J.J. arrived at the Junior-Senior Patio where she found an empty table and sat down. It was the first lunch session of the day, so not that many people were out there yet. She had bypassed the food line to beat the current crowd and secure the table she wanted. After moving her books to the side, she pulled her phone from her back pocket, and booted it up.
The Patio, as well as the use of the phone, were perks afforded to upper classmen at her school. Ninth and tenth graders were made to leave their phones in their lockers during the school day and had to stay inside the café to eat. Seniors and juniors, like herself, were allowed to keep their phones on their person if they were responsible- or very discreet- and they had the choice of eating outside.
Of course, when the weather was good, she preferred the fresh air.
She kept her phone on her person during the school day, but she switched it off during her classes to avoid the possible distraction of buzzing notifications. Now that she had a break, she was curious to see who had hit her up.
Scrolling through the recent calls and then her voice mail, the name and number she hoped to find still wasn’t there. Of all the missed calls that had come in the day before, while she had been caught up in “the big sleep”, that number hadn’t shown up even once in the queue waiting for her once she came to. Nothing in the text lineup either.
Before she could click over to make her own call to find out what was going on, Charmaine’s cousin, Deon, showed up to join her at the table.
“S’up, J.” he said, pulling out a chair and dropping into it. “Didn’t see the new ride in the lot when I pulled up. I can’t believe you didn’t drive it this morning.”
J.J. briefly rolled her eyes up to him before replying, “Extenuating circumstances,” and going back to the phone.
Deon snickered. “So, like, did those extenuating circumstances happen to have red hair like yours? Carry a serious lockdown key? I’ve told you and told you about those sneak side trips you take, but you just keep on trying it. You know as well as everybody else that your mama is not playing, especially when it comes to you.”
“Whatever yourself. You know your mother and how she is. So how long you out the car?”
“All this week.”
“Dang. That’s rough. Look here, you talk to Tommy?”
The question made her look up from the screen and directly at him. “No, you?”
“Not a peep. That’s why as I asked you. I saw you looking at your phone when I came out the door. I figured you for texting him.”
“Nothing,” she confirmed. “Not a peep. He wasn’t in my call or text lineup. I would have thought the two of you would have gotten together yesterday, being best buds and all.”
“Yeah, me too. Since he had to leave the party in a hurry like he did.” Deon pulled out his wallet and began extracting what she surmised would be lunch money. “I thought he might call me yesterday, but he didn’t.”
“You didn’t try calling him?”
“Nah, I didn’t want to bother him in case he might have had jet lag or something.”
Money sorted; Deon returned his wallet to his pocket while continuing his explanation. “Chase had said he flew in and came right to the party after he got off the plane. That’s a long flight. I wound up figuring he was worn out and just chllin’, and that was why he hadn’t called. You want anything from the lunchroom?”
Telling her he had her covered when she went for her own wallet to pay for the salad and Coke she requested, Deon left her to go back inside and secure their food. Making note that it would be her turn to pay the next time, she went back to the phone.
Even if it had been jetlag, it was beyond odd that Tommy hadn’t at least attempted to get in touch with her or Deon, especially Deon after all the time he had been away.
And since he had evidently spent the night on the couch in the den of her house. At her father’s invitation. And he hadn’t been the one to tell her that he had. Nor had they in any way discussed that, not to mention what her father said to him when she left them to go upstairs.
The boy hadn’t said a word…
She checked the queues one more time.
Hadn’t attempted a word.
When she looked up again from the phone and saw Charmaine and Philly headed her way, she returned the device to that back pocket.
I’m not gonna cry. If I cry, I’ll mess up my makeup and I didn’t bring my purse to fix it.
Behind the closed and locked stall door, Marnie stuffed her phone back into her jeans pocket. Then she took the deepest breath she could muster, steeled herself, and concentrated on stifling her anger and stemming the physical manifestation of it.
Not giving anybody that much power of me. I’ve got this.
She had strategically requested that hall pass ten minutes before the bell to put her there at a time the restroom would most likely be empty. That meant she couldn’t take her books and tote with her when she left. It would been too obvious that she anticipated not making it back in time for class dismissal. Charmaine was in Psych class with her, so knew her stuff wouldn’t be left behind. Mr. Larkins was so into lecturing that he probably wouldn’t even notice she hadn’t come back. Besides, she had subtly intimated that she was requesting the pass for “girl” reasons. Male teachers never asked questions about that.
Period not due for two weeks. I didn’t really lie. It was an emergency- of sorts.
Now had that been Ms. Calvin, she wouldn’t have given a damn. She’d have been asking a million intrusive questions, asking them way too loud on purpose.
Hell, I never would have asked her for a pass for just that reason.
