Later Wednesday Evening….
Jennifer got out and waited on her side for Jonathan join her.
“So we’re flying to wherever it is we’re going; what a nice surprise,” she said as he came around the back end of the car. “No wonder you wouldn’t tell me where you were taking me when you said, ‘let’s go’ and snatched me out of the apartment. It’s been a while since this kind of impromptu jaunt. So how long have you been planning this, and where exactly are we headed? It can’t be far.”
“Actually,” he said as he draped an arm over her shoulders and started them toward the terminal, “I put the pieces into play while I was out the other morning. I was thinking since we’d have the night to ourselves, we could pull this off and make it back in long before J.J. returns. I figured a little getaway with my favorite girl would take my mind off things. Being that it was so last minute, I didn’t say anything to you; I wanted to be sure it was going to work out before I brought you in on it. When we got upstairs from the restaurant, you had gone into the bedroom when I received the text saying there was a last minute slot cancellation.”
“So here we are.”
They had just reached the doors when another car pulled up, the horn sounding twice. Jonathan signaled to it in “hurry up” fashion.
“Who is that?”
“You’ll see,” he said as he held the door open for her.
At the counter finalizing the necessary paperwork, they were joined by Teddy Baxter, Sr.
“Can’t thank you enough for that phone call, Jonathan,” Baxter, Sr. said before delivering a quick peck to Jennifer’s cheek. “I have to tell you, I will not mind being the third wheel on this junket.”
Jennifer looked first to her husband then to her friend. “So I see I’m the only one in the dark here. Do you know where we’re going?”
Baxter winked at her. “If your husband hasn’t told you, who am I to interfere in his plans?”
Jonathan accepted the handshake offered. “The invitation was the least I could do seeing as how I cut out on you at the house the way I did.”
“I didn’t blame you,” Baxter said as he handed the man at the counter some papers. “I’d have done you the same way, but then, Jen here has never been the heckling and harassing kind. If I’m remembering correctly, she wouldn’t have to say a word- just cut a guy cold with one look.”
“Still can,” she confirmed. “So where are we going?”
The counter attendant looked up from the computer he had been furiously typing into. “Looks like you’re all set, Mr. Hart, Mr. Baxter.” He slid two sets of paperwork forward. “Here are your documents back. There will be a car waiting for you at the terminal. I’m told your tickets will be inside the glove box.”
“Three tickets?” Jonathan asked.
“Three. The connection came through.”
Jonathan heartily shook the attendant’s hand, which upon being drawn back the man briefly slid into his back pocket.
When he turned back around, Jonathan found a set of amber eyes fixed on his face.
“You still haven’t said where you’re taking me, Jonathan. What if something happens with J.J., and she needs us?”
“Hmph,” he snorted as he took her arm and wrapped it snugly around his. “Are you kidding? That girl isn’t thinking about us. And her date-“ Jonathan inclined his head to include Baxter, Sr.- “has been duly warned by her father-”
“- and his” Baxter cut in-
“- that nothing out of the way better happen with either of them on this date. They have phones, so do we, and we have a plane. If they need us, they know how to get in touch; we will have the means to get to them as quickly as we can should that be the case.”
“Besides,” Baxter said, taking Jennifer by the other arm as the three of them headed outside, “Helena’s in town until eight in the morning Her flight doesn’t take off until ten. If the kids do need someone in a hurry, and they call us, I can direct them to her until we can get there. My boy will just love that, but it’ll serve him right if he gets himself in the kind of pickle that would warrant his having to make that kind of call to me.”
Several more dances, most of them with Teddy, but a few with Hugh and Fitz who were nowhere near as capable as Teddy out on the ballroom floor, but both a lot of fun.
Myriad pictures taken- some posed, some candid, and countless texts and MM’s fired off to various parties. J.J. made sure Tina got her pics first, and was delighted when Tina texted back, confirming in gushing sentiment that she had been fingering her phone all evening in anxious anticipation.
She had yet to hear back from Marnie about the photos and texts sent to her, but then it was after ten. Marnie was likely somewhere twitching from cell-withdrawal as Aunt Pat babysat the two relinquished and silenced units charging on her dresser.
There had been a few more scathing glances from that certain disgruntled party who kept her distance once they were all back inside. When J.J. made it clear via her deliberate show of indifference that she had no intention of responding to the silent challenges, Tessa was left on her own with her dissatisfaction; the two girls with her on deck earlier seemed to have lost interest in the matter upon their return to the ballroom, their dates, and the festivities. They had since gone on to fully immerse themselves in enjoying their prom experience, leaving Tessa and her hang-dog escort behind.
As far as J.J. was concerned, that was as it should have been all along, even though she did feel a bit sorry for the guy with Teddy’s wanna-be date.
Playing second fiddle to another guy; what a way to remember your prom.
But I am not about to get into a verbal, not to mention physical, scrap over a boy, not even this cute first fiddle I’m with.
But, if she had been silly enough to touch me….
Then the Duchess would have killed her and grounded the corpse afterward for ruining the dress. More so for “acting common” in public.
The thought had her fingering the new heart pendant and vividly recalling that encounter with the intrusive, insulting photographer in LA when she was out on the town with her father that previous November, right before Aunt Pat’s wedding.
Shoot, I got acting up honestly; it’s genetic. My mother knows it, but she wouldn’t have cared one bit about that should something have jumped off with me and that bimbo up on the promenade….
The Duchess would be like, “You just need to rise above that element of your personal composition, Justine Hart.”
Whatever. I happen to like and actually embrace that Hart element of my personal composition.
Now the prom itself was over. Aside from that one distasteful moment, the night had been wonderful, everything as starchy, lovely, as elegant and as interesting as she anticipated a prep school senior prom would be.
She found it intriguing being with Teddy, on his turf for once, and watching him with his peers. He seemed popular and well-liked, and he moved among them with a congenial confidence. But there was something more to his presence in the group, a sort of detachment that most probably would not detect in him but an element J.J. fairly quickly honed in on.
For her, it was like looking in a mirror, and yet another reason why the two of them got along so well.
The ship had returned to shore and docked. When word came to do so, the celebrants noisily disembarked, headed for the next legs of the night’s adventures. Teddy had taken off his tuxedo jacket to drape over her as they headed in the night air for the valet booth. Increasingly conscious of what lie immediately ahead, J.J. found herself once again nagged by her own psyche.
It can’t be wrong if it’s what I want to do. I mean, who am I hurting?
Why am I worrying so much about it? It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing.
I’ve been taught well how to handle myself…
And it’s not like we’re going to that cabin out in the woods with the others to do who knows what…
From the snatches and tidbits she overheard, that cabin really wasn’t somewhere she wanted to go. At least not with Teddy. And certainly not with so many witnesses.
“Hey, Teddy!” a voice called out. “See you two at Lacy’s after-party?”
“Maybe,” Teddy called back to the group climbing into a limousine at the curb.
She elbowed him in his side. “You know good and well-“
“Our business,” he said next to her ear as he handed his ticket to the valet. “But it’s not too late for you to change your mind, you know.”
She frowned her annoyance up to him. “Will you quit bugging me with that. I’ve already told you, more than once, I might add, I’m good. I meant it. Every single time.”
“Just checking,” he said, briefly squeezing her about the waist in affirmation. “Don’t get mad. I just want to make sure you’re not doing things for my sake.”
“You might as well know, Teddy, since it’s looking as if you’re likely to be in my life for a while, I’m kind of selfish when it comes to the decisions I make about me. There isn’t a whole lot I do that goes against me and my gut feelings about things. When I make up my mind to do something, right or wrong in somebody else’s book, it’s my decision to go through with it.”
