Jennifer’s birthday surprise for J.J. from Jonathan’s perspective
The truck carrying the new car drove around from the side of the house to the front. Jonathan, standing with Jennifer and the others on the front porch, watched as it stopped right in front of where J.J. had positioned herself after being escorted inside the area cordoned off by the velvet ropes. His daughter’s bug-eyed, open-mouthed delighted astonishment at the sight of the gleaming, beribboned Mustang bearing a “Happy Birthday” message to her was a welcome contrast to his earlier interaction with her that night.
Naturally assuming it was his doing, she immediately whipped around to him; vehicle acquisitions were usually his department, but not this time. To set her straight, he pointed to Jennifer, and J.J.’s strained-to-its-limits emotional dam failed. She shot to her mother, and at the sight of them back together, his own heart swelled so hard and so fast he thought for sure it would split and burst wide open right there, exposing to all their friends the exact location of his vulnerable soft spot. To keep that from happening, he made his own feeble attempt to console his crying child by turning away to pat her back and to whisper, “Thank you,” to his wife.
At the same time, however, he picked up on what sounded like a motor- specifically, a motorcycle- in the distance, but getting louder.
J.J. must have heard it too. She raised her head from Jennifer’s shoulder, hurriedly dabbing at her moist eyes with the tissue discreetly passed to her before turning in the direction everyone else had begun looking, the direction from which the sound was coming.
Indeed, a bike roared over the bridge and low-swooped the curve, headed to the house. A black one, and from the make… it had to be.
Who else would be breaking his neck to make it in after being AWOL for hours? Who else would have gotten that kind of clearance from the front gate, as late as it was? Who else would be bypassing authorized parking, ignoring the wildly gesticulating attendants, to beat it to his front door bringing with him all that noise?
Carolyn Barnett spoke his thoughts: “That better be Chase.” She had been looking for her oldest boy all evening.
For sure, she wasn’t the only one.
Without a single doubt, he knew J.J. Hart had noted and mentally recorded that absence from the gathering. And just as surely, he knew it would not go unaddressed.
Hope the diversion, whatever or whoever, was worth it, son.
The truck’s ramp had been lowered and her new car was being rolled off, but J.J. had zeroed in on the bike. Easing herself from her mother’s arms, she began slowly sauntering- with definite purpose- toward the far end of the porch. Arms folded, head tilted slightly to the side, she was the spitting image of Jennifer Hart when she was lining it up to go there with somebody.
The bike- it was Chase’s bike- pulled up, sliding to a growling stop.
“Who is that with him?” he heard Carolyn fuss; turned out there were two people on the vehicle. “I know good and well he hasn’t brought some little last-minute flooz-” Chuck hushed her.
Chase removed his helmet, and J.J. started right in on him about being late.
Then the second helmet came off, and someone near him, cried out something that, in the moment, didn’t make sense.
But his eyes were on J.J. as her legs appeared to give, then she and that white suit did an odd, twisting drop forward, into the bushes on that end. Instinctively, he lunged in the vain effort to catch her, at the same time vaguely realizing someone behind him was going down, too.
Early, early Sunday Morning, party over, winding down….
All the adult guests had gone. Jonathan’s arrangements with security assured that the team would be responsible for clearing the grounds of J.J.’s guests and secure the perimeter. Both the girls had been sent up to get ready for bed over an hour ago. The event coordinators were shutting down and preparing to dismantle the various party venues. Bill and Pat had said their goodnights and retired to the guest house. After conferring with Marie over shutting down and rearranging the house, Jennifer finally felt satisfied that everything was in place to close out the seventeenth birthday party.
Now she could finally turn in.
Using the pass hall from the kitchen, she headed toward the front of the house. At the foot of the main staircase, she paused to pull off the stilettos she’d been in all evening and to give it all one last consideration, to think if there was anything she hadn’t covered before getting upstairs, remembering, and perhaps having to come back down.
Aside from that one tense episode on the porch, all had gone according to plan and exceedingly well.
As far as she knew….
Jonathan and J.J. Hart. Those golf carts. The two of them hadn’t been together in her presence long enough that evening for her to detect any hints of collusion between them. Yet, there remained that nagging feeling…
Let it go, Jennifer. Not everything has to be your business. He is her father, and he most definitely looks out for her, whatever it was they were both in on.
With nothing else coming to mind, shoes in hand, she started up.
On the second floor, the darkness down the long hall to her left was broken by two slivers of light under doors on either side, one farther down than the other. Marnie, she figured, was probably in her room on the phone, recapping her night. Or perhaps courting with Chance since he would be going back to school later that afternoon.
At that door nearest her, she slowly shook her head. There was no telling what that one might be up to. J.J. Hart was undoubtedly as tired as her mother feared all week she would be. On top of that, she still waiting for that final boom to be lowered by her mother.
Jennifer mentally shrugged in concession. Considering those two things, there probably wasn’t much more than a shower and the bed going on in that room.
But then, once again, who really knew with Justine Hart?
Motherly instinct pricked at her psyche, urging her to at least check on the girl’s well-being in light of that earlier frightening episode on the porch.
Again, Jennifer, let it go.
J.J. had been just fine once she returned to the party. Even did a trial lap in her new car with Marnie riding shotgun. Neither girl had anywhere to be in the morning; none of them, the adults or the kids, would be fit for church. Breakfast, which would be more like brunch, always a very late affair following one of J.J.’s parties, would assure they could all sleep in. Any difficulties J.J. Hart might be having behind that door, if indeed she was having any, would have a whole lot less to do with the physical than they might something else.
… but that is for another time. She’ll make it until morning. As will I.
Continuing over from the stairs to the closed doors of her own bedroom, she slipped inside.
The lamp on Jonathan’s side of the bed was turned on, but the room appeared unoccupied. Assuming he was still outside with August Lamb, she went around to her side where she dropped the shoes on the floor by the chair and she shed her leather jacket. Feeling a little sticky, she tugged the satin tank top out of where she had it tucked into the pants. The chunky jewelry removed and placed on the glass-topped side table, she finally exhaled.
What a night.
The compliments she had gotten on her “80’s” outfit choice had been gratifying. After all, a teen-aged daughter with a birthday party theme hadn’t been even the most remote thought in her mind the last time she had worn a leather pants suit. Being able to pull it out of storage, get back into it, and wear it well said a lot. But enduring that get-up all evening left her wondering how leather had ever been a popular fashion consideration. As sharp as it might have been twenty years back, the material had always been slightly uncomfortable to wear as clothing. A leather jacket or coat worked all right, but a complete suit? To wear all day or all evening? Never again.
“I need a shower,” she whispered louder than intended.
After hanging the jacket in the wardrobe, she continued back to the bathroom. She heard water running and was surprised to find Jonathan toweling off his face in the mirror.
“Fancy running into you here,” she said to his reflection as she stopped to lean with crossed arms against the door jamb. “I thought you were still outside.”
He switched off the tap and turned around, still dabbing at his cheeks and neck. “August and the team had it handled. I couldn’t wait to get up here. Those sideburns were driving me crazy. Itched like hell.”
The discarded strips of fake hair lie curled on the counter. Both sides of his face, in front of his ears, appeared a bit inflamed. She came to him, cupped his cheeks in her hands, and pressed her lips to his reddened skin. “I’m so sorry, darling. Looks as if you might have had some sort of reaction. Probably to the adhesive.”
He wrapped his arms around her, pressing her body to his and say into her ear, “If this is the kind of action I can get from you for that reaction, I’ll wear fake sideburns any time you say.” His hands cozily cupped her fanny giving it a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend much time together. Didn’t even get a dance together this time.”
“I was so busy trying to get that car in without her seeing.”
He patted her fanny. “You looked so hot in these pants.”
“Yes, I must say they are uncomfortably warm. I can’t wait to get out of them.”
“Wrong connotation,” he breathed into her neck. “But we are on the same wavelength with that last thing.”
“Jonathan, please,” she laughed, wiggling out of his embrace. “You are awful. I need a shower and the bed. It’s been a long night.”
“I’m with you on the shower,” he said through a sigh as left her to go around the corner. “Can hardly wait.”
She heard the jets turn on, then he came back to her, leaning against the sink counter as he unbuttoned his shirt. “It has been quite the night. I was surprised you let J.J. go back out to the party after she went down like that.”
In the mirror now, pinning up her hair to keep it from getting too wet, she shrugged. “I know she didn’t have breakfast. Salvatore said she turned down nibbles at the shop.”
“Did she take her meds this morning?”
“Marie said she saw her take them this afternoon. Said she was with her when she took them, but she didn’t recall J.J. coming down to the kitchen to eat anything before she went out to the party. Then with Teddy not being able to make it, Chase being missing and showing up late, Tommy popping up out of nowhere like that-”
“That last thing got Tommy’s mother too.”
“-on top of the surprise of the new car and then probably being a bit run down in the first place from the week before, all of it combined worked to short circuit her system for a moment. She was okay once she had a few minutes downtime to recover and reset; your daughter is good at regrouping. Besides, the show had to go on. There would have been no living with her had we shut the party down on that note, in her mind making her look weak, vulnerable, and overprotected to her guests.”
In the glass, she caught that quick flash of corner-of-the-eye crinkle and faint smile. Jonathan Hart was nothing short of proud of his kid for going back out there despite how badly she might have been feeling.
Her own misgivings about allowing J.J. to return to the party set aside at that time, she had to admit she was proud of her daughter’s quick surface recovery, too. Say whatever else about her, the girl was a trooper. Always had been. For good, for bad….
… for mischief.
“I hate I didn’t get a chance to talk with Tommy,” Jonathan mused aloud. “He and Marcus got Brenda out of there so quickly once they had her back on her feet. Obviously, she hadn’t been expecting to see Tommy either. Wonder how that happened? Why would his mother not know he was coming home?”
“I have no idea,” she said as she pulled the tank top up and over her head. “But judging by her reaction, she really was not expecting him. You think he hurried home from Spain because-”
He shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Well, I’m glad Fee left with them. They definitely all have things to talk about. She can be a buffer, if needed. I hope it’s not a problem, a monkey wrench in the plans.”