Emotions easing back under control, she unlocked the door and went to the mirror to check her face, regretting not having at least brought her brush or comb with her. She used her fingers to fluff things out to her satisfaction and pinched a little at her cheeks to regain some of the color drained from them while inside the stall.
I have a good mind to-
Nope, nope, Marn. Let it go. You’ve got this. You’ve got this.
You have this. Just like you always do.
The bell ringing and immediate noise of students in the hall signaled the start of fourth period class change. Of course, a few girls entered the restroom, breaking her solitude, forcing her into full game face and demeanor. They weren’t close friends, but they were people she knew, so she lingered just long enough to be social before managing to graciously leave.
It was lunchtime. She, Charmaine, Deon, and J.J. were assigned to first lunch. J.J.’s class was right by the Café, so she usually went out and secured a table for them. It would be good to go back to Mr. Larkins’s room on the pretense of looking for her belongings. If she never went back, it would be too obvious.
If he even noticed.
Mr. Larkins was still on hall duty outside his classroom door as his next group of students were arriving before the next bell. He spoke when he noticed her approaching.
“I was wondering what happened to you. Started to call the office and put out an APB.”
“It took longer than I thought,” she said. “I’m sorry. I came to let you to know I was okay and to pick up my stuff.”
“I appreciate your doing that. Thanks for checking back in. Charmaine took your things for you.”
“Okay. That was nice of her. We have lunch together this period. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
She smiled her best smile and gave him a little wave before heading in the direction of the Café, thinking there might be something to having gay parents- if both were men.
Men were so much easier to deal with.
Wonder if he might be gay? After all, he did know that I hadn’t come back. And he knew where my stuff went.
Umph, that means nothing; somebody can be female for real and be clueless as hell.
When she phoned her, Fee said she had been out running an errand, but she agreed to meet her at the Italian restaurant on Beverly where they had previously shared lunch a few times.
Fee was new to Los Angeles, so she didn’t know that many people yet to be visiting or to have visitors. Consequently, she spent a lot of her time in Los Angeles at her condo, a recent acquisition that allowed her to be closer to her recently discovered grandson and his mother without risking being an intrusion to thier established lives. Her home base in Florida, she only planned to use the condo on a part time basis, but it had had turned into a welcomed project that fed her passion for construction, renovation, as well as her gift for getting things done.
Now sitting across from Fee as she got settled in, Jennifer again marveled at how much she found Fee’s presence so profoundly settling.
“So, what did you find for your place today?” she asked the older woman.
That familiar amused light flickered in Fee’s eyes. “So I am that predictable to you already.”
“No, not predictable. I just know how much you enjoy working on it, although you’ve already worked wonders. So, what was it today?”
“Door handles. I found I did not care for the ones that came with the entry doors I ordered once they were installed. I met with the designer with this morning and commissioned a set more to my liking. A little more, how do you say, matronly- not so modern.”
“Elegant,” Jennifer countered. “Sophisticated. Full of culture.”
Fee smiled at that and nodded.
The server came over, delivered menus, and requested their drink orders. They knew what they wanted, so they also placed their lunch requests from the menu. Once the young man left them, Fee turned back to her.
“They are coming from Barcelona, the door handles; the shop I visited didn’t have anything I cared for in their stock, which is fine. My brother knows the shop in Spain where I ordered. He will oversee the transaction. I can wait for them. So, tell me, Jennifer, how did Justine take not being able to drive her new car to school today?”
The woman was amazing in her intuitions, however… “That girl didn’t phone you, did she?”
Fee chuckled. “No, no, I just sensed that was the road you would take once I saw the car and learned it was a gift to Justine from Justine’s mother. I would have done the same with that one. Just enough pain to avoid snuffing out completely her adventurous spirit, but adequate for getting the message across that she is not yet an adult.”
“Exactly. Tempering that ‘becoming’ you mentioned the other night. She is definitely doing that, but in its own time on all levels for now.”
“But she is a fine girl, Jennifer. So funny and so very touching in her sincerity and regard, especially for her mother. You and Jonathan have raised a child with a solid foundation, a keen sense of self and family. She will do both of you proud. You will see.”
Gratified by the compliment, Jennifer thought she sensed something else behind the words spoken, something troubling to her friend in an area they didn’t often venture.
“Thank you, Fee. I do appreciate that. I hope you’re right. Say, how is your daughter these days?”
“My girl is fine,” Fee answered, her gaze lowering, her voice considerably softer. “Even though she is a very grown woman, she is becoming, as well after her difficult time. It is not easy, I imagine, losing an only sibling, one in whom you have invested so much of yourself.” She smoothed a hand over the napkin she hadn’t yet had a reason to use. “I could not fathom losing my only brother.”