He squeezed her again with the arm still wrapped around her waist. “Just checking, J.”
When the car pulled up, she gave him his jacket back. His hand pressed to the small of her back as he helped her in sent the dormant butterflies in her midsection scattering like sparrows startled by gunfire.
Next stop, the hotel.
With Jonathan at the controls and Bear in the co-pilot’s seat, Jennifer could have stayed up front with them in the third seat, but she instead elected to “chill”, as J.J. and Marnie would have put it, alone in the cabin. The day had been a busy one, so while the guys took the wheel, so to speak, she decided to take a little time for herself.
Until that night, she had no idea Bear was a pilot. He said he became interested during their college days. He took lessons and began flying soon after. Back then it had mostly been for the thrill of learning something new and executing it. Now he rarely flew anywhere on his own, but he made sure to put in enough hours to keep his credentials up to date, which he used for exactly what he was doing at the moment- being the second man in the cockpit on flights that required it.
Jonathan’s personal jet was light enough to be legally operated by a single pilot, but as a rule he always made sure it went up with two: either both Jack and Fred, his personal pilots, or one of them with him if he was flying. It would be him and J.J. when they were together; or at those rare times he found himself without any one of his regulars, he would secure a for-hire pilot affiliated with the respective airport. For the trip to Boston, it was supposed to have been Jack and Jonathan, but J.J. actually wound up in that second seat under the vigilance of her two mentors in flight.
At the time, she hadn’t been too sure how she felt about it given J.J.’s dramatic and busy weekend, coupled with the inadequate amount of sleep she wouldn’t quite admit to when called on it. But she’d kept those misgivings to herself. Turned out to be a wise move on her part; typical of her, J.J. pulled the assignment off without missing a beat or batting an eye.
That’s youth for you. Takes a licking and keeps right on ticking.
According to what she learned in the brief conversation the three of them had about it while boarding, the subject of Bear being licensed first came up in conversation while he and Jonathan were together earlier that evening. That detail had likely been mentally penciled in as a potential fix for a loose end in her husband’s tentative plans.
Jack had picked up a quick commercial job between flying them in and their return to Los Angeles, so he wouldn’t have been available for this impromptu trip. Unwittingly, Bear’s disclosure made it that much easier for Jonathan to follow through on whisking her off to wherever it was she was being taken if things fell into place for him, which of course they did. Somehow, most things he put into play worked out for him.
Unable to stay focused on the magazine she pulled from the box, she placed it back, reclined her seat, and closed her eyes. Being in the dark about where they were headed, and a wee bit anxious about J.J. being left on her own in Boston, she found the quiet time alone to process some things while relaxing her body quite welcome.
It had been a long, long time since she and Jonathan had done anything like they were doing- taking to the skies on a moment’s notice. At one point in their lives it had been nothing at all for him to phone home or to breeze in from work announcing there was somewhere they needed to be and that she should pack a bag. Then they would be on their way, jetting off on this junket or that, landing in one kind of sticky situation or another, arriving in some exotic, rustic, opulent, oceanic, or mysterious location or another.
One adventure after another for several eventful, blissful, relatively carefree years. But then the house was gone and not too long after the house, so was Max.
That line of thought associated with him would never leave her alone.
She opened her eyes and brought her seat forward some.
Just before leaving the suite, her camera left next to the door when they came in caught her eye. Ever the writer, a catcher and recorder of moments, she had tucked it into her jacket pocket on the way out. After loosening her seat belt enough to allow some slack, she reached across to fish the device out of the garment she had tossed into the facing chair.
Reclined and relaxed again, she switched it on to slowly click through the newly taken pictures, ruminating once more on how quickly time had gone by. In her mind she heard those slowly spoken, ever-gravely, but poignant last words spoken to her:
“Mrs. H., Mr. H. is gonna take you someplace soon that you never thought you’d go, but believe me, it’s someplace you need to go. It’s someplace where you both need to go.”
A few months later that cryptic declaration was made crystal clear to her.
“Jennifer, I’ve got the tests results back. It turns out you do have a very serious developing situation.”
Like it happened whenever she went back to that place in time, she recalled her heart stopping for moment at Dr. Kendall’s announcement, stifling her breathing and rendering her momentarily light-headed, her mind asking in terrified wonder, “What could be that wrong?”
Following the reading of Max’s will, they had taken off and had been away from home for almost three months. Back then home wasn’t really home anymore, which in itself was kind of a downer. Looking out for Jonathan and his well-being following the loss of the closest thing he had to a father, or relative of any kind, she had to admit she had not been taking the best care of herself, so it stood to reason her own health might have suffered some.
But then, she was used to going hard. Her writing career, Hart Industries, corporate and social obligations, and keeping up with both of their personal affairs kept her on the move. Thankfully, she had never been a frail or sickly person. The occasional cold every now and then, some sinus annoyances from time to time, an erratic menstrual cycle that had always been that way and other than its unpredictability had never been problem for her; aside from being tired to the point that Jonathan noticed it, there was nothing else out of the ordinary going on. Certainly nothing that would indicate to her a developing “serious situation”.
Through the resulting haze of terrified dizzying confusion, she managed to croak to Kate, “What is it? What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Jennifer; you’re just seriously pregnant. Two, I think closer to three months along.”
Talk about being floored.
From the viewing window on the camera, Justine Jennifer Hart smiled up at her with a look on her face and a twinkle in those eyes that implied she knew what her mother was doing and what her mind was on that moment.
That smile had J.J.’s mother smiling to herself.
A seriously developing situation, you have always been.
The next six months after that doctor’s visit went by in a blur of heightened health consciousness, guarded optimism, and a good deal of silent ambiguity mixed with a shame-inducing twinge of secret resentment. She had never been one for having things thrust upon her, decisions made for her, but there was no way to decline that task, no way of refusing that divine decision. Kids, particularly little ones never held for her the attraction they did for most women she knew. Babies were cute and fun as long as they could go back to whom they belonged and she could get back to her adult life and endeavors.
And her man once Jonathan entered into the picture.
He, of course, had gone to seventh heaven and beyond about finally becoming a father, even if it did come farther down the line than he might have expected. With a renewed energy, he returned to putting the burned-out house back together. For her part, she should have gotten an Academy Award for her efforts to appear fine with it all to keep from dampening his happiness in any way. It turned out he hadn’t been completely fooled, though; they were too in tune with each other for that.
She clicked to a profile shot of J.J. and her daddy together, with J.J. in the foreground.
Even to her, it was clear which of her parents Justine Hart most resembled, had always resembled, but the evening sun caught that pair of azure eyes in that photo just right.
His girl, most definitely.
So what is it about her these days that’s so on your nerves, darling? You aren’t saying, but I can feel it’s her. If it’s about J.J. growing up, Jonathan, you might as well forget worrying about that. It’s going to happen; it’s already happening, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it except alienate her from you if you push her too hard or try to over-protect her, and you don’t want that.
She didn’t either. He was wonderful to and for their girl.
Has always been….
Advancing to another particularly good picture of J.J. by herself, it took her back to getting prepared for such a profound change in her life.
She read voraciously, familiarizing herself more closely with a topic she had never seriously studied, and certainly not studied in relation to herself. Every spare moment was spent researching, taking notes and poring over them like preparing for school finals. After all, the knowledge of her “condition” had come quite far down the line, and a good many things had been done in that first trimester that shouldn’t have been, wouldn’t have been if she had known. Once made aware, she strove to do everything within her power to make sure the rest of the gestation went according to instruction.
