Prom Night: Much later….
In the mirror, putting the finishing touches to her face and hair, Jennifer found herself amused by her own excitement over the upcoming evening. Funny, she thought, how the small things could still be so much fun. An impromptu date night in her favorite city with her favorite fella. Even if they wouldn’t be alone in it, she looked forward to it.
Jonathan’s spontaneity had always been a highly attractive aspect of his personality. In light of his considerable professional responsibilities and successes over the years, that certainly didn’t have to be. Many married men in their circles compromised the balance of business and personal in favor of the workplace. And even more allowed social power and material trappings to inflate egos and impact moral judgment.
She clearly understood and deeply appreciated how fortunate she was that her highly successful CEO insisted upon keeping his other hand firmly planted on the rudder of his personal life and his home, and that his family tipped the scales of his priority.
In her head, the image formed of him and J.J. seated on the foot of the bed, J.J. leaned into her father’s side, his arm around her as he shared that heartbreaking childhood memory.
On the tail of that recollection floated the realization that his delightful adult impulsiveness was likely the end product of that healthy dose of youthful, fearless impulsivity he admitted to, no matter how well-intentioned it might have been at the time. Both attributes continued to rule his spirit.
Two strong he characteristics passed on to, recognized, and actively nurtured in his daughter,
… the car thief, no matter how well intentioned.
Granted, the root cause of J.J.’s impromptu act of larceny had been a fairly justifiable one. Just as her father’s had been as a young boy for escaping through a window in the dark of night to make his way to the wharf.
… but still….
J.J. Hart had that same propensity for turning up missing from the places one expected her to be, that same predisposition to wander from the prescribed path, as well as that ability to come up with a plausible-slash-convenient reason for it, that same-
Let it go, Jennifer. Whatever she’s into, you better than anyone understands only she has control over her choices….
She gave the hair one last toss before moving in closer to the glass to apply a quick smoothing to her freshly glossed lips.
… but please don’t make me have to wring your neck in the morning, little girl. It’s as I’ve told you time and again, it doesn’t matter what you are aware I’ve done in my life. You might be seventeen now, but I am still your very alive, very present in your life, loving mother who will take you out if you cross me.
Then she switched off the light.
Duncan’s rented car awaited them at the front exit of the hotel. Upon the door being swung open for her, J.J. immediately recognized the driver.
The same young man who drove Duncan that past November in New York when he came to pick her and Marnie up for their unauthorized, fortunately aborted, flight to Boston, smiled at her.
“Good evening, Miss Hart,” he said with a tip of his hat. “It’s good to see you again.” He nodded to Teddy right behind her. “Mr. Baxter.”
Once inside and seated, the driver on way his to his own door, J.J. took the opportunity to ask Duncan how it was his New York chauffeur happened to be in Boston with him.
“He gets paid good money to be my shadow,” Duncan explained. “His actual job is to keep me honest in my parents’ absence.”
J.J. pursed her lips and side-eyed him. “Um-hmm, I’ll just bet he does.”
Although obviously older than Duncan, Carlos still looked kind of young to be anybody’s check and balance, much less one to a free spirit like Duncan Sinclair. Through the strong, seemingly recent application of “new car” scent, she detected a lingering acrid hint of smoked wrong-doing.
Duncan’s leash was a pretty long one. Teddy’s, despite the hold on his being a bit tighter, was fairly lengthy, too, compared to hers. Once again, she mentally shook her head at how guys had it made when it came to so many things. The immediate proof of it was seated on both sides of her, buttressing her resolve to follow through on her desires this time.
Jonathan remained standing in the aisle, in the same spot Jennifer left him. He was looking at something in his hands, and the light radiating from his palms, illuminating his slight smile, said he had the camera she left behind with her jacket, which was now across his arm. As she approached, he looked up at her.
“I don’t remember you shooting this one.”
Shoulder to shoulder with him, she peeked at the screen. “Oh yes. Well, at the time, you were too occupied with overseeing your pupil to notice what I was doing.”
His small smile turned into a full grin. “Not overseeing, just doing what I had to do; the rules said I had to be in the cockpit, so I was. That one didn’t need me for what she was doing. I was merely sitting there, admiring her co-piloting skills.”
“Well, she’s had the best instructors, one of them all of her life.”
“Instructors,” he countered. “One of them, the best one, even before her actual life began.” He clicked off the camera. “But enough about her.”
He lifted the jacket from his arm and held it out. Once she had her arms in it, he wrapped her up and pulled her to buss her neck and whisper, “It’s just you and me for the rest of the night. No kid, no prom, no parenting. Just us, like back in the old days.”
It had been nice, back when it was just two Harts to be accountable for when they wanted to take off, but then, too-
“Back in the old days, Jonathan, there was usually Max to consider. And don’t forget, we’re not really alone tonight.”
“Max knew how to stay in his lane,” he breathed against her ear, “as I’m sure Baxter will, too.”
“Where is Bear, anyway?”
“Went inside to make a call, he said, and to secure the car.” She felt him shrug as he added, “Who knows, maybe he’ll get lucky and find someone of his own to go home with. He deserves it after the last couple evenings he’s had.”
Amused, she chuckled, “Jonathan, honestly.”
He loosened his hold enough to turn her around to face him. “I’m just saying. I saw firsthand and up close what the guy went through. He could do with some loosening up of the kind only a good female can offer. As for you and me, all I want is for us to have a pleasant and relaxing night out together.”
She kissed the tip of his nose, thinking how she never got tired of looking into those bedroom blue eyes of his. And of how she could hear a lot more behind his spoken words on why he wanted to get away and perhaps ‘loosen up‘. “Okay then,” she said, “let’s do it.”
He winced, faked a shudder, and crooned, “Ooh, Red, if only,” before taking her hand to lead her off the plane.
Despite her full commitment to going the distance this time, total detachment from the matter at hand was proving a bit harder to achieve. Usually, once she made her mind up to do a thing, right or wrong, she had no trouble dispatching any immediate worry over the act. She believed not dwelling on what could go wrong bettered the odds in her favor against anything untoward happening. This time, that was proving not so easy to do. As soon as the car pulled away from the curb, the mental wheels also began to spin.
I mean, what could possibly happen? Duncan does this all the time. I’ll bet Teddy gets his share in, too. Chase and Chance go to school during the year four hours away from home. Tommy’s all the way in Spain for a whole year.
Bet if I was a boy….
… I’m just too sheltered, that’s all. Chips are just gonna have fall where they may, should they wind up falling at all.
Just don’t claim them falling, J. It’s going to be fine.
We’ll fly over, you’ll make it back, keep your mouth shut, and play it off. Nobody will be the wiser.
After all, what was she doing that was illegal or immoral?
Or all that wrong? They said I could stay out all night. They didn’t say where I had to stay.
Besides, they’re in Boston. Together. Alone with each other. Not thinking about you, J. Knowing them, they probably haven’t thought about you since they waved you off at the curb and shot back up to the suite to get busy.
Knowing them… shooooooot, by now, for all they know I could be somewhere sleeping with somebody, legs all up in the air….
Or getting high or drunk and sleeping with somebody….
Or at that cabin doing who knows what with everybody.
At seventeen, like- umph- not going there…
Hell, I’m a nun compared to a whole lot of people I know, including-
All I’m doing is going somewhere kinda far… and not even really all that far. relatively speaking… … okay, well, without permission… on a plane… with a boy… actually three of them… the lone girl…
Sooner than she anticipated, they were at the airport, headed for the private terminal. When the car arrived at the plane, a six seater Eclipse, the pilots were already onboard, so it wasn’t long before it and they were down the runway and off into the night sky.
There would be no reneging on this one.
When the ascent leveled off to cruise, J.J. did, too. Giving in fully to the irreversible finality of her decision, she settled back in her seat to take in her surroundings.
The Sinclairs’ jet interior was similar in design to her father’s, but smaller, cozier, rendering it just right for their party of four- Duncan in the seat facing her with Carlos across the narrow aisle from him. Carlos faced Teddy who sat across the aisle from her.
“How about a couple quick hands,” Duncan offered, pulling a deck of cards from his armrest, immediately cutting them. “We got a minute or two before we get there.”
She popped her seat belt and pulled the loosely wound blue scarf from her neck. “Poker?”
“Heard that’s your game.” Duncan released and pulled down a small table between them and began accordion-shuffling the cards. “Ours, too. You in, Teddy?”
When there was no immediate answer from her right, J.J. looked around. Teddy had his head back, hands folded across his midsection, and his eyes closed.
“You okay?” she leaned over to ask. He nodded, but that was the extent of his response.
