On the eve of a new beginning, Jonathan ruminates about his life with Max and moving on without him
As the gates opened, Jonathan checked his watch, looked over to the passenger seat, and smiled.
Life was good.
He pulled in, stopped to watch through the rear view mirror until he was sure the gates were securely closed again and that no one had slipped in behind him before continuing up the drive. It was as he was taking the incline leading to the bridge over the pond that Jennifer woke from her snooze.
“My goodness,” she said through a yawn, stretching her arms out in front of her, “I didn’t realize I’d fallen off to sleep. I only intended to rest my eyes. I must have been out a while; I see we’re home.”
“Yes,” he said, briefly casting his eyes over to catch hers, “we certainly are.”
When he felt her hand reaching for his, he fitted his fingers between hers and squeezed.
So much change in what seemed such a short period of time.
Ever since he came to know him, Max and a cigar were synonymous. How many photos were there of him in the albums with that ever-present corona pinched between his fingers or his teeth? Far more with than without.
In his head, he pictured that very first time they met.
It was cold that day, and he was working that hard-won, lucrative corner where he had established a brisk business, selling newspapers. A big Packard pulled up, the horn honked, and man inside called out, “Hey, kid!” , and gestured for him to come around to the driver’s side window.
Even way back then his voice sounded like that Jersey accent struggled its way out through a throat full of gravel.
“Say, you look mighty young to be out here hustlin’ papers this time ‘a day. Shouldn’t you be in somebody’s school?”
Cigar smoke billowed from the rolled-down window, filling his young nostrils, and he tried his best to inhale as much of it as he could. It was a great smell. There was something about the scent of cigars that always appealed to him, but he wanted nothing to do with what the man was saying to him. He wasn’t one for small talk, especially when he was out hustling, trying to make buck.
“School’s for suckers.”
He could see the man looking him over and hoped he didn’t notice how embarrassed he felt by his clothing, a thin baseball jacket, worn corduroy pants, and a pair of cloth sneakers- parish donations that blatantly advertised his poverty.
“Your Ma know you cut school like this?”the man asked.
“Ain’t got no Ma.”
“What about your old man? Won’t he kick your tail about playin’ hooky?”
“Ain’t got no old man, neither,” he said as his embarrassment gave way to impatience.
The guy was treading in the forbidden, but he couldn’t understand what compelled him to answer the questions. That was information he rarely gave up to anyone who didn’t already know. Besides, it was holding him up, so much talk about nothing.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but you want a paper or not? Time is money.”
The man took a deep drag off that long cigar he held in one hand while he dug in his pocket with the other.
“Here, kid,” he said, flipping a coin to him off his thumb. “The name is Max. What’s yours?”
“Charlie.” Then for some reason, his tongue kept going. “It’s really Jonathan, but I prefer Charlie.” Yet another part of himself that he usually kept to quiet about.
“Let me give you some advice, Jonathan,” Max said, emphasizing his given name. “Hustlin’s one thing, but if you invest good time in yourself now, the real money’ll come later. Be a kid for now, why don’tcha? Get back to school. You got a lifetime to be a man.”
Other than to thank him for the sale, he walked away from the car without comment. He didn’t know it at the time, but that initial encounter on that corner that afternoon in San Francisco would change his life forever.
That day Max bought a paper from him. A couple of days later, he showed up with a jacket.
At first, he didn’t want to accept it. He was poor, but tired of other people’s charity.
“Take it, kid,” Max insisted. “You wanna be successful? You gotta make ’em believe. Ain’t nobody gonna believe in somebody lookin’ like you.”
So he took the jacket. It looked good on him, and it was a whole lot warmer than the one he had.
Not long after that, Max saved him from being swept up in a raid on the gambling den he had begun frequenting, and from certain subsequent incarceration in the local youth detention facility. After that night and a long, hard talk between Max and Sister Anastasia about his needing a man in his life, his home ceased to be the Mission Street Orphanage when he took up residence with Max in his small, walk-up apartment.
A recent retiree from a meat packing plant in the Midwest, Max had the time and the wherewithal to properly see to him. He never understood how Max got Anastasia to agree to the transfer of guardianship, which as far as he knew was never an official one, but it was definitely the beginning of better things to come.
From there on out, he spent his days earning an education and playing sports in school rather than hustling on San Francisco’s street corners, its docks, back alleys, and illegal gaming houses. His nights were spent being watched like a hawk to keep him inside, the girls off him, and his mind on his books. He worked on the weekends, but those jobs were strictly on the up and up; Max checked and double-checked to make sure they were, threatening to shut him down if his grades ever went in that direction.
