Priniciples: Part One

Small Details

Friday afternoon….

End of seventh period. The bell rang, doors opened, and teenagers spilled into the halls.

It was the last class of her school day, but not the end of her to-do list. Quite a few items remained on that, not to mention the full week ahead; one day of school to do, and then off to Boston for the rest of it.

J.J. Hart weaved through the throngs of students, making her way to the Junior hall and her locker. That part of the building would be especially congested and loud. Juniors, with the exception of those unfortunate enough to still have an eighth period class, would be packing up to leave for the day. Books, backpacks, coats, musical instruments, sports equipment, laughter, shouting, courting, and general end of the day hanging out- it all went on back there, and normally J.J. was an integral part of most of it. But on this day her immediate focus extended beyond school, that is until she turned the corner and saw the crew gathered in the usual spot, all of them bent over, leaned against the lockers, or on the floor convulsed with laughter.

“J.!” Charmaine called out upon spotting her. “You should have been here.”

“Girrrrrl,” Philly gasped through tears of mirth as J.J. approached, “Marnie let Sherita have it good.”

A quick scan revealed Marnie missing from those hooting and howling at the lockers. There had been a bit of drama at lunch earlier between her friends, Kendra and Percy, but that hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary. The blow-up quickly ended when Kendra gave Percy the hand and walked off from him as he attempted to explain his way out of the latest mess he had gotten himself into with his on-and-off girlfriend. She hadn’t paid close attention to the details at the time, but J.J. did recall Sherita Longstreet’s name coming up in the course of that disagreement.

“What happened?” J.J. directed the question to Charmaine, figuring it had to be good if typically slow to amuse Charmaine was so tickled by what went down. “What did Marnie do?”

Charmaine wiped her eyes and gathered herself. “Girl, Sherita came over here a few minutes ago, trying to confront Marnie, talking about she knew it was Marnie who told Kendra about her trying to get with Percy after the game yesterday.”

J.J. spun her combination lock while she spoke, “I doubt Marnie said anything to Kendra about that,” and pulled her backpack out once she had the locker door open. “We did see Sherita over by the left bleachers, trying to get next to Percy after the game, but at the time, Percy looked to me like he was too busy trying to see where Kendra was to pay much attention to what Sherita was saying. Marnie was nudging me, laughing at Sherita, and I think Sherita might have seen Marnie pointing her out, but I know for sure we didn’t see or talk to Kendra at all before we left the field and got in the car to go home.”

“Well,” Charmaine continued, “Kendra somehow found out about it, and got with Percy. Percy must have said something to Sherita after Kendra went off on him at lunch. Somehow, Sherita got it into her head that it was Marnie who told on her, so then Sherita came over here, going off, all loud and wrong and everything, accusing Marnie of-”

Philly cut in, “It was so good, J. Marnie had just finished packing her tote bag, fussing about her room assignment for the DC trip. Sherita came over here yelling, saying all her stuff about suspecting Marnie of being the snitch.

“Marnie just turned around real slow and looked Sherita up and down like she was dirt- you know how Marnie does that- then she gave Sherita the hand and said, ‘Later, bitch’, all calm and everything and walked away. Marnie never looked back. She just left Sherita standing here with her mouth hanging open in shock.”

Charmaine picked the story back up. “J., you should have been here so you could get the whole flavor of the moment. It was so good, Ms. Calvin had come out in the hallway to see what was going on when she heard all the yelling, but she couldn’t even say anything once Marnie checked that fool. Ms. Calvin just put her hand over her mouth to keep us from seeing her laughing and went back in her room.”

Both Charmaine and Philly broke down in laughter again as did all the kids standing around listening in on the replay. J.J. found herself snickering as she sorted her things to take home, all the while thinking Sherita should count her blessings that a slightly profane dismissal was all she got from Marnie Benson.

Recent serious events and the resultant changes in Marnie’s life had matured her considerably. That, and having opted to remain with the Harts to complete the school year in Los Angeles rather than return to New York and Pat and Bill after their November wedding. She was still Marnie in all the important ways, but she carried herself differently. Had Sherita ambushed Marnie in that manner six months ago, J.J. figured by the time she made it around to the lockers that afternoon, she would have walked up on Sherita in the process of being thoroughly cussed out full blast with administration and security screeching onto the scene.

Instead, Marnie shut it down with only two words, keeping the profanity to a classy minimum, maintaining her own dignity, while leaving her accuser looking random, silly, and foolishly petty.

My girl… well done.

Besides, they were Juniors in high school, everybody at least sixteen, closer to the end of Junior year than the start, and thus, far too old for that kind of low public behavior.

“I’m glad it got worked out like it did,” J.J. finally said, sliding her eyes over to Hector and Deon and their knot of male friends goofing around in the background, “and it didn’t escalate into something stupid that the guys would have gotten off on. They love it when we girls fight and argue among ourselves over one of them. We should be bigger than that.”

Charmaine patted her on the back. “That’s why you and I are girls, J. No time for B.S. Marnie more than handled that. So how long do you think your meeting will last?”

“About an hour,” J.J. said. “I just have to help proof and approve some articles for the paper, and Marnie has to look over some ads with Ms. Foster. I take it you’re still going over ahead of time to do Daria’s hair?”

“Yeah, Philly and I will meet the rest of you when you get there. You’ll pick up the outfit on your way?”

“Mr. Wang said he’d have it ready by three. It’s almost that now, so it should be good and ready by the time Marnie and I get to his shop.”

“What about her shoes?”

“Got those covered, too.”

Charmaine tilted her head and eyed J.J. hard. “You know what Sister Anastasia said about the shoes.”

At the mention of the no-nonsense Mother Superior of St. Augustine Parish, J.J. huffed her impatience. “Got it covered, I said. You, Kendra, and Philly just handle that hair, the accessories, and Daria’s nerves. Marnie and I have the rest well in hand. Our girl will be hooked completely up in time for her induction ceremony.”

The backpack filled and zipped, J.J. hoisted it onto her back. “And where is Kendra, by the way? With Percy? Kendra knows we have business to handle this evening. We don’t have time for their toxic relationship drama.”

“We’ll take care of scooping up Kendra,” Philly said, pulling out her phone. She had been getting her own things together while listening in on her two friends. “I’ll call her now and line that up; she and Percy can strangle each other later. You and Marnie just make sure you get to the academy on time to get Daria’s outfit to her and then change yourselves. Your mother will be there, and she doesn’t play when it comes to timeliness. She really won’t be playing with the two of you. She’s running the show on this one, and show time is five-thirty. Any one of us in this tutoring program make her look bad-.”

J.J. finished the thought, “”Like I don’t know how that would play out.” She pulled her editor’s notebook from the locker and slammed the door shut. “My father has been out of town all week, so my mother will be even more edgy than normal when overseeing an event. No way am I messing with that. Then too, I’m so proud of Daria following through on this; I wouldn’t leave her hanging, wondering where I was. It’s going to be a big night for her. Induction into Jr. Honor Society. After party.” She sighed, and made ready to depart. “All right, let me get to the copy room, and get this over with. I have to make a stop at the post office, then Marnie and I will be on our way to meet up with all of you.”

___________________________________________________________

Friday evening…

Jonathan Hart loosened his tie to begin the official unwinding. Seated at the restaurant bar, in a spot where he could easily see the door, he picked up his drink.

So good to be back on home turf.

Even the Bacardi tasted better in Los Angeles.

London, a city at the very top of his list of favorite places to visit, but four days there had been long enough, particularly since he had been there on his own. Four mornings and afternoons of business breakfasts, business meetings, business lunches, and then more business meetings. Four days of dark suits, staid boardrooms, stiff attitudes, talk, talk, and more talk. Presentations, spreadsheets, smokescreens and filters, and the dreaded, but unavoidable paperwork that went with everything.

Then the nights. Five of them in a deluxe suite with all the amenities save the one that would have made the stay completely satisfying.

Delivered back to LA that morning on what amounted to a red-eye corporate flight. After a shower and a suit change in his own office, he had waded right back into it on this side of the pond with a few personal matters and other assorted loose ends thrown into the waters for good measure.

But all that was behind him. Finished, tied up, signed off on, boxed, and successfully shipped. Done.

Off the clock now, the rum was taking care of his thirst, but the hunger remained; however, treatment for the kind he had would not be found on the restaurant menu. He smiled to himself at that reality. Four days and five nights away still felt like more four years. How many other married- or otherwise- couples could make that claim after so many years together?

Still crazy about that girl.

As the the drink settled warm folds of contentment over his shoulders, his body slowly melded into the barstool. A sudden buzz against his left chest momentarily jarred that calm, but once he fished the phone out his jacket pocket and checked the display, he relaxed again.

And this one, too.

_________________________________________________

Stopped at the light, Jennifer Hart took a moment to check her makeup and hair. After all, it had been four days since he’d seen her.

The brightly patterned dress she wore would work in both their favors. After days of somber suits on both the men and the women involved in his business dealings in London, he would be craving some color… among other things. In selecting her attire for the day, her focus lent itself more to universal suitability for the upcoming situations she would encounter; not a dress as opposed to slacks.

… always did like my legs…

Still in the mirror, she used a fingertip to smooth her lipstick.

 …four days and five lonnnnnng  nights….

A short horn blast alerted her to the signal light’s change. She threw up a quick hand of apology to the driver behind and pulled off.

Her day had been a full one, beginning with seeing the girls off to school, two committee meetings before a pit stop at home for lunch, and then an interview for an article after. In between, there had been errands to run for the busy week ahead, finished off by the academic affair at St. Augustine Academy.

J.J. Hart and crew. All of them fine young ladies, even Marnie Elaine.

It seemed only yesterday J.J. and Marnie were little girls skating and riding bikes out front on the driveway. JJ. constantly scraping herself up and needing first aid. Marnie, dainty and more physically careful, but a lot more easily aggravated and afflicted with the unfortunate precocious tendency to curse like a pint-sized sailor.

The ponytailed redhead and her brunette sidekick, who now might as well be their other child, were both turning out all right… so far.

After making the right on North Cannon, she was able to pull right up to the restaurant’s valet stand. Little traffic all the way over and no waiting once she got there, for that she was glad. She handed her key to the waiting attendant and entered the restaurant where she bypassed the hostess to head straight to the bar area.

He was on the phone, and in that instant before his hair-trigger instincts kicked in, she checked him out.

Thick chestnut hair streaked with silver. Classic profile.  Navy blue custom-tailored suit. Matching Rossetti loafers, one of them casually propped on the bar rail. The loosened tie, and one hand in his pocket furthered that strong aura of suave masculine confidence.

…umph, still crazy about that good-looking boy.

His eyes raised and met hers; he clicked off from his party and stood as she started toward him.

“Welcome home,” she whispered into his ear as she entered his embrace and wound her own arms snugly around him.

“You look and smell beautiful.” he breathed, bussing her neck before they shared a quick kiss. “Just having you right here,” he tightened his hold for emphasis, “is all the welcome I need.”

“All?”

He stopped his renewed attention to her neck and leaned back a little to see her face. When she raised that one eyebrow, he grinned at the naughty implication and hugged her again. “Don’t be pushy.”

“All right, I’ll save that for later,” she promised, “the pushiness, I mean.”

Rustling behind them signaled the arrival of the hostess, menus tucked into the crook of her arm.

__________________________________________________________

Comfortably settled, with her drink delivered, his refreshed, and an appetizer between them, they caught each other up while waiting for the main course.

“Love that dress. The colors are lovely on you.”

“Thank you, darling, but you’ve seen this before.”

Jonathan shrugged. “Perhaps, but if so, I guess being away a while has me appreciating it and you even more. I’m delighted my favorite dinner partner was able to make time to rendezvous with me this evening. When we talked last night, it sounded as if you had a full day.”

“I did, but this is the best possible way to finish it up.” She raised her glass but stopped with it held to her lips. “Well, perhaps second best.”

He speared a chilled shrimp. “I love your persistence, too.”

“You always have.”

She took a slow sip, maintaining visual contact with him the entire time. Then she went on. “When you phoned to say Marcus was going to drop you off here, I figured you would need a ride home, and seeing as how this was on my way and all, meeting you was the least I could do.”

“Well, gee, thanks.”

She sent him a conciliatory air kiss. “Besides, after the week I’ve had, the running around to tie everything up before next week, I’m more than happy to be spending a little quiet and alone time with my favorite fella. I’ve missed you.” Then she shifted gears, going back to an item from the previous night’s conversation. “So, do you think Marcus is going to put in his bid for that property? Did it seem like something he was sincere about? Was it nice?”

Jonathan tipped his head at the questions about his longtime friend and Chairman of the Hart Industries Board, Marcus Borland.

“I thought it was. In my opinion, he’d be crazy not to go for it. It’s a beautiful place, and the price is right.”

“Describe it to me.”

Jonathan obliged, amused by the sight of Jennifer lacing her fingers under her chin and closing her eyes in anticipation of what he would say. She would be over there imagining, arranging, designing, selecting colors and patterns. If she hadn’t chosen journalism as her career path, she surely could have made a go of interior decorating.

“Out in the Palisades. Five huge bedrooms- the master with a fireplace. Open floor plan with lots of windows and light. It sits up high, so it has great views all the way around. Detached four-car garage with a self-contained studio apartment over it. Pool. Cabana. I think the whole parcel is three, maybe four plus acres. For someone coming out of a condo, the size and layout wouldn’t be so overwhelming for him, but he would have to take on more help.”

“Well, it’s not as if he can’t afford to do that,” Jennifer observed. “He’s been living pretty frugally all these years.”

Jonathan nodded in agreement. “It’s going to be a different sort of step for him, but it’s about time he invested in some genuine real estate, some acreage, to inhabit. I figured he had to be pretty serious about it if waited for me to get back to go out there with him to look it over. But on the ride back to the office, he didn’t say much to me about it. Just asked what I thought. I told him the same thing I just told you, but he didn’t make much comment.”

“Has he mentioned anything to you about who-”

“Not a word. I didn’t feel comfortable asking him what this interest in purchasing a house at this juncture was all about beyond his wanting to expand his living arrangements. You know as well as I do how Marcus has always been very private about that part of his life. I was surprised he wanted my opinion on the part he let me in on.”

“But you have your hunches, I’m sure.”

“I do, but nobody’s confirmed anything for me, so a hunch is all it is.”

When Jennifer leaned forward with that familiar glint in her eyes, the one she got when she thought she had a line on something, he held up his hand to her. “And don’t you try pressing me about it.”

