Principles: Celebrating Seventeen

Celebrating Seventeen: Between Incidents: Part Two

Wee hours of Saturday morning….

J.J. gradually came to, disoriented at first by the darkness around her and then by her odd position on the bed- apparently at the foot of it. She vaguely recalled having been on the phone, lying down, and closing her eyes, but she didn’t remember actually going to sleep.

… but then, who does?

And had she been out that long?

… obviously.

The blinds were drawn and the comforter was pulled over her; she didn’t remember doing those things either.

Still groggy, she squinted at the clock to check the time. The numbers glowing from the night table reported that she had been gone for hours.

Slowly pushing up from face-plant position, she realized she wasn’t alone. Weight on the comforter, then movement at her side, followed by that tiny rough tongue to her cheek confirmed it.

“Who let you in?”

Just missing getting licked in the mouth, she used one hand to hold off the wriggling, excited ball of fur. “My mother, when she came in here to fry me, but found me asleep and covered me up?”

Third left her side, and she heard him thump down to the floor. He yipped once and stood on his hind legs to insistently wiggle and tap at the mattress and the side of the bed.

“I know. I know, boy,” she said, pushing the comforter back to free both arms, “you have to go out, but I have it worse than you right now. Give me a sec.”

She threw the comforter all the way off, slid out of bed, and went into the bathroom.

When she returned, she noticed her cell phone blinking from where it peeked out from underneath the pillow she had been lying on. With Third dancing and darting all around her feet, she picked it up and stuck it in her pocket as she slipped her feet into the house shoes that, with no light to see, she had to first feel around for.

The upstairs hall was silent and dark, too, the doors around her closed indicating that everyone else was at least in their rooms, if not asleep. Those doors had been open when she came up to her room.

Marnie, she mentally wagered, had come back home way before curfew. Being the only one out, the whole time she would have been intensely aware of the Duchess sitting there, watching the clock, w-a-a-a-i-i-I-ting…..

And Pat would be showing up later that day.

I know good and well Marnie hurried the hell back. Curfew-breaking isn’t the same here as it was at her parents’ houses. She definitely wouldn’t want Aunt Pat adding her five cents to it if she messed up, missed curfew, and got told on.

Then it dawned on her- surely by now she had been ratted out to her godmother for what she had done while she was in Boston. Consequently, for once, she found herself mildly dreading Pat’s visit.

I’ll bet Pat can’t wait to get to me to roast me.

Third led the way to the stairs. It wasn’t until they were outside and away from the party area that she cut him loose to go take care of his needs. She took a seat on a bench by the low brick wall to skim through her phone messages.

The very first one in the queue, a request which she readily accepted, would have her out of bed again in just a few hours, but it would be well worth having to get up at that time. A nice surprise and a wonderful gesture on the part of someone whose company she truly enjoyed. If she could get back to sleep again after that late “nap” she took.

Well, if it works out that I can’t go to sleep when I get back to my room, I’ve got some writing to catch up on. Lord knows I do.

I can rest when I get there tomorrow morning.

Nothing of what happened with Teddy’s prom had made it into her journal yet. It wasn’t often that she skipped multiple days, but in this instance, she felt no inclination to chronicle and process any of it on paper. In Boston, there hadn’t been time for the writing she needed to do, and once back at home, she found herself doing anything to avoid that particular book.

Why that was, she hadn’t taken the time to fathom, but it had to be done at some point. Past experience taught her the value of writing about and through painful times.

This one wasn’t exactly painful, but….

The next notification in the lineup had been one for which she had to take an extra step on the phone. The result made her frown and click away from the messages altogether.

Third returned, finishing his dash in her direction with a flying leap onto the bench, immediately burrowing into her lap nearly causing her to drop the phone.

“Oh,” she laughed as she snuggled him close, “so you’re done and ready to head back, are you? Why do I have to do everything on your time? Well, since I’m up, I need a shower and to get into a nightgown. Maybe that will relax me enough to get a few more Z’s before morning. And I need to set the clock so I’m up and ready.”

She rose from the bench, stuck the phone in her hip pocket, and clipped Third back onto his lead.

“Alright, guy, let’s go.”

They started the jog back to the house, completely unaware of the eyes watching for them from the second floor.

___________________________________________________________________

Daybreak….

The little sleep she felt she got- fragmented at best, Jennifer finally gave up, rolled over, and fully opened her eyes. So much going on in her mind. So much in front of her that, intermingled with what came before, rendered her unable to shut it all down once the lights went off and her head hit the pillow.

At least Marnie Elaine had the good sense to make it back in well before curfew. All the girls she was out with were coming to the party; it made sense that they likely called it a night earlier than usual in order to get up for appointments and finish whatever they needed to do to get ready for the festivities. In the bed when the gate signal announced Marnie’s return to the fold, it wasn’t until she heard the girl come up the stairs to go to her room that she had actually been able to first doze off.

Then there was J.J. Hart, at home asleep in her room all evening, but outside, skulking the grounds in the dark of night.

Drifting between fitful intervals, the jingle of Third’s tags outside the bedroom door got her attention, followed by the muffled sound of careful feet tipping down the front stairs. The console chirped warning of an opened door, which briefly stirred Jonathan, but by that time, she was up and on her way to check things out, telling him to go back to sleep.

Which he did.

He always slept exceptionally hard when it was really good.

Which it had been.

Given that, she should have been in a sound sleep, too, by then but-

Good thing that little minx was on a legitimate errand this time and not slipping off in a flimsy nightgown to meet her banished male friend on the bridge, offering him unauthorized refuge in our guest house.

But….

I should have thought to get Third from her room and taken him out before I went to bed. She could have slept through the night, if I-

Then she thought better of that-

-no, no better for her that she should have to get up and take him out.

She can take herself anywhere else she wants to go in the middle of the night.

When she returned to her room and her bed from standing sentry at the window of the second guest bedroom, he was dead to the world, unaware of anything going on around him.

Resigned to full wakefulness with morning’s arrival, she took her time easing back the covers so as not to disturb him as she got up; however, the attempt proved unsuccessful.

“Where you goin’?” he groused, his face half buried in the pillow, the fingers of the hand under the covers clamping onto her thigh. “Is it even daylight yet? Come back to bed.”

She smoothed back hair fallen across his forehead. “No, baby. I can’t, really. I have so much I need to do, starting with J.J. She has an early appointment. I need to get her up. You know how hard that can be.”

“What time?” he asked without raising his head, opening his eyes, or removing that imploring hand. “Her appointment, I mean.”

“Eight,” she said, freeing her leg and completing her slide to the edge to reach for her robe. “She needs to get cleaned up, get dressed, take her vitamins, and eat before she goes. I don’t know how long she’s going to be at the salon; I don’t want her skipping meals or “forgetting” her meds because of it. But you don’t have to get up yet. Go back to sleep.”

To her mild surprise, he lifted his head and twisted around to see the clock. Then he sat all the way up to say through a stretch and a yawn, “I’ll take her.”

Before she could refuse him, they both heard the alarm chime. The console indicated it was the front door being breached.

“Somebody going out?” he asked. ” Before day?”

“Maybe it’s to let the dog out,” she thought aloud, tying the robe’s belt as she moved to the windows. “Nobody said anything to me about having anywhere to go at this hour. Nor have they called over here to inform either of us about any change in plans.”

She made it just in time to see through the sheers, J.J. opening the passenger door of a dark green Jaguar and getting in.

“I do not believe this girl,” shot through her mind as she dashed from the window to cross the room, aware of Jonathan watching her, barely hearing him ask, “What’s going on?”

When she flung open the door, the fluttering yellow square stuck to the other side immediately caught her eye. She snatched it off, scanned it, and then turned back around, closing the door behind her.

Jonathan, out of the bed and pulling his own robe on, appeared ready to play backup for whatever trouble might be brewing. She held the paper up for him to see there was something written on it.

“Your daughter and the Post-Its again. It seems neither of us has to take her anywhere.”

Then she read the note aloud.

“Didn’t want to wake you. Salvatore giving me full spa treatment. Birthday present. Picked me up on way in to salon. Will either bring me back himself or have me delivered when I’m done.

“Signed with two J’s and a heart.”

She handed it to Jonathan, who after glancing at the note a moment, stuck it down in his robe pocket before reaching for her, drawing her to him. With that arm wrapped snugly around her waist, he moved them toward the bathroom. “Well then, I guess that means I can take you to breakfast.”

Something she heard in that “you” informed her that she was not his first choice for that Saturday morning date, but in this instance, being relegated to ‘other woman’ was just fine with her.

Running that kind of interference played right into her plans for his preferred breakfast partner.

_____________________________________________________________________

Mid-morning…

Christian Salvatore readied his station for his next client. She had been in the spa area most of the morning. Massage, facial, shampoo and blow dry, and mani-pedi. He expected at any moment, Janice’s voice alerting him via intercom of her imminent arrival to his suite.

As he arranged the needed tools, his thoughts drifted to her father, Jonathan Hart, his initial benefactor.

Twenty-plus years back, he was just out of beauty school, taking business classes at night and styling hair during the day. Building his clientele, renting booth space in someone else’s shop, he dreamt of owning an establishment, his own name over the door. But that took money, which he didn’t have much of, most assuredly not the amount it would take to get started in downtown Los Angeles.

Then, stroke of real good luck, Hart Industries sponsored that small business open house. Hart was known for having a quiet hand in all kinds of pies all over Los Angeles, not to mention, the world. He and his company were known for developing talented, innovative people and assisting them in their endeavors. Considering himself both talented and innovative- and hungry-  business plan in hand, portfolio under his arm, he took the shot.

And wound up one of the three candidates to make the final cut.

In the beginning of the process, he did worry a little that bias might sway the panel’s decision. The times then had not been as accepting of his type of flamboyance, and Hart Industries seemed a pretty conservative outfit. But then, in hindsight, considering the business he was proposing, a beauty studio and day spa, that aspect of his persona might have worked in his favor.

Hart himself attended that last meeting to hear the winners announced. Then he met with each of the individuals whose business he and his company would be incubating for five years.

The man had been too fine that day. Tall, tanned, confident, his slate grey suit with the subtle stripes an excellent cut for his build. Not a hair out of place. And smelling good, too. Those bedroom blue eyes made it so hard to not get caught losing himself in them. Not hard on the eyes at all, that one.

Still.

For all his money and international prestige, Hart turned out to be a very welcome surprise. Business savvy, but down-to-earth, smart, just a real nice, real regular guy. He took a personal interest in the people he backed, providing the financing, the tools, the guidance, and the oversight to maneuver their chosen entrepreneurial paths.

