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 2

Valentine's Day, 1985. Lake Peekskill Cemetery.

The ground was blanketed with snow, the air cold as cut crystal. Icicles hung from the bare branches of the birch, the elm, the maples. Snow weighed down the green branches of the pines.

We look like a freakin flock of crows, thought Jo, regarding the crowd surrounding Petal Von Schuylkill's final resting place, everyone in dead black coats and hats and gloves. There was a chill breeze sweeping among the graves, lifting coattails and scarves, making them flap like crows' feathers.

Through the bare trees Jo could see, across the lake, the great grey mass of the Von Schuylkill manor. The Becker manor, now, Jo thought bitterly. Fragments of memories kaleidoscoped through her mind, time spent at the great manor, holidays, parties, moments of drama, moments of laughter, of intense tenderness between herself and Blair, moments of joy among all of the friends …

Jo shook her head. A tear slipped down her cheek.

"Here," said a low voice at her shoulder.

Jo felt something small and cold pressed into her hands. She had forgotten her gloves; she had dressed in a sort of stupor that morning. Alec's little silver flask was so cold it seemed to singe her fingertips.

She unscrewed the cap and drank deeply of the Macallan. The scotch burnt her mouth, her throat, burnt companionably in her belly. She screwed the cap on the flask and handed it back to Alec.

Jo was standing slightly apart from the black-clad mob at the graveside. She had friends among them – very dear friends – but she was still not of their world. Jo had admired Petal and even loved her, but Blair, Jacqueline, Portia, Gerald, almost all of the mourners had known Petal since she was a child, had so many remembered dinners and parties and cotillions, so many shared memories …

Tootie and Natalie, Drake and Mrs. Garrett weren't of that world, either. They formed a quartet slightly apart from the other mourners, Drake supporting Mrs. Garrett, who was weeping heartily into a large handkerchief, Natalie and Tootie with their arms around each others' waists.

Boots was there, of course. Petal and she had always been oddly close, Petal always serving as indulgent protector to eccentric Boots.

Blair was bracketed by Boots and Jacqueline; the three of them were weeping, shoulders trembling, arms wrapped about each other.

Christ in Heaven, thought Jo. When Blair and Boots are comforting each other, you know something has totally, absolutely come unhinged in the freakin world …

Gerald, with his spectacles and fringe of ginger hair, stood manfully at the graveside while Portia clung to him and wept on his shoulder. Notwithstanding his diminutive size, he was a veritable Gibraltar for his wife.

Petal's family, the mighty branch of the Von Schuylkill tree who had been ruined by BZ Becker, stood closest to the grave and closest to the vicar who was intoning solemn words.

Moose's family were all tall and broad, as Petal had been, and looked as if they probably often were, as Petal had once been, cheerful and good-hearted beyond measure.

But at the moment they were pale and hollow-eyed; they had that shocked look that you see on the faces of people after some horrifying accident or battle – any unexpected tragedy that sweeps the earth clean of joy and sanity.

The Von Schuylkills had been utterly ruined by Becker. They had had to turn to a minor branch of the family for subsistence; a bitter little family twig that, it was rumored, might have secretly assisted Becker in his machinations.

One of the few things that Petal's family had retained was the family plot in the Lake Peekskill Cemetery, and so it was here that Petal was being buried, across the lake from the manor she had loved so much and had so frequently opened to friends and family.

But Petal's family could not afford to bury her, and so the minor branch was footing the bill – ungraciously enough judging by their pinched expressions.

Petal's cousin, Belmont, a rising young Hollywood star, was there, with a thousand-dollar haircut and thousand-dollar sunglasses and his latest blonde girlfriend on his arm. He had made a half-hearted wave to Natalie, who had ignored him.

"This is so fucked up," Jo whispered, half to herself, half to Alec.

"Yes," Alec said. He took a long pull at the Macallan.

"Did I ever tell you," asked Jo, "about my friend Gloria? The one that threw herself off the school roof when we were kids?"

"No," said Alec. "I'm sorry, Jo."

"And there was this girl at Eastland; Blair beat her in some election; the girl was this real high-strung type, right? Ambassador's daughter. She croaked herself with some pills. Tootie found her."

"I'm sorry," said Alec. "It's so …" He couldn't find words.

Jo slipped her arm through Alec's.

"You knew Petal forever," she said. "It must hurt so much. I'm sorry, Alec."

She felt him shrug. "Petal … was always putting everyone at ease," he said. "She was always making everyone around her comfortable. And happy. She'd have been a fine doctor, no doubt about it. Much better bedside manner than Portia, any road."

Jo giggled and sniffed at the same time. Alec squeezed her arm.

"Yeah," Jo agreed. "Portia's gotta kinda work on that bedside manner thing."

"Rather!" he laughed. "Petal always … She just knew the right thing to say, d'you know what I mean? The right thing to say at the right moments."

Jo remembered Petal welcoming her to the Lion's team as a green freshman, making Jo feel like she belonged, right from the first practice. Jo remembered how Petal had so graciously turned over the captain's torch to Jo when the young brunette led them to nationals …

"She, ah …" Jo cleared her throat. Tears ran down her face. "She saved my life. Well, her and Jack and Portia. When we all jumped off the dock that New Year's."

"That's right," said Alec, remembering. "Blair told me. Damn fool thing you did, jumping in like that. Rather glorious." He took another pull at the flask, tilting his head back.

"You're gonna get sloshed," said Jo.

"I hope so. Although," he shook the flask, looking like a crestfallen little boy when it was silent, "I think I should've filled a larger flask."

"Don't worry, pal," said Jo. She brushed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Plenty more booze back at the house. Drake and Mrs. G bought out the Peekskill packy for the reception."

"Lovely," said Alec. "I intend to be falling-down drunk in two hours."

"What about Jack?"

"She can get falling-down drunk, too."

"But, I mean, all kiddin aside … She and Petal were real close. Don't you kinda, I mean, I'm not tryin to tell ya how to live your life or nothin, but …"

"But shouldn't I remain sober and stalwart for the woman I love, so she can lean on me?" Alec asked with a faintly acidic tone of self-mockery. "Well, you know, Artemis dear, if I were worth a damn, I would. I really would. But being a thoroughly useless, narcissistic dilettante of the worst order –"

"Cut it out," Jo said, hitting his arm.

"Did you know Petal was on my parent's short list? Of eligible wives for yours truly. Pure blood, well-bred, mountains of wealth. I actually considered it at one time. I never felt, you understand, romantic toward her, but she was a chum. She was, as our darling Boots would say, 'top-drawer' as well as top credit rating. I wish …" He shook his head. "It's so stupid after someone dies … Everyone always suddenly wishes something-or-other. Wish I'd done this, wish I'd done that. Bloody rubbish."

"I wish I'd paid more attention to her," Jo said thickly. "I've been so wrapped up in me and Blair lately."

"You've got plenty to be wrapped up in," said Alec. He drew Jo closer. "You and Blair have actual problems, Artemis. Whereas I –" his voice broke a little, "I've got classes and Jacqueline and more money than God. Dammit!" He kicked the snowy ground. "She wouldn't … Petal wouldn't take tuppence! She wouldn't take anything. So damned … Such a noble girl …"

Jo gripped Alec's arm so hard that he could feel her fingernails through his coat and shirt sleeves.

"Now you listen to me, milord," she said firmly. "Petal didn't do this on account of losin her money. Petal wasn't about stupid money. Petal lost …" Jo struggled to put her thoughts into words. "All she ever knew was bein this great hostess, right, this great pal? And when she felt she couldn't be that any more … Alec, I just think she didn't know who she was anymore. If she'd hung in there she woulda got through it, but she just …" Jo dashed a hand across her eyes again, "she just went as far as she could go."

She leaned her head on his arm. Alec patted her hand comfortingly.

"You're right," he said. "You're right – as usual. I won't be maudlin. Petal would have hated that."

"She would," Jo agreed.

"Still," he said, "I am going to get falling-down pissed today."

"Right there with you," Jo said companionably.

"Truly? But aren't you, I mean, don't you plan to stay sober and stalwart for Aphrodite?"

Jo shook her head. "I'm gonna get her drunk, too. She hasn't been sleepin. I mean, even more than I haven't been sleepin. Buncha booze is just what the doctor ordered …"

"I should have seen this coming," Mrs. Garrett was murmuring miserably. Drake tightened his grip around her shoulders.

"None of us saw it," he said soothingly.

"But I should have seen it. Drake … It was my house. She was a treasured guest in my house, and I was completely oblivious …"

"It's not your fault, Mrs. Garrett," sobbed Tootie, hugging the older woman. "Even the Snoop Sisters didn't know how sad she was. And when the Snoop Sisters don't know …"

"Shh. It's all right, Tootie. It's all right," said Mrs. Garrett, putting a motherly arm around the girl.

"You should have seen this coming," Boots was murmuring to Blair. "Why didn't you see this coming?"

"I don't know," said Blair, voice husky. She shook her head. "I've been so engrossed in my own problems. I've been so far away. If I'd just, if I'd noticed something that day, if I'd made more time for Petal –"

"Bollocks!" hissed Jacqueline, loudly enough to elicit disapproving looks from the Von Schuylkills minor.

"I should have seen something, said something, done something," muttered Blair.

"You should have," Boots agreed tearfully. "You should have, Warner."

"Is Blair a bloody fortune teller, now?" Jacqueline demanded angrily. "Where were you in all this, Boots? You were one of Petal's best friends. As long as she had you to look after, as long as she knew you needed her …" Jacqueline's voice broke.

"It's Blair's fault," Boots sobbed. "I could have been there at River Rock. If Blair weren't so insanely jealous –"

"You made a pass at Jo," Blair whispered intently. "A pass. At Jo."

"In September. Ancient history, Warner. You have to learn to let things go. I've been trying to make amends –"

"Keep trying," Blair said through gritted teeth. She put a hand to her forehead. "Not here," she said. "We're not doing this here." She giggled then, unexpectedly, an edge of hysteria to the sound. "Do you, do you remember, that New Year's Eve, when Petal asked Natalie, she asked 'Can't the musketeers attend one gathering without some kind of drama?' But we couldn't. We couldn't." Blair giggled again.

Minor Von Schuylkills cast disapproving glances in Blair's direction. The impoverished Warner heiress was clearly losing her marbles, right before their haughty eyes.

Jacqueline put an arm under Blair's elbow, gently turned her around.

"What's – where are we going?" Blair asked like a baffled child as Jacqueline led her away from the group of mourners.

"You need Jo," Jacqueline said firmly.

Jo … Yes … I need Jo, Blair thought. I always need Jo …

Alec and Jo were leaning against a mausoleum so old and moss-encrusted that no family name could be discerned upon it. Alec was regarding his empty flask with a rueful expression.

"Jo … Darling," Blair sobbed, folding herself into Jo's arms.

"Shh." Jo slid her arms around Blair's waist, held her tight.

"Petal's dead," Blair said, as if she had just heard the news. "Petal's dead."

"Yeah. She is, babe."

"Jacqueline, hug Blair," Alec said abruptly.

"Aye-aye," Jacqueline said, somewhat startled. She put an arm around her friend's shoulders. "Any particular reason why?"

"Because everyone's glancing over here, love. And they don't need to see Jo and Blair clinging to each other like Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw."

"Oh." Jacqueline hugged Blair tighter. Alec continued to hold Jo's arm.

"Very nice," said Alec. "Four friends comforting each other. Nothing in the least untoward."

"I don't care," Blair said rashly, voice muffled by Jo's coat. "Let them see – let them all see. So I love Jo – so she loves me. Who gives a damn? Why are people so petty?"

"Shh." Taking care that Jacqueline blocked the gesture from the mourners' view, Jo dropped a kiss on Blair's golden head. "Look, babe, you wanna declare our love to the world, more power to ya, but let's make that decision when you ain't cryin hysterically and I ain't kinda sloshed."

"I'll feel exactly the same tomorrow," said Blair.

"Great. So, that proves my point," said Jo. "We might as well wait till tomorrow." Only you ain't gonna feel the same tomorrow, thought Jo. You're gonna be hung over as hell. All you're gonna be feelin is a freakin headache, cause I'm getting you drunk off your beautiful ass, Miss Warner. You ain't gonna be feelin any pain tonight … You're gonna have a chance to forget all this tragedy for awhile …

Blair nuzzled Jo's collar. "You remember?" Blair asked. "What Natalie told us Petal asked her, that New Year's? 'Can't the musketeers attend one gathering without some kind of drama?'" Blair giggled.

"Clearly you can't," Portia said quietly. She and Gerald had tread softly across the snow to join the four friends.

Portia was even paler than usual, dark circles ringing her eyes. "I'm in shock," she'd told her friends earlier. "That's why I feel so calm. Also, Gerald injected me with some sort of sedative."

"A very mild one," Gerald had assured her friends.

Now, almost eerily calm, Portia slipped one hand out of its glove, put two fingers on Blair's wrist. Everyone was quiet, even Blair, as Portia took the debutante's pulse.

