Hart on Her Own

There comes a time when parents have to let the hand go…

Corrine Cathcart had been busy all morning, helping her young charges get ready for the Thanksgiving “feast” that was to be eaten at lunchtime. Placemats colored, beads strung, headbands, bonnets, and pilgrim hats fitted, the Christopher Columbus and Myles Standish stories from the previous days reviewed and discussed, now costumes were being fitted for the upcoming Thanksgiving pageant.

Unless she could talk that lone child over in the corner into participating, she didn’t know how that one set of parents was going to feel when they found out that their child had opted out.

“Can’t worry over that,” she sighed to herself as she fastened a wide collar on the tiny brunette before her who was going to be playing the part of Myles Standish’s wife.

“Am I going to wear makeup for the pageant, Ms. Cathcart? If I’m going to be Mrs. Standish, then I should have makeup. Husban’s like their wifes with makeup.”

“No, pilgrim wives didn’t wear makeup. They were too busy taking care of their houses and their children.”

“What did the housekeepers and the nannies do?”

“Pilgrim wives didn’t have housekeepers and nannies.”

“Whew, good thing this is jus’ a pageant. I’m glad Bradley is going to be my husban’ for it; he’s cute, but I wouldn’ be his wife for real life if I had to do all that work.”

Ms. Cathcart smiled. Marnie Benson, a true mess and frequent flier to the Time-Out corner, was having one of her better days. Today, however, that space was occupied by another.

Peeking over to that area of the room, Ms. Cathcart shook her head at the sight. Stretched out on the floor, looking at a book, Justine Hart seemed quite content with isolation. In all her years of teaching kindergarten at the academy, she’d never met one quite like her, an intriguing bit of work. Despite her parents’ considerable affluence and influence in the community, they were pleasant people who seemed to be doing a good job with their only child. The girl was reasonably well-adjusted considering this was her first school experience. She was basically well-mannered, and generally sweet, but intelligent to the point of extreme precociousness that far outstripped her five years. Because of that, there was a side to her that gave the veteran kindergarten teacher healthy pause.

It was a side that often had Corrine Cathcart asking herself, “Is this child for real?”

_______________________________________________

As she pulled into a parking space, Jennifer Hart felt her heart starting its slow rise from her chest, up into her throat. It was like that every day when she arrived to pick her daughter up from school; she never knew what would be waiting for her when she got to the classroom. Starting formal schooling had not been the smooth transition she hoped it would be for her child, as evidenced by several “sad face” reports, most of them issued for being “uncooperative”. The last thing she wanted for J.J. was to be labeled “difficult”, or to be labeled at all, but Justine Jennifer Hart, seemed determined to work her way into a jar that begged tagging.

It started the very first day.

Overwhelmed by having to operate all day inside the set parameters for a group of children as opposed to the occasional play date or being on her own with her mother most of the time as she had prior to starting school, J.J. stopped talking- to everyone- at school. According to the teacher, this went on for several days. When she did begin to speak in the educational setting- at her father’s insistence- she only spoke French, her second language, confusing the staff, who assumed that was why she hadn’t been talking or appearing to understand anything up to that point.

They were ready to enroll her in an English-as-a-Second-Language class until, once again, Jonathan had to intervene pointing out to the teachers that his daughter’s paperwork clearly identified English as her native tongue. That only added yet another “no-confidence” stone to the set of balances he was keeping on a school he wasn’t completely satisfied could adequately accommodate the academic and emotional needs of his child.

Once he got home and spoke with J.J. about it, all it took was one mention of someone possibly getting turned over her father’s knee to jumpstart that normally too-fluent command of the English language.

Since that time, problems with sharing, talking out without raising her hand, and her incessant questioning of everything also made themselves apparent. J.J. might have had an intellectual edge over the other kids coming out of the gate, but it quickly became obvious that her social skills within a group of her peers needed work. Three months into it now, Ms. Cathcart said things were getting better, but there was always that other shoe, actually a steel-toe industrial work boot, precariously poised and waiting to drop.

Leaning her head back against the leather cushion, Jennifer closed her eyes and took a deep breath to gather herself before she went into the school.

