DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com

All Shiny and New
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

Valentine's Day, 2012. Archbishop Polniaczek's Penthouse – Central Park West.

Blair woke with the dawn light, stretched, smiled beatifically as she greeted another day.

She looked around the comfortably appointed master bedroom. This was a room that Blair shared with Jo when Jo was in town, but it was really Blair's room – her special sanctuary, especially now that Jo was spending so much more time in Manhattan, and had virtually taken over the study.

Senator Jo Polniaczek's assistant Paramita had had all sorts of high-tech teleconferencing equipment installed in the study, and Jo had insisted on installing a massive flat-screen television with picture-in-picture and digital recording capabilities and all sorts of bells and whistles that Blair neither understood nor cared about.

"Have to have a big TV in there," Jo had explained reasonably. "Part of being a public servant. Need to keep abreast of public affairs."

Blair had smiled indulgently – but knowingly. "Of course, darling," she'd said.

As anticipated, the "public affairs" with which Jo needed to keep abreast somehow turned out to be sporting events, or programs on the History channel, or SyFy programs …

Jo had wanted to install a massive flat screen in the master bedroom, but Blair had firmly demurred.

"The bed room is a place of peace and meditation," Blair had said. "And of romance, when you're in town. We don't need a flat screen blaring half the night with sweaty athletes running around and space ships blowing things up."

"Sure," Jo had acquiesced gallantly. "Whatever you want, babe. Romance beats Syfy any day, when it's romance with you." She'd leaned in for a kiss …

There was a small television in the bedroom, an ancient little set that still operated via rabbit ear antennae. On it Blair watched the local news, and talking-head political programs (especially when Jo was being interviewed) and an early morning yoga stretch class. Blair was finding it increasingly difficult to do the stretches, but she found the program soothing, especially its meditative flute music.

This morning Blair sat up slowly and leaned forward. Her belly was so big now – So big now, she thought, and the baby won't even be here for another two-and-a-half months!

She snapped on the television. Gentle flute music filled the room. Blair watched the yoga instructor on the screen, and from the comfort of the big master bed made a half-hearted effort to imitate the stretching motions and arm waves.

After a moment Blair caught sight of herself in her vanity's gilt mirror. She laughed ruefully. Good Lord – I'll never make it on Broadway with moves like that! Luckily, making it on Broadway had never interested her. She'd always left show business to Tootie and Geri.

Blair smiled at her reflection. Her moves weren't so hot, but –

You've still got it, kid, she thought.

Her smile was toothy, without being too toothy. Yes, she was plump – plumper every day, it seemed, as her and Jo's child grew inside her. But Jo's unconditional love and lust were helping Blair to come to terms with the weight. And the warm, beautiful, milk-chocolate eyes; the tip-tilted nose; the perfectly sculpted cheeks and kittenish chin; the perfectly plucked dark brows – All of Blair's trademark beauties were still in place.

Only her long blonde locks were missing. She had shorn them, cut them herself on impulse last autumn during one of Jo's visits.

Blair had liked the results so much that she was keeping her hair short, beautifully layered silver tresses like a sleek cap that her hairdresser Damon kept in trim. It was so much easier to wash her hair now, taking minutes instead of nearly an hour! And, as Jo said, "It makes you look smoking hot, your grace."

There was a light tapping on the door, and then it swung open.

Jo stood in the doorway, balancing a tray of scrambled eggs, bacon, cranberry juice, chamomile tea, toast and marmalade and a silver vase holding a single red rose.

Jo beamed.

Christ! she thought, her breath catching in her throat. Blair's so beautiful. And I love her so damn much …

"Happy Valentine's Day," Jo said, voice husky. She placed the tray on the bed next to her wife, and then sat down next to the tray.

"Happy Valentine's Day, darling," said Blair. "This is lovely." She took the red rose from the vase, inhaled its scent, pressed the soft petals against her cheek. She eyed the breakfast appreciatively. "Really lovely, darling."

"Sure," said Jo, grinning, "because Rory cooked it. I thought you might want an edible breakfast today. To build up your strength. And stamina. And energy. All of which," Jo waggled her eyebrows, suddenly mischievous "you are going to need today."

Blair lifted an eyebrow. "Is that so?"

"Yes. That's so."

"Only today? What about tonight?"

"You're going to need all your energy for the next twenty-four hours," promised Jo. "After services this morning, you're mine, babe – all mine. Unconditionally, irrevocably and passionately. Well – until Tootie's party tonight."

"Then you might want to help me eat this breakfast," said Blair, eyes sparkling. "Because you, also, are going to need strength, Senator. And stamina. And energy."

"Do tell."

Blair handed Jo a slice of crisp bacon.

"You'll notice," Jo said, "that we are breaking our fast with real bacon this morning. Turkey bacon has been banished for the next twenty-four hours in honor of our mythic love."

"You'll notice," said Blair, lifting a slice of crisp bacon to her own lips, "that I have no objections."

Jo laughed. She kissed her very pregnant wife on the cheek.

"Wow," said Jo. "Twenty-eight Valentine's Days. Can you believe it, babe?"

"This morning," said Blair, putting a hand to her belly, "I can."

"Is the kid kicking yet this morning?" asked Jo.

"No. Not yet. The baby's still asleep."

Jo tilted kissed Blair's belly. "I'm glad you wanted to wait to find out," said Jo. "About whether we're having a boy or girl. It'll be nice to be surprised."

"Yes. I'm glad you agreed," said Blair.

"Well, boy or girl, the kid seems to sleep in pretty late," Jo observed. "Must take after you, babe."

Blair lifted her eyebrows.

"In our younger days, that is," Jo said hastily. "Ah, by which I mean, not younger days, but, ah, in our school days." Wow, really digging myself in deep here! "Remember how at Eastland you'd sleep so late, you'd have to rush down to the kitchen at the last minute? And you'd still be half asleep, and you'd screw up all the orders?"

Blair nibbled delicately at her slice of bacon. "Darling … Those are not the types of reminiscences that a wife wants to hear on Valentine's Day."

"Aren't they?"

"No. What about something romantic?"

Jo smiled. "Well … How about when you used to wear those little kerchiefs, like Ally McBeal, and bring me peanut butter sandwiches between classes at Langley? That was sweet – and might I add, extremely hot."

Blair shook her head. "Ali MacGraw darling, Ali MacGraw – not Ally McBeal. And you just reminded me … 'Love Story' is on Channel 3 this afternoon. We're going to curl up and watch it together."

Jo groaned. "Babe, look –"

"No, preppie – you're not talking our way out of it," Blair said firmly.

"Preppie? You're calling me preppie?" asked Jo.

"Who has the Harvard Law degree, like Ryan O'Neal's character?"

"Touché," Jo said reluctantly. "Though if I'd known that would give you an excuse to call me 'preppie' I would have gone to Yale."

"Yale is still an Ivy, preppie. You know that."

"If you promise to stop calling me 'preppie', I promise to watch stupid 'Love Story'," Jo offered.

"Done – although you never really had a choice."

"I know, babe. But it's nice of you to humor me."

"Yes. It is. Now let's think about other romantic memories."

"The gay pizza place near Jerome," suggested Jo. "Dancing at the bar in the Village. When you gave me that little silver cross for Christmas."

"When you proposed to me," Blair said dreamily. "At the Plaza."

"Oh. Yeah," said Jo. She grinned. "Not much can top that one."

"It took us so long to be able to marry," said Blair. "But we knew – way back then we knew …"

Jo leaned forward, touched her forehead to Blair's. She gazed deeply into her wife's eyes. "Blair, let's renew our vows. Here. In New York. Now that it's legal here. I mean, a couple of New Yorkers like us … Let's make our vows in the Big Apple. Let's not even wait till the kid is born. One of your pals can officiate."

"Yes – if by 'one of my pals' you mean one of my colleagues."

"I do."

Jo climbed off the bed. One of her knees made a slight creaking sound. She knelt by the bedside, flashing that slightly crooked megawatt smile that Blair had always loved. Jo extended one hand.

"Blair Polniaczek, will you marry me again, in Manhattan, in the presence of all of our assorted wacky friends and family?"

"Of course," Blair said softly, touched.

Jo had presented the proposal lightly enough, almost as a lark, but Blair heard the serious undertone.

"Of course I will, Jo," Blair said again. "Name the time and place and I'll be there. I'll be the one in white, looking like a silk zeppelin."

Jo chuckled. "You're going to wear white again?"

"It is traditional," Blair said reasonably.

"Babe, I can't believe you wore white for the first wedding, considering how many times we've ravished each other over the years. And now you're going to wear white for the vow renewal, looking twenty-months pregnant? Some crazy virgin you'll be!"

"Darling," Blair said reproachfully, "I'll admit to looking twenty-months pregnant, but every woman is a virgin on her wedding day – no matter how many times she marries."

"Not me," Jo said cheerfully. "I lost my virginity to the prettiest girl on campus in 1983. My virginity is long gone, and good riddance!"

"Be sure to mention that at the Celibacy Luncheon next week," Blair said ironically.

"The what?" asked Jo.

"The Celibacy Luncheon. I told you about it."

"Told me about it when?" Jo asked suspiciously.

"Last weekend. It's possible you were … drifting off," Blair said, with an innocent shrug.

"Drifting off? I must've been stone-cold unconscious! Blair – you've got me escorting you to a Celibacy Luncheon?"

"Unless you want me to take someone else as my date," said Blair. "I'm sure there are dozens of charming women who would be happy to escort me."

"Babe, I'm sure there are hundreds. But … Celibacy Luncheon? What the hell is that, anyway?"

"It's part of an initiative I'm co-chairing with Rabbi Bramowitz. We're discussing the benefits of celibacy with a panel of religious leaders."

"So … Let me be sure I have this right. I have to sit next to you and keep a straight face while you discuss the benefits of celibacy? Red-blooded, couldn't-wait-to-get-into-my-pants, hang-onto-your-hat Blair Polniaczek is telling people to keep it buttoned up?"

"It's about teen celibacy," Blair clarified. "Teen celibacy, darling. As in, trying to convince young teens to wait."

"Oh." Jo nodded. "OK. Got it. Paramita and I were just talking about that the other day, matter of fact. We're trying to build sex education options into the health bill."

Blair squeezed her wife's hand. " Jo – do you realize how much you've done for children and teens since you've been in office?"

Jo grimaced. "Not enough. Not nearly enough. It always feels like two steps forward and three steps back. One bill passes, another gets strangled in committee, another gets chopped up and bastardized beyond recognition."

"Even so."

"I guess. I mean, yes, we've made a little dent. At least the, ah –" Jo felt her throat suddenly tighten, felt tears prick her eyes, "at least we pushed the Suicide Prevention measure through."

"Darling," whispered Blair. She pulled Jo to her breast. A tear slid down Jo's cheek. "Shh." Blair stroked Jo's dark, perfectly coiffed hair.

"Sorry," said Jo. "It's just – it always hits me, right around Valentine's Day. I always remember."

"Of course," said Blair. "We all remember."

"Everyone should have someone to talk to," Jo said thickly. "No one should ever feel it's so damn dark that they have to –" She shivered. She burrowed against Blair. "All right. Enough of that. We've got a vow renewal ceremony to plan, Mrs. Polniaczek."

Blair continued to stroke Jo's hair. She kissed the top of her wife's head. "Let's just lie here awhile darling. I just want to hold you for awhile, and think about how lucky we are."

"We are lucky," Jo murmured. "But it wasn't just luck. It's been damn hard work sometimes too."

Blair laughed. "Darling – you are really putting your foot in your mouth today. And it's not even seven am yet. I'm sorry being with me has been such an arduous trial."

"You know what I mean. All the things we've had to deal with. But every second … Blair … I've never loved anyone like I love you. You're my soul mate. You're it, babe."

"So are you, Polniaczek," Blair said quietly. She traced Jo's face with one gentle fingertip.

They lay silently in each other's arms for several moments. And then –

"Jo?" said Blair.

"Yes?"

"What about an early morning roll in the hay?"

"Babe," said Jo, "I thought you'd never ask."

Jo's heart began to beat faster as her wife unbuttoned her pajama top, as gentle fingers brushed the swells of her breasts –

"No!" shouted a voice down the hallway. "Freaking forget it, you little troll!"

"But Brenda," said a young voice, "can't you even draw a little flower? Or a smiley face, or – "

"No! What the hell? Who cares about them anyway?"

Jo sighed.

Blair began buttoning her wife's pajama top.

"Tell me again why I haven't booted them out of here," said Jo. "Or left them at the circus."

"Darling."

"The one damn morning they wake up before noon – and it has to be Valentine's Day!" Jo groused.

"They're probably preparing a Valentine's Day surprise for us," suggested Blair.

"Forget it!" Way down the hall, Brenda was still shouting at her little brother. "What – are you freaking deaf? I told you I'm not signing the damn card!"

"Hmm," Jo told her wife drily. "A Valentine's Day surprise? Sounds like it's going to be a pip."

"It sounds like Syd is preparing a Valentine's Day surprise," Blair amended, "and Brenda is, ah, not exactly in the Valentine's Day spirit."

Jo put a hand to Blair's face, cupping it tenderly. "Babe, I know being tolerant and seeing the best in everyone is part of your vocation, as well as your nature, but when are you going to admit that Brenda is a straight-up pain in the ass?"

"She's not easy to deal with," Blair admitted.

"Babe, Al Capone wasn't 'easy to deal with'," said Jo. "Brenda is plain impossible. She's in her own class. She's a chip off her grandfather's block."

Blair shivered. "Jo – don't say that."

"I'm sorry." Jo kissed Blair's cheek. "But I call it like I see it."

Jo's mind darted darkly to something she had seen the day before: Brenda drawing a tattoo design on her forearm with a black marker. A circle of Celtic knots and shamrocks, a design all too familiar to Jo.

When Brenda had noticed Jo in the doorway, the teen had dropped the marker and pulled her sleeve down, covering the design. Doncha knock? Brenda had asked angrily. Not on the kitchen door, no, Jo had said drily …

"Brenda's not that bad, Jo – not really," said Blair. "She's just got that wild streak, like her father, and she doesn't know what to do with it yet. I just feel like, if you could connect with her – you're so good with teens –"

"I've tried," said Jo, shaking her head in mystified frustration. "I've tried. And tried. And freaking tried again. I just can't get through to her. And the road she's going down … It doesn't end well."

"We have to keep trying," Blair said reasonably. "I mean, what if our child has your rebellious streak?"

That made Jo chuckle. She ruffled Blair's silvery hair. "If the kid has my rebellious streak? What about your rebellious streak?"

"That too," Blair conceded demurely.

Jo put a gentle hand on Blair's belly. "However our kid turns out, we'll deal with it. Cause he or she will be our kid. But Brenda, you know, that's a situation Nat needs to deal with. And Nat should be here dealing with it."

"Nat is helping a war-torn developing nation."

"And that's great," said Jo. "But meantime, while Nat's off being all Mrs. Jellyby, her own daughter seems pretty war-torn inside. Christ – that can't be easy for Brenda. A dad who's always on the road, a ma who's always in the operating room, patching up other people – you combine that with the kid's shithouse-rat-crazy grandfather, and no wonder she's headed for juvie!"

Blair touched Jo's face. "You were headed for juvie," she observed.

Jo snorted. "I made it to juvie! For a few seconds, anyhow."

"But you straightened up and flew right."

"Thanks to my Ma. And Mrs. G. And you, of course."

"That's all I'm saying," said Blair. "When children are having problems, it really matters who's around them, what their influences are."

"But the kids have to be open to those influences," said Jo. "I was open to Ma, and Mrs. G, and you. Yeah," Jo chuckled, remembering some of her and Blair's choice arguments when they were girls at Eastland Academy. "Yeah … Even though we didn't see eye-to-eye, I was still open to you, babe."

"If you keep bugging me," Brenda shouted down the hall, "I'm gonna crack you one!"

Blair sighed.

"See?" said Jo. "I never threatened to hit a little kid, even at my worst. Brenda's got some real issues, and we aren't the ones to help her sort them out."

"But we've got to keep trying," said Blair.

"Sure." Jo shrugged. "I'm not saying we won't. But whenever the hell Nat decides to come home, I'm going to have a little chat with her."

She slipped off of the bed, stretched. Her back popped. "All right. Going to go say 'Good morning' to the kids and be sure Brenda doesn't really give little Syd a crack."

"You're a good woman, Jo Polniaczek," said Blair, eyes shining.

"Yeah. Yeah, I really am," Jo agreed.

Blair blew her a kiss.


Early February, 1985. Rose Polniaczek's Apartment – the Bronx.

Jo set her toolbox on the little table near the front door. She fastened all the chains, bolts and locks on the apartment's front door, and then stretched luxuriously.

"Jeez that feels good," Jo said. "I been hunched up all day workin on a pipe. There any coffee, babe?"

"Please. Of course there's coffee," Blair called from the kitchenette.

The blonde was washing dishes behind the counter. She still wore her pink polyester uniform from the Coffee Spot. Blair's golden hair was piled atop her head in what she called her "Flo the waitress" 'do.

"Darling," Blair continued, setting a damp plate in the drying rack, "when you have a fiancée who works at a coffee shop, there's always hot coffee."

Jo crossed to the kitchenette. There was a fresh pot of coffee on the stove, just as Blair had said.

"Hot dog! I could really use a cup," said Jo. She stretched again, yawned like a cat.

She sat on one of the tall kitchen stools, began to unbutton her slate blue coveralls. Her fingers were cramped from holding a wrench all day. It was too difficult to unfasten the coveralls; she stopped pulling at the buttons. I'll just keep the damn coveralls on till I take my shower …

Blair poured her lover a cup of fresh black coffee, pushed the mug across the counter.

"Kin I git ya anythin else, sunshine?" Blair drawled in her best down-home Texas accent. Blair patted her blonde up-do and batted her lashes at her fiancée.