"The musketeers can't go anywhere without drama," Portia said finally, releasing her friend's wrist. "Blair, dear," said Portia, "you're behaving in a very un-Blair-like manner. I think you're becoming hysterical."

"That's, that's ridiculous," giggled Blair. She covered her mouth with one hand. It was a terrifying feeling, laughing without wanting to laugh.

"You need a sedative and rest," said Portia. "What I recommend is that Jo get you into bed as soon as possible."

Blair giggled again. She buried her head against Jo's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Nothing's funny – but everything's funny. It hurts so much inside, but I just want to laugh."

"Yes, dear," said Portia. "That's a good layman's description of hysteria. As I said." Portia turned to Jo. "Can you get some bourbon into her? And I think some rigorous sex is in order. Wear her out a bit."

Jo went beet red to the roots of her dark hair. "Portia – Christ! For cryin out loud! We're at a funeral!"

"What?" Portia looked around. "We're all friends here, aren't we? I'm merely telling you what you need to do for your lover."

Alec shook his head. "Bedside manner," he murmured. "Too right!"

"Sex is often extremely therapeutic during the grieving process," Portia explained helpfully. "Provided the parties can manage to become aroused. Do you think you can –"

"Sure, sure, whatever," said Jo. "Just – shut up about it, will ya, Portia?"

"Of course. As long as I made myself clear."

"No worries there!" said Alec, eyes dancing.

"And you can put a sock in it," Jo told Alec. "A sock and a shoe."

"As you like," Alec said kindly.

"And don't be nice to me. Dammit. Dammit." Jo glanced over at the graveside, where the vicar was still speaking in low, solemn tones.

"Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed," said the vicar, " … in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life … the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body …"

Jo shivered. Would Petal become an angel? Was she in heaven?

Moose, Christ –why'd you go and do it? Why dincha come talk to me?

Aloud Jo said pettishly "How the hell long do these damn funerals take, anyhow? When do they start droppin the clods of dirt? When does this damn freak show wrap up?"

"It's like all religious ceremonies," Blair said into Jo's coat. "Clerics like the sound of their own voices. It's all a big vanity trip."

"Hey. Hey, let's not be gettin all sacrilegious, babe," Jo said.

"Why not? Do you think if there's a God he'd have let this happen to Petal? Do you?"

Some sort of damn burst, then … Blair clung tightly to Jo and cried stormily against her bosom.

"Blair … Babe," Jo said helplessly, a little frightened, stroking Blair's hair, patting her back and her shoulders. "It's OK. We're gonna get you back to River Rock, we're gonna get some bourbon in you, we're gonna, ah, it's gonna be OK. I promise. I promise, babe."

"She's dead, Jo. Petal's dead. How is it possibly going to be OK?"

There was an uncomfortable silence. No one had an answer.


Mrs. Garrett had invited everyone to River Rock to toast Petal and commiserate after the funeral.

"It's only right," Mrs. Garrett had told Drake. "She lived with us. She was one of us."

"Of course …" He had agreed warmly.

The Von Schuylkills minor all pled pressing appointments of one sort or another and did not attend.

Petal's immediate family accepted graciously. They sat in a stunned but dignified stupor at one end of the vast music room, drinks untasted in their hands. Petal's older brother Brand resembled her so much it was uncanny. It made her friends ache a little bit, whenever they looked at him, remembering his sister and all the good things she had done for them, said to them …

Mrs. Garrett was hostess. Drake mixed drinks. Natalie and Tootie handed them round.

Alec excused himself for a few moments to check on his half-brother and half-sister. He had kept the Georges away from the funeral – it was too much for them, he thought, after the recent death of their mother. The Georges disagreed, and he found them sulking in their small suite, and inclined to be even ruder than usual.

When he returned to the music room he played subdued classical music on the piano – nothing too sad, nothing too upbeat. Jacqueline, Boots, Portia and Gerald shared happy memories of Petal with her family – jolly things Petal had said or done, her many acts of friendship and generosity …

Blair sat in a sort of catatonic state on the edge of one chair. As soon as decency allowed – Jo was beginning to develop an inner clock for the social niceties – Jo nudged Blair gently with one foot.

"Hmm?" Blair asked, sounding a million miles away.

"Let's go upstairs," Jo said quietly. "Let you rest a little bit. Like Portia said."

"Oh. Sure," Blair agreed dully.

Jo snagged a bottle of scotch from the wet bar on their way out of the room …

When they were in their suite, Jo locked and bolted and chained the door behind them. She wanted complete privacy. Whether they followed Portia's full prescription or not, Jo didn't want anyone barging in and bothering them, as was wont to happen at River Rock.

When Jo finished securing the suite door, she saw that Blair had already left the sitting room.

"Babe?" called Jo. No answer.

Jo peeled off her dark blazer, tossed it onto the divan. "Babe, you already lyin down? Blair?" Still no answer.

Jo sighed. She opened the bottle of scotch, poured two fingers into a glass on the coffee table, then a couple more fingers for good measure.

This'll help you sleep, babe, Jo thought. Better than knock-out drops …

Blair wasn't in the bedroom. The door to the bathroom was half closed.

"Babe?" called Jo, setting the glass of bourbon on Blair's nightstand. "Babe – you OK in there?"

No answer.

Jo went to the half-closed door, rapped lightly.

"Babe. You OK? Can I come in?"

Silence. Tentatively Jo pushed the door open.

Blair sat on the edge of the tub with its mahogany surround. She had dropped her coat on the floor, and kicked off her shoes. In one hand she held a smooth stone that she and Jo had found on the banks of the Hudson below River Rock. Blair ran her thumb over the stone's smooth surface, gazing at the dark pebble as if it held some sort of mysterious answer for some sort of mysterious question.

Jo went to her lover. She sat on the surround next to Blair, put an arm around the blonde's shoulders.

"Got a drink for you," said Jo. "In the bedroom."

"Portia's right," Blair said quietly. She set the stone on the edge of the tub.

"Yeah? What, you mean – you want a sedative?" Jo asked solicitously. "We can ask Mrs. G to get her nurse's bag –"

"No. Not a sedative," said Blair.

She turned to face her lover, looked directly into Jo's blue-green eyes. It was the first time they'd looked at each other, really looked at each other, since it happened.

Jo gasped. There was so much pain in Blair's eyes. She'd never seen Blair look so sad, not even when her parents' froze her out, not even when she learned she'd have to send Chestnut to Texas …

Do I look that sad? Jo wondered.

Do I look that sad? wondered Blair, seeing the haunted sorrow in Jo's eyes.

Blair held Jo's face between her hands, leaned forward, kissed Jo long and soft. She tasted Jo's tears.

"Make love to me," Blair murmured against Jo's mouth. "Please?"

"Of course, babe," whispered Jo. "Do you … Here?"

Blair shook her head. "Bed," she murmured.

Jo lifted Blair in her arms. She carried the blonde to the other room, laid her gently on their bed. Jo slipped out of her black shirt and black slacks and lay down next to her lover. She leaned on one elbow, slowly unbuttoned Blair's black silk blouse.

There was nothing seductive about the gesture. Jo loosed the buttons as if Blair had been wounded, as if Jo were going to tend to an injury. When all of the buttons were unfastened, Jo opened the blouse, revealing the black silk bra beneath it. Jo lightly ran her finger along the edges of the bra.

"What do you want me to do?" Jo asked.

"Hold me," Blair said quietly.

Jo held her. She kissed Blair's forehead, her eyes, then found her mouth and kissed her softly, for a long time, comforted by the warmth of Blair's torso pressed against her own.

After a time Blair deepened the kiss. Her tongue found Jo's. Blair half rolled onto her lover, gripped Jo's shoulders so tightly it almost hurt.

"Bra," murmured Blair.

"Mmn," said Jo. Dexterous, practiced fingers found Blair's bra clasp, released it. Blair's heavy pale breasts tumbled free. On her back, Jo slid down the bed, so that Blair's breasts were pendant just above her.

Blair squeezed Jo's shoulders harder. "Jo, could you – yes."

Jo held Blair's left breast, kneaded it.

Between her legs Jo felt a sudden ache and wetness. Yes. Portia had been right. This was what they needed, to release their tensions, to find some peace, if only for a few moments. But –

"I can't," muttered Blair.

She rolled away from Jo.

"Dammit," Blair muttered. She lay on her back, one arm at her side, pillowing the other behind her head.

Blair was unselfconscious when it came to her beautiful naked breasts. They were tantalizingly close to Jo, whose sex was actually hurting, she was so aroused …

Jo rose up on one arm, regarded Blair. She brushed her fingertips along Blair's stomach, avoiding the dark scar above her navel.

"Babe … You … You ain't in the mood now?" Jo asked, sounding concerned but not a little disappointed.

Blair shook her head. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry, Jo. I know I should win the 'lunatic of the year' award with these sudden mood swings –"

"Not at all," said Jo. "Shh. Not even. If you ain't in the mood, you ain't in the mood." She draped an arm across the blonde's stomach, closed her eyes. "We can just lie here," said Jo. "Just bein next to you, I feel better."

"Do you?" Blair asked curiously.

"Yeah. I do. I remember," Jo brushed her fingers over Blair's stomach again, "I remember how sad I was after we got kicked outta Langley. There was plenty of times I didn't wanna make love, but it always made me feel better just holdin you."

Blair smiled sadly. "Darling … That's so sweet."

Jo shrugged.

"It is," said Blair. "But I really am sorry. It seemed like, in the parlance of the Bronx, your motor was getting pretty revved up."

"Not at all," Jo lied kindly.

"Jo … You don't have to protect my feelings."

"I'm fine," Jo insisted.

"I don't feel like being made love to right now," Blair said quietly. "But that doesn't mean I don't feel like making love to you."

The blonde leaned down and pressed her mouth to Jo's mouth.

Jo returned the kiss, but already she could feel her arousal subsiding. She held Blair close.

"Not now," Jo said quietly. "Let's just fall asleep together."

"All right." Blair pressed her face against Jo's neck. "I think … I think I can sleep now …" Blair murmured.

Jo's hand found Blair's hair, fingers tangling in the long blonde locks. Jo stroked the blonde's hair lovingly. "I can't believe we get to be this close the rest of our lives," Jo mumbled.

Blair smiled. She dropped a kiss on Jo's throat. "Only if you play your cards right," said Blair.

"Hey … No one plays cards like me," Jo said.


They slept through the afternoon and through the night.

Jo woke with the murky dawn light filtering through their high windows and wavering on the ceiling.

Jo stretched, cracked her back and her neck. She felt better, physically, anyway, than she had in several days. Her muscles felt loose instead of tense and aching. Her head felt clearer.

Blair's head was resting on Jo's stomach, but Blair was already awake. Her warm brown eyes looked lovingly at Jo.

"Mornin," Jo said a little shyly. She hadn't know Blair was already awake and watching her. "You sleep good?"

Blair nodded. "You?" asked Blair.

Jo nodded. "Yeah." She grinned. "Fallin asleep in your arms, that was better than if you clonked me on the head with a mallet, Blair."

"Hmm. I'll take that as a compliment."

"You should," Jo said fervently. She stretched again.

"Darling?"

"Yeah?" asked Jo, yawning happily.

"Do you know what I want us to do this morning?"

Jo shook her head.

"Part of the wonderfulness of you, babe," Jo said, "is I'm never a hundred-percent sure what the heck you're gonna wanna do next."

"What I'd like to do this morning," said Blair, "is to take a ride on your bike."

Jo glanced up at the windows, and the murky grey light flowing through them. "You sure?" Jo asked doubtfully. "It looks like it's colder than a witch's, er, nose out there."

"If you're still tired –" Blair said solicitously.

"Not at all," said Jo. "C'mon. Let's take a ride. No one else'll be on the road yet. It'll be like we own the whole freakin world, babe."

And it was.

The Peekskill countryside was still locked in slumber. Now and then a light burned in a kitchen window, some farmer breaking his or her fast with coffee and eggs before tackling the day. Rags of wood smoke blew from chimneys.

Jo tore along the winding roads, Blair clinging to her waist.

She misses Chestnut, thought Jo. Usually to deal with somethin so sad, she'd be ridin Chestnut through the woods. But she can't, so … We're on my bike …

The woods … It gave Jo an idea.

A pretty crazy-ass idea, thought Jo. But it might help her …

Jo remembered a narrow old lane coming up … Yeah … Just around that bend …

Jo cut over onto the narrow lane. It plunged through dense forest, the branches growing right up to the edges of the lane so that if they wanted to, if they were insane enough to do it, they could reach right out and grab the boughs.

It ain't the same as ridin Chestnut through the woods, thought Jo, but hopefully it's close enough …

The lane narrowed slightly. The tip of a branch slapped Jo's helmet. Then she saw it – a motor-cross trail. There, between those two pine trees …

It was crazy in the snow, because you couldn't see anything underneath, rocks or sticks or dips, but Jo cut over and roared onto the motor-cross trail, into the woods.

The raced up and down hillocks, actually threading between the trees now, and now and again boughs slapped Jo's helmet and one almost knocked her flat.

