Principles: Celebrating Seventeen

Between Incidents

 Friday following Teddy’s prom: Late afternoon

Marnie finished tucking away sweaters in her closet and headed back for the bedroom. At the doorway, what she saw on the other side instantly stopped her where she stood.

In the armchair across the room, knocking back a bottled Coke, sat her best friend. Despite having just opened it and the lingering presence of frost on the glass, she appeared to be draining the last of it.

“J., you need to quit,” Marnie said as she reached behind herself to switch off the closet light. “You’re stressing way too hard, and you’re going to make yourself sick. Besides, you have nobody to blame but yourself. I told you when you called to let me in on you and Teddy’s little last minute sneak getaway plan that the whole thing was going to backfire on you.”

She continued fussing as she walked over to the bed. “The Duchess catches your ass ever-y sin-gle time, but you just keep trying things. It’s supposed to be a sign of craziness when people do that, repeat their actions and then expect a different outcome. But I guess you do get a few crazy points shaved off for at least trying the same crap a different way each time. It doesn’t matter, though, you still get the same result.”

J.J. sat the empty bottle on the side table and unceremoniously wiped her mouth with the back of her hand before collapsing backward into the tufted cushions and sighing.

“I’m just so glad you’re back home, Marn. Now it’s not just me here, all alone, tiptoeing around the two of them like it’s been ever since we got back from Boston yesterday. Once I was back, I stayed in my room most of the time. I have never in my entire life been so glad to have school to go to as I was this morning.”

“Why?” Marnie asked as she sorted through the things left in her open, half-empty suitcase. “So there could be a witness to whatever happened to you when it happened? As if I would be any good to the authorities when it came time to report out on what I might have seen. ‘Mum’ would be the word from me because first, I had no hand in anything that went down; I was in D.C, and second, I would have to stay here all by myself with them after the detectives and the coroner are gone.”

She turned back around to J.J. “I cannot believe she doesn’t have you on a serious house arrest- one where you can’t even go out of your room, much less the house.”

“I can’t either,” J.J. admitted before sighing again.  “I think that’s what’s got me so messed up. Aside from the look she gave me when she first found me in the green room, she and Daddy didn’t say or do anything to me about it after I got busted. A lot went down after that, so I could see them not going there that night. But not since then, either?

“This morning the Duchess didn’t say a word to me about driving myself to school in your car. I would have thought she would have been like, ‘I know you don’t think I’m cutting you loose again,’ but she all she said was, ‘Drive carefully, sweetie’, and that was it. Didn’t even look up from what she was reading to give me the eye.”

“Sweetie? Um-hm, she’s getting it set up, J.”

“Sounds like it to me, too. I figured out once I was in the car that she only let me drive myself to school because you needed to be picked up once the bus got in from the airport, and I would already be at school when it did. That would save her from having to come out and get you- and me- that’s if she hadn’t made me ride the bus if she let me out at all.”

“Probably, ” Marnie said, shuddering at the mention of J.J. being made to ride the school bus.

After all, they were Juniors now. Only freshmen and sophomores rode the bus.

“So you say neither one of them has threatened your life or anything?”

“Marn, they haven’t said anything about it. Haven’t mentioned the incident, didn’t fuss at me for what I did, didn’t lock me down, nothing- even though, I have to say, I certainly didn’t bring it up, and it’s for sure I haven’t asked to go anywhere. Didn’t even ask to go to school. I just got up, got dressed, and hoped for the best.”

“Too scared?”

“Not claiming scared; I just wasn’t opening that can of worms if I could help it. None of what I thought I had coming has happened. It’s driving me crazy.”

Marnie carried some lingerie to the dresser, pulled open a drawer, and slid the pieces inside.

“J., you do need to accept that even though they haven’t come down on you yet, and they’re still letting you have the party and all-” She stopped to pinch an errant camisole under her chin to refold it. “-you need not think it’s over,”

J.J. wrung her hands as she closed her eyes and sighed one more time. “Trust me, I don’t. My party was too close to happening for them to call that off- invites sent, food ordered, sound stage built, tents up, music in place. The people were already here on the grounds- had been here- when we got back. But my parents are way too calm for this, especially the Duchess. Way too calm. I mean, I took off. To a whole other state. Without asking. Without telling. You, of all people, know how she is about stuff like that.”

“No, you knew better than I did when you chose to do it. She’s your mother. Been that for seventeen years. And don’t forget how you stole her car before you took yourself to Boston and acted up.”

“Gee, thanks for reminding me. And I did not steal the car.”

“Definition of that episode might have changed behind all this, J.”

J.J. dropped her face into her hands, kneading her temples with her fingers. “Oooh, I think I’m getting headache.” She tugged the band from her ponytail and shook her hair down, immediately pushing back the wavy auburn torrent from her face and tucking what she could behind her ears.

“Marn, how in the world was I to anticipate Daddy  choosing that night for a date night? And then fly her to New York? To the very club I was at? Of all the places there are to go to in New York, we all end up in the same joint? I ask you, whose luck is that bad?”

“Apparently, “Marnie slid the drawer closed to lean back against the dresser and cross her arms, “yours was, J.”

J.J. shook her head. “Um-um, nah, I think it’s something more than that. This is more than just some random bad luck. I’m totally convinced now that there’s some other world stuff going on lately as it concerns me and trying to do stuff. I’m much better at what I do, but I’m getting caught way more than I used to. And this last thing was just too far beyond coincidence.”

To that, Marnie forced back a threatening chuckle. Despite how funny it was since she bore no culpability in it or the probable consequences, she felt badly for her girl and the spot she was in. It wasn’t at all like J.J. Hart to resort to blaming the ethereal as the reason for her real life issues.

“You’re letting this weird you out, girl,” she said when she could talk again. “Let it go for now. Worrying about it isn’t going to change anything. Like I said, you’re going to make yourself sick. For now, just go on about your business like nothing’s happened. After all, it really hasn’t- yet. All you can do at this point is continue to breathe and just wait for that other shoe to actually fall.”

“More like for that Jimmy Choo to come flying out of nowhere and spike me right in my ass.”

Unable to catch it this time, Marnie’s suppressed amusement erupted in laughter. “Oh my god, she’s got you cussing. That’s pretty bad, J.”

“Only my mother,” J.J. moaned, sinking backward into the cushions again. “I am so messed up. I could barely concentrate in school today. The announcements came on during last period and said your bus was in from the trip, the bell rang, and I shot out of class like a bullet from a .45 .”

Marnie went back to the bed and began pulling the last few items from the suitcase. “Anything good happening at school?”

“You know I missed most of the week, just like you. But I did hear Kendra and Percy are back at it, though. Not speaking. Evil-eyeing each other. Same old, same old.”

“Who’d he cheat with this time?”

“I don’t know. It might not have even been him cheating. Could have been her, for all I know. Maybe it wasn’t even that. I don’t know what it was; I didn’t hang around to listen. I had my own problems to focus on at the time. I’m sure we’ll get the details at the party tomorrow night. I sure hope they don’t bring any drama with them that security winds up having to put down.God knows I don’t need anything else added to my plate. It’s pretty full as it is.”

Finished with the suitcase, Marnie zipped it closed and pulled it to the floor. Then she sat down on the side of the bed.

“J., we’ve been doing this in bits and pieces ever since we left the parking lot. I need the whole story, so why don’t you just come over here and tell me everything that happened from the beginning to the end.”

“Yeah, okay,” J.J. said, slowly pulling herself up from the chair. “That makes sense. Then you can tell me about your trip and how you made out with Ms. Calvin, D’Moana, and Aunt Pat”

She crossed the room and went around to the other side where she belly flopped onto the bed and drug herself across until her head was by Marnie’s side. She rested her chin on her folded hands.

But before either of them could get started, the intercom buzzed with a question from Marie, the housekeeper.

“Marnie, is J.J. with you?”

“Yes, she is.”

“Well, Mrs. Hart wants you and J.J. to bring whatever you need to send to the dry cleaner down to the service door. The driver is on his way up from the gate to make his pickup.”

“Okay,” they answered in stereo while getting up from the bed.

“Mine have been bagged up,” J.J. said, coming back around the bed going for the bedroom door as Marnie headed back to the closet. “Ever since I unpacked yesterday. I’ve been trying to do everything I can to stay on point until the Duchess shows her hand.”

“It could be ‘if’ she shows her hand.”

“Forget that. We both know it’s ‘when’. Don’t try to make me feel better.”

J.J.  stopped at the door, just before opening it, to heavily sigh one more time. “I hate feeling like this, Marnie. I really do.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Marnie said just before entering the closet again. “Let’s take this stuff down and then go outside. I could do with some air and some open space after being relegated to somebody else’s itinerary for most of the past few days, and you could, too, from the look of you. We can talk out there before we get called in for dinner.”