Once its presence was detected, that tiny entity that managed to keep itself a secret for so long, began to stretch out and get comfortable with its surroundings. With every passing day it became increasingly evident in her expanding figure and the increased activity in her belly that it wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t some fluke- that motherhood was an inescapable inevitability.
Those books said babies usually didn’t fully open their eyes until a while after birth, maybe a day or so afterward.
I should have known right then….
As soon Kate handed the bundled infant to her, that girl’s eyes were wide open, looking right up into her mother’s.
Already blue, distinctly blue, just like her daddy’s.
And hesitant, anxious mother fell right in love with her brand new, adorable daughter. After all, she was Jonathan’s baby, and he was the love of that baby’s mother’s life, which made that little girl all the more precious.
She placed the camera in her lap, folded her arms, and drifted over and back to Jonathan’s dream of the other morning, the dream where she ran away from him.
He said that in the dream they met one afternoon in London and spent the evening on the town together just as they actually had, but unlike in real life, in his dream they made love that same night. Then for some reason, she took off on him. He went looking for her, and when he finally found her, he learned she had given birth to a child, his baby, without his knowledge.
Head back and eyes closed, her arms involuntarily wound themselves more tightly around her midsection as she again summoned up that very first moment between her and J.J. This time Jonathan wasn’t there with them as he had been in reality, as he had been from the first day the “mystery illness” was diagnosed.
A sepia image of just the two of them faded in, her with J.J., alone and on their own in the delivery room. Her heart knotted as she gazed into that set of fatherless eyes so eagerly searching hers.
No way. I could never have done it that way.
Jonathan had positioned himself on the business end of the delivery when J.J. finally made her debut, so he saw her first. Being otherwise engaged at the time, she didn’t see him do it, but she had no doubt at all that once J.J. left her body, Jonathan hadn’t let his daughter out of his sights for a millisecond as Kate and the nurses took her vitals and got her cleaned up to officially meet her parents.
How angry and hurt would he have been if things had played out the way they did in the dream? How robbed would he have felt to learn he had a child whose birth and entire first year of life he missed?
Was made to miss.
The mental curtains closed on the delivery room and opened to yet another scene, this time of Jonathan and J.J. seated together at the foot of the bed that past Friday night as he revealed to her his painful childhood experience.
Then the birthday necklace he gifted to J.J. floated in. And the earrings. Both sets.
Followed by J.J. seated next to Jack at the controls of the jet with her father seated right behind her, overseeing her, guiding her, so proud of her.
I’d have been a thief of the highest order to do that to him. And to her. Not mention to myself.
Quite an adventure that one baby turned out to be. An endearing, crazy, maddening, enlightening, mystifying, occasionally infuriating, but mostly gratifying journey. The hard part, raising her, was almost over. One more year, and J.J. Hart would be off to college and into the world. Without a doubt, she would be one of those kids who once she was out, would not be back- at least not to stay.
Just as her mother had been, only J.J.’s mother left her own father’s home at twelve, and it wasn’t her decision to do so.
“… I feel so bad sometimes when I think about how you didn’t have your mother for you like I do when stuff gets confusing, or feels too complicated, or I just don’t know what I’m doing. If it was wrong for you when it happened, maybe you would have waited, too, if you had your mother in your life at the time.”
Did that girl really think about her mother in that way?
Of course, she did. J.J. had always been precocious- no, old- in her thinking. And keenly observant, particularly so when it came to her mother.
A lot certainly would have been different had her own mother been allowed to remain in her life, but-
Just as your father told you the other night, so it is with me, too, little girl. All I went through as a young person, my early upbringing, the loss of my mother, the missteps, disappointments, challenges, and triumphs– all of it made me who I am and led us all to this very night with you.
Her eyes open again, Jennifer returned to the camera and clicked through until she reached the picture she took of J.J. on the day before while she occupied the co-pilot’s seat.
Look at you.
When I was seventeen, I was still a little angry and hadn’t quite figured out just who I was.
Here you are seventeen, and you fly planes, compete in and win tennis tournaments and track meets, take advanced placement courses, captain sports teams, edit a school newspaper, mentor young ones, and you’re sure in your mind that you’re not ready for anything serious with boys. Funny how with you I have never had to worry about the things most mothers worry about with their daughters.
But then you have never been typical.
With you, my little love, it’s….
Well it’s nothing short of a crap shoot on what to worry about with you.
“Mom, how old were you when….”
Not old enough at the time, but that, too was in the plan for us, me for you…
Shut it down, Edwards….
Justine Hart was indeed almost grown. The most important thing left to be done with her would be to ensure the healthy dose of confidence and nerve she was born with, which had only grown in leaps and bounds over the years, was balanced. Relying on those qualities too much could make her reckless; not calling upon them enough could have her making bad calls in too many important areas of her life.
A little cool and all of a sudden quite tired, Jennifer clicked the camera off and reached for her jacket. This time she brought it to her to spread over her upper body before again reclining the seat after turning down the cabin lights. There was the rest of this evening to make it through, packing up and flying home, then that huge J.J. Hart birthday party once they made it back.
But the ducks for that I have all lined up and ready to go. No concerns there.
So for the time being, she decided to take full advantage of her time down.
Since Teddy already had the key to the room, it had not been necessary for them to stop at the front desk once they arrived at the hotel. For J.J., that was a welcome revelation. Should it come to that, if asked, nobody in charge could definitely say she was there. The fewer grownups in on the details of their night, the better.
When the elevator doors closed, Teddy signaled their floor, then he turned to her with the box he had been in charge of all week tucked under his arm.
“So?” she said, lifting that one eyebrow to him when his eyes met hers.
“So aren’t you going to ask me what’s inside now that we’re both so up close to it?”
Teddy shrugged. “I have three big sisters. If I haven’t learned anything else in my eighteen years on earth, I have learned to mind my own business when it comes to females and the things they choose not to tell right off. Besides, you addressed it to yourself, only “in care of” me, even though you mailed it here to Boston, told me to pick it up from the post office, and I’ve been holding onto it all this time.”
“Okay, well I said “in care of”. For all you know, you could have been harboring in the trunk of your car and in your dorm room several sealed-up kilos of my cocaine. What if you got pulled over by a cop with it in your trunk or back seat or you got busted with it by the dorm monitor?”
“Call me clueless,” he said, shrugging once more in the same nonchalant manner, “as long as it was you I was holding for, and you planned on cutting me in on the profit because you had to be selling the stuff; you’re too smart to be snorting it. Then, too, the box wasn’t heavy enough to contain kilos of cocaine. Few bags of weed, maybe. If I got busted by the dorm monitor or stopped on the street with a box of weed, either one of them, the dorm monitor or the cop, probably would have let me off if I cut him in on some, especially the dorm monitor.”
They both laughed.
Alone in the elevator with him, J.J. realized at that moment just how much Teddy’s smile, his gentlemanly, easy-going ways, quick mind, and his rakish sense of humor spoke to her and put her at ease. Because of those things, though, they also sent up for her a bit of an alert.
“You are nuts,” she said. “It’s only a change of clothes.”
His smooth forehead wrinkled. “You mailed yourself a change of clothes, J.? And I’m the one who’s nuts?”
J.J. leaned in placing a hand on Teddy’s shoulder. “Well, think about it. It was bad enough I was leaving my parent’s suite to go with you- a boy- to an overnight prom. When you told me it would be all night, I knew up front that I had no intention of staying in this dress and these shoes the whole time, especially once you let me in on everything. How was I going to leave with you and an overnight bag for an overnight date? My Daddy would have had that heart attack for real we only thought he had last summer.”