“I’m sure things will work out,” he said. His eyes dropped to her cleavage as he reached to take her by the waist and draw her close again. “I might not have gotten a dance with you tonight. But right here, right now, we- you and I- have a shower to get into.”
She felt his hand unbutton her pants and laughed to herself as she gave in to him. Apparently, it was more than a hot shower her husband was looking forward to getting into.
And so was she.
“Well, I almost made it the whole night,” J.J. whispered to herself as she pushed the last straight pin through the small yellow sticky affixed to the pants leg. “From some bushes that I don’t even remember coming into contact with. Go figure.”
She had affixed two stickies to the white jacket and three to the trousers to alert the dry cleaner of the stains that might need an extra effort to remove. That could have waited until morning, but she figured why put off what she would only be bugged about doing later? Why wait to have to hustle and perhaps miss a spot or two at the last minute when she could take her time at that moment to find and mark all the bad places, and get the dry cleaning out of the way?
After stuffing the suit into the bag that the service would pick up on Monday, she tossed the lot into the corner by the closed bedroom door. Third, who had been underfoot ever since she came out of the bathroom, finally hopped up on the bed and gave her a look that said he was expecting her to follow him.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she assured the pooch as she gathered her freshly washed and dried hair with both hands. She pulled it over her shoulder and used the brush to smooth it while separating it into three sections.
For the most part, her birthday party had been great… aside from that embarrassing trip into the shrubbery.
She didn’t remember falling out. That’s what they told her had happened. She only recalled coming to with her father’s concerned face hovering directly over hers followed by the vague realization she was on the couch in the great room with her head in her mother’s lap. And a bunch of people, her parent’s friends, Aunt Pat, Uncle Bill, Chase standing around, looking down at her with worried expressions. Then Marnie pushing her way in through everybody else to see if she was all right.
We are girls. Right there for each other, no matter what.
And feeling extremely confused and self-conscious about all of it.
They said Tommy and Chase retrieved her after she fell and carried her into the house, but she didn’t remember that. She could recall seeing the new car on the back of the truck, of course.
Then Chase pulling up on the bike.
Letting him have it over being late.
And Tommy’s smile. But it stopped there.
That is so weird.
“How you feeling, J.?” Marnie entered the bedroom from the bathroom.
She was dressed for bed and raking a comb through her damp hair.
“Washed out all of the gunk” she said. “Had to condition it real, real good afterward. I don’t know how people had such big, starched hair back in the day, all day long, every day. They had to have had a lot of split ends or breakage, if not both.”
She dropped herself into the chair to continue smoothing out her bob. “Just thought I’d come over and check on you before going to bed myself. Duchess get with you yet? What’s the verdict? How long will you be in lockup? Or more like lockdown, knowing her.”
J.J. fanned Third to the other side of the bed and sat down on it. She kicked off her slippers and began braiding her own hair. “I’m good. There was nothing wrong with me.”
Marnie pursed her lips in disdain. “Girl, don’t even try it. You fainted. I saw you. Tommy showing up out of the blue on the back of that bike like he did took you right on out.”
“It did not. I was just kinda light-headed from entertaining all night and the shock of getting the car. Usually the party is my birthday present from my parents. I wasn’t expecting that, at least not tonight. Nice, isn’t it?”
“It’s the bomb. Fits you and your personality, color and all. But look, don’t try to change the subject. What did the Duchess say? How much time are you going to be doing on the rock?”
J.J. plucked a stretchy band from the container on the nightstand and used it to tie off the end of the thick plait to keep it from unraveling during the night. “She hasn’t been in here. Hasn’t said anything. Actually, I haven’t even seen her since she sent us up here to go to bed.”
Marnie shrugged as she tucked her hair behind her ears. “Maybe she’s over it. I mean, it was a few days ago, and you are seventeen now.”
“I was seventeen a few days ago when I got busted in New York with Teddy. Age doesn’t make a lick of difference to my mother in that kind of situation. You know how she is about me taking off without letting her know. It’s not over by a longshot.”
The Duchess had said as much out on the porch- yet another thing she remembered happening before the unfortunate incident.
“Too bad Tommy couldn’t stay. You didn’t even get to talk to him, did you?”
J.J. shook her head. “He had left with his mother and grandmother by the time I got back outside to the party. Did you?”
“No, his mother had fell out on the porch- I guess he snuck up on her, too- but I was worried about you, so when I realized you were si- having trouble, I came in the house when they brought you in. He dropped you off and went back outside to see about his mother, I guess. After I was sure you were good, I went back out to say something to him, but they were already on their way to the car. Mr. Borland was helping them with Mrs. Steele.”
That her Uncle Marcus was with them, “helping,” didn’t surprise J.J., but she held her breath waiting for her friend to question it and was grateful when Marnie went past it.
“I was glad you felt like going right back out and that the Duchess let you go. It was too early for the party to end, and it was all going so well up to then. Those last two acts were awesome; in fact, all the bands were awesome. You know that tramp, Issy, had the nerve to try to cozy up to Ollie at one point, acting like she was ‘just talking’ to him. Probably had been eyeing him all night. If Tiff had brought a gun to the party, she would have shot Issy’s ass on the spot. I think Issy caught the drift, though; she eventually backed off. Percy and Kendra made it through without getting into it. Philly is still hanging tough with your friend from Argentina; I’m told they’ve been talking off and on since last year. I can see why; he’s real cute and kinda sexy. Oh yeah, and Duncan called me. Said to tell you, ‘Happy birthday’. He figured you were occupied with being the host and all.”
J.J. side-eyed Marnie as she rubbed moisturizing cream into her face. “How are you talking to Duncan, and Chance was on you all night like a bad heat rash? You’d have a fit on him for talking to some girl on the phone while he was with you.”
“First of all,“ Marnie began with a dramatic neck roll for emphasis, “Duncan called me for you. Secondly, I had the phone on silent. When it buzzed, I checked it on the low, saw it was Duncan, excused myself saying I had to go to the bathroom, and went in the pool house with my key. I only called him right back ‘cause I figured it had to be important for him to be phoning so late and knowing I was at the party. It’s not like I took the call right there in front of Chance. That would have been dumb and clueless, something that a guy might do and get cussed out over. I’m discreet with my stuff.”
“Wonder what or who Chance has been ‘discreet’ with that you don’t know about?”
Marnie had pocketed the comb and was unscrewing the bottle of clear topcoat she had exchanged it for. “He better not be doing a damn thing that I might find out about. That’s all I have to say about that.”
J.J. snickered. A sure double standard, but this time one with which she didn’t have much trouble digesting.
She got up to pull back the bed covers. Third moved with her and made his adjustments, finally curling up at the foot of the bed. “You’re a mess, Marn. I’ll call Duncan back tomorrow and thank him for thinking about me.”
“You talk to Chase about Tommy?” Marnie held up a freshly lacquered set of fingers to examine them. “So how did it happen that he and Chase wound up coming here together? Is Tommy home for good? It hasn’t been a whole year yet. His program was supposed to be for a year.”
J.J. climbed into the bed and pulled up the covers, folding them back and smoothing them over her midsection. “He said Tommy called him yesterday and told him to pick him up from the airport. He wanted it to be a surprise, so he swore Chase to secrecy. Chase met him when his plane came in. They dropped off his luggage, switched the car for the bike, and came here. Chase gave that information up to me on his own; I didn’t really ask him a whole lot. Guess I might have still been a little out of it. I’m surprised you didn’t interrogate him.”
Marnie blew on her fingertips. “I figured you would.”
J.J. twisted around to fluff and rearrange the pillows behind her. “Besides, he was too busy noticing and trying to hit on Tina to go into too much depth with me about Tommy. I’m so glad she came this time.”
“Me, too. Cute outfit she had on. Looked like she had a good time. Her and Chase, eh? Interesting.”
“She’s not thinking about him. Chase is a kid compared to her.”
“So you say. She only older by a year. He’s male. She’s female. He’s cute. She’s cute. He’s single. She’s-”
J.J.’s phone buzzed on the nightstand, and she picked it up. “Tommy. Wonder what he wants this late- early- whatever?”
Marnie got up from the chair. “I’m out then. He’s not calling for nothing. You two have a lot to get caught up on. Tell him I said to have a good night.”
As J.J. clicked in, Marnie left the way she arrived, through the bathroom.
A short time later, hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants pulled on over her nightgown, J.J. crept down the back staircase and left the house via the den door.
Bill had stepped outside onto the Hart’s guest house portico. Ready for bed, wrapped in his robe, he decided to partake of a final cocktail and cigar in the refreshingly cool, night air.
It was a lot quieter out there than it had been a little over an hour or so before. The rows of parked vehicles and their occupants were gone, the music silenced, lights dimmed back to normal. The serenity and comforting pastoral ambiance he so enjoyed when visiting Jonathan’s estate had returned.
Over in front of the house sat J.J.’s glistening new Mustang. All the other cars in residence, including his and Pat’s rental, had been put away for the party.
A fine auto indeed. Suited her to a T. Pat told him it was gift to J.J. from Jennifer. Surely that was going to come with some serious “Hart”strings attached. Without a car, the girl was all over the place; the Mustang was going to open a whole new world of possibilities for that one.
Good thing she’s a good, level-headed kid... with a healthy regard for her mother.
He drained the glass and set it down next to his feet. Then he lit the cigar. Placing the panetella to his lips, he leaned into the nearby pillar, inhaling deeply and releasing the fragrant smoke ever so slowly. The Harts had a wonderful spread; he always enjoyed his time there.
Pat had already turned in. Typical. Once she was down, she slept like a rock, no matter what. After a night of good company, lots of laughter, assorted entertainment, way too much to eat and drink, along with some last-minute unexpected excitement, even after a shower, he found himself still a little wired and restless. He hoped once he finished the cigar and went back inside, maybe watching some late night/early morning TV would soon lull his system into compliance.
Something or somebody moving, off in the distance on the other side of the main house, caused him to train his sights in that direction.
A hooded figure moving kind of fast up the driveway, in his direction.