_______________________________________________

J.J. Hart could see the round wall clock from her spot on the floor. The big hand on the three and the little hand two lines before the five meant her mommy would be there soon to take her home. Sitting up now with her back against the wooden cubby housing her belongings, she reached up, pulled her jacket off the hook, and draped it across her knees.

Big trouble loomed for being in Time-Out again.

Would it make any difference to Mommy that she picked to go to Time-Out? Would Mommy be mad that she didn’t want to do the activity with the other children?

Probably.

Mommy said school, listening to the teacher, and cooperating were important. School was important, and she had been listening. That was why she was in Time-Out. Nobody listened to her. The children laughed at her, and she wasn’t having it.

But Mommy wasn’t going to have it either when she saw her over there in Time-Out by herself and not over there, playing with the other kids. Maybe Daddy wouldn’t be having it either when he got home from his work and Mommy told on her for being in Time-Out. He said he didn’t want to see any more “sad faces” coming home on her report papers. He said he didn’t like bad behavior at school.

But she wasn’t being bad; she was making a choice. That was okay, wasn’t it?

She hoped so.

The little hand on the clock jerked past the five. Any minute now….

Hugging her knees to her body, she put her head down on her jacket and closed her eyes.

_______________________________________________

Relieved to finally be back on his own turf, Jonathan Hart drove through the front gates happily anticipating reuniting with his family. A pleasant November day, sunny and in the 70’s, he found the lush evergreen foliage lining the long winding drive a soothing contrast to the concrete craziness and city noise he’d just driven through.

Thanksgiving week was upon them, and in a few days, they would be flying out to spend the holiday with Jennifer’s father in Maryland where it would undoubtedly be a lot more cold and very gray. He enjoyed the holiday visits with Stephen Edwards, but he sorely wished the man could come to them in California. His age and his current health prohibited that, so off to the cold and gray the three of them would be.

In the meantime though….

As he crossed the bridge road spanning the pond, taking in everything around him, he smiled. What a wonderful, serene place to be, and even more wonderfully, it was home.

He and Jennifer had been back living on their Willow Pond estate for five years following a two year stay in Malibu after a fire devastated the original main house. The thought of why they rebuilt and returned brought an even brighter smile to his face.

What mischief might that little one have gotten into at school that day?

Aware of the adjustment issues his daughter was experiencing, it hurt to see her struggling so, but he remained confident that things would eventually work themselves out. From the outset he anticipated J.J. facing some major changes to her young life, but he also knew his daughter to be a scrapper, a true contender. He’d put his money on her as the sure thing.

For security reasons, the first few years of J.J.’s upbringing had been relatively isolated.  Also, due to traveling with her journalist mother, who insisted upon raising her without benefit of permanent outside help, J.J. had not attended nursery or preschool. Despite the lack of formal school, however, at five J.J. was bilingual, had been reading for nearly two years, could write, and was already doing basic math.

Smart as hell.

And unfortunately, at times clever with it.

She’d only been there a few months, but she outfoxed the powers-that-be at that elite academy on a couple of key occasions. Of course, he shut J.J. down on it; she really did need to behave and to work with her teachers, but secretly he couldn’t help but be impressed by her ingenuity. What she did took planning and thought: hiding out under a table with a long skirt on it- backing all the way up into the corner to make finding her even more difficult. Refusing to speak, pretending she only spoke and understood French- and she was only five.

In that, J.J. Hart was definitely his kid, a thinker, a hustler, and a survivor, a true sculptor of situations, determined to mold and shape events and details to fit what she felt best met her needs at the moment.

Jennifer, less impressed with this facet of her child’s intellectual prowess, qualified it as nothing more than manipulation on Justine Jennifer’s little part. She entertained none of it, on any level.

When she met him at the door, the look on her pretty face said it all. Jennifer Justine Edwards Hart, love of his life and mother of his child, was not having it at all from his scrapper-contender-thinker-hustler-survivor daughter.

“Jennifer, darling, help me out here. I understand what a happy face means; that’s a good day. I know a sad face tells me I need to go up and have a talk with her, but what in the world does this mean?”

Jonathan held out to Jennifer the daily report from J.J.’s school. The face drawn on it had a straight line for a mouth.