Teddy nodded. “Yeah, all right, I see your point. I should have figured on that. Good looking out.” He gave the animated fingers near his chin a quick brush with his cheek. “So you had a good time tonight despite that hiccup with crazy Tessa?”
J.J. took her hand back, but grinned at the question. “Actually, being confronted by your girl-”
“I told you, she’s not my girl.”
“Whatever- just added to the good time I had. She was smart enough not to touch me, so things worked out- for her. In the end, though, I almost felt sorry for her. I really felt most badly for her date, though. Some prom memories he’ll have. But for real, everything was great.”
She lightly pinched Teddy on the cheek before winding her arm around his free one. “I’m really glad I came.”
“I hope the rest of the night is just as nice, J.”
“I’m sure it will be. I’ve already claimed that for us.”
The elevator car bumped to a gentle stop, the doors slid open, and arm-in-arm they stepped out into the hall.
“Nice.” J.J. said as she took in their elegant surroundings.
Teddy smiled at her assessment. “It’s not the Intercontinental or anything, but it’s comfortable. You said you wanted a spot for us to have some time on our own for a while for once. You got it.” He gestured to the right with the box. “The room is down here. We’re in 711.”
“7-11,” J.J. repeated in her head as she allowed Teddy to lead her in the direction he indicated.
Apropos, I guess. After all, it is my first time doing something like this- well, first time doing it with a boy, anyway.
With seven or eleven on the first roll behind the Chinese food place, Chase and I would be raking it in.
I guess 7-11 is to craps as this hotel room is to tonight; sure hope the analogy holds up.
With the plane comfortably settled into the designated cruising altitude, Jonathan took a quick glance to his right.
The irony of who was in the co-pilot’s seat, of course, had not escaped him.
There they were, fathers, in it together for the night once again. Substitute the instruments and the cockpit for a steering wheel and the front seat of a rented Mustang, and hadn’t they been in the same position that summer night in Los Angeles less than a year before? Funny how at the time, he and a guy he had only just met clicked in the way they had, especially considering what brought them together in the first place.
As a rule, most people weren’t allowed past his congenial surface persona, and as long as they didn’t provide him a reason to do so, he usually didn’t delve too much past that of others. In his professional capacity at Hart Industries, outside of his immediate executive circle and a few select others, most people he encountered came and went. In his personal life, he had scores of social acquaintances, less than a handful of whom he considered true, close friends. It had always been that way with him.
Growing up, aside from Father Franco, and perhaps Sister Anastasia on a different sort of level, nobody earned trust enough to be let in all the way. That is, until Max came along and took him under his wing. At the start, he tried playing it close with Max, too, but Max was committed. He hung in there, digging deep to mine for best in his brash, street smart, a little misguided and a whole lot headstrong, young charge.
Max held on tight. He broke him down and opened him up to show him the enormous potential he carried inside. Then he stayed on him about exercising upon those skills and talents, redirecting him from apprenticing in back rooms, alleys, and pool halls to excelling in classrooms, the athletic arenas, and to engaging in more legitimate, albeit less profitable at the time, enterprise. In the course of his teachings, Max also showed him how to read people so he would recognize who to keep close and to not automatically shut everyone out, possibly missing opportunities to grow and to prosper.
For that and many other things, he would forever be indebted to his old friend and mentor. That ability to size up people and situations had been honed to great benefit. That distinct initial feeling he got about a person rarely betrayed him.
Proof positive still slept in his arms at night.
Baxter, Sr. had gotten a pass, too. That summer night spent in mutual paternal protectiveness solidly cemented the relationship. Unlike himself, Baxter was not self-made, but he worked hard at building up his father’s company into the financial powerhouse it had become under his leadership, and it hadn’t stopped him from being a father for his kids from two very different mothers. The guy was all right.
Two wives. And he was on friendlier terms with the first than the second, the one by whom he had he had the most kids.
How complicated that has to be.
Internally, Jonathan shuddered. He could not imagine, but he tried.
He and Jennifer uncoupled. Of course, she had physical custody of J.J., and he, for whatever crazy reason, decided to marry a second time.
I’d be divorced a second time, too, because I wouldn’t be able to hide something that blatant. I’d be cheating like crazy on wife number two, running back to both of them on the pretense of seeing my kid, but forced to see her mother while I did so.
Pull would be way too strong to fight and way too obvious to hide.
And despite my, and possibly Jennifer’s, best efforts to rein her in- respect for us be damned- J.J. Hart would be wreaking all kinds of havoc with the second wife, not to mention any attempt I might try to make at building another relationship.
Hell, I wouldn’t even try to marry again. I know a good thing, whether I’m married to her or not. Even in my dreams, I’m running all around, trying to hold onto her.
But he admired his co-pilot for getting out of a situation that wasn’t working and for taking his son with him if that was the best thing for the kid, which it appeared it was. Baxter, Jr. had certificates, trophies, and medals all over his father’s den. Academic, athletic, and performing arts, most of them from his experiences at Brookfield Boys’ Academy and their Country Club in Boston during the time period after his parents split up.
His instincts said Jr. was a good kid, but they also said there was something different about him and J.J. together, and that gave him pause. Something different about their dynamic than how it was with the other guys J.J. spent time with. Jennifer seemed sure that J.J. wasn’t ready for the girlfriend-boyfriend thing, that she wasn’t ready be intimate with him. Baxter said he’d spoken at length with his boy about not compromising his bright future or that of any girl he happened to date.
As he should have.
Especially since he’s out with mine, who’s also lining up a pretty rosy future for herself.
But even he had to admit that wasn’t really what was giving him that strange feeling about the two of them. Or more precisely, about J.J. being out with Teddy.
Something about that girl. Something about that dynamic….
“It’s what I want to do. It’s what I want to do.”
Like a mantra, the words repeated themselves inside J.J.’s head as she watched Teddy slide the passkey into the slot, push open the door, and stand aside to allow her to enter first.
The room was just as nice as the online reviews, the lobby, and the corridor predicted it would be. In size, layout, appointment, and aura, it was attractive, but cozy, more like someone’s more upscale home bedroom than hotel accommodations.
And the Duchess would kill me dead if she knew I was up here all alone with a boy. Talk about sending out signals…. but she’s not here, and it’s my call. My night. I’m in control of what happens with me. Can’t be mama and daddy’s baby forever.
When the door closed behind them, she blocked out the annoying challenges to her confidence and focused instead on the moment. After she unwrapped the scarf from her shoulders, she stepped out of her shoes.
“My feet are killing me. I can only wear this type of heel for so long. This is really nice, Teddy. So do you guys bring all your girlfriends here?”
He continued around her to set the box he carried on the king bed next to a partially opened duffel bag. The nearby closet door was open, and inside hung a suit bag along with several other items of what looked to be male clothing.
She picked up her shoes and carried them over by the bed, too. “All that your stuff, Teddy? The bag and in the closet?”
He had gone over to plop himself down in one of the occasional chairs on the other side of the room where he was pulling loose his bow tie. “The suit bag is and that duffel,” he answered. “I came over earlier this afternoon and hung out a bit. I needed some space.”
Detecting the lingering hint of something being off with him, J.J. ventured, “Anything happen that you haven’t told me about?”
Then reminded of her own irritation with people trying to pry past her comfort zones, she added, “If I’m not digging too deeply. I don’t mean to be nosy.”
He lifted his eyes to her for a moment, lowered them again, and sighed.
“I don’t mind. I probably should let go of some of it for my own good. Things just got a little tense at the house with my mother and father, with them being in the same square footage as each other. She came over to our place unannounced this afternoon, I guess to make sure I had myself together- like I couldn’t do that on my own, or like my father was going to let me go out looking any kind of way. It quickly got to the place where the air wasn’t so good.”