When Fee didn’t elaborate past that point, Jennifer didn’t press. Fee didn’t talk much about her remaining child, but she had in the past said enough to let her know that Josephine, twin to Tommy’s deceased father, was also a strong-willed, intelligent, but conflicted daughter. Her own aunt Sabrina had shared enough about that kind of loss to let her know how profound an effect it could have on the surviving sibling.
“I hear my Thomas spent the night on the couch in your den this past weekend,” Fee offered, switching them back in the direction they had likely been heading.
“He did. I’m told he came to see J.J. in the wee hours of the morning, and it ended up with Jonathan having him to stay over, but I never saw him. By the time I made it downstairs the next morning, he had already gone.”
“I am sure he did,” Fee replied through a soft laugh. “He has a healthy regard for you.”
Amused, Jennifer waved that off. She was more than aware of Tommy’s feelings about her. They were privately appropriate for the time being, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t concerned about his well-being. “Is he all right, Fee?”
By the look on her face and the slight delay in response, she could feel Fee ‘reading’ her before she spoke. “Jonathan has informed you of his mother’s plans to marry.”
“Yes, he has. Has Tommy spoken to you about his feelings on the matter?”
“He came to see me yesterday afternoon. We talked.”
“Was he angry?”
“Not angry. No. No. Not angry. I would say more contemplative than anything.” Fee looked up from where she had begun smoothing the napkin again. “He is becoming, too, Jennifer.”
Their food arrived interrupting that line of conversation. Before they could get very far into it once again, a phone call cut the line of conversation off completely.
The flight to Modesto had been an impromptu trip for him, but he was glad he agreed to accompany Marcus to the meeting. It was an unusual request; Marcus had briefed him on the details the week before, and although Marcus had been his typical professional, well-prepared self as he presented the proposal, Jonathan sensed something off with him. That perception started with his calling into the office that morning, and it only grew stronger as the day progressed. Now that they were back on the plane headed for home, that feeling was practically a third wheel in their party.
The plane had taken off and leveled when Marcus finally spoke, confirming he had other things on his mind.
“Jonathan, have you talked to Tommy since Sunday morning?”
“No, I haven’t. Is there a problem?”
An uncomfortable silence preceded Marcus’s answer.
“I’m not sure.” Marcus hesitated a bit, slowly shaking his head. “I don’t know. Brenda says he didn’t come home last night. Just called her and said he was okay and not to worry about him.”
That was troubling to hear. Tommy loved his mother and was usually respectful of avoiding having her worry about him. But he had been away in Europe for quite a while. From what he’d heard, Tommy’s uncle had given him a very wide berth during his time in Spain. Now he was back under his mother’s more protective, not to mention restrictive roof. Then too, Tommy had come home announced and walked into a huge surprise.
“Did something happen after you all got Brenda home from the party?”
Marcus looked up from the papers he had been sorting through inside his briefcase. “He told us he came to your house after we told him about us, so I’m sure he filled you in on that.”
“No, I didn’t really get to talk with him much,” Jonathan said. “He was too tired. That’s why I had him stay over. By the time I went down the next morning, he had already gone.”
“I appreciated you doing that for him, Jonathan. I wouldn’t have wanted him out on the road either if he was that out of it. I stayed with Brenda that night because she was so upset over Tommy’s reaction and his leaving the way he did.”
“Was he upset or something after you and Brenda told him about your getting married? Was he angry?”
Again, there was a quiet gap before Marcus answered. Jonathan took that time to check out his longtime friend and partner. The man was hurting, and it hurt him to witness it.
Marcus spoke slowly, carefully when he finally replied.
“I- I- I’m not sure if it was anger. Confused maybe. Overwhelmed perhaps. It wasn’t like he blew up or went off on us or anything. He just- I don’t know.”
There was genuine pain in his eyes when they slowly met his.
“Jonathan, I don’t want to be a problem between Brenda and her son. I love her, but I don’t want to be a complication for her. I have always admired their relationship. She’s a good mother. He’s such a good kid. I don’t want to be a problem for him either. I called Brenda on the lunch break this afternoon to check. She still hadn’t heard from him.”
“You try calling him yourself?”
“I did, but he didn’t pick up. Didn’t respond to my text. I don’t know what else to do. I’m really on outsider on this. I don’t really want to press. I know we threw him for a loop, but then he caught us off guard coming home like he did. We had no idea. We were going to Spain to see him at the end of the month, when I took my vacation days, to tell him about our plans.”
“Marcus, let me tell you something. You are not an outsider. You marry Brenda, you get her son, and he gets you. The benefit you have going in is that you all know each other already. Tommy is a good kid, but he’s been his mother’s only concern for his entire life, and she his only parent. He has been thrown for a loop, but I’m sure he’ll get past that. How did he leave yesterday? He didn’t take off with his mother’s car, did he?”