This is so stupid, Jo thought.

But her heart was hammering in her chest and she felt alive. She felt the blood pumping through her veins and tingling in her cheeks and fingertips. She was wearing her helmet and gloves, of course, but it almost felt as though the freezing breeze was raking her face and hands. It was an illusion brought on by the excitement of dashing through the winter woods …

She never saw it coming, the trail's sudden twist to the right. The trail swerved, but Jo kept driving straight ahead. At the very last moment she realized she'd lost the trail, she jerked the handlebars but it was too late – it was a case where a second's miss was as good as a mile …

They were airborne for what seemed like forever. Jo adjusted the handlebars and front wheel for the crash, hands moving and weight shifting instinctively, knowing it was probably going to be very bad but trying to minimize the damage …

When the trail had veered right Jo had driven them straight off a bluff.

It felt like they were airborne forever, but it was only a second. It was – lucky for them – a very small bluff.

They landed in a deep snow drift. Its soft depth saved their lives – that, and the fact that there were no boulders or splintered logs under the drift.

Jo was dazed for a few seconds. She was in snow up to her waist, and her shoulder hurt, and her left knee burned.

Ignoring her own pain she struggled off the bike, which was completely buried in snow; she twisted around.

"Blair!" she shouted into her helmet visor, her own voice echoing crazily in her ears. "Blair! Are you OK?"

Blair was struggling out of the drift too. If she said anything, it was muffled by her black helmet. But she gave Jo a thumbs up sign.

Jo took a deep breath. That was when she realized that she had stopped breathing for a moment. She took another deep gulp of air. Blair's not dead. My girl's not dead.

Jo leaned forward, trying to help Blair scramble out of the snow drift, but her knee burned so much … Ultimately it was Blair who helped Jo to stagger onto solid, hard-packed terra firma. A dark stain soaked through Jo's jeans at the left knee.

Blair wrenched off her helmet. She knelt next to Jo.

"This looks bad," Blair said.

Feels bad too, thought Jo. Feels like someone's holdin a damn red-hot poker to my knee.

But aloud, "For Pete's sake," Jo said, rolling her eyes. "Who are you, Marcus Welby? How do you know if it looks bad or not? Don't be dramatic, babe."

"Jo, it's all blood," Blair said tersely. "A lot of blood. Can you stand?"

Jo rolled her eyes again. "Can I stand? I'm standin right here, Blair. So, yeah. I can stand."

"But can you walk?"

Jo took a tentative step. She grimaced. When she put weight on her left leg, the red-hot poker suddenly felt like a flame-thrower torching her knee cap.

"Son … of … a … bitch," hissed Jo.

"So … You can't walk on it," Blair said matter-of-factly.

"I can walk on it, I can walk on it," Jo insisted. "It just hurts, that's all. When are you gonna realize I ain't made of glass, babe? I'm a freakin Lion. Well … I was." She took a step on her right foot, then the left again. "Son of … a … bitch," she muttered, gritting her teeth.

It occurred to Jo, even through the intense pain, that Blair had an incredible case of helmet-hair, blonde locks partially mashed down on one side of her head, and sticking out in wild strands on the other side.

Jo laughed.

Blair continued to gaze at Jo's bloody jeans, absently brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes, making her helmet-hair even crazier.

"What on earth can you possibly be laughing about?" asked Blair.

Jo shook her head. "Babe – I hope you never know."

"So … OK," Blair said decisively, glancing from Jo's bloody knee to the woods. "I'll hike back to the main road and flag someone down. I'll lead them back here and they'll help us pull your bike out of the snow and transport us to the Peekskill ER."

"Hike back to the main road? What are you – Grizzly Adams?" Jo asked incredulously. "Do you know how far off the main road we are right now?"

"Do you?" Blair challenged.

"Uh, no, actually I don't. Not in miles or whatever. But pretty damn far. And that trail kept switchbackin – you don't even know what direction to go in."

Blair shook her head. "Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo. When are you going to realize that you are engaged to a woman of many talents? After riding horses my entire life, I have an impeccable sense of direction."

Jo lifted her eyebrows. "Yeah?"

"Of course. Do you think I rode Chestnut out on the trail without knowing how to navigate by the sun and stars?"

"Really?" Jo was impressed. "Like a cowboy or somethin?"

"Cowgirl," Blair corrected. "And yes, really. That," she nudged her kittenish chin, "is northwest, and that's where the road is. And no, it's not close; it will probably take me an hour or more to walk there. But you can't walk that far on your injured leg – not in this terrain."

"OK. Yeah, that's true," said Jo. "But if we can get my bike outta the snow, we can both ride outta here together. That way you don't leave me behind to be a snack for some hungry bear."

Blair looked around the eerily quiet woods. "Are there really bears out here?" she asked nervously. Texas terrain she knew. Peekskill's wooded terrain was still largely mysterious to her.

"How the hell do I know?" asked Jo. "The only wilderness I know is the Bronx."

"There can't be bears here," said Blair, sounding more like she was reassuring herself than Jo. "Squirrels, maybe. Skunks."

"What about wolves?" asked Jo. "Do they have wolves out here?"

Blair took Jo's hand, drew closer to the wounded brunette. "I don't know," said Blair. "Darling … How big do wolves get?"

"I don't know, babe. And I honestly don't wanna freakin find out."

Jo leaned down toward the snow drift in which her beloved Kawasaki was buried. Jo put most of her weight on her right leg, but there was still pressure on her left leg, her left knee, and she grimaced.

"C'mon, babe," said Jo. "Help me. I can't do this by myself."

Blair put a hand to her chest. "Pardonnez-moi. Is the great Jo Polniaczek actually admitting that she needs help with something?"

"Yeah, yeah – you're a laugh-a-minute, babe. We gotta get you on the 'Tonight Show'."

Together they shoved their gloved hands into the piles of gleaming snow, careful not to lean out too far and plunge into the deep drift.

"I got … somethin," said Jo. "Handlebar." She tugged the metal rod around which her gloved hands had closed.

"I've found … a fender?" Blair hazarded. She pulled too.

They grunted and tugged and bumped into each other. Jo almost fell over several times and at one point Blair found herself toppling unceremoniously onto her butt on the cold snow.

"Christ – the 'Three Stooges' ain't got nothin on us," Jo said, shaking her head.

"There are … only …. two of us, darling," Blair pointed out, huffing and puffing as she once again tried to extricate whatever it was she had found in the deep drift.

"Yeah, well," Jo was huffing and puffing too, "so … Laurel and … Hardy, then. Still … freakin … ridiculous."

Finally Jo pulled the handlebars free at the same time that Blair pulled the back wheel.

"Ooph!" they said in unison as they stumbled back. The motorcycle would've flattened Jo but Blair leaned her weight against it, forestalling its tumble.

"These things are heavier than they look," Blair panted. "When we're riding her she seems light as a feather. But lifting her …"

"Yeah," panted Jo. "But we did it, babe. We freakin did it!"

Blair was less enthusiastic. "The question now," said Blair, "is whether the engine will start."

"Of course it will," said Jo, sounded a little insulted on her beloved Kawasaki's behalf. You hear me girl? thought Jo. You better start. I'm sorry I drove you off a damn cliff, but we really need you to work now …

It wouldn't start. Jo tried several times.

"Son of a bitch," she muttered. "I think the battery's frigged up from the snow. Or the cold. Or the ice."

"Or all of the above," said Blair. She sighed. "Maybe if you lean on me, darling we can walk to the main road –"

"No. I ain't gonna lean on you and slow you down. Tell you what I am gonna do. I'm gonna push-start her."

"You're going to what, now?"

"Push-start her. Roll-start her."

"And for those of us who do not speak motorcycle, that means - ?"

"I don't know how to make it any plainer, babe. I'm gonna push her – over there, I think, where there ain't too much snow on the trail and it's kinda flat. I'm gonna push her and then put her in second and I'm gonna pop the clutch."

Blair shook her head. It was as if Jo had begun speaking ancient Babylonian.

"All you need to know," said Jo, "is it's gonna start the bike. I think. I hope." She took a tentative step, hissed in pain.

Blair put a hand on Jo's shoulder. "Darling, I don't know what a roll-start is, but if it involves you putting any weight on that knee, I don't think it's a good idea."

"You're gonna have to do it," said Jo.

"Do what?"

"Push-start her."

"How? Darling, I don't mean to be obstructive, but I don't even know what that means."

Jo took a deep breath. The freezing air burned her lungs. The morning sun was finally climbing higher above the horizon, but it was giving off little heat.

"Babe, you know how you've been so great about learnin about my world?"

"Yes. I've been wonderful," Blair agreed readily.

"Well, I need you to learn another part of it, like, right now. I need you to listen real close while I really introduce you to my baby …"

The next few moments blurred in Blair's brain. Jo explained gears and shifting and clutches and drives and motors.

"And that's all there is too it," Jo finished. "You got that, babe?"

Blair felt literally sick in the pit of her stomach. Do I got that? Not even close! And our lives could be riding on this …

Jo correctly read her fiancée's expression. Jo touched Blair's crazily matted hair with gloved fingers.

"Listen, Princess, I know you ain't never gonna be the queen of the gear-heads, but you got this. You do. All that complicated stuff you know, about history and architecture and art and fashion, how everythin kinda connects to everythin else, just, you know, apply it to this. It's roll, shift, pop, gun it. Easy-peasy. You got this, babe."

"Of course. I've got this," Blair said gamely, with a sickly smile.

The woods were very quiet. Faintly Jo heard a bird's wings flutter as it settled on a distant branch. A clump of snow thudded softly as it fell from a branch to the ground.

Impulsively, Jo pulled Blair close and kissed her tenderly.

"What was that for?" asked Blair, pleased but surprised, as Jo released her.

"Cause you're so freakin brave and I love you so much," said Jo.

Blair put a hand to her bosom. "My God," she said. "You think we're going to perish out here!"

"Not at all." Well … probably not, Jo thought, trying to be hopeful.

"You think we're going to be stranded here and some wolf is going to devour us," Blair accused.

"Not even." Cause it'd probably be a bear …

"We are not going out this way," Blair said decisively, taking the handles of the Kawasaki. "I'm going to roll over this bike –"

"Roll-start," Jo corrected gently. "Roll-start."

" – And we'll be back at River Rock in time for breakfast."

Blair pushed the Kawasaki along the frozen trail.

Please don't let me slip! thought Blair.

Please don't let her slip! thought Jo.

OK. OK, thought Blair. This is the gear shift thingy … And this is the clutch thingy … And this …

She pushed, she tried not to slip, she fumbled with controls, she awkwardly straddled the bike and –

VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

She felt the Kawasaki come alive beneath her.

"Yeeeeeeeeees!" shouted Jo, punching the air victoriously. "Babe! You did it! You did it!"

"Jo – help!" shouted Blair.

"I'm right there, babe, right there."

Knee burning so fiercely it brought tears to her eyes, Jo leaped past Blair and flung herself onto the front seat of the motorcycle. She grabbed the handlebars. Behind her she felt Blair snuggle against her back and wrap her arms around Jo's waist.

It had never felt so good to be astride her beloved Kawasaki, with Blair clinging to her …

Jo followed the narrow, hard-packed trail as it threaded between the trees. She drove slowly, knee aching every second as her legs squeezed the sides of the bike, maintaining their balance.

I can do this. It's just till we get home.

She drove the bike carefully through the woods, in the direction Blair indicated.

Who knew Blair has a sense of direction like the last of the Mohicans? I thought her sense of direction only worked at Sak's and Bloomies …

When they finally found the main road, Jo literally felt a few tears of relief spill down her cheeks. She felt Blair hug her more tightly.

It was only a few moments more before the beautiful timber-and-fieldstone mass of River Rock appeared on a bluff above the Hudson.

Jo felt her heart swell.

Home, she thought. We're home.

And then, as she realized what she'd thought, River Rock really is our home now. And I miss it. And I wish … I wish Petal had been able to feel that way about it …

After they glided into the garage Jo cut the engine. They staggered off the bike, legs trembling with relief and exhaustion. Jo collapsed onto a covered pallet of soil. In the spring, she was going to use the soil to plant a new garden.

Blair sat next to Jo, put an arm around the brunette's shoulders. They sat quietly for a moment.

"Well," Blair said finally, "that was quite an adventure."

"Yeah," said Jo.

"We've got to bring you to the ER," said Blair.

Jo shook her head. "My knee's not that frigged up, I don't think. If it was I couldn't've driven us home."

And there it was again, that word – home.

"Portia can look at it," Jo continued. "And if she says I need to see a real sawbones, so be it."

"All right."

"Yeah?" Jo asked, surprised.

"Yes."

"You ain't gonna argue and say I'm a hard-headed Neanderthal and how come I don't just go to the ER like a normal, sensible person?"

Blair smiled. She leaned her forehead against Jo's.

"Darling, I've already accepted that you're a hard-headed Neanderthal. You wouldn't be you if you didn't try to avoid seeing a doctor."