J.J. slid the corsage from her wrist and placed it on the bed with her scarf. “I thought it a little strange that your mother and Victoria were staying at a hotel and not at the house with you and your father. After all, she is your mother, and she and your father used to be married. I know they’re divorced, but I didn’t consider it that they didn’t get along at all.” Then she held up both hands and shrugged. “But what would I know about how that goes?”
Teddy, tie undone and shedding his tuxedo jacket, laughed softly. “No, you wouldn’t know a whole lot about that sort of thing. You probably don’t have to deal with much of that kind of crap. Your folks are rock solid as a couple.”
“Now how would you know all of that, Mr. Baxter?” J.J. asked as she crossed the room to pull out the chair at the desk situated near Teddy where she sat down.
“I’m just observant like that, J.,” Teddy said as he undid the first few buttons of his tailored shirt. “I guess it’s a habit I’ve developed. That’s probably why I like theater and acting so much; it’s all about people, getting the characters, their personalities down.
“To me, from what I’ve learned about your parents and seen, they’re a love story in action. I’ve watched them to see for myself what I’m saying. Your mom comes in the room, and your dad can’t take his eyes off her. He might be talking to someone else or doing something else, but his real attention is on her most of the time. It’s not like possession or distrust on his part so he keeps his eye on her; she’s his wife, but he admires her and is attracted to her.
“And your mother- she’s deep. Everything about her is deep. Kind of that “still water” thing. There’s a lot more to her than is seen by the eye, although the eye, I have to say, gets treated pretty well. Your father must be the man with her, in her heart, because she’d be gone otherwise. She’s not the type to pretend. She loves him, but more than that, she respects him for who he really is, not just because he’s wealthy and successful and can do well by her. She loves the man because he’s a good guy.
“In a nutshell, those two were made for each other.”
Intrigued by Teddy’s astute observations, J.J. crossed her arms on the back of the chair to rest her chin on them. “You sound like a writer.”
Despite being slightly uncomfortable at the topic getting more personal than she usually liked, she felt compelled to probe a bit deeper. Her friend was revealing to her a side she wasn’t exactly surprised by, but was impressed with just the same, especially since he was so young and male.
“I heard you say it’s a habit, Teddy, but relatively speaking, you haven’t known my parents that long and you’ve only been in their company a few times. That’s not that long for you to have picked up on and processed that much about them.”
He looked up from loosening his cummerbund to lock gazes with her. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
Unable to do so, J.J. merely smiled, shook her head, and left the challenge alone. What would have been the point of debating an obvious truth? Instead she took them back to where the conversation started.
“So again, if I’m not being too nosy, what exactly happened with your parents that had you hanging out here by yourself- you were by yourself?”
“Yes, Miss Hart, I was here by myself– today ”
She eyed him for a moment then continued, “- that had you here at a hotel and not spending time with family since you were all together for once?”
Teddy tossed his satin cummerbund across to the other chair where his jacket had landed only a few minutes before, then he sat back. There was a significant pause before he answered her question.
“The tension was too thick, J. And my mom- well, let’s just say I could see the- the writing on the wall, I guess. She and my father- she and him- they simply cannot get along. They just seem to rub each other the wrong way. Always have as far back as I can remember, and it- it just gets on my nerves. I don’t know how they ever hooked up in the first place, much less managed to have three kids together- I’ve told you before, I think, I was an afterthought-”
“But you’re here,” she cut in, “so let that go.”
He smiled at her. “Yeah, I am. You’re right. Anyway, Vic hadn’t come with my mom when she showed up at the house, – Vic is real aware of how it is with them- so I didn’t have her as the buffer she usually is for me. So to keep from get- well, let’s just say I went into self-preservation mode.”
Nodding as she listened to Teddy’s haltingly delivered explanation, J.J. put things together and summed them up.
“Does it bother you, ” she asked, “I mean mess with you physically, when your parents are together, and they act like that? I know when mine do have differences or argue, especially if it’s over me or something I did, it messes with my stomach real bad.”
She noticed him almost imperceptibly stiffen; she was watching him too closely to miss it, and she figured she might have touched on a sore spot with him when he didn’t directly answer that question, but continued with what he had been saying.
“I cut out with the excuse I had some errands to run. I knew I had too much to do tonight to let their issues become mine. So, what I really did was come over here to drop off a change of clothes for later. Then I just wound up staying and hiding out here for a while. Like you, I had no intention of remaining in this monkey suit all night.”
J.J. got up and went back over to the bed again, where she used the edge of Teddy’s pass key to break the mailing tape on the box.
“So, as far as you were concerned at that point, Theodore Martin Baxter, I was supposed to stay in this dress all night while you changed out and got comfortable. You could have called and let a girl know what the plan was for attire.”
“Oh, like you actually told me in advance that you had made arrangements to change. You had yourself covered without telling me you did.”
“You live here. We could have easily swung by your house so you could put on something else once you realized I had made plans to hang Justine Jennifer up in this garment bag and turn back into J.J. Hart.”
As she pulled them out, J.J. lay out the box’s contents on the bed: cosmetic bag, purse, jeans, sweater, lightweight jacket, a hanger, and the garment bag which with one quick shake she snapped loose from its tightly rolled packing form.
Teddy pushed up from the chair and started in her direction. “Dang, J. You thought of everything. A hanger and a bag for the dress?”
With her back to him, she nodded and explained, “See, you have to be thinking ahead when you have a mother like mine. The Duchess would kill me for rolling up this dress and stuffing it in a box or arriving back at the hotel the next morning with it on my arm, all exposed, making me look common to the staff and guests who may have seen me leave in it- with you- the night before.”
“Yes, that’s my mother’s term for when I’m acting like a low life in her opinion. Anyway, it’s bad enough I’ll be in a completely different outfit when she sees me next. If the dress is packaged nice and discreet, that will be one less thing for her to fuss about.”
“Won’t she ask where the change of clothes came from? Won’t she be upset that you changed clothes, especially since you were out with me all night?”
“She’ll put it together, I’m sure. She’s quick like that, but she won’t be so much upset about it as she’ll be unnerved about how Daddy takes it. When it comes to me and boys, she’s a lot less uptight than my father is. She mostly gets upset because she doesn’t like for me to do things that might cause him to overreact and thereby set her off; it kind of puts her in the middle when he tries to act funny about that part of my life.”
“So to keep that from happening, you could change back into the dress afterward and put your other stuff back in the box for me to ship to you like you sent it here.”
“We’ll see,” she said, smoothing out the clothing on the bed to see what might need a quick iron run over it. I am seventeen now. Sometimes the envelope needs to be pushed in order to advance one’s position.”
“J.J. Hart, always the strategist,” she heard him say as she felt his hands take her by the waist and turn her around to face him, those brown, brown eyes, and that exposed masculine chest. “Actually, I’d have been okay hanging out with you wearing this dress all night. ”
He gazed right into her eyes and spoke close to her face. “You look beautiful in it. Not that you aren’t always attractive to me,” he moved her back just enough to take all of her in, “but this dress, the color of it, really brings out your eyes. Then with that scarf, your hair-” He reached behind her head for the braid and let his fingers slide down it, draping it over the front of her shoulder, “- I was so proud to have you with me tonight, J.J. I had the prettiest, classiest, smartest girl there on my arm. Again, thank you for sharing my prom night with me.”
His words set her cheeks aflame and sent those butterflies’ down below into agitated flight. “It’s not over yet,” she rasped. “We’ve still got a lot of it in front of us.”