Pursing her lips to suppress her sly smile, she sat back again. “Okay. I’ll lay off… for now.”

He changed the subject. “So how are my girls? That was J.J. I was talking with when you arrived.”

“Was it now? And just what did she want?”

“Simply to say hello and welcome home to her Daddy.”

“And to beat me to it. I’m not fooled. That girl forgets whose husband you are.”

“I don’t think she cares.”

Jennifer rolled her eyes. It was for certain J.J. Hart didn’t care; her daddy was her daddy, and she was his girl. Case closed.

“They are both fine Jonathan. Busy, busy, busy, but fine. All of us have been trying to get things done. With Marnie leaving for D.C. on Monday and us flying out on Tuesday  for Teddy’s prom, there was an awful lot the girls had to get done. But I have to say, they have been all over it. In fact, I’ve hardly seen them. They’d leave for school first thing every morning, and then most days, didn’t get back in until seven or eight in the evening. Dinner, homework, and then to bed.”

“Anybody tape J.J.’s tennis match and track meet for me? She texted me about winning the match and her team placing first and high at the meet.”

“Marnie had that taken care of for you. The discs are on your desk. Jonathan, I don’t know about J.J. and this running. She was as sick as a dog coming off that last heat. I almost wished I hadn’t been there to see it.”

“But she was glad you were there, and she won it.”

“It was all I could do to stay in the stands. She hates when I ‘mother’ her in public in those kinds of situations. I’ll bet she didn’t mention a word to you about being sick afterward, did she?”

“No, but she recovers quickly from it when it happens. She takes it in stride, so to speak. I don’t like her going so hard either, but if I have to choose between her pushing herself too hard or not pushing herself hard enough, as her father, I’m going for the former for the moment. J.J. will eventually decide where the happy medium lies.”

Jennifer held her tongue. J.J. and her athletics were one of the two areas where she and Jonathan didn’t always see eye to eye about their child. Like her father, J.J. was naturally athletic and heavily invested, mentally and physically, in her pursuits. Her anemia, though managed through diet and supplements, remained a delicate issue. In her efforts to be both ‘normal’ and independent, J.J. Hart tended to work against herself at times.

Jennifer instead shifted to another avenue concerning the girls that needed exploring. “I got word today that Marnie is a tad upset about her room assignment for the trip. Since she signed on late, there was only one spot left. She got placed in the room with Ramona Eastman.”

“Ramona? ‘Da Moan’a’?”

“Jonathan, honestly.”

He ignored her chastising his use of the moniker bestowed upon the girl in question by his daughter. “Isn’t she the one J.J. was going to string up on the Equations trip when they were in the ninth grade because she kept moaning about having to have the lights out and television off in the room at 8:00 sharp? The girl who was so anal about everything that J.J. called me up and demanded I fly out and get her before she went postal on her?”

“Yes, darling. That girl.”

Jonathan slowly shook his head. “Oh, that’s not good, Jennifer. Marnie doesn’t have J.J.’s patience or J.J.’s brakes. I was able to talk J.J. into hanging in there that time, but afterward even she vowed she’d never room with ‘Da Moan’a’ again, and she basically gets along with anyone.  Marnie’s a lot more social and a whole lot less tolerant of efforts to curtail her need to be social.”

“Well, I must say Marnie is getting a lot better about that. However, Ms. Grimsley did phone me this afternoon to say Marnie hadn’t taken the news about the roommate situation too well, and she needed for me to start talking Marnie down.  Ms. Grimsley is the Guidance Counselor, but she felt Marnie would listen better to me. When I saw her this evening at the academy, there wasn’t time for me to mention anything about that call to Marnie. But I will sit down with her this weekend, and let her know she will just have to grin and bear it. I’m not having it out of her on the trip.”

“Hope that works out. In the meantime, I’ll let the pilots know to keep a plane gassed up in case I do have to go and get her. So how did the induction ceremony go?”

“Great.”  Jennifer pulled out a folded paper sticking up from her purse lying in the seat of the chair beside her. She handed it across the table. “The program. You see we had fifteen inductees this time, one of them a 7th grader in residence, Daria Hall.”

“The girl J.J. gave the earrings to last year,” he noted as he unfolded the paper.

“Yes.  J.J., Marnie, Charmaine, Philly, and Kendra took her under their wings for this endeavor once J.J. made Daria fill out the paperwork and Daria’s application was accepted. For the ceremony tonight, they all got together on her hair and her outfit. She was so cute when they finished with her. Anastasia wouldn’t allow them chip in to buy her a dress like they wanted to do; she told them there were plenty of ‘perfectly good’ outfits in the donation closet. The girls were upset about it; they were intent upon Daria feeling good about herself and her accomplishments all the way around, so Marnie went into the closet and found an outfit she thought had potential. Then she took Daria around to Mr. Wang to have it altered to fit- Daria’s really tiny- and dry-cleaned.

“Now as for your child-”

The shift in Jennifer’s tone from enthusiastic to somewhat sardonic made Jonathan look up from his reading.

“- semantics queen and shoe empress that she is, wanted Daria to have the right footwear for the outfit. Anastasia again insisted the girls had to get the shoes from the donation closet. But I happened to notice tonight that the shoes Daria had on looked brand new; they didn’t look like any I’d seen in the closet. When I inquired about them, Justine ‘Loophole’ Hart pointedly informed me that they ‘came’ from the donation closet.”

Jonathan laughed out loud, hooting, “She bought them, put them in the donation closet, and then took them right back out to put on Daria!”

“I didn’t even ask,” Jennifer admitted with a resigned wave of her hand at her daughter’s likely behavior as well as her husband’s amusement with it, “but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. I couldn’t really fault her for it, though. Technically, she followed the directive, and the loophole usage was for a good cause this time. The shoes did go quite nicely with what Daria had on. If you didn’t know, looking at her, you would never have figured her for a ward.  Daria is the first residential student we’ve inducted into the Society since I’ve been on the Board. In fact, I believe tonight was the first time I’ve ever seen Daria genuinely smile. Jonathan, I was so proud of those girls.”

Jonathan had returned to perusing the program, the words on it not really registering; they weren’t that important. It was the supportive efforts of J.J., Marnie, and their circle of friends that held his attention and of which he,too, was most proud .

Their entrees arrived and they ate in comfortable silence, gratified and content to be in each other’s physical company at the dinner table again, even if said table wasn’t their own. The balance, the rhythm, the flow of their individual lives blended and were right once again.

“So, my love,” Jonathan said after a time. “It’s Friday night, and it’s fairly early. The work week is finished, and we have a full plate with the one coming up, but we do have the rest of this evening. Where should we go from here? A movie? The jazz club? A cozy corner in one of the local watering holes?”

“Pubs, darling. I don’t frequent ‘watering holes’.”

“Pubs then. Which option would you like to exercise upon?”

“Well, I’m thinking,” she said, speaking slowly, holding her fork aloft as if giving the matter great consideration,  “it is Friday night, and it is fairly early, and it would be nice to spend an enjoyable evening together doing something we both like. I’m thinking, the girls took Daria to drop her off at a celebration party one of the inductees was having. They’re supposed to pick her back up afterward, which means they’ll probably remain out and about at least until Daria calls for them.”

She put the fork down to reach across the small table and finger the lapel of his suit jacket. “So that leaves us- you and me- with a cozy, very private, spot with all the amenities up on Willow Pond Road where both of us- you and I- could exercise upon…,” she fixed her eyes on his as she slowly traced a fingertip along his bottom lip, “… our options.”

He winced and shuddered with pleasure. “Umph,  you are playing my song, Mrs. Hart.”

“And all that jazz, Mr. Hart.”

Shortly after, plates cleaned and glasses emptied, they were headed to that cozy, very private spot on Willow Pond Road.

_________________________________________________

“Okay, so like, we’ve dropped Daria off, and we went all through dinner, but nobody’s said word one about Percy showing up at the ceremony with those flowers for Kendra,”  Marnie declared to her three passengers as she drove out of the restaurant parking lot and merged into traffic, “or about Kendra ditching us for Percy tonight, although it’s not surprising to me she did that.”

J.J., riding shotgun, made comment as she adjusted the settings on the CD player. “I wasn’t going there. Those two are like watching a basketball game on TV when I know the teams. I’m already pretty sure going in what the court action will be like, so I just wait until the fourth quarter to tune in to see the final outcome. Percy did kinda surprise me showing up like that, in a suit and everything- on a Friday night- but then he’d do anything to get out of the jam he had gotten himself in with Kendra. The whole time, Kendra’s swearing up and down to us that she doesn’t want him, but all along I’m thinking, ‘I dare anyone else to try to push up on him.’ ”

“Me too,” Charmaine said from the back seat. “Just ask Sherita.”

“All I know is Sherita’s ass better not ask me about it again,” Marnie asserted. “She almost caught a case this afternoon.”

Snickers went all around, then Philly sat forward to pat Marnie on the shoulder. “You were all class. We were so proud of you.”

Marnie rocked her head. “Whatever. It just wasn’t worth my cussing her out at the time. But I am wondering what made her come to me. J.J. and I both saw her. Sherita had to see both of us staring at her while she was over there, tramp and backstabber that she is, trying to push up on Percy. Why didn’t she come to J. with that mess? Why do I get blamed for being the gossip?”

“Not to say you did it or anything,” Charmaine answered from the other spot in the back seat, “But Sherita isn’t crazy. J. has that reputation for being pretty closed-mouthed about stuff, and because of that, nobody can be sure where she’s going to be coming from if they do mess around and open the box. J.’s not all that predictable. Sherita wasn’t going to risk being real wrong and getting punched in the mouth as a result.”

“And she would have,” J.J. quipped as she made the music selection and sat back. “I would not have been in the mood for conversation at that point, so I would have just gone ahead and put a period behind her accusations. I don’t do ambush real well. Best to come at me while I’m facing you.”

Philly, leaned forward between J.J. and Marnie, predicted, “Kendra and Percy will be broken back up by this time next week anyway.”

“So J. would have wasted a school suspension had Sherita come at her,” Charmaine said, “and Marnie would have wasted a cussing out that could have been put to better use.”

J.J. seconded Charmaine with, “You know.”

The car erupted into laughter again.

The general decision had been made at dinner to spend the rest of the evening taking in a movie. The initial slight glitch in that plan had been Daria. Her celebration party would end before their movie did; however, one member of the group had come up with a solution to that dilemma, although it was a fix not everyone had agreed with.

As she drove into Bel Air, Marnie took a quick glance from the road to the passenger seat. “J., you sure you want to go in this early? It’s Friday night, and we still have hours before curfew.”

Eyes closed, her head leaned back against the headrest, J.J. answered,  “I’m good. Like I told you, I saw that movie last week when Chase was home, but you all haven’t, so go ahead. Doing it my way will work out for everyone. I’ve got that AP math test on Monday, and I need to study.”

“Who, but you studies on a Friday night?” Philly asked. “Please come on and go with us. We can work out the rest, picking up Daria and all.”

“Nah, you all go ahead.” J.J. sat forward and began digging in her purse, pulling out her house keys and the gate remote as Marnie approached the estate.

Philly persisted, “You always ace your tests, J., especially math. Live a little. Stay out with us.”

But J.J. shook her head. “Nah. I need to totally ace this test. If I make 98 or better, that puts me in good standing for making a high score on the final, and that will be one less course I’ll have to take in college, which will put me one class closer to getting out of college. I know it’s down the line, but I’m planning ahead. Besides, I have a full day tomorrow, and we’re going out tomorrow night, so I need to get my study on tonight. That way I’m not cramming and stressing on Sunday. I can chill and not be all wound up about if I’m ready for Monday or not.”

“Have it your way,” Philly conceded. “You’re going to miss the fun tonight. Who knows who we’ll run into.”

J.J. remained committed to her plan. “Tell ’em I said, ‘Hey’.”

Charmaine had been flipping through the movie ads in the newspaper. “Slim pickings here. So, I guess this is it. J., what did you think of this movie, since you already saw it?”

J.J. turned to confirm the ad Charmaine held up, then shrugged. “Chase liked it. In my opinion, it was okay. Lots of action and stuff, but you know me, I think the original with Sinatra and the Rat Pack was better.”

Philly giggled. “You’re my girl, but to be sixteen, you are beyond old sometimes, J. Studying on Friday. Liking old movies and ancient actors as much as you do.”

“Classics,” J.J. asserted. “That’s why they’re called that. Originals. So good that people want to make or be imitations of them.”

Marnie rounded the curve, passing the guest house on Willow Pond, heading to the front of the main house. “Well, any movie with that fine-ass Brad Pitt is classic for me. Did he take off his pants and show his naked behind at any point?”

The girls in the back seat howled while J.J. popped Marnie in the shoulder. “You are hopeless.”

“Hmph, you know he’s hot. And don’t even try it. With your taste in men, you were probably the whole time lusting and drooling after George Clooney, hoping he dropped his pants or showed up in a Speedo or something else tight and, shall we say, defining.”

J.J. pointed her finger at Marnie. “Now George Clooney is hot. Oooh, like fine wine. Aged to perfection. Classy.”

She high-fived the girls in the back and then slapped skin with Marnie, once Marnie had the car in park at the front door.

“What about the crumb-snatcher?” Marnie asked as J.J. gathered her things to depart from them. “Does she have the number?”

“She’s got all our numbers, but I see my mother’s car is here. If Daria calls me directly, I’ll go for her. If she calls you, just hit me up, and let me know. That way you guys won’t have to leave where you are or stop what you’re doing.”

“She looked really sweet,” Charmaine said. “I thought I’d die when that little boy gave her flowers like the other girls’ fathers were doing. That was so nice of him. I hope she has a good time at the party. She certainly deserves it.”

J.J. got out of the car but wound up leaning back in to talk through the open door. “I hope she does, too. You all have fun yourselves; I’ll see you later. Marnie, don’t show back up here after curfew and get us both stuck in the house tomorrow. It’s two for one, and the Duchess will use that to lock both of us down. She’ll be looking for a reason to keep us close after tonight, talking about we should have had a good time tonight because we have too much to do to get ready for our trips to go out tomorrow night.”

“My grandmother was trying to talk that junk too,” Charmaine commented as she opened her door and got out, “But I’m pretty much packed, so that argument won’t hold water. I’m hanging out tomorrow night.” She came around the car and slid  past J.J. to take the vacated seat up front. Once she was in, Marnie had to lean around her to fuss.

“Just close the door, J.J. Hart. I know what time I need to be home.”