"Wow. That's really mature and sensible of ya, babe."

"Yes. And, also, I know that if you really need a doctor, Portia will tell us. And I'll bring you to the hospital, even if I have to hog-tie you and sling you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes."

"Huhn. Can you really do that? Hog-tyin and stuff?"

"I'll have you know I was Junior Rodeo Champ three years in a row."

Jo cocked an eyebrow. "Well, Warner, I'll give you this – you got levels. You definitely got levels."

"And don't you forget it," said Blair, nodding.

"I suppose," Jo said thoughtfully, gazing into her lover's warm brown eyes, "that it could take a lifetime, prob'ly, gettin to know all those levels."

"Probably," said Blair, leaning in for a kiss …


"Idiotic," said Alec. "Idiotic, idiotic, bloody-flipping idiotic!"

He was so angry, he was almost purple.

Jo had never seen him so angry.

"Moronic," said Natalie, glaring. "How about that one? Moronic!"

"Stupendously stupid!" said Tootie, hands on her hips.

"Will everyone please be quiet?" asked Portia. "If I don't concentrate my hand will slip and the stitches will be crooked."

"Good!" said Natalie, eyes blazing. "Jo deserves crooked stitches! Of all the ridiculous, moronic –"

"Idiotic," said Alec.

"Stupendously stupid," added Tootie.

" – Insane things to do," Natalie finished. "What were you thinking? Clearly you weren't thinking! We just lost one friend. Did you think about that? Did you? Are we supposed to bury you two now?"

"Christ," complained Jo, "can't ya yell at me after the blindin freakin pain is over?"

"No," said Natalie. "We're going to yell at you now, when it will really sink in."

Jo was sitting on the butcher block table in the kitchen. River Rock's kitchen had been turned, temporarily, into a makeshift operating room. Mrs. Garrett had pots of water steaming and bubbling on the burners of the massive stove. Everyone was gathered around the massive table, where Jo, the left leg of her jeans cut off above the knee, sat and squeezed Blair's hand while Portia stitched a nasty gash around her knee.

"Gimme another slug of Macallan," Jo said to Alec.

"Ha!"

"C'mon, be a pal," Jo said plaintively. "It ain't like this hurts or anythin, I mean, it almost kinda tickles – ow! Hey, Portia, a little delicacy there, maybe, huh?"

"Sorry," said Portia.

"It ain't like, you know, this hurts," Jo told Alec nonchalantly, "but I just have kinda – ow! – a cravin for Macallan. You got me kinda hooked on the stuff now."

Alec glared hard at his best friend. But notwithstanding his glare, he reached into the breast pocket of his dark blue shirt, withdrawing a slim, leather-bound flask. He handed it to Jo.

Jo took the flask and regarded it critically. "What's this puny little thing?"

"It's a flask, Artemis. You are familiar with flasks? I seem to remember you imbibing from one of my favorite flasks just yesterday."

"Sure, but … This one's so tiny. Couldn't hardly hold a thimble. And what's this fancy-schmancy design?" she asked, gazing curiously at the shield and lion and lamb tooled into the leather. "What the hell is this supposed to be? Is that a dog?"

"It's a lion. That's the Anviston crest," Alec said.

"Oh. Huh. Well, you oughta talk to your craftspeople, cause this looks like a dog. St. Bernard, maybe."

"If it's not up to your standards," Alec said coolly, "you don't have to drink from it."

"Hey, now, don't get your noble undies in a bunch," said Jo, unfastening the cap. She took a tentative slug from the flask, sighed appreciatively, took another sip. "Yeah," she said. "Even in this little munchkin thing, Macallan is still Macallan."

"Darling," said Blair, brows furrowing faintly, "I hope you aren't going to start tossing back scotch every time you're wounded. Because given how often you seem to be injured –"

"For cryin out loud," complained Jo, "can't a girl take the edge off with a little hooch when her leg's all gashed up? It ain't like I got a paper cut. Ow! Portia, can you please be a little gentler, maybe?"

"Possibly," said Portia. "I'm not used to sewing up live people, Jo. Gerald and I work on corpses, mainly."

Tootie shivered.

She was thinking what everyone else in the kitchen was thinking – everyone except Portia. Corpses. Petal … just buried yesterday.

An awkward silence fell over the kitchen.

Gerald put his small, pudgy hands on his wife's shoulders as she continued to stitch Jo's knee, oblivious to her faux pas.

"You're doing a wonderful job, dear," Gerald told Portia. "That's your finest stitching yet."

"Do you think so?"

"Most definitely."

Jo cleared her throat. She pushed the image of Petal out of her mind, Petal all cold and, and …

"Yeah," Jo told Portia, voice thick. "I'm just bustin your chops. You're doin a great job. It sure is good to have a doctor in the family. The next time I bang up my leg –"

"There isn't going to beeeee a next time," Mrs. Garrett trilled through gritted teeth. She stirred one of the pots of steaming water on the stove as vigorously as if she were one of the witches in Macbeth. The steam had made her flaming red hair frizzy and frowzy, and beads of sweat stood out on her broad forehead.

"What's the water for anyway, Mrs. G?" Natalie asked curiously. "No one's having a baby."

"It's to give me something to do," Mrs. Garrett said, teeth gritting harder. "So I don't, don't myrtilize Jo and Blair!" She blew a strand of red hair out of her eyes. "Of all the foolish, dangerous, reckless, selfish –"

"Don't forget ridiculous and moronic," said Blair.

"And idiotic," said Jo. "And, what was the last one? Oh. Yeah. 'Stupendously stupid'."

"Well it was!" said Mrs. Garrett. "Riding your bike through the woods? In the snow? Do you have a death wish?"

A tear trickled down Mrs. Garrett's plump cheek. Drake put his arms around her. Mrs. Garrett pressed her face against her husband's broad chest.

"The girls were just blowing off steam, Edna," he said quietly. "Everyone grieves differently."

"I know that," said Mrs. Garrett. "I'm a nurse. I know that, logically. But I still just, I just want to, to …"

She trailed off, sputtering helplessly.

Jo ducked her head. She looked up at her mentor, feeling awkward and ashamed.

"Mrs. G, jeez … I don't even know what made me do it. It just … I felt like we just needed to … like Drake said, blow off some steam. But I'm sorry. Honest."

"Me too," Blair told her surrogate mother.

A silence fell over the group as Portia completed her work.

Jo's gashed leg and the winking silver instrument threading silk through the skin made Tootie feel a little queasy. She suddenly felt a hand under her elbow.

"Don't faint, Ramsey," said Nat. "Not on my watch."

"Thanks," Tootie said gratefully, leaning against her friend and looking away from the operation.

Natalie watched Portia work with frank curiosity. She's so dexterous, it's amazing … Could I do that someday? Could I really be a doctor? Huhn. Well … at least this isn't making me sick. That's a start …

"There – finished," Portia said, tying a minute, delicate knot in the silk stitching. "And a rather fine job if I do say so."

"I told you," said Gerald, squeezing her shoulders. "Your finest yet."

Jo took another little slug of Macallan. She belched softly. "Well," she said. "Whaddya know? Feelin no pain. No pain at all."

Blair took the flask from Jo, handed it to Alec. "Put that in a safe place," Blair told him. "And on no account are you to give my fiancée any more scotch. Or gin. Or bourbon. Or port."

Alec shuddered. "Perish the thought, Aphrodite. Never could stomach port."

"S'okay," Jo told him. "I'm really more of a beer girl, anyway. You know. Like a good cold Bud. Or a St. Pauli Girl. Yeah. You never forget your first." She grinned a little goofily at Blair.

Blair rolled her eyes. She extended one arm. "Here. Take my arm darling, and see if you can put any weight on your leg."

Jo dutifully took Blair's arm and slid off of the butcher block table with a clumsy little hop. Blair slid an arm around her lover's waist. The two girls leaned against each other.

"Are you all right?" asked Blair.

"Yeah. Yeah." Jo took a tentative step. She hissed. "Damn. Seems like this is gonna hurt for awhile, but at least my leg ain't hangin by a thread anymore. I guess I'm really – ooph!"

She grunted as she and Blair were suddenly enveloped by Tootie's slender arms on one side, and Natalie's chunky arms on the other.

"Never do that again!" cried Tootie.

"Never!" cried Natalie.

"Uh … OK," Jo said with difficulty, face mashed against Blair's by the constricting hugs.

"Guys … I can't breathe," said Blair, voice muffled against Jo's hair.

Reluctantly, Tootie and Natalie released their grip and stepped back from the couple.

"And now," said Blair, brushing aside a strand of Jo's dark hair, "we're off to the ER."

"Aw … babe," groaned Jo.

"Don't 'babe' me, Evel Knievel," Blair said firmly. "Portia did a lovely job with the stitches, but we're going to have a doctor look at your knee and make sure nothing is broken or infected."

"Nothin's broken or infected," objected Jo. "Don't ya think I'd know if my knee was broken or infected?"

Blair gave her lover a look.

Jo shook her head. "Fine. Fine. We're off to the freakin emergency room."

"Yes," said Blair. "We are."

"Yippee," Jo said glumly.

"Come on," said Blair, putting a hand under one of Jo's elbow's to steady her. "Just put one foot in front of the other, darling ..."

The emergency room doctor at Peekskill Memorial did, indeed, give Jo a clean bill of health, as well as a lecture about the moronic idiocy of rocketing through the winter woods on a Kawasaki.

"Everyone's so damn holier-than-thou," Jo complained to Blair as they headed back to River Rock. They had borrowed Alec's little blue coupe. Jo was in the passenger seat; it was tilted back so that she could extend her injured leg. Blair drove.

"It was stupid of us," Blair said mildly. She shifted gears, smoothly cut the wheel to the left as they rounded a bend in the winding road.

Jo glanced at her fiancée. She loved to watch Blair drive. The blonde was such a confident, natural driver. There was something so sexy, Jo thought, about the way Blair handled any vehicle, the way her feet moved on the pedals, the way her hands gripped the steering wheel …

"Penny for your thoughts," Blair said as she nosed the coupe into River Rock's long drive. The beautiful old mansion loomed on the rise. Smoke rolled up from one of the chimneys … The chimney in Mrs. Garrett and Drake's suite, Jo thought …

"I was just thinkin," Jo said dreamily, "how sexy you are."

Blair pinked prettily. "Truly?"

"Uh-huh. And then I was thinkin how River Rock's our home. And how good it felt to have everyone yellin at us about bein stupid."

"It did feel pretty good," Blair agreed. "Darling … are you saying what I think you're saying?" She pulled up in front of the garage, eased up on the gas pedal and applied the brake.

"I want you to quit the Coffee Spot," said Jo. "We're gonna move back here. I'll miss Ma, but … I want us to move back in here. It's where we belong."

"Agreed," said Blair. She cut the engine. The sporty little coupe fell silent. Blair turned to Jo, smiled softly, her cheeks dimpling. "Of course, since we're still expelled, and pretty much broke –"

"You can waitress here," said Jo, waving aside that objection. "There's all those little coffee shops in Downtown Peekskill. You can wait on those sorority snots and if they give ya any guff, just spill soup on their freakin cashmere."

Blair bit back a smile. "Darling … Since I do hope, at some point, to rejoin society, that might not be the most prudent course of action. Spilling soup on their cashmere, I mean. The waitressing sounds like a good idea. Do you think Ma Maison would hire me? As a hostess, not a waitress … Ma français is, after all, parfait."

Jo hooted. "Babe – after you told 'em to 'blow it out their crankcase' when we were freshman? They wouldn't hire you to empty the garbage!"

"Oh, tosh," said Blair. "That's all water under the bridge. It was almost, what – two years ago?"

"Blair, it don't matter if it's twenty years," said Jo. "People don't forget bein told to blow it out their crankcase – 'specially if they're snooty types."

"I suppose," Blair said a little glumly. "Well," she brightened, "there is that pretty new tea house on the square. That looks as though it'd be a pleasant environment."

"Nicer than the Coffee Spot, anyhow," said Jo. "Though that don't take much. So, OK, you'll work at the tea house, and I'll get a job at a garage. Not that crumb-bum place I worked when I was at Eastland; some other garage. And we'll be back in our suite, babe – just think! Back with our friends."

"You'll miss Rose," Blair said thoughtfully. "Hell … I'll miss Rose."

Jo laughed. "Never thought I'd hear you say that!"

"That makes two of us. But … I will."

"She'll visit," said Jo. "And we'll visit her. Peekskill ain't the moon. They got trains leavin every hour for New York."

Blair gently lifted Jo's chin. "I guess we're moving back to Peekskill."

"I guess we are," said Jo.

They gazed into each other's eyes …


They made the announcement at supper that night.

It was an intimate gathering; Portia and Gerald had flown back to Maryland; Jacqueline was mysteriously absent; it was just Mrs. Garrett and Drake and Alec and the Musketeers, and Alec's half-brother and sister, "the Georges", lounging insolently in their chairs and saying little throughout the meal.