Jo laughed. "Yeah – you sure can get me somethin else, hot stuff. But not right now, and not right here." Jo waggled her eyebrows roguishly.

"I do believe yer gittin fresh," teased Blair.

"Yup. Like it?"

"Y'all better believe I do," said the blonde. She smiled radiantly.

Jo sipped the coffee. "Wow," she said. "You're gettin really good with the coffee, babe."

"Why, thank you, darling," Blair said in her normal voice. Her cheeks flushed. Even after more than a year as a couple, praise from Jo still meant so much.

"How was your shift?" asked Jo.

"Not bad," said Blair. "Plenty of tips today."

Jo laughed. "You get a lotta tips every day. It's on account of bein a smokin hot babe."

"Hmm. I like to think it's because of my amazing waitress skills," said Blair.

"Whatever floats your boat, babe."

Blair washed her hands in the tiny sink, then wiped down the counter with a yellow-and-white-checked dishtowel. She hung the towel neatly on its peg.

"So – What are we doing tonight, darling? You haven't taken me anywhere in ages." Blair pushed her lower lip out in a mock-pout. "I'm starting to think you're getting tired of me."

"Never, babe." Jo took another sip of coffee. "And – surprise, surprise – I actually got somethin on tap for us tonight."

"Intriguing. Such as?"

"Such as, Jess and Pauly invited us out for pizza."

Blair smiled. Pauly – Jo's sweet, shy cousin. He had been in Blair's good graces since helping her scour the Bronx for Jo's motorcycle. "How is Pauly doing these days?" Blair asked.

"Gettin straight B's and C's," Jo said proudly. "Thinkin of bein a teacher. A teacher! Cousin Pauly, the Largo screw-up." Jo chuckled affectionately. "Kid really turned out to be a late bloomer."

"I can see him as a teacher," Blair said thoughtfully. She poured herself a cup of black coffee. "He's so gentle and patient. And he'll understand the children. He won't talk down to them."

"So – that a 'yes' on supper with Jess and Pauly? We go out for pizza with 'em, you can talk to Pauly all about him bein a teacher."

Blair made a slight face. "What about Jesse?" she asked.

"Aw, for cryin out loud – Jesse's fine with you."

"Hmm," Blair said skeptically. "I notice she still calls me 'Farrah' whenever we meet."

"Babe … She's always gonna call you 'Farrah'. But it's kinda become, like, a term of endearment. Sorta. Kinda."

Blair snorted.

"No kiddin," said Jo. "Look, in her own way, Jesse's tryin to be supportive. It, ah, was gonna be a surprise, but I'll just tell you now – Jesse found an honest-to-God gay pizza joint in the Bronx."

"She what?"

"And I quote: 'Hey, Jo, found a lezzie pizza parlor just off Jerome. Bring the little woman tonight.'"

Blair shook her head. "Are you sure that's a direct quote? Jesse isn't usually that charming."

"Babe."

"Well … She's not. Since when does Jesse refer to me as 'the little woman'? What happened to 'Blondezilla'?"

"Ha!" Jo chuckled. "'Blondezilla'! That Jess – she's a card. Although," Jo cleared her throat as she noticed Blair's hard stare, "uh, 'Blondezilla' is not, ah, an appropriate nickname. Totally not cool. Though I ain't exactly seen you signin up to be president of Jesse's fan club."

Blair opened her mouth to deliver a witty retort – but Jo had a point. "True," Blair admitted.

"And you know, babe, it doesn't do you any harm to know a few people who don't fawn all over you and fall under your dazzlin spell. Helps to keep you a little humble."

Blair lowered her head. She gave Jo another hard stare.

"Er, not that, you know, everyone shouldn't fall under your spell and stuff," Jo clarified. "You are the most beautiful, amazin, perfect –"

Blair waved one hand impatiently. "Yes," she said. "I am. And I do like people to acknowledge that. But if you say Jesse is really trying, in her own way –"

"She is," Jo assured her. "Jess just has to bust everybody's chops. You see how she razzes me. It's part of the local culture, if you will. And long as we're livin here, you gotta go with the flow, babe."

Blair sighed. "Very well. A night of pizza and beer at the gay pizza joint near Jerome."

"Great," grinned Jo. "We'll make a real night of it! Bring some of your tip loot."

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Darling, all of my 'tip loot', as you so eloquently put it, has already been placed safely in the Joanne Marie Polniaczek Educational Trust."

Jo glanced at the battered Folgers Coffee can on the shelf over the sink.

"Of course," Jo said softly. That's Blair she thought. The blonde's hard-earned tips went right into Jo's education fund. "I'm treatin you at the pizza joint," said Jo. "Your ducats ain't no good tonight."

"Darling, that's lovely of you," Blair said approvingly. "Especially since at the moment I am without ducats of any description."

Jo looked around the small apartment. "So … when's Ma comin home?"

"She's pulling a double-shift," said Blair. "She won't be home until after midnight."

"Interestin," said Jo. "Hmm. Very, very interestin."

She leaned across the counter to kiss her fiancée.

Blair wrinkled her nose and pulled back. "Jo – You need a shower. Now."

Jo laughed. "So – the honeymoon's finally over! A little B.O. and now I'm banished to the shower without even gettin a little lip action."

"It's not B.O.," complained Blair. "Your B.O. I can handle. Darling, it smells like you've been working on a septic tank."

"Busted sewer pipe," Jo corrected.

Blair shuddered. "Jo, you're taking a shower before you get any closer."

"I'm clean," said Jo. "It's just, you know, the fumes get into the coveralls."

"Well you're getting into the shower," Blair said firmly, "before the fumes get on me. And the coveralls go into the hamper. We'll wash a load of laundry before we go out tonight."

Jo scowled. "I had a lot more excitin plans for us before we go out tonight than stupid laundry."

Blair gave her lover a frankly wicked smile. "Darling … All sorts of things can happen in the laundry room."

Jo's mouth went dry. "Uh … Really?"

Blair nodded. "No one in this building ever seems to wash their laundry in the late afternoon. It's a very private time of day down there."

Jo swallowed. She had an image of her and Blair, bare legs twined together, rocking hard against one of the dilapidated old machines. The image sent an instant jolt of electricity between her legs.

"We, ah, we couldn't get caught," Jo said huskily. "We'd all get booted outta here – includin poor Ma."

"No one's 'gettin booted outta' anywhere," Blair said reassuringly. "We'll be very discrete … and very naughty."

"Promise?"

"Promise. Now go take your shower."

"Aye-aye," Jo said, grinning like a goofball …

Blair was right – wonderfully right – Jo discovered, about the laundry room in the late afternoon. It was a grim place with shadowy corners, weepy concrete walls and an almost overpowering aroma of bleach, but it was deserted.

While a load of laundry whirled about in one of the dented washing machines, Jo wedged a chair under the door knob, effectively barring anyone from surprising them.

When Jo turned back to her lover, she saw Blair leaning seductively against one of the machines. Blair had somehow shucked out of her blouse in five-point-two seconds, and stood there in her silky purple bra, hands on her hips, breasts thrust provocatively in Jo's general direction.

Jo grinned.

She walked slowly toward her fiancée, placed her hands on Blair's generous hips. Jo pulled Blair hard against her.

"I missed you today," Jo said quietly.

"Just today?" teased Blair.

"Every day. You know that. You know every minute away from you, it's like …" Jo couldn't find the exact words. She leaned forward, tenderly kissed the blonde. Blair returned the kiss, tongue flicking over Jo's tongue, arms sliding around Jo's shoulders …

They kissed for long moments, slowly, sensuously. Their moods were often evenly matched and today they wanted to take it slow, to savor every moment.

Eventually Jo dexterously unbuttoned Blair's jeans, never breaking their kiss, and slid the jeans down over her lover's generous derriere. Jo slipped her hands into Blair's silky panties, first cupping Blair's ass, then moving her hands slowly around to the front, to the fine patch of light brown ("dark blonde", Blair always insisted) hair between Blair's legs.

Jo deepened the kiss while one thumb found Blair's clitoris, began pressing the nub in light little circles.

Blair gasped and then moaned into her lover's mouth.

Jo's other hand found Blair's sex, gently stroked the damp lips, and then slid gently inside …

Blair groaned. She leaned back against the washing machine. Jo ducked her head and trailed kisses down Blair's soft throat, bit at the blonde's collar bone. Blair's hips rocked, faster and faster.

"Darling … deeper …" murmured Blair.

Jo knit her fingers and pressed them deeper into her fiancée. Blair's hips rocked harder. Jo's hand moved in easy, practiced motions, matching her lover's pace.

The brunette kissed the hollow between Blair's breasts, the swell of the left breast, and then fastened on the silky fabric that covered one of Blair's large, dark nipples. Blair hissed in pleasure as Jo took the nipple in her mouth through the silk. Jo felt the nipple stand at attention …

Blair whimpered a little. Blair's hips were rocking wildly now, but Jo could tell by her lover's movements, by her sounds, that she still wasn't on the edge of coming.

Jo shifted, pulled her hand out of Blair's panties.

"No …" murmured Blair. "Please …"

"Shh. It's all right," Jo whispered.

Jo lifted Blair up onto the machine. She gently spread her lover's legs, then bent and pressed her mouth to Blair's wet, musky-sweet sex, darted her tongue inside.

"Oh! Jo!" Blair arched her back. Her hands tangled in Jo's long dark hair. "Jo's that's … yes … yes! If you … deeper, darling … yes!"

Wow – hope no one's right outside the laundry room door, thought Jo. Because there would be no other way for anyone to interpret Blair's words and tone than those of a young woman just about to come in a wild spasm of delight!

Jo drove her tongue deeper into her lover. She loved how Blair tasted. It drove her crazy with desire. Jo was aching between her own legs now, aching and wet. The brunette pressed one thumb on Blair's clitoris again, stroking and pressing the little bud just so. With the other hand she reached for Blair's left breast, slid her palm under the silk, rolled her hand over the large breast and it's large, aroused nipple …

"Aaaaaahhhh!!!" Blair cried, head falling back in ecstasy, golden hair whipping about. "Yes, yes, yes!!!!!!"

After she came, Blair slumped back against the controls of the washing machine, dazed. Jo kissed her way slowly up Blair's belly, past the dark scar from Dina Becker's murderous attack, up to the beautiful breasts. Jo kissed them gently; she cupped Blair's face with her slender hands.

"You're so beautiful," Jo whispered. "You're so beautiful when you come, babe."

"Yes," Blair agreed, half-asleep.

Jo laughed fondly. She laid her head on Blair's generous bosom, which glowed with a faint sheen of sweat. Blair's chest rose and fell slowly as she dozed. Jo listened to her lover's heart beat …

When Blair roused herself, Jo had stripped off her jeans and blouse. The brunette grinned wickedly at Blair. The blonde's eyes roved appreciatively over Jo's slim, athletic body, the narrow waist, the surprisingly pert breasts peeking out of her sports bra.

"Whaddya think?" asked Jo. "See anythin ya like, babe?"

Blair answered by reaching toward her fiancée, taking Jo's hands and pulling the brunette toward her. Blair kissed Jo's hands, the slender fingers and then the slightly callused palms.

"I love you, Jo," said Blair. "Sometimes …"

"Sometimes what?" asked Jo. She kissed Blair's tip-tilted nose.

"Sometimes …" Blair released Jo's hands, and Jo promptly settled them on the blonde's curvaceous hips. "Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if we hadn't realized we were in love."

Jo shook her head. "Christ. Why d'ya wanna think about somethin like that? It gives me hives just thinkin about it, about not bein with you."

"My life would be so empty," mused Blair.

"Mine too," Jo agreed. "'Course … You wouldn't be workin at a freakin coffee shop. We wouldn't be kicked out of Langley." Jo's voice sounded wistful.

"It still hurts, doesn't it?" Blair asked kindly. "Being away from Langley?"

"It's always gonna hurt," Jo said.

"Shh." Blair lifted Jo's chin with two fingers, kissed Jo gently. "Forget I asked."

"Why? You can ask me anythin, babe. Not talkin about it ain't gonna make it hurt any less. Sometimes life just freakin bites."

"'Eh, you're born, you live, you die,'" said Blair, quoting one of the bleak Bronx maxims Jo had shared when they were students at Eastland.

Jo laughed. "Huh. Nah … Gotta admit, there can be some pretty good parts between the bein born and the dyin. You taught me that." She touched her forehead to Blair's, looked deep into the milk-chocolate eyes. "You taught me so much, babe. I hope you know …" her voice caught a little bit, "I hope you know that, great as the sex is, we're about so much more. Blair … You like … you changed my freakin life."

Blair couldn't breathe for a second. It always moved her so deeply when Jo opened up like that, allowed herself to be so vulnerable.

Blair smiled beatifically. She pulled Jo close.

"We changed each other's lives," Blair said softly.

"I'd rather be kicked outta Langley a million-trillion times than not be with you," said Jo.

"And I'd rather wear last years' jeans than live without you," Blair said fervently.

They kissed; they pulled each other even closer; after a few moments Blair found her hands roaming to Jo's firm little breasts.

"Um, Jo, darling?"

"Hmm?"

"I know we're not all about the sex, but since we are in part about the sex, would you mind if I, ah –"

"Ravish me as you will," Jo said cheerfully.

So Blair did …


"I have to admit," said Blair as they stood in the foyer of Venus Pizzeria, "I was skeptical. But this does look like an honest-to-goodness lesbian pizza joint."

"No kiddin," Jo agreed, looking around.

Like just about every other mom-and-pop pizza joint in the Bronx, the Venus Pizzeria was narrow and dim, with a row of booths along one wall, and rows of tables draped with red-and-white-checked table cloths. The air was fragrant with the scents of tomato sauce and freshly thrown, bubbly-crisp pizza crust, and mozzarella cheese, and onions.

Unlike every other Bronx pizzeria, the clientele here was exclusively female. The patrons in the booths and the patrons at the tables were all women, with the exception of a tall young man with soulful dark eyes and a mane of dark hair.

"Hey, Pauly, how's it goin?" asked Jo, sliding into the booth next to her cousin. She punched his arm. "How's classes this week? You won scholar-of-the-year yet or what, you nerd?"

Pauly blushed. He was as mystified about his good grades as everyone else in the family, and bashful about his success. "Got another B on a math test," he said shyly. "Guess I ain't quite such a dumbass as I used to think."

"He's a freakin mathematical genius," Jesse said proudly. The tough young brunette, clad in her trademark denim jacket, beamed across the table at her boyfriend. "Pauly's like another freakin Einstein!"

"Actually," said Blair, sliding into the booth next to Jesse, "Einstein was awful at math. He worked out his theories using logic and thought problems – not mathematics."

Jesse scowled. "Jesus, Farrah – why you always gotta piss on the parade, eh? You know what I'm sayin, right? Pauly's a freakin genius is what I'm sayin. That OK by you?"

"Of course." Blair smiled fondly across the table at the tall young man. "Pauly is highly intelligent. I knew that the moment I met him."

Pauly flushed. "Jeez," he said bashfully. "I got a B on a test is all."

"A calculus test," said Jesse. "Most the people in my buildin can't even freakin put two and two together without gettin seven, and you're gettin B's in calculus!"

"And how're you doin in history?" Jo asked Jesse.

The tough brunette blew on her fingernails and buffed them on the front of her jacket. "Gettin a A-minus so far, that's how I'm doin. Not too effin shabby, huh?"

"Hey – cool!" said Jo, reaching across the table to clap her friend on the shoulder. "A-freakin-minus?"

"Eh, just on account of my bein a flippin historical genius," Jesse said with mock modesty. "You wanna know about the Egyptians and the Persians, I'm your freakin girl, right here, no waitin."

"She's gettin a straight A in geography," Pauly said with quiet pride.

"Aw, that's just my photographic memory," said Jesse. She reached across the table and lightly slugged Jo in the shoulder. "So – when we gonna see you in classes?"

Jo grimaced. "Not till next fall, looks like. Takin longer to save than we figured, even with me helpin Balducci's nephew and Blair pullin double-shifts."

Jesse glanced at Blair. "So … you still workin at the Coffee Spot, Blondie?"

"It's my little home-away-from-home," said Blair.

"Yeah, well … that's kinda cool," Jesse said with grudging admiration. "You might almost turn into a real live person some day."

"Thank you," Blair said drily.

Jo looked around the restaurant, at the couples sitting in the booths and at the tables, all women, mostly in their twenties but some middle-aged and even one elderly couple near the back.

"Jess – How the hell'd ya stumble onta this place?" Jo asked curiously.

"Funniest damn thing," said Jesse. "Took a short cut past the science building last week, down this little alley, you know, and I ran into these two chicks makin out. So, coupla years ago, I woulda prob'ly beat the crap out of 'em, right? But now you guys got me all enlightened and stuff, I just asked 'em if they knew any lezzie places in the neighborhood. Told 'em I had a coupla lezzie friends and maybe they'd like a night out sometime where they didn't have to be all hidin their love and everythin."

"You know what would be really enlightened?" asked Blair. "If you didn't keep saying 'lezzie'."

Jesse scowled. "Christ, here we go – the Emily-freakin-Post of the flippin lezzie set! It's just a word, Farrah. It don't mean anythin. Like sticks-and-stones, right? I ain't prejudiced. I'm here, ain't I?"

"She is here," Jo told Blair reasonably.

"She certainly is," said Blair.

"It's not like Jess means anythin bad," Pauly said quietly. "She actually thinks it's cool that you two –"

"Whoa," said Jesse, holding up her hands and glaring at Pauly. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's put the freakin brakes on, Pauly. You don't ever gotta defend me or explain me. Got it?"

"Yeah, but Jess, I'm just sayin –"

"There ain't nothin you gotta say."

"But it's nice," Blair told Pauly kindly, "that she has such a charming defender."