“Bet,” J.J. agreed. “Meet you downstairs.”

________________________________________________________________

After leaving her and Jonathan’s bags of dry cleaning at the service door, Jennifer returned to the kitchen with the intention of going out back. It had been a while since she checked on the activity out there in preparation for J.J.’s birthday party.

The majority of what needed to be done was in place, but sometimes it was the smaller things that required the most attention. The people in charge were individuals and companies they had used in the past for her parties and their other events, so her confidence in their abilities was mostly solid, but it didn’t hurt to show up in person every now and then.

After all, we are pay-

She and her thoughts got as far as the patio door when the phone in her pocket buzzed.

After checking the display, her plans and her direction changed. Instead she ended up on the other side of the house, in the den behind a closed door.

________________________________________________________________

When the meeting ended, the assembled executive team packed up and immediately fled the boardroom, anxious to be on their way to their individual weekends. Jonathan took his time gathering his belongings. He didn’t blame the others for their hasty flight. After all, it was Friday. For him, there had been one thing after another all morning, then the one extended gathering after lunch.

Despite four days spent in London, his brief time away from the office that week afforded him a renewed energy and a fresher perspective than those who hadn’t had such a break. He wasn’t as anxious as the others to be done with things, but he always welcomed a quiet finish to his typically busy day. It allowed him time to think, to process, to reflect, to unwind.

In that arena anyway. The one at home was another story.

Jennifer had been eerily calm about J.J.’s unauthorized side trip to New York when she was supposed to be in Boston attending Teddy’s prom. As a rule, J.J. Hart being out of place was grounds for, at minimum, a less than pleasant reaction from her mother. When this one went down, it had him braced for ballistic, but for some reason, as warranted as it would have been, that hadn’t been the case.

That Jennifer hadn’t said anything much about it- to him or, it appeared, to J.J.- unnerved him, and that wasn’t a real comfortable situation- for him or, he knew, for J.J. He had never been one to easily unnerve, but….

Only Jennifer had that kind of leverage on him- and J.J.

It made him even more uneasy that he sensed J.J. avoiding even him.

In the past, when she screwed up with her mother, J.J. would typically seek him out, or he would go to her, and they would put their heads together on how she could get back into Jennifer’s graces.

But in this instance, J.J. seemed to be giving both of them a wide berth.

He could understand her avoiding Jennifer, but avoiding him? What was she worried about with him? She certainly didn’t have to be.

He wished he could tell her Daddy didn’t give a rat’s ass about what she had done. After all, there was a lot more she could have gotten into.

Or vice versa.

Yes, she had taken things a little far- literally- but what kid in her position would turn down a chance like that? Certainly not his.

A free private jet flight into New York with just her friends? With no real adults to orchestrate her movements, call her shots for her, or to pull on the reins? When it could be done within the time frame she had been given?

Particularly his kid, who could have flown said jet into the city herself.

Truth told, despite how bold a move it was, and how wrong she might have been in doing it, sitting there thinking about it, as quiet as he would certainly be keeping it, he realized he might  have been a little disappointed in her for not taking her shot.

And there certainly wasn’t a responsible way to let her know he preferred she made the choice she made that night. Despite what she told her mother about her feelings and plans on the matter, she could very well have changed her mind once she was out there. J.J. could just as easily have opted to close up somewhere for some serious intimate time with that smooth-move, curly-haired, crooning rascal she left their suite with.

It was clear they were fond of each other. Maybe he more so than she, but when the stars and opportunity lined up just right….

And your Daddy would know all about that.

But the timeline of the kids’ movements and the vibe he got from both of them said that hadn’t happened. All indications were that had not been their focus. Reading between the lines of what happened, J.J. and Teddy spent just enough time to be seen in the appropriate places, at the assigned times, and by the right people. They stopped just long enough to make a change of clothes and then jetted off.

Changed clothes. Where? How?

He hadn’t asked. There was too much else going on in the beginning, and when everything was over, it wasn’t an inquiry he wanted to make

Leave that to Jennifer. When she gets around to it, she will most certainly ask how that happened.

For him, the whole thing was the answer to what had been troubling him about J.J. Hit him dead on, right between the eyes.

Involuntarily, he shook his head.

So much-

Things moving too-

“Jonathan.”

His board chairman stood in the doorway.

“When I called over, Liz said you hadn’t returned to your office. I was hoping you were still here and hadn’t already left the building.”

Marcus Borland stepped a little farther into the room, but didn’t approach the table. He had his hands in his pockets and Jonathan picked up on what came over as an uneasiness, perhaps even nervousness, in his demeanor. Typically Marcus wore his quiet intelligence and self-assurance like a subtle body armor that encased his person.  At that moment; however, that wasn’t the other man in the room. There was something different in his manner, in his eyes, something more human and… vulnerable.

“I know you have a lot going on at home that you need to get there to help take care of,” he said, “but can you possibly spare me a minute or two?”

“For you?” Jonathan stood and extended a hand. “Of course. I have as long as you need.”

As Marcus joined him at the table, Jonathan had an idea where they were headed, but felt his lungs constrict a little just the same.

__________________________________________________________

“And you didn’t try to kill her, Jen? Didn’t even threaten her with death?”

“No, believe it or not, I couldn’t even fuss at her. I wanted to; God knows I probably should have, but I just couldn’t.”

Why?

“It just didn’t seem worth the energy.”

 “How come? Too close to home? Too apple- tree for you? Too close to something you might have done back when you her age?”

“I was considerably older at the time I did something like this, Pat, and you know I was.”

“Oh, ‘older’. Only by a year. Year and a half- maybe, if that. And that was only because you weren’t as well-connected and free to get about as apparently she is at seventeen.”

Just turned seventeen a few days ago, let’s not leave that out. Trying to rush being grown; I could not believe it. From the day she first rolled over on her own- way before the average child, mind you- that girl has always had too much nerve for her own good.”

“Well, as I keep telling you when these kinds of things happen; you have to look at who and what she comes from, Jen. And I’ve also told you time and again that damned Duncan Sinclair is a shepherd for the Devil. Hooked your daughter and Teddy, and herded both of them all the way to New York.”

“I can’t speak for Teddy, although I’m pretty sure it’s the same for him, but Duncan did not hook her. Justine Hart went on that junket of her volition. One thing I can say about our child is she does not get talked into things. What she does, right or wrong, she makes the conscious, deliberate choice to do it. Then, when I figure she’s at that club, and I make Duncan take me to the back, to the room where he and Teddy have her stashed, I find some miscreant is trying to get in there with her. Duncan’s bodyguard-slash-driver deals with the would-be intruder, Duncan gets the door open, and she’s standing there, ready to do battle herself.”

(Burst of laughter) “Really, Jen? Ooh, that sounds just like her- shades of her crazy-warrior daddy. Definitely got that gene honestly. She have her shiv with her?”

“No. Apparently, she didn’t. At least I didn’t see one, if she did. She had some mace, though- I believe homemade because the real stuff is illegal, and  it would be just like her to loophole it, make her own, and put it in a squirt bottle like the one she had- and a metal flashlight. Out of the chair and poised to do battle when Duncan unlocked and opened that door. I shudder to think what might have happened had things not gone down in the timeline they did. She just doesn’t know the peril she puts herself into sometimes.”

“The ass trying to get into the room didn’t know the peril he was in. So what are you going to do to her?”

“I’m letting her stew on the low setting for the time being. She hates that, so that will do for the moment. There was no sense in outright punishing her; she’d already done what she wanted to do, so there was nothing to deter by getting after her in a more traditional manner. You can believe; however, that I will be addressing it.”

“The point of that being?”

“The point of it being, Patricia, to reinforce with the little miss that she is not yet grown, and she is not going to be doing any jet-setting at this stage of her life. For at least this upcoming year, she is going to remain the normal, grounded, teen-aged girl she has been for the past three years, living comfortably and securely in her parents’ home, and abiding by her parents’ rules. That is the point. The little fart. Right now I’ve got her off balance, too skittish and unnerved to be anywhere near me or Jonathan.”

“Or Jonathan? You mean to tell me he’s bent out of shape with her over it?”

“You know, I really don’t think so, but she can’t be sure that he isn’t. And he’s too nervous about me and what I’m going to do to his child to get too close to her, thus, the two of them haven’t had the opportunity to collude with each other about what to do about me. But I’m sure that as far as he’s concerned, as long as she didn’t get into a bed with Teddy- I can’t say ‘sleep’ with him because she’s already done that in front of her father- I’m pretty sure Jonathan’s not all that upset about her hopping on a flight to New York with Teddy. Knowing my husband, he’s very likely, but secretly, quite proud of his girl for having had the nerve and the wherewithal to pull it off like she did.”

“You’re probably right on that last thing. How do you know J. didn’t go to bed with Teddy? I mean, it was a prom night. Did you ask her once you had her back with you?”