Two years later, he graduated high school, having successfully made, at Max’s continued insistence, his first major investment, the one in himself. Max was out in the audience with the other kids’ parents. He, Father Franco, and Sister Anastasia, who insisted upon being there despite his defection to public school after leaving the orphanage, all proudly clapped for him. But crossing the auditorium stage, it was Max he saw right away, up on his feet, an unlit panatella sticking out of his wide, proud smile.
As soon as the ceremony was over, and they were outside again, Max fired that one up and to Anastasia’s shock, lit another and gave it to him to smoke in celebration of his first step into manhood.
When he finished his basics in the Navy, it was Max sitting in the outdoor stands for the ceremony, a small cloud of smoke hovering like a halo above his head.
For those couple of years spent in college after his tour of duty, Max used that car he bought him to get around in as leverage to keep him in line and on track. But when big business called, offering him more immediately than an academic degree ever would down the line, it was Max who said he understood and gave him the okay to choose leaving school to enter the world of industry.
A few years later, cigar in hand, Max stood behind him, looking over his shoulder as he signed the papers to buy his first small bank. By that time, they had comfortably settled into the roles Max had them assume at the beginning of his rise to success; he was “Mr. H.” and Max had become his right hand man. In that capacity, Max continued doing for him what he had always done, looking after him, helping him focus, and making sure his restless feet, roving eye, and gambling hands didn’t stray too far from the straight and narrow.
For that last thing, Max happily played middleman while he engaged in transacting the legitimate business. Old habits die hard, and Max’s were far older than his.
In the beginning, the assumption of gentleman and gentleman’s gentleman roles served to lend him additional credibility with moneyed would-be investors and clients.
“You gotta make ’em believe you already got somethin’, and it’s somethin’ they want.”
They soon found the arrangement also worked rather efficiently for them as a way of life, a means for them to help each other. By age thirty, his place in the world of international industry was established. There was a brand new building in downtown Los Angeles with his name on it, a corporate penthouse they called home at the top of it, that confirmed the reality of a dream come true.
But none of it ever would have happened if it hadn’t been for Max. Max made him believe it could all be. Whatever gains he made, he shared them with the man who taught him to trust in himself and to work- legally- toward reaching his goals. In turn, Max managed his personal affairs and protected him from unnecessary distractions. The relationship evolved over the years from mentor- mentee into a unique partnership. Over time, Max became as natural and necessary an element to his life as breathing.
He came out of the bedroom, easing closed the door behind him. It was morning, and it was his first time on that side of the door since the early evening before. Blissfully lost in another world for the past couple of days, he had almost forgotten what the rest of that London penthouse suite looked like.
Max was up in the front room, cigar protruding from the corner of his mouth, racing form spread out on the table before him. When he spoke, he didn’t look up from it.
“Come up for air, huh? Ya hungry? Ya oughta be if you ain’t.”
He sat down at the table, across from older man. “No. Not very. Maybe I’ll have some coffee.”
Max got up and came back with the steaming cup, which he placed before him.
“She still asleep?”
Standing over him, Max placed a hand on his shoulder, his fingers gently squeezing. “So, this really is it.”
He nodded again.
Max returned to his chair and resumed his perusal of the paper.
“You two went awfully fast,” he said. “You just met a few days ago. Now you’re gettin’ married.”
He didn’t say anything in response. There wasn’t anything to say. Max had been there every step of the way; it wasn’t as if he didn’t know all the details of how much his life, their lives, had changed in less than three days.
Still looking at the form, Max circled a couple of races with his pen as he spoke around the cigar in his teeth.
“That’s a very classy girl. I’m willin’ to bet she’s never done nothin’ like this before. Nothin’ so all of a sudden.”
“She didn’t know me before; I certainly didn’t know her. And as for doing something so sudden, I haven’t either, if you think about it.”
After a few quiet moments, Max had to concede, “I guess you haven’t. I gotta give you credit for normally takin’ your time. But you ought to be ashamed, takin’ her to bed so fast.”
“I’m not, though.”
“You took more time with Nikki than you did with her.”
“Nikki wasn’t her. She isn’t Nikki. She’s the one. There was no need to wait. Neither of us wanted to. Even if we had wanted to wait, I don’t think we would have been able to. I’ve never felt this way before about a woman.”
“Old man Stephanos is going to have a fit. I think he was countin’ on you gettin’ back with his daughter.”
“I explained to him that Nikki and I decided we would just be friends. We weren’t meant for more than that. Nikki knew it. I knew it. You knew it, too. I don’t think her father will hold it against me. He’s the one who emphasized to me that I had to keep my business life separate from my personal life.”