Mentally Jo groaned. Blair … When are you gonna see this stuff comin?

Jesse leaned toward Blair, one hand clenching into a fist. "You don't need ta be tellin Pauly he's charmin or any shit like that, Blondie. He's my guy, got it? I know everyone goes freakin gaga over you and there ain't shit I can do about that, but don't be makin goo-goo eyes at him."

"Pauly's like a brother," Blair told Jesse coolly. "I never had a brother."

Pauly flushed, pleased. "Yeah? Really? You … you see me like a brother?"

"Of course," Blair told him. "You're very special to me, Pauly."

"Thanks."

"Well you better see it stays all brotherly," Jesse told Blair darkly.

Blair gazed evenly at Jesse. Neither one dropped their eyes. Finally Jesse grinned.

"Yeah … You got sand, Farrah. All right, 'nuff said. We get each other." Jesse picked up one of the plastic-sleeved menus. It had a splotch of tomato sauce on the cover. "So, the two lezzies I caught makin out said the pepperoni's the best thing on the menu here."

Blair refused to be drawn. She opened her menu and read the choices. She darted a smile at Jo. "Cannoli," she said. "I haven't had cannoli in ages."

"Knock yourself out, babe," grinned Jo. "They sky's the limit – well, up to five bucks. That's all I can spring for tonight."

"Big spender," teased Blair.

"You know it." Jo had seen several of the couple holding hands. She reached out and took Blair's hand, squeezed it gently.

"Cannoli, then," said Blair, squeezing Jo's hand, "and a white wine spritzer with a twist."

Jesse rolled her eyes. "White wine spritzer? What is this – the freakin Rainbow Room? They serve regular old wine here, by the freakin glass or bottle. No spritzes and twists and all that happy crap."

"You seem to know a lot about this place," observed Blair.

"Hey! What does that mean?" Jesse demanded.

Blair shrugged. "Just a simple observation."

Jo rolled her eyes. "For cryin out loud, can you two not be at each other's throats for one damn meal? Can I enjoy a plate of real Bronx spaghetti-and-meatballs in peace?"

"What she said," Pauly agreed quietly.

"Who's at whose throat?" Jesse demanded. "We're just flappin our gums a little. That OK with you, Pauly? You got somethin else to say about it?"

Pauly looked at Jo. "You were right," he said. "About how it's never dull."

"Told ya," chuckled Jo.

"And what's that mean?" Jesse demanded.

"Jess, for Christ's sake, dial it down," said Jo. "You're gonna give yourself a heart attack. You did a nice thing, invitin us out; let's all just enjoy it."

"So who's not enjoyin it? I'm enjoyin it. I'm flippin ecstatic."

"Good. So let's order, huh?"

Jo flagged down a waitress.

"What'll you have, dearie?" asked the woman. She looked about sixty, Jo hazarded, with a blue-tinted cap of white hair and a tomato-sauce spattered apron stretched across her belly.

Jo nodded toward Blair. "My girl wants a plate of cannoli and a glass of Chablis. Put a little wedge a lemon or lime in it, would ya?"

"Sure," said the waitress.

"And I'll have the spaghetti-and-meatballs," Jo continued, "and a glass of, eh," she thought of the five single dollar bills in her jeans pockets, "on second thought, just gimme a glass of water, huh?"

The waitress scribbled on her order pad.

"How bout you, dearie?" the waitress asked Pauly.

Pauly cleared his throat. "Uh, my girl'll have a slice of pepperoni," he said. "And me too. And a coupla brews."

"And we want separate checks," said Jo. "One for them, one for me and my girl."

"Sounds good," said the waitress. She deftly collected their menus with one wrinkled hand. "Be right back with your food."

Blair smiled at Jo. "You're really enjoying this," she said. "Being able to say 'my girl'."

"Wish I could say it everywhere we go," Jo said a little wistfully. "Right out in the open."

"Me too," said Blair. "But at least we can say it tonight." She brought Jo's hand to her lips, kissed it.

Jesse shook her head. "You two are gonna get jumped," she predicted darkly.

"Why?" asked Blair. "This is a 'lezzie joint' as you keep eloquently putting it."

"Sure, but it's still the Bronx. You can't be all goofy and gushy here. Why doncha just paint a bullseye on your foreheads?"

"She's right," Jo told Blair regretfully, reluctantly releasing Blair's hand. "We look too lovey-dovey, that reads as weak."

Blair sighed. "So much for our romantic evening."

Jo waggled her eyebrows. "Hey … The night ain't gonna end with the meal, babe."

Jesse made gagging sounds. "You two are just too damn cute ..."

The food was delicious, heaping portions served on large white plates.

"Jeez, my slice is like a whole flippin pizza," marveled Pauly.

"No lie," agreed Jesse around a mouthful of pepperoni and tomato sauce.

Jo dug into a massive mountain of spaghetti-and-meatballs with gusto. Blair attacked her heaping plate of cannoli.

"Wow," said Jo a few moments later. She belched softly. "Freakin wow."

"Darling," said Blair, "you have a little tomato sauce on your cheek."

"Yeah? Well I hate to tell ya, babe, but you got a whole bunch of cannoli on your chin."

Blair blushed and scrubbed at her face with a paper napkin ...

"'Scuse me," Jo said to the waitress when she took the check, "you don't mind my askin, what's the story with this place?"

"Story?" asked the waitress.

"Yeah. I mean, ain't like there's lotsa places like this in the Bronx."

A shadow crossed the woman's face. "I know," she said. "That's why father and I opened this place. We … We wanted there to be a safe place where …" She paused. Her eyes filled with tears.

"Jeez, I'm sorry," Jo said hastily. "Didn't mean to upset ya."

The woman shook her head. "I know you didn't, dearie." She dabbed at her damp eyes with the clean corner of her apron. "Our daughter – she was like you girls. Only she didn't have anywhere safe to go. One night she and her girlfriend went out for pizza and … Pardon me." The woman turned on her heel and disappeared through the swinging door to the kitchen.

"Way to freakin bum her out, butthead," Jesse chided Jo.

"Well how was I s'posed to know? Damn. That's so sad." Jo took a deep breath. "To think her daughter's dead on account of havin a girlfriend."

"Maybe not," Blair said encouragingly. "Maybe the girl was injured. Not that that isn't horrible … But at least she might still be alive."

Jesse snorted. "Didja see the way that old bag was blubberin? Her daughter's deader than Jimmy Hoffa!"

"Yeah," Jo said glumly.

"But how can you know that?" asked Blair.

Jo gazed kindly at her girlfriend. "Blair … When somebody's lost a kid … There's like, a certain way they cry. I don't know how to explain it. You just … You hear it in the sobbin."

Blair felt tears prick her eyes. Dead. A girl was dead because she loved other girls.

"Sometimes I hate this city," Blair muttered. "I mean, I'll always love it, but sometimes …"

"How 'bout the world?" Jesse asked bluntly. "Cause it ain't just the city's got a problem with your kind."

"My kind?" demanded Blair, nostrils flaring.

"Yeah, Farrah – your kind. Don't go jumpin down my throat. I didn't make the rules."

"It's OK, babe," Jo told Blair quietly. "It ain't gonna be this way forever. And it ain't like everyone's hand's against us. Look at that old lady and her husband, openin this place. There's lots of good people with guts out there."

"And a lot of good people with dead daughters, maybe," murmured Blair.

"What a damn downer," complained Jesse. "We're s'posed to be havin a high old night on the town."

Blair bit her lip. She stood up. "Excuse me for a moment," she said politely.

"Eh, gimme a break," said Jesse. "I'm just bustin your chops. You don't gotta leave. Not that I'd cry or anythin if you did."

"I'm not leaving," said Blair. She walked toward the front of the restaurant.

"What – you goin to the can?" called Jesse. "Cause it's back that-a-way, Farrah."

"I'm not using the facilities," called Blair. "Be back in a moment." She disappeared through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

"What's Blondie doin?" Jesse asked Jo.

Jo shrugged. "Probably goin to be sure the old lady's OK."

"And why is that our freakin business?"

Jo shrugged again. "Blair's just … She's sweet that way," said Jo.

"Yeah," agreed Pauly. "She is."

"And what do you know about it?" Jesse asked her boyfriend.

"I watched her huntin through the Bronx for Jo's bike," said Pauly. "That's … Blair's real kind that way. She likes to make people happy. Nothin's too much trouble."

"But she don't even know that old bag."

"Well, now she will," Pauly said evenly.

"Whatever." Jesse lit a Marlboro, passed it to Pauly. She lit another for herself. "Way I see it, I got enough troubles of my own so's I don't need to go borrowin trouble from strangers." She waved her cigarette at Jo. "No offense, Jo, but your Farrah is kinda cracked."

"Yeah," said Jo, with a proud little grin. "Kinda."

Jesse shook her head. "You really love that Park Avenue princess – doncha?"

"Yup."

"Well," Jesse inhaled thoughtfully, "gotta admit she's comin through for ya. I mean, workin at the damn Coffee Spot, living with Saint Rose – which can't possibly be freakin easy, by the freakin way – Blondie must really love ya."

"I hope so," said Jo. "I think so."

"So how's all your Peekskill friends doin? And that cool Mrs. G?"

Jo sipped her water. "Mrs. G's doin real good. She called me last night, matter of fact. Her TV show's gettin picked up for another season."

"I saw her yesterday," said Pauly.

"Where?" asked Jo, surprised.

"Not her," Pauly clarified. "Her face. On a bus bench. Ad for 'Edna's Edibles'."

"No kiddin?" asked Jo. "Huh. Whaddya know? Bus benches. Mrs. G's really gettin famous – well, famous in the city, anyhow."

"She still all lovey-dovey with that new husband?" asked Jesse.

"Yeah. I mean, I guess so. It's nice to see someone dotin on her. Mrs. G's so freakin feisty, I mean, even all those years she was alone, lookin after us girls, she never seemed lonely. She can stand on her own two feet. But she deserves someone lookin after her, spoilin her, like Drake does."

"Saint Rose ever get jealous?" Jesse asked curiously. "Of Mrs. G, I mean? Mrs. G's like a second mother to ya, huh?"

Jo nodded. "Mrs. G's definitely a second mother, but Ma doesn't get jealous of her. Ma's grateful. Mrs. G findin ways to keep me at Eastland, that probably saved my freakin life, lookin back. But Blair … That's a horse of another damn color," mused Jo. "Ma still gets jealous of Blair. Don't get me wrong, they love each other, but sometimes, you know, they get kinda, well –"

"Cuckoo for Coco Puffs?" suggested Jesse.

"Kinda. Not that you gotta repeat that," Jo added.

"What? Me? Cause problems with Princess Farrah?" Jesse asked innocently.

"Jess," Jo said warningly.

"For cryin out loud, Jo, last thing I wanna do is get Blondezilla in my face. I know I tease her but she ain't anyone to seriously screw around with."

"Damn straight," Jo agreed.

"So how's by all your other friends?" asked Jesse. "The muscatels and the Leopards?"

"It's the Musketeers," said Jo, "and the Lions. And they're good. I guess."

"You guess? Doncha know?"

Jo shrugged. Do I know? "I been workin a lot of hours," Jo said. "And so has Blair. Mrs. G calls once a week, and she tells me everyone's fine, except Petal's still kinda blue, so … I guess everyone's fine."

But are they? wondered Jo. When was the last time she'd actually talked to Nat or Tootie? Two weeks? Three? No … It was after New Year's, sometime … Jack and Petal and Portia she'd seen at Christmas at River Rock. Alec she'd called a couple of weeks ago. He was pulling his hair out trying to manage his wild younger brother and sister. It had been a hasty, disjointed conversation …

"I miss 'em," Jo said thoughtfully.

"What is that – breakin news?" asked Jesse puzzled. "Didn't you know ya missed 'em?"

"Not really," said Jo. "I been so focused on work, and savin money, and Blair –" And on trying not to think about Langley, she admitted to herself. On trying not to think about the classes and friends and professors and field hockey matches and opportunities she was missing out on …

"So what about the lez rumors?" Jesse asked, blowing a couple of smoke rings.

"Jess," Pauly remonstrated.

"What? Hey, it is what it is. I'm just wonderin if it's dyin down."

"Last time I talked to Alec, he said it was," mused Jo. "Jack's been doin a ton of damage control – and Alec too. Sayin me and Blair are just best friends, and how Dean Pratt and the Board are a bunch of freakin uptight pervs thinkin it's anythin more. But it kinda … I don't know …"

"Bugs the hell outta ya," Jesse said shrewdly. "Cause it's a fuckin lie."

"Yeah," said Jo. "Yeah. I don't like my friends lyin for us. I just wish …" She dragged one finger through the wet circle her glass of water had sweated on the cheap Formica table top. "I just wish … I dunno. If people could just try to understand, 'stead of jumpin to a judgement …"

"Heaven freakin help us," sighed Jesse. "We got Blondie in the kitchen tryin to comfort the old bat, we got you out here wishin for a freakin utopia –"

"Whyncha give it a rest," Pauly told Jesse sharply.

Jesse and Jo glanced at him. Pauly was never sharp. But he was staring at Jesse grimly enough now.

"Not everybody's a hard-ass," Pauly told Jesse. "Blair's a sweetheart and she's smoothin some of my cousin's rough edges and I kinda like it."

Jesse's eyes widened. "Well. I s'pose if I'm such a hard-ass, maybe you wanna kick me to the curb!"

"No," said Pauly. He looked evenly at Jesse, blowing smoke through his nostrils. "I happen to kinda love hard-asses," he said.

Jesse grinned at him …

After a few moments Jo went to the swinging doors that led into the kitchen. She peered through the little porthole windows in the doors. There was a burly old guy in kitchen whites sweating over pots of pasta and pizza pans, and there were cook's helpers rushing around preparing dishes.

And there, sitting at one of the long stainless steel prep tables, were the old woman and Blair. Blair was holding the woman's blue-veined hands, was leaning forward, listening intently. From time to time Blair nodded encouragingly …

"So, you solve all her problems?" Jesse asked when Blair finally returned to the table.

Blair shook her head. "I think it helped her, though," Blair said. "Talking to someone."

"Is the girl, I mean, was she, you know … killed?" asked Jo.

"In a manner of speaking." Blair passed a hand through her long blonde hair. "Her name was Jill. A group of thugs chased Jill and her girlfriend, chased them right off a bridge. They both drowned."

Jo shivered. "Christ!" Drowning had always seemed to her to be a particularly ugly way to go.

"Look, it ain't like I don't care," said Jesse, "but we don't leave now, we're gonna miss the movie."

"What movie?" asked Blair.

"Pauly and Jess are takin us to see a movie," said Jo. "Their treat. Pretty nice, huh? We'll treat 'em next time we get together."

Blair smiled. "Well this is a lovely turn of events! I've been wanting to see 'Witnesss'. It's getting rave reviews."

"Eh, we're seein somethin else," Jo told Blair. And you're gonna hate it, she telegraphed to the blonde, but be nice, babe … Please be nice.

Of course, darling, Blair telegraphed. When am I anything other than nice?

"Dj'you see 'Flashdance' when it came out?" Jesse asked Blair. "Cause this is s'posed to be kinda like 'Flashdance' but even better. It's this aerobic studio, see, and these girls open it, and there's this creep, he's tryin to take the studio down, cause he's got his own studio, see."

"Jess loves dance movies," Pauly told Blair.

"Who doesn't?" Blair asked politely.

"It's called 'Heavenly Bodies'," Jesse continued. "The girls are s'posed to be real hot, so even if you don't like the dancin, you can drool over the chicks, Farrah. Haha! Just bustin your chops, all right? Just a little humor."

Blair gave Jesse a brittle smile …

"The Times panned 'Heavenly Bodies'," Blair whispered to Jo as they followed Jesse and Pauly down the street. "There's no plot. It's like a never-ending music video."

"So, that's cool," Jo said. "You been tired lately; take a nap. Who'll know?"

Blair shook her head. "Can't. My nose whistles when I sleep. Or so you tell me."

"Oh yeah. Right. It does." Jo brightened. "You know, there's probably a ton of loud music in this thing – so who'll hear your cute little nose whistle?"

Blair's lip quirked. "Cute?"

"Yeah," said Jo. "Adorable, really. Everythin about you's adorable. You tellin me you don't know that?"

"I know it," said Blair. "I just like it when you say it."

Jo stepped closer to Blair as they walked along the cracked and pitted sidewalk. It was cold out; Jo was burrowing into her leather jacket, Blair into her plain parka. Jo had found the parka at the Salvation Army, and insisted that Blair wear it so that she blended into the impoverished neighborhoods they were traveling in now. Jesse shivered in her thin denim jacket. Their breath fountained in the freezing air. Just ahead of them the neon lights of the Mystic Theater glimmered.

I wish I could hold Blair's arm, thought Jo. Wish I could pull her close. Pauly had a strong arm wrapped around Jesse's shoulders.

Blair seemed to sense her lover's thoughts. Blair shot a warm smile at Jo. I love you, Jo.

Love you too, babe. Freakin love ya forever and back …


They were back in Rose's apartment by eleven pm.

In the small bedroom they sleepily stripped off their clothes. Jo pulled on a pair of blue-and-green flannel pajamas. Blair pulled on a mauve flannel nightgown.

They snuggled down next to each other under the covers. Jo slid an arm around Blair's shoulders. Blair laid her head on Jo's chest.

"Early shift tomorrow," Blair yawned.

"You set the alarm?" Jo asked drowsily.

"Uh-huh. Oh. Darn. I forgot to wash my uniforms this afternoon."

"Holy cow, babe, all you wear these days is uniforms. How could you forget?"

"Well … I was rather occupied with other things," Blair said, smiling in the dark as she recalled their lovemaking that afternoon.

"Oh. Heh. Yeah," Jo said, laughing sleepily. "So …" another yawn, "when you gettin up?"

"Five."