“Despite our history, Patricia, it is not expected or required behavior for a person to sleep with her prom date. And we should have waited.”

“Speak for yourself, old girl; I was good with it. Did you ask J.J. about what she did, I asked you.”

“No, I did not ask her, but I’m sure she didn’t. Before she left, we talked, and she told me she wasn’t considering having sex as an option for her evening. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that she had something more interesting to her, but potentially more disturbing to me, planned for the night. She reiterated to me that she wasn’t ready for a sexual relationship. It wasn’t in her eyes once I had her back with me. That’s something I would have seen. All I detected in those baby blues was her being rattled about being busted red-handed by me so wholly wrong and out of place.”

“And Bear’s boy? Any updates?”

“I spoke with Bear late last night. He and Junior were still in New York. Can’t wait to get together and share with you the details of that situation.”

“Neither can I. Short version- good or bad?”

“Good. Very. But unusual. Intriguing even. Now what about you? What do you have to tell me about your adventure with Ms. Marnie Elaine?”

“Nothing nearly as eventful as your story. In comparison, I guess my girl was an angel. Twitched like a little crackhead, though, the first night I made her and her hot roommate check in their cells at ten. Otherwise she was nothing but poise and grace. I was quite proud of her and how she conducted herself. Now that other one…”

“I am so surprised by that. J.J. made Ramona out to be a drudge of sorts.”

“Apparently we’ve grown up quite a bit since that Equations trip. From the snippets I managed to catch when I walked up on her in there under the covers, whispering with that boy, she could have given me tips on how to light a man up over the phone- and you and I both know that’s saying something. But then, we’re not grown up enough; however, to know you do not wear rubber flip flops to the White House, even if they do match your outfit. Just when did those things get to be regular footwear, Jen? I sent several of the kids back up to their rooms to put on some appropriate shoes- a couple of them boys.”

(Snicker from Jennifer) “Leave it to you to come on board at the last minute and commandeer the field trip. I’ll bet there was a lot of grumbling over that.”

“If there was, the good sense to not let me see or hear any of it got a vigorous workout. In the end, I actually had a lot of fun. I think the kids enjoyed themselves and got a lot out of it, to boot. I met and got to talk at length with the dreaded Ms. Calvin. She’s got Marnie’s number for sure. Smart lady. Very smart lady.”

I kind of figured that out about her. Speaking of having Marnie’s number, did she ever mention to you about being upset over something? I told you I thought she was out of sorts when she left here that morning and that she swore her partner-in-crime to secrecy over it.”

“Yes, we talked. It turned out to be just some of the same old, same old. It’ll work itself out one way or the other.”

“So, I’m to take it that you’re not going to elaborate on it with me now?”

“No, Jen. No real need to at the moment; it’s nothing you have to be concerned over. You concentrate on J.J. and this gala event you and Jonathan are throwing for her tomorrow night. You are still throwing it?

“Of course, We’d done too much to call it off at this point. Besides, like I said, that would have been too conventional a sanction.”

“That’s what I was thinking- about it being to close to call off, I mean. We can talk more about Marnie when Bill and I get there for the party tomorrow. 80’s theme, hmmm. I still need to find something to wear before Bill shows up to fly us to your side of the country. What’s J. wearing this year? She didn’t consult with me this time.” 

“More like conspire with you. I don’t know. A while back, she asked me if she could go to our storage building and look at some old photos we keep there to get some ideas, but she never said anything else to me about it.”

“Scary, Jen.”

“For her, if she doesn’t come up with something appropriate. Her fanny is already hovering mighty close over the fire.”

When Jennifer clicked off from Pat a few minutes later, she lay her head back and closed her eyes, at first replaying the conversation in her head.  Then gradually shifting over to drift back several decades, she wandered into that night Pa caught her singing into what he so angrily referred to as that “sleazy dive”.

After summoning her to him from her spot up front, he marched her to the back room to retrieve her things. Then he put her in his car to personally deliver her back to Vassar. For the entire trip, he ranted about how she could cross “torch singing” off her list of aspirations, how her mother hadn’t raised his only child to become some “low harlot” living off the attentions of “supplicating men” with “base desires”.

That line still tickled her insides just as it had that night despite her trepidation in the face of her father’s considerable wrath. With his distinguished mannerisms, perfect diction, superior command of the English language, not to mention his sometimes over-the-top animations, it seemed to her at the time that Pa had missed his own theatrical calling.

So long left behind in her past, it was hard to believe she had once been such a scamp.

Now she walked in her father’s shoes with a girl of her own. A very different kind of girl than she had been at seventeen, eighteen- one a lot more secure in her own skin, a lot smarter about the world in some ways, but just as footloose, headstrong, and would- be slick as her mother once tried to be with the lines drawn for her.

And just as likely to get caught at it sooner or later.

Oh my God, it really is like mother, like daughter.

It had been on her mind for a while, but after this last thing in New York, she no longer harbored any doubt about it. Who else could have, out of the blue, sent Pa her way all those years ago?

And who it was that made sure she was in New York, exactly where she needed to be that night? Whose luck could be that bad? Twice? Both of them, and in much the same way?

For sure….

That made her smile on the outside.

As you can see, and probably orchestrated it, I am no torch-singing harlot, and you can rest assured the baby will not be running wild on my watch.

One more year, Justine Hart, but for that year, you will be “slowing your roll” as you put it. I am still your mother, calling your shots.

Oh yes, my little love, Mommy has something for you, and I’m not letting anyone but you in on it- in due time. Keep sweating until then.

With that last thought, she raised her head, slowly rose from the couch, slid her phone back into her pocket, and left the house via the den door.

Rounding a rear corner, she spotted J.J. and Marnie in the distance. They had the dog with them. Marnie, ahead of J.J., was throwing the ball for Third to chase. J.J., strolling slower, had a hand to her ear with her head slightly bent as if talking on her cell. All of them were headed for the back end of the estate.

Most likely comparing stories. And that one on that phone getting things lined up for tomorrow.

Do what you must, my child, you and that crew of yours. Mama still has you lined-up well within her sights.

_____________________________________________________________

Once they finished checking out the sound stage and other areas of  the party setup in progress, the girls started out for the back end of the estate. Then J.J. got a call on her cell and upon checking the display, she immediately dropped back to take it.

Figuring it had to be Teddy to get that kind of immediate reaction from J.J., Marnie kept going.

Third bounded back to her with his ball in his mouth. Gingerly accepting his damp offering, she once again whipped it as far as she could into the distance ahead, delighting in the sight of the small dog bouncing across the velvet green. She used the sweatpants she changed into before coming out to wipe away any residue of doggie spit and made mental note to wash her hands and change outfits as soon as she made it back to her room.

At the gazebo, she went inside and sat down on one of the benches just as Third returned for another round.  She shook her head to the bright eyes beseeching her to throw the ball one more time.

“No, boy, I’m tired.”

As if he understood, Third dropped his toy and jumped up to sit beside her. Marnie reached down to pull the pin from the floor and gently pushed off, making the bench sway just enough to catch a breeze. When the dog lay his head in her lap, she absently combed her fingers through his soft curls, massaging his ears as she lay her own head back to think about things.

On general principal, she wasn’t a great lover of household pets, but just as it was with a lot of things when it came to being on Willow Pond, those sentiments didn’t apply to Freeway Hart III. She greatly liked him, and he seemed to view her as one of the family, too.

Despite her initial apprehensions, the trip turned out to be a good one; however, she was happy to be back “home.” The school trip had been a lot of fun, a great opportunity for fellowship and a chance to make an unexpected new friendship; it turned out Ramona D’Moana proved to be okay, in fact, more than okay.

She learned a lot she didn’t know about the capital, as well as a few things about herself and how others saw her. And about how much people paid attention and cared.

Stretching to plant her toes against the wooden floor, she pushed the bench back to a point slightly beyond the roof line and raised her eyes to the blue, blue sky.

Thank you for sending Pat to be with me these past few days. I don’t know what I would have….

She drew up her feet to tuck them under her body as she swung back in.

All around her, lush velveteen emerald seemed to go on forever, contrasting comfortingly with the colorful gardens in the distance, the soothing quiet fueling the tranquility and calm slowly enveloping her. Just the tonic her restless spirit needed to come down off the high she had been on.

Thankfully, her own stuff had been worked out, but now there was J.’s mess.

I told her when she let me in on it….

The dog raised his head and twisted around to look up at her. That was when she realized she had spoken out loud.

“Sorry boy.” She petted the furry head back down to her lap. “Just me thinking too hard about that crazy girl of ours.”

Granted, it was nothing short of weird how it went down this time, but it was not surprising at all to her that J.J. got busted. Some people had monkeys on their backs driving them. J.J. Hart had one hell of a guardian angel riding shotgun for her, and lately said angel was putting in some serious overtime .