Not everyone in that group of three had been as successful as he. Following Hart’s advice, he worked hard, studied trends, and honed his craft. He hired carefully- and fired with finality when circumstance took it there. “Salvatore” was the name over the door, and he took it completely to heart when his benefactor spoke that long-ago afternoon:

 “It takes years to build a name, a solid, reliable brand, but it only takes one misstep, one wrong moment or move compromise it.

Stay in charge. Protect that name.”

Over the ensuing years, the business relationship with the Harts had developed into a personal friendship. Occasionally working together on civic committees, attending some of the same charity functions around L.A., acquainted with some of the same influential people, he had gotten to know Jennifer Hart as well, if not better than Jonathan. She had her own hair stylist, but once the spa opened, she began frequenting his establishment for those services.

Then came that later-in-in life baby; nobody could have been happier for them than he had been.

Jennifer would occasionally bring the little one in to get her ends trimmed or for nails and toes on special occasions. When she was eleven and about to start middle school, it was her father who brought her in and set up the standing every-two-week appointment that at seventeen she still kept. In that time, J.J. Hart had become one of his favorite people. Not just because her parents had taken such good care of him, more so because, despite the disparity in age, he and J.J. somehow clicked like that. In talking with her, it was sometimes hard to remember she was just a kid.

When he scooped her up for the ride in that morning, she seemed quieter than usual. Not that she was ever loud or silly; even as a very little girl she had never been overly talkative, excitable, or animated when she was with him. That old soul of hers tended to take most things in stride, a thing he attributed to her having been born to older, but always classy parents with a similar nature. But with her birthday extravaganza happening that evening- the Harts went all out for their only child’s birthdays- he anticipated at least a little giddy conversation on the subject.

When he arrived at the door that morning, she was on her way out by the time he pulled up in front of it. She got into the car, greeting him and thanking him for picking her up.

It worked out that the had to bring the party up himself to her.

“So, are you all set for tonight?”

“I guess. As ready as I’m going to be. Should be fun.”

“Fun? You’re celebrating your seventeenth, girl! It should be all that and several bags of chips.”

“It’s not eighteen. It’s not twenty-one. Just seventeen, one more year of being a big kid.”

“But a very fortunate kid, right?”

“Just a very fortunate bigger kid, Sal.”

She didn’t have much to say about that posh prom either.

“So, did you have a good time in Boston?”

“It was fun.”

“The stylist do right by your hair?”

“She did all right. She only had to wash and condition it; you had already trimmed it. You know my mother styles my hair for those kinds of events.”

“Yeah, I do. So, did you get to see and do a lot? Meet anybody interesting?”

“I was with Teddy; he took me around the places he hangs out in. Being with him is naturally fun.”

“Still not your boyfriend, J.?”

“Still, Sal. I’ve told you more than once about me and boyfriends.”

“My bad. I thought maybe-” 

The flat of a sassy palm and slight neck roll stopped him.

Any-way, Sal-va-tor-a-a-a-y. The dinner and dance were held on a yacht. That was cool. I was already acquainted with his friends we wound up spending most of the prom with, so that made things a lot more pleasant.

“Now I did meet at least one interesting someone for the first time when we were on the boat, but fortunately for her, she-”

Her phone rang, and she excused herself to fish it out her tote.

True to noticed habit, she didn’t immediately click in to answer the call. It was quick, but he managed to see the fleeting frown cloud her face as she first checked the display.

Without comment, she pushed a button that stopped the ringing, then she returned the device to her bag.

Aside from her making a point of thanking him for his gift of the spa visit and telling him how much she appreciated the gesture, she didn’t say anything else after that. Taking that as cue she wanted to be alone with her thoughts, he turned up the music and continued on to the shop.

 

“J.J.’s on her way in to you, Sal.”

He thanked Janet and looked to the glass door in time to see J.J. appear in the waiting area. She stopped to speak to the girls out there before she made her way in to him.

Wrapped in a white spa robe, fresh-faced and glowing from her treatments, that magnificent head of russet hair loose and flowing along with her brilliant smile- at first glance it immediately registered how much she resembled and even moved like her mother. With her looks, height, youth, name, and connections, J.J. Hart could easily snag some choice modeling gigs right there in L.A. Quickly sizing her up, he was sure that girl could give a fashion photographer’s camera fits.

But unfortunately- maybe fortunately when he thought more on it- she harbored not even the slightest interest in anything that put her in that kind of superficial spotlight. At seventeen, media exposure had already drawn a couple local sickos to her, so he understood the avoidance on her part. He also understood her parents’ concentrated efforts to keep such close tabs on her and their reasons for holding her as far out of the public eye as they had starting from her birth.

Very precious cargo indeed, that one, but she was getting older. Again, like her mother, J.J. was a hard one to overlook, much less completely miss. Attention- the good and the bad- would be something she would have to learn to deal with.

She pushed open the door and came in. “You ready for me, Sal?”

With an elaborate roll of his hand, he invited her to his chair.

She sat down, remaining leaned forward enough for him to gather her hair to keep it from being pinned behind her and to place a towel around her neck. The consummate outdoor athlete with an occasional lingering hint of tomboy, J.J. Hart’s bountiful mane took all kinds of beatings. Raking his fingers through the thick tresses, he sent mental kudos to Anise, his head shampoo tech, for the deep conditioning and blow dry she had given it.

“I’m as loose as a cooked noodle right now,” J.J. admitted as she sighed and settled in. “Again, thank you so much. You don’t know how badly I needed this. The massage really hit the spot.”

“It was my absolute pleasure. You have a big night ahead of you, so you need to be at your best. Besides, you and this hair are good advertising for me.”

She laughed. “That’s good, I guess. Don’t get mad if I fall asleep while you’re styling me.”

“It won’t be the first time,” he said as he began separating sections to brush out. “I’m used to working around your bobbing head. Been nodding off like that since you first started coming to me. So, what are we doing to make you an eighties girl, J.? I’ve got lots of gel and spritz.”

She turned him down with, “Nah,” punctuated by a wave of her expressive fingers. “I have way too much of it to be trying to do old school ‘big hair’. I’ve researched; in the eighties, people wore plain ponytails just like they do now- the look is timeless. I’m going to stick with what I won’t have to wash out or restyle right away to get back to normal. ”

“Off to the side ponytail? Crimped? Cut you some bangs? Fringe was in back then.”

“You’ll have my daddy in here trying to cut you, Sal.”

He grimaced at that bit of truth. “Yes, you’re right. He made that crystal-clear to me when we tried that extreme trim last year when I so-called feathered you, and wound up getting the hot phone call. So, like, not even a few starched curls around the face? That was in real chic back then, you know. With a nice fluorescent-colored or disco-sparkly scrunchie on the ponytail?”

“Not even that. I’ll let my outfit be eighties enough.”

He was going to ask her about the outfit, but her phone rang. When she pulled it out of a robe pocket to check it, from his position behind and over her, he could see the display. The number came up as a bold “BLOCKED”, but she clicked into an app that revealed to her- and to him- the name of the caller.

He wasn’t surprised when she immediately clicked off and put the phone away.

Mental note made, he proceeded with finishing her up, so he could personally see to her getting back home.

“You stopping by tonight, Sal? There’ll be lots to eat and some great music. My band director at school, Mr. Washington, is bringing his old-school funk group to play a couple sets. They’re really good. He’s got some clips on YouTube if you want a preview.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, J. Leave me the link. Now let’s get you fixed up and out of here so you can get on with your day. I’m sure you have lots to do.”

______________________________________________________________________

Meanwhile….

After breakfast, and a trip to the storage facility to pick up a few things Jennifer said she needed for the party, Jonathan had suggested a drive out to the Palisades so she could take a look for herself at Marcus’s new digs. Of course, true to that ever-inquisitive nature of hers, she had taken him right up on that. Since it wasn’t yet a gated property and currently unoccupied, they were able to walk the perimeter of the main house, get a few peeks inside from the lower windows, and briefly check out the immediate grounds.

Back in the car and on their way home, Jennifer’s closed-eyes quiet did not surprise him. In fact, it amused him completely. She would be over there, in her thoughts, staging, designing, redesigning, remodeling, furnishing, refurbishing. Jennifer absolutely loved a decorating project.

On Sunset, crossing over the freeway, he couldn’t take her silence a moment longer.

“So? I’m dying here. Assessment?”

She startled a little before turning to him with a shamefaced grin. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were waiting for me to say something. It was as lovely as I’d pictured it.”

“That’s all you got? You’ve been over there quiet for all that time, and that’s all you can come up with. ”

“Oh, darling,” she laughed, “I didn’t realize- actually, I thought the house was beautiful- of course I would need to see the inside to really give my opinion. I would love to take a look at that apartment over the garage. Actually, I was really just sitting here remembering when we were first starting out. When you brought me to Los Angeles and decided we needed to look at houses.”

“Well, the three of us were going to need a little more room than that corporate apartment Max and I were living in could afford us.”

“It was cozy, though, there in that apartment.”

“Too cozy,” he said. “I didn’t need an audience.”

She side-eyed him in amusement, but ignored addressing his comment. “You’d swept me off my feet; I remember everything going so fast. I loved being there with you. I still love being anywhere you are.”

That made him smile.

She folded her arms and lay her head back. “I remember the first time you brought me to see the house. I was so excited. We had been looking so long, and had seen so many places; they were all running together in my head. Nothing seemed to meet both our liking or needs. Then you phoned that afternoon to tell me you thought you’d found the perfect place. I couldn’t wait to see if, or I should say, how well our tastes matched. Felt like the drive up from that front gate took forever. Then, the lake, the bridge- they took my breath away before I could even see the house itself, not to mention the rest of the estate. So serene. Pastoral. So beautiful.”

“So I did okay, then, with our house?”

“You know you did,” she said side-eyeing him again, this time with a sly grin. “We hadn’t signed any papers- hadn’t even made a bid on the property, and you still did okay.”

He side-eyed her and grinned in turn. “Just okay with that? It was out on the lawn. By the pool. Spontaneous. At dusk. Who needed bids or signatures for that?”

“Spontaneous? Jonathan, please. Where did the blanket and pillows come from?”

“I don’t know. Blanket fairies?”

“You were so hot and so filthy.”

“I didn’t hear you complaining about anybody being ‘hot” or “filthy’ that night. Or any other night before or since then, for that matter. In fact, if I’m recalling correctly, at the house that night, it was you who fell in love with the place, got turned on, and said we needed to- ”

That was almost thirty years ago, Jonathan Hart, and it was you who magically came up with the blanket and pillows. And it is you who has taken us way off topic. We were talking about Marcus’s new house.” She sat back and sighed. “Just think, darling, he’ll have that panoramic ocean view to greet him every morning when he gets up.”

“As well,” Jonathan added with a smile.

He felt her take his free hand and entwine her fingers through his to quietly muse, “I believe there will be a lot of happiness ahead for them, too.”