It wasn’t security, who he figured might be finishing up on the grounds; he had seen two uniforms out there walking when he first came outside. Every one of that team was in uniforms or casual suits, except for the lady that headed up security for HartToy, and that wasn’t her. Too thin, and wrong outfit. Chris Allen had been dressed in an 80’s biker girl getup.
Whoever it was first went to the new car and appeared to quickly check it out before darting over to one of the golf carts parked on the other side of the drive and starting it up. Instinct moved him behind the pillar he had been leaning on, which allowed him to get a better look at the driver without being seen himself when the vehicle passed by.
He wasn’t surprised to see it was J.J. behind the wheel, whizzing around the curve and onto the bridge road.
… and you bought this one a car of her own…
Although he was curious about where his goddaughter might be headed and if her parents knew she was outside, he took solace in the reality that she couldn’t be going too far; she had opted for a golf cart rather than that brand new Mustang. And security was still on the grounds, most certainly down at the gate. They would see her before she could get out, if that was her intent.
Bill took a few more leisurely minutes to finish the cigar. Then he picked up his glass and returned to the house. Inside, he switched on the television in the front room and planted himself in a spot near the window to keep an eye on the driveway and the front of the main house. J.J. Hart had twenty minutes to make it back before got in that other golf cart and went looking for her.
Or worse, twenty minutes before he woke up Pat to alert her to her goddaughter being out and about on the grounds at almost three in the morning.
Jonathan, sitting on the side of the bed, bath towel still wrapped about his waist, was lotioning his arms and ignoring his chest discomfort when the phone console on the night table began to flash. It was the front gate, but a call rather than a gate entry signal. He wiped his hands on the towel and picked up the receiver.
“It’s okay,” he said in confirmation after listening to the message. He thanked Lamb for letting him know and hung up, thinking to himself, “Smart to call ahead; obviously hasn’t forgotten the setup here.”
Weird. Definitely out of place, especially for that one. But given recent developments, he kind of understood.
…but twenty minutes is all I’m giving this.
Jennifer entered the room from where he’d left her in the bathroom blow-drying her hair after they had been unsuccessful in keeping it from getting drenched in the shower. Truthfully, that had mostly been his fault, but she offered. Who was he to turn her down?
He inwardly shuddered at the delightfully sensuous memory as he watched her pass him to go around the bed. She removed her robe and picked up his pajama top, which he earlier left on the pillow for her.
“Tommy’s on his way over here,” he said, going back to finishing up on his arms. “Lamb just phoned to clear it with me.”
Her fingers froze on that first button. “Tommy? Over here? At this hour? For what?”
He had risen from the bed to discard the towel and pull on the pajama bottoms. He turned around to give her his best, “Puh- lease,” look.
“Okay, okay, dumb question,” she conceded, “but it is three in the morning. Does she know?”
“Darling, why else would he be coming, if he hasn’t already talked with her? He wouldn’t be out of the blue, randomly ringing the bell, risking having to come through me- or God forbid, you– to see her, particularly at this time of the morning.”
“I see he had the presence of mind to let security- August, with whom he is well acquainted- know that he was on his way, so he could get in on a little more of the up and up.”
“Knowing my daughter and given that it’s Tommy, I’m pretty sure he was going to get in without a problem anyway.” Jonathan glanced at the clock and went around the bed to the windows overlooking the drive. “They have twenty minutes from the time he makes it up here, then he’s getting put out.”
“I thought that was your boy?”
“Not at three-something in the morning, coming to see my daughter, he isn’t.”
He positioned himself to be able to see when the visitor arrived and to keep his wife from seeing him rub at his chest, that burp he squelched tasting bitterly of chili and onions.
Damned gas. Every single time.
Jennifer finished buttoning the top, but she put the robe back on over it.
It wasn’t until the end of that last bend in the road that J.J. realized in her rush to get out of the house undetected, she had not considered the possible kinks in her plan. To her dismay, the gates were open ahead, a golf cart was parked at the entrance, and a few figures moved around in the booth area.
Security was still present.
She had counted on using the manual controls to silently admit Tommy when he arrived.
“Oh well. Can’t go back now.”
Getting closer, she felt a little better to see it was Mr. Lamb and Ms. Chris with a couple of the uniforms; Mr. Lamb knew Tommy, and Ms. Chris was cool.
It did surprise her, though, that they didn’t appear all that shocked to see it was her driving out onto the apron and over to the grass. Oddly, the looks she got from them seemed more like they expected her.
“You should be asleep,” was all Chris said as she arrived at the cart before J.J. could switch it off and get out, “After the busy, trying night you’ve had.”
“I’m good,” J.J. said. It was all she had at that moment. She didn’t feel like talking, and what else was there to say without going into possibly incriminating detail?
“Your parents know you’re down here?” Mr. Lamb asked from where he remained on the driveway.
Before she could answer, a set of headlights approached on the road. The three of them watched as they turned in. The two uniforms started toward it, but Mr. Lamb signaled them back.
J.J. immediately recognized the Lexus. “It’s Tommy,” she said to no one in particular.
The anticipated outraged interrogation didn’t come. Instead, when the car came to a stop, and Tommy lowered his window, he shook hands and shared greetings with Mr. Lamb. The older man had gone right to the car, appearing not the least bit surprised to see it was Tommy behind the wheel.
“Go on and ride back with your friend,” Chris said, taking her by the arm to help her from the driver’s seat. “We’ll get this one back up to the house, too, when we’re finished out here.”
J.J. climbed out, suspicious of the calm of the two adults, but eager to get to Tommy. By the time she made it around to the passenger’s door, Mr. Lamb was on that side, holding it open for her. She slid in, and he closed it behind her.
Mr. Lamb went back around to the driver’s side window. “Don’t be too long,” he said to Tommy. “You know, I kind of like my job.”
“Got you,” Tommy assured him and pulled off.
It had been almost a year since she and Tommy had been together in person or even spoken to each other directly before that night. She hadn’t had so much as an email from him since New Year’s Day even though she had written him several times while he was in Spain. Why should she be speaking to him now? And risking it like this to do it? He said on the phone that he needed to talk. It had been her idea for him to come over and do it in person rather than over the phone, but in hindsight, did he deserve her time like this? And sneaking him in like this to do it? Was she going too easy on him? In her opinion, women tended to go too easy on guys, and guys were too used to being able to do whatever they wanted when it came to women. Why should he be any different? After all, he was a guy.
She glanced over at Tommy only to find him doing the same to her.
“You feeling okay now?” he asked. “I’ve been worried about you ever since-”
Deliberately averting her eyes from his, she cut in, “I’m fine. It was a temporary thing. Keep your eyes on the road; you know it twists again right up ahead. You didn’t ‘borrow’ the car from your mother, did you?”
He chuckled at the question. “Nah. I told her I needed to get some air, and she let me have it. The Tercel and my bike are in storage.”
She looked back over to him. “Did you tell her you were coming here to get the air?”
He gave her that, “Come on, now,” undereye look and smiled. She relaxed. It was good to have him home.
In the guest house window, Bill kept watch on the driveway. After not too long a white car appeared and rolled past. He had to rise completely from the chair and crane his neck some to follow it around the bend and see where it ended up. It stopped behind the Mustang and the lights turned off.
Two people got out. A tall somebody on the driver’s side. A young man. And J.J.
The two of them first went to the new car, walked around it, opened the doors and stuck their heads inside before closing the vehicle up again. Then they crossed the driveway and disappeared down the stairs leading to the pond.
Bill clicked in to start the timer on his watch.
Jennifer came back into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. “She’s not in her room.”
Jonathan maintained his window surveillance of the outside. He spoke without turning around. “Told you she knew he was coming.”
In the distance, headlight beams lit up the bridge road, the source of which turned out to be a white Lexus. It cruised the curve and pulled in behind the new car.
Jennifer joined him. “I’ll bet you she’s probably downstairs, waiting to let him in, thinking- hoping we’re asleep.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
The car doors opened, and two figures emerged from either side.
“Jonathan, how in the world did she get into the car? She is supposed to be up here, in her room, in the bed.”
“There were two carts parked out there when I came up,” he said, pointing a finger to the lone golf cart at the opposite curb. “We were in the back, so we wouldn’t have heard the door alarm when she lit out. She probably drove down to the gate in the cart to let him in manually-she could circumvent a gate alarm that way. Most likely, she didn’t count on security still being out front. Makes sense that she left the cart down there and drove back up with him.”
Either Tommy was interested in the Mustang, or J.J. wanted to show it off because they both spent a few minutes inspecting it, inside and out.
“Are you going down to find out what’s going on?” Jennifer asked. “Or should I?”
He shook his head. “Not just yet, darling. If he’s here like this, risking it like he has to know he is, there must be something that really needs to be discussed in person between them. I’ll give it a little time and then go down there if it looks like it’s taking too long.”
The two kids left the car, crossed to the other side to go through the privet and down the stairs, leaving their sights. Mentally, Jonathan gave J.J. a grudging bit of credit for not bringing her male guest into the house.
“See, this is why she’s falling out the way she is,” Jennifer fussed. “Always pushing, always into something, running around all day, skulking around all night, doing whatever she wants, not getting her proper rest.”
Jonathan wound an arm around her waist and led her away from the window. “At least we know where they are. Twenty minutes, sweetheart, then I’ll go down and see what’s going on.”
Once they reached the bottom of the stairs, J.J. went to the closest bench and sat down. Tommy continued down to the water’s edge to gaze out over the lamplit expanse.
“I almost forgot how nice it is here,” he said after a few moments.
He turned around to J.J. “The last time I was out here at night was when we were looking for Deon and Charmaine’s little cousin. We saw the one boat was overturned, couldn’t find her, and thought she had drowned. I was so scared.”
J.J. slowly shook her head at the memory. “I remember. I was frantic, too. Haven’t asked to have a sleepover since that night. I’m pretty sure, as far as my mother is concerned, aside from Marnie being here, that was the last sleepover party ever for me until I have kids of my own.”
“Your mother gave everybody hell and then sent us home.”
He turned back to face the water. “This is really something, J. Simply beautiful. I always thought this- heck, everything about your home- was awesome. I think I appreciate it even more now.”