Teddy’s behavior concerned her; she turned back to Duncan with a questioning expression, which Duncan waved off, mouthing, “Always checks out before.”
Teddy had been pretty quiet in the car on the ride over- silent actually, and he hadn’t said much once they boarded the plane. In fact, it all lined right up with his more subdued manner for practically the entire visit. Alone with her, generally speaking, he had been his normal, pleasant self. A little off perhaps, but the vibe wasn’t a bad or negative one…
Maybe he’s just nervous about tonight. It is a pretty big deal for him.
After all, it was why their plans for the evening had so drastically changed.
A last minute misfortune for someone else had turned into a prime opportunity for Teddy, thanks to his buddy’s vast and varied network of connections. The only thing standing in Teddy’s way had been the plans already in motion for bringing her all the way from California to Massachusetts for his prom.
He would have forgone the school event completely were it not for his having invited her and the preparations and sacrifices both their parents made for her to be there. Instead, because of all that, it had almost been the other way around, him turning Duncan’s offer and finagling down. In the end, it was only her encouraging Teddy to go for it that led to the hotel room becoming a proposed place for her to stay while he went to New York with Duncan for a few hours.
But those two were crazy if they thought they were leaving her behind to wait for Teddy to get back, and she told them so. Just to keep her from getting in trouble for leaving town? Miss a chance at doing something she had long been wanting to do, with a person she had more than once thought of doing something like this it with? And in what amounted to her second hometown?
The hell with that.
If Teddy was taking his shot, she was taking hers.
Have to get caught at it first, and I’m not claiming ‘caught’.
She removed her jacket and turned back around to the game. Carlos had swiveled his seat toward the table and moved himself forward to sit on the edge of it.
“I don’t usually play for fun, Duncan,” she advised.
“Neither do we,” Duncan replied as he began dealing to three spots on the table top. “Twenty a hand?”
J.J. reached for her purse. “Sounds good to me.”
After a quick glance over at Teddy, who was still in the same position, she turned back to the game and added her contribution to the pot.
For her, it didn’t get any better. Out for the night, no tight curfew to keep, flying through the night skies in the company of friends, and it was about to go down on the gaming table.
“All right, gentlemen,” she said as she pushed her sleeves back to her elbows and picked up her cards. “Let’s do this.”
With the lateness of the hour, traffic from the airport into the city was light. The trio in the rear of the dark sedan, Jennifer in the middle with Baxter on her left and Jonathan at her other side, took in the sights and talked.
“Who would have thought way back then that one day my kid would be taking yours to a prom, and in the meantime I’d be hanging out with you and your husband?”
“That is something,” Jennifer said, smiling at Baxter’s observation. “Who would have thought? An awful lot has happened over the years since our time at boarding school, college; heck, an awful lot has happened since just last summer and our running into each other again at the reunion.”
“Yes, it has,” he said, “life paths, experiences, professions, travels, wives, husbands, kids.”
Jennifer patted his arm, “And speaking of kids, I must tell you, I really enjoyed talking with Victoria this evening. She is a lovely girl, so interesting and well-spoken. She made it clear she and Teddy, Jr. share a very close bond. She’s kind of a paradox in terms of her interests, isn’t she?”
Only half-listening to the exchange, that last comment got Jonathan’s full attention.
It sounded as if his wife had picked up on something more about that two of Baxter’s kids than she shared with him in the hotel bar, and she was making an inroad to clarification of whatever that something was. In his book, there was nobody better than Jennifer Edwards Hart when it came to gracefully, but skillfully working a source of information, and that was right up his alley. The more background gathered on Teddy, Jr., the better. When J.J. Hart let someone inside her bubble, particularly a male, to the degree she had Junior, the individual usually came to stay. That meant Daddy needed as much as he could get on the fellow. That young, charismatic, rascal had proven himself on a couple of levels, but-
Baxter, Sr. beamed at the compliments paid to his oldest child. “Thanks, Jennifer. To tell you the truth- well you, of all people, probably already know or have heard about it- my adult life has been a bit crazy what with having to change tracks to take over the company when my father died, the two divorces and all, but I must say I did manage to get some pretty decent kids out of all the disorder. They make me proud- well, most of the time they do.”
To that, Jennifer nodded. “We can certainly identify with that last sentiment. Our one child certainly does us proud- most of the time. She, too, has her moments.”
After a brief snicker of three-way agreement, Baxter, Sr. continued.
“Jen, you mentioned about Vickie. I have to say, even if she is mine, she is special, and I am very proud of her. I’m glad she’s decided to come on board at the firm, more so that she wants to do it, and that she’s been able to continue to have time for what she enjoys. She’s a pretty will balanced kid considering.”
“Considering?” Jennifer asked to Jonathan’s silent delight. Nobody like her.
“Yeah, Jen, considering. See, growing up, she bounced back and forth between her mother and me, but not in a bad way. She was real young- almost three- when her mother and I split and five when I remarried.
“My first wife is a textile artist turned major entrepreneur. Since she wound up traveling so often with her business, for educational consistency, we decided Vickie should live primarily with me, and of course, Helena and our girls, in Virginia. Vickie was twelve, Bree was five, and Cait was four when Teddy came along.
“By then, unfortunately, my second marriage had become rocky. Having little Teddy kept us together a little longer- actually, it was a lot longer than it should have been.
“All the girls were crazy about their baby brother, but Vickie, the quintessential big sister and mother hen to all her siblings, fell in love with that boy from the day we brought him home. He was kind of sickly for the first part of his life, and she’s always been very sensitive to that. When he was old enough, she often took him with her when she went to stay with her mother.”
Jennifer’s head tipped with the question, “Helena didn’t mind? Or Vickie’s mother?”
“Another long story for another time,” was all Baxter said in answer.
“I could certainly hear Victoria’s fondness and protectiveness of her brother when we talked,” Jennifer said, “as well as her admiration of the person he’s becoming.”
At that point, Baxter stopped and sighed. He leaned past Jennifer to address Jonathan. “I’m probably not telling you something you don’t already know, but I want you to hear it from me. You are a very lucky, very smart guy. You recognized it was right and did what it took to hold on.”
“It wasn’t real hard to do in my case,” Jonathan said, dropping his eyes to find Jennifer’s looking up into his.
Baxter sat back, changing the subject completely. “New York used to be your spot, didn’t it, Jen? Yours and Pat’s.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I loved New York Still do. All the sights, the shops, the food, the music, the people. I so enjoyed living in here when I did. I love being here when we have occasion to visit.”
She squeezed the large hand entwined with hers and pressed shoulders with its owner. “However, a handsome, suave, charming, and extremely nice American businessman swept in, made a proposal to me that couldn’t be turned down, and he whisked me away to Los Angeles where I also enjoy living.”
Entering lower Manhattan, scattered neon signage, overhead street lamps, and security lights from closed, darkened storefronts allowed her to begin to get her bearings. Baxter must have been lining his up, too.
“We spent a lot of time here on the weekends, back when we were in college, didn’t we, Jen?”
She softly chuckled as she continued taking in the view on the other side of Jonathan’s window. “Yes, we did, Teddy Bear Baxter, but a lot here has changed since then.”
“Gentrification?” Jonathan ventured.
She nodded. “But I can still see vestiges of the old neighborhood. Back then, it really used to be a lot more ethnic, more Bohemian. A paradise for an adventurous, maybe a little rebellious, young person.”
“Were you a rebellious young person?” he asked, with a teasing, probing tone she clearly heard, to which she replied, “No comment.”
“She could sing, though,” the man on her other side commented. “Remember that one night, Jen? The one that signaled the end of your blossoming career?”
When she felt Jonathan’s fingers close around her forearm, she dropped her head, avoiding his eyes when he twisted forward to better see into her face.
“Singing? Here?” he asked, “In the adventurous, a little rebellious, young person’s paradise? You told me you’d done some singing, but you never mentioned to me doing it up here. Holding out on me yet again? You never cease to amaze me, woman.”
“It was nothing,” she said, bringing her free hand to her forehead to hide the sight of her stinging cheeks and further shield her eyes from his, “really.”
“Nothing?” Baxter prodded. He sat forward again to address Jonathan. “The girl was good. A regular up here, she was becoming. Building a loyal following and everything. That is, until she got busted.”
“Busted?” Jonathan said, pressing himself against even tighter against his wife. “Oh, this sounds like a really good story, Louise. You might as well tell me what happened. I’m not going to leave you alone about it until you do.”
Eyes watery, cheeks aflame, she finally removed the hand, saying through her laughter, “I am so certain you won’t, John.” She whipped around to Baxter “I could wring your neck for bringing that up in front of him.”