“You said you found her in Time-Out when you got there to pick her up. Shouldn’t that warrant a sad face?”

“Jonathan, your daughter put herself in Time-Out.”

“Put herself in?”

Jennifer lifted her hands in ‘I-don’t-know’ fashion. “That’s what the teacher told me. When I got there, another little girl had slipped over to the Time-Out area to talk to her and was getting read about it. Seems she and J.J. are getting close. I’m happy about that, her making friends, I mean,  but I’m not happy about the Time-Out thing.”

“What’s the friend’s name?”

“I don’t know. I was too caught up in the situation with J.J. at the moment to ask. Cute little thing, though. Brunette, tiny, bowl hair cut with a red bow in it. Obviously busy.”

“What did Cathcart say led up this thing with J.J.?”

“Well, I know that they’ve been working on the concept of the first Thanksgiving, getting ready for a little pageant to act out the events that led up to it. After naptime, as they were fashioning and fitting the costumes, Ms. Cathcart said that J.J. came to her and asked if she had to be a part of what they were doing. She said she tried to ask J.J. why she didn’t want to participate, but all J.J. would tell her was that she just really didn’t want to be in it. When the teacher finally told her that she didn’t have to, J.J. took her books and went to the Time-Out area where she stayed until I came for her.”

“Had she been crying or anything?”

“You know she wouldn’t cry out in the open like that.”

“Did she seem upset?”

“Quiet, but I wouldn’t say upset. Ms. Cathcart said she’s been a bit quiet and withdrawn for a couple of days now.”

“I know you’ve tried to talk with her. What did she say?”

“I couldn’t get her to say much about it in the car. You know how she is; the more you press her on a thing, the more she backs up if she really doesn’t want to tell you. I think she was more concerned with my being upset with her for going to Time-Out, so she didn’t really want to go into too much explanation. When we got home, she went right up the stairs to her room, and that’s where she’s been ever since.”

Then Jennifer leaned in to Jonathan, gently clutching at his shirt sleeve. “Darling, do you think we might have made a mistake by putting her in school like this? In hindsight, it almost seems tantamount to tossing an child into the pool as a way to teach her to swim. J.J. seems to be drowning. During the week, she’s not anything like the happy little girl she was before she started school. Only on the weekends does she appear to return to herself. Maybe we really should look into home schooling, private tutoring, or maybe some other, smaller educational venue for her.”

With one arm, Jonathan drew her close. It wasn’t like Jennifer to second-guess herself, especially about something so important as it related to their daughter. In the beginning, it was he who voiced those kinds of concerns, mostly because he felt J.J. had learned far more in being at home with her mother than she ever would have in nursery school. Compared with other children they knew around J.J.’s age, she was way out front academically. Jennifer was the one to insist that she needed to go to school so that she could learn in a “more age appropriate and socially relevant environment. What was this he was seeing in her now? What was he hearing?

A mother’s heart? A mother’s heartache?

That first thing triggered a surge of love from his heart for the woman in his arms; the second thing pained it in sympathy with hers. Who would have thought that kindergarten could bring so much indecision and angst into their otherwise secure and happy household?

“Sweetheart, you and I have been down this speculative road before about J.J. and her education,” he said through his kiss to her forehead. “But keep in mind that is one tough cookie we made. I admit I had and still have my reservations about that stiff, starchy academy, but that’s just me speaking from my own experiences. It’ll do for now. At the moment, she does need to be with other kids to learn how to deal among her peers. J.J.’s just having some growing pains. With twelve more years of school ahead of her, she might as well get a head start on working with them now.”

Jennifer pushed back from him just enough to see into his face. “Twelve years? I hear you leaving out out college. Don’t leave out college, Jonathan Hart. I know how you thi- Jonathan, our daughter is going to college.”

With his palm to her cheek, he guided her head back down to his shoulder.

“Relax, relax. I know she’s going to college. You’ve made that perfectly clear. All I was saying is by the time she graduates high school, she should have most of those growing pain kinks worked out. For the present, though, I guess Daddy needs to go up and find out what’s going on.”

“She’ll probably talk with you.”

He picked right up on the strain of disappointment subtly permeating her tone.