J.J. wondered about that last statement as she sat observing him.
Tommy seemed a little taller than she remembered. Bigger maybe- no sturdier- somehow. A lot more tanned. His hair was a lot longer, too, but then he had been away from his mother all those months. He always preferred growing it out, but when he was living at home, Mrs. Steele insisted he keep it a lot shorter, making him get it cut when she felt he was trying to grow it out on the sly. Eventually, it had to be kept shorter for wrestling and swim competition when he had been on the teams. But he had given all that up when he decided to leave for Spain. However, he didn’t look any worse for having done so.
And she really did like the longer hair on him.
Tommy turned back around and came to the bench where he finally sat down.
“So, what’s with the hood, J.? You didn’t cut your hair, did you?”
She had forgotten about the hood. On the inside, she laughed at how they were both thinking about each other’s hair. “Of course not,” she said.
She pushed it off, pulled out the braid captured inside the back of the jacket, and flipped it to the front of her shoulder. “I had just washed my hair and only did a half-way job of drying it because I thought I was going to bed. Then you called. I wasn’t sure how cool it was going to be out here when I said I’d meet you.”
“I told you it could have waited. You sure you’re feeling okay? How is your anemia? Have you been taking your meds like you’re supposed to? I wouldn’t want you getting sick on my account. I know you get colds kind of easily, too.”
“Now who died and made you my father, Tommy Steele? I told you I feel fine. And on that note, how is your mother? I heard she had some sort of episode. That’s why you didn’t stay.”
“I really hate I missed the party. Didn’t even get to meet Ivy League.”
“I’m sorry you missed the party, too. Everybody was asking where you went. And Ted-dy didn’t come. He stayed in Boston because he’s working on an important final project, a requirement for his graduation that’s coming up in a few weeks.”
Tommy said, “That’s too bad,” but it didn’t sound like he thought it was.
“So, J. I heard you’ve been on the wild. How you stole your mother’s car last weekend, and about your side trip to New York when you and Ivy League were supposed to be at his prom.”
J.J. closed her eyes and exhaled. The boy had only been back in town for a minute, and already he was in her business.
“My, my, my, such loose lips somebody has,” she said after processing her thoughts. “Now how in the world did Chase fit all that in on a trip from the airport? He talks way too much.”
“He knew I would want to be filled in on your adventures.”
“Whatever. I have a good mind to leave him hanging on his prom next week like his first prom date did. And I did not steal the car. I had a legitimate emergency.”
“Yeah, I heard. Daria. Okay, I get that. But you did sneak and go to New York on a plane with Ivy League and his crew and got busted. I’m surprised you’re still alive behind that one. I would have thought your mother would have guillotined you by now. Or at least had you held prisoner up in the bloody tower or something.”
J.J. waved a hand. “Nah, that would have been too easy. I’m sure she has some other, more creative retribution lined up for me. She’s had a good while to think of something to do to me. I’ve been waiting on it ever since we got back from Boston.”
She reached out and poked a finger to Tommy’s knee. “But your mother, I asked you. How is she?”
Tommy crossed one long leg over the over, sat back against the bench, and took his time answering the question.
After a long pause, he admitted, “She’s okay. Once we got her home, Fee fixed her some tea and made her stay still. I guess I caught my mom way off guard showing up like I did. I didn’t know she would be here at your house. She wasn’t expecting me to be home tonight at all. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other in the flesh.”
He took her hand, the one resting on her thigh, and gently squeezed it in his. “I missed you, J.”
“Yeah, an awful lot.”
“Then how come you didn’t write to me more often? Or call? I wrote to you all the time. I started to put your butt on ice.”
He smiled shyly, briefly flashing those distinctive dimples. “No, you didn’t. Not me. Not my butt.”
“And why not you and your behind, Tommy Steele? You and it can go on ice just like anybody else I get the impression is taking me for granted. Answer my question.”
“I’d never take you for granted, J. You know that. There is- was just a whole lot going on; it was so ha- I was so overwh- I just really had to stay focused.”
He released her hand but inclined his upper body a bit more in her direction. “J., I have so much to tell you, but most of that’s for later. We don’t have a whole lot of time right now. Somebody in the house is bound to figure out you’re gone and come looking for you. God help us if it’s your mother. You said she’s got it out for you right now, and I don’t think I’ve ever been too high on her list. Look, I do have a question for you, though. It’s really what I wanted to talk to you about.”
The change in his facial expression and tone was unmistakable, and the triggered concern tipped her head to one side. “What’s the matter?”
“Why didn’t you tell me about my mother and Marcus?”
The million-dollar question containing the answer. So, there was something to the two of them. It took everything she had to play it cool.
“What about them?”
Tommy closed his eyes and dropped his head. “Don’t, J. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Honestly, I don’t, Tommy. What about them?”
He opened his eyes and raised them to stare into her face for a few uncomfortable moments, seemingly studying her. In challenge, still struggling to maintain her feigned objectivity, she returned the stare.
“Okay then,” he finally said. “What did you suspect about them?”
“How would I be suspecting anything about your mother and Uncle Marcus when I don’t know anything.”
“Uh-huh, I heard that,” he exclaimed, pointing a finger at her. “You may not know anything, but for sure you suspected something. I knew something was up when you didn’t answer me that time I emailed you about it. You forget, I know you and have been running close to you for years, so I’m very clued in on how you operate. I haven’t been gone that long. You’re good and nosy. If you didn’t already have a line on something going on with them, you would have been all over me with the reply questions once I brought it up. But all I got from you was dead silence. Not a peep. Straight crickets. That told me you had at least a crumb of information that you were holding out on me over.”
She sighed, dropping her shoulders and head, then attempted to sound annoyed. “Boy, just tell me what’s going on with them.”
“You first, girl.”
Despite the tension of the moment, she had to admit to herself that it was amusing the way he had always been able to read her and more than most people outside of her mother, back her into giving herself up.
“Okay. Okay. I don’t know if this was anything, but I was at Hart early last fall, showing Teddy around the building. This was before your email. We were up on, I think, the seventh floor, over the atrium, and I saw the two of them at a table, way off to the side. It was late, after hours. Most of the shops were closing or already closed and most of the people were gone home. I thought it a little odd that they were there, together by themselves at that time of day. They looked like they were just talking at first, but then they held hands. I got out of there when I saw that.”
“Why? What was it about what you saw that made you take off?”
“It was like it was something I shouldn’t be seeing OR be reporting out to anybody on. I’ve been raised to stay out of grown people’s business, so I left it alone. For all I knew, they could have just been helping each other with a problem, talking business or something; I didn’t know for sure.”
“But what was it about it that made you want to get out of there?”
“Nothing bad, Tommy. Just the vibe I got, I guess. All I knew was it wasn’t my affair.” She leaned in to him to whisper, “Are they having an affair?”
“They’re getting married.”
Stunned, J.J. bolted upright. “Wow! I sure didn’t see that coming.”
“Yeah well, she’s already submitted her resignation from Hart. He’s bought a house out in the Palisades. They were planning to come to Spain at the end of the month to tell me about it, but it worked out that I got here first.”
For J.J. the pieces thunked neatly, solidly into place. “No wonder your mother had that bad reaction on the porch. She wasn’t ready.”
Pieces still dropping, it dawned on her why Tommy might really have reached out to her with that early morning phone call. “Are you okay with this? I mean, it’s always been just you and your mother for your whole life.”
“I guess,” he said, sitting back from her to slump against the bench arm on his side. “Like I told you, I had a feeling something was up with them based on a couple things my grandmother said when she came to see me on one of her visits. You know Fee, she’s a good cushion for stuff. Come to find out tonight that my mother and Marcus have been seeing each other for some time now, even before I left; I just didn’t know. My mother is real private about that sort of thing. She has never had so much as a boyfriend that I ever knew anything about. Always said she was too busy with school and work to be bothered with one.”
“Well, that had to have been quite a sacrifice on her part, Tommy. Especially when you figure in her having had you when she was only eighteen. The good thing about this is it’s not like it’s a stranger, some out-of-the-blue guy she just sprung on you. You told me yourself that part of your deciding to go to Spain was so your mother could get a life. Well, it looks like she got one. At least it’s with somebody you know and like and who likes you.”
When he didn’t say anything to that, just kept sitting there, she stopped talking, as well. She could only watch him, not quite sure what else to do, but certain that in his place she might be messed up, too, no matter who it was that was changing her family dynamic. Tommy had only had his mother his entire life. no other relatives that he knew of. It turned out he did have a father, but he didn’t know it until the man was dead, and then, of course, it was too late for them. He now had a grandmother, but she couldn’t replace what Tommy had lost.
That thought reignited that smoldering ember of irritation she harbored for Tommy’s mother for keeping quiet with him about his father. Now here she was doing the same with her fiancé, even it was Uncle Marcus. Those kinds of things shouldn’t be all of a sudden heaped on a person as she had done and seemed to be still doing with her son.
Before he left for Spain, Tommy admitted that he was wrestling with some resentment toward his mother over how she handled the issue of his father; she always told him his father was dead when he was actually very much alive. She apologized to him, explaining that she did it to protect herself from his father’s family and to keep Tommy, her only child and family, from possibly being taken away from her. He said he understood, but….
Was this situation yet another stake in Tommy’s heart?
When she looked up again, Tommy was just sitting there, silent. With his head down as it was, his hair obscured his face from her. Lost for words, a growing sense of helplessness overtaking her, she slid over to lay her head on his shoulder. She felt him pull out the arm pinched between them and put it around her shoulders.
He pressed a kiss to her forehead before telling her, “Happy birthday, J.”
Then he rested his head on hers.
Upon crossing the threshold of the front door and stepping out onto the front porch, Jonathan realized it felt much cooler outside than when he had earlier come in. Attributing some of the chill to his recent shower and current attire, he turned up the collar on his robe and folded one of the lapels across his bare chest. Then he closed the door behind himself.
Moving between the two parked cars, he had just stepped out into the driveway when he detected someone approaching on his left. It was Bill, dressed in his robe, coming from the guest house; he stopped to wait.
“Where you headed?” he asked when Bill made it over to him.