J.J. raised an eyebrow to her. “You heard what I said.” She pushed the car door shut once Charmaine was buckled up. ”Feels like rain,” she advised through the open window. “You guys be careful.”

The three pairs of eyes in the car watched J.J. until she got the front door to the house open, waved, and went in. When the front porch light flickered, the girls in the car had the confirmation that their friend was fine on the inside.

Marnie put the car in gear and pulled off. “There’s a reason why that girl is hard in the running for first in our graduating class,” she said as she started down the drive, “but I’m telling you, being her girl is the closest I’m ever going to get to that position. I can’t work that hard on school stuff, especially on the weekend. I don’t have what it takes for that.”

“Me neither,” chimed Philly.

“That’s why she’s my girl,” said Charmaine. “Disciplined and all class. A good example, whether or not a person decides to take her up on it.”

_________________________________________________

The desk lamp had been left on, but her mother’s work area next to the fireplace was unoccupied. Her father’s office in the loft above was dark; the house itself was silent. J.J. hung her jacket in the hall closet and peered around the door, down the other end of the hall to the kitchen. A counter light was on, but there didn’t seem to be anyone in that area either. Marie, their housekeeper, whose personal rooms were also back there, had left earlier that afternoon for her weekly visit to her sister in Seattle.

Returned to the foyer, at the foot of the main staircase, she looked up through the second floor railing posts to the closed doors of her parents’ bedroom. Her mother’s car had been out front, which probably meant both her parents were at home. Her father had been out of town all week, but at the end of the induction ceremony, before they parted company, her mother mentioned going to meet him for dinner.

Then too, there were those high-heeled pumps discarded on the bottom step and the tie draped across the banister.

J.J. sighed, then whispered to herself. “Just freaks. Bet you thought you’d be home alone, rushed up in here, and went for it. Didn’t even hear the alarm chime when I opened the door, I’ll wager. Should be totally ashamed. I could be The Killer come in here to get you both… but then you probably wouldn’t even care at this point.”

She picked up the shoes and the tie and trudged up the stairs not bothering to call out to let anyone know she was home. Leaving her parents’ belongings on the floor right outside their bedroom, she crossed the hall and went into her own room, softly closing that door behind her.

_________________________________________________

Jennifer woke with a gentle start, mildly aware of something having interrupted her sleep, but more immediately conscious of the smell and the sound of rain from the open window and of being spooned, skin-to-skin inside her husband’s warm body. She snuggled farther back into that best place to be on a cool, wet spring night, particularly after being apart from him and then so sweetly reuniting.

A thump.

She stiffened. Her senses further awakened.

An engine started up.

My car?

Easing Jonathan’s arm up from where it lie over her, no easy task since he was in a dead sleep behind her, she slid to the side of the bed and padded naked to the window, crossing her arms over her torso to block the damp night breeze as it lifted and parted the sheers just enough for her to witness her Mercedes pull away, traverse the roundabout, and head for the driveway leading to the front gate.

Stunned, the words struggled to make it to her tongue. “J- Jonathan, wake up. My car is leaving.”

“Hmp,” he jerked awake, and his hand automatically swiped at the pillow next to him. “Wha-?”

By this time, she was back at the side of the bed, stepping into her house slippers. “I said my car just left here, and I’m not in it.”

He sat up and switched on his lamp. “Your car?”

“Yes!” She had gone into the dressing room to snatch her robe and was on her way back out, tying it closed. “My car just drove away from where I parked it. I’m up here, and you’re up here, which means neither of us is down there behind the wheel of that car, so that’s a problem.”

“But who-” He flipped back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed to stand. “Did the girls come home?”

Jennifer headed to the bedroom door. “I don’t know. I was in here with you. I didn’t hear anyone come in, but-“ She opened it and almost stepped on her shoes and his tie, items earlier left downstairs, but which had somehow since made their way to the second floor.

With an idea of how that happened, she picked up their belongings and turned around with the intention of placing them inside the room. That was when she noticed the yellow sticky-note pressed to the door; however, Jonathan’s fingers plucked it off before she could. He read the message aloud while she silently scanned it.

“Mom- ABSOLUTE emergency. Took your car.  Will explain- Promise.”

“Please don’t kill her, darling,” Jonathan immediately plead, “She’s the only one I have. Just call her up and find out what’s going on.”

Jennifer left his side to reenter the room.

“It’s raining, Jonathan,’ she said, slowly walking to the other side of the bedroom to place the shoes on the floor and tie on the chair by the windows. “If I phoned her, and she answered, which she knows she’d better when I’m the one who’s calling, it would be a distraction to her driving my car in the rain in her obviously agitated, judgment-impaired state.”

She spoke with an odd calm, but when she turned back around to face him, vowing in no uncertain terms, “I’ll wait,” Jonathan detected in the honey-brown gone smoke-gray of his wife’s eyes that Justine, his only child, better have an extremely justifiable reason for clipping her mother’s car.

_____________________________________________________________

Later that night ….

Attempting to phone J.J. directly to find out what was going on with her might not have been wise given the circumstances at the time, but there was that other open avenue to explore. Once Jennifer went into the shower, that was exactly where Jonathan turned.

Hey, Mr. H.! Welcome home. How are you?

“Thank you. I’m well. Where are you?”

On my way to Tiff and Britt’s. Me and the girls were going to the movies, but we ran into Tiff and Britt and a couple other girls in the theatre lobby and changed our minds. We decided to hang out over at their house for a while instead. Listen to music, maybe watch some DVD’s.

“Are Mr. and Mrs. Landers at home, Marnie?”

Yessssss, they’re home. It’s legit this time. Tiff and Britt don’t do the sneak-party thing too much anymore, not since the episode last summer when they got caught at it big time.

“How do you know their parents are home?”

I know because I asked to be absolutely sure they were. I’m living with you these days, so I’m not trying to get caught wrong over things I can avoid. Lockdown is real at your house; there’s no crying or begging my way off like I could with my parents. No, it’s just us girls, pizza, Coke, and probably some gossip this time.Is something wrong?

“Have you spoken to J.J. lately?”

I did when we dropped her off at the house a while ago. She said she needed to study, so we took her home. What’s happened?

“She’s gone. Mrs. H. heard her car start up and saw it driving off. J.J. left a note saying there was some sort of emergency. We haven’t heard anything else from her yet, and that was about thirty-forty minutes ago. I was hoping you could tell me something.”

Oh shi- shoot, J. took the car? Are you telling me J. took her mother’s car without asking her?

He heard Marnie repeat what he told her to someone else, only “took” became “stole” in her version, then she came back on the line.

Look, do you think I could stay over at Tiff and Britt’s tonight?

Despite his growing agitation, Marnie’s attempt to separate herself from J.J. and the situation amused him.

“No, sweetie, you come home; you’ll be safe if you keep to your curfew. You, I can vouch for, but your friend, all I can say for her is she better have a real good story. Listen, if she does happen to phone you, you know what to tell her.”

Yeah, head for the hills. Did you try to call her? No, Mrs. H. doesn’t like us talking on the phone when we drive. She really wouldn’t want that with J.J. driving in her car, and it’s raining; J. would be dead if she picked up, and she’d be dead if she didn’t. What in the world was she thinking? What could be that bad or that pressing to make her do something that crazy? Come to think of it, I shouldn’t be talking to you on this phone while I’m driving.

“No you shouldn’t, so let’s wrap this up. You’re sure you have absolutely no idea whatsoever what’s going on with her?”

I’m sorry. I really don’t. Like I said, I thought she was home, studying.

Now, seated at his desk in the loft, he watched the video replay on his laptop of J.J. making her shift going into that final curve and beginning to pull away from the pack on her way to the finish line. His eyes studied J.J.’s running style, but his mind was on what she could be into at the moment that had her acting so irrationally.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could also see Jennifer, sitting on the couch in the great room below, facing the foyer.

In his mind, the image formed of a mature, majestic lioness. She lie, still and serene in the shade of some brush, not hiding, just patiently waiting for that one gazelle to tentatively tip its way into range. The young gazelle, swift by nature, would be innately aware of the potential for danger and warily on point because of it, but that wouldn’t change the outcome of the inevitable encounter.

Lioness one. Gazelle dead as hell.

Too much time had passed without word from J.J., and Jennifer had gone way too silent for too long. At the moment, her back was to him, but the bobbing house slipper dangling from the foot of her tightly crossed leg told him she was none too happy.

And she was counting.

As if sensing his vigilance, she broke the quiet without turning around to even see if he was still up there.

“I’m giving your daughter another ten minutes then I’m calling the police.”

She might not know where their daughter was, but Jennifer had him and his line of thought in clear focus. “And do not try to defend her to the cops when they get here.”

He didn’t think it would come to that, but he couldn’t say it for sure. Jennifer would not only be down there upset with J.J., but more than that, she would be worried about her. On the one hand, J.J. tended to be responsible when she had her mother’s car, the only vehicle she was allowed to drive other than Marnie’s, and it was J.J.’s habit to be fairly mature in her choices and decisions, but…

Very close to seventeen, J.J. was still only sixteen, and with ‘any age-teen’ came a healthy dose of impulsiveness. Something pretty serious had to have gone down to make J.J. leave the house in her mother’s car without securing proper permission to take it. That, along with it raining outside, made what might constitute “absolute emergency” to J.J. not register anywhere near that high on Jennifer’s scale.

He almost wished business had kept him in London one more day.

But being away wouldn’t have mattered. As soon as Jennifer phoned to let him know what happened- and she would have- the first jet headed to Los Angeles ….

Because both of them would have been in trouble.

Born with boundless curiosity, a healthy dose of fearlessness, and the sometimes maddening propensity to wander, it wasn’t unusual for J.J. to come up temporarily missing. Unfortunately, that trait was a most distressing one for her mother. With Jennifer, it went beyond what might be considered normal or expected maternal concern. He noticed that in her, J.J. being out of place sparked a deep, usually unspoken… terror almost; her threat to call the police as a first resort reflected that. In actuality, she could probably care less about the car, and maybe not a whole lot about J.J.’s taking it. J.J. wasn’t that impulsive; the ‘emergency’ had to be real for her. Jennifer’s fear would be over the actual motivation, where J.J. had gone, and into what she had gotten herself involved- the real reasons for J.J.’s mother calling in the troops.

The worrying thing for him a situation like this one was that sometimes Jennifer’s fear morphed into extreme, sometimes explosive anger once the prodigal strolled, typically unscathed and unfazed, back into the fold. That behavior did, indeed, make Justine Hart his child, and that would be the point at which he would need to intervene.

Where, he tapped a pencil against the desktop in wonder, could that girl have gone, and what in the world made her leave in that way? He hadn’t set eyes on her since his return to the States, and already she-

The gate buzzer sounded then flashed on the wall console across from him in the loft, letting him know someone with the code was coming in. Downstairs, Jennifer stiffened even more and crossed her arms. She would have caught the action from the foyer console.

Neither of them spoke. He shut the lid on the laptop and held his breath.

A long few minutes later, the lock turned, the house alarm chimed, and the door opened. Marnie stepped in.

She closed the door behind her, and then momentarily froze in place when she turned around and noticed Jennifer on the couch. From his spot above them, Jonathan honed in on the apprehension in Marnie’s widened eyes. He got up and started down the spiral staircase that would put him in the great room with Marnie and his wife.

______________________________________________________________

“Oh, h-hey, Mrs. H.”

Quickly recovering, at least outwardly so, Marnie flipped back her hood then unzipped her rain-spattered leather jacket as she  continued to warily eye Jennifer.

“Good evening, Marnie.” Jennifer checked her watch. “You’re home early. Where is J.J.?”

Marnie stayed put in her spot by the door. “Upstairs?”

“You know full well she is not.”

Marnie opened her mouth and got as far as “I- ”

“Darling, she really doesn’t know where J.J. is.”

Jonathan entered from the rear of the room and stopped where it put him slightly past the couch where Jennifer remained seated, between her and the terrified girl at the front door.

“I phoned Marnie while you were in the shower to see if she knew anything about where J.J. might have gone,” he admitted to Jennifer. “She didn’t.”

Jennifer shot him a look that let him know he was on the verge of messing up.

At that point Marnie came farther into the great room, but she stopped behind the other couch.

“I wasn’t trying to be funny or cagey when I said that, Mrs. H.  About J. being upstairs, I mean. I was really hoping that was where she was. When Mr. H. called me about J., I just dropped everyone else off and came home to see what was going on and if J. was all right. Good thing I did because… I… see… y-y-your car is parked on the road outside the front gates, b-but I didn’t see J. anywhere out there.”

Jennifer jumped up and rounded the couch, headed to her desk. “I’m calling the police this minute.”

Jonathan closed in on her and covered her hand with his when she grabbed the receiver. “Hold off on that for just a minute.”

He looked back to Marnie, whose eyes had gone wider than ever as she watched them. “What was the plan for tonight?”

Jennifer fussed as she attempted to pull her hand and the receiver up from where he had them held in place. “Jonathan, what are you doing? We’re wasting time. My baby is out there somewhere.”

On the inside, he frowned.

         Oh, she’s your baby now?

But he directed his spoken question to Marnie. “The plan?”

Marnie talked fast.

“After we left the induction ceremony, we went to get something to eat. Then we decided to go to the movies, but we still had to pick up Daria, and the times didn’t jive. J.J. had already seen the movie we decided to see, so she said she wanted to come home and study, and she said she would go get Daria when Daria called to be picked up so that way the rest of us wouldn’t have to leave the movie early. But then you called me about J. being gone in her mother’s car. We kicked it around about where we thought she might have gone because it was way too early for Daria’s party to be over. Then we tried calling J. to see if we could get in touch with her, but she didn’t pick up, so then I got nerv-”

“Call security,” he said to Jennifer, releasing her hand, “not the police just yet. Tell dispatch to put the guys on patrol on alert.”

“Security? Jonath- ”

He stalked through the great room to the foyer where he snatched a set of keys from the case by the door. “Trust me, sweetheart. I’ve got a strong hunch about all this. I’m going to look for her. Come on, Marnie.”

He took Marnie’s jacket from her arm and held it out behind her so she could put it back on. When she slipped her arms in, he pulled the hood up on her head, telling her, “You run me down to the gate, so I can get the car.”

He turned back to Jennifer who had the phone to her ear. “Listen, before you set your mind to letting me have it later over shutting you out of things, I’m only leaving you here because one, Marnie’s coming right back once she drops me off, and two, you need to be here in case J.J. happens to turn up at home before I can locate her out there.”