He was sure of it. Marcus had waited a mighty long time, even longer than he had, for the right one. It was true that good things came to those who took their time, who didn’t try to force things. To those who were patient and who waited for that proverbial “due time”.

In due time….

… yet another thing my impatient daughter and I need to-

Waiting to make the left into Bel Air, he caught sight of a disturbingly familiar car, second in the line stopped at the gate waiting to make the right onto Sunset.

Oh hell no, I know that cannot-

Trying not to be obvious to his wife, his eyes strained to the point of watering in the effort to make out the driver from a distance. When traffic cleared, the vehicle in question pulled ahead at the same time that he made his left. The custom-tinted windows of the other car prevented his getting a good look at the driver from a side angle either.

Shrugging off those initial apprehensions, assuring himself with, “Nobody is that damned crazy,” he turned his attentions back to the road before him.

But he would be putting the word out to his people assembled for the evening’s festivities…

…  jusssst in case somebody is that damned crazy.

_____________________________________________________________________

Finished at the hair salon and with running her last minute errands, Marnie drove back across town to meet the Landers sisters at the agreed upon spot for brunch. Not having stopped for a full breakfast- just the juice and toast Marie forced upon her before she would let her out of the house earlier that morning-  she was hungry, but with Pat and Bill due in, she didn’t want to linger too long at the restaurant.

When her thoughts drifted over to J.J., she shook her head.

That girl….

They should have left the house together, but J.J. had taken off again, and most likely hadn’t let anyone know beforehand; J.J. certainly didn’t let her know until she found that note slid under her door when she got out of bed.

“Sal came by and picked me up early. Getting the full treatment as a birthday gift. Catch up to you later.”

Recalling the message, Marnie shook her head again.

        Didn’t even bother to text me with it because you wanted to do it your way- again.

See, that’s exactly why you’re walking on eggshells with the Duchess/ Then you just keep pushing it with this passive-aggressive BS you keep pulling. I see clear through you. The Duchess does too whether you want to admit to that or not.

She hadn’t bothered to call or text J.J. to tell her about herself or even to let her know she got the note.

As long as they had been friends, going off on her own had always been a strong element to J.J.’s personality.  Although she was popular and had a whole lot of people who wanted to hang out with the two of them or wanted to hang with J.J. alone, J.J. had no problem detaching from the group to go do her own thing. As she was getting older, Marnie noticed that tendency growing even stronger in her friend.  Although J.J. understood perfectly well why she was kept close- security and all that- she also thought she was smart enough, tough enough, and capable enough to handle herself come what may.

To some extent, that might be true, but the real truth of it was J.J. had safely made it to seventeen and excelled at so many things at her age because of how her parents were raising her. J.J. didn’t have the time or the space to slack or to get into too much trouble or for much trouble to get to her. The whole family had a strong work ethic and high expectations. Her mother and father set boundaries they insisted be respected. They raised J.J. in a way that fostered in her a strong respect for herself. J.J. did well in most things because it had been deeply instilled in her to want it for herself.

And by osmosis, Marnie felt all of that solidifying inside her, too. It was a very good feeling.

Even though she would never, ever admit it out loud to anyone, she greatly appreciated the Harts’ expectations and most especially, the boundaries they set for her, too.  In her private opinion, having parameters in place showed how much someone valued and cared about the person to whom they were applied. She felt calmer, safer and more secure in their household than she ever had in her mother’s. Or maybe even her father’s, for that matter.

But that had always been the case since she and J.J. formed their friendship way back when.

None of that; however, could fully compensate for some other things going on with her. They weren’t details she could easily share, so she kept most of it to herself. Placating wasn’t what she needed. Pep talks were a waste of time. She had been hanging in there, so that was yet another thing she didn’t need to be told to do.

Anticipating the party was a nice diversion. J.J.’s birthday celebrations were always engagingly and delightfully over the top. They also always brought Pat to their side of country. And now, Bill.

Stopped at the traffic light on Sunset at Veteran, the distinctive silver car also waiting for the light to change on the other side of the boulevard snagged her attention.

Wait. Is that-? 

Nah. Can’t be.

The light changed before she could even begin to make out the driver, but it didn’t escape her notice that the car was coming from the direction of Bel Air.

But they moved, so why-

It just better not be.

Cannot be that damned crazy.

She pulled into the restaurant’s lot a few minutes later, spotted one of the Landers sisters’ cars cruising for a space, and drove into the empty slot next to where it was parking.  With Brittany behind the wheel, she was able to address the passenger, Tiffany, through the open window.

“Hey, is Ollie still coming to the party? Have you talked to him at all today?”

______________________________________________________________

Pat had been quiet for most of the flight, their arrival, and the whole time they were securing the rental car. On the 405 headed for Bel Air, he was dying to confirm what he was sure she was over there thinking.

“Pat, I swear I can hear you over there lining it up. Do not get there and give J.J. hell about what she did. I know that’s what you’ve been over there plotting all this time. The girl has probably caught it up to her eyeballs from Jennifer as it is.”

Pat pursed then licked her lips in the attempt to hide her amusement at being so accurately called out by her husband.

“First of all,” she began, rolling her eyes over to him, “Do not tell me what to do with my godchild. She was supposed to be in Boston, wound up in New York with her little friends, one of whom is scouting for Lucifer, and didn’t even bother to call me to see if I was in town.”

“She’s my godchild, too. And how the hell was she supposed to call you, Pat? She was on the lam. You were the second to last person she wanted to alert to her being where she wasn’t supposed to be.”

“Don’t you mean third to last? She has two parents who ran up on her while she was out of place.”

Bill kept his eyes on the road but shook his head. “Jonathan doesn’t count. He probably didn’t really care. If she flew to New York to hang out with Teddy, that meant she wasn’t in Boston in some bed rolling around with Teddy. For Valentine, that first thing would have been the way-yy-y-y lesser of the two ‘evils’. I know for me it was when I heard about what happened.”

Pat’s lip curled with disgust. “You old chauvinist. I’ll bet when your boys went to their proms, you were handing out condoms to them.”

“Sure did,” Bill nonchalantly shrugged. “A young guy can’t be too careful if he happens to get lucky.”

“Get lucky?” she cried before socking him in the arm. “I see what a jackass I’m married to!”

“Oh, now we’re resorting to violence,” he said as he rubbed the arm with one hand while keeping the other on the wheel. “Look, I had boys, babe- the cause not the effect.”

Then he sighed. “Okay, I know it’s not right, babe, I know, but that’s the reality. A boy is going to try to get some if he can. He needs to protect himself and the girl if it happens.”

“But to your way of thinking, J.J. shouldn’t be ‘getting lucky’? She shouldn’t be expected to want to sleep with Teddy?”

“Or anybody else right now as far as her Uncle Bill is concerned. I’m not saying she shouldn’t want to; I get it that she’s human, seventeen not seven, and she’s healthy. In some cultures, girls her age are married and have two or three kids, but she’s not of that culture. I’m just saying for J.J., it’s not time for any of that. The guys she’d be doing that with at this stage of her life aren’t ready for her- at least not at a place to do right by her as far as that goes.

“I might be biased- no, I really am biased- but all that aside, that girl is truly special. A cut above. A lady. A little on the headstrong, impulsive side when it comes to staying put, but a lady just the same. There’s too much room for a girl to get hurt in too many ways when sex gets in the picture too soon. Teenaged boys are too dumb, self-centered, clueless and careless, particularly for a girl like her. J.J. deserves the right time and the right person. And Marnie, too, for that matter. That one, even though she’s a lot different from J.J., deserves- and needs- that, as well.”

Pat stared him down for a long few seconds before she quietly admitted, “I hate it when you force me to see why I love you.”

Bill, eyes still on the road, smiled. “I know you do, babe, but I love it when you’re forced to have to say it; you can be a hard one to break down. Which brings me back to our godchild-”

“I’m giving her hell, Bill; I don’t care what you say. This mess she got caught up in is just too good for me to not assert my right to address it. It’s getting to where the opportunities for me to go in on her come fewer and more far between.

“Well, look here.”

In the short distance ahead of them, Jonathan’s car was stopped at the front gate to the estate, waiting for it to completely open. Bill pulled in behind it, sounding his horn once.

A booth had been placed on the lawn space to the left of the drive, outside the gate.

“I see Jonathan’s real serious this time about who gets in.” Bill observed, tipping his head in that direction. Wonder if he’s stamping hands, too.”

“Well, he’s pretty security-minded as a rule anyway,” Pat said. “And a whole lot has happened to change things since the last party. I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he is making kids check in and out. ”

___________________________________________________________________

 Early afternoon

As soon as he put his last touches to the ponytail, Salvatore announced to Janet via intercom that he was gone for the day, then they headed out for his car so he could take her home. The morning had been a good one, relaxing and entertaining at the same time. Like always, everyone on staff treated her well, and Salvatore never let her down with his colorful anecdotes made even more so by his wicked sense of humor.

In the car, as Sal maneuvered through traffic, J.J.’s thoughts returned to her own state of affairs. She told herself that leaving the note for her parents rather than calling over and waking them up would be the better thing to do. Her heart knew better. She really didn’t want to risk her mother coming over and emotionally reaming her that early in the morning. She wouldn’t have been any good afterward if that happened, and she had too much to do, hence the clean getaway.

Same thing with Marnie, only with Marnie it was simply a case of not wanting to hear it- period.

But had that made matters worse? Would she have to catch if for this, too? Funny how the Duchess hadn’t been blowing up her phone over it. Everyone else on earth had, all morning-

…including-

Leave it, J. Leave it. Not your problem. Just leave it.

-but not her mother. Jennifer Hart was getting harder and harder to read.

It used to be easier to know when her mother was going to come after her. More and more lately, it seemed she was coming out of a different bag, doing things that seemed out of character for their relationship, throwing her off balance, making her sweat.

Maybe it was because she was getting older. After all, it was agreed between her and her mother that she would be considered grown-up at eighteen; that was only a year away.

But still….

And what in the world was it with those phone calls? All of a sudden. Out of the blue.

Been nearly a year….

She hadn’t answered. As far as that other party could tell, she had the number blocked, so that should-

Leave it, J. Just leave it. You have enough other things to be concerned over.

 Actual things.

No room in your life right now for what might be. Could be. Won’t be if I have anything to say about it.

And I will if it comes to that.

It felt as if she and Sal had just left the shop when they pulled up to the gate of her home. She signaled the remote, and Sal drove through.

Cruising down the bridge hill, heading toward the house, it was gratifying, but at the same time a twinge nauseating to see the unfamiliar Cadillac parked in front of the guest house. Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill’s rental. Both of them only drove Cadillacs, even when they used rentals while they traveled.