Bill returned the question. “Where are you headed?”
“Probably the same place you are.” Jonathan jerked a thumb toward the gap in the privet where the stairs were. Down there?”
Bill grinned. “Yeah.”
“So, you saw them, too,” Jonathan concluded.
“Actually, I saw her first. I was out on the porch having a last drink and a smoke when she came from around the far side of the house dressed in a hoodie and some sweats. Jumped in the golf cart and took off toward the gate. I knew Lamb was still on the grounds and if not him, then somebody would still be down there, so she couldn’t go too far without being seen. Not too long after, she and the boy came back in the Lexus. I saw them go down the stairs. I set the watch for twenty minutes. Now I’m here.”
Jonathan nodded. “I did, too. Tommy did have sense enough to let Lamb know he was on his way before he showed up. Lamb called me to get clearance for him. Jennifer and I were in the window when the two of them made it back up here, and we saw them when they went down the stairs. That twenty minutes I gave them is up.”
He clapped Bill on the shoulder. “Look, I’ve got this. You go on to bed. Since he’s here, I need to talk to Tommy anyway.”
“Don’t be too hard on him, Valentine. Remember, we were once seventeen going on eighteen, too.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the part that keeps me nervous.”
They shook hands and Bill went back the way he had come.
Jonathan crossed the drive and started down the stairs, last-minute hoping he wasn’t walking into something he didn’t really want to see. It was Tommy and J.J. Just good friends.
Like a brother to her.
Who knew with teenaged kids? A boy and a girl, good friends who hadn’t seen each other in almost a year.
Not my girl.
He’s not crazy.
Nothing at all to worry about.
From the bottom step, he panned the immediate area and noticed the occupied bench to his right. As he walked toward it, he noted the two people there were huddled together, so engaged in whatever they were doing or talking about that neither of them picked up on his approaching presence, even after he cleared his throat one time in warning.
Standing right over J.J. and Tommy, he realized why that was.
They were both sound asleep.
When Jonathan went downstairs, Jennifer remained stationed at the bedroom window. The lamp had been switched off to make it easier to see outside without being detected. Not that she had any reason to hide; it simply made it easier to observe and process the dark-of-night activity below.
There was no stopping that girl. She was like that Energizer bunny once featured in battery commercials on television- just kept going and going and going until she wore herself completely out and fell over because there was nothing left to run on.
And the child had no fear, a personality trait absolutely inherited from her father. But J.J. was a girl child, and females had a lot more to be wary about in that world that was increasingly opening itself to her. Couple that with the inherited curiosity and sense of adventure. Admirable qualities, but it was so hard getting that one to accept that she wasn’t as invincible as her spirit would have her believe. As the mother, that aspect of the daughter had always been nerve-wrecking.
And speaking of nerve….
… after three in the morning… already in hot water… yet down there, outside when she should be in bed where I sent her, sneaking a boy in….
Where does it end?
But then, that was Tommy Steele she had secreted past the gates. J.J. wasn’t boy-crazy like a lot of her contemporaries, but when that boy came into her picture, all normal bets were off. This wasn’t Tommy’s first time being smuggled in after hours by his ponytailed buddy. Evidently, he was worth taking serious risks for that she might otherwise have passed on.
He always had been.
After his “shower”, Jonathan should have been asleep; however, that phone call from the gate had him up and waiting by the window until the set amount of time passed. Then he insisted upon going downstairs alone. She hadn’t offered any resistance on that. It wasn’t a job that required two people, and she figured he likely wanted a few minutes one-on-one with Tommy once he dispatched his daughter back to her bedroom. It wouldn’t be to chastise Tommy for being there so much as it would be to get into the boy’s head.
If Tommy was there for the reason she thought he was, then he might very well need to speak with a trusted, more objective authority figure. Jonathan had proven himself a wonderful mentor and strong source of constructive support to young people struggling with something. He and Tommy had, over the years, established a unique bond.
Underneath the window, Jonathan stepped out from between the two cars. He had gone a few steps along the privet hedge on the other side of the drive when he stopped, only to be joined by someone else out there in a bathrobe.
For a second, it struck her as odd that Bill would just happen to be out there wandering about at that odd time. Then it just as quickly registered that he, too, must have seen the kids and was also on his way down the stairs to the pond.
That realization had her thanking the heavens that it hadn’t been Pat who spotted them. Pat must have been asleep while Bill was up prowling around. How embarrassing might that have been for J.J. had it been Patricia (No-Filter) Hamilton, who caught sight of her goddaughter slipping off alone in the dark with Tommy?
Jennifer softly laughed at the thought.
… no better for you had if it been Pat.
Justine Hart had so many guardian angels, whether she appreciated them for keeping a vigilant eye on her or not. It was for sure she needed and would continue to require comprehensive coverage from every single one of them.
… little slick minx….
… but if I’m being honest, if only with myself- and Fee-, you got it honestly.
The two men spoke and walked away from the house together. She saw Jonathan go down the stairs alone.
… the time she caught J.J. and Tommy in the gazebo, kissing. J.J. swore it had only been a practice kiss just to see how it felt….
Back then, her conclusion had been that kissing was “gross”.
Another in a long list of ‘slip off and have an adventure’ episodes with that girl. She and Tommy had been twelve when that happened. And now….
This is why that was definitely a dream you had this morning, Jonathan Hart. If in the recesses of that fertile mind, you have been considering a “What if…” scenario, this is proof positive that there is no way in the world I would have attempted to raise your daughter by myself. That girl most certainly needs her Daddy.
… as did this one….
Caught up in her thoughts, she didn’t notice the threesome emerge from the privet until they were almost at the cars, Jonathan with an arm around J.J. and Tommy walking next to them. They bypassed the Lexus and slipped, one by one, between it and the Mustang, first J.J., then Tommy, with Jonathan following the two of them. The console flashed unseen before beeping once on the nightstand to announce a breach of the front door.
She turned away from the window and slid her feet into the slippers on her side of the bed.
At seventeen, J.J. Hart was proving to be intelligent, spirited, talented and attractive, too; however, her mother was very much alive and very much “all up in” her life.
Back inside the house, at the foot of the main stairs, J.J. parted from her father and her friend.
“Good night, Tommy. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
He offered a weak wave in response.
She started up the stairs as she had been instructed to do, at the same time watching her father escort Tommy into the great room.
He had startled them awake on the bench by the water. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to be upset about the situation like a lot of fathers might have been. In fact, he came off as more concerned about how tired they appeared to be to him.
On the silent walk back to the house, she had given it some thought.
Daddy had to know why Tommy would be there at that odd time. He had to know what was going on with Mrs. Steele and Uncle Marcus. After all, Tommy said his mother had submitted her resignation to Hart Industries to avoid a conflict of interest. Uncle Marcus was Hart Industries’ board chairman. There was no way Daddy would be in the dark about what was going in between those two. Uncle Marcus was like Daddy’s younger brother, and if he was getting married, for sure he had shared that information with his older pseudo-sibling.
And that was most likely why Daddy told Tommy to come into the house instead of questioning his presence and sending him home to his mother right away. That was a good thing. Tommy needed to talk with someone. A trusted, mature, guy perspective. Daddy would probably be able to help Tommy a whole lot more than she had been able to do.
Nearing the top of the stairs, the closed doors to her parents’ room came into view.
She must be asleep. Otherwise she would be out here, waiting, trying to see what was going on with me and wanting to know where I’ve been.
For sure the Duchess was tired. The birthday parties took a lot to put together, and she was a perfectionist when it came to their execution. Because so much went into them, the crash was understandable once those events were over. That was true for everybody involved, but it was her mother who put in the most work.
Good thing she’s down for the count. I am way too tired right now for any mama drama.
Going left at the landing, she pushed open her own bedroom door.
At the sound of someone on the staircase, Jennifer moved the dog from her lap to the floor.
She readjusted her robe securely over her bare legs before crossing them and settling in.
Seated in the armchair on the opposite side, she was the first thing J.J. saw when she opened her bedroom door. Wide-eyed at the sight of her mother, she stopped short and clutched hard at her chest.
As if he sensed trouble, Third darted across the room, brushed past his girl, and disappeared into the hallway. It was all Jennifer could do to stay serious in the face of the two reactions. The dog had excellent instincts, and it was always gratifying to catch off balance his partner-in-crime.
“Jeez, Mom,” J.J. wheezed, “you scared the life out me.”
“Apparently somebody needs to,” was Jennifer’s dry reply.
J.J. pushed herself off the door, closed it, and pointedly avoiding eye contact, proceeded over to the side of her bed. She tugged the hoodie off over her head and pulled out the rest of the long nightgown stuffed into those baggy sweatpants.
“I’m so happy to see you were prudent enough to put something on over your night clothes this time. Not to mention your having the good sense to put something on your arms before going out in the night air.”
No response from the bedside.
“How are you feeling, Justine?”
J.J. kept her back to her. “I’m fine.”
Fed by the anticipated defensiveness she thought she could hear, Jennifer pressed on. “Where in the world have you been?”
Grabbing the pants at the knees, J.J. pulled them down, sat on the bed to kick them off, and carefully folded both pieces on her lap before she spoke again.
“I was outside. Talking with Tommy.”
“It is going on four in the morning. That conversation couldn’t have waited until later today? Whatever it was couldn’t have been handled in a phone call for now?”
“He wanted to talk on the phone, but I told him to come over.”
J.J. rose from the bed and took the sweatsuit over to the desk where she placed it on the chair.
To Jennifer’s surprise, instead of defensively returning to the bed as she expected, J.J. came over and sat down on the hassock, right at her knees.
“I know you’re mad at me, Mom,” she quietly began, eyes in her lap as her fingers began twisting at that emerald ring. “Go ahead and let me have it. I’ve been waiting for you to do it. I deserve it… and I’m sorry.”
It would have been easy to think that as a typical teenager, she was playing for sympathy, but J.J. had never been one for games in this type of situation, especially not when she was in it with her mother.
Jennifer studied that bowed red head for a long moment before responding.
“I was angry, Justine. I’m not anymore.”