Jennifer nodded and waved, urging him be on his way, and turned away to speak into the receiver. He reached again for Marnie, but she wasn’t there. She was in the closet grabbing a jacket she stuffed into his arms, telling him, “You’ll need this,” as she passed him on her way to the door.

_________________________________________________

He had Marnie drop him off just inside the gates, and he ran from there out to the car. It was locked, and other than being parked way to the side of the road rather than inside the gates and in front of the house, nothing about it looked out of place. When he opened the door, and the interior lights popped on, the first thing he noticed was J.J.’s phone lying face down on top of the console box between the front seats.

In a hurry.

J.J. tended to be proactive about safeguarding her belongings, yet she hadn’t taken the time to put her phone out of sight inside the box. Stranger still, she hadn’t taken it or her driver’s license with her. The license was tucked inside the phone case.

In a hurry- and pissed off maybe?

He pressed the side button on the phone to light the display. Nothing unusual there; a few notifications of missed calls. He checked her phone log. The last completed transmission had been from her phone.

Um-hmm.

He started the car and pulled out, keeping to the direction the car currently faced. In his head he began weaving the threads he’d gathered so far.

Willow Pond Drive was a little over five miles long, with their estate, the largest on that road, sitting almost exactly at the midway point. If J.J. was on foot, she would have gotten out and taken off going forward rather than turning around to go in the opposite direction. If she was angry, she was running. She most likely left the phone behind to keep it from getting wet or otherwise damaged while she ran, or she could have been in that much of a hurry that she inadvertently left it behind. In either scenario, her identification, the license, just happened to be inside the case.

Dangerous moves on her part, but anger sometimes pushed even the smartest and most careful people into questionable judgment.

But if J.J. had taken off on foot, and was running because she was angry, she would do that inside Bel Air where her familiarity with the area would lend itself to her feeling relatively safe in the night. For the same reason, she would stay on Willow Pond Road.

But how long had she been out there?

J.J. could do 2.5 miles in a heartbeat. In that direction, she could only have gone so far because the road itself only went so far before it cut off completely. Marnie said she had attempted to reach J.J., but got no response. How soon after talking with him had Marnie tried to phone J.J.? Could that lack of response have been because J.J. ignored the call, or because the phone was in the car, and she was already out of it doing her thing?

He prayed one of those be the case and that the hunch he had about her and the situation as a whole was solid. What a fiasco it could turn out to be if he was completely wrong about everything. How would he make up the loss of time to Jennifer? How could he live with himself?

His instincts usually didn’t let him down, but there was a first time for everything.

Please, God don’t let this be that first time.

_________________________________________________

Marnie took her time driving back to the house. Under the circumstances, she was in no rush to be alone with J.J.’s mother. She understood far too well that nothing disturbed Mrs. H. more than J.J. not being where she was supposed to be. How bad was this that not only was J.J. AWOL, but absent without leave, in her mother’s car, on a rainy night? And then, to make matters worse, mysteriously gone again after abandoning the car just outside the safety of home.

Marnie stopped her car in the middle of the bridge road to close her eyes, bow her head, and tightly clasp her hands.

Please let it be that my crazy friend is just off doing something crazy. Don’t let it be that somebody crazy has gotten to her. Please.

It didn’t make sense that J.J. would take off in the car on some emergency, but only go as far as just outside the front gate. If she did have something she had to do in a hurry that necessitated taking off to someplace else without permission in her mother’s car , why would she bring the car back to the house, but not bring it inside, park it, and come in?

Too scared to face the Duchess?

Maybe, but that would have to happen sooner or later, and it wasn’t like J.J. to put off the inevitable. One of the things people admired about J.J. was the way she dealt with difficult situations head-on. J.J. was the one who advised everybody against trying to think up a lie or otherwise avoid a troublesome situation with a parent once a back was against the wall.

Just “man- or woman- up and face the music. Just go ahead and get the drama out of the way,” she’d say. “What can they do? Kill you? They won’t because they’d go to jail. You can live through anything else they might do to you.”

But….

What could have happened to make J.J. leave like that in the first place?

Or, was going home to study just a set up for getting back out alone?

Not J. She’s been stressing about that test for a while. This had to be deep and all of a sudden. Teddy’s prom is next week, and then her birthday party is right after that; she wouldn’t risk having to give either one of them up for something this bizarre, but her ass might not be off lockdown from this episode until she’s twenty-one.

Damn.

Why didn’t she come back home if she got that close with the car?

Did she bring the car back, or-

Where in the world could she be?

Doesn’t make sense at all.

God, I Know I don’t pray as much as they say I’m supposed to, and this is my second one for the night, but this is pretty big. Watch over my girl. Please.

She moved her foot from the brake, but jerked it back and bowed her head one more time.

And once J. makes it back home, please, please don’t let the Duchess kill the hell out of her- or me- once I get back up to this house with her all by myself. You know I didn’t even do anything.

Amen.

She slowly pulled off and continued up to the main house. She parked at the front door leaving space for the Mercedes once it returned. Then she got out and ran for shelter from the rain, stopping to cross herself before opening the front door.

…and I’m not even Catholic. But it can’t hurt…

… Amen. 

She crossed herself one more time for good measure and went in.

_________________________________________________

From the doorway, Jennifer scanned J.J.’s bedroom looking for anything glaringly unusual or out of place. When nothing immediately stood out to her, aside from Third, who hopped off the bed to come to her when she opened the door, she went in to take a look around.

The outfit J.J. wore to the induction ceremony now dressed the valet hanger suspended from the top of the open closet door. Quite normal. A basically tidy girl, J.J. usually hung her better things there first to put away in the closet later. The dressy pumps were still next to the bed, one upright and one lying on its side, where she had stepped out of them.

Her backpack sat in the big chair by the window. Since it was already unzipped, the snooping inside wouldn’t be as blatant. Not that it mattered. J.J. Hart was out of order and missing at the moment, so as far as Mama was concerned…

Standing over the bag, the shoebox stuffed down inside of it was the first thing she noticed. She didn’t even have to pull it out; the evidence presented itself on the label: size 6.5 “Butterfly” ballerina flat. Nobody in the house wore that size, but a little someone at St. Augustine Children’s Residence probably did.

With that deduction made, she turned her attention to J.J.’s desk.

The lamp had been left on, the chair pulled out and turned as if J.J. had just gotten up with the intention of coming right back. An open textbook, a spiral notebook, and some papers and pencils littered the desktop. Closer examination of those items revealed the book to be a math text; the notebook J.J.’s math notes, and the papers class handouts with her notations and marker highlights. Jennifer slowly shook her head at the content. A junior in high school, the girl was already tackling college-level math and science classes.

… yet she remains every bit sixteen and unpredictable…

Lord, please….

She moved the mouse to wake the sleeping desktop computer, and was immediately greeted by a screen saver of J.J. with an eye patch and a shirtless Tommy Steele wearing a cast on his wrist, both images reflective of injuries the kids incurred the previous summer. J.J. had blended them into one picture over which she superimposed the words, “How We Roll”.

Indeed.

Good he’s rolling in Spain, otherwise I’d be concerned he was your so-called “absolute emergency”.

After all, hadn’t he stolen his mother’s car to get to J.J. in the not too distant past? Hadn’t J.J. given him safe harbor in their guest house when his own mother, in anger and frustration with him, put her son out of her house? J.J. Hart was no big fan of males of the species as a whole, but there were a few exceptions.

Her father.

Pa.

The twins.

Teddy.

Thomas Jordan Steele… who would most definitely fit this sort of bill had he been in trouble and in close enough proximity- anywhere in the state- for her to get to him.

But he wasn’t.

So, where on earth is my child, and what on earth is going on with her?

Stifling once more that threatening tsunami of panic, she forced back the wave, refocused, and clicked past the screen saver to the Windows desktop screen.

Icons only. No open programs. Internet down.

Turning away from the desk to pan the rest of the room, taking in the furniture, the walls and shelves full of J.J.’s assorted posters, photos, plaques, certificates, and trophies; her eyes stopped at the bed, specifically the pillows closest to the night table.

I wonder.

She sat down on the bed, and immediately her eyes went to those of her own mother’s staring into hers from the antiqued gilt framed photograph J.J. kept on the night table. She slid her hand under the pillows until her fingers made contact with the book J.J. kept there when she was at home, her gaze never leaving her mother’s.

Wouldn’t you go this far if it was me who was missing?

Then Third jumped up on the bed, nudging at her hand, the one under the pillows, with his nose. Sighing, she left the book where it was and gathered the pooch in her arms instead. J.J. said she left due to an emergency; there was likely nothing to be found in her journal about that. Jonathan said he had a hunch about things; for the time being, she would have to trust in that and in him.  He was rarely wrong about their child, particularly when said child was operating like her father.

But she’s not a boy, and so much can- Please, oh please, don’t let this be Jonathan’s first t-….

Out of answers, she released the dog, dropped her face into her hands, and collapsed backward onto the bed.

The door alarm chirped; Third yipped and jumped up in alert. She sprang forward to rush into the hall where she could see down into the foyer. On his job, Third bounded past her and down the stairs.

It was Marnie returned from driving Jonathan down to the gate. She dropped her purse in the chair by the door, pushed off her hood, then shed her jacket to take it to the closet.

Jennifer turned around to go back and close J.J.’s door before heading downstairs to see to Marnie and wait for-

The alarm chirped again. She shot back to the railing.

A thin hooded figure in drenched grey sweats pulled itself in and closed the door back by leaning on it. She heard a small scream followed by, “What the hell? Where- What’s hap-”

But the figure pushed off and propelled itself through the foyer toward the hall. The thump followed by fussing, a door slam, and more thumping told her Marnie had likely been barreled over.

By the time she made it to the first floor and into that hall, Marnie stood pounding on the locked powder room door, demanding to be let in. Jennifer took hold of the small fist and eased the hysterical girl back against the other wall, speaking softly to her. “Stop. Just hold on a minute.”

She held onto Marnie and her hand until Marnie quieted. “Calm down, sweetie. You let me handle this.”

Marnie, her alarm and agitation considerably lowered by her presence on the scene, nodded, took a deep breath in and blew out a resigned, “Okay, Mrs. H.”

Jennifer turned back to the door with the intent of placing her ear to it. But she didn’t have to; by that time the choking and retching from the other side was loud enough to be heard from where she and Marnie stood.

_________________________________________________

The larger estates occupied the northern section of Willow Pond Drive, so traffic and municipal lighting on that end were minimal. The roadway ended in a meticulously landscaped, privately lit cul-de-sac. Jonathan slowly maneuvered the roundabout scanning every length and width. The rain continued to fall in translucent sheets, but the car’s wipers, as if they understood the importance of his mission and shared his concern, worked overtime to keep clear his line of vision.  Had J.J. been anywhere in the immediate area, he couldn’t have missed her.

Her phone, riding in the passenger seat, had begun buzzing. Most likely her friends concerned and trying to find out what was going on, setting the airwaves afire with inquiries into J.J.’s uncharacteristic behavior.

Driving back in the direction from which he had just come, he fought to keep any ember of self-doubt from flaming. She had to be out there. He couldn’t be that wrong about her.

Or could that hunch he felt so strongly about a short time ago actually be denial? That was his child, his daughter, alone and missing in the Los Angeles night. Could those factors have skewed his instincts? After all…

… got nothing to do with the neighborhood. Bad things can happen everywhere, and… no, not going there.

The car had been locked. No sign of struggle. And J.J. would most certainly have fought like hell if- …. left a sign of some kind for him if-

He shuddered and with a quick shake of the head intensified his survey of the pavement the high beams illuminated before him. His girl was out there, of that he was certain, and her Daddy was on his way to her.

But the sight of the open gates to his home as he passed them agitated that silt-like layer of apprehension lining the pit of his gut; he swallowed hard to resettle it and pushed on.

About a mile down, where the smaller properties sat closer together and the lighting increased, his phone rang. In his haste, he hadn’t bothered with fastening the seat belt, but he did have to raise up to get the cell out of his back pocket.  In the effort, it flipped from his fumbling fingers onto the passenger seat. Cursing his clumsiness while keeping his eyes on road, he felt for it, grabbed it up, and clicked in.

It was Marnie.

“Mr. H. Come home. She’s here.”

He pulled to the side of the road, pressed on the hazard lights, lay his damp forehead against the steering wheel, and let the flood of relief wash completely over him. He had not lay eyes on his daughter since his return home; he could not imagine….

But he didn’t have to; she was there, waiting for him to do just that.

It was a long few minutes before his hands stopped shaking, and he could pick his head back up, put the car in gear, and make the u-turn back to Willow Pond.

_________________________________________________

Jennifer stayed pressed against the door, waiting out the more troubling sounds from the locked powder room. When they ceased and gasps followed by heavy uneven breathing were all she could hear, she rattled the knob.

“J.J.?”

No answer.

She rattled the knob again. “J.J., open this door.”

The toilet flushed, followed by some rustling and movement. Then the lock clicked. Jennifer moved back, but when the door didn’t open, she took the initiative. At first, the room appeared empty, but the door would only open so far, bumping against something behind it. She stepped all the way in and looked around to the other side.

Huddled in the corner, arms locked around drawn up legs, face pressed against her knees sat J.J. Her entire body trembled, her hoodie and sweat pants so saturated, a wet trail marked her slide from the commode to her current location. Next to her, keeping vigil, sat Third.

Maternal concern instantly overrode anger and anxiety. Jennifer shooed the dog out of the room, then pushed the door closed behind him and dropped to squat in front of the girl on the floor.

“J.J.?”

No reaction. No acknowledgment of any kind of her presence.

She placed a hand over one of J.J.’s . “Justine Hart, I know you hear me.”

J.J. didn’t move, but she did murmur into her knees, “Please tell me Daddy has your car.”

Initially puzzled by the hard-to-hear, seemingly odd request, Jennifer quickly deciphered the question, more so the terror behind it. “Yes, he has it. He’s out there looking for you. Nobody’s done anything illegal with my car- except you.”

A quietly wheezed, “Thank you, Jeee-sus,” resulted from that answer, but nothing else.

Jennifer wedged a hand underneath J.J.’s chin, used it to raise her head, and was shocked at the condition of the girl’s face. Along with being sick, J.J. was crying, and going by her swollen eyes, beet red nose, and mottled complexion, she’d been doing it a very long time.