Then he reached across the table to put his hand over what Max was looking at.
“Max, I need to talk, but not about what was. Not about what’s past.”
Having been diverted from his studies, Max sat back and raised his eyes to him. “So talk.”
To keep his most personal thoughts to himself was habit, a throwback to his lonely childhood where it worked as an effective mechanism for protecting himself from hurt. But with Max, it was different. Max listened. He might reason, he might question, but he didn’t judge; he worried, at times, but he understood. Max was one of the few people he fully trusted.
She had recently become another.
“I never thought anyone could make me feel the way I do about her, Max. Nobody’s ever gotten that close to or that deep inside me, not even Nikki, as long as we were together. You know how it is with me. Normally, I can’t get that close to anybody. I can’t open up that much. Even though it’s only been this short time, it’s like I’ve known her forever, and how we are is how it was always supposed to be; as if somebody scripted this way. I’ve never been so much in love, Max. My heart actually hurts, it’s so full.”
Taking the cigar from his mouth, Max leaned toward him.
“Can’t say as I blame you for lovin’ her and wantin’ to be with her, kid. She is gorgeous, got one beautiful smile. We both gotta admit, she’s pretty smart- made her way past me and you to get that story she came after.”
“I found out she speaks five languages.”
“Spoke ’em all to you in there, I take it?” Max asked with a sly grin.
He nodded. “And I want her to speak them to me the rest of my life. She’s so smart and funny and sexy. She’s wonderful.”
“Got an awful lot of heart, too, for a dame. Not to mention them good gams I couldn’t help noticin’. You always were one for pickin’ out fillies with good legs, on and off the track.”
All he could do was smile. It was true he was a leg man, on and off the track, but this time it was more than that. With her, it was the total package. She was absolutely right inside and out; all the way around she was the one for whom he waited.
“Max, she’s it. We go with our hunches, you and me. It was you who taught me to trust in my own judgment. I had a hunch about her, and now I know I’m right. You said when I stopped looking so hard, she would run right into me or I would run into her. It turns out we ran into each other.”
Max put the cigar back in his mouth and slowly drew on it, his eyes trained on him the whole time. Finally he exhaled, sending another aromatic cloud in his direction.
“Then I’m glad for you. You’ve worked awful hard all these years, kept your nose fairly clean, and made somethin’ big out of yourself. From how you started out, it didn’t have to be like that. At this stage of the game, you deserve to be happy. All I’m gonna say about this is take good care of her, Jonathan. She’s a thoroughbred, a winner of one at that, and winners pay off in spades if you do right by them.”
Max winked across the table at him. “I should know.”
Blushing at the rare compliment from his old friend, he changed the subject.
“She called home to tell about us. Her father told her to bring me to him in Maryland“straightaway”. Turns out he’s English, well Welsh, but he’s lived and worked in London for years. You know, stiff upper lip, leather elbow patches, and all of that. He’s pretty angry about her phoning to say she’s getting married so sudden like this.”
“Her old man? What about her mother? You’re gonna have to win over your potential mother-in-law, too, you know. Although knowin’ you, she won’t put up too much of a fight, not time you get through with charmin’ her.”
He grinned at that. “Mothers do tend to love me, but unfortunately, her mother’s dead. It’s just her and her father. I’ve arranged for us all to fly out tomorrow.”
Max shook his head. “Just you and her, Mr. H. I’m goin’ home.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“Nope. You’re on your own with this one, just like you was with her when she was mad at you and wouldn’t talk to you yesterday.”
“You told me to have the cops pick her up if I wanted to hold her here in London while I finished what I had to do, and then you left it all to me when it was time to make it right by her.”
“And we can see you worked that out okay.” Max gestured in the direction of that bedroom from which he emerged. “But her old man’s gonna give you what for, like I would if she was mine and she called me up with somethin’ out of the blue like that.”
“I’ll work that out, too, I guess.”
Max looked across the table and smiled, sending a last fragrant, reassuring cloud in his direction.
“I don’t doubt you for a minute, kid.”
One of his favorite wedding pictures was that informal one with all of them, taken at the reception right after they were finished receiving.
In it, he was looking in on amusement as Max, with one arm around her, bestowed a grand kiss to her cheek while between the fingers of the other hand, he held elegantly aloft one of the expensive cigars with which she gifted him for so graciously accepting her into their family.
Although the two of them hadn’t been apart much since meeting and becoming engaged in London, that day she formally become part of their household. He and Max were staying together despite his having taken a wife. When Max began making noise about making other living arrangements so as not to be in the way, she was appalled. Taking him to task about it, she insisted upon his staying.