…. unless Aunt Pat makes the impromptu choice to commandeer somebody else’s car, like she did Marnie’s that time she was here and Marnie got in trouble with the police.

Parked in front of the guest house?  Yeah, that is definitely them.

If so, it was good they made it in so early. Their presence would put some additional buffer between her and the Duchess. She didn’t quite understand herself her unusual reluctance to face the music, but it was definitely a tune she could wait to hear.

But then, her godparents being there did put her in Aunt Pat’s face-to-face, up close reach, which could be just as bad as dealing with the Duchess, maybe even worse. Not only had she left town, she had done so with Duncan Sinclair who Aunt Pat swore up and down was in league with some major forces of evil.

And who better than Aunt Pat knew how much her being out of place upset their Jen?

That last thing sank J.J. a little more into the leather seat.

Rounding the turn past the guest house, she spotted Marnie’s car parked right behind her mother’s in front of the door to the main house. That was another good thing. Marnie and Pat would probably be off together talking if the Duchess and Pat weren’t somewhere catching up with each other.

God, please let it be the latter. Let the two of them be together somewhere, talking. That way I can go up to my room and lay low for a while longer.

Salvatore pulled to a stop and popped the locks.

“All right, Ms. Hart,” he said, “Got you home safe and sound. I’ve done my part to get you all set for lots of excellent pictures tonight. Can’t wait to see what you’re wearing. I know you’re going to be eighties faaab-u-lous!”

He made ready to open his door to go around and get hers, but J.J. placed a hand on his arm to stop him. “You don’t have to get out.”

She opened her door and hopped out on her own, hiking her tote onto her shoulder before closing the door behind her and leaning back in the open window.

“Thanks for everything Sal. I’ll try to do my part on the faaab-u-lous thing. We have to make sure you and I get pics together- good advertising, as you say. As for what I’m wearing, you know I won’t be too outlandish no matter the decade. That wouldn’t be me.” She patted the seat and backed away. “See you later.”

Inside the house, there was nobody in immediate sight. Marie, she figured, was probably in the back. If her mother wasn’t with Pat, she was likely somewhere with her father. Maybe her godparents were over at the guesthouse getting settled in, and Marnie was either with them or up in her room.

The great room furniture had been rearranged. It was now set up to accommodate the card party her parents hosted- now that she was older- for their friends while her birthday party was going on outside. That kept the adults mostly in the house, but definitely on point, particularly her own parents. On her way in, she had noticed the booth set up outside the gate. That was a first.  It appeared her father was ramping up the security even more than he had for her party the year before. Surprisingly, rather than being an annoyance to her, she found that reality oddly comforting.

She started to peek in the dining room to see if he had the visual surveillance in the works like she discovered he had before, but desirous of not running into anyone right away and perhaps having to talk about things she wasn’t sure she was ready to discuss, she instead proceeded up the stairs to her room.  At the Salvatore’s, she had let her calls go to voice mail to focus on her procedures. She could use the down time until the party to sift through the messages and return the ones that needed a response.

And to document those that would never, ever be answered.

Just in case.

She hadn’t said as much to anyone; it was hard enough admitting it to herself, but she really wasn’t feeling up to this party the way she thought she should have been.

That only added to the rest of it.

At the top of the stairs, she noticed Marnie’s head dart of her room and go back, like she was peeking, then her arm appeared, flailing wildly, indicating she needed to come down there.

J.J. bypassed her room, loudly whispering, “What?”

Marnie’s head popped out again, first with a finger to her lips, telling her to be quiet, then she used the same arm to urgently wave, telling her to hurry up.

A voice boomed, “If you don’t get your little- ” causing Marnie’s head and arm to snap out of sight as the voice continued, “I thought I told you to stay in that room!”

She heard Marnie’s timid protest, “I am in the room,” right before the sound of her door slamming shut. At the same moment, Aunt Pat entered the hall from the sitting room, over-filling the void left by Marnie’s retreat.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Squirt”, she said as she extended an arm that J.J. saw more as an opening to a net or some other type of trap than a cordial invitation. “Come on in here. It’s been a while. We need to get caught up.”

J.J. took a deep breath and went to her godmother where she was immediately placed in a gentrified death grip. She sighed as she was led into the sitting room. “Somehow, Aunt Pat, I had a feeling you were going to be up here.”

“I know you did,” Pat said, administering a slightly painful squeeze before closing the door behind them.

__________________________________________________

Jonathan finished his phone call but remained in his chair. He needed to digest the information just relayed to him. In the meantime, he took in the activity in preparation for that in progress out on the rear grounds just beyond him.

Seventeen years.

This would make birthday celebration number seventeen that he and Jennifer would be hosting for the child that took so long to come to them.

Seventeen years of J.J. Hart, his and Jennifer’s girl.

The very first party had been a small affair for a very little girl, mostly for the friends of theirs with younger children. Among their set at the time, J. J. had been the youngest, so for the first five or six years, the parties were pretty simple, but with Jennifer arranging them, very well put-together, fun-filled afternoon gatherings for the kids as well as relaxing and enjoyable for their parents. It wasn’t until J.J. started going to school that they began to evolve into something more than a few games, some pool play, maybe a clown, some ponies, cake, and ice cream.

Once J.J. was in middle school, when she transferred from the private academy to the charter gifted and talented program at the public school, the parties started taking on lives of their own.

The guest list more expansive and a lot more diverse.

Themes.

Catering on steroids.

Young boys with developing sketchy agendas.

By the time she got to high school, they were full scale productions that occasionally made for tense mother-daughter negotiations, and always involved intensive and detailed planning that took months to line up and weeks to completely work out and get set up.

J.J.’s birthday parties had also become one of the major springtime social events from which no teenager aware of them wanted to be left out. Kids came from everywhere, a few even from out of state. Every now and then parents even went so far as to lobby him or Jennifer in the effort to secure an invite for a kid when one hadn’t come in the usual manner. That happened mostly with someone new to the area, a kid J.J. might not know very well but whose parents- usually the mother- took that stab at social engineering on the kid’s behalf. When that happened, he and Jennifer stayed out of the ‘who is invited-who isn’t invited’ part of things, leaving the guest list to the party girl.  It was J.J.’s night; she made those decisions.

On the rare occasion, the omission was deliberate.

When J.J. left someone out on purpose, she always had some solidly justifiable- at least in her mind- reason for it. She got along with most people and tended to be generously inclusive when it came to social gatherings. She even gave a few folks a lot more benefit of the doubt than they may have deserved. Like her mother; however, when J.J. did cut somebody off or out, ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, the excluded party had provided the scissors. Both Jennifer and Justine Hart were expert seamstresses when it came to fabric of the human kind, particularly with the more offensive textures and patterns.

Over the years, there had never been any real problems with J.J.’s party guests. Just the same, this time they had made it crystal clear to both J.J. and Marnie that there would be no admittance to anyone not on the list. He had installed the extra measure of uniformed security at the front gate to make sure the rule was kept. Too, too much reality had been visited upon them all between the last party and this one to be lax or take unnecessary chances.

But it kind of surprised him some when neither girl put up any argument, offered no resistance of any kind on the matter. One of those things that had him going, “Hmmmmm?” at the time.

However, that phone call he just clicked off from confirmed for him the soundness of the decision. It also insistently whispered that at least one of his girls might know something she hadn’t let him in on.

Who knew seventeen years ago that something like this would ever be a concern for him on such a deeply personal level?

Jennifer stepped out of the catering tent, the sun catching her and that hair just right as she stopped to flip though some papers clipped to the board she carried. She looked up for a moment in his direction, and when their eyes met, she smiled and sent him a little wave before going back to her paperwork.

His initial inclination was to go out and join her in overseeing the preparations being made. From the looks of it, though, she appeared pretty honed in and focused on what she was doing. Without even glancing his way again, she took off in the direction of the soundstage. It was obvious she didn’t need any assistance from him, not to mention the possible distraction.

And anyway, while he had been on the phone, he thought he heard the gate alarm sound from the console in the kitchen, signaling the imminent arrival of someone from the front gate with a remote or the code. With Jennifer occupied, it would be an opportune time to snatch a daddy to daughter chat, if indeed it was J.J. returned to the fold- or Marnie, if need be. The girls had still been out when he and Jennifer got back from breakfast, and neither one of them had shown up before he and Jennifer left Bill and Pat out front on their way to getting settled in the guest house.

The only way to find out which one of his girls was back would be to go see for himself.

Rising from his chair, he left his wife to her business outside while he headed inside to attempt to handle his.

_____________________________________________________________________

Satisfied that the catering manager had everything under control, Jennifer checked that group off her list and stepped out of the tent. Her next stop, the last area she need to attend to, would be the soundstage.

In the distance loomed the newly erected structure where technicians still milled about checking things over with the foreman, finalizing the details. In just a few hours, that space would be lit up and filled with musicians and a DJ, sending their talent blasting into the night air to the delight of their animated young audience.

She marveled at the workmanship and at how all of it going on out there in her backyard, that she was running around to oversee, was in celebration of one thin, fleet-of-foot, impulsive, want-to-be-rogue redhead. That one girl who no matter how hard her mother tried to compartmentalize her, would not be moved to the back of her mind.

… slick as hell from the very first instant of your very existence….

… and I’ve been running ever since then to keep up with you.

By hook, crook, or divine intervention, you need to understand I will be keeping up with you for at least another year….

Just one more year.

…. little minx.

As maddening and confounding as the girl could at times be, she had to grudgingly admit to herself that J.J. Hart got it honestly- from both sides- and despite her antics, she was worth every bit of how over-the-top both her parents tended to go for her birthday parties. There was no denying she was hard-working in and out of school, generous, compassionate, academically and socially responsible. Her father’s pride and her mother’s joy…

… but that pervasive errant scamp, devil-may-care element to her personality….

… which seems to be growing exponentially.

An adventure like no roller coaster thrill ride I’ve ever been on.

… well, that’s if I overlook the ones your devil-may-care father has taken me on. In fact, you are the wildest thrill ride he’s taken me on. Never a dull moment….

Sunlight glinting off the metal clip holding a checklist and other papers to the board in her hand caused her to flinch and avert her eyes in time to catch Jonathan watching her from where he sat on the patio. She smiled and waved.

…with either of you.

Yes, darling, I know it’s killing you that she’s avoiding you, too, this time.

Salvadore cut you off from getting to her this morning, so I’m sure by now you can’t wait for her to get back, and you can try to slip off on your own to see what’s going on with her.

But that was all right; he could do as he needed. While riding around with Jonathan that morning, she mentally solidified her own penance plan for J.J. Hart. A doozy, it was. That child was not going to be stopped, but she could certainly be slowed down some.

And Pat couldn’t wait to do her, too.

For the moment, though, the others could all have at it; J.J. deserved every bit of it. Her mother; however, still had things to do. The daughter would come later.