Considering her own affairs and the way the chips had fallen into place for her, she figured she likely had one working a few double shifts for her, too.

Hell, triple-time ’cause it’s me with the problems.

_______________________________________________________________________

Jonathan made it down to the parking structure and into his car, but he had to sit a minute before turning the key to start it.  He had sensed what Marcus was going to tell him before he actually spoke the words, but that still didn’t fully prepare him for what was said. Nobody deserved happiness in life more than Marcus, but for a time it would mean definite changes in his own life. In several lives.

According to what he’d been told, nothing would be happening right away. If that last, but most important detail proved hard to fit into the scenario, things might take even longer.

But should that detail try to prove itself problematic-

I’ll be sitting down and having my own little one-on-one chat.

The thought of Jennifer’s face as he delivered to her the news and the kick she was going to get out of finally knowing had him more eager to get home than he had been earlier.  

He turned the key, put the Bentley in gear, and backed out. Despite the big day ahead, the hiccups and details in motion, and other things looming in the near future, it was good to be headed home for the weekend.

_______________________________________________________________________

J.J. climbed the stairs into the gazebo, stuffing her phone into the back pocket of her jeans before plopping down on the bench directly across, facing Marnie.

“Teddy’s not coming,” she reported.

“Oh, wow. That’s too bad. You mad about it?”

J.J. first shrugged and then shook her head. “Not so much angry, I guess, as I am disappointed. I was really looking forward to him being here tomorrow. But I have to say, I’m not surprised over his not making it.”

“He on lockdown over the incident?”

“Sort of, but not really. He said he had to go for a follow-up with his doctor to get his levels checked after his classes today, so that meant putting off the flight he had scheduled for this afternoon. He could only get another flight out real late tonight, which would put him here like two or three in the morning. That would have had the twins sitting up waiting for him to pick up a rental car and make it to their house since that was where he planned to stay.”

“Chase and Chance wouldn’t have cared about that, J. Hell, they’ll probably still be in the streets at that hour since they’ll just be getting home from school themselves later on tonight.”

“I told him that, but he said he doesn’t want to come for just one day like it would have to be if he flew in tomorrow morning. He wanted some time to hang out with us tonight, too. He has to be back in town early on Monday for a final, then he’s got some rehearsal and some graduation stuff, as well. He said after everything that happened, his father, and his stepmother came to the conclusion it might be better for him to take it easy this weekend and get himself back together for the things he has to do that are coming up.”

She reached down to pull the pin from her bench to free it, and she summoned Third to her, tucking him into her lap when he deserted Marnie’s caressing fingers for hers. “We’ve been talking about him coming to my party seems like ever since we met. He sounded really down about missing out.”

In the back of her mind, Marnie briefly wondered how J.J. really felt about Teddy not being there; the girl could be hard to read at times, especially when it came Teddy- or boys in general. Up front; however, she was stuck on that one thing she heard.

Stepmother?”

J.J. nodded.

“You mean to tell me his stepmother is making decisions with his father about him? Where’s his mother?”

J.J. softly sucked her teeth and smiled. “This is going to be such a long story, especially telling it to you.”

“Yeah, I would think so.”

Marnie switched from sitting to lying on the bench, propping the decorator pillows against the arm to rest her head on them.  When she had it together, she turned back to J.J., waving her fingers in “Come on” fashion. “G’head. Hit me with it.”

“See,” J.J. slowly began, head bowed as she rubbed at her forehead “It’s just so much. See, Teddy’s mother was still in Boston when everything happened. She stayed at a hotel with Teddy’s sister, I think, so she didn’t have any idea we were gone or that Mr. Baxter had left town. She’s back in Virginia now, but from what Teddy said on the phone, she still doesn’t know anything about what happened.”

“But the stepmother does?”

“Marnie, it was the strangest thing- for me anyway. Her name is Vivienne, and she lives in New York, not too far from where we were at the club. She met up with Mr. Baxter who came to the club with my parents.”

“She was his date?”

“I guess; she was with him. They were definitely together when I was with them.  If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought they were husband and wife- still.

“To tell you the truth, Vivienne acted more like Teddy’s mother to him than his actual mother did. In fact, Teddy behaved more like a son with Vivienne and his father than he did when he was with his real set of parents. On top of that, the stepmother and Mr. Baxter together even physically look more like they could be Teddy’s natural parents than Teddy’s mother and Mr. Baxter.”

“That’s got to mess with Teddy’s real mother. Something like that would certainly mess with me if he was my son looking more like my husband’s ex than me.”

“Ex-husband.”

“Whatever. I’d be pissed way the eff off, my boy looking like her. I got all blown up and fat for nine months, had labor pains, got my cat stretched and all, and then my baby grows up looking like the ex’s ex? What the hell?”

“Dan-n-n-g, Marn, you are so crazy” J.J. said. When she stopped laughing and spoke again, her tone was much softer as she admitted, “I hate to say it, but all that aside, I even liked the stepmother way better than I did Teddy’s real mother.”

Marnie sprang up and leaned in. “For real? How come?  Teddy’s mother a  bitch or something?”

J.J. laughed out loud at the question and at the devilish expression on her friend’s face. “I wouldn’t say all of that.”

You wouldn’t because the Duchess has you programmed for respect and discretion with your elders no matter what. But if it wasn’t for that, would you say she was a bitch?”

J.J. ducked her head, gulped, and looked back up. Cheeks aflame and mischievously grinning, she whispered, “Yeah, I might,” and laughed again.  “But then again, maybe not. She wasn’t mean. Just not a whole lot of personality- at least that I saw. Nervous, self-conscious, insecure, too, I think. It made her talk a lot. Kinda reminded me of Wesley’s mother.”

“I see. A total B, if she reminded you of Mrs. Singleton.”

“I don’t like to judge, but she did get on my nerves some. Teddy’s, too, I think. She constantly fidgeted, like she was scared to be still. Fussed over Teddy every chance she got. Kept moaning and arguing around Mr. Baxter. I stayed on edge when I was around the two of them, hoping Mr. Baxter didn’t go off on her. You know I don’t like stuff like that. He was real patient.

“Then, too, the Duchess kept eyeing her on the sly, I guess trying to get a line on her. Daddy was looking like he felt sorry for Mr. Baxter but glad that Helena wasn’t his wife.”

“That’s her name? Teddy’s mother, I mean. Nice name.”

“Yeah,” J.J. said. “We took prom pics in the hotel garden before we left. I couldn’t wait to get out of there myself. I could tell even Teddy’s sister was on edge by then; she stayed near the Duchess and Daddy most of that time and left Teddy’s mother to herself even though they came to the hotel together.”

“His sister, Victoria? He’s mentioned her a lot. What’s she like?”

“Yes, Victoria. She’s about thirty, I think. She works on Wall Street, and she does some work for her father’s firm, too. She’s also into amateur theatre in her spare time.”

“Busy girl. What’s she look like? Teddy In a dress? Going by Teddy’s looks, Mr. Baxter has some pretty strong genes.”

“Nah, she and Teddy do look a lot alike, but she’s definitely the girl version. Pretty; looks like her mother and her father. I didn’t get to talk a whole lot with her by myself, but she seems real nice. I could tell she, Teddy, and their father are real close, though. The other two sisters opted to stay at school for finals, they said, but Teddy told me on the low that it was more to avoid the potential for parental drama. It seems their mother routinely acts up when she gets around their father.”

“For what? Is she resentful that he’s not with her anymore? Was Mr. Baxter messing around with the ex on her while they were married?”

“Marnie, how would I know all of that? Come to think of it, I don’t even want to know all that. You have such a penchant for the dramatic.”

“I’m not exactly sure what ‘pawn-shaw’ is- it’s been a minute for me with the French words, but if it means I’m drawn to chaos, then I’m good with that; that would be me, and this situation seems tailor-made for the kind of messiness I get off on. I bet you anything Mr. Baxter was still getting with Vickie’s mother all those years, and that’s why Helena put him out and divorced his ass. He never fell out of love with the ex, and she still loved him, but they just couldn’t make it as a couple and broke up the marriage, but they kept hooking up on the pretense of co-parenting the kid. Helena couldn’t measure up to her predecessor, she knew it, and it still pisses her off. Add to that, her only son resembles his father’s ex more than he does her, which couldn’t help but piss her off even more. Or something like that.”

“You are so full of drama. Ever think of becoming a writer?”

Marnie wiggled her nose, grinned a tongue between teeth grin, and lay back on the pillows with a wave of her hand “Nah. I’d get sued for putting somebody’s business in my book and not being fuzzy enough with the details. I’d definitely be using people’s real life details in my plots- some of this stuff you don’t have to make up. So, what did Duncan look like? He let his hair grow back long? Has he reverted back to being Goth?”