“Max, what are you saying? You’re family. Jonathan needs you.”
Then she hung her pretty head and admitted, “I need you, too. This is a pretty big house and estate we’re buying. I’m going to need some help running it, and… well… see,… I’m not the greatest cook. But maybe you can teach me?”
She definitely couldn’t cook very well, and lessons hadn’t changed that. But they wound up keeping her anyway.
So many crazy adventures; scary sometimes, interesting and exhilarating always. Together they shared travel, excitement, and so much happiness. Just as good after five years as it had been in the beginning. Even better. It was solid now, sure, secure. The three of them, a family, which was all he ever wanted in life. Always lucky, he wound up with so much more.
Max was out on the patio enjoying his morning smoke as he went about tending the potted plants. Instead of taking coffee at the kitchen table, he went outside to join him since she was still upstairs getting dressed.
“Happy anniversary, Mr. H.”
“Five years. Told you she was a winner.”
“You weren’t telling me anything I hadn’t already figured out for myself.”
Max put the watering can down and came to the table to sit down with him.The introspective expression on his face said he had something on his mind other than the anniversary.
“How long you guys gonna be in New York?” he asked.
“I haven’t said anything to her yet, but that might have to be put off for a minute. I won’t know for sure until I get to the office, but just in case, I have a backup plan.”
From his breast pocket, he extracted the small jewelry box, which he handed off to Max.
“I’ve got to take that to work with me and fix it up in the event the New York trip does fall through.”
When Max opened the box, the morning rays glinting off the huge diamond caused him to gasp, accented by a small, white puff of smoke.
“Geez, that’s got to be at least, what, a bunch of carats.”
Max closed the box and handed it back. “What kind of fixin’ up you gotta do to that? If that’s the backup plan, she won’t kick about not going to New York. Besides, you two celebrate every day like it’s an anniversary. It don’t matter about where you are.”
That was true, but he could tell there was more Max wanted to say.
“What’s really on your mind, Max?”
He could see Max thinking, choosing his words before he sighed and said, “Look, I know it ain’t my business, but I gotta ask. I ain’t gettin’ no younger, and one day I’m not going to be here to ask.”
That alarming thought, spoken out loud in that way, collapsed his chest, nearly suffocating him. It was too painful to consider, and having that inflicted upon him so unexpectedly made him oddly angry. He held up his hand in an attempt to make Max stop talking, but Max was not to be put off.
“No, Mr. H., it’s true. We, you and me, have always leveled with each other. It’s somethin’ you gotta face, and what I want to ask you is somethin’ I gotta ask.”
“Okay,” he said as he braced himself for whatever was coming, “go ahead. Shoot.”
“What about kids? At the start, you told me you wanted ’em. I know you said Mrs. H. wasn’t all that keen on the idea, but it’s been five years. You two are so good together. You’d make great parents. She’s an only kid; so are you. Her old man don’t have no grands. You ain’t got nobody but me and Anastasia, and odds are, we’ll go before you. Who you two gonna leave all this to? You’ve worked like a dog to get where you are, and so has she with her writing. I know you support a bunch ‘a charities, and you could leave it to them, but it seems a shame to not leave some blood behind to represent the two of you, what you had together, and what you stood for. You two ain’t getting any younger. Have you talked to her about it at all?”
He shrugged. “She hasn’t said anything about it, so I haven’t brought it up either. She’d say something to me if it was what she wanted. If she doesn’t want children, I’m willing to play along. I mean, it’s her body, and no matter how much I might help or get help for her, her life will be the one most impacted by having a child. I’m not going to try to talk her into something she doesn’t want. Like you just said, she’s got a career of her own that’s going great guns. To have a baby would surely put a dent in that for her.”
Max wasn’t letting up, though.
“How do you really know she don’t want a baby if you don’t talk to her about it? You two talk about everything else. Maybe if she knew you wanted it so bad, she’d do it.”
“But then she’d only be doing it for me. That’s the kind of person she is. She loves me and would do anything for me, but I don’t want it to be like that. If it isn’t something we both want, then I can forgo having a child. I love her completely. As long as she’s in my life, I’m fine, I’m completed. Once I’m gone, what will any of this material stuff matter to me? Even in eternity, all I’ll want is to be able to reach out and feel her put her hand in mine, and to know that you and that stogie are somewhere around to get my back.”
But judging from the look on his face, his explanation hadn’t satisfied Max. He didn’t say anything else on the subject that day, and he never brought it up that directly to him again.
He never told Max how that very night, after making love in their bed at home when the New York trip had indeed fallen through, she informed him that she had gone off the pill and that night had been their first steamy attempt at building on their family. She wanted his baby, she said, but only one.