As she turned toward the soundstage, from the corner of her eye, she saw Jonathan get up from his chair and go toward the kitchen door.

_________________________________________________________________________

Dusk

Pat had been gone from the second floor for hours, and Marnie had come and gone from that part of the house several times, but as far as she could tell,  J.J. was still holed up inside her room.

Once arrived back home from her morning appointments, Marnie had spent some time reuniting with Pat. The rest of the afternoon she was in and out, lining herself up for the party, or on the phone about the party- at times, both. Figuring J.J. needed the time alone to get over the tongue-lashing she likely got from Pat over worrying the Duchess in that one way everybody knew upset her to no end, she had left J.J. to herself.

Privately; however, staying on the go and out of the grownup’s way was an effort to keep her own head low to avoid becoming collateral damage. After all, it wasn’t like she hadn’t been made privy beforehand to J.J. and Teddy’s change of prom plans.  Thank heavens, nobody- namely the Duchess and Pat- had gone there-

…yet.

Her hope was that with the focus set so squarely on J.J. and what she did, not to mention preparations for the party she was still being allowed to have, nobody would pick up on that one detail- the detail that would surely have one or both the women coming for her. After all, it was Mrs. H. and Pat who constantly drilled it into the two of them that they were responsible for each other when they were away from home. If those two put it together that J.J. might have let her in on it, it wouldn’t matter to either of them that she wasn’t even in the same state as J.J. when the deed went down. If any of the grownups thought of it, Pat or- hell, maybe and– the Duchess, not to mention Mr. H. or Uncle Bill would definitely be coming for her with questions she did not want to be made to answer.

But if pressed real hard….

Damn, it’s always something.

Alone in her own room now, phone on mute, in the mirror getting dressed for the night, she abruptly stopped, put the brush down, and bowed her head.

Hi God, it’s me, Marnie, again. I got something to ask you.

Please, please, puh-lease don’t let anybody think of it.

I just want to be left out of this mess. I’ve been real good lately. It’s not my fault J. called and told me; that’s what she was supposed to do. I tried to tell her not to go, but you know how she is. You made her like that.

She raised her face to the mirror and started to pick up another utensil, but whipped that hand back up to cross  herself, bow her head again, and tack on,

No offense.

On what I said about you making J. like she is or this Sign of the Cross since I’m not Catholic.

But then you already know that last part.

Amen.

She picked up the teasing comb and went back to her work in the mirror.

There had not been a real afternoon lunch or a sit-down dinner that evening, so J.J. probably hadn’t been missed. But her silent absence for that long had Marnie curious and a little worried about her.

And there was that matter she needed to let J.J. in on.

Having had time to think on it, she wondered, too, if J.J. might be holding out on her.

Because that’s how you would do.

Thinking you can handle everything by yourself. That’s why you’re jammed up now with the Duchess.

I have to say, though, that was some crazy-bad luck in New York, J. Who on earth would have anticipated the trip working out like that? 

Talk about being out wrong at the wrong time.

She picked up the cell from the vanity to call J.J., but stopped herself before clicking in. It came to her going over there in person would probably be the better move. It would be just like J.J. to not pick up a call if she was in some sort of funk over getting told off by Pat.

Marnie crossed the room to check herself out in the full-length mirror. She squared her shoulders to tug forward her shrug- length denim jacket and pull down on the snug mini skirt. She admired the look on her, but she frowned a little as she patted her spritzed-stiff hairdo.

I do not know how people’s hair didn’t fall out from all this gunk they put in it.

Satisfied with her 80’s vibe, she grabbed the phone back up from the night table and took it off the mute setting. Then she left the bedroom, mentally gearing up ….

And you better just open the damned door when I get there.

Don’t have me cussing you out through it, putting me at risk of getting overhead by the wrong somebody rolling up on me from behind, who’ll put me on lockdown in a heartbeat for it. We will be fighting at that point.

This outfit is way too cute on me to not be worn to a party tonight.

And Chance will be there, too? Not to mention all those other cute-

I wish you would-

When J.J.’s voice answered on the first knock and then invited her in, Marnie exhaled, relaxed, and turned the knob.

_____________________________________________________________________

Jonathan wound up spending most of his afternoon working with the security team. With all electronic systems in working order, details defined and in place, and everyone ready to execute his or her duties, he left it to August Lamb, his security chief for Hart Industries, to run things for the night. It was getting late, and it wouldn’t be long before guests began to arrive.

He left the room, closing the doors behind him, secreting the operations going on behind them from all else that would be going on in the rest of the house.

Just as he approached the main staircase, Jennifer emerged from the pass hall that led to the front of the house from kitchen, and he stopped at the bottom of the stairs to wait for her.

“Well, fancy meeting you here,” she said, wringing her hands in a way that told him she had just lotioned them.” And where have you been all this time? I haven’t seen you in hours.”

He shrugged. “Here, there. Just came from meeting with August and security, shoring things up.”

“Everything okay?”

“All systems go. Your daughter and her guests will be monitored and should be kept reasonably safe this evening.”

She tipped her head and looked him in the eye to ask, “Anticipating trouble?”

“Not really. Just being proactive, as always.”

“That, you are,” she said with a smile as she took his hand in hers. “So where are you headed now, Mr. Hart?”

“I was going up to the bedroom. You?

“I was going up to the bedroom, too. Great minds still thinking alike, I see. Darling, it is about time we got dressed. Pat and Bill just left from over here, going to do the same thing.”

“To be honest,” he said as followed her up the stairs, admiring the view directly in front of him, “I wasn’t really thinking about getting dressed. Actually, it was quite the opposite, especially if I got up to the room, and you were already up there.”

“Now, now,” she said, holding one expressive index finger in the air for emphasis, “there’s no time for that; we have social responsibilities this evening.”

“I don’t know about responsible, but I was certainly going to be social. I thought you said a minute ago about great minds thinking alike.”

They reached the top of the stairs in time to catch sight of Marnie on the other end of the hall, crossing over to enter J.J.’s sitting room. With her bedroom door being on that end, Marnie often went through the sitting room and then J.J.’s bathroom to get to J.J.’s bedroom.

“Collusion?” he asked.

“Not if they know what’s good for them,” she said as they proceeded on to their room and went inside. “That appeared to be an awfully skimpy little skirt she had on, even with the leg warmers.”

She was still talking as she closed the bedroom door. “Maybe especially with the leg warmers in concert with those red high-heeled pumps.”

She didn’t realize he was right behind her. When she turned around, she bumped right into him and his waiting arms, both of which he wound around her in a tight hug.

“Upcoming inspection on your agenda, Mrs. Hart?” he whispered into the ear he nuzzled.

“Most definitely, Mr. Hart,” she answered. “Well, that little one, anyway.”

Still holding her close, he pulled back a little to see into her face. “Jennifer, I know you’ve been busy, but have you spoken to J.J. at all today?”

Her eyes dropped from his when she answered.

“No, I haven’t even seen her. Like you said, I’ve been busy; the afternoon just flew by.” The she raised her eyes back to his. “Have you?”

“I haven’t seen her either,” he admitted.

He released Jennifer and took a step back to remove the lightweight jacket he had on.

“Are we sure she’s even here?” as he tossed the jacket onto the bed. “She’s been awfully quiet and distant the past couple of days. Now neither of us has even seen her- well you said you saw the back of her this morning, but this is not like her. I mean, I know she messed up, but- I came in earlier to- but-”

The hand she raised cut him off. Then she lowered her head and softly chuckled in a way that to his ears sounded loaded, like there was a whole lot behind it, especially since he hadn’t said anything even remotely funny to generate it. In fact, it kind of sounded like she might be laughing at him.

Jennifer, still mysteriously smiling as she turned away from him, walked toward the dressing-room. “She’s here, Jonathan,” she said. “Come on, darling; we really do have to get dressed. We have to get your sideburns on and blended in.”

“I think you’re taking this eighties thing a bit far,” he called as he retrieved his jacket to hang up in the closet. “I don’t remember having sideburns in the eighties.”

“Well, you’re going to have some tonight.”

Shaking his head at being bossed and not being able to do anything about it, he followed her to the back.

But his mind was really on J.J., how he twice got cut off from getting to talk with her that day, and on the phone call he got from her hairdresser, not mention what he got indirectly from Marnie via Pat. His daughter had a hell of a safety net around her whether she realized it or not. She might be growing up and away from him, but she would always be his to look out for, he would forever be her daddy.

“If those things itch, Jennifer,” he warned as she disappeared around a corner, “they’re coming off.”

“Oh, don’t be a spoilsport,” he heard her fuss. “Now how many gold chains do you think you’re going to need?”

______________________________________________________________________

J.J. could not believe how quickly the afternoon had gotten away from her. It seemed she had just gotten back from the salon, and now it was time to get ready to meet her guests arriving for her party.

For a long while after Aunt Pat left her, she remained on the bed, digesting what had been said to her. When she felt herself dozing off, in the effort to circumvent that, she decided to get caught up some more on her writing. Then Teddy called, and she talked with him for a while, getting filled in on his current situation, some gossip about the prom night some of the others had, and on the curious relationship between him and his stepmother.

Turned out that wasn’t so curious after all; it was just how things worked out over the years, which was a good thing- for him, at least. When she clicked off from him, she had even more to write about.

She had no idea there was still so much inside that needed to get out. Earlier that morning, when she returned to the room from taking the dog out for his potty-break, she had gotten a decent start before falling off to sleep again.

Once she got back into it after Aunt Pat left, by the time she put the pen down and came up for air again, she found the room considerably dimmed; she had been in there on her own almost the entire day.

Aunt Pat- always a source of enlightenment and comfort in her own unique, sometimes unsettling way.

But neither of her parents had sought her out in all that time? Granted, she hadn’t been actively seeking either one of them, and she hadn’t let either of them know she was back from the salon. Could they be upset with her about just leaving a note that morning?

I thought at the time I was looking out for them in not waking them up so early just to tell them I was leaving.

Or maybe, in light of everything else, she should have asked if it was all right to go.

It wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t been called down for lunch or dinner as she would have on any other day. When her birthday parties rolled around, it was usually eat-on-the-run for everybody that day. Nevertheless, it was more than a little disconcerting that no one at all, other than Aunt Pat, had come looking for her.

Not even Marie? Was she that much on the outs with her parents that even the housekeeper wasn’t speaking to her?

But then, the truth was she hadn’t even offered a helping hand to anyone in getting ready for her own event.

Face stinging, gut roiling from the souring mishmash of guilt, angst, and confusion, she had gotten up and gone into the closet to pull together what she planned to wear that night. The least she could do was show up on time. The outfit would have to pass muster with the Duchess before she went downstairs and outside. Aside from perhaps the neckline, she didn’t anticipate there being a problem.