“No. He left on foot. Told his mother he was going for a walk. Then she got the call. She said he was still gone when she woke up around five this morning, but the car was in the garage. His bike and his car are still in storage. I checked on that.”
“Think he might have flown back to Spain?”
“No, I don’t think so. Brenda said she checked his room. His luggage and clothes were still there. She told me that prior to his ‘taking a walk’ they’d had sort of a tense discussion about his coming to your house and staying over.”
“Why? I was fine with it. I phoned her myself to tell her where he was and that I made him stay to keep him safe.”
Marcus sighed. “I know you did, but you’re ‘the boss’ to her. She’s in awe of you- I mean you are the CEO and all- I think you forget that sometimes, although it truly works to your advantage in a lot of ways. And even though Tommy and J.J. are good friends, she doesn’t want Tommy being a bother to you or to Jennifer. I know you don’t see him that way, but she still worries about it, especially his showing up at all hours like he did.”
Jonathan sat back to consider the matter. He hadn’t had enough time to speak with Tommy before the boy began fading out on him. Tommy did get as far as saying he understood his mother was getting married to Marcus, but that he had been blindsided by the news. But Tommy wasn’t the runaway type. At least he hadn’t been. But a lot could change in a short time, especially with his having been away like he had.
Marcus’s out-loud thought interrupted his unspoken ones.
“I hope we aren’t making a mistake. I’ve never been a parent. The last thing I want to do is get in the way of their relationship.”
Jonathan shifted in his seat to be able to directly say what he felt Marcus needed to hear.
“Marcus, I understand you and your concerns, but have you considered that Tommy may not want to get in the way of your relationship with his mother?”
Marcus slowly tipped his head. Then he shut his briefcase, sat back, and closed his eyes. He didn’t say anything else for the rest of trip.
As for Jonathan, he sat back and closed his eyes, too. Although fruitful, it had been a long morning and afternoon in terms of business. Now it was back to family, where his heart truly invested.
It was at the end of fifth period that she found the note taped to the inside of her locker door. Only one person knew her combination and would have the nerve to use it. And that somebody had been oddly missing in action.
Who, but you, uses stationery to leave a quick note in a locker for somebody?
She plucked envelope from the door and removed the contents to read the message.
I wasn’t feeling good, so I checked out. I knew you had that track meeting, French Club, and you said you wanted to work out some, so I left you the car. That way you can get your after-school stuff done and have a ride home. I’ll see you later.
Checked out? Left the car? How did she get home without the car? And had she checked out properly? Who knew she was gone? And sick? Marnie didn’t get sick- at least not to the point that she would voluntarily miss school. Especially not once she was already there.
For Marnie, being present at school was akin to being present at parties, prime opportunities to network and socialize, to be first-person for whatever. Marnie removing herself from the mix was troubling to say the least.
Looking around to check her surroundings, she whipped out the phone and hit that speed dial button.
No answer and no time to try again. Her sixth period classroom was around the corner, all the way on the other end of the hall. She stuffed the phone back down in her pocket.
I sure hope you let Grimsley know you were leaving.
And you better not have gotten into a taxi, showing up at the house unannounced. The Duchess will skin you alive.
And if you did leave on the low, you better have gone home.
J.J. refolded the note and stuck it down in her pocket, too. Then she exchanged one set of textbooks and supplies for another before slamming the locker shut and hurrying off before anyone from the crew showed up and slowed her down.
Two missing friends. What the hell?
She really didn’t feel like any idle chatter. If she did it right, she could make it to class with a few minutes to spare before the tardy bell, allowing for another surreptitious peek at the phone to see if Tommy had attempted to get in touch and maybe shoot a quick text to him and Marnie.
What the absolute hell?
The afternoon had not gone as she had planned, but as it usually happened, things had a way of working out the way they needed to work out.
Jennifer had just made it to her desk in the great room and opened her laptop when the house phone rang. Yet another diversion from getting started with her writing, but when she noticed the caller, she picked up.
It was Jonathan, back from his trip to Modesto, but flying out once again as soon as he got off the phone from her.
“Should I wait my dinner for you?”
No darling, you go ahead and take care of the girls. It’ll be late when I get home. Most likely I’ll eat when I get there.
“You’ll let me know when you touch down?”
You know I will.
“Should I wait up?”
You know good and well you’ll be up when I get there.
“Are you trying to call me nosy, Jonathan?”
No darling, I’m just saying I know you- on so many levels, and I love you for all of them. See you tonight.
When she logged on, his handsome face faded in, smiling at her from the home screen.
I could have sworn I told you I only wanted one child. Now I have two, and you have four. How did that happen? Only you, Jonathan.
Chuckling to herself, she clicked in to where she needed to be, her thoughts lingering on her busy husband.
You promised me a lifetime of adventure, and you have certainly delivered on that.
To be continued
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