“I know. I know.”
He wrapped her in his arms and for a long moment hugged her to him. “I had such a good time tonight, J. It definitely balanced out how stressful the last couple of days have been for me.”
Then he dipped his head to find her lips which she let him have completely. A very adult kiss it was, and like an errant electric jolt, the heat flared up from the soles of her feet, searing her calves and melting her knees, heating her thighs, and-
She pulled back, but gently so. Despite the deafening blare of inner alarm, she remained mindful of not offending him. He had certainly done nothing of the kind to her.
Breathless, she murmured, “We better get changed. We have-” Too overwhelmed, she couldn’t finish the thought, let alone what she was trying to say.
Teddy slowly released her, and she gathered her things from the bed. From there she headed straight for the bathroom without looking back.
Once inside with the door firmly closed, she dropped her clothes and raced to the sink. With the damp palms of both hands pressed to the cool porcelain, attempting to control her breathing in the effort to will her racing heart back down to a more normal rhythm, she whispered to the flushed face in the mirror.
“Oh my God, I am my parents’ child- that hot gene honestly acquired and duly activated at seventeen- just turned seventeen. Tina, Bets, I hear both of you. I do understand.”
And for good measure, with her right hand she felt for the waistband of her underpants through the skirt of her dress, located it, and gave it a healthy upward tug.
At Teddy, Sr.’s urging, after landing the plane, Jonathan left him up front to get them checked into the airport while he went to check on Jennifer.
It wasn’t so odd that she declined to remain up front with them for the flight, but it was a little strange to not have heard from or of her once they were on the ground, especially after the engines shut down.
From the cockpit door, he noticed the dimmed cabin lights before spotting just top of her head. She was in one of the seats that put her back to him. After creeping to her side, he found her asleep, most of her face covered by her jacket.
Not wanting to startle her awake, he squatted next to her and bussed the ear he whispered her name into. Her body twitched, her head lifted, then her eyes flitted open immediately seeking him out.
“Now who else would it be? That guy hitting on you at the hotel bar? Jennifer Hart, are you in here dreaming about him and not me?”
She chuckled as she pressed her lips to the tip of his nose. “Of course not.”
“Better not be,” he teased before returning the gesture.
“So I take it since you’re no longer up front, we have arrived to wherever it is you and Bear have hijacked me.”
“Yep,” he said, remaining at her side as she pushed off the jacket to engage in her typical waking stretch. “I came back here to see if you were still on board; you’d gone so quiet.”
“Well, it wasn’t as if I could have hopped off at a stop while you weren’t looking,” she said through a yawn.”Whoo! I must have been more tired than I realized. Talking about someone dreaming and me taking off on you, are you still stuck on that dream you had?”
He didn’t think it was that much on his mind, but he was touched that she still remembered him talking about it. “I was just joking, but now that you mention it, maybe it is still hanging around somewhere backstage. Once again, though, if that is the case, I’m awfully glad to find I don’t have to run all around the world looking for you. You’re right here with me even if you were back here and out of it.”
She raised her arms and he leaned in to allow her to wrap them around his neck
“You couldn’t get rid of me if you wanted to,” she said, enfolding him in a soft hug. “I’m awfully afraid you are forever stuck with this girl you picked up in that bar.”
“And I must say I’m still happy for the sticking,” he said before melding his mouth to hers, effectively cutting her off her reproach for the double entendre, in a way he had been wanting to do for hours.
“Hey, you two want to stop all that damned necking back here!”
Startled, they split apart and looked back to find Baxter, Sr.’s head sticking out of the cockpit door.
“Edwards, I thought you were the chaste one.”
“Actually, Bear,” Jennifer replied, “I’m the one who likes to be chased. By this man, anyway.”
Then she air kissed Jonathan and patted his cheek before asking both men, “Now where in the world am I?”
Jonathan pushed up to stand and shake his legs to release the creases formed in his slacks. “You’re in New York.”
He caught the quick flicker of delight in his wife’s eyes.
Sure that she had to be harboring some lingering unspoken apprehensions over being whisked away, leaving J.J. in Boston on a prom date, and despite a few uncertainties of his own trying to impose themselves on his spirit, his hope was that this trip would be a way to take all their minds off a situation they really didn’t have much control over. Manhattan was one of Jennifer’s favorite places to be, even if it was only going to be for a very short time. And of course, since it was a favorite for her, it had become one of his.
As far as he was concerned, J.J. Hart and Theodore Baxter, Jr. were on their own- for the next few hours anyway.
And they both better act as if they have some sense.
“New York,” he repeated aloud to Jennifer. “I managed to score us some tickets to this little jazz venue somebody told me about that features rising talent. It’s been a while since we’ve backed anyone; maybe we’ll see someone we like and can possibly support; we haven’t done that in a while. Afterward, we can get a bite to eat before flying back.”
Jennifer popped loose her seat belt and reached across for her purse. “Sounds good to me. Just let me powder my nose, and we can be on our way.”
Both men watched her rise and leave them.
“You’re a lucky guy, Hart,” Baxter, Sr. said from where he remained in the doorway. “Great business. Great home. Great home life. You got it all with Jennifer. That little apple of yours didn’t fall far from that tree, did she? Just like her mom, she is. Smart, sweet, and beautiful, both of them.”
“You don’t do too badly yourself,” Jonathan said, keeping Jennifer in his sights until she reached her destination and went inside. Then he turned to address the other man face to face. “Successful business. Nice home. The two kids I’ve met are well-mannered, good-looking, seem to have their heads on straight, and they love their dad. The other two are going to school, and sound like they’re on track to do well. Seems to me like a pretty good life. ”
“What about the wife part?”
“One’s still a friend, and the other is an ex who lives elsewhere.”
Baxter grinned. “Oh, yeah. Well then, I guess when you put it like that, I do have it pretty good.”
Faced with the reality she wouldn’t be able to unfasten the zipper to her dress without assistance and frustrated from trying to avoid doing just that, J.J. grudgingly accepted she would have to ask Teddy to give her a hand.
A hand. Talk about your oxymoron….
“Stay strong, old girl,” she actually whispered to herself before cracking open the door to peek out.
Well, this is certainly not helping….
His tuxedo shirt now shed, Teddy was bent at the waist, stepping into a pair of slacks affording her a good look at his lean back, as well as his backside covered by a snug pair of black boxer briefs.
She eased the door closed to give him time to get the pants all the way on, zipped, and fastened- tight. As she waited, she fanned herself with a nearby hand towel.
When she felt enough time had gone by- and she had it together enough herself- to look again, she found he had moved to over by the chair he was in earlier. He had the pants on as well as a shirt, but the shirt wasn’t buttoned. He wasn’t attempting to button it. Instead he was standing there in profile, face raised toward the ceiling, eyes closed, one hand on his stomach.
Something about the sight drew her all the way out into the hall.
“Teddy?” She deliberately spoke soft and low so as not to alarm and therefore embarrass him, but he flinched anyway, his eyes blinking open and his hands immediately shooting to the buttons on his shirt.
Further concerned, she started toward him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he too quickly answered. Then he fully turned to look at her, more specifically at what she had on. “I thought you were getting changed.”
“I was trying to, but I can’t get this zipper undone.” Face to face with him, she studied his features, checked out his eyes, the look in them. “You sure you’re okay? We don’t have to-”
“I’m fine, I said. Have you changed your mind? You’re the one who’s still in prom clothes.”
Under other circumstances, his accusing tone and how he cut her off from what she was saying might Have, under other circumstances, triggered an irritated retort. Instead they both registered to her ears as deflection on his part, thus countering and snuffing out that negative reaction from her.