"K. I'll walk you to the subway, babe."

"Darling, you don't have to –"

"I'll walk you to the subway," Jo insisted. She kissed Blair's cheek. "Can't even believe I let you ride the subway; least I'm gonna do is walk you to the station."

"You can't believe you let me ride the subway?" Blair laughed.

"You know what I mean, babe. I know I can't stop you from doin anythin you want, but I could put up a pretty big fight about it, and I ain't done that."

"I never have any problems on the subway," Blair said reassuringly. "It's my waitress uniform and my horrible parka and my Flo 'do. I look like any other young waitress going to work. Well, any glamorously beautiful young waitress going to work. No one has any idea I'm Blair Warner."

"You are glamorously beautiful," said Jo. She kissed Blair's hair. "And glamorously beautiful young waitresses who ain't Blair Warner get jumped all the time in the Bronx. Just watch your back, is all."

"The subway isn't the desperate jungle you always make it sound like," objected Blair. "I've met some very nice people on the subway."

Jo groaned. "Babe … How many times I gotta tell ya … Don't be makin friends on the subway. Today's new friend is tomorrow's freakin axe murderer. Don't be makin friends period. You think everyone's got a good heart."

"Most people do," Blair said simply.

"Sure." Jo yawned again, enormously. "That's prob'ly what all those chicks said right before Jack the Ripper finished 'em off!"

Blair gently stroked Jo's dark hair, moved a tendril back behind her lover's shell-like ear. Jo's eyes were closed, her breath slowing.

Blair knew Jo was just on the edge of sleep. She had been listening to Jo Polniaczek fall asleep since they were teenagers at Eastland, sleeping in adjoining beds. It had been so difficult senior year, not climbing into bed with Jo after Tootie and Nat had fallen asleep. But Blair had had no idea if Jo was feeling the same urges …

Blair pressed her mouth very softly against Jo's. Jo snored lightly. Blair smiled.

"Good night, my beautiful princess," murmured Blair. "My beautiful Bronx Neanderthal princess."

Blair closed her own eyes …

Rose arrived home a little past midnight. She bolted and chained the door behind her, dropped her keys on the tiny table in the microscopic foyer. She shook her head. Jo had left her tool box on the table. Again. But at least, she thought, my daughter is here to leave her tool box on the table …

She stretched, slipped off her waitress shoes, kicked them under the little table in the kitchenette. She poured herself a glass of water at the sink, and settled on the sofa to drink it.

Rose flicked on the battered old TV set. Nothing on, really, except the end of "The Tonight Show". Some brassy blonde comedienne was doing a set. Everything was getting so crude, thought Rose. So crude and so sexual. The world was becoming a hard place.

Rose finished the glass of water, put it on the coffee table. She stretched and yawned. She didn't feel like pulling out the sofa bed, and, really, there was no need to do so. Rose was so slight, she fit very comfortably on the sofa. She lay down, closed her eyes.

No sound from the bedroom, she thought sleepily, as she drifted off. The girls are already asleep ...

It still bothered Rose that her daughter was in love with a woman, that they slept together every night in Jo's childhood bedroom. Rose loved Blair as a person … But why can't Jo just love Blair like a sister? Homosexual love went against all of Rose's deeply held Catholic principles. She'd been taught from childhood onward that anything other than love between a man and a woman was wrong.

But they don't seem wrong when they're together. Jo and Blair seem … so right. All kinds of right. But how can that be?

Rose's childhood friend, Peggy Winkle O'Meara, was a director at the Gay & Lesbian Center in Greenwich Village. Peggy had suggested to Rose it might be her job to love the girls, not judge them … And Peggy was right, Rose had realized. In the end, loving her daughter and Blair as much as she did, Rose found it easiest to love them than judge them, even with her doubts …

The narrow kitchen windows were still dark when Rose was awakened by soft sounds, Blair at the sink, filling the coffee pot with a thin stream of water, turning on the stove.

Rose sat up. She smiled blearily at the blonde.

"Early shift?" Rose asked quietly.

Blair nodded. She put the coffee pot on the burner. "When are you on?" she asked the older woman.

"Noon," said Rose.

"You should go back to sleep."

Rose nodded. She yawned.

"You and Jo have a good night?" Rose asked.

"Yes. Pizza with Pauly and Jesse. Then a movie."

"'Witness'?" asked Rose. "I really want to see that."

Blair shook her head. "'Heavenly Bodies'," she said.

Rose chuckled. "Heard that one's a dog."

"Well … I don't know if it's going to win any Academy Awards," Blair said drily. "But it was nice to be out with Jo."

Rose stood up, went the counter, sat on one of the kitchen stools. Her brown hair was mussed. She covered her mouth and yawned again.

"Blair … I want you to know, I'm really impressed."

"By what?" Blair asked absently, adjusting the flame under the coffee pot.

"By you."

"Oh." Blair flushed, both pleased and embarrassed. "I … Thank you, Rose."

"I've told you, sometimes I worried Jo might end up with a bum. And you're anything but, Blair. You've really … You're really coming through for Jo."

Blair bit her lip. When she was deeply moved, she temporarily lost the power of speech. Her throat closed up. She nodded at Rose.

"I know that with you in Jo's life, she'll be OK," Rose continued earnestly. "Not that your life won't be hard … How can it be anything but hard? But you'll both be OK. I just … I wanted to say that."

Blair nodded again. Her eyes were damp. She turned to the coffee pot, fiddled aimlessly with it.

"It's been a few months now," said Rose. "I know you're focused on Jo's education, but have you thought any more about what you want to do with your life? Other than the art, I mean, which, we both agree, that's nice, but it won't pay the bills."

Blair shook her head.

"All I …" Blair cleared her throat. "If I'm with Jo, that's all I need. I can be the woman behind the woman."

"Hmm." Rose considered that. "I know you mean that, Blair. But over time I don't think that'll be enough for you. There's a lot to you, if you know what I mean. There's something inside you; you're going to want to express that, to do something with it, even though you don't know what it is right now."

Blair opened one of the cabinets, took down two chipped coffee mugs. She's right, thought Blair. I do feel … something inside. But for now …

Blair put one of the coffee cups in front of Rose, the woman who was, for all intents and purposes, her mother-in-law.

"You know I'm not religious," Blair said. "But I respect that you are. Do you pray for Jo and me?"

Rose laughed. "Only every hour of every day!"

"Well just keep doing that," Blair said warmly. "And try not to worry about us. Either of us. Because we're going to be fine."

"A mother worries," said Rose. She shrugged. "That's just how it is."

Blair snorted. "Not every mother," she said darkly. "Do you know it's been … never mind." She turned back to the stove. The coffee was starting to bubble and perk in the pot.

Rose understood what Blair had decided not to say.

"It's almost Valentine's Day," said Rose. "It's been almost a year since, well, everything. Since BZ Becker ruined your family. And all your friends' families. Since you were stabbed. Since your father ran off to Tokyo and your mother ran off to – where did she go again?"

"Switzerland," Blair said with disdain – disdain for her mother, presumably, and not the country.

"You haven't heard anything from them?" asked Rose. "Not in a year?"

"I heard from them right after I was stabbed. They sent me their best wishes for a speedy recovery. Pretty keen, huh?"

"Blair. I'm sorry," said Rose.

"I keep hearing whispers through the Society grapevine," said Blair. "Not that I'm much in Society these days, but Jack hears things and passes them on. Alec too. I keep hearing that Daddy is plotting some brilliant revenge, some coup to take our fortune back, to bring Becker to his knees."

"Could that be true?"

"Maybe. Daddy is brilliant. But I think it's more, it's like a Society tall tale. It sounds good around the campfire."

"Charlie thinks very highly of your father," Rose said thoughtfully. "Well, as a businessman – not as father-of-the-year or anything. Charlie always says if anyone's gonna give Becker his comeuppance, it'll be your father."

"Charlie has a pretty shrewd business mind himself," mused Blair.

"For all the good it's done him," Rose said ruefully.

"What do you mean? He's doing well, isn't he? Senior runner is a very responsible position."

"I know. But he's …" Rose shook her head in frustration. "Charlie could've been anything. That stupid mistake. He'll never be a broker with a prison record. There's only so high he'll go, no matter how smart he is."

"Honestly, Rose – I wouldn't worry about Charlie," Blair said decisively. "I think he's going to surprise us all – including himself."

"Well, that's a nice thing to hear, but I'm not going to hold my breath."

Blair sighed. "I'll be twenty-one soon," she said. "But unless Eduardo finds any hidden assets, I won't have anything to inherit."

"And Eduardo hasn't found anything yet?"

Blair shook her head. "Nothing. Not that he'll stop looking. I keep saying it doesn't matter if I inherit anything or not, and in one sense it doesn't. I could be poor with Jo. I could handle anything with Jo. But part of me wants … If Eduardo could find something Becker overlooked, if I could inherit even a tenth of what I was supposed to inherit, I could make life easier for everyone, put Jo in any school she wanted, go after Becker, make things right for all the people I love …"

Blair trailed off. She lifted the coffee pot, poured a stream of steaming black coffee into Rose's cup and then into her own.

"Blair?"

"Hmm?"

"I don't mean to be déclassé or bourgeois or whatever the term is, I mean, I don't want to be tacky, but how much, I mean, if BZ Becker hadn't done what he did …"

"You want to know how much I was supposed to inherit?"

"If that's not too nosy. It is, isn't it? I'm sorry. It's too nosy."

Blair smiled. "You're my mother-in-law," she said. "It's all in the family, as far as I'm concerned. I'm just not sure if you really want to know. I've never told Jo the exact figure. She's never wanted to try to wrap her mind around that much money."

"So it's a lot, then? It's like, more than a million dollars?"

Blair laughed, a warm musical sound.

"Two million?" asked Rose. "Am I in the neighborhood?"

"Rose," Blair said kindly, "you really don't want to know."

"Five million?" Rose guessed. "Is it that much?"

"More than five million," said Blair.

"How much more?"

"More," said Blair. "Why don't we leave it at that?"

It was funny, thought Blair. The night that she learned the full extent of her fortune, she and her father had been dining at Lutece. That was the same day she and Jo had kissed for the first time, and admitted their feelings for each other. That was the same night she'd tossed and turned in her lonely bed in her mother's penthouse, realizing that she was deeply, irrevocably in love with Jo Polniaczek …

"Ten million," guessed Rose. Blair shook her head. "Twenty million," Rose guessed wildly.

"Do you really want to know?" asked Blair.

"I do," said Rose. "I have to wrap my mind around it. Jo might not be ready, but I am."

"You can't start treating me strangely, though," said Blair. "I mean it, Rose. I like the way we've been getting along. Just remember that I'm just me, and it's only money."

"Got it. Only money."

Blair took a deep breath. She repeated almost verbatim what her father had told her at Lutece in September of 1983.

"Interest fluctuates, and there are taxes to consider, but if Becker hadn't ruined us I would be inheriting in the neighborhood of 500 million dollars. Not to mention my Nana's apartment on Central Park West, and Papa Wilke's Bronx brownstone, and the Tuscan property, and the Nevada silver rights, and a twenty-percent share in the Plaza and a twenty-five percent share in Warner Textiles."

Rose's face had gone blank. Her lips moved stiffly.

"Five … Five … Five …"

"Five-hundred million," Blair said helpfully. "Give or take."

"Five … five …" Rose put a hand to her forehead. She looked like she might faint. Blair put a hand on the older woman's shoulder to steady her. "Five-hundred million," Rose whispered. "Five-hundred million! And you're working at the Coffee Spot!"

"And doing a darned fine job, if I do say so myself," Blair said lightly.

"But how can you … how …"

"I learned how to serve people in Mrs. Garrett's kitchen at Eastland," said Blair. She smiled at the memory. "Getting sentenced to hard labor there was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Rose, Jo has been learning how to be more at ease in Society. How could I not learn to fit better into her world? Since I expect to be with her the rest of my life, and we have friends and family in both worlds."

Rose sighed. She reached across the counter and squeezed Blair's hand. "Blair … I hope you hear from your parents soon. And I honestly can't understand how they can just … ignore you like they do."

"Years of practice," Blair drawled coolly. Their neglect hurt so damn much, had always hurt so damn much, that she had to mock it.

Rose squeezed Blair's hand harder. "If you were my daughter, I'd never do that to you – not if you had five million dollars or five cents. Blair … You really are a good person."

Blair smiled at Rose, eyes damp again. "Well," she said huskily, "since I consider that you are my mother, one of my mothers anyway, that's a pretty good thing to know."

They locked eyes for a moment. They understood each other. And then Blair glanced at her wristwatch. "Damn – Lou hates it when I'm late! Jo wants to walk me to the subway, but I'm going to let her sleep."

In a moment Blair had bustled out of the apartment. Rose locked and chained the door behind the blonde.

Five-hundred million. It was inconceivable. Five-hundred million! And Blair had been willing to throw it all away for Jo!

I have to try harder, thought Rose. Someone that loving … She can't be evil. She can't.

Rose lay down on the sofa. As the windows began to brighten faintly, she fell into a deep sleep …


"What did it feel like?" asked Natalie.

She and Jo sat on a bench in Battery Park, looking out at New York City's glorious harbor, which was alive with boats of every description, freighters and tug boats and barges and sail boats with their pennants crackling in the cold air. It was Saturday morning. Blair was working. Nat was in town to visit her grandmother Mona and her parents.

Jo was noshing a bratwurst from a nearby cart. Nat was noshing a big salted pretzel. Jo was burrowed into her dark pea coat. Nat was bundled into one of the heavy parkas her parents always seemed to buy her for Hanukkah.

"What did what feel like?" asked Jo around a mouthful of bratwurst.

A couple of benches over a homeless guy was sprawled on his back; a little dog sat on his stomach, a Terrier, it looked like.

The dog was adorable. Maybe Blair would like a little dog like that, thought Jo. Maybe for Valentine's Day … or her birthday …

"What did the first time feel like?" asked Natalie.

"What first time?" Jo asked absently. She took another big bite of wurst.

"You know." Natalie's cheeks tinged pink. "Your first time. As in, the first time."

Jo half-choked. She spit out a mouthful of food.

"For cryin out loud! Nat – what the hell? You're always sayin you don't wanna hear that sex stuff!"

"I know. Guilty as charged," Nat agreed. "But now … Well … Now, I kind of do."

Jo glared hard at her friend. "Is that Snake guy puttin the moves on you? Cause if he is –"

"Snake is a perfect gentleman," said Natalie. "It's actually a little annoying. And I thought you were supposed to stop threatening people?"

"Who's threatenin anyone? I'm just sayin, if Snake's gettin outta line with ya, I'm gonna pull his arms off and beat him over the head with 'em."

"Oh, well – if that's all. Glad you're not over-reacting!"

Jo sighed. She took a deep breath. "OK. OK. I'm completely freakin composed. So, is this Snake guy puttin the moves on you, or what?"

"And I say once again, Snake is a perfect gentleman. I'm the one, I'm … We've only been on a few dates, but there's something about him. When we spend time together, I start to … I'm getting these funny feelings. Like something out of that book Blair read to us."

"What book?"

"When we were studying for finals. Remember? The year you and Blair graduated from Eastland? Your final finals? That steamy book?"

"Oh." Jo suddenly grinned. "Oh. Yeah." That had been pretty damn sexy, hearing Blair read that steamy mush aloud … Although, of course, Jo had been careful to feign indifference, if not outright scorn …

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Earth to Jo – earth to Jo! If you can manage to pull your mind back from steamy reminiscences, do you think you can answer my question?"

"Huh?"

"What was your first time like?"

"Oh." Jo's cheeks pinked. "Jeez, Nat, you're too young to be hearin that stuff."

"I'm almost eighteen," Natalie said with spirit. "I'm graduating from Eastland this year. I'm starting Langley in September, for Pete's sake."

Jo shook her head. "Still too young. Almost eighteen ain't eighteen."

"I'm not saying I plan to do anything," Natalie said reasonably. "But I'm starting to have these … funny feelings around Snake. And down the road … I think maybe he's gonna be my first."

"It better be way down the road," Jo said darkly.

"Jo Polniaczek, you're totally evading my question," said Natalie. "And you call me a prude!"

"'Cause you are. You tryin to say I'm a prude? I ain't a prude! I just ain't a perv."

"Come on, Jo." Natalie nudged her friend with one puffy, well-insulated parka sleeve. "It's just girl talk. I know you aren't big on girl talk, but it's innocent enough. You're the wise, sexually experienced older woman. You're supposed to pass down your sexual wisdom to the younger women of the tribe."

Jo scowled. "Let me guess – you're taking an Anthro course this semester?"

"Yes. But stop avoiding the subject."

"Nat … Look … From what I hear, everyone's first time is different. There's no, like, perfect road map or somethin."

"I'm not asking for a perfect road map. I'm just asking what your first time was like."

Jo tossed the rest of her bratwurst into the big green trash barrel next to their bench.

"You killed my appetite, kid."

"So – your first time was that bad?" asked Natalie.

"Bad? For cryin out – it wasn't bad at all. It was, God, it was like, the most beautiful …" Jo leaned back against the bench, laced her fingers over her stomach. "When you love someone, Nat, when you've loved someone for a while, and you find out they love you back, and you find out you both want each other, I mean, like, the tear-each-other's-clothes-off, make-crazy-love-all-night-long kinda wantin each other …" Jo's eyes got a dreamy, far-away look as she stared out over the water, seeing not boats and sea gulls, but a certain beautiful blonde …

"Crazy love," Natalie breathed thoughtfully.

"Hey!" Jo roused herself from her reverie. "You don't make crazy love – not for a good long while yet! And not with a Shamrock Lord."

"Snake's not a Shamrock Lord. He never ran with the Lords."

"So he tells us," Jo said dubiously. "There's a story there, Nat. You wanna take what the kid says with a grain of salt."