Mrs. Garrett had prepared comfort food – thick slabs of meatloaf, hot French onion soup, wedges of cheese, steaming baked potatoes and slices of winter squash.

Everyone applauded – except the Georges – when Jo and Blair announced that they were returning to River Rock.

"About damn time!" Alec said approvingly. "Artemis and Aphrodite, returning to Olympus after their sojourn among mere mortals!"

"Girls … You don't know how happy you've made me," beamed Mrs. Garrett, teary-eyed.

"We're getting our big sisters back!" crowed Natalie, high-fiving Tootie.

"Did you really drive your motor-bicycle off of a cliff?" Sebastian asked Jo. Alec's younger half-brother had something almost like respect in his arrogant blue eyes.

"Uh … Yeah," said Jo. "Not that it was that big a cliff. And not that it was on purpose."

"I see." Sebastian turned that over. "So … it wasn't courage … It was idiocy."

"As your brother's been pointin out all day," Jo said drily.

Alec lifted his wine glass to her in a mock salute.

" Alec's not my brother," Sebastian told Jo absently, still turning over the image of Jo and Blair driving off of a cliff. "Idiocy," he said again. "Still …"

"It takes a rather brave sort of idiot to motor off a cliff," said George, finishing her brother's thought.

"Yes," said Sebastian. "It's rather … glorious."

"You and Blair can join our spy club, if you like," George told Jo indulgently, as if conferring a great favor. "We already have plenty of brains, naturally, and cunning, but we could use a complement of reckless muscle."

"I say, that's rather a keen idea," Sebastian told his twin. "They can be our, what would one call them? Our 'enforcers', I suppose."

"More like 'goons'," George corrected.

"Thanks awfully," drawled Blair. "It's a flattering offer, but I think we'll pass."

The twins shrugged at the same time. They were always doing things at the same time.

"Your loss," said Sebastian. "I think you would make excellent goons – but that's only one young gentleman's opinion."

"They don't want to join your little upstart spy club," Natalie said smugly. "They are, and always will be, fans of the one-and-only Snoop Sisters. Ours is a full-service organization."

"It's top drawer," said Tootie, nose tilted up, in a fairly accurate imitation of Boots St. Clair. "Absolutely top drawer. Best detectives on the east coast, bar none."

Blair made a slight face, as she always did at any reference to the ditzy debutante.

Jo looked around the table. "Where is Boots, anyway? She didn't stay over last night?"

"She wouldn't dare," Blair said, sounding scandalized. "After the way she –"

"Ancient history," objected Jo. "Ancient freakin history. She got Mona off the hook for murder, didn't she? Don't that mean anythin to anybody?"

"It does to me," Natalie said fervently. "As far as I'm concerned, after saving my grandmother from the electric chair, Boots can sleep in my bed if she wants. But she had to leave last night. She said she had to get back to the Village."

"The village?" asked Jo, confused. "What freakin village? Do people really live in villages nowadays? It sounds so, you know –"

"Agatha Christie?" suggested Tootie.

"Yeah, like that. Like crumpets and thatched roofs and stuff. I just can't see Boots livin a crumpet kinda life."

"Village as in Greenwich Village," Natalie clarified. "Boots said she and Mizu are living there now."

"In Greenwich Village?" Jo asked startled. "As in, the Village?"

"Now she's getting it," Tootie told Natalie.

"Yep," said Nat. "She only seems slow on the uptake."

"Boots and Mizu are living in the Village?" Jo asked again.

"Seems slow on the uptake," Natalie repeated.

"Yes," said Tootie, answering Jo's question. "Apparently there's a whole thriving gay scene there."

"Yeah, that ain't exactly news," said Jo. "My Ma's old friend Peggy runs the gay center there, remember? But I can't get over … Boots and Mizu … livin in the Village. To think how snobby and clueless Boots used to be. And now she's all, you know … livin in the Village." Jo turned to Blair. "Maybe we should move to the Village someday."

"Ha!" Blair snorted. She stabbed viciously at a baked potato. "Not on your life – not if those two are living there. The Village isn't big enough for the four of us. And anyway, we just decided to move back here."

"Yeah," said Natalie. "Make up your mind, Polniaczek."

"I said 'someday'," Jo explained. "'Someday'. As in, maybe after Nat and Tootie are at Langley, with their noses buried in text books. And scripts."

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Blair said dismissively.

Not on your life, Jo, she thought. I'm not letting you within twenty miles of that bra-strap-grabbing, hoochy-koochy-dancing, 'Star Wars'-watching Boots St. Clair …

"How are they supportin themselves?" Jo asked curiously. "Jeez – did Boots get a job or somethin?"

Natalie shook her head. "No … Hell has not frozen over, ladies and gentlemen. Boots is as bone-idle as ever. Mizu's tending bar somewhere. Lesbian bar, I guess. And she's doing some modeling."

"Huhn," said Jo.

"Boots said Mizu's signed on with the Ford Agency. They're considering her for a billboard."

Tootie pursed her lips. "That's something to look forward to," she said drily. "Coming soon, to a billboard near you – Mizu's angry scowl!"

Natalie tilted her head. "Is it an angry scowl?" she mused. "I've always seen it more as a 'disdainful glare'."

"That's all Manhattan needs," said Blair, spearing a piece of winter squash. "Mizu's sour puss looking down on them!"

"Hey, now," objected Jo. "Let's not be gettin all catty."

"Who's catty? You're not going to try to tell me Mizu's not a sour puss?" Blair demanded.

"Yeah, OK, so she's pretty grim most of the time – "

"Most of the time?"

"OK, all of the time. But the girl's got her reasons. Seems like her life ain't always been a dance through the tulips. Mizu's taken her lumps, all right."

"We've all taken our lumps, darling." Blair smiled fondly at Jo. "You talk such a tough game, but you're really a big softy, Jo Polniaczek."

"Softy? Who the hell you callin a softy?" demanded Jo.

Blair shrugged, still smiling affectionately.

"You take that back," said Jo.

"Fine. Whatever you say, Jo."

"I mean it, Blair. I ain't a softy."

"All right. I take it back. I take it back, darling. Satisfied?"

"No." Jo scowled. "Cause you don't mean it."

George yawned. She glanced at her twin.

"I know," Sebastian told his sister, although she hadn't asked him anything.

"That is so unnerving," said Tootie.

"What?" asked Nat.

"The way the twins communicate without speaking."

"They don't really," Nat objected. "They've just known each other so long, and so well, that they pick up on non-verbal cues. They don't read minds – they read body language."

"Dr. Natalie, I presume," Alec said gravely, his eyes dancing with merriment. He made a little bow across the table. "You sound positively erudite on the topic."

"I've been doing some research," said Nat. "The psychology of twins."

Sebastian laughed. "No book can define George and me. We're … we're …"

"Indefinable," said George.

"Precisely," said Sebastian.

"You're somethin, anyhow," Jo said, shaking her head. She was still having a hell of a time getting used to them, her best friend's hostile, arrogant little half-brother and half-sister. They looked like petit versions of Alec, as if someone had tried to replicate him at half-power. The twins had his uncanny beauty – the dark, curling locks, the piercing sapphire-blue eyes, the perfectly chiseled features – but in miniature.

"Twins tend to have feelings of specialness," said Natalie.

"Because we are special," Sebastian told her. "Don't need a bloody book to realize that."

"Language, Sebastian," Mrs. Garrett said tartly. "Alec told me what 'bloody' means."

Sebastian looked down at his plate sulkily. There was something about Mrs. Garrett; the twins would be rude to any other member of the household, particularly their half-brother, but they could never quite be openly rude to Mrs. Garrett.

Jo looked around. It had finally dawned on her …

"Hey – Where's Jack?" she asked.

Alec sighed. "She went home," he said.

Jo knit her brows. "But River Rock, I mean, this is her home. In America, anyhow."

"Precisely, Artemis. My dearest Jacqueline has fled across the pond, post haste."

"She went back to England?" Blair asked. "All the way to England?"

Alec sighed again. "She said …" He cleared his throat, and seemed to be holding back tears as he carried it off in a light manner. "She said she had to check on something to do with the natural gas in Angledun. Since BZ Becker – may he someday roast in hell forever – ruined the Messerschmitts' American interests, their interests in the UK have become pretty damned important. Apparently there's some to-do about whether they can drill a new well on daft old farmer Crump's back pasture; he's one of those old fellows from a fine old family gone to seed, used to own the land a thousand years ago and now they tend it. He's clinging like hell to the property he still has, more to spite the Messerschmitts than anything else. Jack says if she doesn't resolve it now, the opportunity will slip away."

"But aren't there Messerschmitts in England?" asked Jo. "Right on the spot? Why does Jack have to go wingin across the Atlantic when, when, you know …" She couldn't say it. She couldn't say "When Petal just died."

But they all knew what she meant.

Alec leaned his head on one hand. "You can't toss a pebble in Angledun without pegging a Messerschmitt," he said. "They're in the manor, at the castle, in the village … Of course someone else could have dealt with farmer Crump. This is just, you know … I don't think Jack's able to face it just this moment. Petal, you know. They were very … Chums a long time. Very long time."

"So … Jack's takin a powder," Jo said bluntly.

"In a word – yes."

Jo leaned back in her chair. She shook her head. "Well, I ain't gonna judge her. Everybody, you know, they gotta handle it however they can. Even if they gotta run away for awhile. But it sucks for you, pal."

"Yes," Alec agreed. "It does."

"Well I don't think that was very nice of her at all," Tootie said, eyes flashing. "We're all hurting. We all loved Petal. Now is the time for us to be here for each other. We can't just start running for the hills!"

"Not many hills in Angledun," Alec said dully. "Flat, rather. Marshy and flat."

"That's not what I mean and you know it," said Tootie. "Alec – you poor thing! You're all alone."

"All alone?" asked Sebastian, rolling his eyes. "When he has you lot fussing over him day and night? Bloody hen party! He's like the Sheik of Araby and you're all his harem."

Jo looked at Alec. "Is this little punk insultin you, or us?"

"Both, I'd say," murmured Alec.

"I'd like to go on the record," Drake said drily, "and state that I am not part of any hen party or harem."

"Oh, you excepted, sir," Sebastian said respectfully. "George and me quite appreciate you're odd-man-out here. And you had the sense to marry the Feisty One."

Mrs. Garrett lifted her eyebrows. "Sebastian – Did you just call me …" She trailed off, not quite sure if she'd been imagining things.

"The Feisty One," George said, answering for her brother. "That's what we call you. Your code name. Self-explanatory, I should think."

Natalie chuckled. "They have your number, Mrs. G."

"They certainly do," chuckled Drake.

"Hmm," said Mrs. Garrett. "I don't know about this. 'The Feisty One' … It sounds like a compliment … But there's something disrespectful about it."

"You and Mr. Dante," said Sebastian.

" – Are the only people we do respect here," finished George. "Of course –"

" – You are merely commoners," said Sebastian. "But for commoners, you're not half-bad. It's as if … It's as if …"

"As if one's servant suddenly began quoting Latin," George offered helpfully. She took a thoughtful sip of her water. "You have the manner of your betters."

"Well," said Mrs. Garrett, wincing and smiling a brittle smile, "how very flattering."

"Oh, think nothing of it," George said lightly. She shrugged. "One is impressed, that is all."

"Are these kids for real?" Jo asked Alec. "Of all the snotty, butt-kick-needin, hoity-toity –"

"Steady on, Artemis," said Alec. "They don't know any better."

"Well, someone oughta teach 'em better," Jo said. She leaned back further in her chair, cracked her knuckles. "Once me and Blair are back in the house, there's a few things that are gonna change around here."

"For one thing," drawled Sebastian, "River Rock's collective IQ will drop precipitously."

Jo flushed. "And for another thing," she said "my precipitous motor cycle boot is gonna find some collective butts to kick."

"Enough," said Mrs. Garrett. "I will not have threats at this dinner table – especially not threats against the children."

"Children? They're little monsters!" objected Jo. "And they're sixteen, not six. They're old enough to learn a few manners. Even Tootie had better manners."

"Hey – what does that mean?" Tootie demanded. "'Even Tootie'? My manners have always been impeccable."

"They have," Natalie defended her best friend. "Mostly."

"Mostly?" Tootie asked, turning to Natalie. "Mostly?"

"Well, you know … You did hit me with that pillow when we were studying for finals. And you did laugh when my brain-charger hat got warped."

"I hated that hat," said Tootie.

"I know. That's what I'm saying. You could have been a little nicer when it broke."

"It was a stupid hat!"

"Jeesh – you could be a little nicer right now," said Natalie.

"How about how you used to eavesdrop all the time?" Blair reminisced. "You were always spying on everyone."

"And memba how you spread that rumor, about Mrs. G bein a lush?" asked Jo. "You almost got her canned from Eastland."

"And remember when you poured beer on that undercover police officer?" said Blair.

Jo laughed. "Son of a gun – you got us thrown in jail, Tootie!"

"It wasn't funny," said Blair, shivering. "That thug almost attacked me for my watch."