“What is wrong? What on earth is going on with you? Has someone done something to you? Please tell me-”

Her chin still in her mother’s hold but with her eyes squeezed shut, J.J. shook her head. “No. Nobody- Not me. I’m- I’m so sorry. I- I- Mom, I hate people sometimes. I really do.”

And she broke down again, jerking her chin from her mother’s hand to return her face to her legs.

“Hush,” Jennifer urged as she kneeled to hug J.J. to her. “Look, we do need to talk, but first you have got to get out of these wet clothes.”

J.J. nodded against her shoulder. “Thirty minutes?”

“I’ll give you forty this time. I need for you to make sure that hair gets good and dry.”

” ‘kay.”

After throwing J.J.’s limp arm across her shoulders and holding it there with one hand to her wrist, Jennifer used her body to help her daughter up from the floor.

_________________________________________________

With all his family finally safe inside, Jonathan locked the door and headed from there up the front stairs.  From the hall he could see Jennifer. She had remade the bed and with her back to him, was removing items from the suitcase he hadn’t taken the time earlier to empty.

“Where is she?” he asked from the doorway.

Jennifer didn’t turn around or stop what she was doing. “Taking a shower.”

“How is she?”

“Soaked to the skin. And sick. And upset.”

“She’s here, Jonathan.”

That was all she said, just three words in that call he got from her right behind Marnie’s, but in those three words, he heard it. He closed the bedroom door behind himself and went to her, sliding his arms about her waist and pressing his cheek to hers. “Are you all right?”

She shook her head, and her voice cracked when she spoke. “I- I was so scared for her. I hate when she does things like that. What was she doing out there? Where had she been?” Then she sighed, shook her head, and her body softened inside his hold. “This has been one heck of a homecoming for you, hasn’t it?”

He turned her around to face him, took the folded shirts from her hands and tossed them onto the bed. Then he wrapped her up and held her close. “You made sure I had the best possible homecoming before any of this went down. This hiccup with J.J., believe it or not, this is what I used to pray for long ago- the opportunity, the chance to go through those things a father is supposed to go through with his kid. For good and for the not so good, I am her father, and in that capacity, I’m grateful to have been here. I’m even happier she’s home again and she’s safe. Where’s Marnie?”

“Out of the line of fire. She’s in her room, waiting for Daria to call to be picked up.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.”  He released Jennifer and moved the shirts from the bed back to the suitcase so he could sit down, “Tell me what happened while I was out.”

Jennifer resumed the unpacking as she described J.J.’s return.

“I had come up here to check out J.J.’s room to see if there was any indication of what was going on with her, but when I heard the door alarm chime, I went to the stairs to see who it was. It was Marnie coming in from taking you out to the car. But then J.J. came in right behind her, scaring Marnie half to death, almost knocking her down to get to the hall restroom.

“J.J. locked herself and the dog inside to throw up- the little fool goes anywhere he can with her, even to throw up. By the time I got down there, I had to calm Marnie before I could even begin to try to get in to J.J. When I did finally get J.J. together enough to make it upstairs, Marnie was already up here, peeking out of her bedroom door. Marnie’s door was closed when I came back out of J.J.’s room, but I checked on her anyway; she said she was all right and that she was going to stay up and wait for Daria to call to be picked up from the party. Do you think this has something to do with Daria?”

“How much time did you give J.J. in the bathroom?”

“Forty minutes. She’s got about twenty left before she’s due in here.”

“I heard you say she was sick and upset when she got home, and that you wanted her out of those wet clothes, but did she say anything at all to you?”

“That she was sorry, and that she hated people.”

Jennifer gathered the shirts and the last of his things in her arms. “And I asked you if you thought this had something to do with Daria.”

He shut the emptied suitcase, fastened it, and moved it from the bed to the floor. When Jennifer returned from placing the items in his dressing room, she came to stand over him with her hands on her hips. “Well?”

He gestured for her to sit down on the bed next to him.

“I’ve been thinking,” he began once she was settled.

“I’m sure you have been, which is why I asked you-”

“-that, J.J. would only have had an ‘absolute emergency’ with your car over someone she cared a whole lot about. She’s not going to stick her neck out that far for just anyone or anything; she is not going to risk losing driving privileges on a whim or over something trivial. You’ve been very generous with allowing her to use your car when she’s needed to, and she seems to have been pretty responsible with it.”

“Yes, she has been that,” Jennifer said, crossing her arms and cupping her chin with two fingers. “Even when it came to that suspect damp spot on the back passenger carpeting.”

His head tilted at the mention. “You ever find out what that was all about?”

“I didn’t ask,” she said with a wave of one hand, “but I think I pretty much have it figured out. That was the night she came in very late, dangerously past curfew even for her. I’m thinking someone got sick in the car- God only knows who and from what- and she had it cleaned up before bringing it home, which is why she was so late getting here. Hector and Philly’s uncle owns that twenty-four hour detailing facility. They do excellent work, as evidenced by the lack of unpleasant smell from my back seats. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed anything at all if it hadn’t been for my bag bottom giving way when I went to pull it out when I got home from shopping the next day. That day the car was cleaner than when she left in it, the gas tank was full, and by that time I had already put my tardy daughter on restriction, an action for which she uncharacteristically offered no resistance or protest at all. In that instance, whatever happened, she had taken care of her business; I took care of mine, so there was no real need for her to go into detail. It certainly wasn’t like she was going to divulge anything on her own.” Jennifer shrugged and waved those expressive fingers one more time. “We left it at that.”

Jonathan considered his wife’s more than likely spot-on deductions. “J.J. and Marnie sure have developed some strong connections in this town.”

“Yes, they certainly have.” Jennifer’s tense posture relaxed, and she uncrossed her arms to wrap one around his. “I have to give it to them, they do network pretty well; too well at times, but darling, do please get back to what you were saying about J.J.”

At her request, he shunted the conversation back onto the main track.

“The way I see it, you and I were here at the house. Marnie was out and about in her own car with the other girls. Chase is at away at school. Tommy’s in Spain. That only left Daria when it came to people I could think of that J.J. would go to odd lengths for. Daria’s a kid, J.J. apparently cares for her, and she would feel responsible for her since, essentially, she checked her out of the residence. The girls were supposed to pick her up from the party, but Marnie said J.J. opted to come home to study instead of hanging out until Daria called for them. J.J. might very well have felt the need to hit her books, but I’m thinking the reason she really did that was to stay close to the phone and the car.”

“But why? The party wasn’t supposed to be over until eleven.”

“I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for her on that. Keep in mind, what I’ve come up with so far is just supposition on my part based on the factors I mentioned that, in reality, are also only suppositions on my part.”

She patted the arm she still held. “You, Jonathan, are the best when it comes to suppositions. When I called security to let them know J.J. was back home, I was at the same time thanking the heavens for you and about how you were so right about her being out there.”

“Well, I have to admit I had a moment there, when I made it all the way down to the cul de sac and hadn’t seen her, where a little doubt tried to creep up on me. But if she was as sick as you say when she got back here, she must have run the entire length of Willow Pond, up to and around the roundabout, all the way down the other direction, and back. And judging by when she made it back here, she ran that five miles hard. That’s how I missed her. She was already on her way back from the other end.”

“Which would explain why she was so wet and spent when she made it back here. But running in the rain? In the night? Again, why? What is this about?”

“Wait on her,” he said as he got up. “We’ve got a couple minutes. I’m going to get a quick shower.”

He grabbed the suitcase to put it away in the utility closet in the back while Jennifer rose from the bed to prepare for the family meeting, all the while thinking to herself that Jonathan had more of a line on things than he was admitting.

_________________________________________________

After the hot shower, J.J. made a half-hearted effort with her hair but found herself too drained and out of sorts to do the job it would take to be thorough about it. She switched off the dryer and lay her head down on the vanity. The cool ceramic against her forehead momentarily settled the jitteriness of her limbs and soothed the lingering agitation of her spirit. But, mindful of her time constraints, she reached for the hairbrush, sat up, and fashioned her thick, damp mane into a twist that she looped, wound, then tucked into a knot on top of her head.

Just as she finished putting the items on the counter back in order, there came a knock to the bathroom door followed by, “J., you decent? Can I come in?”

Until that moment, it had slipped her mind about Marnie being home.

“Yeah, hold on, I’m coming.”

She attempted to get up, but when that seemed more of an effort than her body cared to expend, she switched to, “On second thought, come on in, Marn.”

The door opened just enough for Marnie to peek inside. “I’m really not trying to see your behind or anything.”

J.J. weakly laughed. “Nah, I’m good. I brought the nightgown in here with me just in case the Duchess came back to check on me. She doesn’t always knock when she’s on a mission, and her target happens to be my throat. Naked behinds and such don’t even faze her in those instances.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been there when she’s done you. I felt for you at the time, but was happy it wasn’t me.”

Marnie came in and slid onto the vanity bench with J.J. “You scared the crap out of me downstairs. You looked like hell. In fact, you still do.”

“Gee, thanks,” J.J. murmured as she checked out her splotchy complexion and puffy eyes in the mirror. “Sorry about almost knocking you down when I came in. It was either that or puke on you. I figured you’d prefer getting up off the floor to the other.”

“And don’t think your consideration in the matter went unappreciated. That was a new sweater I had on. Hugged my boobs just right to get maximum attention from the opposite sex.”

J.J.’s eyes met Marnie’s in the mirror. “And from some of this sex, too, I’ll bet, while you’re talking.”

They bumped shoulders in amusement. “You are crazy, girl,” Marnie said then the mood quickly sobered. “So what’s the story?”

“What story? How come you’re home so early?”

“Don’t play. Your father called me looking for you after you took off in your mother’s car. He said she saw you when you left, and you hadn’t asked her for the car. Said you said you had some kind of emergency. It was something with Daria, wasn’t it?”

J.J. avoided Marnie’s probing stare in the mirror. “Yeah.”

“After I thought about it some, I figured it had to be her. She’s back at home?”

“Yeah.”

“Feel like talking about it?”

“No. But I have to. The Duchess has called me on the carpet. I have an appointment to meet her and, I guess, Daddy in their room in a few. I hate going in there for stuff like this. Creeps me out at the best of times to be in there.”

“Why? Because being on their turf when you’re in trouble makes you nervous? I already know you don’t like it because that’s where they do it, although, for me, that ups the appeal. Possible tips by osmosis.”

J.J. rolled her eyes at a grinning Marnie. “Both, you nasty girl. But as for telling what happened, you come with me, and then I’ll only have to tell it the one time.”

Marnie’s grin morphed into pursed-lip skepticism. “J., this is some family stuff. I don’t know if the Duchess wants me in there. You stole her car. I don’t know if I want to be in there. I’m your girl, and I have your back on most things, but thieving the Duchess’s car, that’s a bit much, even for me.”

“I did not steal the car.”

“Whatever.”

J.J. slowly got up and went to get her robe from the hook on the back of the door. She put it on and began snapping it closed. “Look, I’ve said this time and again; when you opted after Christmas break to stay with us for the rest of the school year rather than go with Pat to New York, you became part of this household, for bad, for indifferent, and for good.”

Marnie stood up from the bench, keeping her eyes on J.J. “Why are you so shaky? You still sick?”

“Of a whole lot of crap, Marn.”

“Where did you go once you got back here with the car that I didn’t see you out there when I pulled in? What were you doing out there that you got so wet?”

J.J. opened the bathroom door and gestured for Marnie to go through. “Come on. Let’s go get this over with.”

Marnie walked past her. “I gotta give it to you, though, J., if you were a guy, I’d tell you that have got some balls getting the Duchess for her car. In any case, this one is definitely going in the book.”

_________________________________________________

Jennifer was sitting at her secretary when Jonathan returned to the bedroom from his shower. Now dressed in pajamas and robe, he used his hands to smooth his damp hair back from his face. She looked up from her writing and smiled.

“Have told you how good it is to have you back?” She put down the pen, closed the book, and got up to come around the desk and to meet him. “I really missed you, especially at night like this.”

Standing before her, he pulled back his shoulders, puffed out his chest, and sucked in his midsection. “Missed this body, huh?”

She stepped into his arms, and lay her head on his chest. “Missed you, period. You smell so good. Too bad all of this craziness with J.J. couldn’t have happened tomorrow or the next day, and not on your first night back.”

He tipped up her face with a finger to her chin and planted his mouth on hers in a way that soon had her knees weakening. Breathless when he ended it, she opened her eyes to find him gazing into her face.

“Jennifer, you always make my first nights back from these deadly dull business trips so worth the wait. Absence from you definitely makes this Hart’s heart grow fonder, and there’s nothing better than coming home to you. As for the J.J. craziness, we will be parents for as long as it takes our daughter to explain herself, and once she’s appropriately handled and sent on her way, I am going to make your first night back with me worth your while.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And what about tomorrow night? And the next? Even though you’ll have been back longer, and they might not be as eventful or crazy?”

“Oh, they’ll be eventful. You up for my kind of crazy?”

She winked. “When have I not been?”

He laughed and squeezed her to him. “I just love you, Red.”

The knock they awaited sounded, and reluctantly they let each other go. Jonathan went to the door while Jennifer went back to her desk.

He had every intention of appearing firm in the face of his daughter’s transgressions, but one look at her face, and all resolve vanished. Their eyes met, her features crumpled, and instinct kicked in; he gathered his distressed girl in his arms.

“Oh, d-daddy,” was all she managed to croak before she buried her face in his chest.

Over J.J.’s shoulder, he saw Marnie’s eyes well and spill over only she turned away as if to retreat. His heart further melting, he caught her by the shoulder and also drew her to his side.

“Am I that hideous that the two of you are frightened to tears at the sight of me?”

Both girls gasped and simultaneously looked up at him with “Are you for real?” written on their faces.

J.J. pressed her forehead to his shoulder. “That’s not funny.”

Marnie grinned through her tears and wiped her eyes with her sweatshirt sleeve. “Nah, you’re still cute, Mr. H. J.J. crying made me cry. It’s two for one with us.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He kept his arms around the girls as he turned around to take them into the bedroom. Once inside, he let them go. He sat on the foot of the bed. J.J., on her way past the desk to the other side of the room, was stopped by her mother who held out to her a bottle of clear liquid, telling her, “Drink this, you’ll need it.”

“Water?” J.J. screwed up her face then skimmed the label. “With electrolytes. Oh, I see. Okay, thank you.”

Marnie, right behind J.J., also hesitated at the desk. “It is okay if I’m here, isn’t it?”

Jennifer patted the small hand pressed to the desktop. “You’re fine, Marnie. You’re family now; you should be here.”