“I tried,” she said, recalling her real reason for leaving the bathroom, “but I can’t reach the zipper at the right angle to get it started; it’s either too low or my arms aren’t long enough to get the right grip; whatever the case, I can’t do it on my own, so I need you to help me with it.”
She put her back to him and pulled the braid to the front of her shoulder.
“I think there’s a little safety thing here,” he said. “That’s probably why you were having trouble with it. Did your mother zip it for you?”
“Yeah, she did.”
She heard a quick snicker then felt it when he loosened the offending device and started the zipper on its way down. “There you go.”
His breath warmed the back of her neck as he leaned in and said, “I think it might have been our guardian angels that really changed our plans about hanging out here tonight.”
Making sure to move forward a little before turning around, she merely smiled and said, “Thank you,” to him before heading back into the bathroom, closing the door behind her once more.
“Guardian angel for real,” she murmured as she pushed down the straps and shimmied out of the dress.
Keep right on looking out for me, Grandmama. I enjoy pretending to be, I really want to be one day, but like the Duchess always tells me, I am definitely not grown yet. And I’m not.
She unhooked and removed the strapless bra.
Despite what the girls here might say.
She swapped that bra out for the conventional one, pulled her sweater over her head and yanked on and up her jeans. Catching her face in the mirror, she shook her head.
Sorry you couldn’t be there for her when she was my age, or maybe you were and she wasn’t listening- or didn’t know how to listen, but I do.
Now if you will just stay with me while I do this next thing, I promise I’ll be good and stay in my lane until I’m eighteen when all bets will be off, and the chips can fall where they may ‘cause they’ll be my chips.
She took the braid loose to brush it up into a ponytail and administered a couple of quick touch-ups to her cheeks and lips before slipping her feet into the ankle boots she had packed.
Nothing’s going to happen. Don’t trip, J. You‘ll be fine
Nobody said you couldn’t, so you’re not being disobedient.
But then again, it’s not like you brought it up to anybody for them to say one way or the other.
Maybe, a little, but then again, maybe not. It isn’t as if I’m doing anything illicit, illegal, or flat out wrong.
After hanging up the dress, she checked herself out in the full length mirror. Satisfied with what she saw, she inhaled until her lungs filled to capacity, then slowly released as she straightened her back and squared her shoulders.
Let’s do this, J. No turning back this time.
She left the bathroom, stopping at the closet to hang the dress bag before rejoining Teddy in the main room.
“So do you come here a lot?” she asked him.
“Not a lot” he answered from the other side of the open refrigerator door. “I didn’t come here at all until I started working on my senior project. Before that, I was usually only in the city on the weekends, and even then, I had a curfew to keep at school. When I’m home from school, I have one, too, so that didn’t leave much time for being here. When I do come here, it’s usually because I’m hanging out with him.”
J.J. sat down and plucked a small bunch of grapes from the bowl on the table. “Um, these are so sweet. Nice and cold, too. So, does he come to Boston often?”
“Not that much, considering, but enough for him to keep this room. His dad is part owner of the chain, so it’s not that big a deal for him to have it to use when he’s here.”
When he kneed the fridge door closed, she noticed he balanced several items in his arms including what appeared to be a bottle of wine, and two glasses.
“Here, let me help you with some of that.” She got up and took the crackers and the cheese from him.
“I figure we have time for a little something to eat,” he said as they put the items on the table, and she sat back down. “You look good, J. Real nice boots. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any like those. In that color, I mean. Custom?”
“Not custom, but thank you.” She stretched her legs out and lifted her feet off the floor to admire the new burgundy boots herself. “I like them, too. Footwear is definitely my weakness. Daddy got me these when we were in Colorado together the last time. My mother had a fit when she saw them, fussing about how much they cost, about my not needing ‘yet another pair of boots‘, him spoiling me all the time, but he and I didn’t care.”
“That sounds like both of you,” he said as he rummaged through a drawer in the kitchenette before returning to the table with a corkscrew. “My old man catches a lot of flack about me, too, over the stuff he and I do. I think my mother feels a lot left out being that she’s not with us all the time anymore. Sometimes I really do feel bad for her and wish things could be different. Sometimes. She about died when I broke it to her that I decided to go to Boston U. instead of my father’s alma mater, and he had backed me up on it.”
“Boston as opposed to Harvard? I can see her having an attitude over your choice. But with that killer scholarship Boston is giving you, how could you not?”
“That’s the conclusion my Dad and I came to after we examined my options from several angles. I’ve been working with their theater department for the past couple of years; it just made sense to make that choice. My mom was like it wasn’t ‘about the money‘; I ‘didn’t need that scholarship‘, they ‘can afford to send me any school I get accepted to‘, but that scholarship will look real good in my academic portfolio and on my professional resume down the line. I’m already known to their theater department. Plus, that’s where I want to be. Harvard’s just not me.
“So, have you made any decisions yet, J.?”
“No. Not really. I’ve narrowed it down some, but I haven’t settled on anything yet.”
“East coast or west coast? Have you gotten that far?”
“Haven’t decided on that either.” She slid over to her side the bottle Teddy brought to the table and checked the label. “I understand you two are good at pulling things off, but how’d you come by this? You’re both underage.”
He gave her a look she quickly interpreted and made her laugh. “Oh, okay. My fault. I should have known. Gotta give him credit, though, the boy does have class. This label is kind of classy for people our age.”
“He’s better at it than me, and it’s not like wine is hard liquor.” Teddy gestured for the bottle, which she slid back across the table so he could skewer the cork.
“Should you be having any of that, Teddy?”
Appearing focused on what he was doing, he didn’t answer, and sensing the silence deliberate, J.J. again did not press him. Finished with her grapes, she helped herself to a few crackers and some of the cheese slices. Teddy poured wine for both of them and took the seat across from her, brushing a couple of the thick, tousled curls back from his forehead.
“Handsome,” she thought as she watched him, “with issues. And interesting in spite of them. Maybe even because of them,” and it crossed her mind how her mother often commented on her eclectic “collection” of friends, much like their Aunt Sabrina kept company with in France.
I should be so fortunate.
Looking at Teddy and considering where they happened to be, It struck her one more time how boys had It made.
That tiresome double standard.
A room of his own in a hotel to do whatever, whenever, including lending it out to his buddies.
Did Teddy’s father know about that room? If Mr. Baxter didn’t know, but he found out about it, would he care all that much about Teddy hanging out there? If Mr. Baxter found out, and he did care, would his concern be the same as it would be if it was one of his daughters who had a friend with this kind of setup that he or she let her use to entertain her friends?
How many fits would her own Daddy have if he knew she had a friend who had a friend that had the kind of hook-up her friend was entertaining her in?
All kinds. He’d have a grand mal stroke for real.
But I bet if I was his son, he would probably have slipped me a box of condoms before I headed out on a prom date because boys will be boys.
But girls should be something else completely, I guess.
For her, the decision and the arrangement made to spend time in that space together alone had been a chance to ‘practice’, to pretend, to see what being grown and on her own with a guy might feel like. Sure it was taking a chance that things might go off the rails, but she saw it more as an opportunity to be in control of herself to see how true her hunches about Teddy were, how true he was to keeping his word on the important matters between them.
Yes, she had gone against everything she had been told not to do by people who had been there and who, from their own experiences, knew more. That wasn’t a good thing, but wasn’t she supposed to think for herself? Wasn’t life about getting out there and taking chances?
But then again, Daddy did give me this necklace…
Made sure I got it tonight, too. Before I left him.