"Eh, you were fine," said Jo. "I looked out for you, didn't I? But Tootie," Jo turned to her young friend, "face it, kid – your manners left a little bit to be desired back-in-the-day."

Tootie glared at each of her three friends in turn. "Are you quite finished now?" she asked coldly.

Jo looked at Blair and Natalie. "We finished?"

"I think so," said Blair.

"For now, anyway," Nat said magnanimously.

Sebastian and George were looking thoughtfully at Tootie. "Did you really pour spirits on an officer of the law?"

"She did," said Mrs. Garrett. "And it almost cost the girls their academic careers! They were expelled from Eastland Academy! Tootie's antics are nothing to imitate."

"Antics?" Tootie demanded, turning to Mrs. Garrett. "Et tu, Mrs. G?"

"Well, Tootie, dear," Mrs. Garrett said apologetically, "you were a bit of a handful when you were younger. Not now, of course. You're blossoming into a young lady, now."

Tootie rolled her eyes. "Young lady? Mrs. Garrett, I'm a junior. I'm almost seventeen. I'm becoming a young woman."

"What did the constable do?" Sebastian asked her. "How did he –"

" – Provoke you?" asked George, finishing her brother's sentence.

"He was hassling my friends," said Tootie. She looked meaningfully at the other three Musketeers. "That's how it is with me," she said. "When someone hassles my friends, I'm there for them – no questions asked."

"Touché," grinned Jo. "Although, maybe if you coulda defended us without gettin us tossed into the bucket, that mighta been cool too."

"I'm an actress," said Tootie. "I just follow my instincts. And if this is the thanks I get, don't hold your breath for me to bail you out of your next stupid adventure."

"Never mind them," Alec told her kindly. "You can bail me out of my next stupid adventure, Tootie, and, given my colorful track record, that could be any moment now."

"Thank you, Alec," Tootie said gratefully. "At least someone appreciates me."

"We appreciate you, Toot," said Jo. "We just hafta tease you. It's part of the big sister code or somethin."

"What she said," agreed Natalie.

Tootie glared at her best friend. "You," Tootie told Natalie, "are in disgrace. You're supposed to take my side in these things."

Natalie held up her hands. "Hey, Ramsey, you know I'll always have your back, but I have to tell it like it is. That's the journalist in me. Just because I'm gonna be a doctor doesn't mean I'm gonna stop being a hard-nosed reporter of the truth."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "I wonder if you four will still be squabbling twenty years from now. This is a terrible influence on the children."

"Rather fun, really," Sebastian disagreed. "Better than telly."

"Rah," said George, nodding. She glanced at her brother. "D'you think?"

"Yes," he said.

George looked at Tootie. "Instead of sorehead Jo, why don't you join our spy club, Tootie?"

"Hey – who's a sorehead?" objected Jo.

"You are, darling," Blair said.

"Not always."

"No, Jo. Not always." Blair patted Jo's arm.

"You sound rather a lark," Sebastian told Tootie. "We could show you our spy techniques."

"Ha," said Tootie. "You mean I could show you my spy techniques. Do you two realize I've foiled robberies and murders?"

Sebastian pulled a skeptical face.

"No," Jo told him. "It's true."

"Mata Tootie is New York state's finest un-sung spy," Alec agreed. "'Scooby Doo' has nothing on her. She could give you little monsters points and to spare."

Sebastian looked at George. George looked at Sebastian. Some mute conversation seemed to transpire.

"Very well," said Sebastian, turning to Tootie. "You are hereby inducted –"

" – Into the Anviston Clandestine Troop – " said George.

" – Otherwise known as ACT," finished Sebastian.

"Jeez – it ain't clandestine now," said Jo, "not now that everybody here knows about it."

George favored Jo with a haughty look. "ACT is not, of course, the real name of our spy club," said George.

"Cover name," said Sebastian. "All part of the intelligence, racket, what? Wheels within wheels."

"Within wheels," said George.

Jo yawned. It had been a hell of a day, and her knee was starting to ache again. And Blair looked so damn sexy next to her …

"Mrs. G, you mind if I clear the table and then hit the hay?" asked Jo. "Been a kinda crazy day, and I'm wiped."

"You don't have to clear, Jo," said Mrs. Garrett. "You're on the invalid list with that wounded knee. I think Blair should take you right up to your room, and, ah, be sure that you get plenty of rest."

"Of course," Jo deadpanned. "Rest. Absolutely." She stood up, giving her surrogate mother a funny little salute.

Blair stood up too. "Here, Jo. Lean on me," Blair said solicitously, offering one arm.

Jo shook her head. "Thanks, but I can walk OK to get upstairs. It ain't that far."

And also, thought Jo, if I take your arm right now, I ain't responsible for how I conduct myself, because you, Blair Warner, are lookin lovely in this light …

Blair must have seen something of those feelings in Jo's eyes. "Of course," said Blair, with a knowing smile. "It's isn't far at all."

And when I get you up there, thought Blair, well … You'll experience a whole new level of tender loving care …

"They're great chums, aren't they?" Sebastian asked thoughtfully after Jo and Blair had left the room.

Natalie choked a little on her soda.

"They are," Tootie agreed calmly.

"Known each other long?" asked George.

"About, what? Five years now," said Tootie.

"Rather a romantic sort of friendship," mused George. "Very Victorian-schoolgirl, really."

Natalie coughed into her serviette. Alec patted her on the back solicitously.

"Something gone down the wrong pipe?" he asked innocently.

Natalie glared at him over her serviette.

"I disagree," said Sebastian. "It's more a noble, heroic sort of bond, wouldn't you say? A Damon-Pythias friendship – true-to-the-end, no-sacrifice-too-great – that sort of rot."

"Jo and Blair have been through a lot together," said Mrs. Garrett. "And they've stood by each other through thick and thin. And that's no 'rot'."

"No, rather," Sebastian agreed. "Figure of speech and all. Mustn't take offence."

"I say," said George, light dawning in her eyes, "are they lezzy friends?" she asked Tootie.

Tootie blushed. Natalie, who had just taken another sip of soda, choked again.

Alec laughed.

"That's a distinct 'yes'," George told Sebastian, interpreting the various reactions.

"Rather," he said. "Explains why it's 'darling' this and 'darling' that."

"Blair just likes to say 'darling'," Natalie said hastily. "You know – like Zsa Zsa Gabor. I think Blair's part Hungarian somewhere. 'Darling' is just one of her things."

"But she only calls Jo 'darling'," noted Sebastian.

Natalie tried to think of a logical retort. She sighed. "I got nothing," she said ruefully.

"You don't have to shield us," Sebastian said, sounding amused. "We're not infants. We've heard stories. About Great Aunt Vivienne."

Alec's brows knit . He leaned forward slightly.

"I don't know what you've heard," he said quietly, "about our aunt. But I'll tell you this – if you say one unkind word about Aunt Viv –"

George waved one hand airily. "Down, boy, down. No need to growl. She sounds like she was a ripping old bat. We only wish we could have met her."

"Yes. Well …" Alec shaded his eyes. "I wish you could have done. If you had been able to stay with her a few summers, well …"

"We wouldn't be so jolly unpleasant, would we?" laughed George. "But we didn't. And so we are. And you just have to lump it."

"She was finer than the lot of us together," Alec said quietly. "The only Anviston who didn't go to pot. If I could even, if I could live up to half her example some day …"

"Well don't get maudlin," complained Sebastian. "Steady on, stupid Alec."

"Was she really in the resistance?" George asked curiously.

"What resistance?" Alec asked dully, sounding far away in his memories of his beloved aunt.

George shook her head woefully. "The resistance. World War II, lackwit. We heard she helped the allies, in Italy – sort of a double-triple-agent type of situation."

Alec lifted his head. "Did she? Fancy that. It would have been like her, certainly."

"But was it true?" George persisted. "Or is it only Anviston legend?"

"It's probably true," said Alec.

George waved aside "probably".

"Jo would know," said Alec. "She has Aunt Viv's journals."

"Jo? Has Aunt Viv's journals?" Sebastian and George asked together. They sounded positively scandalized.

"What the hell is she doing with private Anviston papers?" Sebastian demanded.

"Viv left them to her," said Alec. "Viv admired Jo a great deal. They were kindred spirits, rather."

The twins looked dubious.

Mrs. Garrett stood up. "That's enough spy-talk for tonight," she said decisively.

The twins groaned like the children they still somewhat were.

"Now, you two can help clear the table," Mrs. Garrett said firmly.

"Us?" the twins asked together. "Clear table?"

"I'd listen to her," Alec told the Georges. "She is your benefactress."

"And you can help them," Mrs. Garrett told Alec.

"Me? But what did I do?"

"You didn't do anything, Alec. It's just your turn to help clear."

Nat and Tootie laughed at Alec's crestfallen face.

"Try not to get a blister," Natalie told him.

"Droll," Alec said mournfully, lifting her plate. "Very droll, Miss Green."

"I think a little music is in order," said Mrs. Garrett. "Alec, what about some cheerful show tunes after you clear? Tootie can sing."

Tootie beamed. "Now that's an idea I can support," said Tootie.

Alec shrugged. He lifted Tootie's empty plate. "If I'm not too horribly wounded by this manual labor, I can play some music," he agreed …

The music filtered faintly to Jo and Blair's suite at the top and back of River Rock.

They lay nude in each other's arms under the heavy white coverlet. They had felt amorous when they reached the suite. They had locked the door and stripped and begun to make love, but when it came down to it they lost the mood. They lay in each other's arms and talked quietly.

"Does it hurt very much?" Blair asked Jo.

Jo nodded. "I think … I think it's gonna hurt a long time," she said huskily.

Petal, thought Blair. She thinks I'm asking about Petal.

Blair pressed her cheek against Jo's.

"I meant your knee," Blair said softly.

"Oh. Yeah. It hurts. But not as bad, not as bad as when I think about Moose."

"Of course." Blair pushed her slender fingers into Jo's mane of dark hair, stroked the long dark locks. "Of course, darling."

"You knew her your whole life," said Jo.

"Yes," said Blair. "The Von Schuylkills and Warners … It was a special relationship. Even though Daddy became so ruthless these last few years, our families have known each other for so long … Centuries, really ... "

"What was Petal like when she was a kid?"

Blair shrugged. "Petal was always … Petal. She was solid. Cheerful. You always knew where you were with Petal. She made sure everyone around her was happy. Like the old country squire, you know?"

Jo shook her head. "Not a clue."

"It's a British archetype. The jolly lord-and-lady of the manor. You know – they have a big house and they're rich but they're very down-to-earth. They make sure everyone around them is taken care of. They support local causes and they're always holding fêtes."

"Holding what, now?"

"Parties. Gatherings. Events. They, you know, they make sure no one wants for anything, and they always make things fun. Squires did that for their village, their county. The Von Schuylkills did that for Manhattan, for all of Society."

"Yeah. Yeah, that sounds like Petal," Jo said. She yawned. She burrowed closer to Blair.

"They're all broken now," said Blair. "Not just Petal. Did you see her family? They're … all the life is gone out of them."

Jo pulled Blair tighter against her.

Very, very faintly it sounded as if Alec and Tootie were performing "Somewhere" from "West Side Story".

"That's a downer," mumbled Jo. "Why're they singin that?"

There's a place for us … A time and place for us …

Sleepily, Jo realized that Blair was singing softly in her ear. Jo smiled.

"Any place we're together," Jo said. "That's our 'somewhere', babe."

Jo drifted off a few moments later. Blair continued to sing softly. In time, she drifted off too …

It was three am when Blair woke, and the bed was empty beside her, empty but still warm. Jo hadn't left long ago.

There was no light in the bathroom. The sitting room was dim and empty.

Blair pulled on her thick purple bathrobe, stepped into a pair of Jo's moccasins so her footsteps would be quiet and she wouldn't rouse the house.

She went quietly through the meandering halls and corridors of River Rock, up and down stairs, hearing the faint snores and breathing of her friends through their bedroom doors.

The kitchen was empty, the living room, the den, the music room – all of the public rooms were empty.

Blair felt a faint tremor of fear along her spine.

She went out into the cold; her moccasins crunched on the snow, tearing the thin crust of ice. Jo was not in the garage.

She returned to the house, locking and bolting the door behind her.

Jo … Where are you?

She found Jo, finally, in, what she later realized, was the first place she should have searched.

Jo was in the laundry room, curled up on the mustard-colored sofa, the battered old relic with lumpy cushions and a busted spring. Jo had found it at the Salvation Army. It was one of her contributions when they all moved into River Rock.

"Darling," Blair said, tears springing to her eyes as she saw how forlorn Jo looked, wrapped in a sheet, dark hair spilling in waves down her shoulders and back.

Jo looked up at Blair with impossibly sad blue-green eyes. Her face was wet with tears.

Blair sat next to Jo. The spring stabbed Blair in the butt, but she hardly noticed. Jo leaned against Blair, shoulders trembling as she wept.

"I'm sorry you found her," Blair said finally.

Jo wiped her eyes on one of Blair's sleeves.