“But you won’t,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “You know I’m not lying. Go ahead and tell your husband the story. It’s a good one, and it’s not like you did anything lewd or lascivious that night.”
“Yeah, go ahead. Tell me about it,” Jonathan urged “Although the lack of lewd and lascivious takes some of the bite out of it for me, but-”
“Oh, you,” she said, still tickled by the twinkle in the eyes boring into hers. “Okay, I was adventurous, but not in any way lewd or lascivious. However, I couldn’t seem to convince somebody very close to me that I wouldn’t turn out that way.”
“He had reason to doubt,” Baxter interjected.
“I guess he did. Thanks to my association with you and that other party,” Jennifer countered, poking her old friend on the arm with an index finger, “not due to anything I did directly.”
She sat back again to talk to Jonathan. “I’ve told you that for a minute there in college, I entertained the idea of going into performing arts, maybe acting or singing. You already know I was into dance, specifically ballet, until I graduated high school. In college keeping up with ballet was going to take up too much of my time- practice, rehearsals, performances and all- so I gave up the idea of doing anything with it professionally- much to my father’s disappointment.
“I still had a lot of contacts in the performing arts department, including this one here.” She poked Baxter again, this time with her elbow. “I took a few acting and dancing roles in the university performances, I sang in a couple of the choirs, but I really loved doing vocal work with the bands. It came naturally to me; it didn’t take up a lot of my time or energy, so it didn’t interfere with my academic responsibilities.”
“Which always came first with her,” Baxter interjected, “as far back as lower school.”
Jennifer nodded. “Even if my academics hadn’t mattered to me personally, I had no choice but to excel. There was no other way it was going to be. Not with my father. He might have been parenting long distance, but when it came to my education, his presence was always closely felt in my mind.”
Jonathan grinned. “I can imagine.”
“When Pat and I were at Vassar, Bear was at Harvard. At the time, he was pursuing performing arts, not to mention Pat. He even had his own band that performed for campus parties, sorority and frat events, a few local venues. When I could get there- and I made every effort to do so- I sat in on their gigs when they needed a female vocalist.
“Being young and mostly on our own for the first time in our lives, like most kids, we left campus every chance we got. From the kind of sequestered backgrounds we had all come, the world outside our usual circles was fascinating and, for me, just downright alluring. We discovered the jazz clubs, the shopping, and the eateries, and we were here at every opportunity.
“Bear’s band got booked into some of the clubs that were popular at the time, and he would ask me to sing with them some nights.”
Baxter cut in, “We were good, and I could sing, but we were working some real dives to get our feet wet, and we figured we could use all the help we could get.”
“So you brought in a little eye candy with a good voice?” Jonathan offered.
“You betcha. Worked, too. Next thing we knew, we were getting bookings a couple weekends every month. We could have had more, but we were in school, and we did have to study some of the time. Jen came down and joined us a lot when we performed. After a few gigs, being independent like she’s always insisted upon being, she started getting- and taking- offers of her own.”
Directing it to Jennifer, Jonathan interjected with a hint of alarm, “Show business, especially on that level and back in those days, could be kind of cutthroat and sleazy. And in New York, too? Did you come here on your own and work? Weren’t you scared? Nervous, at least?”
Jennifer waved a dismissive hand. “When you’re young like that, you don’t understand how much there is out here that can harm you, so you don’t have enough wherewithal to be as scared as you probably should be. I was eighteen or so- thought I had it all under control. Then too, a lot of the time, Pat and Bear came when I was working solo. I also had a lot of male friends on athletic teams who were quite protective of me. On general principle, I never came this far alone; I did have that much sense. But not because I was fearful; it was how I operated then- traveling in a pair at minimum. I guess my stars were lined up right; I never had any real trouble.”
That made Jonathan smile. “Your stars do have a tendency to put you in the right places at the right times.”
Catching the personal connection, she gently patted his midsection. “They sure did.”
“Anyway,” Baxter said, “this particular night, Pat and I had driven over with her. I had a gig at my friend Reggie’s buddy’s club that Friday, and Jen had one the following night at another spot. We stayed with some friends, and we were going to drive back to school right after Jen finished her set so we could be back in our classes on that Monday morning.”
“Were going to drive?” Jonathan asked.
“Were,” Jennifer confirmed.
“So what happened?”
Jennifer took a deep breath and slowly exhaled before launching into her story.
“Okay, so like Bear said, I had a set of my own that night. Some little upstart joint, the name of which escapes me now, but you went downstairs from the street to get into it. The club had just the right smoky, boozy atmosphere for a Saturday night. I’d worked with Les- I think that was his name- and his band on couple-few occasions, so I was comfortable with them. They played a lot of traditional jazz, covered a lot of the classics, which was right up my alley vocally. I hit all my marks, made all my notes, was feeling real good about my performance. Finished up my set, was taking my bow. The house lights went on, and who is sitting left center, at a table three rows back, looking me right in my face?
By this time, Jonathan was practically in her face. “Who?”
“Her old man,” Baxter crowed.
Jennifer slowly shook her head again. “Cigarette in hand, drink in front of him, and that, ‘Oh, yes, Je–nee–fah, this unauthorized engagement and you are finished’ look.
“I was floored, to say the least. Where had he come from? How did he know where I was or what I was doing? Who turned me in? The last I knew of his whereabouts, he was in London. I don’t know how he found out about me being in a club in East Village, New York, but there he was, and there I was, up on stage in my mini skirt, fishnet stockings, and go-go boots, with my final song being, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me”. Ironic, huh?”
“To say the least,” Jonathan agreed through his laughter.
“Then,” she said, “to make matters worse, I look past Pa to where Bear and Pat should have been sitting. They are nowhere to be found.”
“Heck, like we told you, we saw him come in, and very quickly figured there was no sense in all of us going down with the ship. You obviously had first class passage back to school on the RMS Angry Daddy, so we ducked out as soon as his back was to us. You were on your own with Steve.”
He leaned past Jennifer to address Jonathan. “The man was definitely not fond of me at the time. And I was with both of them? Pat and Jen? Out of place in a spot like that with both of them?”
“So, darling, “Jonathan said, wiping at his moist eyes with his jacket sleeve, “Did he give you hell all the way back to campus?”
“You know he did, for the full, almost two hour, ride. I don’t even want to talk about it. Let’s just leave it at by the time he had me back in the lobby of my dorm, it was crystal clear to me that I was not-” She stiffened her back and switched to mimicking her father’s accent again, “-going to become some torch song singing hippie tart as long as you are my child, I don’t care how grown-up you consider yourself to be,” to the delight of her audience. “Needless to say, my budding public singing career was over as I was instructed to limit my talents along those lines to the audiences on the Vassar campus, and to assume my father had eyes everywhere.”
“Come to find out,” Jonathan muttered from the side of his mouth, “he most likely did,” earning himself a quick jab in the side.
“Mr. Edwards sure did keep up with you and Pat, Jen. Even back in those days, before air travel became what it is, the guy was like somebody off Star Trek- could just beam in and materialize out of nowhere.”
To that, Jonathan laughed out loud.
“According to J.J., that phenomenon is now referred to as ‘being rolled up on’,” Jennifer said.
“My boy refers to it that way, too,” Teddy Sr. said through his lingering amusement at his own comments about Jennifer’s formidable father, “And I make sure I do it- a lot. That one needs it. Sometimes I wish I had a teleporter of my own just to keep tabs on him and his slick behind. Out of the four of my kids, the boy is the one with the chronically wandering feet.”
“Yours, too?” Jonathan leaned around Jennifer to say. “Only mine is a girl.”
Jennifer threw up her hands and looked first to Baxter and then to Jonathan. “Now from where in the world could our kids have picked up that tendency?”
At which all three of them sputtered with laughter.
Three intense hands later, J.J. was raking in her second hard-won kitty when the pilot announced the impending descent into New York.
“Guess that’s it,” she said, winking at her two opponents while she reached for her purse to extract her wallet into which she neatly pressed the five twenties.
“I think she suckered us on that first hand,” Carlos grumbled as he swept up the discarded cards.
“Um-hmm”, Duncan mumbled in agreement, releasing the lock on the table to fold it back into the wall. “That lulled into a false sense of security thing. I should have known better. We were had for sure.”
Her harvest securely stashed away, J.J. turned back around to her deflated opponents. “Don’t feel bad. It wasn’t like you were pushovers or anything. I just got a little lucky. Those last two hands- I simply got something I could work with.”
When she reached back, this time for her jacket, two hands were already on the garment, getting it in place for her to slip her arms into it. Teddy’s voice spoke close to the back of her head.