“Why do you want to know about Duncan? I thought you said you were still Chance’s girl.”

“I am. I just asked.”

“Girl, I know you’ve been talking to him, you harlot. Probably leading him on and lining him up in case you and Chance don’t work out or for when you go back to New York to visit or something. To answer your hot little question, he was Duncan, but not as severely Goth as he was when we were at Aunt Pat’s last year.”

“That’s good. I like him better closer to normal than like some dark cartoon character. And for the record, there’s nothing wrong with having a spare, one waiting in the wings, so to speak. So, tell me. What exactly happened with you and the Duchess? What happened with Teddy? What was wrong with the boy?”

“I told you what happened with me and the Duchess- nothing. Yet. As for Teddy, he had been acting off the whole time I was there. A little wan in the face. All quiet and stuff, but he wouldn’t admit to me that there was something wrong with him. From what I got on my own, I figured his mother was on his nerves, but I knew in my heart it was something more than just that. I caught sight of him with his hand on his stomach when I peeked out at him from the bathroom. He was changing clothes.”

When Marnie’s eyes widened and her lips pursed, J.J. held up a hand and rushed to clarify, “No, I did not see anything good. Just him, the back of him, in his underwear- one time.”

“Real good buns, J.?”

“Yes, and that’s all you’re getting from me on that. Anyway, it turns out Teddy had an ulcer as a kid. He was sick a lot when he was little, but after he left home with his father once his parents were divorced, and he started boarding school at Brookfield, the situation got a whole lot better, and he hasn’t been sick as much.”

“Kinda telling, if you ask me. He got better after he left home.”

J.J. shrugged in response and continued with her story. “Vivienne told us he sometimes has episodes when he’s under too much stress. She said it doesn’t happen much anymore because he’s had counseling and has learned techniques to manage his triggers. In fact, she said it’s been a couple years since he was last sick, but she thinks with college applications and essays, finals, working on his senior project, the prom, planning and working out the details of what she called “the grand clandestine diversion”, along with the visit from his mother with the accompanying bickering between his parents; it was just too much. Turns out he was dehydrated, too, which added to his issues and was why they took him right to the hospital from the club. He was on an IV for a few hours to get his levels back up. We all stayed there until they cut him loose.”

“He didn’t fall out on stage or anything, did he?”

“No. Honestly, if I hadn’t suspected anything was wrong before he went on, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell once he started performing. He was professional all the way. So talented. Like he had been doing that all his life. Got a sort of Josh Groban thing going only his voice is deeper, and he’s way cuter to me. Duncan said Teddy told him on F.Y.I. only that he wasn’t feeling well, but told him not to say anything to me so I wouldn’t be bugging him about backing out of going to New York because he was sick. He said Teddy didn’t even throw up until he realized his father was there, and he was cold-busted by him and his stepmother. By that time, they all were in the back in the dressing room. I was out front sweating bullets and trying not to pee on myself, sitting out in the audience, at the table between my mother and father. Couldn’t even order a drink to calm my nerves.”

Marnie shook her head. “Dang, that have to have sucked. You didn’t need the drink. You already had to pee. You always do when you know you’re in deep.”

“It did suck,” J.J. concurred with a nod. “Believe me. It still does. So what about you? How’d you make out in D.C. with Auntie Cruella?”

“Compared to how things turned out for you. I guess I was in heaven. This time it wasn’t me getting in trouble every time I looked around; it was Ramona. The phone-sex thing, acting “crackish” about not having a phone at night, trying to wear flip flops to the White House.”

” ‘Crackish’, Marn?”

“Yeah, you know, twitching like a junkie over not having a phone to go to sleep with. Pure-D addict. While I’m talking, though, I was, too, that first night, but I got over it quick. I didn’t need rehab like it seemed Ramona did. Pat caught her twice trying to sneak in to get her phone off the charger during the night.”

J.J. snickered. “She just didn’t know, did she?”

“No, but she found out. I only got pinched by Pat one time on the whole trip, and that was just because she said I was evil-eyeing Ms. Calvin. I wanted to beg to differ- that’s how I always look at that cow- but I didn’t want to get pinched again; Pat pinches hard. I could have been bruised for life for all she cared.”

“She didn’t care.”

“I got that. So, I ask you, J., how was I supposed to feel when it turned out Aunt Pat and Ms. Calvin had become girls behind my back? Was I supposed to smile when I came down and found them having breakfast and laughing and shit together like old pals? I almost puked, and I hadn’t even eaten anything yet. Other than that, I can’t complain about anything.”

“So you had a good time?”

“Way better than I thought I would.”

“Look, I know you don’t like for me to ask, Marn, but I have to. What about the thing with your mother? Did you tell Pat about it? I mean, the prom is next weekend.”

“I let Pat in on it after she asked me about the prom, like she didn’t already know about it, and after she told me she already planned to be in San Francisco next weekend. She said when she found out I was going to Chances’s prom with him, she immediately made plans to be there, too. She was like, ‘I know you don’t mind your mother real well, and you have issues when it comes to her, so I’m not having you doing something dumb that might hurt you in the long run just to get at your mother for the moment.’ So, it looks like I’m covered whether my mother shows up or not. I’m hoping she doesn’t. We’ll just be fighting, and I don’t want to develop what Teddy had- or has. She really is making me sick lately, so it could easily turn into something chronic.”

At that last thing Marnie said, J.J. rolled her eyes. “Please. With your cast iron stomach, no way you’re going to get an ulcer over your mother or anything else. If that was the case, you’d be dead from it by now. Have you talked with your mother?”

“No.”

J.J. lay her head back on the bench and brushed back stray hair that hadn’t made it up into the hastily-arranged ponytail. “You know, Marn,” she sighed, “for the first time, I’m not really feeling my birthday party.”

“For real? How come?”

“Too much going on, I guess. It just doesn’t feel right this year. I’m on edge about my current situation. Tommy’s not here; it’s the first birthday party he’s missed since we met in middle school. Now Teddy isn’t going to make it, either. To tell you the truth, I’m kinda tired, too.”

She stopped what she was saying, sat up a little, and looked around herself before whispering to Marnie. “Don’t you dare tell anybody I said that.”

Marnie, too, rose and leaned in. “You aren’t sick, are you, J.? And don’t be lying to me about it.”

J.J. lay her head back again. “No, not sick. Just kind of dragging. I don’t feel like much like myself. It’s sort of been that way since after that night with the car and Daria. I was a little worried at the tennis tournament that I might give out mid-match. I cannot tell you how relieved I was able to hold on and beat Lannie.”

J.J. again smoothed back breeze-tossed tendrils, gazing past Marnie as she sighed. “I guess I’ve just been doing too much lately and not getting enough rest.”

“Have you been taking your meds like you’re supposed to?”

“Now you sound like the Duchess.”

When it beeped to notify her of an incoming text, J.J. reached behind herself to pull back out her cell phone. “Well, we certainly spoke her into our universe,” she said, tipping her head to the screen and looking across to Marnie. “The Duchess. She says it’s time for dinner. I guess Daddy must be home.”

“Well,” Marnie said, sitting up and stretching. “Looks like it’s back to Discomfortville. Sucks to be you, girlfriend.”

J.J. bent down to reset the pin into the floor to lock her bench in place. “Tell me about it. At least you’ll be at the table with me tonight as a buffer.”

Marnie slid off her bench and squatted down to reset her pin. “If it gets started, I have to tell you, you’re going to be on your own with that; I wasn’t here when the wrongness went down. In fact, I won’t even know about anything that happened if somebody asks me or brings any of it up at the table. So, we’re still not going out tonight, J.?”

“I’m not, but I told you that doesn’t mean you have to stay in, “J.J. said from where she and Third waited at the bottom of the stairs. “Chance will be home in enough time for you two to go out.”

“If you aren’t going, I’m not going either. If I leave the house with just Chance, then he’s going to have to get grilled by your father, and me being the only one out will put my behind solely in the Duchess’s sights. My luck’s been going pretty good lately, slate completely clean. I think I’m going to just try real hard to stay on the straight and narrow for as long as I can. I’ll see Chance tomorrow either when we’re out running around getting ready for the party or tomorrow night at the party. Did your outfit get here?”

“The outfit was delivered while we were gone, so that’s taken care of,” J.J. replied. “As for going out or not, suit yourself. I’m going to need some down-time before all of that gets started.”

“Not to mention the need for minimizing the chance of further pressing any of the wrong buttons.”

“That, too, Marn. You can bet I will be flying way under the radar until this blows over.”

“Or up,” Marnie said.

As they began walking off. J.J.’s phone chimed once more and she pulled it out to check it.

“Chase,” she read aloud from the display. “Wonder what he wants.”

Marnie perked right up. “But we can have company, can’t we, J.?”

J.J.; however, had clicked in to answer the call.