"Not as sorry as I am," Jo said mournfully.

"I think … In a way, I think you were closer to her than I ever was," said Blair. "I knew her most of my life, and our families were close, but were very different people. There was something … heroic about Petal. It wasn't just that she was a jock, it was …" She broke off, not able to put her feelings into words.

Jo nodded. "Yeah," she said simply. "I get what you're sayin. When Petal passed the captain's torch to me, it was like, she'd taken care of the Lions, and now it was my turn to take care of the Lions. And she knew I'd do it."

Blair clenched one fist, pounded it against the arm of the sofa.

"Ow!" she said.

Jo took Blair's hand, uncurled the fingers, kissed the palm. "That was stupid," Jo observed. "How's bustin your hand gonna make you feel better?"

"Why did she do it?" Blair asked, looking up as if she were addressing God, or the universe. "If she'd just hung on … Can you imagine Petal as a doctor? She cared about people so much. Or she could have run a charity. She could have, she could have been governor, for heaven's sake! All the things she could have done, that would have made her happy, that would have helped so many people!"

"Yeah," Jo said soberly. She lightly squeezed Blair's hand. "But she couldn't do it. She couldn't hang on. But, you know, knowin Petal, she's up there in heaven now, throwin a big wing-ding for the angels. Huh. I can picture that. She's leanin against the mantle up there, thankin everyone for, for comin to the party …" Jo's voice broke suddenly.

"Shh." Blair touched Jo's face, felt the fresh tears falling.

"You think she's in heaven – right?" Jo asked, voice muffled against Blair's bosom.

"She could be," Blair said carefully. Now, she thought, was not the time to get into a theological debate with her lover.

"What do you think it's like?" wondered Jo. "I mean, in the cartoons it's all harps and clouds and stuff. Seems kinda dull."

"Wherever she is," Blair said carefully, "she's not in pain anymore. I think she was in a lot of pain, Jo. A lot more than we guessed. And now she's at peace."

"'All shiny and new,'" murmured Jo.

"What, darling?"

"Nothin. Just … nothing," Jo said. She drew a deep breath. "Do you mind … Can we go back up to our room now?" asked Jo.

"Of course," said Blair; she couldn't leave the tragic laundry room behind her fast enough. "Here … Lean on me, darling."

Jo did.


Valentine's Day evening, 2012. Park Avenue, Manhattan.

Natalie had once said that her family's apartment could fit into Tootie's apartment twenty times over. It was an exaggeration – but not by much.

Tootie had bought her Park Avenue penthouse in the early years of the new millennium, when she was at the absolute zenith of her fame, the year she had won a Tony and an Oscar.

It was evening; Blair had officiated at Valentine's Day morning mass at the Little Church Around the Corner, with Jo sitting raptly in the front pew; later, Rory had taken Brenda and Syd to the movies, while Jo and Blair spent a romantic afternoon back at their Central Park West apartment.

Now, in the cool of the late winter evening, Jo and Blair, with Brenda in Syd in tow, were attending a small gathering at Tootie's apartment – "small" being a relative term when it came to the Tootie Ramsey.

About one hundred distinguished guests – movie stars, rock stars, old-school crooners, politicians, fashion designers, models, media big-wigs, news reporters – circulated in a salon that was roughly the size of Shea Stadium. It was rendered almost exclusively in cool marble and pillars, and everything, from the floor to the walls to the drapes to the art work, was some varying shade of winter-white.

Jo wasn't a big fan of Tootie's infrequent salon gatherings. "It's like being swallowed by a big bowl of freezing cold vanilla ice cream," she'd once complained to Blair.

"True," Blair had agreed. "But at least we get to see her …"

Now, on Valentine's evening, "Cripes – I'm already getting a rash," Jo complained to Blair in low tones.

Blair glanced at Jo's lovely violet dress. "Is it the material?" she asked solicitously.

"No. Nothing like that. It's not the dress – it's the company."

"Thank goodness," said Blair. "Because that's a beautiful shade on you."

Jo rolled her eyes. "Never mind my damn ensemble. I'm talking about the guest list. All these Hollywood types always come after me like a pack of hyenas with their bleeding heart liberal agendas."

Blair smiled. "Jo – no one has a more liberal heart than you do, darling."

"Sure," Jo agreed, "but I get the practicalities of it. I know how damn inert DC is, I know how hard it is to get things done. These Hollywood so-and-so's, they think we can just wave a magic wand and presto, bingo-bongo, goodbye poverty! Goodbye job-lessness! Christ! I wish it were that easy."

Blair slipped her arm through Jo's. "Never mind the guest list, Jo. Just focus on me – your lovely, twenty-months pregnant wife."

Jo's face cleared. She grinned at Blair, who was looking particularly fetching in a deep wine evening dress whose elegant but low-cut décolletage put her wife's well-endowed bosom on proud display.

"You are lovely," Jo said with feeling. "And where did you get that get-up, anyhow? I didn't know they made maternity dresses that fancy."

"They don't," Blair said demurely. "It's just a little something Vera tossed together for me."

"Well, the lady does nice work," Jo said appreciatively. "It's elegant and sexy." She looked around the room. "You'd better hope none of your colleagues are here, because you just might get excommunicated, looking this hot."

Blair beamed at her wife through smoky-dark lashes. "Being sexy isn't a sin, Jo."

"You're telling me!" And then, as something across the massive room caught her eye, Jo's grin twisted into a grimace. "Son of a bitch – they're at it again."

Brenda and Syd were squabbling about something next to the buffet table. Jo shook her head. They were always squabbling about something. Chunky little Syd was so sweet-natured – yeah, a little anxious, a little neurotic like his mother, but who wasn't a little neurotic these days? Brenda had her mother's pretty features, but they weren't soft and good-natured like Natalie's.

There was a hardness to Brenda. She had her father's height and strength of bone, that lanky Irish figure that could be intimidating. Her jaw was strong, pugnacious, where Natalie's had always been chunky and rounded.

From that distance, Jo couldn't tell what the kids were saying, but they were both gesturing and looking none too happy with each other.

Jo sighed. "So … What do I do?" she asked her wife. "Do I break it up, do I let them work it out? What?"

Blair shrugged. "Honestly? I don't know. Siblings seem to have a way of working out their differences. Let's give them a moment and see if it escalates."

"Super," said Jo. "If they start winging the buffet dishes at each other, I'll just jump in."

"The Georges have always got on so well together," Blair said thoughtfully. "But they're twins; and they seem to be the exception rather than the rule."

"Well our kid's going to be an only child," Jo said firmly. "Like us. And look how great we turned out."

"True," said Blair. "And our child will have plenty of cousins for company."

"Well … Kind of," Jo said dubiously, still watching Brenda and Syd wrangle. "Older cousins. A lot older."

Blair waved a hand. "There are play groups, dear, pre-schools, all sorts of activities. Our child will never be lonely."

Across the room, Syd tilted his head adorably. Brenda's angry face softened. She shook her head, and seemed to be relenting about whatever they were fighting about.

"When is Snake getting back from the Arctic, anyhow?" Jo asked Blair. "Did he get kidnapped by the Abominable Snowman, or what? Did he get elected Mayor of Moosejaw, Alaska?"

"Is there a Moosejaw, Alaska?" Blair wondered.

"I have no idea – nor do I care. Not my constituency. But for Pete's sake, when is he coming back? He's never been gone on this long of a haul. And these kids need their parents – at least one parent, anyway."

Blair sighed. She pulled Jo a little closer.

"Darling – I have something to tell you."

Jo gasped. "Snake's … Snake's dead. Isn't he? He cracked up his rig. I always told him to slow down."

"Snake is not dead," said Blair. "Don't dramatize, darling. Snake is merely … Well, he called me the other day. He wanted some spiritual advice."

"Snake? Snake wanted spiritual advice?"

Well I'll be damned, thought Jo. She couldn't have been more surprised if he'd called Tootie for advice about his hair or wardrobe.

"Snake is … Snake is going through something," said Blair.

Jo snorted. "Well, thanks for clearing that up, your worshipfulness. So. He's going through something. I see."

"If you want me to put it bluntly – "

"I do. Please put it bluntly, babe."

"He's leaving Natalie," said Blair. "At least, he thinks he is. He's still mulling it over, while Nat's overseas."

"Oh, he's mulling it over, is he?" asked Jo, eyes flashing. "While she's overseas, and we're watching his kids?"

"He's going though some changes," said Blair. "He feels like he finally knows who he is."

"I know who he is," said Jo. "He's a middle-aged, Irish-American schlub with a wife and two kids and a mortgage and responsibilities. He's damn lucky, and if he throws it all away over some stupid mid-life crisis –"

"I'm not saying you're wrong," Blair interrupted reasonably, "but if he calls you, please don't phrase it that way. You know how you get his back up sometimes. If you put it that way, he'll definitely leave Natalie, just out of sheer contrariness."

"I get his back up? I get his back up?" Jo demanded. She looked over at Brenda and Syd again. Brenda was preparing a plate of cheese and crackers for her brother. Peace appeared to have been restored – at least temporarily.

"Does Natalie know about this?" Jo asked her wife. "About Snake wanting to throw in the towel?"

Blair shook her head. "It's not my place to say anything. Whatever Snake decides, she needs to hear it from him. I advised him, at the very least, to consider some family counseling."

"Well I advise a good kick in the ass," Jo said darkly.

"Darling."

"After all these years? I mean, c'mon – he's gonna hang it up now?"

"Their issues are their issues. All we can do is be here for them."

Jo drew her slim cell phone from her blazer pocket. "I'm calling him right now," she said decisively. "Tell him to get his big Irish keister back to Manhattan."

"Darling."

It was amazing, Jo thought, how much Blair could convey, had always been able to convey, with that one word, that one simple, not-so-simple word – so many different meanings, so many different layers …

Darling …

Jo sighed. She snapped her cell phone shut and slid it back into her pocket.

"Fine," Jo grumbled. "I won't call him. Yet. But the minute Syd or Brenda starts calling us 'Mom' …"

Tootie had a butler who announced guests as if they were arrivals at Buckingham Palace. Most of the guests had arrived by now, but every now and again the butler announced a straggler.

"Drs. Portia and Gerald Winterbriar," the butler announced regally.

Blair and Jo turned quickly toward the door. And sure enough, there they were – Portia, looking ethereal in pale pink, and Gerald, bald as a cue ball and dapper in a perfectly creased tuxedo.

"Portia!" Blair exclaimed, embracing her friend and kissing her cheek. Jo and Gerald shook hands, and Portia turned from Blair to Jo and embraced her former Lions teammate.

"We didn't know Tootie invited you two to this shindig," said Jo. "Finally – someone we actually want to see."

"Does anyone know what the occasion is?" asked Gerald. Despite his diminutive height, he deftly snagged two glasses of champagne from a passing waitress, handing one glass to his wife.

"Thanks, dear," said Portia. They lightly clinked their glasses together, each taking a sip.

"I suppose it's just a Valentine's Day party," said Blair. "I didn't really think about it."

"But Tootie's alone," Portia observed. "Completely, utterly alone." Portia's neutral, clinical tone robbed the remark of any cruelty. "Why would someone utterly alone on Valentine's Day invite a crowd to a Valentine's Day party?"

Jo shrugged. "Not a damn idea. It is kind of strange; you're right when you say Tootie's never been too crazy about V-Day."

Portia scanned the crowded room. "Where is Tootie, anyway?"

"Hasn't made her entrance yet," said Blair. She smiled indulgently. "You know Tootie loves an entrance."

"Maybe she's gonna unveil some guy," Jo said thoughtfully. "Some new love in her life. You know how dramatic she can be." She nodded toward a gaggle of perfectly coiffed men and women with toothy smiles and camera crews seemingly attached to their hips. "That would explain the media presence."

"With all due respect to Tootie," said Portia, "I'll never understand people's fascination with celebrity love lives. Who cares who's dating Lady Gaga or George Clooney? Why aren't people more interested in advances in science and medicine? Do you know that yesterday Gerald discovered a new genetic marker that could help predict susceptibility to heart disease?"

"Wow," said Jo, genuinely impressed. She nudged Gerald's shoulder. "Way to go."

Gerald blushed. "Much more work to do," he said modestly. "And it's Portia's discovery as much as mine. If it even comes to anything."

"Isn't he wonderful?" Portia asked dreamily. "My perfect brain match …"

The two couples talked quietly among themselves for a few moments, and then, as the salon doors were thrown open to admit a pair of extremely late guests, Tootie's magnificent butler announced:

"His Excellency Ambassador Anviston, Duke Nethridge, and her grace Duchess Nethridge, Viscountess Angledun."

"Jeez – try saying that ten times fast," laughed Jo.

Her eyes sparkled as she watched Alec and Jacqueline make their way across the salon.

Alec was splendid in a white tuxedo, ducal signet ring winking on one finger. Jacqueline, severe bob still the vivid red of her youth, looked to thin and too pale in a pink sheath gown.

Jo made an elaborate curtsey as the couple approached.