The worry wouldn’t be over any outfit this time.

Those eyes….

She hadn’t looked into them since that night…

… and that night the look in them-

Vivid recollection triggered a painful, hard shudder, bending her over at the waist.

The knock on the closed door to the bathroom brought her back to the moment. It could only be Marnie, who she told to come on in.

“Where are you, J? In the closet?”

“Yeah, hang on a minute.”

J.J. tugged the lace-trimmed camisole over her head.

“Take your time, J.”, Marnie called. “I just came over to check on you.  I hadn’t seen you all day. What’re you doing in here all closed up anyway? Pat cuss you out? The Duchess get with you?”

“Nah,” J.J. answered while smoothing the satin garment down into her pants then zipping and fastening them. “Pat gave me the business a little about taking off on the plane. Of course, she went there about going on it with Duncan.”

“Duncan can’t catch a break with her, can he?”

J.J. pulled a shoebox off the shelf and removed the black patent leather oxfords, which she placed on the floor then hitched up her cuffed pants to step into them.

“I didn’t even bother to debate with her about him this time, Marn. It wouldn’t have changed how she feels about the boy. Besides at that point, I had to play if cool; it was too early in. I couldn’t be sure it would have been safe to open myself up for any more ridicule than I had coming over the trip itself. I didn’t know how she was coming for me, but I knew she was coming.”

“So, did she do you real hard about the trip?”

“She started out like she was going to, but in the end, she really didn’t.”

“Well, if it hadn’t been her, it might have been your father.”

That comment snapped J.J. to full attention. “What makes you say that, Marn?”

“He came up here, trying to get to you. I saw him go your door, but I guess he could hear you in there with Pat, so he turned around and went back downstairs.”

Still inside the closet, out of Marnie’s eyesight, J.J. exhaled and went limp with relief. So, she hadn’t been completely set adrift.

Then she smiled to herself as a snippet of what her godmother shared in the course of their conversation flashed in her mind. It had been as surprising and eye-opening- maybe even more so this time- as the one she gave up the year before when she helped her nervous godchild past fretting over her mother’s potential reaction to the fringed suede party pants.

Yet another one of those, “Keep it to yourself/ Just giving you some perspective, Squirt” conversations between me and her.

Makes it a little bit better to know I’m not the only one… but, …

… makes me wonder even more why she-

Before her mind could fully set sail on one of its speculative odysseys, she slid the hatbox down from the shelf, lifted the hanger with her jacket from its spot on the rod, and moved to leave the closet, poking the switch with her elbow to turn off the light before stepping back into the bedroom.

Marnie was, of course, in the full-length mirror, checking herself out.

“Cute outfit,” J.J. said behind a quick complimentary whistle. She sat down on the bed and lifted a pants leg to work on her shoes. “You look just like somebody off ‘Saved by the Bell’ or “The Cosbys”. Love the fan thing you’ve got going with your bangs.”

“Thanks. I got the hair idea from Kelly Bundy on ‘Married with Children’. She had it going on at the time.” Marnie said, patting at that part of her hair. “Wasn’t doing the bleach, though; brunette for life right here. Sprayed the hell out of my bangs to get them to stand up to attention like this. Hope they don’t break off from all the alcohol they’ve been forced to consume.”

“Hey, J., remember that time when we were little, and you told the Duchess you wanted bangs like mine, but she wouldn’t give you any, so you tried to cut them yourself?”

J.J. rolled her eyes as she stood up, shaking her legs to get her pants to fall neatly over the shoes.

“Yeah, unfortunately I do remember. I couldn’t get them right, so I kept cutting, trying to make them even going across. Next thing I knew, there was nothing left to even up. When Marie called to tell me to come down and eat, I put on a baseball cap to hide what I did, but of course that didn’t work. My mother cried when she saw me. I felt worse about her than I did about my messed-up hair.”

J.J. removed the jacket from the hanger and began pulling it on as she continued reminiscing.

“Then, when Daddy came home, and she ratted me out and gave me up to him. He told me I looked like a poodle with a haircut he would be lawyering up and suing somebody over. Then he threatened me about ever taking another pair of scissors to my hair. You bet that since then I haven’t entertained so much as the thought of even trimming my own hair.

“She made you wear headbands to school every day until your hair grew back in,” Marnie crowed through her laughter.

“But-” J.J. said, raising that one eyebrow and holding up an index finger to make her point, ” if you recall, I did get to have some bangs for a minute when my hair grew back in enough to lose the headbands.”

Adjusting herself inside the jacket, she walked over from the bed to the mirror and positioned herself in it behind Marnie.

Marnie swung around from the reflection to take J.J. in first-hand, visually sweeping her from foot to head.

“Da-a-a-a-mn, J., that is one slammin’ suit! On the drawing table- on the hanger was one thing, but on you? Retro, you said? Eighties? You could wear that out on the street now and be in style.”

She took  J.J.’s jacket sleeve and gently rubbed the fabric between two fingers. “Nice. This shade of white is so good with your skin tone. But how are you going to keep from getting it stained or dirty? And you’ll have it on all night, too?”

“Well, I’m claiming ‘clean’ and hoping for the best. I’m not quite as clumsy as I used to be. There’s not a whole lot I’ll be doing out there other than walking around or dancing. I’m not all that hungry, so food stains shouldn’t be an issue. Barring somebody spilling something on me, I should be okay.”

“Hope you have a backup outfit just in case. Look how wide those shoulders are with your shoulders and all that padding in them- ooh, girl, you are going to sa-lay them tonight. Did the Indian lady thread your eyebrows? They are on point.”

“Yes, Priya did them.” J.J. took a step closer to the mirror to work at fastening the fancy burnished brass buttons. “I like her work, too; she told me it’s a passed-down skill in her family,  an art form. Thanks for the compliment on the suit. That means a lot coming from you. I thought Ms. Nadine did a good job on it, too. I love these buttons and how the pleats fall in the pants.”

With the jacket fastened, J.J. took in Marnie’s reflected lower half in the mirror, and she turned around to her.

“I like the fishnet stockings with those leg warmers, but how are you going to keep that tight skirt from riding up on you all night as you move around or dance? You’re going to get sick of pulling on it to keep it down.”

“Oh, I have that covered,” Marnie said. She folded up the hem of the skirt. “See, I used some of this stick-on Velcro inside. I stuck pieces on my behind and thighs- well to the panty hose- to hold it in place. I got the thin kind so it wouldn’t show through and make unsightly lumpy-looking squares under my clothes and stuff. Can’t have that, you know.”

“Leave it to you to plan ahead to ward off a fashion faux pas,” J.J. said as she went back over to the bed and removed the lid from the hatbox she had left there. “Not to mention warding off the Duchess and Pat, who are definitely going to flag you in once they see you in that little bitty thing.”

“I was thinking of the two of them when the Velcro fix came to mind.”

“Look, since you’re my style go-to at the moment, Marn, what about this?”

J.J. lifted a felt Fedora, the same color as her suit, from the protective tissue lining the hatbox and placed it on her head. She went back over to the mirror to adjust it, pulling the brim low over her eyes.

“Too much?” she leaned her head back to ask.

Marnie, still behind her in the mirror, nodded her appreciation. “No, it’s just right. You’re killing it. That’s definitely the “Smooth Criminal” look you said you were going for; all you need now is a sequined glove. I bet you Mike would let you be in the video remake. Let me see the shoes.”

J.J. put her hands in the pants pockets to raise the cuffs enough for Marnie to see.

“Oh my god, J.! Spats? Where in the world did you find those?”

“Miss Nadine made them to go with the suit when I told her the look I was going for. She surprised me with them. I had forgotten that he wore spats in the video. I went for heels instead of the flat shoes he wore. Didn’t want to be too masculine-looking.”

“No chance of that,” Marnie assured J.J., eyeing her daringly only-by-lace-obscured décolletage. “Teddy is really missing out on this.”

“I didn’t come up with this idea for Teddy.”

It came out more sharply than J.J. meant, and she caught Marnie’s minute flinch reflected in the glass.

“I’m so sorry,” she immediately said before turning around to her friend to sheepishly admit, “I’m just on edge about everything, Marn. To tell you the truth, I’m actually kind of glad Teddy isn’t coming.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” J.J. sighed, turning back to mirror. “I’ll be doing well to put up with myself tonight. I don’t think I would have been good company for him this time around.”

“Why not, J?” Marnie asked J.J.’s reflection with a concerned tip of the head. “Listen, are you okay? You’ve seemed off to me the whole time I’ve been back from D.C.  Like you’re saying the right stuff, but just going through the motions. I know you have a lot-”

“Don’t worry about me,” J.J. cut in, taking Marnie by the arm and turning both of them away from the mirror. “I’m good. You got everything?”

“Yeah,” Marnie answered, caught off guard by J.J.’s abrupt response and reaction as she pulled her toward the bedroom door. “I’m good to go, but- Wait! Hold up.”

She dug her heels into the carpet, using the arm J.J. clamped onto to jerk J.J. back to her. “Don’t open that door yet. I gotta ask you something.”

“Ask me what?” J.J. sounded annoyed, but if she was, Marnie didn’t care.

“And J., don’t be lying to me when I ask you.”

J.J. snapped a hand to her hip, huffed, and rolled her eyes. “Ask me what, Marnie?”

Marnie took a deep breath before she ventured, “Has that jackass Wesley been calling you?”

When J.J.’s posture immediately softened, and she looked away, Marnie gave her the hand.

“Uh-uh, no you don’t. Let me just rephrase that question before you go into loophole mode on me, J.J. Hart. Has he been trying to call you because you probably still have his number blocked, so he can’t really call you. See, we’ve been girls a long time, you and me, so I already know how you operate. I can already see the wheels spinning up there. Don’t even try getting slick with the answer. ”

With pursed lips, J.J. snaked her neck and sassily asked, “So what makes you ask, Marn?”

“Because I thought I saw him today as I was going to meet Tiff and Britt. I was about to pass the east gates, going up Sunset, and he was coming from this direction, but going the opposite way from me. If it was him, and I’m pretty sure it was him in that car of his, why would he be over this way? And on this day?  His family moved from this neighborhood right after that mess he pulled last year. He should be up at school. CalTech is still in spring session. It’s not Spring break for them yet.”

Marnie eyeballed J.J. hard. “Has he been calling you, I asked you.”

“He cannot be that crazy,” J.J. quietly declared, taking the fedora off and raising a hand to her forehead. “He can’t be.”

“So, he has been calling you.”

“Marn, my father will put a bullet in him for real if he tries to come here. Daddy cannot stand him, especially because of the mess last year, but I always got the feeling he wasn’t real fond of him before that. Now I wouldn’t even chance mentioning the name ‘Wesley’ around Daddy even if it was somebody else I was talking about.”