She looked her daughter over a few moments more, which allowed time for that last thing to fully register. “What exactly is it that you’re sorry about? For going to New York on a plane without permission?”
J.J shook her head.
Jennifer sat forward a little. “For getting caught there?”
J.J. finally raised her head but spoke without looking to her. “For worrying you. I’m sorry I made you mad and that I worried you. I know you don’t like for me to be out of place, but-”
Her eyes dropped back to her lap.
Shifting her shoulders as if it pained her to give herself up, she muttered, “I really wanted to go. I didn’t want to be left behind while they- I wanted to see Teddy perform for real, in an actual music venue, not just at a wedding or at home.”
There was more; Jennifer sensed the holding out, and she wasn’t having it. “And?”
J.J. sighed. “Okay, okay. And I wanted to know what it felt like to be able to do whatever I wanted to. I wanted to know what it felt like to be totally on my own for a whole night.”
There it was. Out in the open.
“Would it surprise you, Justine, if I told you I understood?”
The head whipped around and for the first time, J.J. looked her in the eye. “Huh?”
Jennifer slowly nodded. “I do understand.”
Then she leaned forward even more to hold up one index finger. “Now that is not to say you were right in what you did; do not get it confused. You were as wrong as a narrow-sized left shoe on a wide and swollen right foot. You did anger and worry me, but more than that, you put yourself in a very bad place.”
“You mean with that guy trying to get in the room?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Had you been where you were supposed to be, that couldn’t have happened.”
“But I was ready for him. You saw me. I had the mace and the flashlight. All I had to do was-”
“Get beaten, raped, or killed, Justine. That’s what you could have done. You were in the wrong spot in the room to adequately defend yourself. You were across the room with your back to the wall. All he had to do was rush you, and you would have been completely defenseless.”
“Not if I had maced him before he got to me.”
“Where you were positioned, he would have seen you raise the bottle, taken the opportunity to deflect from it, rushed and pinned you before you had the chance to do anything with that flashlight. He had the weight and the lust advantage, Justine.”
“Lust advantage?” The color drained from J.J.’s already too-pale complexion.
Jennifer watched her daughter’s face as the wheels whirred inside that young head, flashing that scenario in the green room from a few nights before, and that quick, fertile mind registered what could have been.
J.J. turned all the way around to her. “Then where should I have been, Mom?”
Jennifer leaned further forward, close to J.J.’s face to assert, “In Boston, if you really want to know.”
When J.J. flinched, she sat back again. “But since weren’t, since you put yourself in harm’s way, I’ll tell you. You should have been at the door, squeezed to the right of it, positioned so that just as he cracked it open, you could have sprayed him right in his eyes. Caught off guard and, hopefully, momentarily blinded, in reflex he would have recoiled, and his hands would have gone to his face. That would have given you the chance to get past him and out of the door or to club him with the flashlight, if needed, and when he went down, clear the door.”
J.J.’s brow puckered as her head slowly tipped to one side. “Have you done this before?”
Jennifer closed her eyes.
She reopened them to find J.J., head in the same position, face bearing the same expression, staring at her.
“We are not talking about me, Justine Hart. Stay focused. Do you understand what I told you about what you should have done?”
But the remaining aura of skepticism wafting from her said J.J. Hart still had questions about her mother’s knowledge- and perhaps experience- bank that were more than likely being filed away for a future, less tenuous opportunity for discussion.
“You have always been one to wander, even when you were a baby, I had to keep a constant eye on you to keep you from getting hurt or from hurting yourself as you went wherever you wanted in your relentless quest to discover your world. Nothing about that has changed except the boundaries you keep pushing against and breaching. J.J., I understand your desire to do the things you want to do when you want to do them. I’ve been there and felt just as stifled as you likely feel, but at this point in your life it is our job as your parents to protect you from the craziness we know is out there.”
“I have a question for you.”
The minute stiffening of that body before her did not go unnoticed. Good instincts, that kid.
“I saw what you packed to take to Boston. I’ve figured it out that you had to have sent ahead the outfit you ended up in that night; you didn’t leave the suite with an overnight bag, and that jacket wasn’t in the suitcase you took. I’m guessing you mailed it to Teddy; that would be your M.O. But, just where did you change clothes? I doubt you came back to our hotel to do that.”
“Do I have to say?”
No denial on the outfit mailing; that detail did not go unnoted.
“If you ever want to drive that car out fr-”
“Alright, alright, alright,” J.J. hurriedly interjected, “but you’re gonna kill me.”
“Oh no, you don’t!” Noticing J.J.’s subtle attempt to inch a little farther away her, Jennifer latched on to J.J.’s forearm to keep her in place on the hassock and pulled her even closer before releasing her.
J.J. sighed as those nimble fingers resumed their fitful occupation with that emerald ring. “Well, see, Duncan’s father has part ownership in one of the hotels in Boston. Duncan has a room that he keeps for himself for when he’s in town- he goes there a lot for business and to hang out. He lent it to Teddy so we could all meet up there, change, and go to the airport.”
“Is that the ONLY reason he lent the room to Teddy?”
“The only, Mom. I told you, I’m not ready for any of that.”
“Did you tell Teddy that? Is that what Teddy told Duncan? How could you be sure that you hadn’t been set up by the two of them?”
“I don’t know what Teddy told Duncan. I just know it hasn’t come up with Teddy and me, but I’m sure he knows how I feel. He would have known for sure had he tried it. Duncan would have, too.”
“Again, you put yourself-” Jennifer stopped herself with a wave of her hand. “Never mind that; it’s done. So, you mean to tell me, you were in a hotel room, alone with two boys, . -”
“Please let me finish,” J.J. rushed to cut in, “Teddy and I went there after the prom just to change clothes. That’s all. I was in the bathroom with the door closed tight. He was out in the front room. Duncan showed up a little while later, after we were changed, and met us there.”
“So how did you get the catch on the dress unfastened by yourself?”
Another furrowed-brow look from J.J.
“Did you do something to it, Mom? I couldn’t get it open no matter how hard I tried.”
“It was a safety catch, Justine. You’re full up front and that bodice was fairly tight, so I had that catch put on the dress to keep it from coming loose accidentally… or otherwise… until you came home to me. So how did you get out of it?”
“I- I… I had Teddy take it apart.”
When Jennifer’s hand involuntarily shot to her forehead to smooth the lines of exasperation, she felt J.J. lean in and heard her tack on, “But that’s all, I swear. I went right back into the bathroom and closed the door.”
She felt the girl lean in ever further, as if trying to see underneath that hand still pressed to her head. “You gonna tell this part to Daddy?”
“Oh, hell no. I’m not telling him this. It would kill him for sure.”
“But I didn’t do anyth-”
“Just feral. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, girl. I thank God every day that you seem to have inherited your father’s ability to gauge character and motives. I could have used some of that at your age- in fact, even when I was much older.” Jennifer stopped and sighed before conceding, “You make me so crazy sometimes.”
“I don’t mean to, Mom. Honest. Things just happen sometimes. It’s not like I do it intentionally. How was I to know that Daddy was going to fly you all the way to New York, on the same night I went there, and pick that place to take you to for a date night?”
“You are missing every single salient point, Justine Jennifer Hart.”
“No, I’m not. I heard everything you said. I know what I did was not right. I know I should have been up front with you about what I had planned, but-
“You didn’t trust me enough to include me on it.”
“No, no, that wasn’t it,” J.J. said, shaking her head for emphasis. “I just couldn’t say anything because that would have outed Teddy.”
“Who also wasn’t right.”
“I know, but it was an opportunity he-”
“And because you didn’t want me to shut you down on going, which you know I would have done. That was dishonest, J.J., and had something untoward happened to you, how do you think we would have felt having to admit we had no idea where you were? Tell me this, if you, Teddy, and Duncan left from that hotel room, how did Mr. Baxter’s car, your dress and other things get back to our suite?”
“I guess Duncan arranged it, but I really can’t say; I didn’t ask. I was just glad it happened the way it did to keep from further complicating the matter.”
“The deceptions just keep coming.”
“Mom. I am so sorry. I really wasn’t thinking about any of what you said, and I should have been. I was so wrong, and I promise you I won’t do that again.”
“But you’ll do something else because that’s how you roll.”
Despite the seriousness of the moment, she heard J.J., choke back a chuckle before murmuring from behind the hand that flew to her mouth, “Dang, Mom. No, you didn’t say that.”
“Yes, I did. Now, you do know you will have to pay for this. Not that it will deter the behavior because it is obviously inherent in you. This is just some reverse quid pro quo, a little tit for tat on my part, if you will, because that is how I roll.”
“I do know,” J.J. said, both hands finally coming to full rest in her lap. “I’ve been waiting for it. Go ahead. Let me have it.”
“You may not drive your new car until after school on Friday.”
“What!” J.J. snapped to attention. “Not drive the car? Until Friday? After school? It’s Sunday. I have a new car that everybody knows I got for my birthday because they saw me get it, and I can’t drive it to school on Monday? How will I hold up my head?”
“You’re a quick study. I’m sure you’ll work that out.”
Deflated for a moment, J.J. recovered and snapped around again. “Hold on. Wait. I can’t drive my car until Friday after school? But we’re going to San Francisco for Chase’s prom right after school, and we’re staying for the whole weekend.”
“Fancy that,” Jennifer said with a wry smile.
“Awwwww, Mom! Nooooo. Not thissssss.”
“Oh yes, Justine, thissssss.”
J.J. hung her head. “It is what it is then, I guess. I imagine it would be wrong of me to renege on my prom date with Chase even though he would probably understand, stay home, and hang out with me in my beautiful new car.”
“And be all over the universe in it, which is exactly why both of you will be at his prom, inside the greater San Francisco area, and no farther than that, next weekend.”
“Yes, ma’am,” J.J. quietly acquiesced. But then she perked up, turning all the way around to lean forward and cozily rest her crossed arms on her mother’s legs. “Hey, mom, may I ask you a question?”
With the change in the look in her daughter’s eyes, tone, and demeanor, Jennifer warned, “Be careful, Justine. You are not completely out of the woods yet.”
“I know, I know. But this is about Tommy, not me.”