______________________________________________________________________

Later that evening

The girls had gone upstairs after eating, so Jonathan took advantage of the unusual warmth to invite Jennifer to spend some time together outside on the patio.

It was over their after-dinner drinks that he shared with her the conversation he had been a part of right before leaving his office. She listened with her filled glass in front of her, thoughtfully tapping one set of nails against it. She didn’t speak until he finished.

Shooting him her finest “that’s it’ look, she asked, “That’s all you have? So, was the ‘pressing business’ that drew you into the office last Thursday when you had scheduled yourself to be out of it part of this?”

Her raised hands, coupled with the impatient question confirmed for him that although she hadn’t spoken on it with him since he shut her down on the topic at dinner a few nights before, she had not left off contemplating it. In the fading light of day, her rampant curiosity twinkled like tiny constellations in those eyes he could never get enough of looking into.

“Yes, darling. When I got the call that morning to give me the heads up about the letter, I went to speak with her directly to see what was going on, to see if what I suspected was true. All she would tell me then was that the private accounts she still manages on the side were growing to a point where they were taking up more of her time. She said she wants to branch out on her own and devote her full time to them. Then she threw in that she was also considering an offer that she most likely wouldn’t be able to refuse but would be a conflict of interest if she did accept it.”

“She didn’t elaborate on that offer?”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Why, Jonathan? You’re losing a key person in your main accounting division.”

“I know, but there are some people whose decisions shouldn’t be questioned because they do things with great consideration. Then, too, given the suspicions I had at the time, I figured it would be better to just take what she gave me and let the rest fall into place.”

“And today, it did.”

He polished off what was left of his cognac before asserting, “It sure did.”

Jennifer smiled. “I think it’s wonderful. I hope everything goes the way they want. Nobody deserves it more.”

“According to him, they only have that one potential obstacle to overcome before sealing the deal.”

She tipped her head at that piece of information. “That could prove to be some obstacle. That kind of change can be very difficult.”

“They’ll deal with it In due time, I’m sure,” he said. Then he leaned in to cozily wrap an arm around the back of her chair. “Look, I’m going to take my own shot here. Speaking of difficult, are you purposely torturing my kid?”

She immediately twisted around to meet his eyes, pressing a dramatic hand to her chest. “Torturing who? J.J.? Me torturing her?”

He slowly shook his head at the act, took her drink from her and knocked it back, too, before addressing her questions.

“Jennifer, please. Those two sat through dinner like robots. J.J. hardly said a word, and Marnie only spoke when she was spoken to- and then said as little as possible. It’s also mighty funny to me that it’s Friday night, but they’re upstairs and quiet rather than running down the stairs and out the front door headed to the car. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think J.J. has made eye contact with either one of us since that night.”

“And you think that has something to do with me?”

“Jennifer, you know full it well it does.”

He felt her sly smile form even though she turned her face away from him to softly assert, “I haven’t said one word along the lines of restricting either one of them. Their being home is strictly their choice. It has nothing to do with anything I’ve said to either one of them.”

The girls being home had everything to do with her, of that he was certain, but it wasn’t a point that made any sense to further debate. Jennifer Hart knew exactly what she was doing, and J.J. Hart knew when to lay low. It stood to reason that Marnie would follow suit; she wouldn’t want to be the lone potential target in Jennifer’s sights.

Neither did he, so he left the matter alone.

He would have to let things play out for his daughter in the way her mother was going to script them. No way did he want her to point-blank ask him what he thought about what J.J. did. If she did ask, he wouldn’t lie to her, and he would not be able to get her to understand why he felt the way he did.

Just as she couldn’t about her lack of concern over matters that gave him pause as they related to J.J.

The view beyond the immediate patio area, usually a peaceful, pastoral vista stretching as far as the seated eye could see had been blocked off and filled in preparation for J.J.’s 80’s-themed birthday party. A sound stage, the dance area complete with disco ball, tents for video and table games, movies, another smaller venue for the photographer, and one huge catering tent with an outside dining area. It gave him comfort that discreetly interspersed among it all were surveillance cameras. Those would be manned by a security team inside the house while plainclothes actually moved among the party-goers.

They had it all covered.

He hoped.

The previous year’s party, J.J.’s sixteenth, brought out a stalker who had his daughter a nervous wreck for a time and nearly turned his wife into an assassin. This year, unlike the last, there would be no press allowed on the grounds. The guest list had been closely scrutinized with the girls warned against printing up and/or issuing unauthorized invitations. In one year, their world and the times had drastically changed. The typically somewhat liberal gates for a J.J. Hart affair would this time be closed to anyone arriving without the proper documents.

The birthday parties were the one area he and Jennifer went all-out to ensure J.J.  a good time. J.J. deserved it; given all she had the potential to have in terms of material things, she could be so many other things than the fine, relatively grounded girl she was turning out to be.

Despite her most recent “would be junior jet-setter” transgression.

“Teddy isn’t coming,” Jennifer said as if tuned in to the station his mind was on. “His father phoned to say that they all thought it was best if he took it easy this weekend.”

“Who’s ‘they’? I know Jr. didn’t come up with the idea on his own or wholly support it when the subject came up.”

He knew better than to think the boy had come up with that on his own. At Teddy’s age, with two broken legs, a broken arm, dizzy from a fever, and with a concussion, he would still have been blindly crawling to get to wherever the pretty girl was that had his attention.

Hell, as a grown man locked down in a hospital with choking chest pains, hooked up to machines, and being guarded twenty-four-seven, I was thinking of every way possible to get back to this pretty girl I’m crazy about. I’d have made a run for it, too, had it not been for her taking my clothes leaving me ass-out literally and the surety of her braining me for breaking out once I got to her.

“Not Helena?” he asked when he realized who hadn’t been mentioned in the decision to ground Teddy.

“Bear didn’t mention if Helena had been informed or not. It didn’t sound to me as if she had.”

“So, does J.J. know?”

“I’m sure Teddy Jr.’s called her. That’s probably why she was so quiet at the table this evening.”

“That along with everything else she’s got going”, he thought.

He hurt for J.J. and the predicament she had gotten herself into, but she really was getting old enough to fully reap the consequences of her actions, whatever they were going to be, without an assist. As for Teddy, it probably was the wiser thing for him to stay put for the weekend. Given how it all played out, he had cut it pretty close in terms of his health. The boy had a lot in front of him that he had to be well enough to get through.

“Are they back in Boston?”

When they flew out of New York to return to Boston to pack for home, he, Jennifer, and J.J. had left Teddy and his father with Vivienne at her apartment. Teddy, it turned out, had his own rooms at Vivienne’s place.

“Bear said he and Teddy flew out yesterday evening,” Jennifer said. “Teddy went to his classes this morning, but he had to see his own doctor this afternoon, which caused him to miss his scheduled flight here. The turnaround was going to be too quick for the distance to go about rescheduling. I think there might have been some element of punishment in it, as well, on Bear’s part in keeping Teddy there.”

“Used up all his frequent flyer miles, I guess, ” Jonathan assessed aloud causing Jennifer to snicker.

Marie appeared at the door holding the handset to the kitchen house phone.

“Excuse me, Mr. Hart. You have a phone call. It’s Chase Barnett wanting to know if you and Mrs. Hart will be home later this evening. He says he wants to come down and speak with both of you about an urgent matter.”

Jennifer turned around to him, that one eyebrow raised in question; he shrugged and she nodded her agreement before he replied to Marie. “Tell him to come on down. We’ll be here.”

“Wonder what that’s about,” he said once Marie left the doorway. “It’s not like we’re not going to see him tomorrow at the party.”

Jennifer had resumed the light tapping of her nails against her emptied glass. “Quite likely, darling, another reason why those two were so quiet at the dinner table.”

_______________________________________________________________________

When Tiffany and her sister dropped by to see them after dinner, Marnie had changed her mind about going out. She left with the sisters to go shopping and to see a movie. J.J. declined and stayed in.

Then Chase  showed up. He been down the great room with her parents for a while. Already upstairs, she opted to act as if she didn’t know he was there and stayed where she was. Alone in her bedroom, she paced the carpet at the foot of her bed.

 This has to be some kind of test. I turned seventeen, and the powers that be have determined I need to undergo a series of drama trials to see if I go crazy or not under the pressure.

She couldn’t remember ever feeling so conflicted, so at odds with herself, her decisions, the expectations others had for her, the things she wanted to do for herself. Chase’s phone call only compounded that feeling, adding yet another item to the more heavily weighted side of the scales. Not necessarily a negative, but definitely one that came with more stress for her.

I don’t know, Chase. I have a lot going on right now.

“Look, just ask, J. It’s me. They’ll let you. It’s not like you have to do a whole lot to get ready.”

It’s not about getting ready.

She gave him the short version of what she was dealing with at the moment that made her reluctant to commit right off the bat. That’s when he admitted he already knew. Teddy had filled him in when he hit Chase up to tell him he wasn’t coming to Los Angeles for the party.