Jonathan shot Jennifer a wink of approval.

Her full acceptance of Marnie was yet another one of those things that fed the flame of his love for the woman he had the good fortune to encounter and then the good sense to ask to be his wife, his partner in life.

They all gave J.J. a few moments to get settled, but not without Jennifer fussing at her.

“Drink that up. I can see your hands shaking from here. And is your hair still wet? I thought I told you to make sure it was thoroughly dried.”

“I am drinking it,” J.J. weakly protested as she raised the opened bottle to her lips. She made no attempt to address her mother’s concerns about her hair.

“Drink all of it,” Marnie ordered as she scooted over to lie back on the fainting couch behind J.J. who opted to sit on the side of it, “and drink it fast so it can work quick. You were shaking like crazy before we even got in here, and I don’t care about ratting you out on that. In the bathroom, I didn’t think it was your nerves, although- “

She slid her eyes to Jennifer and switched tracks, “well, anyway, you have that tennis match in the morning, and I need you to kick Lannie Winters’ butt. I mean, I like her and everything; don’t get me wrong, it’s not personal, but I’m going to still need you to do that. She’s good, but she’s not as good as you.”

Jonathan sensed a bet on the line, but under the present set of circumstances, and with Jennifer in the room, it wasn’t the best time to make inquiry into it. With J.J.’s current impaired physical state coupled with her earlier questionable behavior, it wouldn’t be that far outside the realm of possibility for Jennifer to put the kibosh on J.J.’s participation in the match altogether. Mentally tabling his suspicion about any possible wagering, he instead turned to J.J. and opened up the topic at hand.

“Well?”

J.J. swallowed, took a deep breath, and looked to her mother. “I’m sorry I took your car without asking you, but I had to leave right away. It was unavoidable. I didn’t want to bother you, and-”

“Didn’t want to bother me? About taking off in my car, without my permission, in the rain, and at night?”

Jonathan held up a hand to Jennifer, urging , “Let her finish, darling,” which earned him an eye roll and an impatient sigh.

“It really couldn’t wait,” J.J. insisted. “I had to go. See, it was Daria. She had run away from the party, and she- she needed me to come get her. She was out there in the dark and in the rain all by herself, and- and I couldn’t risk you holding me up with a lot of questions about where I was going or waiting for you to get dressed to go with me like I know you would have if I had taken the time to tell you what was up. I had to go right away. There simply wasn’t time.”

Jonathan kept his focus on Jennifer who, from her seat behind the desk, warily scrutinized her daughter. From the expression on her face he could tell she was processing the nuances behind J.J.’s claims about not wanting to bother her, not wanting her to stop what she was doing “to get dressed”.

Marnie sprang forward to clutch J.J.’s arm. “Why did Daria run from that party? What happened? Did somebody do something to her?”

J.J. lowered her head to swipe at her pooling eyes and murmured to no one in particular, “Why did they have to be so mean? Those girls have so much, and Daria doesn’t have anything or anybody, and they had to do that to her.”

When J.J.’s body wracked with the single sob she couldn’t subdue, Marnie let go of J.J.’s sleeve and patted her back. Jennifer snatched tissues from the box on the desk, got up, and went to the couch to sit next to J.J. pushing the tissues into her daughter’s free hand.

“Hate is a strong word, Justine. Wipe your eyes, drink the rest of that water, and finish telling us what happened.”

Marnie remained sitting upright with a hand to J.J.’s shoulder. “What did those little bit- heif- girls do to her?

“They made fun of her dress,” J.J. said, her voice a pained whisper.

“Her dress?” Still seated, Jennifer’s hands went to her hips. “But Daria was gorgeous. You girls had done a wonderful job getting her ready for the ceremony. I was so proud of all of you for urging her to complete the process, helping her with her outfit when she got selected for induction, getting her hair done up. She was so pretty and so happy. What on earth could anyone possibly have found to make fun of her about?”

J.J. kept her head down as she spoke. “It turned out the dress was donated by one of the girls at the party. Even though we had it cleaned and pressed, and it was altered to fit Daria, Alissa Dobbins recognized it as her old dress, and she started blabbing to the others. You know the boy that gave Daria the flowers?”

“I don’t know him,” Jennifer said, “but I did see it when he did that. I thought it a very thoughtful gesture since Daria didn’t have a father there to do that for her like the other girls.”

“Wait. Hold on. Don’t tell me.” Marnie, eyes narrowed from processing it all, held up the flat of one hand. “The dress-girl, that Alissa, likes the boy who gave Daria the flowers, so that was her way of getting back at Daria for getting the play from him, and him not paying that kind of attention to her- calling Daria out and embarrassing her in front of the boy and everybody else over the damned dress.”

Marnie gasped and that hand flew to her mouth while her eyes darted to both adults as she quickly apologized. “I’m so sorry.”

Jonathan deadpanned it to keep any hint of his amusement at Marnie’s unfortunate gaffe from showing on his face. Jennifer, noticing his reaction, closed her eyes in exasperation before quietly allowing, “It’s all right, sweetie. This time I was thinking the same damned thing.” She nudged J.J. “Keep going.”

J.J. inhaled deeply and slowly released before resuming her tale.

“Daria tried to play it off, making like what they were saying didn’t bother her, but she was really hurt. As soon as she got the chance, she acted like she was going to the restroom, but she actually cut out of there altogether. She told me her intention was to walk back to St. Augustine’s on her own, but she realized once she got out there that she had no idea where she was going. It had gotten dark so she couldn’t get her bearings, and then it started to rain. She got even more scared when she didn’t even know how to make it back to the house she’d left from.”

For Jonathan, the border of the puzzle was in place; it was time to go to work completing the picture. “So how did she get to you if she was out there wandering around on her own?”

To answer him, J.J. finally raised her head. “I had given her my other phone, the little one, just in case. I had no idea something like this would come up. I told her to hold onto it because I didn’t feel all that comfortable about her being in a strange place without a phone of her own for an emergency. Then, too, she wouldn’t have to ask to use a phone when she was ready to be picked up if she had one of her own. She said she tried not to, but she finally had to break down and use it to call me when she realized she was lost.”

He felt he had the answer already, but asked anyway. “So if she had no idea where she was, how did you locate her?”

“I have both my phones set to locate each other. She had the little phone, and I had my regular one, so I had a line on the general area she was in. Once I got close, I turned on the flashers on the car and told her to look for me. She guided me to her.”

It was what he had surmised when he checked out the phone left in Jennifer’s car, but there was one other thing he needed confirmed. “And who told you what happened to Daria at the party?”

At that question, all heads turned in his direction. J.J. sat all the way up and honed in on her father’s face. “Why do you ask me that? How did you know I didn’t get it from Daria?”

Jonathan shifted position, inclining his body a bit more in the direction of his family. He leaned forward to rest his arms on his thighs. “J.J., Daria wouldn’t have told you what happened. I’ve met her; that little girl may not have much, but she is very proud. She would have been too hurt and embarrassed to share that experience with someone like you.”

J.J. jerked as if taken aback. “Like me?”

“Someone she considers to have it all and to have it all together,” Jonathan explained. “She only involved you in coming to get her because she didn’t have a choice. If she could have made it back to St. Augustine on her own, that’s exactly what she would have done.”

By that time, J.J. had leaned forward, too, her posture mimicking her father’s. “So how do you know that, Daddy?”

He tapped the fingertips of both hands together then rubbed his palms together before finally tightly clasping his hands and dropping his head.

“Because I had a very similar experience when I was about her age.”

The air forced from her lungs by the painful twist of her heart, Jennifer fought the urge to tear up behind her husband’s humbly delivered admission. Jonathan wouldn’t appreciate even the smallest sign of pity or sympathy from her or from anyone over hurts and disappointments he claimed to have left in the past.

He rarely spoke in specifics about his childhood, only occasionally sharing with her glimpses of the bleaker aspects his early years, his loneliness as a boy, his youthful longing for a traditional family of his own. He tended to be freer with the odd amusing misadventure growing up in San Francisco, his interactions with the people involved in overseeing his upbringing, and with tales of his early days with Max, but none of it in any great detail. Early on in their relationship, it was made clear to her that he had shelved that long ago part of his existence. Its purpose served as far as he was concerned, he had moved on from it. When J.J. came along, he had driven home that same point to her when she attempted to probe too deeply into her father for the boy he had once been.

But now it seemed, Jonathan was about to do some unearthing on his own.

“I was thirteen,” he said. “It was a Sadie Hawkins dance.”

“Excuse me, but what’s a Sadie Hawkins dance, Mr. H.?”

Focused so closely on Jonathan, Jennifer had nearly forgotten the girls were there despite the two of them sitting right next to her.

J.J. answered Marnie’s question without taking her eyes off her father. “It’s a special, kinda formal dance where etiquette rules get reversed. The girls ask the boy of their choice to go the dance with them. Back in the day, when only boys could ask girls out to dances, and not the other way around, the Sadie Hawkins dances were special occasions. Back then, it wasn’t considered proper for a girl to ask a boy for a date.”

“So, what if no boy asked you out?”

“Then you stayed home.”

Marnie frowned and crossed her arms. “Hmph, glad I’m not back in the day, then. I don’t have the first problem with telling a guy he’s taking me out. I can’t be bothered with sitting around, waiting, letting someone else be in control of my situation like that.”

Jennifer’s discomfort eased some at the trace of a smile that tugged the corner of her husband’s lips when Marnie waggled her fingers at him, directing, “Go on, Mr. H.”

He cared so much about Marnie, was so patient with her, and had always been a fan of her feistiness. Over the years, in his own low-key way, he had been helping her learn to channel it so that part of her personality worked for her rather than against, the way it often used to do.

If ever a man was born to be a father…

It was through him, and through J.J. that she had come to develop an appreciation of and fondness for Marnie so deep, at times, it surprised even her.

Jonathan still had his hands pressed together, but had begun to saw the fingers back and forth between each other. Jennifer recognized the gesture; he tended to do that when mentally working through something unsettling to his spirit. The set of slim, young hands next to her own knees fiddled with that emerald and diamond ring, another sign of distress in a loved one. She placed her hand on J.J.’s back, wishing she could offer her husband like physical reassurance. She noticed, too, how the set of her daughter’s shoulders was so much like Jonathan’s.

For his part, Jonathan did what Marnie ordered.  “The Sadie was that one dance you looked forward to when you made it to eighth grade. Kind of like a high school homecoming dance, you know, with a king and queen, and all?”

His three listeners nodded.

“I anticipated it and deep down inside wanted to go, but had, in actuality, counted myself out of it. The dance was formal, and I didn’t own a suit and being a kid from the home, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be asked. Then Carol Danforth blindsided me, requesting that I attend the dance with her, and I was stuck. She wanted me to go because the day the dance was going to be held was also my birthday. She wanted to help me celebrate by taking me to the dance with her.”

“Was she your girlfriend?” Marnie asked. Then she quickly extended a hand in Jennifer’s direction. “No offense, Mrs. H., but it was a long time ago.”

“Statute of limitations on that have surely run out by now,” J.J. said, still leaned forward and honed in on Jonathan.

Jennifer rolled her eyes at the back of J.J.’s head before leaning back to address Marnie. “No offense taken.”

Jonathan chuckled at their interaction. “No, we were just good friends, Marnie. We had been in the same homeroom class all through elementary school, and went to the same church, but she lived in another neighborhood. We only got to know each other because the Catholic school was also affiliated with the church and with the home. The diocese sponsored us financially, the kids from the home; the rest of the kids’ parents paid tuition out of pocket. Because of that, there were differences made. The lines weren’t overt or right out there; the teachers and other adults always tried to be inclusive of everyone regardless of background, but the boundaries were there.”

“Like they still are,” J.J. said. “Not that much has changed, just more undercover.”

Jonathan bypassed the comment.  “I didn’t want to embarrass Carol or make her unhappy by turning her down; that would have been a real breech of etiquette, but at the same time, I don’t know how I’m going to take her to the dance without a suit, and I wasn’t going to admit to her that not only did I not have one, I didn’t have the means to get one.

“It wasn’t like I could just go home and ask for someone to buy me a suit. From the time I was a little fellow, I had worked every day after school, selling newspapers, sometimes delivering groceries from the market or prescriptions from the pharmacy, but what I had saved wasn’t nearly enough for a suit, shirt, tie, shoes. I accepted her offer, and started sweating bullets. I didn’t say anything to anyone at home; I just started working harder, longer, thinking I could earn enough to throw together something at the last minute. Then, as a last resort, I snuck down to the wharf and got a temporary job working at night.”

Jennifer gasped, “Jonathan! You were twelve going on thirteen.”

“I was big for my age, strong, worked hard. I’ve always liked ships, the water, the wharf; I’d hung out down there for the longest, doing odd jobs and such, so the guys had gotten to know and like me. And it was going to be at night. Back in those days, age took a back seat to ability to get the job done. I’d go to school, work my after school jobs, do my chores at home, and then creep out through the window after everyone else had gone to sleep. I’d work until almost daylight, then make it back in time to go back through the window, clean up, and go to school.”

“When did you sleep?” Marnie cried. “I’d be dead on my feet!”

“When did you do your homework?” J.J. wanted to know.

“I was, I didn’t, and that’s what got me caught, but also solved my problem,” Jonathan said. “I was falling asleep in school and got called on the carpet for that and for my missing schoolwork. Anastasia knew she wasn’t going to get the full story out of me- I really did try to stay off her nerves, and some things she really didn’t need to know- so I didn’t always tell her what was going on with me. In fact, I started working those after school newspaper and delivery jobs to help out when I noticed her struggling with keeping us fed and all, but she wouldn’t take my money when I offered it to her directly. I would instead put it in the collection box at church that was designated to support the home.

“She finally discovered it about my sneaking out, but I think she was too afraid to hear the reason why for herself, so she sent me to Father Franco.”

For the first time since she came in the room, J.J. grinned. “You had it like that at twelve, daddy?”

Jonathan winked at her. “Anastasia apparently thought I did; I told you I was big for my age. She wasn’t going there herself on that one, a boy being AWOL all night then worn out, dragging tail the next day. She sent me straight to a man to get the explanation from me on that. ”

Jennifer immediately checked him, “Jonathan, honestly,” while the girls snickered.

He shrugged and continued on. “To make this long story a little shorter, Father Franco already knew. About my working and why. It seems he had seen me leaving that last night I worked and followed me out to the docks. He confronted the foreman about allowing me to be there, and the foreman told Franco why he was letting me. Franco went back and let me finish that night out, but he told Sister Anastasia about it.