J.J. took a deep breath and exhaled, absently patting the hat against her leg. “It’s just one thing after the other. God knows I don’t need any more boy-drama- for that matter, drama of any kind in my life right now.”

This time Marnie took J.J. by the arm. “Okay, look here, we’re going to do it the way you always tell me, J. We won’t claim it was him I saw. But you do still have him blocked, right?”

Rubbing wearily at her forehead, J.J. silently nodded.

“Then he hasn’t gotten through. As far as he knows, he no longer exists for you- you have no idea he’s been trying to reach you. With security out there at the gate, if he does try to crash, he’ll get stopped before he can get anywhere near enough for your father to draw a bead on his ass. Everything is going to go just fine. You’ll get out there, get with the crew and all the music, and you’re going to have a ball.”

“Okay,” J.J. quietly conceded, putting the hat back on her head and squaring her shoulders. “Okay. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”

Marnie stopped at the door to turn around, point finger, and add, “But if that snake does somehow manage to slither himself up in here, I hope the guys get to him before your father does. Not because I don’t want him shot; I’d just much rather see him get the hell beaten out of him again. Shooting him,” she shrugged, “it would be over too quickly.”

Despite the lingering thread of agitation, J.J. laughed at Marnie’s admission, more so at the mischievous expression through which it was delivered.

“You are so crazy, Marn” she said as she opened the door and nudged Marnie through it.

The doors to the master bedroom were closed as they went past to go down the front staircase. They had just made it to the bottom when the front door opened, and Pat came in.

When she turned around from closing the door, at the sight of Marnie, she stopped and plopped a hand on one hip to ask, “What in the hell?”

J.J. kept on around to the pass hall.

Having left so early that morning, she hadn’t taken her vitamins, and ‘late’ would be better than ‘not’ should she get asked about it. Considering the level of dark and murky she was in over the other thing, the possibility of getting asked about it was very well within the realm of possibility.

… one less potential point of negative discussion…

Pat’s strong New ‘Yawk’ accent followed her around that corner, “So what did you do? Glue that strip of cloth to you! I don’t care if you are a size negative one- and where in the hell did you find black fishnets? They still make those?”

A sudden thought momentarily slowed J.J.’s steps-

Wait, was that a catsuit Aunt Pat had on?

The housekeeper, Marie, came out of the pantry carrying a platter just as J.J. entered the kitchen.

“Don’t you look nice,” she said. “The fedora is a real nice touch. You wear it well, although, I have to say I’m more used to seeing you in baseball caps.”‘

J.J. smiled at the compliment and the comment as she opened the cabinet where the bottles she sought were kept. “Thank you. I prefer a baseball cap, but that wouldn’t have been the look I was going for.”

“I wondered if you had taken those,” Marie commented when J.J. shook the pill and capsule into her hand. She must have heard what she was doing because when J.J. looked up, the woman was at the sink with her back to her.

“I haven’t seen you all day,” Marie continued. “You left so early, but then, I’ve been so busy. What have you been up to?”

Before J.J. could get to the cabinet where the glasses were kept, Marie brought her one filled with cold water. “Have you spoken with your mother yet, J.J.?” she asked.

Caught off guard by the question and the unexpected offering, J.J. inwardly stiffened, but immediately focused on outwardly playing it off.

She couldn’t be sure how much Marie might know about her situation; she certainly hadn’t told her anything about it.  Even though her mother and Marie spent a lot of time together, mostly on matters pertaining to the house and the family, she didn’t think it like her mother to have talked to Marie about what happened in Boston.

Marie, being a long time live-in had been folded into the household, but typically, Marie only found out about trouble she might be in because she somehow became involved in it. The school contacting the house to report some transgression or issue brought her into the picture if she took the call. Sometimes Marie became, directly or indirectly, one of the players in the incident. Since this latest episode didn’t occur anywhere near Willow Pond, J.J. couldn’t be sure what exactly generated the question.

“About what?” she said, attempting to sound a lot more relaxed than she felt as she accepted the water and knocked back the two pills.

When no answer came, she looked down to the much shorter woman. Their eyes met, and the expression on Marie’s face spoke without a word uttered from her mouth.

The woman slowly shook her head as she took the emptied glass back from J.J. She carried it over to sink and stood there a moment, unmoving, like she had to think on it a minute, then she slowly turned and came back to stand before J.J., wiping her hands on the towel she brought with her.

“Listen,” she fiinally said. “I’ve been managing this household a very long time. Seventeen years to be exact. I have had the privilege of watching and admiring the relationships here develop, grow, and thrive for way longer than that.

“It’s my job to keep track of the rhythms of this place. I know without even checking what food needs to be ordered. I know when which clothes should be washed, dried, left for the dry cleaner, and be picked up from or delivered by the dry cleaner without looking at a calendar or note. From memory I know when machines need scheduled maintenance, when the different cleaning services are scheduled to be here. I no longer even need a journal or calendar to keep up with most things pertaining to how and when things are done around here. More than that, though, J.J. I can feel in my very bones the rhythms and vibrations of the occupants of this house, particularly those between you and your mother. Always have. Even before you were actually born to her I felt them.

“I may not be privy to the details- and believe me, I’m okay with that, but I can always sense when things are off between the two of you, and they have been since you came back from Boston.”

Not knowing what to say, J.J. remained silent, and just as she said she could, Marie must have felt that uneven “rhythm” reverberating from her. She walked back to the sink to hang up the towel. When she turned back around, she spoke from where she stood.

“You look very sharp in that suit, J.J. You have excellent taste, just like your mother. Your own style, of course, but absolutely fitting for you.”

She slowly walked back over, returning to her spot in front of J.J. She spoke in a considerably lowered tone.

“You are seventeen now. Almost a woman. My, the time has certainly flown. We are all so very proud of you and the intelligent, well-meaning person you have always been, your mother, especially. Like I said before, I don’t know the details of what the problem is between you and her right now, but I strongly sense there is one. I’m rarely mistaken when it comes to that, and you know it. Whatever is broken right now, if you broke it, fix it.”

Without hesitation, because everything Marie said was correct, J.J. quietly admitted, “I don’t know how. I messed up. I think it’s really bad this time.”

Marie leaned in to better see into her face and to say, “It’s never so bad you can’t go to your mother. Nobody, J.J. I mean, no-bod-y, loves you the way she does.”

“I know,” J.J. admitted, “and I think that’s what makes it so hard.”

Chucking her once under the chin with an index finger knuckle, Marie said, “Figure it out, and take care of your business. It’s not like you to duck the hard things.”

That said, Marie left her to go back to what she had been doing at the sink.

You’re right, I don’t duck stuff.

Normally….

Taking the enclosed stairway from the rear of the kitchen, J.J. returned to the second floor, only to find the master bedroom’s doors still closed. She stood outside them, debating with herself about knocking.

Was not doing so out of her customary desire to not interrupt her parents’ privacy? That is, if they were both inside, or was it merely continued avoidance on her part because as much as she tried to fight the notion, the truth was that was what she had been doing all day.

If I’m honest about it, ever since we got back from the trip.

One thing was for sure; she only wanted to speak with her mother at that moment. Like Marie said, the two of them had unfinished business. Daddy, she could get with later. Communicating with him was a whole lot easier, even when she was in trouble. He would either give her a piece of his mind and check her, or he would be in her corner and issue some good advice on how to proceed. It was very different when it was the Duchess of Hart that she was in deep with.

If it turned out Daddy was in there with her, she would have to ask him to please leave what could quite easily turn out to be ‘the ring’, with her, of course, being the one hemmed up on the ropes.

Like that time in Vegas for which there hadn’t been any witnesses. Well, not earthly ones, anyway.

Ask Daddy to leave his own room?

Nah.

With an involuntary wave of the hand, she decided to wait and come back. It wouldn’t be ducking; it was holding out for a more opportune, and hopefully more potentially productive, moment- if such a thing was possible. After all, her mother had been sitting on/ brooding over this one for a while now.

Taking the front stairs, she headed back down. From the landing, where she briefly stopped to survey the altered ‘landscape’ below, she watched the uniformed hired help going about their duties, dusting things off, setting out snacks in the great room, straightening the rearranged furniture, placing chairs at the card tables, and from the sound, someone behind the bar working with the ice maker.

She met up with August Lamb, her father’s chief of security who came out of the dining room just as she made it to the bottom stair.  It was always a pleasure to see him, and it had been a while, so she spent a few minutes talking with him.

He complimented her on her outfit, then slipped her an envelope that he said was, “A little sump’n, sump’n for the birthday girl.”

Then his walkie-talkie crackled, and he turned away to take the message. Someone- she didn’t catch who- was on the way up to the house from the gate.

When he clicked off, he turned back to her and unexpectedly asked, “You going to be here a minute?”

She shrugged. “I guess I can be.”

“One of your parents’ guests,” he informed her as he clipped the communication unit back to his belt. “Can you let her in?”

“Sure. And thank you so much for the card, Mr. Lamb. If you don’t mind, I’ll open it with the others later tonight at the party.”

“It’s yours, J.J. Open it when you want. Do with it what you will afterward”

Guests were beginning to arrive, he said, so he needed to do a last check on things out back. He left her, snaking his way through the great room. As she watched him go, Ms. Chris Allen, the security head of the HartToy Division came to mind.

Hmmm. Wonder if the two of them ever hooked up? I’m pretty sure they had the hots for-

Then, once again, she caught herself- more so, cut herself off.

Mind your business, J. Mind your business. Stay focused.

You have enough problems with your own situation right now.

 Mr. Lamb disappeared around the corner to the den where he would likely use that door to the deck to get to the back of the house.

She slid the envelope he gave her into her own inside pocket and turned her attention back to the front door. It was a little odd that with all the help about, he would ask her to take on that duty. After all, wasn’t she the ‘birthday girl’?

When the anticipated knock came, she checked the peephole before answering it.

At that moment she accepted with absolute finality she indeed had to have a special someone in some other realm keeping an ever-vigilant watch over her. Who else would know to send exactly the person she needed to be on that other side of the door at just that moment in time?

Up to then, even she hadn’t considered that was who she needed.

_______________________________________________________________________

“One thing about a classic look,” Jennifer thought as she checked herself over in the mirror, “It doesn’t go very much out of style.”

The shoes, the pants, the form-hugging tank top- all met her approval.

Not too outrageous.

And not too bad, old girl. Good thing you had these in storage all this time. And they still fit.

Looking at herself, she was reminded of a disguise she once assumed for one of ‘those things’ she and Jonathan had gotten themselves into back in the pre-J.J. days of their relationship. That was the time they helped Stanley Frieson sort out all that trouble he got himself into out at the marina.

Stanley. What a character.

What wild times.