I like how you made me give myself up. What didn’t you tell me Teddy had already said something to you?”

“You know I don’t get into your business. But once you told me, it was fair game to let you know I knew. So, okay, so you did that. But this is me we’re talking about.”

And?

“And that makes all the difference in the world, J.”

She hoped for his sake that he was right. It was uncertain territory he had ventured into down there. Normally, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal being that it was Chase, but….

I don’t know. This might not be a good time to be coming at Daddy with something like this.

“I’m telling you, J., just go ahead and ask. I’m family.”

Chase might very well be “family”, but…

Like I’ve told you, I’ve got my own problems right now.

In the end, she agreed to go along with what he proposed but told him he would have to be the one to ask, and he would have to talk with both her parents. After all, it was his problem; she was just helping him out. It was definitely not a good time to be cutting the Duchess out of anything.

 Shoot, I’m not asking nobody for nothing right now. I know when I need to play it close and lay low. Imma get through this party, then I’m going to lay real, real low for a very long time….

My mother would have to have shown up and at just that moment. Of all the places in New York….

Yes, she shouldn’t have been there in that back room at that club, but it wasn’t her fault that the guy was trying to get in. Just like it wasn’t her fault she got kidnapped by those men in that van with Tommy that time just because she opted to go to the coffee house before school.

That one hadn’t even been about her.

Girls shouldn’t be shut down and held close because of boys. Women shouldn’t have to be sheltered and hobbled because of the actions of men.

But all over the world, in one way or another, that’s how it is.

It wasn’t fair that Duncan, Teddy, Tommy, Chase, Chance, and almost all the boys she knew who were about the same age as she were allowed to do so much, go so far, be who they were, but she and most of the girls she knew were kept so close, treated like they were the problem.

And those girls that weren’t, the ones who were “out there”, like Isabella Hawthorne and a few others, the girls who stayed out all hours, partied a lot, dated a lot, who weren ‘t so successful or all that interested in school, the girls who got knocked up for doing the same thing the boy they slept with did, they were looked down on by most people, including other females.

Girls had to work so hard to maintain their reputations. Parents worked so hard to protect their daughters’ “honor”. In other parts of world, parents even killed their daughters over so much as the perceived loss of honor.

Even in cases where the girl’s innocence and dignity are ripped away from her by some over-sexed, entitled male.

Like Ms. Chris….

And Claire, too, when it come down to it ….

It wasn’t until her cheeks began to throb from the pressure of her palms that she realized her frustration had drawn her hands up to face.  She rolled over to drag  a pillow from the head of the bed and rested her chin on it, her stinging flesh soothed by the cool cotton she curled up around her ears.

While she hated the thought of hurting or worrying her parents unnecessarily, it bothered her just as much, occasionally more, to feel so obligated to not worry them.

For the most part, she believed her parents trusted her. Her mother could be a little overprotective when it came to being kept abreast of her whereabouts. According to her mother, her father was only being a father when his more paranoid side came out over her and the boys who wanted to spend time with her or vice versa .Just the same, she was usually allowed to go where she asked to go. She might not have her own car yet, but her mother was pretty good about giving up her car whenever she asked to use it. Yes, she had a curfew, but, if she was honest about it, she probably didn’t need to be out too much later than one in the morning anyway.

Had she broken that trust in doing what she did? Is that why she was getting that vibe from them?

Maybe that’s what’s bothering me so much about the whole thing.

Or was it a vibe she only perceived she was getting because she already knew she had done just that?

She had been stunned to find Mr. Baxter’s car parked in the horseshoe in front of their hotel once they made it back to Boston from New York. And even more shocked to find, once they made it up to her parents’ suite, that the bag containing her dress, shoes, and other belongings had been delivered to her rooms. Neither of her parents had asked about her change of clothes, where or how that took place, or how it all magically appeared back at the hotel.

Straight up, Duncan. I know it was. He would think ahead and act on it like that. I have to call him and thank him.

Surely her parents had noticed. An atomic bomb going off wouldn’t have kept either one of them from noticing that in the time since she left them, their daughter had changed from an evening gown into jeans, boots, and a leather jacket once the dust settled and they were all back together. Most surely, the two of them had at least discussed it.

Or maybe they didn’t because that kind of thing might start a fight between them. She wouldn’t bring it up with him because he can’t handle stuff like that. He wouldn’t bring it up with her because she handles the stuff like that with me herself, and he might wind up saying the wrong thing to her.

She was certainly glad neither of them asked her about it that night; the air was still way too iffy at the time, but she was sure it was going to come up sooner or later in a one-on-one conversation between her and her mother.

Knowing the Duchess like I do, that will be as soon as she gets a chance to go there with me in the way she wants to.

I’m so very, very dead. She’s never going to let me go with Chase. In fact, I’m never going anywhere again in my whole life, probably won’t even be able to go away to college after this.

She lay her head down on the flattened pillow and didn’t realize she was dozing off until her cell buzzed. Blindly reaching to snatch it off the nightstand, she opened one eye to check the display.

 Chase.

That sat her all the way up, and she clicked in.

“Where were you all that time I was down there with them all by myself, J.? I kept waiting for you to come down the stairs while your father was giving me the business.”

What did he give you the business about?

“For starters, not having a real date for my own prom. Talking about I must not have any game with women. Talking about my taking you was the equivalent of going to the prom with my sister or my first cousin. Then he went in and was like ‘and you better think of her like that the whole time you’re out there with her.’ Like you wouldn’t beat the hell out of me yourself for trying something with you.”

I’ve told you and told you, Chase Barnett, you’re not my type. Incest is not my thing. So, I guess I’m going with you, then, huh?

“Of course. I told you, since it was me, they would let you.

All right. They said she could go. Set up?

“Good looking out on making me be the one to ask, J. It was a good idea that it was me that brought it to them. That respect thing earned me some points. They asked me if I had asked you, and what did you say when I did.”

What did you tell them?

“I told them I had talked to you and you said you would go if they said it was okay. Why? Was I not supposed to tell them that? You didn’t say I shouldn’t. I mean, what do I look like asking your father before I ask you? You’d have been pissed about that and then, knowing you, you might not have gone. Look, J., I just lost one date because she tried to be difficult. All possessive and stuff. I only asked you because we got it like that.”

You only asked me because I was the only somebody you could get at the last minute without her being offended by it, and because you thought I wouldn’t care if you talk to other girls while we were out. If you didn’t have such serious commitment issues, you would still have the date you had. I’m surprised you didn’t just decide to go stag in the first place.

“My mom made me have a date. My plan was to go stag, but she was like, ‘it’s not proper. How are you going to take prom pictures without a date? You’ll look real pitiful years from now on the prom pictures all by yourself.’

“I was like, ‘I wouldn’t be by myself on the pictures; I’d be on ’em with three or four girls who came with other guys; the women love me. That was when she told me if I didn’t have a single date of my own lined up in time, I wasn’t going anywhere. She said she wasn’t going to, down the line, have her son on the pics looking like some kind of pimp, hustler, or gigolo to her grandkids. Like all the girls on the pictures with me would be looking like skanks or something.”

You do have that sort of reputation, Chase Barnett. I’m very familiar with your taste in women; it’s not all that discerning. Even your mother knows.

“Whatever, J.”

And for the record, do not think you’re going to be all over the place next Saturday, leaving me all by myself while you go ‘hunting’. I won’t know anybody except Marnie and Chance, and they’ll be in their own world. You and I are going to be in it together- for at least that night, anyway. And also for the record, I will beat the hell out of you if you somehow forget I’m not one of your little things, or if the girl who dumped you-

“I wasn’t dumped. We just parted ways.”

-whatever, I’m just saying. If she tries to start something with me because I’m at the prom with you and not her, it will be on. I have been there and done that already at a prom.

“One of Teddy’s women? He didn’t say anything about that when he called about not coming to the party. Aw, man. What happened”

Don’t you worry about that. You just trust what I said about you and your women. I’m not having any messiness.

When she clicked off from Chase, she rolled back into her previously vacated spot, resuming her prone position. burying her chin in the pillow. Relieved at being trusted enough to be allowed to go to Chase’s prom and looking forward to double-dating with Chance and Marnie, there was still the lingering possibility of it all being some kind of set up by at least one of her parents.

Maybe I should have just told him “no”, and played it safe.

But then, she figured, closing her eyes to closely consider everything, she had never been one for doing that. Being herself and taking a shot was what got her into this mess. On the up side, apparently all was not lost in the parental trust department, but….

The Duchess is cagey like that, though. She would be thinking she was giving me me jus-s-s-s-t enough rope….

She sighed and then yawned before burrowing her whole head into the pillow and curling up.