“We’ve been down that road, too, Jennifer. It’s not that she prefers one of us over the other; it’s just where she is at the moment in terms of communicating. She sees you differently than she does me right now. That doesn’t mean a thing about how she feels about either of us in terms of love. She knows very well who her mother is. Don’t you ever doubt how she feels about you.”

Then he lifted her from him in preparation to get up.

“Gotta tell you, though, I’m real interested to find out just why she chose to book herself into the klink. I should think it would have been quite the other way around.”

She shook her head in amused exasperation at her streetwise, handsome husband. He loved a mystery.

“Quite, Daddy Hart.”

_______________________________________________

From the top of the stairs, Jonathan could hear the sound of the train. When he arrived at the doorway of J.J.’s bedroom, she was seated on the floor, working the controls as the locomotive disappeared underneath the bed. She jumped when he closed his hand over hers to shut the train down just as it was rounding the wrought iron foot on its way back to her.

“Daddy! You scared me! I didn’ know you were home.”

He scooped her up from the floor and into a big bear hug.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She immediately wrapped her arms around his neck, kissed his cheek, and then lay her head on his shoulder.

There was definitely something wrong. No way should he have been able to walk up on her like that. J.J. Hart had instincts like a cat. Normally, if she wasn’t incarcerated inside the room, having heard his car pull in, she would have met him at the bottom of the stairs by the time he made it through the door. For him to have gotten all the way in the room and right behind her without her noticing meant that she was deep, deep, deep in thought, and it must be something big to demand that much of her attention.

Walking over to the big chair with her, he sat down, placing her on his lap. She leaned in to rest her head on his chest.

“So, how was school today?”

“What did my Mommy say to you?”

He anticipated that one. When made to give herself up, the girl never ventured too far out there without first feeling around for terra firma. Daddy’s girl, for sure.

“I think I asked you about your day.”

“How was your day, Daddy?”

“J.J.”

She sighed. “All right, I was in Time-Out.”

“Did you get put in Time-Out or did you ask to go?”

J.J. sat up. The two curly red pigtails bobbed and bounced with her sudden movement and her own blue eyes narrowed in suspicion as she skewered his with them. “Mommy did talk to you, didn’t she?”

It took a moment for him to compose himself and not smile at that face, the expression on it classic Jennifer in interrogation mode.

“Yes, your mother talked with me. Now I want you to tell me what’s going on. Why would you ask the teacher to go into Time-Out? What happened to make you do that?”

J.J. melted back into his chest. “I just didn’ want to do the pageant.”

“Why not?”

” ‘Cause they were all doing my nerves.”

Pursing his lips to hold in the chuckle, he also stopped breathing to keep her from feeling it. She was something else, cute as could be and funny as hell, but he didn’t want her to mistake his amusement with her for laughter at her. Whatever was going on, it was completely serious in her book.

When he had it together, he tipped her face with a finger to her chin so that she was looking at him.

“Come on, tell Daddy about it.”

_______________________________________________

“Mrs. Hart, Mr. Hart called down and said that J.J. would like to speak with you.”

Jennifer looked up to the housekeeper standing over her, from edits she decided to tackle to take her mind off J.J. for a time.

“Does he want me to come up to her?”

“No, he said they would be down in a few minutes.”

When Marie left her to return to the kitchen, Jennifer put away the papers on her desk and went into the great room where she sat down on the couch to wait for J.J.

She couldn’t see it at the time, and in theory it wouldn’t seem so, but it had actually been so much easier when J.J. was home with her all day. At least then she had first-hand knowledge of what went on in her daughter’s day and some control over what happened to her. Now all she had was either the teacher’s perspective of her day via a daily checklist report topped by a scribbled face, or what she could detect between the lines of what J.J. wished to share, which usually wasn’t a whole lot, particularly on “sad face” days.

In that, J.J. Hart was shaping up to be very much like her father.

Along with those blue eyes, J.J. had also inherited a hefty helping of her father’s ways. Pleasant, generous, and engaging in general, beneath the surface, both of them were complex, sensitive, and tight-lipped, especially about themselves or when talking about problems they might be having.

Unless it was the two of them together.