The earrings were a little large for her current tastes. The hair-

“Hmmm….  I don’t think so.”

J.J. always laughed or made some derisive comment on pictures from back in the days, when hair was, in her estimation, “Just so big.”

“Again, classic will have to do.”

As she raked her fingers through her not-eighties hair, pulling it into place, it occurred to her how unusual it was the way J.J. had kept so completely to herself all day. Hadn’t come down to help for her own party. Hadn’t so much as texted to say anything. Or even ask a question.  It wasn’t like J.J. Hart to be so completely M.I.A., especially not from her mother if they were both occupying the same general spaces.

Personally, she had been so busy that it was quite late when she realized she hadn’t actually seen J.J. since very early that morning. And that had just been the back of her as she was being picked up by Salvatore. For sure, the girl was there in the house; she could feel that, and Pat said she had seen and spoken with her, but It wasn’t at all like J.J. to not at least physically pass by or find some other way to put herself, if only for a quick second, somewhere within her mother’s eyesight.

Was that some kind of sign? Could it be that she was growing out of needing the sustenance of her mother’s presence?  Would she at least come over for the customary outfit check before she went downstairs to her party?

Stay focused Jennifer. She’s seventeen now and quite capable of conducting that much on her own.

And a whole lot more than that as evidenced by-

Leave it, Jen. Leave it. Stay focused.

The Friday-night-disco outfit she had pulled together would have to be enough; eighties hair, on the other hand, would require far more effort, not to mention gel and spray, than she was willing to utilize for that purpose at that late hour. She and Jonathan needed to be downstairs shortly, and after the party, she wouldn’t feel like washing that stuff out before going to bed to keep from having to deal with a sticky, tangled disaster in the morning.

“How’re you doing, darling?” she called to Jonathan as she switched off the light.

“Just about ready,” he called back from his side of the dressing room.

When she rounded the corner, he was sitting on the bench, looking at his phone. He looked up, snapped the phone off, and stuffed it in his pocket as if he didn’t want her to know he was on it. But she delighted in his appreciative whistle as he stood to meet her.

“Ooh, leather,” he cooed. “You are so amazing. You look just like you stepped out of Studio 54.”

“Do I?” she said, nuzzling into his waiting arms. “What makes you say that?”

“Here it is, two decades later, the club’s been shut down all this time, and you haven’t changed a bit”

He moved her away just enough to turn her around, putting her back to him, and nodded his appreciation. “I haven’t seen you in leather pants since the eighties.”

“Jonathan, leather pants haven’t really been fashionable since the eighties.”

“But you look delicious in them. And black leather, too? Be still my heart. I am one lucky man.”

With a lusty groan, he spun her back around to face him, both hands snugly cupping her backside to pull her close. “Ooh, and you still feel good in them, too. Now, how am I supposed to contain myself all night with you walking around in these?”

“You’re so sweet,” she said, as she pressed a kiss to his lips, snagging the lower one with her teeth just enough for him to feel it. Tracing a finger through the chest hair exposed by his four-buttons-open, tropical-themed shirt, she purred, “And you’re pretty amazing yourself.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. You’re looking pretty disco-sexy yourself. How do you go from CEO of your own company, international powerbroker and globetrotter to this? Sleazy, but kind of cute, sexy gigolo?”

“Tonight, I’m only a father helping to throw a party for his kid. But then, too, I did happen to overhear my daughter the other day say that I’ve got it like that. ”

“I doubt this is what she was referring to at the time you heard it,” Jennifer said through her laughter as she slid a hand back inside his shirt to lightly scratch at his midsection while pressing herself into him even more tightly. “I tell you what, if you’re a very good host this evening, and you behave yourself in that food tent- which we both know you’re going to sneak out to-I may let you take these pants off of me once the party is over.”

“Let me? Listen, if the party isn’t over by ten, I can’t guarantee this sleazy gigolo won’t be lurking, lying in wait to get you and that enticing zipper on those pants alone in some dark corner, and-”

“Jonathan!”

Shaking her head at him, she eased her way out of his arms. “Look, I’m going to need you to behave yourself- all night.”

All night? I thought you said just until the party was over?”

“You are hopeless, Jonathan Hart. Come on; it’s time we went downstairs. That gate buzzer has sounded more than once. Those would be our guests.”

She led the way out of the dressing room and back into the bedroom.

“Are you going to go over and check on J.J. before she goes out?” he asked. “How do you know what she’s wearing?”

Closer to the windows than he, something down below caught her eye through the sheers, and she hesitated for a moment to better see.

Two familiar figures, one dressed in all white, head lowered as if listening to the other, shorter and heavier person, slowly crossed the driveway in front of the house as if they had just stepped off the walkway leading from the pond. At the sight, she felt what she realized must have been a subliminal tension considerably ease.

“I don’t think so,” she said as she turned away and continued on toward the closed bedroom doors. “She’s a big girl now. I’m sure she’s fine.”

“You said you haven’t spoken with her. Said you haven’t seen her since this morning. How can you be so sure?”

“It’s one of those things I just know, darling.”

When Jonathan opened the door and stepped back, she went through it thinking how grateful she was for all the loving, protective eyes and arms J.J. Hart had in her life.

Because for that one, it was certainly taking the entire village.

_________________________________________________________________________

Using the need to get out back to the early arrivals as an excuse to part company, J.J. left the guest she had been speaking with at the front door in the care of the uniformed gentleman who answered the bell. In reality, before showing up to the party, she wanted to take a quick, last-minute detour.

Not wishing to seen by a grownup who might stop or slow her down, and also to duck her peers for the moment, she trotted around to the side deck and used the den door to get back inside the house.

Checking around herself, seeing nobody but the hired help in the immediate great room area, she took the spiral staircase, three loping steps at a time, to the second floor. She crept through her father’s carpeted loft office, and upon reaching the other end, peeked around the corner. Finding the long hall empty, she slipped on around from there, and through her sitting room to return to her bedroom where she went straight for the closet. Once inside, she stopped to take her first decent breath since leaving the front stoop.

Even though she hadn’t yet spoken with her mother, she found she felt a lot better about things, her spirit considerably lighter.

Isolating it on the ring, she pulled loose the blue scarf Tommy had sent her for Christmas. For a moment, she pressed the soft cloth to her cheek.

It was funny how things worked themselves out. Tommy wasn’t there; he was thousands of miles away, but his grandmother was. Somehow, talking with Ms. Fee was kind of like talking with him. Not the same, of course, but…

… somehow, on some strange level, she felt kind of…  the same sort of … settled and calm once the conversation was done.

It felt as if she had known Tommy’s grandmother for at least as long as she had known Tommy, like she had always been in the picture. But Ms. Fee had only been in both of their lives for a little over a year. Now Tommy was all the way in Spain living with his uncle- grandmother’s brother- and getting to know that side of his family. In the meantime, she had gained another somebody in her life she could turn to, which was weird because typically neither she nor Tommy took so immediately to new people in that way. For some reason; however, they had both taken to her right away.

And so had Jennifer Hart, who also usually took her time getting as close to somebody as she had allowed Ms. Fee to get to her.

Weird. But-

Hold on.

J.J.’s eyes slowly rolled to the ceiling as she took her time drawing the scarf behind her neck, threading it under the jacket collar and over the front of her shoulders, making sure the ends were even on both sides.

Say, did you have something to do with her showing up right then? 

Is this some kind of grandmother-to-grandmother connection thing?

Ms. Fee is sort of clairvoyant, so that wouldn’t be that far out of-

“Arrêter de poser des questions!”

The command sounded in her head, cleanly snapping off her line of thought, followed by another demand delivered in French.

She tugged once the brim of the hat to secure it to her head, and pulled her cell from her pocket to signal the D.J. that she was on her way. Then, using the same route she took to come up, she shot back downstairs and cut through the den to get back outside.

After all, imagined or real, in person or otherwise, when told by certain people to “stop asking questions” and to “get on with it”, who was she to not comply?

A few minutes later, to a rousing crescendo of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and cheers from the gathering crowd, she moonwalked into the spotlight and her seventeenth birthday party.

__________________________________________________________________________

Jonathan had come down and gone immediately outside with Bill, Chuck Barnett, and a couple other men gathered on the front step, leaving her to the people inside. That action fully confirmed for Jennifer that something was likely on the wind, he had a line on it, and he either didn’t want to bring her in on it or, like he said, he was being proactive about it. She left them to whatever it was and continued past the door.

When the official start of the party outside unmistakably resonated, seemingly vibrating the floors beneath them, it momentarily rattled the adults inside the house. Jennifer, greeting their guests in the great room, picked right up on the old, bit immensely popular Michael Jackson tune that J.J. so adored.

“Definitely apropos.”

And she was a little disappointed that J.J. hadn’t come to her before going outside. Another tradition grown out of, she guessed.

At the same time, her eyes somehow met Ms. Fee’s, even though Fee was seated at a table on the other side of the room. Both women smiled and nodded in mutual understanding before returning to the conversations at hand.

Apropos, indeed, but not that smooth, little girl.

Yet. 

You are seventeen, but I am still your mother, and we will be talking.

                                                                     Continue on to the next story…

 

16 Responses to Principles: Celebrating Seventeen

  1. Carol says:

    Any ETA on new material? The big 17 bash has been long awaited!

    Like

  2. Lesa says:

    I have become a big fan of Pat Hamilton. She is rough around the edges and hilarious. I enjoy the interaction between Pat and Bill. I remember Bill from one of the H2H movies. He is a perfect match for Pat.

    Like

  3. Ain says:

    Ready for more!!!! Bravo

    Like

  4. Dinah Senna says:

    Olá, adoro as suas histórias por favor escreva mais. Continue ñ pare adoro os Harts e principalmente JJ Hart. Muito obrigado!
    P.S. quando vai a continuação dessa?
    Bjos!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. zieler says:

    I do love the JJ story, have read it many times and so glad to see you have continued the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lalie Paris says:

    bonne année.
    Superbe histoire très bien écrite, j’attends toujours la suite avec impatience

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jennifer A says:

    Marie

    Happy New Year to you and thanks for the updates to Principles.

    I was browsing around the Principles storyline – the link is:
    “https://jjhartsroom.com/the-stories/ages-seventeen-through-eighteen”

    I was wondering where is Part One to “Part Four: Prom Night”? As there only seems to be Part Two, Part Three and Part Four posted up.

    Many thanks

    Jennifer

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Carol says:

    Fantastic! Keep it going, Marie – and thanks for the New Year’s gift.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. kimmley says:

    Let the adventure continue! This is another exciting, entertaining chapter in the life of J.J. and the Hart’s!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dia Best says:

    Marie, so glad you are back. Thank you, thank you for keeping our Hart’s beating! You are a masterful story teller…don’t ever stop.

    Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s