It was enough for him. The possibility was all he needed, and it was the best anniversary gift he could have received.
The house. Gone.
A total loss.
Nobody was home at the time of the fire except Max and the dog, and fortunately, the dog had gotten Max up from the bed to take him out.
They had been called home from an impromptu weekend vacation in the mountains with the news of what happened and arrived to find Max sitting with Freeway, Jr. in the midst of the smoldering rubble. It wasn’t the loss of the property that hurt so much; it was the look on that old man’s face. Max considered the house his responsibility, and he believed he let them down. He said as much.
At that moment, hearing Max voice to him his disappointment in himself, the years fell away and their roles reversed; he became the mentor and Max, the confused child in need of comforting and reassurance.
It was hard to believe there was next to nothing left of such a substantial a structure, but he was grateful they, the three of them and their pup, Freeway Junior, were still alive and together. Houses could be rebuilt, material things could be reacquired, but a life lost could not be recovered. Death left gaping holes in the lives of those left behind, which no form of insurance could ever cover.
And how well he knew that to be fact.
Despite their best efforts, there was still no child. But they had gone on, the two of them still completely in love, with Max continuing to look after them and the house. Standing there with only the blackened canyon stone walls to remind them of what had been, there was relief for him at being childless. It would be easier to regroup without having to worry about resettling a baby, too. Something like losing its home in that way could scar a kid for years, maybe even forever.
After they took the rented house Max found for them at the beach in Malibu and started over, he noticed Max beginning to slow down. It was as if losing their Bel Air home had taken something out of him. When his energy decreased to where he would have to sit and catch his breath when out walking the dog or working around the house, Max attributed it to his advanced age. But then he began rapidly losing weight, becoming a fragile ghost of the considerable man he had once been. He also developed a hard, rasping cough. Despite her fussing at him about it, nothing deterred his incessant cigar smoking.
“You can’t teach a old dog new tricks, Mrs. H. I been doin’ this since I was a snot-nosed kid in knee pants. I ain’t about to stop now. If somethin’s wrong, it’s gonna be wrong.”
And it was very wrong. Lung cancer. What had been Max’s perpetual pleasure, ultimately led to his demise.
There were things one desired that no amount of money could buy. Things broke that no amount of effort could fix. Life figured among those things. After kissing both of them goodbye and being wheeled away to undergo a last-ditch surgery none of them felt in their hearts would be successful, Max left them. Before the doctor came out to tell them he was actually gone, he felt Max’s hand squeeze his shoulder and heard his voice in is head.
“You got it from here, kid. You’re gonna be all right. Just keep playin’ your hunches and make sure to take special good care of that sure thing you got next to you. You two got a whole lot of living in front of you to do.”
As they later collected his personal effects from the hospital room, she found Max’s flask and a cigar he apparently intended to toke if he pulled through.
Standing alone at the grave after the funeral service, in a requested period of privacy, he smoked that very cigar himself, the ashes and his tears falling to and becoming part of the freshly turned earth. When it was done, he got down on his knees and with his hands, he buried the butt of it in the earth that covered the man. It was what Max would have wanted.
Then he went to find her and return to the rest of his life. It was what Max would have told him to do.
How much was a man supposed to take? First Max, now her.
It hadn’t even been quite three months since Max had been gone, and now it was her. If something happened to her, they might as well prepare two plots. In the waiting room, unable to remain seated, he paced, much to the consternation of the other people waiting to be seen and the ones working behind the desk.
He didn’t give a damn. They didn’t understand how much effort it took to keep from screaming, crying, kicking that closed door in and rushing to the back to see what in the world was taking so long. They couldn’t understand she was all he ever wanted, and all he had left. Nothing else mattered. They were a pair, like swans, matched up for life. Nothing and nobody else mattered.
She had been despondent, then lethargic ever since the funeral. Even the trip to Montreal, which Max arranged for them to take as part of his will, hadn’t made it any better for her. On the outside, she was herself, but as time passed, he could tell that increasingly, she was forcing it. Then, once they returned home to California, she couldn’t even fake it any more. All she did was sleep.
Still lovely, she was becoming gaunt; the light and life dulling in her amber eyes. Under the most normal circumstances, if busy on a project or upset over something, it didn’t take much for her to lose weight. Never a heavy eater, preoccupied with worrying and caring for them, she had very little appetite since those last days Max was with them. She had even less of one once Max passed away.