Because his daughter was so much like him, Jonathan knew how to get more out of J.J. than anyone else on earth, which sometimes left her feeling a little excluded. It wasn’t their intention to place her there, she knew this; it was simply how they were.

But that didn’t change how it felt.

She heard them start down the front staircase, and shortly after, they appeared in the foyer, headed into the great room.

When she saw her seated on the couch, J.J. turned her father’s hand loose and came straight to the couch where she climbed up and sat down next to her. J.J. had changed out of her school uniform into a pair of jeans, a tee shirt, and sneakers, her preferred get-up. In the effort, she’d endearingly mussed her hair.

“I need to talk to you, Mommy. I should have told you in the car, but I didn’t want you to be dis’pointed at me.”

Jonathan sat down on her other side, and over J.J.’s head, his eyes met hers. They said, “Listen to her.”

Jennifer smoothed back a few escaped curls from J.J.’s forehead. “I only get disappointed with you when you’ve done something you know you shouldn’t have done.”

“I saw you talking to Ms. Cathcart, but I was too far away to hear what you were saying. Did she tell you what happened? Did she say that I did something I shouldn’ do?”

In her daughter’s eyes, Jennifer detected genuine concern mixed with innocent confusion.

“Do you think you did something you shouldn’t have done?”

J.J. shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not sure. I really wasn’ trying to be bad, but sometimes I don’t know I’ve been bad in school until somebody tells me I was.”

She dropped her head. “Mommy, I don’ like kin’garten. I really don’.”

After another quick visual exchange with Jonathan, a pained one, Jennifer reached for J.J. and moved her into her lap.

“We’ll talk about that in a minute, sweetie. Tell me what you told Daddy about what happened in school today.”

“I didn’ tell Daddy. I ‘ecided that we should come down here so I could tell both of you at the same time. I should have told you in the car, but….”

The wave of sweet gratitude made Jennifer hold J.J. even closer. The baby didn’t want to shut her out after all.

“That’s okay about that. We’re here all together now. Tell Daddy and me what happened.”

In the meantime. Jonathan moved in closer, too, taking the spot vacated by J.J. and sliding his arm along the back of the couch, behind her back so that all three of them were in physical contact.

“Ms. Cathcart wouldn’ let me be Christopher Columbus, but I could have been the captain on the Santa Maria.”

“Why not the Niña?” Jonathan asked, shooting Jennifer a look that challenged, “Watch this.”

J.J. slowly rolled her eyes up at him. ” ‘Cause the Niña sank, Daddy. I wouldn’ want to be the captain on a ship that sank. That would mean I had to go down with the ship. No, um-um,” she shook her head, “not me.”

After mouthing over J.J.’s head, “I knew it!”, he briefly turned his face away to keep J.J. from seeing the grin he couldn’t stop from forming.

Jennifer could only shake her head at him as she smoothed a hand over J.J.’s hair to keep her from noticing her silly daddy.

“Jonathan, don’t interrupt with off-the-subject questions,” she softly fussed to get them back on track. “Go on, J.J.”

“Okay. Well, Ms. Cathcart said I couldn’ be Christopher Columbus, the other captain, or even a explorer ’cause she said only the boys could be that. She said the girls could only be pilgrim wives. But when you took me to Peter Pan that time, even though Peter Pan is ‘posed to be a boy, a girl was playing the part in the program. You said that it was okay to do that because it was only play acting. I tried to tell Ms. Cathcart about it, but then the children started laughing, saying I was silly, I must be a boy in disguise, and stuff like that.”

As she spoke, Jennifer could feel J.J.’s spirit deflating as the small body sank further into her bosom.

Jonathan worked his fingers through one of the pigtails. “What did Ms. Cathcart say when the children started teasing you?”

“She told them to stop, but by then it was too late. They had hurt my feelings, so I didn’ say anything else. I didn’ want Ms. Cathcart to think I was being silly or hardhead or for the children to make fun of me any more, so I just stayed quiet after that.”

“Was that today?” Jennifer asked.

“No. It was- it was, I think-”

J.J. poked at the fingers of one hand with the other for a moment and then held up two fingers. “-two days, I think. Yep, two. You came to get me two times, so it was two days.”