Jennifer thought she detected a loaded hook being lowered into the water but decided to sample the bait anyway. “What, child?”
“How come you didn’t ask me what Tommy wanted that he came over here like he did?”
“What is it you really want to know, Justine? It’s way too early for any cat and mouse.”
Called out on her attempt at caginess, J.J. smiled. “Okay, okay. So, like, did you know about his mother getting married to Uncle Marcus? Did you even know they were seeing each other? I mean, they had to have been hooking up for a while for them to be talking about getting married. Tommy said-”
Jennifer rose from the chair, unceremoniously dislodging J.J. from her lap, nearly sending to the floor. “It’s time for you to go to bed.”
“But, Mom,” she protested when taken by the forearm and elbow to be raised from the hassock.
“But, Mom, nothing,” Jennifer fussed as she led J.J. to the side of the bed and snatched back the covers. “Get in. You need your rest. Just got up from falling out at your party, in a world of trouble yourself, and here you are, trying to question me about someone else’s affairs-”
“That’s what I mean,” J.J. persisted as she slid into the bed, “Did you and Daddy know they were having an-”
With a tilt of the head and one raised eyebrow. Jennifer shut down the impertinent inquisition. Duly silenced, J.J. lay her head back on the pillows and allowed the covers to be pulled up to her chin.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, Justine. Maybe. But for now, you need to go to sleep. It’s late.”
J.J. turned over, onto her sleeping side, which put her back to her mother. “Okay then. Good night, Mom.”
Jennifer tucked the covers in behind her. For sure, that girl would be back with the questions, but for now, it really was late, and they both needed the bed.
“Good night, Justine, everything else aside, I hope you enjoyed your birthday party.”
She turned around to switch off the light on the night table and heard J.J. say through a yawn, “It was great, Mom. Thank you and Daddy. But the best thing about it is being back to talking with you again. I don’t like it when we don’t talk.”
In the darkened room, Jennifer smiled.
When she opened the door to leave the bedroom, Third bounded past her. He hopped up the bed; an arm appeared and scooped him in. Then the covers were tugged back up and rustling sounded from J.J. snuggling in even deeper.
“I’ll be good from now on, Mom,” she said, sleep imminent in her increasingly gravelly voice, “Even if you won’t let me drive my brand-new car that evvvvvverybody knows I got for my birthday and is expecting me to be in when I get to school on Monday, I still love you. Very much.”
The knob in her hand, a last thought darted into Jennifer’s mind; she had to ask.
“J.J., did you have panties on with that nightgown when you decided to go outside for that in-person conversation?”
The response was even more muffled and slurred: ““Imma take the fifth on that, Mom. I had the sweatpants on, though. You saw ‘em.”
Jennifer closed the door and for a few moments had to stand the other side, hands pressed to the wood as she implored those guardian angels to maintain their steady vigilance over that precious mess of a girl.
Jonathan had not been surprised to find Jennifer gone once he returned to the bedroom. When she hadn’t insisted upon going outside with him to check on J.J. and Tommy, that had been his clue that she had switched operational tracks.
But the timing worked out as he had a quick phone call to make.
Kids. Only one of his own of his own making, but she came with at least three add-ons also claiming dibs on his heart.
Speaking of heart…
Rubbing at his burning chest, he sat down on the bed, popped two tabs extracted from the roll in the nightstand drawer, and picked up the phone.
… even though he had suggested it, and it was the most responsible thing to do given the circumstances, it was still hard to believe he had done it.
He was just ending the call when Jennifer came back into the bedroom. She closed the door behind herself and silently continued around the bed where she shed her robe, pulled back the covers, and got into the bed.
“Did you talk with J.J.?” he asked as he stood to unfasten and remove his own robe.
She nodded as she arranged the covers over her chest.
She nodded again.
He pulled back the covers on his side and climbed in beside her, praying on the one hand that she was as tired as he suspected and would go to sleep before his rumbling stomach gave him away; she still hadn’t fully gotten over his hospital emergency even though it was months past.
On the other hand, he hoped her mission had been successful and she would at least share the highlights with him. Lately, he sensed there was a lot that she and J.J. were keeping between themselves, and honestly, as J.J. was getting older, that was just as well as far as he was concerned. J.J. couldn’t have a better person than her mother in her corner as she transitioned into young womanhood.
Jennifer rolled onto her stomach and with her face turned toward him, rested her head on her folded arms.
“Everything okay with you?” she asked. “I noticed you on the phone. Checking to see if Tommy got out all right?”
“Actually, I was talking with Brenda. I figured she might be worried about where her son was.”
“There isn’t any trouble is there? Did she and Marcus talk with him? Is that why he was here at such an odd time? He didn’t get angry and run off from them, did he?”
Jonathan found her barrage of questions amusing; she often wondered aloud where J.J. got that from. His highly intelligent, perceptive partner could be awfully clueless at times, particularly when it came to seeing herself in their child.
“I don’t think so, he said, propping up a couple of pillows to support his back as he remained sitting up. “But then, I didn’t get to talk with him much. He was kind of out of it.”
Jennifer raised her head a little. “Out of it? How? In what way?”
“Jetlagged more than anything, I believe. He said he came straight here from touching down at the airport. That’s fifteen hours, and being a kid, he probably didn’t sleep much on the plane. When I walked up on him and J.J. out there by the pond, they were both asleep on the bench.”
“Sound asleep. I guess they would have been out there all night if nobody had been on to them meeting up and going down there. Turns out Bill saw them, too. He was already on his way to get them when I made it outside.”
“I saw that from the window. So, you let Tommy drive home like that on his own? Is someone with him?”
Jonathan shook his head. “I could have taken him, but then I would have had to have someone bring me back. August and Chris could have done it, but I didn’t want to bother them either. Once they finish up here, they need to get home. It’s late. Couldn’t be sure if Marcus was still there at Brenda’s. Wasn’t going to call you to come get me.”
“So, what happened with Tommy?”
“He’s downstairs on the couch in the den.”
“Tommy? You let him stay here? I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it. He was so loopy trying to talk to me. I wound up telling him to just stay the night and head home in the morning after he’s rested some. He didn’t want to, but I ordered him to. He was in no shape to be driving. I don’t know how he made it here. Marie got him a blanket, couple pillows, some towels. Then I called Brenda so she wouldn’t worry. That’s who I was on the phone with when you came in.”
“You old softie.” Jennifer lay her head back down on her arms. “Only you would invite the boy you caught your daughter sleeping with to spend the rest of his night under your roof.”
“They were fully clothed and upright, although he was quick to move away from her when he came to and saw me standing over him. Darling, I didn’t sign up for this. Was this kind of stuff in her paperwork when we got her? This is the third time I’ve had to be witness to something like this with her.”
She smiled. “So, in light of having experienced it once again with yet another young man, I take it you trust this one to stay put on that couch.”
“Only because I know for sure that one is not the least bit crazy. He knows.”
She chuckled before telling him, “Like you, I’m sure that one does know; however, you need not worry about J.J. Hart. Much like you, your daughter doesn’t let her guard down around just anyone, so you can take some measure of solace in her choice of pillows, which is all they are to her right now.”
“That’s all they better be for a while.”
“And as for not signing up for this, yes you did. It was in the fine print that you obviously overlooked at the time because when presented with her paperwork, you were more focused on how tiny, healthy, and cute she was to you. How happy and proud you were to have her. So, was Tommy angry about his mother and Marcus getting married?”
“More blindsided than anything, I think. Especially when you consider that as far as he’s concerned, this all developed while he’s been away. That’s not the case, but it sounds like they didn’t get much farther than that in letting him in on it earlier this evening. But listen, on another note, I have something I need to let you in on about tonight before you hear it from someone or somewhere else and you accuse me of holding out on you.”
Her head came up again. “What is it?”
“Wesley was here.”
“Wesley? When? Why?”
“You know why, Jennifer.”
“But he’s not supposed to be anywhere near her- or here. When was this? Where was I?
“It was early. You were probably still in the house. The party hadn’t been going all that long when I got the call. J.J. and I happened to be together when Chris radioed me about having seen his car go by. I sent J.J. back to the party while I went down to the gate. J.J. overheard the message, and, well you know her, she doubled back and-”
Jennifer finished his sentence, “followed you up to the gate in one of the other golf carts.”
Not wanting to give everything away if she didn’t already have a firm line on it, he hesitated to take a breath.
She wasted no time filling that minute void. “Oh, you don’t have to confirm it. I saw her when she left. At the time, it struck me as odd. In fact, it didn’t quite register right away, but now it all makes sense. You didn’t let him anywhere near her, did you?”
“She talked with him.”
At that admission, Jennifer rose all the way up to a sitting position. “Jonathan! Why in the world would you allow her to-”
Sensing that alarming near-panic protectiveness that gripped her in situations involving anyone, particularly males, attempting to assert themselves on her child, Jonathan placed a firm- he hoped reassuring and steadying, not triggering- hand on her shoulder.
“Baby, Chris and I were both there with her,” he interjected. “Chris stayed right there when she went out to the car.”
“To the car!? His car? But how could you think- how could you allow her anywhere near that boy after all the harm-”
“Jennifer, Jennifer, initially, I didn’t want her to. Truly I didn’t. My first reaction then was just like yours at this moment. But J.J. and Chris convinced me- and I had to finally agree with them- that J.J. being the one to get rid of him was the only way to do it.”
The tension remained in her features, but the mention of Chris Allen being involved in the decision seemed to relax her a bit; she softened under that hand he kept on her shoulder as he pressed on with the explanation he hoped would put her mind at ease- and keep him out of the doghouse.
“Darling, if security had run him off once he pulled over after seeing J.J. out there, he would have just been back some other time, attempting to get to her- and maybe at a time when she wasn’t so protected. If I had run him off, he would have thought J.J. was only not seeing him because I, or you and I, weren’t allowing her to do so; I’m pretty sure that’s how his entitled mind works. But if it came directly from her, if she was the one to tell him she doesn’t want to be bothered, he would have to accept it. At the very least, he would have heard for himself directly from her, that she alone didn’t want him here. Period. And you know J.J.; she made that very clear to him.”