They were in Montreal at Max’s final bequest for over two months. They would have stayed longer, but alarmed by her physical symptoms, he wanted her home, nearer to her own physicians. She abhorred doctors and medicine in general, and aside from going in for routine maintenance, she worked hard at staying healthy and fit in order to avoid them.
So, she fought him on seeing the doctor over this latest irregularity.
“It’s a bug, Jonathan.”
“I haven’t been taking my vitamins like I should.”
“Baby, I’m just tired. I’ll rest a bit, and then I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t need a doctor, Jonathan. I wish you wouldn’t worry over me. It’s just a bug.”
But for once, he insisted she do what he said. He made that appointment- not his secretary, helped her get dressed for it, and put her in the car to bring take her himself, to keep it.
Any time a phone rang, and she was lying right next to it but couldn’t wake up to answer it, there was something very wrong with her.
He needed to know what it was and what could be done to help her before things went any farther. It took all he the reserve he had to not argue with her when she insisted on going to the back alone to be seen by the doctor.
“Mr. Hart.” He stopped pacing and looked around to the woman at the desk with the intercom receiver to her ear. “Dr. Kendall says you can come to the back now.”
Fighting the near-paralyzing fear, he forced himself to move, sure he must look like a wooden soldier to anyone looking on, toward the nurse holding open the door to the treatment area. It was the most terrified he could ever recall feeling in his entire life.
She was asleep again.
All she did was sleep, but now it was fine that she did.
They were on the floor, resting with pillows and a blanket before the fire he built. She liked snuggling on a hearth; she always had. Doing so seemed to settle her, and because it soothed her, it soothed him.
With her head nestled in his lap, her soft snores like the purr of a contented cat, he delighted in running his fingers through her lush auburn mane. In the remote background, the Pacific pounded outside the full length windows behind them as he studied her face. She was rosy again, and he bent to kiss the cheek that was fuller than ever, her freckled nose, and those sweet lips that were now even sweeter.
It wouldn’t be long before they were home again. He specified to the builders that he wanted the fireplaces put back in the great room, the kitchen, and the first floor den on Willow Pond just as they had been before the fire. She was especially fond of the horseshoe-shaped hearth in the kitchen. He wanted the entire house just as it had been when they had all lived there so happily together. The plans gone over in great detail, he was on site every day making sure everything would be done in time.
On the grate sat a crystal ashtray, and in it rested a cigar still encased in its cellophane wrapping. It was right where Max had placed it. This time next year, that ashtray and cigar would be back where the two of them supposed to be, and so would they.
Bringing the car to a stop in its place in the driveway, for a moment he marveled at how it seemed nothing had changed, although in reality, so much had. The front door was an exact replica for the original. The house itself had been entirely rebuilt, appearing on the outside exactly the same as the first one. He spared no expense at putting everything back the way it had been. The lady next to him deserved it that way.
As he opened her door, watching her gather her formal gown around her shapely ankles to get it out from under her feet, he was reminded of the first time he brought her “home” with him to that penthouse in London. Although Max had no idea of their having gotten back together after her “arrest,” much less that he was bringing her back with him, he had been mysteriously absent that evening. Even so, before vacating the suite, Max left a set-up for him in his bedroom, complete with caviar and a chilled bucket of champagne.
She had been as willing as he, all systems go, but then he fell asleep on her. What the hell? Jet lag-really? Or some of Anastasia’s people’s divine intervention?
After all, how many times had she said to him, “Do not rush the things that are important to you, Jonathan. If they are to be, they will be in their own time, not yours.”
Watching her as she got out, he almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of his out-of-the-blue nap on that particular night; considering the kind of guy he was at the time, how sexily inebriated she had been, it was downright flabbergasting. Now, ten years later, with the passing of time and so much having happened between them, it was astounding how much more lovely and sexy she had become. Maybe it was because so much happened.
Perhaps it was due to the absolute bond they now shared between them.
Walking behind her up to the house, he shook his head in silent correction of his own thoughts. No, it was because she actually was that much more beautiful. She had matured; her lines, her curves and her physical features, were now so much more defined, polished, so familiar.
Inside the door, she flipped the switch and illuminated the foyer as well as the oak staircase, the foyer’s dominant feature. It led to the second floor, the bedrooms and the hall that overlooked the downstairs. It, too, replicated the first one before it was reduced to mostly ashes. The entire foyer and great room were duplicates, as well. The only things present from the original house were the stone walls backing that staircase, the great room’s fireplace and its connecting floor-to-ceiling wall. The soot had been sandblasted from the embedded canyon stone, leaving no sign of the devastation through which they survived.
Only the furnishings of the house were plainly different. As they were taking their time to secure replacement pieces, the rooms were still rather Spartan in comparison to how they once appeared.