” ‘Work with‘ being the operative words- your skills are legendary.”
“I meant the cards,” she said, happy to hear him sounding more like himself, or hearing speak at all.
Immersed in the game, she didn’t notice if he had changed position, but he hadn’t said a word while she, Duncan, and Carlos were playing cards.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, my friend.” She patted the hand on her shoulder once she had her other arm through the sleeve .”You good?”
As she fastened her seat belt, she took a good look at this face. He looked rested and sounded more like his regular self when he said, “I’m fine. I just like to chill right before I have to be on.”
She hoped he was giving it to her straight. He had an awful lot on the line, and they had come too far and were taking too many chances for things not to play out in his favor.
When she faced forward again, she caught Duncan slyly checking Teddy out, too.
The car carrying the three adults slowed before stopping completely at a red light. The number of people crossing in front of the vehicle, the activity all around them contradicted the hour and it being a weekday.
“This makes me so nostalgic,” Jennifer quietly remarked to no one in particular as she took in the view. She delivered a quick peck to Jonathan’s cheek. “Thank you, darling. This was such a thoughtful surprise. What a great way to spend this evening.”
“I thought you’d get a kick out of coming here,” he said. “And you know how much I enjoy making you happy. I’m just glad it all came together.”
A block and a half later they pulled up to the curb. The driver opened Baxter’s door. Jonathan got out on his side, extending a hand inside to Jennifer. In the meantime, Baxter came around from the rear, stepped onto the curb, and headed straight for a figure standing under the extended awning. A tallish woman in black, stylishly swathed in a huge, flowing scarf in bright shades of teal and fuchsia stepped out, her arms extended to him as he raised his to her.
The Harts, out of the car now, looked on in mild surprise as the two shared a more than friendly embrace.
“I’m so glad you phoned me,” the woman said, still holding Baxter by the arms. “What a nice surprise, you here, all of a sudden, at this time of night- on this night. With so much going on, I would have thought you’d have been rooted in Boston.”
“It was a last minute, but very opportune diversion, believe me,” he answered. “I’m so glad you were in town and willing to come out so late like this to- but then, I kind of knew you-” as if suddenly remembering he wasn’t alone, with his arm still around her, Baxter turned around to the couple behind him.
“Jennifer and Jonathan Hart, I’d like you to meet Vivienne Sheffield Baxter, Victoria’s mother and my first wife.”
“And, I’m afraid,” added the woman with the dancing eyes and warm smile as she extended a hand first to Jennifer and then to Jonathan, “an unapologetic part of his ongoing saga. It’s so nice to finally meet you. Little Teddy’s told me so much about you and J.J.; I feel as if I know all of you already.”
“We are a long story,” Baxter offered as he wound his other arm around Jennifer to lead all of them toward the doors of the club, “and I remember how much you enjoy a tale with lots of plot twists, Jen. Let’s get inside, get seated, and order some drinks. I’m buying.”
Headed into the city, J.J. had the sudden thought to phone her mother to “check in”, but she just as quickly changed her mind. Doing that might open up the possibility of her father ordering a check to find out the tower from which her phone was pinging.
But what would make him even think to do that?
A nudge from the Duchess, that’s what. She would think to do that.
Eh, she’s there, in Boston on a mini–vaca with her man. Not thinking about you.
Guilty conscience much, J.?
Before adjusting the scarf still loosely wound round her neck, she flicked at that invisible pitchforked imp perched on her shoulder attempting to make a negative inroad on her good night.
After all, what was there to feel guilty about? She had gone where she was supposed to go and done what she was supposed to do. She wasn’t somewhere in Massachusetts guzzling down any of the hard liquor surely flowing in other places she and Teddy could have gone. A glass of wine with some cheese, fruit, and crackers didn’t really count as liquor. That wasn’t any more than she would do in France with Aunt Sabrina. And although she had been in a hotel room, with a boy- technically two boys- and changed clothes, she remained uncompromised and untouched-
Does the mouth count? It was only kissing….
… each other… on the mouth….
Seated on her right, Duncan talked non-stop into his phone, sounding far more worldly-wise and business-savvy than his eighteen years should allow as he lined things up with the party they were on their way to meet. Carlos sat up front with the driver that met them at the airport. Teddy, on her left, had gone back inside himself. He was right next to her, but silent, with his head back, resting on the seat pillow with his eyes closed, which left her, for the moment, alone with her thoughts.
Despite her partner’s relative absence, she found it exciting- no exhilarating- to be out for the night, in a limo in New York, hanging out with a friend- a male friend whose company she enjoyed and who seemed to enjoy hers even if he was a little more closed off from her than usual at the time. That was bound to get better once he finished what he came to do, and he could fully relax. She had no doubt things would go well for him.
But how cool would it be to have a nice top floor apartment- a penthouse- or a three story townhouse with a view across the Hudson where they could all go and hang out once he was done, at whatever time he was done? A place where she could come and go as she wanted, where she could invite her friends in anytime she wanted, and they could stay as long as she wanted them to stay? Somewhere they could talk all night, or come in and out as they pleased, do as they pleased.
At that moment, eighteen felt eons away rather than the year it actually was. Even then, though, there would be having to attend college blocking her from doing her own thing the way she wanted. She would be away from home and on her own, but sitting in classes, listening to lectures, doing labs, studying, and all else that went with school taking up a great deal of her time and regulating her days.
It’s always something roping me off, holding me down, keeping me boxed in. One day–
“Circus in town again, J.?”
The voice, as well as the question, yanked her back her from the brink of funk and brought a smile to her face.
Teddy hadn’t changed position, but his eyes were open and trained on her.
“With all three rings going,” she answered, bumping him with her shoulder. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Not asleep. Just resting my eyes, is all. Getting myself in gear.”
“I figured that last thing.” She leaned in closer to see his eyes better in the dimness of the back seat, . “You sure you’re okay?”
Her nose right there, he briefly grazed it with his lips. “I’m more concerned about you. You’re the one with the most on the line right now.”
“Don’t you worry about me. I’m fine. I don’t have anything near as much as you on the line, as you say. You’re the one who’ll be out front on display.”
“You’re the one with Mustafa for a father.”
She laughed. “Mustafa is back in Boston, holed up in a cozy hotel suite with Sarabi. Given their dynamic, it’s most probable that neither of them is thinking about Simba- at least not thinking the kid’s taken it on the lam.”
When Teddy snickered over her metaphoric description of her parents, it eased some of her concern over him. “And what about you?” she asked. “Your father has no idea where you are either.”
“I told you, J., I do this all the time. With the lack of set curfew for his boy, my father is either on a date himself, hanging out somewhere with his friends, or already over in the bed so he can be up when- well, his bed, or-”
J.J. wiggled her eyebrows. “With your mom, maybe? She’s still in town. Maybe they made nice and decided to spend some quality time together?”
Teddy rolled his eyes. “I highly doubt that. Those two can barely tolerate each other standing up. Can’t speak for my mom, but I know for fact my father has definitely moved on, or at least moved away from her. When he has to be at my mother’s house for my sisters or for some family thing, he always stays in the guest house. If it wasn’t for us kids, I don’t think either of them would be bothered with the other on any level.”
“Sad,” J.J. observed, sobered by her friend’s description of the state of his parents’ affairs. “You know, I do wonder sometimes how it gets like that. I mean, at some point, the people involved have to have been in love, or at least thought they were are because they got married. They live together, have babies and go through things together, but somewhere, somehow along the way, the love dies, and they can’t stand each other anymore. I know it happens, but I don’t understand how it gets like that.”
“I think it’s complicated, J.” She noticed Teddy switch to avoiding her eyes as he spoke. “Stuff happens that people don’t count on happening. I guess they sometimes don’t know what they want before they get into things, or maybe even when they get out of them. Maybe it wasn’t real in the first place.” He shrugged and then sighed. “How do I know? I’m still trying to figure myself out.
“You just be grateful for how you have it with your parents. You’re very fortunate that’s the situation you come home to every day. You’ve got it real good.”
From his wistful tone, how he lay his head back again and closed his eyes without ever meeting hers again, J.J. feared she had unwittingly drifted into some uncomfortable territory for Teddy. She left the conversation where it was and went back to looking out of the window.
After all, like Teddy said, what did either of them really know about how those kinds of things went? Especially her. What did she know about any of it other than what she heard via her friends, read about, or experienced vicariously through Marnie? And now, perhaps, Teddy?
As the sights whizzed past, that familiar tune started up in her head…
“New York, Ne-e–e-w York.