“Hey, where’d you go, J.?”
Teddy stared from across the table, and immediately embarrassed, she dropped her hand from her neck to her filled glass which she raised to stifle a nervous giggle.
“I’m right here. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“I wasn’t sure. You had that ‘gone to the circus’ look you get sometimes.”
Confused, then amused, she asked, “Gone to the circus look?”
“Yeah, that look that tells me there’s something going on in every ring up there and you’re trying to keep up with all of it. You okay?”
“No circus,” she said, grinning into a second sip of wine, “just doing some organizing, a little sorting out. This growing up thing can be a bit tricky sometimes.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. The pulling back and the pushing to move on can get to be a bit much every now and then.”
His hands encircled his glass, but he made no attempt to lift it, and he had yet to partake of any of the snacks he placed on the table. In her times with him where meals were involved, Teddy usually exhibited a pretty healthy appetite, yet she recalled him only picking at the entree placed before him on the yacht, and he had skipped dessert altogether.
She held her tongue on those observations, adding them to those already made about her unusually subdued friend.
A knock sounded at the door, followed by a male voice. “Teddy?”
“Come on, in,” Teddy called out.
The lock clicked and the door swung open to admit Duncan Sinclair, Teddy’s friend who lived in J.J.’s Aunt Pat’s building in New York.
His hair, trimmed for the November wedding, was back to long and shaggy, but it wasn’t Goth black as it had been when she encountered him in the building lobby those few months back. No eyeliner either this time, but he was still the darkly grungy, New York chic figure she had come to know.
“What’s up, you two?” he said as he crossed the room headed in their direction. “Thought I’d knock first before just busting up in here. Didn’t want to embarrass anybody or interrupt anything.”
“Don’t start,” Teddy said, rising to greet his friend.
“Yeah, I guess you got a point,” Duncan said , briefly fist bumping Teddy then winking down to J.J.
“What’s the point Teddy has, and what was that wink for?” J.J. asked.
“The wink meant ‘What’s shakin’, J.J. Hart?’ ” Duncan helped himself to some grapes, which he popped into his mouth and spoke around as he answered the second part of her question. “And the point is I should have known I didn’t have to knock.”.
Her hands shot to her hips. “And why not? What’re you trying to say. We could very well have been in here-”
Duncan waggled a finger in her face. “Don’t even try it. You’re not that kind; you probably never will be. Too much of a class act for that kind of quickie freakiness. You knew I was coming here. You’d’a needed more time.” Then he turned back to Teddy. “And speaking of class acts, you good? You mentioned earlier about your-”
“You want some wine?” Teddy cut in as he abruptly turned away. “How long before we leave?”
Duncan’s eyes followed as Teddy went into the kitchenette cabinet. “Soon as you say. I told you I’d have everything set up, and I do.”
The quick but awkward exchange diverted J.J. from processing Duncan’s comment about her and shifted her back to studying Teddy.
Was it he who had a problem over what they were about to do?
Teddy brought another wine glass to the table and first held it out to Duncan, but pulled back and put down. He instead handed Duncan the filled glass that had been his.
“Take this one,” he said. “I just poured it for myself, but I didn’t drink any of it yet. You can have it. It’s still cold. I’m going to wash my face and try to tame this hair some. J. was hogging the bathroom earlier, so I haven’t had a chance to do that yet.”
On his way past, Teddy grinned and playfully squeezed J.J.’s shoulder. When the door closed behind him, she turned back to Duncan who had taken the seat Teddy vacated.
“What were you about to ask him? Is he okay? What did he mention to you earlier?”
Duncan had placed a cheese slice on a cracker and was about to stick it in his mouth. “He say anything about something being wrong to you?”
“No, but would he if there was? You know him better than I do.”
Duncan shrugged, stuffed the cracker in his mouth, and immediately reached for a repeat of the combination. “You okay with all this?”
A little annoyed at not being answered, J.J. focused on keeping her facial expression neutral although her tongue wasn’t totally on board with that.
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, Duncan.”
“Well, you did chicken out the last time. And the deal we all made was if you wanted to, you could stay up here in the apartment until we get back. That’s if you have changed your mind.”
“I haven’t changed my mind, and for the record, I did not chicken out the last time. The circumstances were just different, that’s all. And you saw for yourself that it turned out to be a pretty sound decision on my part.”
Duncan slowly bobbed his head in agreement, for a moment looking much older than his eighteen years. “Gotta give you that last thing, J. Prob’ly some of that women’s intuition stuff; you definitely had it going on that day. Almost pissed myself when I saw your old man and his boy coming down that aisle, all out the blue the way they did. You’re right, it really worked out for all of us that you and Marnie backed out that time. We’d’a all got killed.”
He lifted his glass and took one long drag, before setting it down, empty, on the table and hanging his head back to sigh, “Aaaaaaaah, that hit the spot,” before pouring himself another quarter glass. “So like, when’s Marnie due back from D.C.?”
“Friday. How do you know she’s in D.C.?”
“We talk from time to time, her and me. She still going with what’s his face?”
J.J. rocked her head. “According to you, the two of you talk. I would have thought a detail like that would have come up in conversation.”
Duncan grinned over the rim of the glass. “Can’t get one past you, can I? Teddy says you’re really smart and really cagey, but, of course, I already knew that. I just wanted to see what you were going to say.”
“Then don’t play with me, Duncan,” she said, smiling over her own glass. “I’m not the one. Ask Marnie about her business, if you want to know it, when she’s talking with you from ‘time to time’.”
The bathroom door opened and the sound had both young people at the table looking in that direction. Teddy emerged, threading his fingers through his hair. When he reached her side, J.J. noticed some of the curls at his forehead and cheeks hung limp and damp, indicative of his having splashed water on his face, the way a guy would. What she noticed more were his watery eyes and flushed cheeks.
Given the way he wasn’t meeting her stare, she again kept to herself the questions forming in her mind.
“You ready?” he asked, talking to Duncan.
Duncan knocked back that second glass of wine and stood, straddling the chair. “If you are. J., you good?”
J.J. rose. “I’m ready, but we need to put this stuff away. It’s not good to leave cheese and stuff out,” she said, taking up the cracker box and beginning to fold down the inner waxed paper lining.
“Leave it,” Duncan said as he came past her, snagging her by the arm. “I’ll call from the car and have housekeeping come up and take care of it.”
J.J. put the box down and allowed Duncan to lead her over to the bed where her leather jacket and purse awaited her. In her mind, she patted herself on the back for deciding to wear the new earrings and necklace instead of packing them with the dress. With the possibility of housekeeping coming up, she would have had to fish them back out to take with her. She hadn’t seen a safe in that closet, and even if there had been one, she wouldn’t have left something that precious behind in it.
Teddy, who had gone into the closet, came back out pulling on a jacket as Duncan was helping J.J. into hers. He went into his duffel bag on the bed and pulled out a letter-sized portfolio.
“Your copy of the arrangements?” Duncan asked.
“Yeah, you sent the other set on?”
J.J. pulled her purse strap up on her shoulder, and the three of them headed for the door.
“Yep,” Duncan answered. “Sent them earlier this afternoon, so the house band would have a chance to practice with them. Everything’s set in New York. The car will pick us up at the terminal. All we have to do now is make it to the plane and get on it.”
“It’s your night,” J.J. whispered in Teddy’s ear, briefly squeezing his forearm as he held the door open for her to pass through.
“Our night,” he whispered back.
“7-11”, she thought to herself as she caught a backward glance of the door as it closed behind them. “Lady Luck, hang with me just a few more hours.”