"Aren't you the one that gave Snake my number last fall?" Nat demanded. "Aren't you the one that told me to stop being a middle-class snob and get to know him better?"

"Yeah, sure – as in date him, and expand your horizons. Not as in get all serious about him and start talkin about havin your first time with him!"

"Well you can't put the genie back in the bottle," said Nat. "I am getting serious about him. And seeing him is making me think I'm almost ready for my first time."

Jo groaned. "I've created a freakin monster. And, I mean, whadda your parents think about this? Mr. and Mrs. Upper East Side? You think they want your first time to be with some tattooed trucker from the northern freakin wilds of the city?"

Natalie waved one pudgy hand. "My parents aren't going to dictate my first time," she said decisively. "I'm practically a grown-up. And you're still not really telling me about your first time."

"For cryin out loud, what, you want the graphic details?"

Nat blushed. "Of course not. Not the graphic details. The romantic details. Like, the mushy parts. Where you gazed into each other's eyes. Deeply."

Jo shifted uncomfortably on the bench. "Well, yeah. There's lots of that. When you, uh, decide to be real intimate with someone. You're, it's not just about, ah, takin off your clothes and stuff. You're showin your feelins, too. You gotta let your guard down and just really look at each other. Let each other see how much you care. That's …" Her mind darted back to those precious moments, holding Blair close, kissing her, gazing into each other's eyes, so vulnerable, so true, so raw … The textures … The scents … The murmuring …

"I feel very real with Snake," said Natalie. "With the other boys I've dated … The Bates boys – of course – and even Belmont and Paul, I felt like I had to put on a sort of act. I mean, I was me, but I was extra bubbly and funny and … Just trying to please. And with Snake … It's the first time I just feel like I can be completely me."

"That's a good start," Jo said approvingly. "That's a good sign. Me and Blair were always completely ourselves with each other –that's for sure!"

Natalie laughed, remembering years of arguments between the two older girls. Years of arguments and needling – but years of almost never being apart. Jo and Blair had been pretty much glued at the hip from the day they met, and never less than brutally honest with each other.

"So … how did it happen?" Natalie asked Jo.

"What?"

"Your first time. Did you, I mean, did you discuss it and set a time, was it organized like that, or did you just kind of attack each other and it, you know, happened?"

"Well …" Jo cast her mind back. "Little bit of both. It was that night after we all ate supper at Eastland. Member? Mrs. G's famous boeuf bourguignon? And we played Scrabble and caught up about each other's summers? And then me and Blair drove back to Langley. We had just … It was the day after we admitted we had these feelins for each other. And after we left you guys we, it was like we were on the same wavelength. We just wanted to hold each other and touch each other. So we pulled off the road and we were, you know, kissin for a while. And then Blair said either we had to stop or she was gonna have to rip my, uh, clothes off."

"Wow," breathed Natalie.

Jo blushed. "So, er, I said somethin like, 'Hey, go for it'. But she said if we were gonna do it, it was gonna be in a bed, not a truck. Or somethin along those lines. So we drove back to her dorm and then we were in her room and we were on her bed, kissin and, you know," Jo cleared her throat. "That's where I'm gonna draw the curtain, kid. It's like those old movies, where the screen goes black. But you get the idea. When you're a consentin adult and you love someone and it's time for the first time, you both … You just know."

"And it was good?" asked Natalie.

Jo nodded fervently. "Oh. Yeah. It was … It was beautiful."

"Did it … I mean, I know you're both women, but did it … hurt at all?"

"Some," Jo admitted, remembering. "You get kinda carried away in the heat of the moment, and there's some stuff – I ain't goin into detail, you've studied the facts of life – but there's some stuff that the first coupla times you do it, it can be kinda painful."

"And the next times it doesn't hurt so much?" Nat asked hopefully.

"The next times it doesn't hurt so much. And then … it's just … amazing."

"Amazing," breathed Natalie.

"Look," Jo said, knitting her dark brows, "I know you're almost eighteen, but you're always gonna be like my little sister. So I'm telling ya, with all kindsa sisterly affection, not to be a total idiot and do somethin stupid that will ruin your life."

"That's sisterly affection?"

"Hey, best I can do. Never actually had a sister, you know."

"Actually," said Natalie, squeezing Jo's arm, "you do. Two sisters. You have me and Tootie."

Jo cleared her throat. She looked away and found herself blinking her eyes.

"Freakin stupid lotta dust around the harbor," Jo complained.

"Right," said Natalie. "Harbor dust."

"Well there is!" Jo said defensively.

Natalie held up her mittened hands in a gesture of surrender. "Who's arguing? Harbor dust. If you say there's harbor dust, there's harbor dust. Clouds of it."

"It's all the stuff, all the cargo. From the ships. They're loading it and unloading it and there's lots of dust."

"That sounds very logical," Natalie said.


When Blair finished her shift at the Coffee Spot, Jo was waiting for her on the sidewalk out front.

"Well," said Blair, smiling radiantly, "this is a nice surprise."

Jo grinned at her, that crooked, megawatt grin that Blair had always found so endearing.

"Brought your coat," said Jo. "Saw you forgot it this morning."

"Why Jo – that's so gallant."

They couldn't hold each other on the street. They couldn't kiss each other or hold hands.

But Jo solicitously held open the plain parka, and Blair turned around and shrugged into it.

"Thank you," Blair said quietly, buttoning the coat. She turned to face her lover. "We can go home together," Blair said, clearly pleased with that prospect.

"Or," said Jo, "just battin around ideas, but maybe I take you to see 'Witness'. You've been wantin to see it, right?"

"Very much," said Blair. "Jo, that's sweet, but we can't afford it. And I'm wearing my uniform."

"No one's gonna care what you're wearin in the movies, in the dark," said Jo. "And it so happens I came into a few extra bucks today. Helped Balducci fix Mrs. Gubler's radiator. She was freezin, he was stymied, I came to the rescue. Hello, movie money!"

Blair tilted her head to one side. "My resourceful fiancée," she said quietly, so softly that no one passing them on the bustling sidewalk could hear.

"Don't you know it," Jo grinned. "So whaddya say? Popcorn and 'Witness'? We gotta split the soda, though. And, well, we gotta split the popcorn too."

"That sounds lovely, darling," Blair whispered …

In the darkness of the Mystic Theater they held hands. It was a beautiful movie, and they had both shed more than a few tears before it was over …

"They shoulda stayed together," Jo said quietly. "He shoulda stayed in Amish country."

They were on the subway. Blair was sitting down; Jo had snagged one of the car's few empty seats and insisted that Blair, who'd been on her feet most of the day, take it. Jo stood next to her seat, holding the hand rail.

"Would he have been happy there?" Blair asked dubiously.

"Sure," said Jo. "Why not? Beautiful countryside. Real nice people – salt of the earth. Like the Bronx on a farm – cept no one's running around tryin to knife everyone. Well. Cept those crooks."

"She could have moved to the city," suggested Blair.

Jo shook her head. "Nah. She just didn't seem like the city type. And that kid – Christ! He'd be croaked on a city playground in like, three seconds, poor kid!"

Rose was asleep on the sofa when they got home. They quietly bolted and chained the front door.

They hung their coats in the hall, then went into the little bedroom. They stripped to their panties and bras. Jo stretched out on the bed.

"How 'bout no pj's tonight?" suggested Jo, waggling her brows. "Ma's pretty-dead-to-the-world out there."

Blair lifted one perfectly plucked dark eyebrow. "Exactly what are you suggesting, Miss Polniaczek?"

"I'm suggestin," Jo opened her arms, and Blair lay down on the bed, snuggling against her lover, "I'm suggestin that we make love."

Blair ran her fingers lightly up and down Jo's strong, slender arms.

"What would this love-making entail?" asked Blair.

"Well, I'm thinkin maybe it would start a little like this." Jo kissed Blair's mouth softly, then her chin, then her strong jaw. "And then it could maybe escalate to somethin like this." Jo nuzzled Blair's ear, her throat, kissed her way down Blair's neck to the hollow between her breasts.

"So far," said Blair, "I approve."

"Good. So … I can continue?"

"Please proceed," Blair said magnanimously.

Jo kissed her way down Blair's torso to her navel. There it was – that damned dark scar, an eternal reminder of Dina's attack on Blair almost one year ago. Jo bracketed Blair's hips, kissed her lover's belly button, the soft swell of her belly above the waist band of her panties …

"Did you think she was pretty?" asked Blair.

"Who?" Jo's voice was muffled against the soft flesh of Blair's stomach.

"That actress."

"Uh – yeah." Jo stroked Blair's hips. "I mean, if you like big beautiful luminous freakin eyes, and soft skin, and that kinda strong, farm-fresh look."

Blair looked thoughtfully at her lover.

"And do you, darling?"

"Do I what?" Jo slid two fingers into the front panel of Blair's panties.

"Do you –" Blair hissed, excited, as she felt the tips of Jo's fingers graze her sex. "Do you … ah … find that type of girl attractive?"

"Sure," said Jo. "She's real pretty. But she ain't got nothing on you, babe."

Jo breathed against the front panel of Blair's panties, her warm breath arousing the debutante. Blair lay back, eyes closing.

"Jo?"

"Mmn?"

"Would you make love to her?"

"Who?"

"The actress."

"Uh … Yeah, I guess."

"So you are attracted to women. Not just to me, and not just to Boots."

Jo sighed. "Babe … Can we discuss who I am and am not attracted to after I make love to you? Cause whoever attracts me, you're at the top of my Hit Parade – specially right this second." Jo lifted one of the leg bands of Blair's panties, kissed the soft hair between Blair's legs.

Blair moaned.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," chuckled Jo. Her mouth moved lower …

When Blair came, she buried her face in the pillow, muffling her cries as much as she could.

Jo spooned with Blair as the blonde drifted into a contented sleep. Jo gently cupped Blair's heavy, pale breasts.

"That actress ain't got nothin on you," Jo whispered to Blair. "You're ten times more beautiful. Twenty time. Damn – a hundred times more gorgeous."

"I … know …" Blair said drowsily. "But still … You'd make love to her?"

Jo pictured the actress' large eyes, the sensuous mouth, the strong yet feminine frame …

"Yeah," Jo said. "Yeah, right light, right mood, glass of Macallan, I guess she could kinda rev my engine."

Blair yawned enormously. Her dark lashes lay against her rosy cheeks as her eyes shut again. "Jo … you …"

Jo gently kissed the back of Blair's neck. "I what, babe?"

"You …" But whatever Blair was going to say was lost in a soft snoring, and the whistling of her nose …


Jo had lain awake for at least half an hour, spooning with Blair, listening to her lover sleep, before finally nodding off.

When Jo woke the next morning the bed was empty but still warm. Jo ran her hand over the warm sheet where Blair had been lying until moments before.

The scent of strong black coffee and crisp bacon wafted from the kitchen.

Jo pulled on her blue-and-green flannel pajamas, ran her fingers through her long dark hair. She didn't have to work today, but Blair and her mother were working a shift together at the Coffee Spot.

Wanna at least have breakfast with 'em before they gotta leave. My Ma and my girl …

Jo stepped into the tiny bathroom for a few moments to use the facilities and brush her teeth. She swigged a mouthful of Listerine, spat it out in the little cracked porcelain sink.

Rose was sitting at the kitchen counter eating a wedge of lightly buttered toast and sipping coffee.

She smiled at her daughter.

"I'm going to miss this," Rose told Jo. "When you girls leave – I'm going to have to learn to cook for myself again."

"Well, no worries," Jo said, sliding on the kitchen stool next to her mother's. "Cause we ain't goin anywhere for a while."

Blair slid a cup of coffee across the counter toward Jo.

"Good morning, darling," she said, favoring her lover with a dazzling smile.

"Good mornin, babe," Jo said, grinning.

Rose cleared her throat.

She knew both girls well enough to understand the look that passed between them; they had clearly had quite a night last night, and Rose didn't feel the need to know anything about it.

Rose picked up the little pile of morning mail at her elbow, sorted through it. Not that it was anything but bills! Bills, bills and more bills – but glancing through them took her mind off of what Jo and Blair had undoubtedly been doing last night when Rose was fast asleep …

"Oh," said Rose, surprised, "here's something from Langley."

"Langley?" exclaimed Blair. She looked to Jo. There was a hopeful gleam in Blair's eye. "Darling … You don't think …"

"That they've realized the idiocy of bouncin us out?" Jo asked skeptically. "That they're beggin us to come back where we belong?"

Blair sighed. "I know. Too good to be true."

"But, hey – we won't know till we read the letter," Jo said reasonably. Why do I always got to rain on her parade? Jo asked herself. Eh … I know … Don't want her to get her hopes up is all … Get her hopes up and then have 'em freakin dashed …

Jo reached for the letter, but Rose shook her head.

"It's addressed to Miss Blair Warner," said Rose, handing the letter across the counter toward the blonde.

Blair took it. She held it tentatively in her hands, as if it might possibly explode.

"Jeez, Langley did enough givin us the bum's rush," said Jo. "Don't think they're gonna send us a letter bomb too!"

"Jo," chided Rose.

Blair slit the envelope flap with one perfectly filed and manicured fingernail.

She opened the envelope and tipped the folded letter into her hand.

It was a single sheet of creamy white paper – fine-quality, of course – standard Langley stationery.

"Who's it from?" asked Jo.

Blair unfolded the letter. She read it through quickly. She drew a deep breath.

"It's … it's from the Langley Stable Master," Blair said.

Jo reached across the counter and took Blair's empty hand, squeezed it.

"Chestnut, is he, I mean … is he OK?" Jo asked tensely.

Blair nodded. Her eyes welled up and a tear slid down one cheek.

"Chestnut is fine – well, I assume he is. But they've decided to charge us a two-thousand-dollar premium. Per month. For Chestnut. Because … because I'm not a Langley student."

"Shit," breathed Jo.

"Joanne Marie," Rose scolded.

"Yeah, yeah – 'Language, Jo'," said Jo. "I know, I know. But for cryin out freakin loud! A two-thousand dollar per month premium? How else are they gonna flippin kick us while we're down?"

Blair wiped her damp face on the sleeve of her fluffy pink bathrobe. "Jo … There's no way … We can't afford this."

"Shh. It's OK, babe. We'll figure it out."

"But there's nothing to figure out. Jo, it's two thousand dollars. We don't have it. And we can't get it. We were barely making the payments as it was. It's … What am I going to do?"

Blair leaned heavily against the counter. Jo dropped off her seat and was around the counter in the blink of an eye, taking Blair in her arms, pulling her close. Blair buried her face against Jo's shoulder.

"Shh. Shh," Jo said soothingly.

For a moment Blair just cried. Jo just held her. Rose gazed sympathetically at the young couple.

Rose had never met Chestnut, but she'd heard both girls mention the horse from time to time. It wasn't just some debutante status symbol, apparently; it was Blair's beloved pet, a childhood friend …

"We'll call Eduardo," said Jo. "We'll ask him to write up some 'cease-and-desist' somethin-or-other."

Blair pulled Jo closer. "I won't put Chestnut in the middle of some legal battle," Blair said.

"'K," said Jo. "'K, fair enough." She kissed Blair's hair. "Babe … I think it's finally time for Plan B."

Blair nodded, face buried in Jo's dark hair. Her shoulders shook; she was weeping now.

Jo stroked her fiancée's hair, her back. "It won't be forever," Jo said kindly.

"I know." Blair's tearful voice was muffled against Jo's shoulder.

"He'll be in good hands – better than at Langley, even," said Jo.

"I'm sure," Blair murmured. "He'll be in great hands. He just won't, just won't …"

"Just won't be here," Jo said. "I know. I know."

With one hand Jo continued to stroke Blair's back comfortingly. The other hand balled into a fist.

Rose knew that gesture of intense frustration; Jo had done that even as a toddler.

"What's 'Plan B'?" Rose asked hesitantly, not wanting to intrude but curious, and wanting to help if there were any way she could.

"Texas," Blair answered, face still pressed against Jo's shoulder.

"The Bar B Ranch," Jo expanded, darting a glance at her mother.

"That's the, the Texas Ranch you talk about?" guessed Rose. "The one where Blair spent her summers?"

Jo nodded.

"Eduardo owns it now," said the brunette. "He bought it from David Warner not too long before Becker took the Warners down."

"Chestnut was born there," Blair said. She took a step back from her lover, wiped at her eyes. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be such a baby. But I'll miss him. I'll miss him terribly."

"'Course you will," said Jo. "But you'll know he's OK."

Blair nodded. "He'll be better than OK. We probably, I probably should've sent him to the ranch sooner. It's just … It helped a little, knowing he was so close, seeing him once in a while."

"It won't be forever," Jo repeated encouragingly.

Blair smiled wistfully. "I'd like to believe that," she said. "It will or it won't. But the sooner I get Chestnut out of that damned place –"

"Here." Jo lifted the telephone receiver, handed it to her lover. "Call Eduardo. You know how flippin efficient he is. He'll have it all arranged before you can say 'Bob's your uncle'."

"Who's Bob?" asked Rose, confused.

"Just an expression," said Jo. "One of Alec's things he says. It means Eduardo'll make it happen real quick and painless."

Blair cradled the handset on her shoulder, dialed a number.

Rose reached across the counter, gently began to uncurl Jo's clenched fingers.

Jo grinned ruefully. "Huh. And here I thought I was taken it pretty calm."

"You are," Rose said. "For you."

Jo squeezed her mother's hand gratefully. "Ma … Thanks."

"For what?" Rose asked, surprised.

"For lettin us stay her a while. For bein so cool about it. We're really … Just … Thanks."

Rose blushed. "Well, for heaven's sake, Joanne Marie, does it make me a saint to let my own daughter stay in the apartment where she grew up?"

"Sure," said Jo. "When your daughter's got a girlfriend, sure. When your daughter's been booted outta school, and she's workin as a freakin plumber's apprentice –"

"You're not an apprentice," Blair said over her shoulder while she waited for Eduardo to answer the phone.