I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.“
New York certainly didn’t; and that was one of the main things she loved about it. She wasn’t a girl with “little town blues”, but New York was not Los Angeles. As many places as she had been in the world so far, no place was like New York, no matter what part of the state she was in. And there was definitely nowhere like Manhattan.
On the other side of the glass, people hurried to their destinations, milled about, talked in pairs, stood in small groups, utilizing or navigating the streets and sidewalks as if it were midday rather than well after midnight. In Aunt Pat’s neighborhood, where she usually spent most of her New York time, it wasn’t as frenetic as it was on the lower end where they were at the moment. However, people came and went at all hours on the upper east side, as well. Down time wasn’t a huge theme on either end.
Perhaps going to school out east wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. She would be attending the top University on her own list of possibilities, which would also put her close enough to New York to hang out there more often than she could from California if she chose Stanford or CalTech, two others penciled in as possibilities.
And she would be more on her own if she went to school out east than she would be remaining in California. Living in a dorm wasn’t something she looked forward to, but the Duchess said everyone should have the experience. The Duchess also said she couldn’t get an apartment until at least her sophomore year, if then. She might be being in college and she might be considered “grown”, but having to live in a dorm with strangers that first year would have her headed for home every single weekend if she stayed anywhere in or near California.
But, if she chose MIT or some other eastern seaboard school, that wouldn’t be as easy, so she wouldn’t be so inclined to return to the nest. And then, too, by the time she got to Cambridge as a freshman, Teddy would be a sophomore in Boston, and if things went according to his plan, he would be moved into his own apartment-
“J., if you decided on Massachusetts for school, we could do this a couple times a month.”
It was Duncan this time, breaking into her flight of fancy, and with his question, it occurred to her to ask, “Where are you going for college, Duncan? I know you’ve been accepted somewhere by now. I should think you’d be going away.”
Duncan snorted at that. “From New York? Please. Why would I want to leave all this? As long as I keep my nose clean, stay busy, and keep my grades up, it’s all good as far as my folks are concerned. I love it here. My mother was like, ‘Maybe you should go away for school’. Hmph, I told her everything I want to do and be are right here. I’m just fine. I got my shops, my hook-ups, I got- hell, you decide to come to this side of the country for school, J., be sure to let me know.”
J.J. only nodded at what he said, but it was definitely a solid weight added to the east coast side of the balance. Duncan did have the ways, means, and, obviously, some serious connections that could make college life, for that matter life itself, a whole lot more interesting.
Not too long after, the car tuned a busy corner, parting the throng of pedestrians crossing the walkway, and pulled into a well-lit alley. It stopped at a back door of what appeared to be a business establishment guarded by two hulking, swarthy figures perched on metal bar stools.
Duncan let down his window to call out,” Wha’s up, Snookie!”
One of the men waved, and got up to come to the car. Beating the driver to it, Duncan swung open his door, immediately extending a hand, which was swallowed inside the mitt that met it. The two males shared a hearty shoulder bump in greeting.
“Sinclair, my man. Heard you was comin’. Bringin’ the talent back?”
Witnessing the exchange from inside the car, J.J.snapped around to Teddy, who was still resting, and socked him in the arm.
“Back? Teddy, you mean to tell me you’ve been here before, and they’re having you back? And you were debating with me about passing this up for a prom? Are you crazy?”
Startled, Teddy jerked forward, gripping his bicep. “Jeez, you hit hard for a girl, J.”
“I hit hard, period. Being a girl has nothing to do with it. You’re lucky I’m not beating you up. I cannot believe you. You don’t pass up opportunities like this. Not with your skills. And in New York?”
“I was only thinking about you. I didn’t want you making decisions based on me. Like I told you, it didn’t come up until-”
“It didn’t matter. I wouldn’t have wanted you to turn down doing something you love because of me. You see I came, and I didn’t even know the full extent of things.”
By this time, Carlos was at Teddy’s door, opening it for him.
Still aggravated and fussing, J.J. bumped Teddy with her hip. “Ooh, I cannot believe you. Go ahead and get out.”
“Don’t be mad, J.” he said, sliding out to stand and reach for her hand “Like I said, I was only-”
She accepted his assistance, but didn’t let up on him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s just get you inside so you can show the people what I already know. We can hash our stuff out later.”
She noticed the other man get up from his stool and start over to them once she was out of the car.
“Good to see you again, young blood,” the one called Snookie said as he shook hands with Teddy. “Gonna wow ’em again tonight?”
“Something like that, I hope,” Teddy answered with his usual easy charm, putting J.J. a little more at ease about him despite her aggravation with what she considered his cavalier treatment of the huge opportunity afforded to him- and vicariously, to her.
But the word, “again,” had been duly noted and filed away for that discussion they would definitely be having.
After just a few minutes in what amounted to the Green Room, Teddy had been hustled off to get set up. That left J.J. in the room with Duncan, who from his agitated pacing she could tell didn’t plan to be there long. As she unwound the scarf from her neck and began unfastening her jacket she took in her surroundings: the obligatory vanity complete with large mirror, oversized bulb track lighting, and worn-thin leatherette covered bench. Directly across the room was a sagging, cloth-covered burgundy loveseat- a full sized couch would have made things even tighter- and an equally worn easy chair that looked as if it matched the couch. That wasn’t so easy to tell with the brown bath towel being used as a seat covering for it. Another chair, a metal fold-out, stood over in the elled corner with the card table that held a wicker basket of snacks along with some canned soft drinks pushed down in a bucket- an actual metal mop bucket with a handle- filled to the brim with ice.
“Now if you want, you can go out on the floor, J.” Duncan was saying. “You don’t have to stay back here. This is kinda cheesy, I know, for a girl like you- hell, any girl as I look around this joint. I got it cleared with management as a special case for you to be out front.”
“No, that’s okay” she said as she hung her things on the rickety coat rack by the door. “I’m fine right here. They’re serving alcohol, and my being out there would take them out of compliance and risk their liquor license. Those things are hard to come by and easy to lose. I’m not jeopardizing somebody else’s livelihood just to do what I want to do.”
Duncan shrugged and pointed to a monitor affixed to the wall above the card table. “Suit yourself. That TV is closed circuit. You can at least watch him.”
He grabbed a bag of chips from the basket, pulled it open at the top seam, poured some of the contents into his mouth, and spoke around it. “Make sure it’s on channel six, and it’ll be the next best thing to being there in person. I gotta go check on some stuff, make sure my boy is okay. You going to be all right in here by yourself?”
She already had the remote in hand, checking it out for switching on the monitor later. “I’ll be fine, Duncan. You go ahead and do what you have to do. I really do know how to take care of myself. You at least gonna hang up your coat?”
He had on that “Sherlock Holmes” coat he lent her that afternoon in the apartment lobby when she slipped out with him to visit his Manhattan shop.
“Nah,” he said as he headed for the door, “it’s part of who I am in these situations. People expect it of me. Make yourself at home here, J. Have some of those snacks and a soft drink. They’re in here for you. Look,” he said, half in, half out with the knob in hand, “I’m going to put the lock on and close this. I didn’t like how old boy was eyeing you out in the alley when were coming in.”
“The one that wasn’t Snookie?”
“Yeah, him. He’s new. I’ve never seen him around here before. Snookie’s cool, but the other guy, I can’t say. I’ll be checking back on you. Don’t open this for nobody.”
Before Duncan could close the door all the way, J.J. called out to him. “Hey, wait.”
She walked to him. “Do you really think Teddy’s okay? He’s going to be all right to do this?”
Duncan nodded, but she noticed he didn’t meet her eyes. “He’s Teddy, J. He’s a trooper. Don’t worry about him.”
Not completely reassured by his answer, she took another track. “So what’s in this for you?”
“Nothing underhanded, if that’s what you’re thinking. Nothing monetary. Street cred, sorta, I guess. It’s like with my shops; I showcase talent while getting my own brand out there. People know me; I know people, and I know my man, Teddy, is going places. I’m just doing my little bit to help him get there, and if I’m honest, get my own name out there, too.”
“You really know what you want out of life, don’t you?”
“Not all the time, J.” he said, this time looking right at her, “But I do know what I enjoy doing.” He gave the knob switch on her side a twist. “Remember to keep this closed. I’ll be back in a few.”
When he shut the door and she heard the lock click, she looked around, trying to decide where she would sit. She shook her head at the couch.
Might be taking some bed bugs or fleas back with me from that.
She looked to the easy chair.
No telling what’s under that towel. Heck, no telling what the towel was used for, while I’m on the subject.