Sure hope this party outfit I had made doesn’t become yet another strike against me on the “Bad things J.J.’s Done Lately” scoreboard with the Duchess.

Like always, she would just have to wait until events played themselves out if that was what they were lining themselves up to do.

__________________________________________________________________

Jonathan had walked Chase to the door, and he remained in the doorway, watching as the Corvette started up and pulled off.

Another prom.

This one; however, under decidedly different circumstances that made for a lot less stress on him as a father. Not only did Chase Barnett already know the rules of being out with J.J. Hart, as J.J.’s lifelong friend, Chase, as well as his brother, had at times been overseers, if not enforcers of them. Chase and Chance entirely understood the ramifications of not abiding by said rules.

And he liked Chase. A lot. More than that, he understood him and identified with his current perspectives.

From the time he was a very little kid, Chase had always been his own person who went his own way. As he was growing into a man, that element of his persona was crystallizing into a way of life. Unlike his twin, Chase was taking a gap year after they graduated at the end of the month. Chance would be remaining in San Francisco to attend university and intern in their uncle’s restaurants. Chase, on the other hand, had talked his parents into allowing him to sit out a year while deciding on a college to attend.

But he already knew Chase’s plans for his life after that year was up; Chase had come to him some time back with the disclosure, and the two of them had discussed it. Since the boy’s mind seemed made up at the time, he supported him in requesting of his parents the year off after graduation. That would give Chase the time to ease Chuck and Carolyn into the alternative idea. Chuck might not be such a hard sell on it, but Carolyn…. after all, Chase was her first-born.

It made him wonder how he might feel about it if that was his son. A boy born into privilege who needed and wanted to become his own man, not some pampered, “puffed-up pansy”- Chase’s words- assuming to one day be moved into his father’s seat on the board without having earned the right or paid the dues to be there.

As father to a son, he would not have been able to tolerate that scenario.

There was nothing he disliked more than an overindulged, self-important child, particularly if the kid was male. Some of the boys and young at the club drove him crazy with that entitled behavior.

In his mind, an imaginary thumb immediately snuffed out the image of Wesley Singleton that flared in his mind.

He respected Chuck Barnett for not having raised his sons in that manner. Chuck always expected the twins to pull their own weight, and so far, in their own ways, they were.

But then, he guessed, his own expectations weren’t all that different for his daughter, a girl born into privilege who had always been her own somebody and continued to grow into quite the interesting real woman who most definitely did her own thing and pulled her own weight in her own way.

But then, look who she had for a mother. And a godmother/aunt. And a great-aunt. And….

With the tail lights disappearing over the bridge hill, he closed the door and returned to the great room.

Jennifer was still on the couch in the same spot he left her. She had her eyes closed, her head slightly tipped, with one arm folded across her midsection while the fingers of the other hand idly comed through the ends of her hair.

Not quite sure what to make of the body language in light of all that could be going on in that quick and sometimes calculating mind, he took a tentative seat on the other couch, directly across from her.

“Penny for your thoughts this time,” he said, referencing her walking up on him with that question when he stood at the windows of the hotel suite a couple nights back.

A slow smile formed on her lips before she opened those eyes to him and spoke.

“Nothing really, darling.  Just sitting here lining up all there is to be done to get her ready for another prom, not to mention finishing up with Marnie.  At least it’s the same prom they’re attending. And with this last minute development coming on the heels of the birthday party, that’s a lot of running around and arranging to do, and yet another weekend spent on chaperone duty.”

Mildly relieved by her answer, he got up and crossed over to sit beside her.

He had been a little surprised when she so easily agreed to let J.J. go on such short notice. Undoubtedly that had been for Chase’s benefit. More likely, for his mother’s, one of Jennifer’s very good friends.

He took hold of the hand closest to him to say to her, “I don’t mind as long as we’re in it together. We both know there are going to be some days upcoming where I won’t be so available. I’m not looking forward to that, I’m telling you. I love Hart Industries; it’s our bread and butter, but-”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” she cut in, pulling free her hand to pat, then gently rub his thigh. “You know, you don’t have to go to San Francisco with us.”I told you, Pat said she’s going to be there. Bill, too, because he has to speak with Chance before he leaves with Marnie. ”

He tipped his head at that last piece of information. “As if Pat wouldn’t be enough of a deterrent for Chance and Marnie. But I thought I was already penciled in for doing that.”

“You were- well, we were until Pat said she and Bill were planning to be there. I’m only going now because of J.J. You will have worked all week, so if you’d rather stay here and rest-”

“Nope,” he said, shaking his head while leaning in to slide an arm around her. “Where you two go, I go. Besides, I’ll need to be there to reinforce my point with Chase so it’s fresh in his mind before he goes out of the door with my daughter.”

“Like that’s going to be a problem,” she snickered.

He couldn’t be sure if the meaning behind what she said had to do with who J.J. was going out with or with J.J. herself.

It was odd that J.J. hadn’t gone out for the evening being that it Friday and Marnie had gone out. It was more than odd that she hadn’t come down the stairs while Chase was there. He said he had already spoken to her before speaking to them, so she had to know he was coming by that evening. She had to have heard the chime and surmised it was him.

Definitely laying low. I don’t blame her, but I still don’t like it.

He resolved to seek her out and make her talk to him. She had done wrong, but it wasn’t good for her to be out there alone like this. Maybe he could take her out to breakfast early in the morning before she started her running around for the party.

“I’m going to go up and talk with her,” he heard Jennifer say. “See what she has in her gown arsenal. Knowing her, she’ll be trying to wear the one she wore to Teddy’s prom because it’s convenient.”

She stood up and stretched as she continued speaking. “She and I have a lot to do for tomorrow and for next weekend. I’m glad the boys’ prom is on a Saturday. J.J. and Marnie won’t have to miss any days of school. We won’t have to leave for San Francisco until Friday evening. Are you going up?”

He stood too. “I guess,” he said. “I can get a shower and catch up on some reading I need to do before things get too crazy around here tomorrow.”

“Then I’ll see you upstairs in a little bit.”

As she walked away from him, headed to the foyer, he wondered why in the world he sensed a little something sinister behind that thing she said about the girls not having to miss school next week.

__________________________________________________________________

At the top of the stairs, she was met by Third who had been in the kitchen when she last saw him right before Chase got there.

“Hey boy,” she said, giving his head and his chin a hearty rub. “Where’s your partner in crime?”

He left her to bounce over to J.J. closed bedroom door.

“Inside there, is she?”

Jennifer went to the door and lightly rapped.

When there was no answer, she put her ear to the wood.

Nothing.

She knocked again, a little harder this time and called J.J.’s name.

Still no answer.

She cracked open the door and peeked inside. On the bed, curled in a tight ball lay J.J.

With Third racing past her, she went all the way inside. The dog scooted under the bed as she approached her daughter’s slumbering form. She needed to make absolutely sure it wasn’t a case of playing possum rather than typical J.J. who slept like a rock even under normal circumstances.

Wore yourself out from worry? You were exhausted before all this got started, my little love. We’ll table this for later, you and I.

Grabbing hold of the comforter, she pulled it back from the head of the bed and covered J.J.’s bare legs and arms before brushing a kiss to her forehead. The she turned off the lamp and went back out, softly closing the door behind her.

When she was gone, Third came back out of hiding. After looking both ways, he jumped up on the bed to curl up next to his sleeping girl.

Continue on to Part Two of “Between Incidents”

18 Responses to Principles: Celebrating Seventeen

  1. Carol says:

    Happy holidays, Marie – any gifts for us?

    Like

  2. Carol says:

    Hi Marie! Hope your holiday was good. A rough draft? Anything?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marie says:

      I do apologize. I wound up with a houseful of people who arrived the day before Thanksgiving, some of whom did not leave until Monday. I had planned too ambitiously for the writing, I guess. I’m very close, though.

      Like

  3. Carol says:

    Any updates, Marie? We’re dying here!!! JJ’s nap is killing us!!!

    Like

  4. Modelspiceuk says:

    Marie

    Thanks for this update. I’m still intrigued by the character that is, Marnie.

    Like

  5. cindie neu says:

    Marie, do you know when you will have any new stories ? I’ve read these about five times ! I love them ! Just can’t wait !!! ,❤2❤

    Like

  6. Maya says:

    Hi Marie!
    As always, truly worth the wait! Looking forward to the next installment.
    Thank You.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Denise says:

    ahh! Thank you! Wonderful new chapter! I just love all these characters so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! What a wonderful update, so much happening I can’t wait for all the events to play out. Poor JJ has gotten herself into one hell of a hot mess! Love your Hart family! As always thanks for sharing your talent with so many of us fans!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Tina Terzano says:

    And the JJ HART saga continues! So happy to have a new chapter to read. I just love this story and can’t read it enough. I miss Tommy and hope he comes back to the story soon. Great job!

    Liked by 2 people

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