"Babe, I'm fixin pipes and drains and cans all day."

"But you're not an apprentice. You're a … well, I'm not sure what the term would be, but you are not studying to become a plumber, darling. You're merely saving to get back into college."

"Amen!" said Rose.

"I don't know," Jo said thoughtfully. "Plumbers make a pretty good livin, babe. I could prob'ly keep you in a style not much seen in the Bronx."

"You're going to law school," Blair said firmly.

"Law school," said Rose.

Jo laughed. "For cryin out loud – I'm just breakin your chops. You two are too easy!"

"It's not a joking matter, Joanne Marie," said Rose. "You're going to law school and that's that."

"Great. How 'bout I finish undergraduate school first?"

"Oh, you will," said Blair. "And you – Hello? Eduardo? Yes. We just – I see … I see … Then you … Si, Eduardo." Blair's eyes filled with tears again. "You're so good to me. You always," her voice broke a little, "you always have been. Yes. Yes. Si."

Blair hung up the receiver.

Jo snagged the belt loops of Blair's bathrobe, pulled the blonde toward her.

"So … Sounds like Eduardo already knows what's what," said Jo.

"Yes." Blair took a deep breath. "Langley sent him a copy of the letter they sent to me. And Eduardo agrees that it's time for him to have Chestnut driven down to the Texas ranch. He's going to make," she took a deep breath, "to make all the arrangements. He's hand someone on standby in case it came to this."

Jo nodded. "OK. Do you … Maybe we should, you know …"

Blair nodded.

"When's it goin down?" asked Jo.

"This afternoon," said Blair. "Eduardo thought – the sooner the better."

By now Rose was familiar enough with Jo and Blair's short-hand to be able to follow it fairly well.

"You're going to Langley this afternoon?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Jo. "Ma, would you mind tellin Lou somethin? Tell him Blair's great-grandma kicked the bucket or somethin?"

Rose shook her head. "Jo, I'm not telling Lou a lie like that."

"Jeez, Ma, d'you want Blair to get fired for not showin up to work today?"

"She won't get fired," objected Rose. "I'll just tell Lou the truth – that Blair had a family emergency."

"Family emergency?" Jo asked skeptically. "Is sayin goodbye to a horse a 'family emergency'?"

"It is for Blair," said Rose. "And Lou's not a monster, you know. Although I don't think I'll mention that the family emergency involves a horse. And as long as he knows I'll cover Blair's stations, everything'll be fine."

Blair smiled gratefully at Rose. "Thank you."

Rose waved Blair's gratitude away. "Blair … I'm practically … Well, we're like family now."

Jo felt her eyes welling up. "Ma, you know, you're –"

But Rose refused to accept any more praise. "For Pete's sake," she complained, "all I'm doing is being a mom. What's the big deal? Go on, you two, and get ready. Hurry up – I need to take a shower before work …"

Blair's arms were wrapped around Jo's waist, the Kawasaki thrumming between their thighs as they rocketed north to Peekskill.

The fields were snowy, the evergreens that grew right up to the narrow road heavy with ice and snow. Thin flags of wood smoke rose from the chimneys of Westchester County farm houses.

Vroooom! Jo gunned the engine, took the curves in carefully controlled but fast-as-hell turns.

Blair felt safe, as she always did with Jo. No one she'd ever met drove as well as Jo; it was like the brunette melded with the machines she steered, became one with them.

They'd driven these roads so many times over the last couple of years, going to and from the city. The lanes around Peekskill they knew particularly well; when they first started dating, they'd scoured the back roads for places to park and make out …

Blair cast her mind back to those early make-out sessions. Those were sweet memories. And recalling them now distracted her from what they were doing, driving up to Peekskill to say goodbye to Chestnut for a long while.

Bucolic downtown Peekskill blurred past them. They hadn't been to Peekskill since Christmas. It all looked the same. Peekskill always looked the same. It was both comforting and enervating …

Vroom! They were jetting along the road that curved through the gates of prestigious Langley College. They flashed past the lion statues that bracketed the entrance.

Prestigious Langley College, thought Blair. That was how the world thought of Langley. The college had an outstanding marketing campaign, largely fueled by word-of-mouth among the world's finest families. Prestigious Langley College.

And it is prestigious, she thought. Prestigious … and bigoted! Langley's symbol, the lion, stood for bravery and courage and loyalty and nobility – characteristics that, in Blair's opinion, Langley hadn't displayed toward its lesbian scholar-athlete and lesbian artist …

They were at the Langley Stables long before she was ready to be there. The beautiful stone-and-timber buildings smelled of sweet hay, saddle leather, and manure – all comforting scents for Blair, who'd spent some of the happiest times of her life brushing and feeding and watering her horses.

Jo parked in front of the main stable, the most beautiful, most massive structure, where Langley's crème de la crème boarded their horses. She cut the engine, unfastened her chin strap and pulled off her white helmet.

Blair reluctantly unclasped her arms from around Jo's waist. The blonde removed her black helmet, tucked it under one arm.

There was a dark red truck with a horse trailer hitched to it parked near the entrance of the stable. A tall man in a denim jacket and worn jeans detached himself from the trailer against which he'd been leaning. He was a lanky, dour-looking man in his mid-thirties. He wore a straw hat; he tipped it and made a gesture that could only be described as a bow to Blair.

"Miss Warner," he said politely. "I'm sorry to meet you under these circumstances."

"You must be Rafe," she said, gifting him with the same warm smile that she gave to people, no matter the circumstance. But her eyes were sad, and Rafe seemed to perceive that.

"Take as long as you want to say goodbye," said Rafe. "I'll be out here."

"Thank you."

Blair started to walk toward the stable, then sensed that Jo wasn't right behind her. Blair turned.

"Coming?" she asked Jo.

Jo nodded. "In a coupla minutes," she said. "You take your moment … you know?"

Blair considered it. Of course. She would want a few moments, just her and Chestnut saying good bye. And of course Jo would realize that. Jo had probably said goodbye to her Kawasaki when she had to sell it for tuition money back in '83. Jo felt about her bike pretty much the way Blair felt about her horse.

It was dim and warm in the stables. The equestrian complex had a better heating-and-cooling system than the student dorms.

Blair made her way slowly to Chestnut's stable. He was standing at the gate of his stall as if he were waiting for her. She bit her lip. He gazed at her with those large, liquid dark eyes …

He knows, she thought.

She gently stroked the long handsome face. She tilted her forehead against Chestnut's muzzle, and he nuzzled her and whinnied softly.

"Eduardo's going to take good care of you," Blair said quietly. "He's going to be sure everyone treats you like a king, boy. And I'm going to visit you as soon as I can. Me and your Mama Jo."

Chestnut snorted. Mama Jo, he seemed to be saying, could visit or not, as she pleased. Mama Jo could visit, or she could go to the devil. But his Blair … He nuzzled her again, snorted gently. His Blair had to visit him.

"You're my baby," Blair told him. "We've been through it all, Chestnut. And we've got a lot more to go through together. This is just … This isn't goodbye, boy. This is hasta la vista."

A moment later Blair felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned and embraced Jo.

"C'mon," Jo said. Her voice was husky. "Better to do it like a band-aid. Rip it quick; you know?"

Blair nodded. She couldn't speak. Her throat had suddenly closed up. This was it – for who knew how long? This was farewell.

Blair stumbled out of the stables, arms wrapped around her girlfriend, Jo's arm comfortingly draped over her shoulder.

Christ, how we must look! thought Blair. Nobody seemed to be around except Rafe, but if there were any students within eyeshot, they'd be able to confirm the lesbian rumor without any hesitation! But who gives a damn? Blair wondered. At this point, with all we've lost – why even hide it?

Rafe, not being blind, saw Blair's arms around Jo, saw Jo's arm around the beautiful blonde. He looked at them with nothing but respect and a glint of sympathy in his eyes.

"Take care of him," Blair managed to rasp.

"Of course, Miss Warner," Rafe assured her. "I'll treat him like he's one of my own."

Blair climbed onto Jo's Kawasaki.

"Call Eduardo when you get to the ranch, would ya?" Jo asked Rafe. "The dead second you get there, huh? So he can let us know Chestnut got there OK."

Rafe nodded. "Uh, Miss Polniaczek?"

Jo's eyebrows lifted in surprise; not only did this guy know her name, but he'd pronounced it correctly.

"Please take care of Miss Warner," Rafe said. "I'm sorry, I know it's none of my business, but –"

"No worries," Jo said, strangely touched. It had been so long since anyone really seemed to give a damn about her fiancée, had a nice word to say. "I'll take care of her. Thanks, ah, thanks for thinkin of her."

Rafe nodded curtly, seemed embarrassed by his soft-heartedness. Jo felt a little uncomfortable herself.

What are we, coupla wimps here? she thought.

Rafe turned on his boot heel and went abruptly into the stable.

Jo climbed onto her bike.

Blair slid her arms around Jo's waist. Jo took her fiancée's hands and held them, leaned down and kissed them. Screw it if someone sees us.

"Jo?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"I need to see Mrs. Garrett."

"Course you do, babe. So do I."

Jo turned her key in the ignition, revved the engine. She pointed her bike toward River Rock.


Their suite looked just as it had when they saw it at Christmas. It was snug and cozy but somehow sad; it had an aura of not having been inhabited for some time, of having been abandoned.

They lay in the big tub in their bathroom, Blair lying back against her lover while Jo lovingly washed her hair.

Blair played idly with the little pebbles on the mahogany surround, the smooth little rocks that she and Jo had collected from the bluff and the banks of the Hudson.

Through the porthole window they saw the afternoon clouds scudding over the watery silver sun. They sky looked cold – damn cold. Blair shivered and felt Jo's arms tighten around her waist.

Blair looked down at the dark scar above her navel. It's been almost a year, she thought. Almost a year since Dina tried to kill me. Her mouth quirked wryly. Happy almost-Valentine's Day …

Jo had said very little since they left the stables. Not that she'd been a chatty Cathy while they were at the stables, thought Blair.

She's letting me work through this, thought Blair. Jo knows me so well. Better than I know myself sometimes. She's with me, but she's letting me have some alone time …

Jo dried herself with a soft white towel and then dried Blair, the blonde's lush body and long blonde hair. They lay together naked on the big bed, just holding each other.

"Penny for your thoughts," Jo said softly, kissing Blair's naked shoulder.

Blair sighed. She sighed because she loved the sensation of Jo's soft mouth on her shoulder. She sighed because they were leaving River Rock tomorrow.

"Honestly?" Blair asked. "You want to know what I'm honestly thinking? I'm thinking I don't have any clean uniforms," Blair said. "I'll have to wash one before we leave tomorrow."

Jo chuckled. "You always surprise me. Here I was thinkin you were thinkin about the latest dresses in Vogue or the latest hats in Vanity Fair. But no – you're thinkin somethin all practical like washin your duds."

Blair giggled. "The latest hats in Vanity Fair? Darling … This isn't 1889. What kind of hats would they be showing in Vanity Fair?"

"How the hell do I know?" Jo asked cheerfully. "I don't read the glamour rags. That's your area of expertise. That's why you always look so flippin beautiful, babe."

"Compliment accepted. But I won't look too 'flippin beautiful' if I show up at the Coffee Spot in a wrinkled, crinkled uniform!" Blair stretched. "Mrs. Garrett seemed happy to see us. Don't you think?"

"Yeah," Jo agreed. "And just seein her face – always makes the world seem more right. Y'know?"

"I know," Blair said, nodding.

Jo twined Blair's hair between her slender fingers. "Babe?"

"Yes, darling?"

"I know you're gettin along real good with Ma, now, and, Christ, you got no idea how much that means to me. No idea."

Blair kissed Jo's fingers. "Some idea, darling," she said quietly.

"But, babe, if you're really missin Mrs. Garrett, who's like, she's more your mother in some ways than Monica ever was, if you're missin her and you want us to move back up here –"

"No." Blair shook her head. "That is, of course I miss Mrs. Garrett. And we will move back here, Jo. But not yet."

"I can fix pipes in Peekskill," said Jo. "The sinks and cans up here go on the fritz just like in the city."

"No doubt," said Blair. "But until you're back in classes somewhere, it's … I worry about you, darling."

"For Pete's sake. That's sweet, Blair, but I ain't made of glass. I can take it."

"You can," Blair agreed, "but you shouldn't have to. With your mother, in your old apartment, in your old neighborhood – it's good for you, isn't it? Hasn't it been helping, Jo?"

"Sure. It has," Jo said. She kissed the top of Blair's head. "But I can't, you know, hide out in the old neighborhood forever."

"You're not hiding out. You're healing."

"And I think I'm healin faster than you realize, babe. Even bein here this afternoon, it doesn't … Even at Thanksgivin, at Christmas, it was kinda hard to hear Jack talk about practice, and Alec talk about classes, but now, eh, it is what it is. My time's comin. I'll get to grab the brass ring. Fact –" Jo moved Blair's abundant blonde hair aside, kissed the nape of her neck, "fact, every minute I'm with you, it's like I grabbed a thousand brass rings. It's all brass rings, babe."

Blair sighed. "You say the sweetest things, Jo."

"Yep. I'm real great like that," Jo chuckled.

"And I know you're healing, darling. And I do miss Mrs. Garrett – and Nat and Tootie and Alec, and, well, all of our friends. But we're not done with the Bronx, yet. Not quite yet. I want to save more tip money. And I'm enjoying working with your mother. Getting closer to Rose … "

"Yeah, about that," said Jo. "About you and Ma gettin so close. You two gonna let me in on any of these cockamamie plans you're hatchin for me? I mean, other than I'm s'posed to go to law school?"

"Don't worry about it, Jo. All will be revealed. In time."

"Hmm." Jo sounded distinctly dissatisfied with that answer. "Well, it's only my freakin life. Not like you two need to let me in on anythin."

"I'm glad you understand."

"Babe …. I was bein sarcastic."

"Were you, darling? How disappointing. I thought you were being charming and mature."

Jo snorted.

Blair leaned back into her lover's arms.

God, I love the scent of her hair, thought Jo. And how she feels, all warm in my arms …

"Look," Jo said seriously, kissing Blair's hair, "I just … I just wanna be sure bein in the Bronx, it's somethin, that it's, you know, that it's what you really want right now. I'll be OK if we come back here. I will – swear to God."

"Darling," Blair lifted Jo's hands, pressed them to her lips, "have you ever known me to do anything I didn't want to do? Ever?"

"Well …" Jo considered the question. "Huhn. Now that you mention it, Princess – no."

"Exactly." Blair kissed Jo's fingers. "I am in the Bronx with you and Rose because I want to be in the Bronx with you and Rose. End of discussion."

But Jo wasn't ready to let it go. "You really don't feel like you're missin out on anythin?"

"Hmm." Blair turned in Jo's arms, so that she was facing the brunette. "Since when have you been so insecure, Miss Polniaczek?"

"Hey. Whoa. Let's not talk crazy. 'Insecure'? Me?"

"Precisely," said Blair. "What more could I want –" she nestled her head on Jo's shoulder, "besides the beautiful and talented Joanne Marie Polniaczek?"

"Babe. All kiddin aside. If we were here at River Rock again –"

Blair sighed. "If we were here at River Rock again we'd hear about Eastland and Langley every day. Every day, Jo. And Alec and Jack would keep trying to give us money. And Drake and Mrs. Garrett would try to find excuses for us not to have to pay the rent."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess you're right," Jo admitted.

"When we come back to River Rock," said Blair, "we're going to be at least marginally on our feet. The one thing," she blinked back tears that suddenly stung her eyes, "the one good thing that will come out of Chestnut going to the ranch is that we can start banking part of my allowance. Before you know it we'll have you in classes somewhere."

"Babe, that's so generous. But what I really –"

"Shh." Blair put a finger to Jo's lips. Her other hand began trailing up and down Jo's naked torso. "It's been a terrible day, Jo. Can we just …"

"Of course," Jo said solicitously. "I'll hold you, babe. I'm here."

"I want you to do more than hold me, darling," Blair said yearningly. "I want you to make love to me. Please?"

Jo put her hands on Blair's hips. "C'mere," she said tenderly …


Three a.m. Blair woke from a nightmare. She couldn't remember what it was about, but she felt sick in the pit of her stomach.

Blair climbed quietly out of bed. Jo was deep asleep, snoring softly. Blair pulled the white coverlet up over Jo, all the way up to her chin. The suite was heated, but River Rock's radiators were old, and frost glinted on the window panes.

Blair went into the narrow bathroom. She smelled headily of sex, she knew, and she felt restless and not in the least able to slip back into sleep. Blair climbed into the shower and washed herself, using the cake of Jo's Irish Spring soap.

"I like it too," Blair said aloud, quoting the Irish Spring ad campaign. She chuckled. And then, Who the hell am I talking to? she wondered. She shook her head. You're losing it, Blair Warner. Blair Warner-Polniaczek. A little tribulation, and you're going soft in the cranium …

In the bedroom she slipped into a pair of Jo's flannel pajamas, white-and-grey-checked, and her blue bathrobe. Blair felt clean and warm and still annoyingly awake.

Jo stirred under the coverlet, mumbled something utterly incoherent. Blair smiled at her sleeping lover.

Blair left their suite. The narrow hallway outside their suite was so silent, one could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Blair quietly descended the back stairs, the worn wooden steps that had once led up to the servant's quarters.

On the bottom landing, she could hear something … Giggling? A soft, deep male laugh … The sound of a mattress creaking …

Blair blushed. Alec's little room, once the kitchen maid's chamber, was just down the hall. He and Jacqueline must be … celebrating something, Blair thought, embarrassed to have heard them but happy for them too.

She expected the kitchen to be deserted. Tootie and Nat would be fast asleep; they had classes in the morning. Drake and Mrs. Garrett and Petal would be fast asleep – they all had work in the morning.