She nodded and looked up into Jennifer’s face. “Yep, two.”

“Go on.”

“They colored the placemats for the feast today and did the costumes. I did a placemat, but I thought about it and ‘ecided I would just tell Ms. Cathcart that I didn’ want to be in the pageant. She said she had me a costume, but I didn’ want to be no pilgrim wife. I didn’t tell her that, though; I didn’ think it would be nice to say that to her. Girls shouldn’ have to just be pilgrim wifes when the boys can be lots of stuff they want to be. If it’s a pageant, it’s play acting, and if it’s play acting, anybody can be ‘ever they want. It doesn’ have to be a girl thing or a boy thing, does it, Mommy? It’s all just pretend, isn’t it?”

J.J. sank down even farther. “I asked if I had to, and Ms. Cathcart said I didn’ if I really didn’ want to, so since they were all busy getting ready for the pageant, I went to Time-out ’cause I didn’ want to be bothered with any of them. I can’t play with the toys I like ’cause they’re ‘boy toys’, and the kids laugh at me for what I say. I don’t like playing house and dolls. Outside, the boys push me down if I want to play with the ball or the horsehoes. They say, “Go play with the girl stuff”. If I fight them back and beat them up for pushing me, then I get in trouble and get a sad face. And Daddy said, ‘NO MORE SAD FACES’.

“I don’t want to have to do dolls or dishes or beads or coloring at school just ’cause I’m a girl. I don’t do that here, well I like coloring sometimes, but I play how I want to at home. Why do I have to only do girl stuff at school?”

J.J. threw up her hands. “And anyway, what is ‘girl stuff’? It’s just things you like to do, but at school, I can’t ever hardly do things I like ’cause I’m a girl.”

Then she hung her head. “I didn’ want to be no pilgrim wife. I didn’ want nobody laughing at me. It’s just all terrible. I went to Time-Out with my books ’cause you don’t have to be a boy or a girl to read books, and if you’re in Time-Out, you’re all alone and nobody can do your nerves and make you get a sad face report that makes your mommy and daddy be dis’pointed at you.”

Above J.J.’s head, Jennifer closed her eyes in an effort to hold back the tears. Caught at the rare loss for words, she wrapped J.J. up and lay her cheek atop the tousled red head. Jonathan wound both his arms around both of them.

_______________________________________________

As usual, Jonathan was already in the bed by the time Jennifer finished in the bathroom. Stepping out of her slippers before getting in, she studied her husband’s serious, concentrated expression.

“Jonathan, you still want to go see the teacher, don’t you?”

The sound of her voice seemed to alert him to her presence. His head jerked in her direction, and a slow smile formed as he extended his hand to her, inviting her to him. Taking his hand, she accepted the request, sliding all the way over, molding her body to his, and laying her head on his chest.

“Yeah, I do,” he said, “But my kid tied my hands on it. Go figure, a five-year-old girl doing to me what giants of industry, crooked as hell ones at that, haven’t been able to do to me. Can you believe that she doesn’t want us to intervene in it?”

Jennifer smiled at the image of J.J. pleading with them to keep what she told them “a secret” because she didn’t want the teacher thinking her a tattletale or the kids taking her for a “little wimp”  for having her parents come to her rescue.

She simply wanted her parents to know, “Why I’m sad sometimes”, but that, “I’ll be okay. It’s just school. I can do what I want when I get home because you guys know me. I just wanted to ‘xplain that I wasn’t bad or hardhead this time. I just made a choice.”

“She’s no tattletale or wimp, darling. And although in theory I didn’t totally agree with it, I think it helped her immensely when you told her the next time a boy put his hands on her, she had your permission to ‘put his lights out’. It wasn’t the most responsible answer from the parenting textbook, but I think for her self-esteem, she needed to hear that validation from you.”

“Sometimes that textbook is only good for tapping someone’s ass with it.”

“Jonathan!.”

“Sorry. About the word, not what I said about the book. Or what I told J.J. about sticking up for herself. I meant all of that. J.J. is out there every day, on her own in the real world. What’s spelled out in black and white in the playbook doesn’t always translate the same in living color on the field of play.”