He recalled her whispered promise on their first night back as they lie in the new bed together, “We’ll have fun getting everything the way we want it for this time around, just like we did the first time, you’ll see.”
She stepped out of her shoes, and from her spot on the first stair, she turned to face him.
“Thank you,” her tone and the look in her eyes saying she had an idea where his thoughts were. “It’s wonderful to be back. I love you so much for this.”
In response, he merely smiled. There were no words to express all he felt.
She worked her fingers under his bow tie, loosening it. “While you light the fire, I’ll go change, and then I’ll meet you back down here.”
Taking hold of both ends of the tie, she pulled him toward her to plant a soft, inviting kiss to his lips before picking up her shoes and leaving him to watch her make her ascent and disappear in the darkness past the landing.
In the great room, he removed his tuxedo jacket and other unnecessary accessories before rolling up his sleeves to arrange the wood in the grate. Then turning on the jets, he sat down on the hearth to watch the flames. The crystal astray with the cigar still resting in it caught his eye, and he again thought of Max. A year gone by, and it wasn’t the same without him; it never would be, but one of the most important things he learned from Max was life itself was about change. And growth.
“Can’t grow if you don’t change,” he would say. “Gotta be willin’ to accept change. Roll with the punches, punch back when you have to, and learn to reca’nize a blessin’ when it’s starin’ you in the face.”
He had taken those words to heart many years before, and they held him in good stead. The proof was all around him, but still he missed that old man, the sound of his voice, and the scent of his cigar. Though it was true that smoking contributed to his leaving, it had also been an indicator of the kind of man Max had been. He did what he wanted to do, he lived his life his way, then he accepted, without complaint or regret, the consequences when the time came.
“Ya’ gotta go, ya’ gotta go. It’s been good, kid. I got no gripes, no complaints. I’m satisfied cuz I got you to leave behind to say I done some good while I was here. I’m so proud of you.”
At the time, he thought he would die himself, hearing Max so easily accepting his own life’s end. What a man.
Sitting there thinking about him, it felt good to know Max saw him as a job done well in his life. It was for sure he would always be grateful to Max for intervening in his.
He heard Jennifer on the steps and thought he heard her saying something. Junior bounded into the room, headed right to him, and scrambled to climb up in his lap. After scratching the dog’s ears a second, he got up from his seat on the hearth and moved to the couch in order to meet his wife.
She had taken her hair down and changed into a matching blue satin robe and gown. In her arms, she carried a baby.
“Look who I found standing at the side of her crib when I went in to check on her.”
The little girl in her arms saw him, grinned, and immediately reached her arms out for him, calling, “Da-da!”
Jennifer handed her down to him along with the warm bottle and the blanket she also brought down.
“How’s daddy’s girl?” he said to the squirming and giggling seven month old as he held her up to kiss her rosy cheeks before he cradled her in the crook of his arm to admire her.
Dressed in soft pink sleepers, she was already pretty, resembling her mother, complete with the red hair and the big, “gorgeous” smile. It was her bright eyes of blue, though, that so touched his heart.
“How come Daddy’s little J. isn’t asleep? You’re beating my time being down here like this, you know.”
Despite his feigned frowning down at her, the baby laughed up at him, forcing him to chuckle at her innocent disregard for his dilemma.
“Hell, little girl, you’re cutting into my action. I had serious plans for your mommy.”
“Jonathan,” Jennifer chided as she took her place on the couch next to him, “you are awful. You’re the one who says she understands everything you say, and then you tell her something like that. She’s already beginning to talk. When she ends up parroting you, saying ‘hell’, and embarrassing you in public, you’ll only have yourself to blame.”
He held the bottle up to the baby so she could see it.
“We don’t care about stuff like that, do we, J.J. Hart?” He winked at her, receiving a big, four-toothed grin from her in return.
When he put the nipple to her mouth, she took the bottle from him and began to suckle it in earnest. Jennifer moved in closer, tucking her legs and bare feet underneath the long gown, laying her head against his shoulder and smoothing their daughter’s curls with her fingers.
“Max would have loved her, wouldn’t he?” she said, again making him wonder if she had a line on where his mind had been most of the evening. “Can you imagine, us going out and him baby-sitting for her?”
In answer, he nodded, watching the child fight the sleep slowly overtaking her the more her tummy filled. “We would have found him right here. The two of them, right here in my spot when we came in. If he was still with us, we would have had to fight him all the time for a chance to get to her.”
In his mind, he heard him.
“Everything in it’s own time, kid. If you invest in yourself up front, it’ll pay off in the end.”
It had. In spades.