But Mrs. Garrett was at the big butcher block counter, cutting out sugar cookies with a round cookie cutter. Mrs. Garrett's voluminous red hair was piled in her trademark bun, slightly askew and frowsy at this hour. She wore a purple quilted robe; it looked warm, and it looked hand-stitched.

"Coffee's on the stove," Mrs. Garrett told Blair companionably, as if she'd been expecting the blonde to wander into the kitchen at 3:30 a.m.

"What are you doing?" Blair asked Mrs. Garrett curiously.

Mrs. Garrett lifted her ginger eyebrows. "Blair, you must have seen me make cookies a thousand times before. It's not exactly a mystery."

"True," Blair said. She opened a cupboard, found a clean mug, one of Jo's contributions, a jet black mug with a picture of Yoda on it. Blair sighed in fond exasperation. My adorable dork, she thought.

Blair poured herself a cup of coffee and sat at the table.

"I've seen you bake cookies plenty of times," she told Mrs. Garrett, "but why are you baking these in the middle of the night?"

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "There's something … I'm supposed to cook sugar cookies on the show tomorrow morning, but there's some ingredient missing. Or the proportion is off … Something."

Blair nodded.

"I know that feeling," she said.

Mrs. Garrett slid a spatula under the circles of cookie dough, began placing them on a baking sheet lightly greased with Crisco shortening.

"I can't think what it can be," said Mrs. Garrett. "This is the fifth batch I've made since I woke up. It's not the sugar, or the butter, or the eggs. It's … What could it be?"

Blair drank her coffee and watched her surrogate mother bustle over to the oven, putting one sheet of cookie dough into it, taking a sheet of freshly baked cookies out.

"Mmn," Blair said, sniffing the air. "Those smell divine, Mrs. Garrett."

"Do you think so?" Mrs. Garrett asked dubiously. She tilted them onto a pretty porcelain plate decorated with rosebuds. "Would you mind trying one, Blair?"

"Moi?" asked Blair. "Would I mind trying one of your world-famous sugar cookies? Perish the thought!"

Blair took one of the thin, golden cookies. It was hot from the oven and burned her fingertips, but she didn't mind. She took a large bite, followed by a delicate sip of coffee.

"Hmm. Hmm." She rolled the taste around her educated palette.

"Well?" Mrs. Garrett asked. "What's the verdict?" She leaned toward her surrogate daughter, blue eyes wide, hands pressed together. Mrs. Garrett looked as anxious for Blair's opinion as if Blair were a world-famous culinary critic.

"Hmm." Blair took another bite of cookie, tasted it, took another sip of coffee. "They are different," Blair conceded. "But I can't quite put my finger on it."

Mrs. Garrett threw up her plump hands in exasperation. "See what I mean? It's maddening! What can it be?"

Blair finished the cookie. "Mrs. Garrett, whatever it is, I wouldn't worry about it. These are the best sugar cookies you've ever made."

"I know! I know! And that's what's driving me insane! Because if I can't figure out what it is that I'm doing differently, what's making them taste so delicious, what's missing, or what's been added, I'll never be able to make them again!"

The feisty redhead shook her fists at the ceiling, as if cursing the culinary gods.

"Did you ever write your recipe down?" Blair asked reasonably. "Just compare what you're doing now with the original recipe. Maybe you're using a little more butter, or a little less flour, or a touch more nutmeg."

"Nutmeg?" Mrs. Garrett looked at Blair like the beautiful blonde had grown an extra head. "Nutmeg? I never put nutmeg in my sugar cookies!"

"Really?" Blair reached for another cookie. She bit into it, closed her eyes, considered the taste. "Well I'm sorry to tell you this, Mrs. Garrett, but somehow you put nutmeg into these cookies."

"I did?"

"You did." Blair popped the rest of the cookie into her mouth. "Nutmeg," Blair said decisively, around the cookie. "Just the faintest dash of nutmeg."

Mrs. Garrett grabbed a cookie from the plate, took a large bite. She chewed it, blue eyes widening. "Well – I'll be a monkey's uncle," she said, baffled. "You're right! Nutmeg!"

"Nutmeg," said Blair. "Just a whisper. The Warner palette is never wrong."

"But how did nutmeg get into my cookies? I didn't add any nutmeg. Someone must have – ah!" Her face cleared. "Tootie. She made breakfast this morning. She must have, I don't know, put nutmeg in the pancakes and she didn't clean the sifter properly. Normally I'd be annoyed, but –" Mrs. Garrett took another big bite of cookie, "this time Tootie goofed her way into a cookie masterpiece!"

"Are you planning to share the secret ingredient with your viewers?" asked Blair.

"Of course! Now, what shall I call them? Edna's Nutmeg Sugar Cookies! On the show I'm gonna cut 'em out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter – we're taping the Valentine's Day episode."

Blair's face clouded briefly. Valentine's Day. It had been almost a year since her stabbing …

"Oh, Blair … I'm sorry," Mrs. Garrett said kindly. She reached across the table, covered Blair's smooth hand with her own plump, gnarled hand. "Are you, that is, do you and Jo plan to celebrate this year?"

"Of course," Blair said with spirit. "I'm not sure what Jo has planned. But something. You know we don't let what happened last year run our lives."

Mrs. Garrett beamed at the young debutante. "Blair, I know I've said this before – many times before – but I'm so very proud of you. Both of you. When I think of that defiant young girl that I met so many years ago –"

"Jo was pretty rough around the edges," laughed Blair.

"Well, yes. She was. But I was thinking of you, dear."

"Oh."

"The way you treated me like dirt, and sneaked cigarettes – Boy, did you have a big routine figured out! But it was just an act – just your armor against the world. I saw through that quickly enough."

"You did," Blair said fondly. She squeezed the elder woman's hands. "Mrs. Garrett, if it weren't for you, I don't know where I would be. Or where Jo would be, for that matter. You're the one who convinced her to stay at Eastland. If you hadn't talked her into staying –"

"No." Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "No, Blair. I know it seems like I was the one who talked Jo into staying. And I'm not saying I didn't influence her. The way I reminded her about the sacrifices her mother was making to send her to Eastland, well," Mrs. Garrett patted her bun of red hair, unknowingly streaking it with flour, "when it comes to slinging a little guilt, I'm a pretty tough act to follow. But you, Blair," the woman looked intently at her surrogate daughter, "I think it was Jo knowing you wanted her to stay that tipped the balance."

"Me? You've got to be kidding! Jo couldn't stand me."

"Well, so she thought. So you both thought. But I could already see the friendship forming between you two, that deep bond. I had a feeling you'd get along with each other before I even met her. Just from reading her file. That's why I assigned you as her roommate."

Blair reached absently for yet another cookie. "I still don't understand that," she said. "You must be a tad bit clairvoyant, Mrs. Garrett. How anyone could have predicted that the grungy grease monkey and the spoiled princess would do anything but strangle each other –"

"And you almost did strangle each other," said Mrs. Garrett, nodding, "on more than one occasion! But you worked through it – and how!"

"And how!" laughed Blair. "But … What did you see? In her file?"

Mrs. Garrett shrugged. "I saw a brilliant girl, a kind girl, a leader, who hadn't gotten a lot of breaks in life, whose parents fought all the time, and finally divorced. A girl who had a lot to give, once she got around the giant chip on her shoulder. A girl who deserved to be loved, once she could let other people in. In other words …" Mrs. Garrett trailed off. Her eyes glistened.

"In other words … you saw me," Blair said a little huskily.

"I knew you'd do wonders for each other, once you let each other in," said Mrs. Garrett. "And you have, girls. You have. I couldn't be prouder or happier for you. Even with the set-backs. Even with all the challenges you've faced."

"And the challenges aren't over," Blair said glumly. "Mrs. Garrett – What do you think about Jo going to BCC?"

"It's a very fine community college," said Mrs. Garrett. "And Jo will do well wherever she studies."

"But it's not, I mean, it's no Langley, is it?" asked Blair. She held up one hand. "I know, I know – I sound like snobby Blair Warner when I say that. But, I ask you – how can a girl with Jo's brains, with Langley brains, enjoy going to community college? Won't it be like kindergarten to her? She wants to be learning at the highest possible level and instead, it'll be like, like, finger-painting."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "I don't know, Blair. I don't know how to answer that. Only Jo can answer that."

"Only Jo can answer what?" asked Natalie, breezing in with a slightly goofy smile on her face.

"Natalie. What are you doing up?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "Can't you sleep?"

"I've been sleeping just fine," Natalie said. She climbed onto a kitchen stool. She leaned her chin on one pudgy hand and gazed beatifically at the plate of cookies. "I've been having such wonderful dreams. Such wonderful, wonderful dreams."

"About what?" Blair asked curiously. "Don't tell me you have a new boyfriend already?"

"Who needs a new boyfriend?" Nat asked dreamily. "I have a man-friend. A handsome, fascinating, hard-working, decent, tell-it-like-it-is man-friend."

"Don't let Jo hear you say that," cautioned Blair. "You know how she feels about you dating older men. I know Jo promised to turn over a new leaf and stop threatening people, but she's so protective of you, Natalie –"

"Oh, Jo knows all about it," Nat said airily, waving one hand. "She's the one who gave him my number in the first place. And, yes, our Jo, as Alec would say, is insanely protective when it comes to Tootie and me. But I think she understands how serious it is this time."

"How serious what is?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "Natalie – who are you talking about?"

"Snake." Natalie sighed. "Isn't that a wonderful name? Snake. Snake. My very own personal Kurt Russell."

Blair's eyes widened. "Natalie, are you … Are you saying that you're, ah, falling for this Snake person?"

"He's not a snake person," Natalie said languidly. "Just Snake. Just my Snake. Like that song, you know – 'Just My Bill'?" She warbled in her uncertain mezzo soprano. "'He's just … He's, oh I don't know … Because he's just my Snaaaaake.'"

"Oh my goodness," said Mrs. Garrett putting a hand to her bosom.

"Oh brother," said Blair, shaking her head. "Natalie – you're singing? About Snake? I know you went on a few dates with him, and I know you two are kind of cute together, but – you're singing about him?"

"Snake is the song of my life," Natalie said.

"Good grief!" said Blair. She looked at Mrs. Garrett. "Did you know about this?"

"I certainly did not," said Mrs. Garrett.

"I've been keeping it quiet," Natalie said, with a wave of her hand, still gazing angelically at the plate of cookies. "Because I'm a snob. I am. A middle-class, pseudo-liberal snob. But the more I talk with him; the more time I spend with him; 'He's just my Snaaaake'-"

"Please Nat," interrupted Blair, leaning over and putting a hand on her friend's shoulder, "I honestly can't take another chorus. Nat, what do your parents think about this? I mean, he seems like a nice boy, but he's, well, he's not exactly from your world, is he?"

That seemed to penetrate Natalie's blissful halo. She darted a shrewd look at her older friend. "Right," Natalie said. "Not part of my world. Kind of like a certain denim-and-leather clad biker isn't exactly part of your world."

"Touché," said Blair. "I'll give you that. Although Jo does use all the right knives and forks now. Usually. Unless she's forgotten, which she might have, since we've been subsisting on pizza, bean dip and bologna sandwiches lately."

"Snake can learn about the right knives and forks," Nat said happily. She sighed. "My Snake."

"Natalie," said Mrs. Garrett, "just how serious are you and Snake getting? I have the feeling you're going to need a chaperone."

"We don't need a chaperone," said Natalie. "We don't do anything but hold hands. Even just holding his hand … It's like … Mrs. Garrett, I think I want to marry him."

"You what?" trilled Mrs. Garrett. "Natalie – how did this happen? How did this happen, right under my nose, in my own house, and I didn't even notice?"

"You have a busy schedule," said Natalie. "And I told you, I haven't been advertising my love life these days. The way I feel about Snake, it's so … new. And shiny. And bright. But now … Now I'm ready to share it with the world. Or, well, with Peekskill, anyway."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "Natalie, I'm very happy for you and, er, Snake, and he does seem like a nice boy. But if it's this serious, if you're talking about marriage now, don't you think it might be time to have a little talk with your parents?"

"My mother already had that little talk with me – years ago. And I'm a graduate of the famous Edna Garrett Eastland Academy sex ed class."

"I'm not talkin about that talk, Natalie. Not the birds-and-the-bees talk. I meant the when-is-it-actually-a-good-idea-to-get-married talk. And if you don't mind my saying so, when one is a senior in high school, and is headed for college in the autumn, that is not the best time to marry a long-haul trucker."

Natalie shrugged. "We expect the world to be against us," she said calmly.

"We?" asked Blair. "So … He wants to get married too?"

"Of course. I mean, he hasn't said it yet, but I can tell. A woman can tell these things."

"Oh, a woman can, can she?" Mrs. Garrett asked grimly. She wagged one dust-floured finger at the Eastland senior. "Natalie, I forbid you to see that boy until I've spoken to both of you, together."

"But Mrs. Garrett –"

"No! Not another word! I think I'm a reasonably liberal guardian, but I'm responsible for you while you're in this house, and if things are this serious I need to hear it from both of you and figure out what the next steps are."

"Matrimony," breathed Natalie. "Blissful matrimony."

"That remains to be seen!" said Mrs. Garrett. She wiped her hands on her apron. "And now, I'm going to get a bit of shut-eye before I have to report to the studio. And I'd advise you girls to do the same. And Natalie?"

"Yes, Mrs. G?"

"Tell Tootie to clean the flour sifter next time!"

Mrs. Garrett left the kitchen in high dudgeon.

"The flour sifter? Where did that come from?" wondered Natalie.

"Tootie left nutmeg in the sifter," Blair explained. "It ended up being a good thing in this case – but you know how Mrs. Garrett is about her kitchen tools."

"You mean insane?"

"Exactly."

"Flour sifters, nutmeg – it all seems so silly to a woman in love," mused Natalie.

"You really like him?" Blair asked curiously.

"Why is that so hard for everybody to understand? Sure, he's not exactly like the guys I usually date –"

"Nat – he's not anything like the guys you usually date. Have you thought this through? Have you pictured yourself going to supper at his parents' place – in that neighborhood where you and Tootie broke down? That neighborhood you called, and I quote, 'a total hellhole'?"

"I'm sure it will grow on me," Natalie said confidently. "As long as I don't get knifed. Hey, look at you – Miss Harvest Queen '82. You're living in the Bronx. You're working as a waitress."

"I've been working as a waitress since we all got sentenced to hard labor in Mrs. Garrett's kitchen," Blair said wryly. "And Rose and Jo look after me – more than they think I notice. And I was Miss Harvest Queen '81 and '83, too – why doesn't anybody remember that?"

Natalie rolled her eyes.

"All I'm saying," said Blair, "is you sound like you're getting very serious about Snake, and that's usually the best time to put the brakes on and really think things through. Carefully. And rationally."

"Right," said Natalie. "Because that's what you and Jo did. Put the brakes on, and thought things through. Carefully. And rationally."

"Actually, we did," said Blair. "We talked things over constantly, deciding if what we were doing could possibly make sense, deciding whom to tell about our relationship, and when. We were very careful and rational."

"Well that's you two," Nat said dismissively. "That's not me and Snake. We're two young lovers on the edge."

"The edge of what?"

"The edge. You know – the edge."

"Nat, you're an honors student at Eastland Academy. The only 'edge' you're on is the edge of a 4.0."

"That was the old Natalie. The new Natalie is all about love and taking chances and throwing caution to the winds."

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Is this the same Natalie Green who wears a scarf to bed all winter so she won't get a sore throat?"

"Laugh if you will, Blair, but I'm a new woman. It's like the Madonna song – I feel 'all shiny and new'."

"But you're, ah –" Blair paused delicately.

Natalie rolled her eyes again. "Yes, Blair – also like the song, I am still a virgin. You know, you and Jo have a total double-standard. You two weren't much older than I am when you started rolling around like wild mavericks in heat."

"Do mavericks 'roll around'?" Blair asked dubiously. "Having grown up on a ranch I can tell you that –"

But Natalie waved aside the mechanics of equine love-making. "You know what I mean. Don't evade the point, Blair. You and Jo were barely older than me when you started making crazy love. Why is that OK for the lesbian crowd, and forbidden for regular old plain-Jane Natalie Green?"

"First," said Blair, "you're not a plain-Jane. And secondly, as you might have learned in Edna Garrett's famous sex ed class, while two women cannot get each other pregnant, no matter how much they 'roll around', a Natalie Green and a Snake Robinson can get pregnant."

"Oh. Well … true," Natalie agreed grudgingly. "But I told you, we aren't there yet."

"But it sounds like you're almost there, Nat. It sounds like that might be an edge you and Snake are getting closer to."

"Not till we're married," Natalie said.

"Not till who's married?" asked Jacqueline, striding briskly into the kitchen. There were dark circles under her eyes; she looked exhausted, but she was still as crisp in her movements and staccato in her speech as ever. "First Mrs. Garrett and Drake, then Portia and Gerald – who else in our little crew has decided to plight their troth?"

"Where have you been?" Blair asked Jacqueline curiously. Jack wore a long leather coat over an impeccable Ralph Lauren ensemble. The slender redhead peeled off her leather gloves.

"Fell asleep in my bloody carrel at the library," said Jacqueline, sounding disgusted with herself. "Damned difficult Anthro exam tomorrow, and I nod off over the Yanamamo!"

"The Yana-who-now?" asked Natalie.

"Yanamamo."

"Are they the tribe that speaks in glottal stops? We're going to study them in my Eastland Anthro class."

Jacqueline shook her head. "No. Completely different continent. Well. Bully for me. There's at least one fact I know. I shan't get a perfect zero tomorrow. Or, rather, today." She yawned enormously. "Must catch at least another two hours of shut-eye, but I shan't be able to pop off until you tell me who's getting married."

"No one," Blair said firmly.