Jennifer slipped a hand inside his pajama shirt to stroke the hair on his chest. “Tell me something.”

“Hmmmmm?”

“Did you make J.J. come down and talk with me this afternoon when you had her upstairs? You know, to make me feel better.”

He shook his head and spoke with his eyes closed. “Honestly, I did not. In fact, she kind of shocked me with it. She started telling me about being upset, then she cut herself off and said we needed to have you there so you could hear. She wanted you to know, and she didn’t want to have to tell it twice. Seems my daughter’s got the principle of cutting out the middleman down pat.”

“She’s so old. Has such a strong sense of self for such a little girl. I think that’s what throws people off. They don’t expect someone so young to have such strong and set convictions, so she comes off as obstinate when she’s actually offended. I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t want her getting in trouble, but I also don’t want her spirit compromised.”

Rolling onto his side, Jonathan moved Jennifer onto her back to be face-to-face with her. “She’ll be all right, darling. She told you she would be as long as she knows that we love and accept her for who she is. And we do, don’t we?”

“Of course.”

“Besides, she only has a couple more days before we’re out of here for the Thanksgiving break. It’ll be a different venue and routine for her, the horses will be there, and all of us can relax, enjoy each other, and regroup.”

She gazed into those eyes that completely captivated her all those years ago, the same eyes that he’d bestowed upon their child. “Jonathan, did you ever think that first kiss on that ferry on the Thames would lead to such a fascinating, heart-wrenching, precious little person?”

“No, but I decided whatever came down the pike for me from that moment on, I needed you with me. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For hanging in there with me all these years, and especially for that third Hart. She’s a great kid, and she’s got the best mother in the world.”

“More so, an awesome Daddy. Take it from one who knows. Even when a girl is out there on her own and has a stubborn mind of her own, she does a whole lot better when she knows that wherever he is, she can count on her Daddy to guide and support her. Mommy is going to be there regardless, in person or in spirit- that’s her natural role, but it’s a good Daddy who keeps his girl’s spine straight, her feet planted, her head on her shoulders, and makes her feel strong and secure out there in the world.”

“I think we make a good team, Mrs. Hart.”

“I know we do, Mr. Hart. Give us a kiss.”

In one move, he covered her, bringing his lips close enough to hers for them to touch. “Oh, I’m going to give you a lot more than a kiss.”

“Don’t be pushy. It does my nerves.”

Holding each other tight, they erupted into laughter that led right into that kiss.

And a whole lot more.

~Finale~

Jennifer eased away from Jonathan’s sleeping form, trying hard not to wake him. She slid across the bed and sat up to slide her feet into her slippers and pull on her robe. Tying it closed around her as she crossed the room, she went across the hall to check on J.J., the reason for waking at that time every night.

When she cracked open the door to J.J.’s bedroom, it was dark inside, but two tiny, reflective orbs jerked up from the floor next to the bed.

Freeway Junior, on sentry duty. When he saw who it was; however, he lie right back down in his basket.

As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, Jennifer could see that in her sleep, J.J. had kicked most of the covers off. She was just reaching for the blanket when J.J. lifted her head from the pillow.

“Mommy?”

Jennifer leaned down to her. “Yes, it’s me. Do you need to go to the bathroom?”

A small arm reached up, wrapped itself around her neck, and pulled her closer, her voice raspy with sleep.

“I don’t need to do the bathroom. I just need to tell you I love you and Daddy for talking to me. Make sure you tell him I said that, okay? I still don’ like kin’garten, but I feel better about everything else now. I’ll be all right. Thank you for helping me. I’m big now, so….”

J.J. took her arm back and lie down again, snuggling down into the pillow.

Jennifer pulled up the sheet and the blanket, then bent way over to kiss J.J.’s cheek and whisper into her ear.

“You keep just being my sweet girl.”

” ‘kay. G’nite, Mommy.”

Dismissed.

On her way back across the hall, that special place in Jennifer’s heart whispered  her daughter would indeed hold her own and eventually be just fine.

How could she not? Her mother and father loved and supported her, and that seemed to be what really mattered to her.

… and then, too, her last name was Hart.

The girl was shaping up to be all that and more.

End

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