“By the time I made it to Franco’s office in the rectory the next day, he had done for me what you girls did for Daria. A second-hand suit that he had me try on and Mrs. Lin, the parish seamstress, pin up on me so she could mend and alter it. And a pair of shoes from the donations that he had one of his shoeshine buddies give a good going-over so they looked almost brand new; at least to my eyes they did. I had enough saved from my earnings to buy a shirt, a tie, get a haircut, and pick up a corsage for Carol from the florist.”

“So, like, was Father Franco cute?”

Both Jennifer and J.J. shot daggers at Marnie and her question.

Marnie held up her hands in apology. “I was just trying to get a picture of the man in my head, that’s all. He sounded like he might have been cute. What can I say?”

J.J. slowly slid her attention from Marnie and back around to her father. “So, Daddy, did you right away quit your job at the docks since you had gotten what you were working so hard to get? You said you liked working and being out there.”

“Had to. Anastasia nailed my escape route shut and then threatened my life for good measure.”

“Um-hm.” J.J. pressed her hands to her thighs to push into sitting upright again. “I can certainly see her doing that.”

Jennifer bumped J.J. with her knee and handed her the half full water bottle that J.J. had capped and wedged between them. “Finish this”, she said although she noticed her daughter’s shakes had significantly subsided, “and check your attitude.”

The longtime Mother Superior of St. Augustine’s Parish and its children’s home had never ranked high on J.J.’s list of favorite people. That was mostly due to the old nun demanding the best of her in all ways at all times. J.J. had yet to realize that Anastasia, in her own distinctly abrasive way, was doing for her what had been done for Jonathan- a sustained and thorough burnishing to define and bring out the best in her person. While undergoing the tedious, purposeful process, Justine Jennifer Hart would be respectful.

Likely engaged in the same line of thought, Jonathan came to Anastasia’s defense. “She was only watching out for me. She wasn’t going to have me cutting out at night to go to work for fear of my falling in love with making money to the neglect of my education.

“Anyway, I went to the dance with Carol, and we had a great time. We both loved to dance, and by eighth grade, everybody knew everybody and basically got along. She and I were actually crowned eighth grade king and queen at the dance; I didn’t even know my name had been put into the running. But, that’s when it started. A guy who liked Carol and didn’t like that she chose me to go to the dance with her- he and his group of buddies- started in on me about my second-hand suit and shoes. ‘King of Paupers’ they called me. I guess word had somehow gotten out about where my get-up had come from, and they spread it. Soon everyone, it seemed, was whispering and snickering.”

J.J.’s spine slowly melted, her shoulders hunched and her chin dropped into her chest. One hand moved to cover her mouth then slowly moved up to her eyes. At the same time, sneaking peeks at her daughter while listening to her husband spin his painful tale, Jennifer’s heart rose and solidly lodged itself in her windpipe.

Jonathan Hart sat across from them in the tastefully appointed master bedroom of his own mansion, dressed in a plush monogrammed robe and expensive leather slippers. To anyone’s eyes, he cut the figure of a handsome, accomplished gentleman accustomed to the finer things in life. But all his wife saw at that moment was the cornered little boy in his threadbare suit and someone else’s shoes trying as hard as he could to maintain his fragile dignity in the face of what was probably his greatest public humiliation.

“Just straight up jealousy,” Marnie hissed from her spot on the couch, “that’s all that was. Hatin’ on you because you were all that as a person, which is why Carol was with you and not one of them in the first place. So they had to go after what they could. Losers and haters, just like those girls with Daria tonight.”

Jonathan tipped his head at that assessment. “It took me a while to realize that was what was really going on, but at that moment, being a kid who was being attacked, all I wanted to do was fight back in the only way I knew how at that time in my life- physically. I wanted beat up and silence each and every one of them, and I could have because the one thing I could do better than most at that time was fight. But you see, I didn’t go out of my way to bother anybody. I didn’t start fights, but I could- and would- end them. Most of the time, I really did try my best to do right by people. I wasn’t a bad kid; even I knew that much about myself at thirteen, but those guys, who up to that point had been buddies and classmates, chose to blindside me with that and to hit me in a place where I couldn’t defend myself. I really was a pauper at that time; I was wearing a used suit and shoes, and I was living, for the most part, on someone else’s dime.

“I didn’t want to embarrass Carol any more than I thought being with me had to have done; her father was picking her up from the dance so I didn’t need to stay and see her home. Instead of lashing out the way I wanted to, I just apologized to her and left.”

“Where did you go, Mr. H.?”

“Like Daria, I started walking; I wanted out of there, only I wasn’t headed home. That was the last place I wanted to be. Too many questions for which I wouldn’t have had the right or quick answers; I didn’t want to talk about anything. So, I just started walking and kept going until I gradually noticed it wasn’t night any more.”

As he spoke, the picture formed in Jennifer’s mind of that boy, tall but bowed, hands in his pockets, that youthful brow creased in thought as he aimlessly wandered alone in the darkness.

“All night, Jonathan? You were just a child. At that time of year, it had to have been cold out.”

“All night. I was so angry, so confused and… and frustrated by what happened… by…by my circumstances that I didn’t even notice the passage of time, the weather, or the distance I’d traveled, not to mention the direction. As daylight came, I realized I had no idea where I was. I figured by that time, Anastasia probably had an APB out on me, and she and that yardstick of hers were waiting for me to make it back. The shoes had rubbed a nasty blister on my heel, I was tired, hungry, and too broke to get something to eat. I took a seat on a bus bench to get myself together and figure out what my next move should be. The next thing I knew, Father Franco and some cop were shaking me awake.

“Franco took me back to the home. He never asked me what happened. To my surprise, neither did Anastasia.”

“Didn’t she even go off on you about being gone, Daddy?”

“No, she didn’t. But it wouldn’t have mattered if she had, and I wouldn’t have said anything to either of them if they had asked me. I’d already made up in my mind that the problem wasn’t mine, and it wasn’t worth discussing; I was doing the best I could with what I had to work with. After all, I had been crowned king of our class by my peers when didn’t even know I was in the running. One of the nicest, prettiest, and most popular girls in the school asked me to the dance despite my poverty. When he let me go that last morning I worked, the dock foreman said he wished he had ten guys with a work ethic like mine and he invited me to come back when I was older; he was holding a spot for me. Those things meant more to me than some jerks ragging on me about a suit and some shoes- trappings, not me, the person. Beyond that, there was nothing to tell.

“I apologized to Anastasia for the worry I must have caused her, and that was that.

“I later found out that Carol had tried to follow me, but by the time she made it outside the gym, I was gone. The adults chaperoning the dance had seen what happened, but I had cut out before they could do anything.  A lot of the kids and their parents had gone out looking for me. It seems most of the kids at the dance wanted to clobber the group who made fun of me. Turned out it wasn’t everyone looking down on me, the way I first thought it was. That made me feel so much better, too. But you three are the only ones I have ever spoken to about that night.”

He raised his head and looked to J.J. “So, I ask again, who told you about Daria at the party?”

“I feel so bad for you.” J.J. spoke with her head down, her hand still hiding her eyes, but the tears sounding in her voice.

He extended his arm to her, and gestured with two fingers. “Come here.”

Jennifer used an arm around J.J.’s back to ease her up. “Go on, sweetie”, she quietly urged.

She watched as J.J. sat down next to Jonathan, tucked close to his side. As always, she marveled at that bond between her husband and his child, the connection he began establishing with J.J. long before she was born which continued, despite the typical odds, to thrive through J.J.’s teen years.

“Look at me,” Jonathan said to her. When J.J. didn’t do it right away, he repeated the firm, but gently delivered request. “Look at me, I said.”

He moved her hand from her eyes and used his thumb to brush the relentless tears from her cheeks.

“No need to feel bad for me, sweetheart” he told her, placing a finger under her chin to bring her eyes to his. “J.J., ev-er-y-thing I went through as a kid, including- maybe especially- that night, led me right here to this moment with you. That night as I walked around trying to make sense of things, I made a promise to myself. Actually, I made two.

“One being,” he moved the finger from her chin and held it up between them, “I would never again walk around in another man’s suit; the next suit I put on my back would be a suit I bought myself, and it was. Max wanted to purchase me one as a gift to wear to my high school graduation ceremony, but when I told him of the commitment I’d made to myself; he understood, and allowed me to follow through.”

Jonathan dropped his hand, but kept visual hold of his daughter’s face. “That other promise I made to myself that night was if I ever, ever was lucky enough to have a kid of my own, if it was in my power to do so- and I would be doing everything within my power to make sure that it was- my child would know and be taken care of by her father.

“What I’m saying to you, J.J. is what happened to me that night was a turning point, an event that could have broken me, or made me mean and hateful, but because of how I chose to deal with it and because of the people in my life at the time who cared about me, I was guided to the path that would eventually bring me to us, all of us in this room. For that, I am and will always be grateful for what happened to me, the bad and the good. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

J.J. nodded. Out of the corner of her eye, Jennifer saw Marnie do the same thing.

“Now, I need you to answer my question” Jonathan said to J.J. “Who told you about what happened to make Daria leave the party?”

J.J. turned her face away, but lay her head on his shoulder. “The boy. You weren’t there to see it, but it was the boy who gave Daria flowers at the induction ceremony. You know, like a father would normally do. Like you did for me?”

“Yeah, I remember doing that. Go on.”

“Well, when she left from the party, he had followed her. He was with her the whole time she was out there, only she didn’t know it. He scared the heck out of both of us when I rolled up on her and he came out of nowhere, drenched to the skin, running up to the car behind her. Both of them were soaked.”

She leaned forward to see her mother. “I wrapped them up in your car blanket. That was all I had.”

“It’s fine,” Jennifer said, “I wouldn’t have expected you to do any less.”

Jonathan lightly bumped J.J. to get her focus back to him. When she looked up at him, he asked, “You wanted to kick somebody’s ass at that point, didn’t you?”

Jennifer flinched.

Marnie grinned.

J.J. readily admitted, “Just like you wanted to that night at the Sadie Hawkins Dance, and it wasn’t even me who was being hated on.”

“I figured as much,” Jonathan said.

“And also just like you, Daria wouldn’t say anything all the way home. She told me the part about being lost when she called me on the phone to come get her. I didn’t press her about anything else once I picked her up, and I was she was sure she safe. She’s a little kid, but her vibe was warning me that I shouldn’t press her. But I really was so scared for her. And then….”

J.J. stopped to wipe at her eyes with the backs of her hands before continuing.

“Neither one of them talked after she got over him scaring her like he did, but she did let him put the blanket on her. When we got her home, she wouldn’t even let me- or him- take her in. God only knows what she told Mrs. Cousins or Sister A. about the condition she was in. I’m surprised nobody’s called here to find out. Aaron, that’s the boy’s name, lives over on this side of town, so we rode back from the residence together, and that’s when he filled me in on what happened at the party.”

When she choked back a sob, Jonathan gave her a quick squeeze with the arm he had wound around her and urged, “It’s okay. Just keep going. Your mother and I need to get the whole thing so we can understand.”

J.J. visibly shuddered as pent up rage seethed through her teeth, “I was just so, so, sooooooo so mad. I can’t stand it when people do things like that. I hate it when people do unnecessary stuff to …”

With her hand to her mouth, she pressed herself even more tightly into her father’s side. But Jonathan wasn’t ready for her shut down.

“I need you to finish the story, J.J. We need to know the details, not the emotion, although I’m not in any way discounting your feelings on the matter.”

J.J. sighed, took a moment to swipe at her eyes with the sleeve of her robe, and picked the story back up.

“Daddy, I swear I almost couldn’t see straight to drive Aaron home. I dropped him off and then I started to- actually, I did- turn the car in the direction of that party. I was going to go back and-”

“J., don’t tell me you were going over to the house to beat up some seventh graders?”

At the question, J.J. sat straight up. “Oh, you know I will fight a nasty little seventh grader in a heartbeat. That’s not a problem if she has it coming. The only thing that stopped me and the car was my mother’s face popping up in the rear view mirror and her voice all in my ear telling me to bring it home instead.”

Jennifer, watching her sassy, indignant child, caught the flash of pride and delight in Jonathan’s eyes.

“It’s good to know I have that kind of influence on you in such questionable moments, Justine Hart,” she said.

“Me, too,” J.J. admitted.

Her posture and her voice softened as she dropped her hands to her lap and her fingers began twisting at her ring. “It would have been real bad if had I gone through with it. Cops called, the whole nine yards. Instead I came back here, but I was still so very angry. I knew I couldn’t come in here in the condition I was in. By then, I figured my mother had read the note and was on the couch waiting for me-“

“She was,” Marnie interjected.

“Like I said, and at point, my coming into the house wouldn’t have been good at all for either one of us, me or my mother. So I parked the car out front, got out, and just took off. I didn’t even think about it. Not the rain, nothing. It was like all I could do was get out and run, run run, just run. I was on my way out of the cul de sac before I realized what I was doing. I didn’t see, hear, feel anything; it was just flashes of red and black behind my eyes, all inside my head, my heart beating in my ears. It wasn’t until I was headed back from the other end of Willow Pond and saw my mother’s car wasn’t where I left it that I completely came back to my senses.”

“Life flash before your eyes, J.?”

“And everything, Marn. When I saw the car was gone, I started to just keep going on past, but… what good would that have done? She’d have just hunted me down and did me in. Been there, done that, didn’t want a tee shirt the first time it happened. Then it dawned on me the gate was open, so I thought maybe, perhaps, maybe, I hoped and prayed     Daddy… anyway, I ran in and was coming up behind you when you were in the car on the bridge, but you pulled off before I could get to you.”

“I wouldn’t have let you in, all wet and sick like that. Not on those leather seats.”

“It would have been worse for you than it was if you hadn’t.”

Jennifer, having processed it all began adding things up. J.J.’s worry turned to outrage, her anger, all the running- hard running since it was J.J., the shock, then more and a different kind of worry- on top of having had a very full day.

“J.J., it’s no wonder you were so sick and exhausted when you made it back to the house. Baby, you have got to stop pushing yourself like you do.”

“But Mom, how could I have helped it? In everything that went down tonight, I only did what I thought was best at the time.”

_________________________________________________

A while later that evening…

Jonathan was in bed watching television when Jennifer returned to the room. He switched the news program off as she continued around to her side.

“The girls get to bed all right?” he asked as he put the remote away in the top drawer of the night table.