"Snake and I," said Nat.

"But not yet. Not for a long time," Blair said firmly.

Jacqueline whistled. "Well, well. The young doctor-to-be and the lorry driver. Sounds quite like a romantic novel. You have my full support, Natalie."

"Finally!" Natalie raised her arms to heaven. "Finally, a little support!"

"Jack is obviously sleep-deprived," said Blair.

"Too true," Jack agreed. "Nevertheless," she went to Natalie and gave her a quick, rather stiff embrace, "you do have my support. You have it now, and you shall have it tomorrow when I'm well-rested."

"Thanks," said Natalie. "It's nice to have a real friend."

Blair rolled her eyes. Natalie stuck her tongue out at the blonde.

"Yes," Blair said drily, "you're completely ready for a mature relationship."

"As ready as you and Jo were."

"You can't keep comparing yourself to us," objected Blair. "Jo and I … Jo and I …"

"Of course," said Natalie, "we know, we know. You and Jo are Romeo and Juliet, you're Tristan and Isolde, you're Lancelot and Guinevere, you're Eliza and Professor Higgins, you're every romantic, mythic couple all rolled into one. But we regular folks deserve our moments of bliss too."

"Hear, hear!" laughed Jacqueline.

"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Blair, mystified and rather stung.

"It means," Jacqueline said kindly, "that it isn't always easy for the rest of us living in the shadow of a perfect, mythic love."

Jacqueline went to Blair, patted her friend fondly on the cheek. "Never mind me, Blair," she said. "Devilish tired, probably hallucinating, and I know I'm going to fail that damned exam. Lord, I could curl up on the floor right here and go to sleep. Be a mate, will you? If you see Alec wandering about, tell him I'm sorry I didn't stop in."

Jacqueline left the kitchen.

Blair reached absently for another sugar cookie. They had cooled, but they were still delicious.

"Now what's wrong?" Natalie asked her friend.

"Hmm?"

"I asked 'What's wrong'? You look like you just saw a ghost."

"What? No. No, I'm just … I'm thinking about something Jack said."

If you see Alec wandering about, tell him I'm sorry I didn't stop in …

But if Jack was at the library all night, thought Blair, and she never stepped into Alec's room, then who was in there giggling with him?

She shivered. Was Alec cheating on Jacqueline? Did he sneak someone into his room, through the window, the way he surreptitiously admitted Jack when they were first courting?

It was an ugly thought, and Blair didn't connect ugly things with Alec.

"Earth to Blair," said Natalie. "Do you read me, Harvest Queen?"

Blair leaned her head on her arms. "I'm so tired, Nat. I'm so tired, but I can't sleep."

Natalie sighed. "I'm sorry. Here you just lost your horse, and I'm rambling on about me, me, me. Well, me and Snake. Or – Snake and me? Snake and I?"

"'Me and Snake' was correct," Blair assured Nat, voice muffled against the sleeves of her bathrobe. She smiled indulgently. "You must be in love if the former editor of the Eastland Gazette needs help with basic grammar. And don't worry about me and Chestnut, Natalie. Eduardo and his staff will take beautiful care of him. They'll treat him like a prince. And I'll visit him this summer. I'll bring Jo. She's never seen the ranch."

"That's it!" Natalie said delightedly, so loudly that the blonde jumped.

"That's what?" asked Blair.

"Texas!" Natalie said happily. "Last summer Italy – this summer Texas! The Musketeers are going to the Lone Star State!"

Blair smiled wanly.

"Or not," Natalie said, noticing that Blair wasn't exactly doing cartwheels at her suggestion.

"Of course you can come to the ranch," said Blair. "We're a family." Including Alec. And who was that in his room?

"Sheesh," said Natalie, "could you say that with a little less enthusiasm?"

"I'm sorry," said Blair, "I know I don't sound enthusiastic, Nat, but I honestly think it's a wonderful idea. I'll run it past Eduardo when I call him tomorrow. I'm sure he'll approve."

"We don't want to put him out or anything," said Natalie. "I just thought, you know, after the rocky year it's been so far, all of us together, the wide open spaces, a sky full of stars –"

"Hmm," Blair said thoughtfully. "If you do go to the ranch, you should bring Snake. Those skies full of stars are very conducive to romance."

"Are they?" Natalie asked, grinning. "Well, well, well. One might almost say 'ha-cha-cha'. Me and Snake and a sky full of stars."

"Snake and I," Blair corrected mildly. "Snake and I and a sky full of stars."

"Snake and me, Snake and I – details, details. I'm just picturing those stars. And my beautiful, beautiful man-child. Except he's not a child. He's a man." Natalie sighed.

Blair glanced idly at the wall clock. She groaned. "It's almost time to wake up. And Jo has to drive me back down to the city; I have a shift this afternoon. I'm going to fall asleep on my feet, spill coffee on everyone, get the orders mixed up –"

"So … It'll be a normal shift," Natalie deadpanned, blue eyes twinkling.

Blair laughed. "Nat, I miss you."

Natalie shrugged. "So, the solution to that is simple enough. It's not exactly a Columbo mystery. I mean, it's like you just said, Blair – we're a family. And this is our home. One of them, anyway."

"Jo needs the Bronx right now," Blair explained. "She needs ... To be reminded of who she is. And where she came from. So she doesn't lose sight of where she can go."

"Hmm. I think you might have a fortune cookie message in that somewhere."

Blair shook her head. She stifled a yawn with a lady-like gesture. "Jo took me for chow mein a few weeks ago. Maybe I read it then. 'Remember who you are and where you came from so you do not lose sight of where you must go.'"

"Well, wherever you got it, I think you're right," Natalie conceded. "But I hope the Bronx will work its magic a little faster, because Tootie and I really, really miss you."

"You do?" Blair was touched.

"Of course we do! You're like our big sisters. When you and Jo are away, who can we spy on? And tease? And torment?"

"Speaking of spying, teasing and tormenting, how are the Georges settling in?" Blair asked curiously.

Natalie considered the question before she answered. "So here's the thing … Remember when Mizu moved in, and she was completely arrogant, and refused to do any chores, and cast a pall over our little family?"

Blair nodded. Do I ever!

"Well, we are now referring to those as 'the good old days'."

"The Georges can't be that bad," Blair objected.

"And yet," said Nat. "Whenever you and Jo move back in, you'll see."

"But what do the Georges do?"

"You kind of have to be here to get it. It's not so much what they do as who they are. And how they are. And, yes, also what they do."

"For instance?"

"For instance, they heard that Tootie and I are nick-named the Snoop Sisters, and now they spend all their time trying to out-Snoop-Sister us. They say, and I quote, that 'a couple of "common Yanks" could never out-spy two noble bastards' – their words, not mine. They're always eavesdropping, creeping around, hiding in cupboards and popping out at us."

"Imagine that," Blair said drily.

"Come on," said Natalie, "Tootie and I weren't that bad."

Blair lifted her perfectly plucked dark brows.

"Well … We couldn't have been quite that bad," Natalie amended. "And we always had some higher purpose when we snuck around."

Blair lifted her eyebrows higher.

"Well, maybe not when we were younger, but we do now," Natalie insisted.

"What is Alec going to do with the children?" Blair wondered. "Has he said any more about settling them with a guardian, or sending them to private school?"

"Well, technically they are in private school. George is enrolled at Eastland, and Sebastian's enrolled at Bates. But they never seem to actually, you know, get to school. Alec drops them off, but then they sneak back here."

"I remember doing that," Blair said sympathetically. "Not at Eastland. But all those schools before I found Eastland. I ran away so many times, got into so much trouble. All I wanted was my mother and father."

"Well all the Georges have is poor Alec. But they're so rude to him. I think it's really starting to get Alec down."

"Where are the Duke and Duchess in all this?" Blair asked curiously.

Natalie shrugged. "Alec's father refuses to see his own children. His wife won't let him! She sounds like the inspiration for Cruella deVille."

"Cruella deVille would be a pale imitation," Blair said. "I've met the Duchess – well, a long time past, when Alec and I were small. But if she's anything like she used to be, she'll never let her husband see his own children."

"She's really that bad?"

Blair nodded. She slipped down off of her kitchen stool. "I'm going to see Alec," she said.

"At four-thirty in the morning?"

"I have a feeling he's not sleeping anymore than we are."

"You think he's awake at four-thirty in the morning?"

Blair smiled. "Mrs. Garrett needs to get that echo fixed …"

Alec's room was near the end of a long hallway that branched off the kitchen. Blair's slippers made little sound on the solid old hardwood floorboards.

She paused outside his door. All was silent. And then she heard it, the sound she'd heard before, a woman's laugh, muffled but merry, and then a creaking of the mattress.

Blair raised her hand to knock, hesitated, then rapped softly on the door.

"Come in!" Alec called, sounding surprised but cheerful enough.

Blair grasped the beautiful old glass doorknob, twisted it.

He doesn't sound guilty. He sounds … Like Alec. Do I really want to know who's in there? Yes … I do …

Blair pushed gently at the door and went in.

Alec was sitting cross-legged on the floor, fully dressed in his blue pajamas.

Tootie was standing on the mattress, a towel wrapped around her head like a turban. She was dressed perfectly respectfully in a Madonna T-shirt and pair of pajama pants. She looked as cheerful as Alec, her eyes sparkling.

"Uh, hi," said Blair, looking from Tootie to Alec and back again.

"Uh, hi, yourself, Aphrodite," teased Alec. "Can't sleep either, can you? I think it was a shite day for all of us. Except little Tootie."

Tootie rolled her eyes. "And again with the 'little Tootie'. When am I going to get a little respect around here?"

"Face it, dear – never," said Alec. "Now, go on. Blair probably needs a laugh too. Come here, Aphrodite." He raised one large, beautiful hand to Blair, helped her to sit next to him on the floor. "Tootie's doing the most ripping imitation of Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne."

"It's not an imitation," objected Tootie. "It's a performance."

"Salome who?" asked Blair as she settled herself next to Alec. Thank God, she thought, profoundly relieved, it's just little Tootie. Funny … Her laugh sounds so grown-up now …

"Salome Otterbourne," said Alec. "Have you never read 'Death on the Nile'? One of Christie's masterpieces?"

"I'm not much for mystery books," said Blair.

"But 'Death on the Nile' dearest – They made a movie based on it a few years ago."

"I'm not much for mystery movies either," said Blair.

"Well it's ripping. Not Shakespeare, mind you, but tragic-comic. And our own little – sorry, our own very grown-up Tootie Ramsey is going to play Salome Otterbourne in Eastland's spring theatrical."

"And that's a good thing?" Blair hazarded.

"Good?" Tootie put her hands on her hips. "Salome Otterbourne is only the funniest character in the story – with the best death! Bang!" Tootie pantomimed staggering back; it looked for a second as if she might actually pitch off of Alec's bed. The mattress creaked under her slippered feet. "Right between the eyes!"

"Actually, I think it was her forehead, Tootie, dear," Alec corrected.

"Hmm. Was it?" Tootie pursed her lips critically. "Between the eyes is more dramatic."

"Well, wherever they shoot you, congratulations," said Blair. "The meteoric rise of Tootie Ramsey, First-Lady-of-the-Theater, continues!"

"Hear, hear!" said Alec.

"It's not the lead," said Tootie, attempting modesty, and almost succeeding, "but it's the plum part."

"The plummiest," agreed Alec. "And we'll be sitting in the front row."

"My mother's even flying up from D.C.," said Tootie. "I can't believe how supportive she's become. She's actually encouraging me to apply to Juliard instead of Harvard. Juliard! My mother."

"And why shouldn't she?" asked Alec. "Even a grim old, er, that is to say, even a dignified personage such as Justice Ramsey can't help but recognize your dazzling talent."

"I know who the killer was!" Tootie intoned dramatically, flinging her arms about and then putting a hand to her makeshift turban. "I saw the killer!"

"Lovely," Alec said, clapping enthusiastically.

Blair smiled fondly at Tootie.

The ringing of a telephone interrupted Tootie's performance.

"Where the hell is it?" Alec wondered, flinging aside shirts and slacks that he had dropped around the room every which way.

"You need a maid," Blair observed.

"Don't I know it!" Alec laughed. "But you Yank commoners have corrupted me; I have this insatiable desire to try to do things for myself these days."

"I hope you're not calling me a Yankee," objected Blair. "I'm a New Yorker. And a Texan."

"And I'm from the Beltway," said Tootie. "And don't say 'commoner', even as a joke. That's what the Georges keep calling us – bless their evil little hearts."

"'Yank', girls – 'Yank', not 'Yankee'. 'Yank' refers to any American, whether they're from Manhattan or – ah, here it is!" Alec found the phone under a crumpled white dress shirt, scooped up the receiver.

"Hello? Oh, I say our Jo, come down and join the party."

Jo! thought Blair. She must be wondering where the hell I am. She must be worried.

"Tell her I'm coming up right now," Blair told Alec.

"Blair says she'll be up in a tic," Alec said into the phone. "Though I think you should come down here. It's better than charades. Oh … Oh … I see." His angelically handsome face went suddenly grim.

"What's wrong?" mouthed Blair.

Alec ignored her. His knuckles went white clutching the receiver. "I see. Very well. Yes. Yes."

Blair tossed aside almost twenty-one years of impeccable etiquette lessons and grabbed the phone out of Alec's hand. He looked too grim and bemused to complain.

"Darling," Blair said into the phone, "what is it?" What the hell could it be? What else has managed to go wrong before the sun's even up?

"Babe, I don't want you to get upset." Jo's voice sounded tightly controlled over the phone. Blair found that both reassuring and terrifying at once.

"Don't tell me whether or not to be upset," Blair said crisply, knowing she sounded petulant and not giving a damn how she sounded. "What happened, Jo?"

There was a beat of silence, and then, "I woke up and I went looking for you," Jo said. "I thought maybe you were washing your uniform so I went to the laundry room and, ah," Jo swallowed.

Somehow Blair knew. The laundry room. Petal.

"She hasn't been eating enough," Blair said thickly. Her mouth had gone desert-dry. "Was she – did she collapse?"

"Blair, it's worse than that. She … Blair, I already called the police. Just sit tight with Alec. I'm going to get Mrs. G and we'll wait for the police together."

Blair felt herself swoon a little. From what seemed like a great distance, she felt Alec's strong arm slip around her shoulders. She leaned against him … But somehow it felt as though he were miles away.

"She's … Is she …" Blair stammered stupidly into the phone.

"Yes," Jo almost whispered. "Stay with Alec."

"We need to call an ambulance," Blair said huskily.

"Babe … There's no … It wouldn't help."

Blair dropped the phone. It slipped from her fingers and thudded on the floorboards.

"Blair!" Tootie exclaimed, frightened for her friend –for both her friends. The blood had drained from their faces. They looked pale and hollow-eyed. Tootie clambered off the bed and crouched down next to the blonde. Alec supported Blair on her right; Tootie supported her Blair on her left.

"Hello? Blair? Babe – you OK?" It was Jo's voice, almost frantic, floating tinny and faint from the dropped handset.

Tootie lifted the phone. She squeezed Blair comfortingly.

"Jo, what did you tell Blair?" Tootie demanded.

"Is she OK?" Jo asked tensely.

"No, she's not OK! She looks like her best friend died! Oh. My God." Tootie's eyes widened. "Jo is it, did something happen to Meg?"

"No, Tootie."

"Portia?"

"No. Listen, Stretch, I need you to take care of Blair right now. OK? I'll explain everythin real soon. Just, right now, if you and Alec can, I mean, if you can all kinda take of each other."

"Can I help? Should I meet you somewhere in the –"

"No!" Jo almost shouted into the phone. "I mean, Christ, Toot, I'm sorry, but that's the worst possible thing for all of ya. Just … Please, stay where you are till me or Mrs. G comes to get you."

"But what happened?"

Jo hung up the phone.

Tootie turned to Alec and Blair. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Someone tell me right now what happened," she demanded.

Blair shook her head. Her throat had closed up with grief; she couldn't manage a single word.

Alec was manfully blinking back tears. He dashed a hand across his eyes.

Tootie's mouth trembled. "You said something about an ambulance," she told Blair almost accusatorily, as if whatever had happened was somehow Blair's fault. "Someone's … Someone's dead, aren't they?"

Blair nodded. She leaned her head against Alec's shoulder. Alec pulled Blair closer and put a brotherly arm around Tootie.

"Who?" Tootie asked.

"Petal," Alec managed.

"No," said Tootie. And then, knowing it was true even as she wanted to reject the truth, "How?"

"She wasn't eating enough," said Blair. "She must've … Malnutrition, maybe. Or her heart gave out."

Alec started to speak, paused, drew a deep breath. His jaw was clamped tightly, a muscle jumping in one cheek. He looked as if he were trying very hard not to be ill.

"Alec – you know what happened," said Tootie. "Tell us. Tell us what happened to Petal."

He shook his head.

"Tell us," Tootie insisted softly. "Alec … She's our friend."

He drew another deep breath. He tightened his grip around the young women as if he were trying to protect them from every bad thing in the world.

"Petal's had a hard road this last year," he said. "And she … It was too much."

Tootie put a hand to her mouth. "She … Petal …"

"Yes," said Alec.

Blair closed her eyes. It was too much. None of it made any sense. That such a good-hearted, kind young woman like Petal could take her own life … Blair remembered cotillions … Summers in Maine, winters in Zurich … The Von Schuylkills were one of the few great old New York families that overshadowed the Warners. Blair's father had always been careful to curry favor with them … Not that Petal had ever given a damn about any of that snobbery.

"She was … a jolly girl," Alec whispered.

Jolly, thought Blair. Yes. Always hearty, friendly, generous. A larger-than-life personality. 'Moose,' her teammates had called her. Big, cheerful, jolly Petal.

"She was," Blair said. "She was a jolly girl. And that's how we'll remember her …"

Part 2

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