Opting for the metal chair over by the card table, she pulled it around to be able to see the monitor full on. Before reaching for the remote she had left on the table, she extracted a Coke from the ice in the bucket and used a wet wipe and a tissue from her purse to thoroughly clean the top. After popping the tab, she then delicately wiped around the opening. There were some paper cups in the dodgy-looking dispenser on a nearby wall; however, she opted to take her drink straight from the can. Digging into an opened bag of chips, she sat back and switched on the monitor.
The camera, trained on the unoccupied stage area, contained the front mic, a set of drums, the keyboards, some chairs, and music stands.
I’ll be looking at the back of his head, but at least I’ll get to see and hear him.
And look at his butt.
Strains of background music and the muffled sounds of people in the audience filtered in through on the speakers in the room; she turned down the volume on that.
Her phone buzzed in her back pocket. She pulled it out and grinned at Teddy hitting her up via text message.
“Thanx for being here w/me. Means a lot that you came.”
She shot him one back:
No problem. Break a leg. And some hearts.
Clicking off from him, her eyes swept the small space one more time.
Everybody had to get started somewhere, she guessed, and she thought about those young people who didn’t ride in airplanes and limos to gigs, with the gigs being all they had to sustain them. Teddy and Duncan already had a healthy head start- places to go back to if things didn’t work out, other paths to take if the one they were on didn’t lead where they thought, male….
“I didn’t like how old boy was eyeing you out in the alley when were coming in.”
Duncan’s words about the one who wasn’t Snookie flashed in her head, and she reached for her purse. She unzipped an inside pocket and dug out the zip-lock containing the travel-sized spray bottle of “mace” she carried. She pulled open the bag, removed the contents, and placed it on the table. The real thing wasn’t legal in a lot of places, but as far as she and Marnie could tell, there wasn’t anything on the books about her concoction.
Good old YouTube. Never know when somebody might decide to act up and need to be dealt with.
It was mighty funny, but not surprising, that ‘NotSnookie’ showed no interest in who was pulling up in that alley until she, the lone female, got out of the car. His concentrated focus on her in no way escaped her attention as they passed him to enter the building. Duncan’s mentioning it cemented her hunch that something wasn’t right with that.
Still panning the room, she noticed the vanity had a drawer to it, so she got up to check for one more thing.
Yep, I figured there would be one in a place this decrepit and way far back in the house.
She tapped the metal flashlight against her palm a couple of times. Satisfied with its weight, she went back and sat down, placing it on the table next to the spray bottle. Pulling her cell phone out again, she settled in to listen to and read messages and surf the net until showtime.
In the first few seconds of their arrival at their destination, Jonathan’s anticipated scenario for the evening completely switched up on him. Between noting the marked difference in Baxter’s interaction with this ex as opposed to the other, the contrast in the women’s outward demeanors, the more than comfortable vibe he picked up from Baxter and his ex, along with his own wife’s less than covert captivation with the whole thing, he found trying to keep up with all of it a bit dizzying- a whole lot fascinating and a tinge gratifying at the same time.
Given the train of thought he had been intermittently entertaining over the past couple of days, that dream and the subsequent scenarios involving imagined twists with his and Jennifer’s relationship, this new situation with Baxter had him sucked in whole.
It finally added up why Baxter requested he acquire that third pass. With the friend of a friend recommending the spot having left his name at the door, he didn’t need one for himself. He figured Baxter for having someone meeting them there once they arrived. After all, who wants to be a third wheel? But an ex?
From what he witnessed of the man’s past few hours, put in Baxter’s place, he could certainly see it happening that way for him.
Greeted at the door by the club’s manager, who personally ushered them to a table along the left wall about midway the room, they got settled and placed their drink orders. With the band between sets, recorded jazz standards played in the background, adding just the right touch to the casual, welcoming ambiance.
It was a small establishment with a mostly older crowd, just the kind of low key venue he preferred when it came to really relaxing and enjoying live music. The big names, many of whom got their starts on stages of this sort, demanded too much to play there, but that was the thing with talent; it kept coming, breaking into the business in that kind of setting, with those kinds of appreciative audiences.
Just as it turned out his wife once attempted before being cut off at the pass by her old man.
“Jonathan, what are you smiling about?”
Caught off guard by the question, as well as the apparent betrayal by his face of his thoughts, he blushed on the inside but quickly recovered. “Just at how well this night is turning out-” he gestured toward the Baxters, “- evidently for everyone.”
At their table of four, each couple facing the other, the increased light afforded him a better look at the newcomer to their group. Vivienne Baxter was a taller, more substantial woman than Helena Baxter. Her most prominent feature; however, the one he took most notice of, was her hair; she had a lot of it. Thick, dark, and apparently long, it had been twisted and coiled at the top of her head in a manner that suggested not a lot of effort put to perfection, but more so to comfort and convenience. The errant curls that escaped capture now framed her face, the features of which strongly reflected in her daughter’s, fuller and naturally more mature, but pleasantly attractive.
“I guess this must look real crazy to you, two,” she said in response to the comment sent in her and Baxter’s direction.
Jennifer fielded that one. “Not really.”
Jonathan watched her fold her arms in front of her on the table and lean on them, inclining herself in the other woman’s direction to admit, “But I must say it is awfully intriguing.”
Vivienne folded her own arms and leaned in, too. “You know, Jennifer, sometimes I think we’re a novel waiting to be written, he and I.” She briefly tipped her head in Baxter’s direction, then dipped her face to self-consciously snicker. “But would you look at who I’m telling that to.”
Jennifer winked at her and smiled. “Fancy that. I really do love a good story, and I must say I’m sensing a mighty strong plot here.”
Jonathan intrigued and delighted watching his wife so gracefully go in and set up shop, sensed another, a different pull. He switched from watching the women to Baxter, who he found causally leaned back with his arm draped on his ex’s chair, waiting for him to make the visual connection.
“What can I say,” he mouthed following it with a one-shoulder shrug, “it’s complicated.”
Jonathan gestured in kind, filled with an increasing sincere happiness mixed with an odd twinge of relief for the guy. Then action in the stage area caused him to briefly look that way.
A couple of guys adjusting mic and seats.
The drummer taking his place in the back.
Their waitress arrived with a tray filled with glasses and two large bowls of snacks which she set before them. Jonathan picked up his glass and was just about to take his first sip when something up front snagged the corner of his eye.
A tallish, thin male figure, his back to the audience, wearing a distinctive trench coat, triggered a fleeting, but unsettling flash of Boston déjà vu.
“I don’t know about strong,” Vivienne was saying, “or even interesting as far as a plot might go. Just two good friends with benefits who made a baby, then tried to do the right thing and got married.”
Rapt by the interesting woman across from her, Jennifer listened intently as she continued with her tale.
“But the marriage didn’t work; he wanted one thing, she wanted another, so they split. She went her way; he went his, but tied together by said child, the contact remained. The two characters might not have worked as man and wife, but found they were outstanding partners in parenting- their kid together and his by another mother. Despite the different paths they took, they eventually found themselves right back where they started, just two very good friends with all the accumulated benefits.”
Vivienne stopped at that point and her flashing dark eyes swept Jennifer from forehead to tabletop. “Boy, I’ll bet Helena’s nose went out of joint once she saw you.”
Hearing that observation yet again and from an entirely different source, Jennifer sat straight up. “Me?”
A foot insistently tapped hers under the table as she asked, “Why? What makes you say that?”
“Why’d you have to go there, Viv?” Baxter asked, pressing a hand to her forearm and sounding as if her comment might have been an oft-traveled road for them.
“Because I know it was,” Vivienne retorted, briefly twisting around to face Baxter. “Tell me it wasn’t. You can’t because you know full well that’s how it was.”
She turned back to Jennifer. “She can’t help it; that’s just how she is, poor thing. Nice girl, but very insecure. See, it took me a while to figure out it wasn’t personal; she simply has problems with alpha women in her space, especially attractive, self- assured, accomplished ones like you- ” She wrinkled her nose, grinned, and leaned in closer. “-and me.”
Not typically one to indulge cattiness, basic instinct failed miserably in the face of Vivienne’s smug comment accompanied by an equally smug, but undeniably cute facial expression; Jennifer lowered her own face to stifle a shamefaced chuckle. She heard Vivienne snicker, too, likely at having gotten a rise out of her, as she went on with what she was saying.
“Just too easily agitated, and for no good reason. I never ever bothered her. I divorced him, so I truly did not care about being replaced by her as long as she treated Vickie right, which she always did. I’m sure you didn’t care either about catching that attitude you probably have too much class to acknowledge. That’s if you even noticed. In her, the- whatever it is- manifests itself in crankiness and defensiveness. Other things going on tonight didn’t help, I guess.”