“Well, J.J. was on her way to sleep before her head could hit the pillows. She was absolutely exhausted both mentally and physically, but I made her sit up long enough for me to dry that hair. She has too much coming up for her to be catching a cold right now. I’ll push some vitamin C down in her in the morning.”

“She hates pills.”

“That’s her problem; one she needs to get over because for the moment they are a fact of her life. She will do as I tell her. Given tonight’s stunts and the fact that she got off relatively unscathed, I don’t think I’ll get much protest. Besides, I’ll be sitting right next to her at the breakfast table to make sure she does.”

Jennifer shimmied out of the slacks she had on and clarified, “Swallow the vitamins down, I mean.”

When her eyes skewered his after she pulled the sweater off over her head, he got the message being sent before she spoke it. “Because I’ve been taught by the best how that goes. Like father like daughter, I am determined this situation will not be. I will be doing the nursing with this reluctant patient, and I’ll be making sure the meds go all the way down to where they’re supposed to go. Not hijacked under a tongue and disposed of like they were in that other scenario.”

Ignoring the dig, a reference to his selective med-taking while hospitalized the previous summer, he removed his unbuttoned pajama top and held it out to her.

“Got that nice and warm for you.”

She accepted his conciliatory offering without comment and put it on. Then she climbed in bed and slid over into the arm he held out to her, snuggling close and laying her head on his chest.

“And Marnie?” he asked once Jennifer was settled in.

“She’s on the phone. Or should I say phones. She was on the cell when I checked on her just before coming in here, but the indicator on the answering machine for her house line was blinking like crazy. She’s probably talking into both phones by now. It’s late, but I let her have at it. Tomorrow is Saturday. She doesn’t have to be up for school or anything like that, and there’s a lot she needs to catch their crew up on, I’m sure.”

He smiled at the picture of Marnie that formed in his mind and kissed the soft crown of auburn curls beneath his chin.

“I’ll bet she does. After all, it’s not every day that J.J. Hart rips off her mother’s car.”

“Well, she made her case for what she did, and she did come right back home with it. However; even I have to give it to her for nerve. I know she explained, but to tell you the truth, I’m still not quite sure if I should be upset with her, proud of her, or scared to death of her.”

“Maybe a tinge of the first thing,” he allowed, “and a boatload of the second, but I don’t think you have to deal with that last one at all. J.J., in spite of what often appears on the surface to be evidence to the contrary, knows how far to take a thing. It was spur of the moment, but like she said, she did what she thought was best at the time, and at the end of the day, handled it very well.”

“She did,” Jennifer agreed. “I gave her back her phone. She said to thank you for bringing it in for her. She said she hadn’t given a thought to where it was.”

“Too pissed off to be thinking about where the phone was. I thought it odd that she’d left it behind in the car. At first I thought it was there because she didn’t want to get it wet in the rain, but when she said she just got out of the car and lit out like she did, I knew it hadn’t been on purpose. That one doesn’t go anywhere without a phone. At another time, not too far down the line, she and I are going to have to have another talk about anger making a person miss her marks.”

Jennifer swirled her fingers in the soft hair on his chest. “Yes, anger will do that. In truth, I feel kind of sorry for the girl she’s playing against in the morning.”

“Me, too,” Jonathan agreed with a soft snicker. “Your daughter will be taking any aggression she might still be harboring right out onto that court with her. Somebody is going to get that fanny spanked. Being that it’s the finals, I hope I can make it there before she makes it out onto the court. I have something to take care of first thing, so I’ll have to meet you there.”

“I thought you said earlier that you had finished all your business meetings,” she said, tipping up her face to see into his.

“I thought I had, but try as hard as I might to tie things down, there always seems to be that one loose end that pops up.” He kissed her forehead, and she relaxed again in his arms. “Nothing earth-shattering, just a little something I’d like to handle before we go out of town. Shouldn’t take too long. If it works out the way I hope it will, I should be there in time for her first serve.”

“She’s not going to be any too happy about you not being there on the sidelines, getting her mentally prepped before she starts. You weren’t at the track meet or the last tennis tournament. You have her spoiled like that.”

“She’ll be okay. I think tonight she’s shown that when pressed, she doesn’t need either of us so much any more to help her make a solid decision about what she should do and then see things through to a satisfactory end. Plus, like I said, she’s got that leftover vitriol in her system that’ll be working in her favor.”

“She is so much like you. Listening to you tonight, watching you with her, helping her through her story- nobody could have gotten all of that out of her except you.” And she thought to herself, “Or vice-versa.”

“You sell yourself short, darling. J.J,. would have told you. She is like me in that she doesn’t trust easily and tries to hold too much in, but also like me, she doesn’t trust anybody the way she trusts you.”

“Except you.”

“Not even me to the deep degree she trusts her mother, and that makes her father love and respect you even more, as if that’s at all possible.”

They lay together for a while, each comforted by the presence and proximity of the other, fortified by the beat of their unified hearts.

Finally, Jennifer broke the silence. “Jonathan, I need to tell you something. I’m aware how much you don’t like for me to go there, but I have to say it.”

“Yeah? What is it?”

She felt the immediate minute rigidity course into his arms as he held her, settling into his abdomen and his thighs. She heard it in his attempt at a casual reply, but she had to get it out. She needed for him to hear it from her. He deserved it.

“After the story you shared with the girls tonight, I have to tell you. Jonathan, you are such a remarkable man. You didn’t have to turn out this way from the hand you were dealt so early, the odds stacked against you-”

“Jennifer, don-”

“No, please let me say this. Please don’t shut me down.”

He sighed. “All right. Okay.”

“Darling, I want to- Jonthan, I- I am truly humbled to be lying here in the arms of such an extraordinary person. You have accomplished so much. I mean, in just this one day, you’ve conducted major business transactions, in person, on two continents, and everything worked out either in your favor or to your satisfaction. You helped out your friend with a possible life-changing decision. At the end of your work day, you made time to have dinner with me. Then you successfully handled a potential crisis with our child. After all that, you’re not even out of breath.”

“Are you?”

“Me? I haven’t done all that you have.”

“Haven’t you? Well, let’s see now. You’ve been overseeing two busy, driver’s license carrying teenagers all week on your own, while at the same time managing a household, as well as keeping up with your own assorted personal and business affairs, which included finishing up professional projects, not to mention planning and coordinating an elite honors program involving kids who were not even your own. You’ve finalized plans down to the most minute details for our daughter’s east coast prom date for next week and her west coast birthday party. You came over from the honors program tonight to have dinner with me, welcomed me home in the best possible way, had your car stolen, worried over the missing kid, dealt with the hysterical and the sick- and did all of it successfully and without losing your cool. I don’t feel you breathing real hard.”

He rolled to slide her off his chest onto sheet and the pillows. Propped on one arm, he gazed down into her face. “Yet. So, have I told you how remarkable I think you are or how humbled I always am to have such an extraordinary, intelligent, efficient, and so very, very lovely a woman find me worthy of her affection?”

“It’s called love, Jonathan.”

“Yes it is,” he whispered as he brushed her lips with his own, “an extraordinary love. Now, because of that, I am going to keep that promise I made to you earlier.”

Her brow briefly rippled in confusion. “Promise?”

“About making my first night home worth your while.”

“Oh.” She smiled as she wound her arms around his neck to bring his face down to hers. “Then please do.”

Locked in a kiss, she rolled onto her back; he followed, slipping his hands under the pajama shirt as he covered her body with his.

_________________________________________________

Saturday morning…

J.J. took a seat on the bench, away from the others on the team, to wait for the doubles match in session to finish.

The duo on the court from GT West, her school, were so far out front of the team they were playing against it was a given that the girls from GT West would be advancing to the state finals in that division. It was up to her to get them there in the singles division, which would insure the team taking the city championship and moving on to the next level as a unit.

In the distance,  Lannie Winters, top seed of the opposing team was being put through her paces by her school’s tennis coach. From prior competitions, J.J. was aware of the girl’s impressive technique and stamina. Watching Lannie practice, an uncharacteristic twinge of uncertainty dappled the usual smooth surface of J.J.’s pre-game calm.  She was glad her own coach knew to leave her to herself once she made it outside. The warm up and pep talk in the gym had been quite enough. She had been competing long enough at school for everyone to understand that when it came to tennis, it was best to leave her to herself and her own thoughts in those last few minutes before a match.

She felt well enough, rested enough; practice had gone satisfactorily, and she’d been cafeful not to overdo it. Physically, all systems seemed to be go, but that reality did little to quiet her uneasy mind.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Anger and making the mark…. don’t go together… daddy always says….

Running the previous evening, for such a distance and intensity had not been a wise move on her part at all. Normally, she would never have pushed herself that hard right before such an important athletic event. At the time; however, preserving her resources hadn’t popped up anywhere in her thoughts. Blind fury alone drove that rain-drenched trek up Willow Pond and back. Injustice, bias, double-standards- all major thorns in her side and sure-fire triggers for her darker emotions and uglier reactions.

Leave it, J., leave it. You gotta focus.

In the effort to obey that internal directive, she shifted her attention to the stands above her. Among her friends, classmates, and their parents gathered for the tournament, was her mother. Seated on the bleacher right in front of and below her was Marnie, talking on the phone.

Her mother was pretending to not be checking her out down there on the player’s bench.

Again, J.J. readjusted her attention, this time with a small smile.

I know you’re looking. I know you’re up there worried about me, but you don’t have to be. Thanks to you, I’m pretty much okay.

Her intention had been to get up way early, get the keys from Marnie, and drive herself for a quick java, a bite to eat, and some alone-time at the coffee shop before checking in at the school. But, given the night before, she should have known that plan wasn’t going to fly.

By the time she made it as far as the kitchen, the Duchess was already dressed and downstairs along with the breakfast Daddy- thank God– had made for them before he left. A glass of juice, the iron pills, and some chewable Vitamin C were already set out on the table for her next to the plate her mother immediately picked up, filled. and set before her, demanding, “Eat, drink that juice, and take everything you’re supposed to take.”

It wouldn’t have made sense to protest. Besides, she wasn’t quite sure how off the hook she was at that point for taking off with the car, and it wasn’t like fussing against being force-fed meds would have made a bit of difference.

And it also wasn’t like she wouldn’t need all the help she could get. As much as she hated to admit it, there was some truth to the Duchess’s assertions that she needed the stuff.

After coming out of the inquisition in her parents’ bedroom, she found herself brain-dead and dog-tired, but her mother insisted on drying her hair before letting her go to sleep. Afterward, she slept, but thoughts of her father’s childhood humiliation somehow kept getting mixed into the ones about Daria, and they all wound up becoming a mish-mash of wierd, disturbing dreams that actually woke her up a couple of times.

Why did people have to be so thoughtless, so cruel, so hateful? It was as if they actually delighted in being vile and nasty. It was one thing to go after someone who asked for it, but quite another to mess with someone who-

A roar from the crowd shook the stands behind her. The GT West girls had slammed the final volley past their opponents, decisively clinching the doubles match and their division. Through the throng of team members from both schools rushing the court, J.J. spied Lannie on the sidelines trying not to look crestfallen at her team’s loss and instead appear focused as her doubles teammates shook hands with the winners and trudged off. The results being blasted over the loudspeaker from the  announcer’s booth confirmed with finalty the successful effort of the GT West girls.

Well, it’s on me.

As she slid her sweat jacket off, the cool morning air rushed her bare arms further alerting the rest of her senses to make ready for game time, while at the same time stirring those nagging wisps of private concern over her energy levels. It wasn’t a thing she usually had to consider before a match, but….

Coach Collins passed her.

“On you, J.J.”

The woman said it matter-of-factly and kept going as she followed her team to greet the winners.

So, I see.

J.J. slipped out of her sweat pants hoping to herself nobody got let down. At the moment, she felt fine, but who could tell what might happen once the pressure was on? Maybe something she would need for the match this morning had been used up the night before.

But, there was nothing else she could have done in that instance; at the time running the anger out had been her only option. Had she come home in the state she had been in once she got out of the car, she and the Duchess would  surely have gone at it, and had that happened, forget about not being able to play tennis; she might not even be- period.

She glanced up at her mother whose attention seemed to occupied by the celebration coming off the court.

Daria.

Daddy.

As she tucked her sweats down into her gym bag, J.J. shook her head to rid herself of the relentlessly intrusive thoughts of what happened to them.

Focus, J. Forget about that for right now. You have to focus. Get lined up.

With her back to the crowd she stood upright again, closed her eyes, brought her hands to her hips and stretched from her waist all the way back, all the way forward, and then around all the way around to loosen up her spine and her mind. After stretching, she selected a racket from the three she brought with her and took a couple of practice swings, forearm and backhand, to get the blood flowing in her arms. Her name and then Lannie’s blared from the loudspeakers announcing both of them as All-city singles players with the potential winner of this match advancing to the All-State competition and the possibility of the GT West team sweeping this one.

Dang. I really could do with Da-

“All right, J.J. Show her who she’s up against.”

At the sound of that distinctive voice, she turned around to find him standing, right on time, just behind the waist- high fence separating the spectator area from the player’s area. She ran to him.

“Daddy, you made it.”

“You thought I wouldn’t? Yeah, I missed a couple of things being in London, but no way was going to miss an event of yours this important when I’m right here in the city. Give me a hug and get out there.”

A few in the crowd behind them “Awwwwed,” as she squeezed her father’s neck. Through the noise, she heard Marnie’s voice calling to her.

Up there next to Marnie now sat Daria, who waved a small wave, mouthed, “Thank you,” and shot her thumbs up.

J.J. shot her one back as she put it together where her father had gone that morning and who his “pressing business” had been. She hugged him one more time and whispered in his ear, “You are the absolute best.”

“So are you,” he said to her. “Now go to work.”

She switched out the racket in her hand for the latest one her father had purchased for her and held it up for him to see. She blew a kiss to her mother, who blew her one back. After another thumbs up to Marnie and Daria, she headed for the court bolstered by the support of her family and boistrous cheers of encouragement from the home side of the court.

A few minutes later, her first explosive return brought a satisfied smile she couldn’t see to her father’s face and shot a surge of pride through her mother’s heart. Jonathan turned from the fence and excusing himself as he went, began the climb up the bleachers to take his place next to his wife.

Things happened the way they were supposed to; it was how one handled the moment that would matter down the line. It was obvious to both of them that J.J. Hart fully intended to handle this moment of hers on the court, as well as any leftover demons from the night before.

Continue to Part Two

 

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