When Jennifer dropped her head and appeared to be considering what he said, he added, “You would have been proud of her. All class, she was, absolutely no nonsense in getting him the hell out of here.”
“So, he left without a problem?” Jennifer asked, head still down, slowly raking her fingers through her hair.
“J.J. kept Wesley from having a problem with Chris, me, or either of our little friends.”
Jennifer spoke with her head still lowered, but the anger was gone from her tone. “I’m glad you were both- all– out there. Chris is a true gem. But that doesn’t mean Wesley will stay away, Jonathan. He used to be such a nice boy. What’s happened to him?”
“Well, you liked him. I never thought much of him. He’s spoiled. Used to having and getting things his way. Guys like him grow up coveting things they shouldn’t or can’t have, especially girls that don’t easily come their way. But you know I’m not having it when it comes to our daughter and this joker. I am not. I’ve tried to be nice about it.”
Jennifer finally looked up, her troubled eyes meeting his. “I hate this for her, she said, her voice now a raspy whisper. “I really do. She’s had so much to happen to her in these last few years.”
She shifted position to lie with her back solidly against his chest. That move on her part wasn’t lost on him, and again he wondered about what she had gone through as a young girl growing up. At J.J.’s age, she had been out there largely on her own. What had she experienced that she had never spoken of with him?
Or as a very attractive young woman attempting to carve out her own place in a world dominated by men with their own agendas?
He pulled her closer, grateful that the conversation hadn’t gone south as it so easily could have done, given the topic. It was true that what happened out front that night was unsettling. The boy wasn’t supposed to be there. J.J. should have been in the back, safely tucked away at her party. But things happened for a reason. Maybe he would stay away now that J.J. had spoken to him. As her father, all he could legally do was get in touch with the authorities in the morning and put the matter back into their hands.
And pray that it didn’t ever come to him having to get directly involved with Wesley Singleton over J.J. because he would- with finality- if it did.
Leaned into Jonathan’s solid, comforting form, Jennifer drew in deeply and exhaled. There was no sense making an issue of J.J. being out there with Wesley. Out of place as usual, J.J. Hart put herself into the position that led to her encountering him. But this time, her father had been there. Jonathan would never have allowed any harm to come to her, and after all, he had come clean with it in telling her himself about what happened.
Neither would Chris Allen have let anything happen to J.J. Recent past events had proven how protective and proactive she could be when it came to young women, including covering for J.J. when she was out of bounds. Given the bond they seemed to have formed, there was little doubt that Chris would be imparting some survival strategies on J.J. Hart in the future.
Factoring in those ethereal guardian angels watching over her as well as the earthbound ones, Justine Hart had been fully covered from any harm Wesley Singleton might have posed. Being angry over the situation would be wasted emotion on her part, and at that point, as tired as she was, there wasn’t a lot of that to expend.
However, it was a little daunting to think that in a year, J.J. would be out in the world, on her own, fending for herself, making decisions for herself, accepting the consequences when things didn’t work out the way she planned or wanted. She inwardly grimaced at the prospect but just as quickly realized some things, even those that left unpleasant memories, were definite learning experiences from which to grow.
In this aspect, it perhaps it was a good thing that J.J. was so much like her father. Hopefully, she would manage to maneuver or completely avoid pitfalls into which a less wary person might otherwise fall.
“The incorrigibility factor aside,” she finally said, “I have to admit, J.J. really does seem to be able to handle herself most of the time. But we have to consider, she’s been relatively sheltered most of her life. As her mother, I just worry about her being a little too confident at times.”
Jonathan wanted to assure her that J.J. would be just fine; that was the hunch he had about their girl. But admittedly, the world and its inhabitants were getting worse every day, far worse than when he had been seventeen. And he had been navigating those waters as a male. J.J., his daughter, faced circumstances a lot different than his had been, but, thanks to the women in her life, she faced them with a lot more wherewithal than girls her age were privy to back when he had been seventeen.
“You did a great job on the car,” he said, tentatively navigating them into calmer waters. “It’s beautiful, right down to the license plate. Took me a minute to get it; “JJHarts1. Can be interpreted a couple of ways.”
Softly chuckling, she settled herself even closer, deeper into him, affording him a citrus-scented nest of auburn waves into which he rested his chin.
“Thank you, darling,” she said, “She is our only one. But I don’t even think she noticed the plate.”
“Probably not. I doubt I would have either in that situation. And it is her first car, probably in a long line of cars to come in her lifetime. So, tell me, what did you end up doing to her?”
“Doing to her?” She turned her head to look up into his face. “What do you mean?”
“About the trip, Jennifer. You know what I’m talking about. What penance is she being made to pay for taking and getting busted on her unauthorized trip?”
She turned back around, but he could feel the impish, satisfied smile on her face as she spoke.
“Until Friday afternoon, she will only be able to look at her new car. She can’t drive it until then.”
“A whole week. While it’s sitting right in front of the door where she has to see it every day as she goes in and out? Oh, that’s cruel. Wait- Friday? Aren’t we leaving for San Francisco on Friday after school for the boys’ prom? For the entire weekend, that’s some bad timing, isn’t it?”
Jennifer had never been a spanking parent, but over the years there had been several times that he bet himsel if given the choice, J.J. would have opted for the belt in lieu of one of her mother’s creative, but crippling punishments. Jennifer could be lethal with her ability to get J.J. Hart to see things her way.
“You’re a hard woman, Mrs. Hart, but I guess she had it coming. Chase still have a prom date? I can see her leaving him hanging to get into that car this weekend.”
“Oh, don’t think she didn’t briefly explore that possibility before getting shot down on it. She’s going to that prom. She committed to it, and she’s following through with it.”
That brought a smile to Jonathan’s lips. Definitely his kid. So was the other one, her prom date. “Chase wouldn’t have cared if she dropped him,” he said. “Hell, he’d have stayed home to hang out with her in it.”
“I know,” Jennifer confirmed, “which is exactly why they’re both going to his prom. Vagabond rogues, the two of them. That Mustang will be right here, waiting for their return- afterward- or at least, hers if he stays up at school, which I’m pretty sure Carolyn is going to make him. No point in him coming home for one day only to have to be back in San Francisco on Monday.”
“Did she share with you how she came about the change of clothes?”
“Do I want to know how it happened?”
“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”
“It’s best, ” she said. But then she twisted around to again look into his face. “As for you, Jonathan Hart, and this growling stomach of yours-”
“I’m okay. You saw I wasn’t sick when we were in the bathroom together. I was just fine. It‘s just a little gas, that’s all.”
“You were fine in the bathroom because your mind and all your bodily functions, not to mention parts, were focused elsewhere at the time. Now that you’re settled in with me in here, lying still, I can feel all that bubbling and gurgling. I know it has to be paining you and that you’ve been trying everything you can to keep it from selling you out to me. Hotdogs, Jonathan?”
“I just had a couple.”
“A couple, my foot. You have never been able to stop at just two, which is what constitutes a “couple”. Why do you do this to yourself? It’s not as if you don’t how it’s going to turn out. Every single year, you-”
Ducking his head, he twisted her a little farther around-
“-then I have to-
-and cut the fussing off by sealing his lips over hers. Sliding one hand under the covers, his skilled fingers honed in on that one delicious, readily available spot that would end that line of unnecessary conversation.
Her aggravation was not going to fix his indigestion, but just as she said, there were other ways to divert attention from the temporary discomfort. In the shower, even though she had no idea of it, she had done her part in helping him out. Now it was his turn.
After all, how many times had Anastasia and the others reminded him that God helped those who helped themselves….
… and who acted generously toward others….
Jonathan had been lying awake for a while, relishing his favorite time of the day while keeping as still as possible to avoid waking Jennifer. He still loved watching her sleep. Her tousled head nestled in the pillows, he was sure she would be out for a good while longer. She deserved the rest.
As for himself, that dream, the one from the previous morning, had meandered back into the front of his mind, and in the tranquil quiet, he was giving it free reign.
It was fascinating how persistent the details had been in sticking with him when most of his dreams had no problem evaporating upon waking. Those that managed to hang on long enough for him to attempt to consider them, didn’t linger long enough for much analyzing.
But this one….
Why would this one not let him alone? Why was it stuck so solidly on loop in his mind? Why did it keep poking at him? What was it trying to tell him? Or to get him to see?
Of course, he would have searched for her. Of course, he wouldn’t have stopped until he found her. That was the kind of magical connection they had from the moment they met. They were meant to be together.
Of course, that little girl in the sand next to her was his. With those eyes, whose child could she have been, but his? In the dream, she knew her daddy right away.
In real life, she had known him right away, too.
Real life, though, had been much, much better than that dream.
Maybe it had come to him and stayed with him to remind him of how fortunate he had been in his life? As if he didn’t already know. He looked to Jennifer.
She was still there. Right next to him.
Just as she had been in real life on that first morning all those years ago. She hadn’t run away. She stayed because she, too, knew they had both stumbled upon the right one.
And their baby, almost grown up now, was asleep across the hall.
With a live-in friend asleep, across the hall from her.
And another, a male friend, asleep downstairs on the den couch.
He smiled to himself, thinking of Max and how he, if he was still with them, would be down there with that bat next to his bed, unable to sleep too hard for making sure Tommy stayed put.
Bu then Marie was probably down there pretty much doing the same thing.
No worries. The boy had been too far gone for that kind of action, his emotions, nerves, and physical being too frayed- even for a close to eighteen-year-old- to try anything.
And he’s not crazy.
Like Jennifer often said, J.J. Hart had plenty of guardian angels looking out for her. Just like her old man must have had for things to have turned out this well for him.
For him to have become the kind of man who could and had the means to do well by his daughter. To have kept the promise he made to himself as a boy. He was proud of his relationship with J.J. and grateful to have Jennifer as his balance with her.
The girl would be spoiled shitless if it wasn’t for you. You, she minds.
He lightly brushed his fingers over those russet waves close to his other arm. Life was good.
One more year, one more party, and then….
Don’t want to think about that right now.
Besides, at present, there was a week of punishment to help her get through.
And then another prom.