“Funny how she showed up right as he was leaving,” Jennifer said through a yawn. “Like he sent her to take his place.”
“Nobody can take his place,” he replied, “but she’s certainly made one of her own. I never would have thought one little person like this could take up so much space in my heart.”
“I didn’t either.”
He liked hearing Jennifer say that after having resisted the idea of a child in their lives for so long. When conception finally happened, it and the resultant pregnancy were totally unexpected. By the time it occurred, they had given up on the idea of children. Max was gone, and then, like magic, there she was, Jennifer’s mystery “bug”, quietly growing inside her mother, on her way to meet the world, Justine Jennifer Hart, his “J.J.”
For a while they sat without talking. The fire crackled, filling the room with the sweet fragrance of burning wood. Jennifer eventually began to sag against him, her body growing heavier. The baby, too, fell asleep after letting go of the empty bottle and turning her face into the warmth of his chest. He covered her with the blanket, feeling it in his entire being, the tiny hand curled tightly around his finger.
Not long after, Marie, and old friend of Max’s, now their housekeeper, entered the great room on the way to her own rooms off the kitchen. She had gone up the back way to check on the nursery, discovered her charge missing, and had come down to check on them- mostly on Jennifer, who she adored- and then to go back to bed.
Cushioning Jennifer with a couple of couch pillows, he rose and took the baby to a spot before the fireplace where he placed her and the blanket on the carpet between two couch pillows, tucking them around her. Before leaving her, he smoothed her curls and kissed her forehead, whispering, “Daddy loves you,” in her ear.
He finally had a child, a daughter, someone to link them to and represent them in the future, as Max wanted. J.J. Hart was his solid, tangible, permanent link to Jennifer, which was what he wanted from the beginning of their love affair. When they were gone, she would remain as a symbol of the strong and loving bond three people once shared. If it hadn’t been for Max, he wouldn’t have met Jennifer and been in a position to ask her to become a part of his life. If it hadn’t been for Jennifer, there wouldn’t have been that child.
He put the house back together for Jennifer, but more so for that little one on the floor. She would be raised there, in the place he, Jennifer, and Max spent so many happy, fulfilling years. One day, it and the estate would pass to her. It was his gift to her for completing his life. Just as Max told him, he put in the time, invested wisely in himself, and reaped everything he ever wished for as a lonely, ragged orphan growing up in San Francisco.
Returned to the couch, he checked his watch, sat down, pulled Jennifer into his arms and then stretched out next to her. With her head resting on his chest, he stroked her hair and let his hand roam over her body. Even to touch her, she was still beautiful and all the woman he needed.
From where he lie on his back, his head elevated by the pillow underneath it, he could see the sleeping baby. Junior lie curled up on the floor next to her. Light from the flames danced off the crystal ashtray with that cigar resting in and reflected on the reddish-gold of the baby’s hair.
Just as he closed his eyes, his watch chimed on his arm, and he reached to turn it off with the other hand.
“Happy New Year, darling,” she whispered up to him, kissing his cheek.
With his finger under her chin, he lifted her face to his. “Happy New Year to you, my darling,” he answered before he dipped his lips to hungrily find hers.
Through the other myriad sensations the kiss sent coursing through him, he felt her fingers working at unfastening the buttons on his shirt and then her hand sliding inside to caress his chest in that certain way she had of doing it. Nothing could change how good it was between them.
“What if she wakes up?” he murmured.
“She sleeps pretty hard, but if she does,” she crooned from inside his shirt, her warm breath on his skin stirring tickling chills down his spine, “then she’ll be wondering what the hell is going on. And with those baby blues she got from her daddy, taking lessons from mommy on what to do- in the distant future- with a good man.”
The outrageous response had him grinning into her hair. Nobody on earth like his Jennifer, the one who swept him off his feet.
A new home, a new baby, her life full of possibilities and potential, there were changes all the way around. A lot was new, but like those stone walls that remained after the inferno that took the rest, nothing truly important or lasting had changed. As Max said, there was still a whole lot of living to be done in front of them, as well as a whole lot of loving. It was the start of their first full year celebrated as a family and the beginning of their new lives.
As Jennifer’s touches grew more urgent and his own body began to respond in kind, with his eyes still closed, he relaxed, and surrendered his mind to matters in the moment.
But before giving in to his impulses completely, he realized the smell of cigar subtly mixed in with the fragrance from the burning logs.
Opening one eye to peek at the baby, it might have been an odd illusion caused by the light from the flames, or perhaps, maybe the heat of the moment, but for a second there he could have sworn he saw a small cloud of smoke hovering over her head like a protective halo.