She stopped again and seemed to size Jennifer up one more time, then she slowly shook her head. “Yes, yes, yes. From the pictures Teddy’s shown me, your daughter is a carbon copy of her mother. Faced with the two of you, and J.J. going out with her baby for the night- Oh my goodness, that had to have sent Helena completely around the way.”
Vivienne softly laughed into her considerable bosom before looking back up to Jennifer. “And from what I’ve been told about her, your baby sounds kind of alpha, too. I cannot wait until I meet that girl in person. I wanted to come to Boston to see her and Teddy off to the prom, but it was Helena’s moment, you know. And then Vickie went, so-”
When she sat back, settling comfortably against her ex and picked up her drink, Jennifer followed the movement with her eyes, waiting for the end of the sentence.
“I stayed put here in the city,” Vivienne concluded. With a languid roll of her shoulders, she further nestled into the chest of the man behind her. “It paid off.”
With that, Jennifer picked up her own glass.
Over the years, she hadn’t thought much about Teddy “Bear” Baxter. He and Pat had been hot and heavy through both high school and college, during which time the three of them forged a close friendship. When he proposed to Pat following their graduation from university, Pat turned him down citing a desire to “find herself” before becoming someone’s wife.
Once Pat and Bear split up as a couple, it was only through Pat that she learned what was going on with him. Although the two of them maintained the friendship, they eventually drifted in different directions as the pursuit of their own interests and circumstance contributed to establishing their individual lives.
She was vaguely aware that he had married and divorced at least once, but not specifically to whom. It wasn’t until running into him again at the joint reunion between her prep school, Gresham Hall and his, Brookfield, where J.J. and Teddy met, that Bear and the details of his life came back into hers. In that short time since, they had picked right back up on the friendship. That was more easily facilitated by the relationship developed between their two children. That, of course, necessitated their being in more regular and meaningful communication. A pleasant byproduct was the positive parental alliance developed between Bear and Jonathan, and for that she was happy. Considering the circumstances under which they came together, Bear’s boy enamored of Jonathan’s girl, that certainly did not have to be.
Dredging up long-ago memories of her youth while in the car. Bear over there snuggled up with his first ex, appearing a lot more comfortable- actually quite natural and at home- with her than the more recent one he left in Boston.
Taking the first sips of cognac, her fertile imagination took off, smoothly shifting into overdrive.
I’m divorced from Jonathan, but we have J.J. between us. I’ve remarried, and somehow the new husband-
No, it wouldn’t be me. Physical custody of J.J. Hart would make that impossible for me. It would have to be Jonathan remarried, but he’d have to see me because of J.J.
I’d have to see him because of our child.
His new wife, intimidated by me? Me, alpha?
It wasn’t the first time she heard that description of herself from someone. When she looked up the definition, it seemed to fit her, and now, most definitely her “carbon copy” child.
“Strong female. Isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants. Successful in her chosen career. Maintains a solid group of friends upon whom she can rely. Intelligent. Confident. Ambitious. Social conductor.”
New wife wouldn’t need to be unnerved about me. Just understand and respect that I came before her. And-
She peeked around at Jonathan for a moment, taking in his face in profile.
Oh yes, for certain I would. Principles discarded all over the wayside along with my ….
Placing her glass back down on the table and reaching for the peanut bowl, she finished her thought, glanced at the other couple, and wondered about them.
Settling in against Jonathan’s arm draped across the back of her chair, she felt his fingers gently, but meaningfully caress her back in that way he had of sending a message right to where he meant for it to go.
Oh hell yes, we would; no way would I be able to-
Truth told, I’d probably seduce him if he tried to be honorable and resist me in the face of his remarriage. After all, I am alpha, and I did have him first.
… might not be married anymore on paper, but we will always have that-
Vivienne stared at her from across the table as if watching images of what was going through her mind playing across her forehead. When their eyes met, the other woman winked and nodded, confirming that vibe, making Jennifer laugh and relax even further into her own man.
That was when she noticed how Jonathan’s attention remained riveted to the stage area. She followed his gaze, and at the same time, heard Vivienne ask, “Ted, doesn’t that look like Teddy’s friend, Duncan?”
The question caused her to hone in on the young man in the trench coat, the shaggy-haired one fiddling with his phone.
Having checked her many messages, answered a few, and moved on to skimming online news articles from home, J.J.’s eyelids grew heavy and her head involuntarily bounced, jerking her back from a nose dive into the phone screen and the table. Alone in that small, quiet room, her action-packed last couple of weeks seemed to be creeping up on her. She clicked off the phone and put it away.
Still nothing on that monitor.
Her first inclination was to give in to the fatigue. She put her head down on her arms with the intention of only resting her eyes for a moment, but she just as quickly sat back up, fearful of falling into one of her deeper sleeps and missing Teddy’s performance. Instead, she got up from the chair completely.
For a few seconds, she ran in place to clear her head. When she stopped, she planted her feet and raised her arms, going into a long, slow full body stretch in the effort to get the blood flowing from top to bottom and start the backup energy generator. After all, it was quite late, and a whole lot had been packed into the hours, if not days, before. If she was home in Bel Air- or even in the hotel suite in Boston with her parents- she would surely be over in the bed and long since counted out.
Coming out of the stretch, she peeked at the monitor again, and this time saw action on the screen. She sat back down to check out was going on. Maybe it wouldn’t be too much longer before things got started.
Duncan was out there, doing something with the mic in front where Teddy would be in a few. She wished the camera angle was a little wider so she would be able to see the audience reaction when he sang, but the way it was set up, she would only see him and maybe a couple of the musicians as they all performed.
Her text notification sounded, and she pulled the phone back out to check it.
Dee. At that cabin. Wanting to know where they were.
Not with you, my friend. Love you, but I can smell trouble all over that. Please be careful.
She shot off a quick message letting Dee know their plans had changed and one of them would get back to her later.
Read whatever you want into that. I will get back to you- tomorrow some time.
Because this night was hers- and Teddy’s, and they were not going to be accountable to anyone but themselves.
There was a little Coke left in the can, so she downed it and reached for another to get that second shot of caffeine and to help her finish off what was left of the chips. By this time, the musicians had come out on the stage and were taking their seats.
Another incoming text sent the phone buzzing against the table top.
Duncan this time, checking on her, saying he would be back to the room shortly and reminding her to keep the door locked until he got there.
After hitting him back to let him know she was fine, she clicked off and sat back with her refreshments to wait for the show to start.
This is the life.
For good measure, she arranged the spray bottle and the flashlight in a spot just a little bit closer, thus a lot more efficient should they get called into play.
All the adults at the table honed in on the stage area, focused on one individual. Vivienne squinted to better see. “That is him. That’s Duncan.”
Baxter seconded that with, “The hair, that coat, and on that phone? Nobody but him.”
“Duncan Sinclair?” Jennifer asked, sounding as if she needed that final clarification to be sure for herself.
Vivienne twisted around to ask, “You know him?”
“He came with Teddy to my father’s house in Maryland for Thanksgiving last year.”
“Ahh, yes, I remember. He and Teddy attended your best friend’s wedding while they were there, too.”
At that, Vivienne folded her arms again in front of her on the table and once more leaned in. “He lives in your friend’s building over on 72nd. Of course, you know Duncan.”
“You talk so much, Viv,” Baxter said, slowly shaking his head.
“But that’s why you love me,” she retorted, twisting around to deliver a quick peck to his cheek. “I’m forthright. I’m honest. I don’t believe in leaving people guessing. And I’m damned good-looking.”
She turned back around to the table. “You’re kind, Jennifer, leaving out that detail about Thanksgiving. I appreciate your discretion, but I know all about Patricia Hamilton, the situation between her and this one here. Smart girl. She had the good sense not to marry him. He’s not marriage material. I tried to tell him that way back when- twice. Hell, I should know; neither was I. I tried to tell him that, too, way back then.”
By this time, Jonathan had concluded for himself the identity of the young man in question and moved on to thoroughly enjoying the discourse going on between the two women at his table. The more time he spent in her company, the more he liked Vivienne Sheffield and could see why Baxter would seek her out to spend the evening with, if not his life, even if he wasn’t married to her any more. There was nothing like a confident woman, one who knew and appreciated herself. The fact that they were exes, but obviously still good friends, made the dynamic even more intriguing.
Up front, the keyboardist ran a couple of scales, drawing their attention back to that part of the room. Duncan was still up there, but down on the main floor now, still with his back to the audience as he talked with the club manager.
“I declare, that boy is everywhere,” Vivienne commented. “After Teddy introduced him to me and started bringing him around when he would come to the city, it seemed as if I was running into Duncan all over Manhattan. The child’s got a hand in a little of everything. Real old for his age when it comes to business. Talented, too. Imagine him being here, in a nightclub, at this time of night. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s a product of free-range parenting.”
Baxter reached past her for a handful of nuts. “Well, that doesn’t seem to have done him any harm,” he said. “Aside from making me a little nervous with all he has at his disposal, and how attractive that could be for my kid, from what I’ve seen, he’s a pretty good boy. Does well in school, runs his own businesses, is already set up for college. Got a bit of Pied Piper to him, though; Teddy greatly envies his mobility and very is attracted to it. Under normal circumstances, it’s all I can do to keep that boy of mine in one place. Natural born wanderer, that one. Now he’s partnered up with this one….”
“Teddy’s a very good boy, too,” Vivienne reminded him. “Like his father, he’s smart, talented, and sweet. I hope he and J.J. are having a nice time.”
Jonathan pressed forward just enough to discreetly whisper, “Not too damned nice,” into Jennifer’s ear, earning himself a discreet “behave yourself” nudge to the ribs.
And he couldn’t help but inwardly cross himself, giving divine thanks that free-range Duncan Sinclair and all that he had “at his disposal” resided in New York and not in California to play Pied Piper with his own natural born wanderer.
The band ran through a quick mic check, after which the house lights dimmed and the they smoothly rolled into the first number, Dave Brubeck’s breezy, “Take Five”, a jazz club standard that immediately had heads bobbing, bodies swaying, and feet tapping. More at peace than he had been all day, Jonathan gave his favorite girl an affectionate squeeze and a quick neck nuzzle before settling in for a pleasant couple of hours with good music and great company.
When the musicians segued into Monk’s, “Nice Work if You Can Find It”, the strong keyboard had him thinking of J.J. and that last visit the two of them made to that little jazz and supper spot at home, right before Pat and Bill’s wedding. The look on that kid’s face when the music was good. Eyes lit, fingers tapping the tabletop in time, same with that one foot. Completely into it. An old soul and her daddy’s girl, for sure.
It wasn’t until he felt Jennifer’s hand stroke his that he realized how much his arm on her chair had tightened around her. He relaxed it.
Something about that little girl of ours.
Enjoying the musical performance so far, J.J. almost wished she had taken Duncan up on is offer to sit out front. The first number,“Take Five,“ was one of Mr. Washington’s basic arrangements for both of his jazz bands, but especially for his A band, the elite group of student musicians for which she was first seat on piano and digital keyboard. One of her favorites because in band they had so much fun with it, her fingers now involuntarily tripped along unseen ivories while that one exquisite boot kept time on the imaginary foot boards.
It was as the Thelonious Monk number ended that a noise on the other side of the room, in the direction of the door, put her on alert.
The knob slowly turned. Way too slowly for someone who was supposed to be coming in. That the lock was still on gave her some comfort, but who would be on the other side trying the door in that way? Was it someone who was aware she was in there alone?
Instinctively, her hand closed around that little squirt bottle. The other took hold of the flashlight as she continued to study that door.
On the monitor behind her, the vocal performer for the set was being introduced.
The manager left his spot in the huddle of figures standing up front, along the left wall to re-enter the stage area. He officially greeted the audience and thanked the band as a group for their opening numbers before introducing each member individually. He explained they were the house band for the club, but that they also played other venues. One of their strengths, he further stated, was their ability to easily accommodate the ever-changing roster of guest performers.
“Including the gentleman on vocals with us tonight. He is one whose name will undoubtedly very soon be gracing top billing spots on major marquees in this country and beyond. Talk about a kid going places. Such a phenomenal talent in so many areas and already a true professional.
We enjoyed him so much the first time we managed to snag him, that when the opening unexpectedly popped up, we asked him back without hesitation. So glad his dance card had a spot on it for us so we could share him with you tonight.
Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, would you please give a warm welcome to young Theo Martin!
As the audience heartily clapped, the house lights dimmed even more. A spotlight captured and followed Teddy as he strode to his spot at the mic, front and center.
“The hell?” Baxter wheezed, nearly choking on his drink. “Theo Martin?”
Vivienne sat straight up. “I will be damned.”
“If he’s here,” Jonathan began-
Jennifer didn’t hear the rest of his question because she was already out of her seat, headed for the one male figure up front leaned against the wall on the same side as their table as he clapped and rooted for the newcomer to the stage.
Teddy thanked the audience, then he and the band confidently sailed into their first number, a Sinatra-like version of “I’ve got the World on a String.”
Duncan jumped when she slid in next to him and whispered right next to his ear, “Where is she?”
He momentarily stiffened when he realized who was practically bumping into him. When his eyes immediately darted past her, down the line of tables on that side, she warned him, “Don’t you worry about anybody or anything except what I just asked you.”
“Green room,” he reported.
“Take me to her. Now.”
Keeping close to the wall, outside the reach of the stage lights, she followed Duncan as he moved toward a curtained door to the left of the stage.
The turning of the knob becoming more insistent and the couple bumps against wood spoke of the insistence from the other side. J.J. positioned her thumb on the nozzle of the spray bottle and took full hold of the flashlight. Permeating her rising alertness and anxiety was a strain of aggravation at not being able to give her full attention to the monitor. Teddy had arrived on stage, greeted the audience and was beginning his performance, but the possibility of dealing with an intruder took precedence.
She had the presence of mind to alert Duncan to the situation, which would mean letting go of one of her weapons. Slowly, she rose from the chair and moved to the far side of the table, sliding the cell over with the butt of the flashlight. Just as she put the bottle down to pick up the phone, she heard what sounded like muffled but insistent voices.
The door bumped hard one more time and she clearly heard a male voice declare, “Man, I wasn’t doin’ nothin’!” and another ask, “Then why you here? Take yo’ ass back outside”, right before the click and the door pushed open.
Duncan’s hands right away shot straight up. “Whoa, J. Wait! It’s just me. It’s okay. You don’t have to-”
Relieved, she dropped the raised spray bottle she had snatched up from the table and the poised-for- battle flashlight to her sides. Some shuffling was still going on in the hall outside, but sounded like it was moving away that room.She thought she caught a flash of Carlos go by.
“Good it was you, Dunc. I was gonna let somebody else have it. What’s going on out there? I thought somebody was trying to get in.”
Duncan didn’t answer and the look on his face wasn’t quite right.
“What’s up? Something wrong?”
He stepped all the way into the room, pulling the door fully open behind him.
There stood her mother.
Jonathan watched Jennifer until she, Duncan, and another young guy disappeared behind a curtained door.
His first inclination had been to follow her, but his gut feeling held him in place. After all, if Teddy was up there on that stage singing his heart out, it most likely meant J.J. was somewhere on the premises, too. Apparently Jennifer reached that same conclusion- a few seconds quicker than he did- and after getting confirmation from Sinclair, that was to whom she was headed.
Who better to handle it, if that was the case? The less said about something like that from him would be for the better- for him. After all, if both kids were there, he was sure of where they were and what they were doing. In his book, considering what could be, it wasn’t that big a deal.
Baxter remained fixed on his crooning son. “Did I hear that guy say something about a ‘first time‘?
“Yep,” Jonathan confirmed, gone back to admiring the boy’s considerable vocal talent and stage presence. And apparent hustle.
“You know that nervy, vagabond boy is everywhere,” Vivienne said, patting Baxter’s arm in a consoling manner. “That child sure can sing, can’t he?. More than that, he loves it. If ever someone was born for this.”
But Baxter wasn’t hearing it. “The hell with that, Viv. He is supposed to have himself in Boston, at his prom, not in New York, performing in some club. Where in the world is my car? What did I just say a minute ago about him and Duncan. When I- Damn that boy. When he comes off that stage, I’m putting my foot right up-”
Vivienne rolled her eyes and turned away from him back to Teddy. Jonathan noticed her expression subtly change and her brow softly pucker.
“He’s sick, Ted,” she assessed without taking her eyes off the boy. “I can always tell. He’s good at bluffing his way through when he is, but I always get the vibe when it happens. He’s not feeling well up there.His color is off.”
“If he is,” Baxter grumbled, but now leaned in as if looking more closely at his son, “it’s probably from all the scheming he’s had to do to pull this off. And he and that Duncan most likely drug, J.J. here with them, too.”
He leaned in to Jonathan, “Look, I’m so sorry. I absolutely had no idea.”
Jonathan waved him off. “My kid does what she wants to do. If she’s here, and I’m sure she is, nobody talked her into it or kidnapped her. She’s where she wanted to be.”
Although, going into this, she couldn’t have had any idea whatsoever that where she wanted to be would put her right here with her Daddy.
Not to mention, her mother.