"Your Excellency, your graces," Jo said with mock humility. "I'm sorry – did they use all of your titles? I think a couple were missing. Aren't you emperor and empress of Mars now?"

Alec laughed. He pulled Jo into a rough bear hug.

"Ooph," complained Jo, as the air was squeezed out of her lungs.

"Those aren't half our titles," he told Jo, releasing her, "and the ones he announced were horribly mangled. Americans are mad for titles but they don't understand them."

Jacqueline kissed Portia and then Blair on the cheek, and then embraced Gerald.

"Maybe we should just call you 'supreme rulers of the universe'," teased Jo. "You know – keep it simple."

"I'll have you know," said Alec, "that, mock as you may, I have scads of titles. Scads. I have a full-time employee who keeps track of my titles. All the fellow does, sun-up to sun-down."

"How nice for him," laughed Jo.

"Rather," said Alec. He hugged her again, impulsively. "Look at you. You're a sight for sore eyes, Artemis. And you," he turned to Blair, embracing her gingerly, seeming afraid to crush her burgeoning belly, "you are radiant, Aphrodite. Good God! You're a vision of motherhood, of maternal beauty and grace. And, are we certain you aren't due until May first? Is baby Blair-Jo going to make an appearance tonight?"

Blair pinched Alec's cheek affectionately.

"Ow!" he complained.

"He's still such a baby," Blair observed to Jacqueline.

"Quite," Jack agreed.

"That bloody hurt," Alec told Blair.

"What? That mild little pinch?" Blair asked innocently.

"Yes, that 'mild little pinch'," he said. "Why must the musketeers perpetually abuse me?"

"No one's abusing you, Apollo," said Blair. "Although you might, just might consider not telling pregnant women that they look ready to give birth at any second. Someone – not me, of course, but someone sensitive – might take that the wrong way. They might feel insulted."

"You do look ready to pop," Jo told her wife.

Blair lifted one perfectly plucked dark eyebrow.

"Ah, in a manner of speaking," Jo said, instantly back-pedaling. "That is to say, that might not be, ah, precisely what I meant."

"Jo?"

"Yes, babe?"

"Did you just tell me, at a star-studded, celebrity gala, with media in attendance, that I 'look ready to pop'?"

"Uh … Yes, I guess I did."

"Well," Blair smiled a brittle little smile, "we can only hope none of the reporters caught that charming remark."

Jo groaned. "Blair, babe, they're all over there. Way over there, waiting for Tootie to show. We could be talking about knocking over a liquor store later, for all they care."

"Even so, darling." Blair patted Jo's cheek. It looked like a sweet gesture on the surface, but Jo knew her wife too damn well to fall for it. The gesture was a promise that Blair and Jo would be resuming the conversation later, in private, and that Jo would be doing a lot of listening.

Wow, thought Jo, how do I put my foot in it, even now, after all these years?

Alec touched Blair's arm, a brotherly gesture. "It's Valentine's Day, Aphrodite. It's your day, dear. Why not take pity on your wife?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," said Blair.

"Of course you don't," chuckled Alec. He shook his silver-frosted head. "Some things never change, I suppose. For example –" he gestured toward the sea of guests, "here are we all, waiting for the arrival of Dorothy Ramsey – and she's damn well keeping us waiting as long as it suits her!"

Jacqueline delicately stifled a yawn. "Tootie wouldn't be Tootie if she didn't make a proper entrance," Jacqueline said kindly. "Alec, dear, would you see if there's such a thing as a glass of milk to be had?"

"Of course, Jack." He pecked her cheek, moved off in search of one of the dark-clad waiters.

"You all right?" Jo asked her former Lions teammate. "You're looking a little pale tonight."

Jacqueline shrugged. "I've been diagnosed with 'stress'. Stupid, really. Stress … and ulcers. Here are Gerald and Portia redefining everything we know about genetics, and you running the country, and Blair with the soul of New York in her hands, and here am I, bloody useless – and I have the stress." She laughed. Her friends didn't like the edge to her laugh.

Blair put a gentle hand under one of Jacqueline's elbows. "Ulcers?" she asked quietly.

"Bloody pack of them," Jacqueline said glumly. "Alec couldn't do more to make my life delightful. What right have I to a pack of ulcers?"

"How's, ah, Petal doing?" Jo asked delicately.

Jacqueline's eyes filled with tears. She leaned against Blair.

"Shit. Sorry I asked," Jo said sincerely. "But look, Jack, whatever the problem is, we'll all – "

"There's nothing to be done," said Jack. "That is, everything that can be done is being done. She's receiving the best care."

Alec returned with a wine glass half-full of milk. He put an arm around Jacqueline's shoulders, handed her the glass. She took a sip.

"I see Jack's told you," Alec said tightly.

"I'm so sorry," Jo told her best friend sincerely. "I thought Petal was doing better."

"She was," Alec said. "For a time. But the last blood draw … It seems to have returned. The doctors are running more tests, assessing options. Petal is, of course, the last word in stiff upper lips."

"Of course," said Jo. "She takes after her parents."

Alec shot her a grateful glance. Jacqueline took another sip of milk.

"For Christ's sake," said Jo, "if Petal's down for the count right now, why aren't you back home in DC with her? To hell with Tootie's crazy Valentine's shin-dig."

Alec shook his head. "We had to come. It's so rare that Tootie extends invitations to all of us these days. The musketeers, all in one place? With the exception of our fair Natalie, of course, hunkered down in her hell-hole saving lives, bless her heart. There's a reason Tootie's hosting this – what would you have called it in the old days, our Jo? A wing-ding? There's a reason Tootie's hosting this wing-ding. Something must be afoot."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," said Jack. "And it's a distraction, rather. A welcome distraction."

"Precisely," said Alec, kissing his wife's cheek.

"Won't be much of a distraction," Jo said, "unless Tootie actually shows up." She looked around the vast room. "For crying out loud. There's making an entrance, and there's being just plain rude to your guests."

As if on cue, all of the lights in the room were extinguished.

There were little squeals here and there, some excited, some fearful, and then a quiet murmuring.

"Like that old joke," said Alec, voice amused in the blackness. "'Where was Moses when the lights went out?'"

Jo found Blair's arm in the darkness, pulled her wife close.

"You OK, babe?" Jo asked.

"Of course," said Blair. "It's just a black-out, darling, not World War III."

"Or so we sincerely hope," offered Alec. "The electrics going wonky could be part of some nefarious plot."

"Alec – put a sock in it," Jo said tersely.

"Certainly, Senator," he laughed.

The voice of Dagmar, one of Jo's bodyguards, crackled in her earpiece.

"Bashful 2 for Snow White – you there?" asked Dagmar.

"Snow White here," said Jo. "Snow White and Rose Red are in the dark. Situation report?"

"Who's 'Snow White'?" Portia asked in the blackness. "Gerald, dear, why is Jo talking about fairy tales?"

"I don't know, dear," said Gerald.

"Bashful 2? Waiting for an answer," Jo said tensely. She pulled Blair closer.

After a brief pause, "Boss? Everything's 10-4," Dagmar said in Jo's ear.

"10-4? How the hell is it 10-4?" crabbed Jo. "We're in the damn dark, here, Bashful 2. Is it a power outage or what?"

"One of Miss Ramsey's employees pulled a fuse," said Dagmar. "It's a planned event, repeat, a planned event."

"What do you mean, a planned event?"

"I mean, boss, that it's part of Miss Ramsey's big entrance."

"Oh. Christ."

"What's happening, darling?" Blair asked calmly.

Jo squeezed her wife's hand in the dark. "Guess Tootie's pulling out all the stops when it comes to making an impression tonight."

Jo sensed Blair's nod in the dark. "Of course. Classic Tootie."

The lights went on again, all of them at once, without warning. The lights glanced and gleamed off of the white marble floors and walls, the crystal chandeliers, the pure white fabric of the furniture. Everyone squinted, momentarily dazzled.

A deep bass beat began pulsing from concealed speakers. Everyone looked around.

A massive flat screen television descended from the ceiling. On screen, Lexi and her band and back-up dancers were rocking a vast stage.

Jo's eyes glazed over as she watched the enormous high-definition flat screen descend. Blair glanced at her wife.

"No," Blair said simply.

"But … babe … Couldn't we maybe –"

"No," said Blair.

Jo sighed.

"Ladies and gentlemen." It was Tootie's voice – but where was she? Everyone in the room looked everywhere around them. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight my daughter, Lady Lexi, is performing a Valentine's Day concert in Central Park."

There was a hearty wave of applause.

A cloud of dry ice smoke roiled from one of the doorways at the back of the room. A silhouette appeared in the midst of the smoke. The slender figure stepped forward, moved to stand near the flat screen -

"It's her!" people murmured throughout the room. "It's Tootie Ramsey …"

Tootie wore a glimmering silver evening gown picked out with tiny crystals and pearls. Spotlights concealed high in the ceiling aimed dazzling beams of light at her.

The room erupted with thunderous applause.

Jo noticed that Tootie was wearing her most conservative wig.

"For Pete's sake," Jo whispered to Blair, "she looks like Condoleezza."

"Maybe Tootie's announcing a run for office," said Blair.

"Tootie? Tootie?" Jo was stunned at the thought.

"Well, she certainly looks like a poster matron for the Hollywood Republicans," observed Alec. "Although the last I knew, her politics were somewhere left of the president's."

Jo elbowed him in the ribs.

"She can't be running for office," said Jo. "Not Tootie. She's got something else up her sleeve."

"With that wig?" mused Jack. "The only other thing I can hazard is that she's planning to join the clergy, like our Blair …"

Tootie held up one hand; the applause ceased as if a tap had been turned off.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Tootie, "thank you for celebrating Valentine's Day with me. As you can see, Lexi couldn't be here because she's entertaining Manhattan, and the billion people watching her concert on HBO and online."

Another round of applause.

On screen, Lexi was strutting across the stage in a manner that put Mick Jagger to shame. She sang with a voice that was rich in timbre, throaty and sexy as hell. Her sapphire-blue eyes burned.

One of her guitarists, a gorgeous young woman with long curling hair, ran alongside Lexi, matching the pop/rock/hip-hop star note for note. The Central Park crowd went wild.

Tootie glanced up at the television screen, smiling proudly. Diamonds winked at her ears and throat. Crystals and pearls glittered on her dress, throwing off tiny rainbows of prismatic light.

"Some of you," Tootie looked over at the news reporters and the camera crews that were hanging raptly on her every word, capturing her image on video and in still photos, "some of you are wondering why I invited you to this party. Some of you think I must have a pretty big announcement to make. And you're right."

Blair squeezed Jo's hand.

"Christ," whispered Jo. "What now? I don't think I can take another bad piece of news tonight, babe."

"Steady on, Artemis," Alec whispered. He looked from his ex-wife at the front of the room to his eldest daughter strutting around the Central Park stage on television. "Steady on."

Jo had a feeling he was talking more to himself than to her.

"Lexi looks wonderful," Portia observed to no one in particular. "You'd hardly know she was at death's door recently."

"Dearest," Gerald said to Portia, "this would be a good quiet time."

"Would it?"

"Yes."

"If you say so, dear."

"Tonight," Tootie told the room's throngs, "I have welcomed the media into my home," she blew them a little kiss, "I have invited the crème de la crème of New York and Hollywood, and my home town of Washington, D.C., and the worlds of sports and music and fashion. And I have welcomed my dearest old friends to my home –" she glanced toward the knot of musketeers and Lions in the back with a warm smile. "And I've invited you all here with a purpose."

"Yes, yes, we know," Jo griped under her breath. "Come on, Stretch – what's the purpose?"

"She's masterful," Alec said admiringly. "She's always known how to build suspense."

Blair chewed at her bottom lip. Come on, Tootie? What are you up to?

"As some of you know," Tootie told the crowd, "my career has been cooling off."

A murmur of dissent rolled through the room. Tootie held up one hand.

"I know. I know. I am, and always will be, the one and only Dorothy Tootie Ramsey, performer extraordinaire. But every career has cycles, and right now, my career is cooling off. Hollywood and Broadway aren't exactly battering down my door with offers."

More stunned murmurs.

"I know," said Tootie. "I'm not supposed to talk about it, my little slump. I'm supposed to say that I'm 'fielding offers' and waiting for 'the right project'. But the truth is there are very few offers right now – and the ones I'm receiving are piss-poor."

Chuckles … laughter … slightly shocked gasps.

"But that's all right with me," Tootie continued. "Because I've had my times in the sun, and they'll come again. And right now, it's my baby's time in the sun." She gestured toward the massive flat screen, at her and Alec's beautiful, insanely talented daughter. "But I want you all to know I'm not going to sit on the sidelines. It's a complicated world we live in right now, and I want to do my own small bit to help. I am pleased – no, I am honored to announce that I have been appointed the Cultural Liaison to England's 'Better Tomorrow' campaign. It will be a bright new chapter in my life. And I will assume that role in March, once Queen Elizabeth bestows upon me the title of Dame of the British Empire."

More shocked gasps – and then a thunder of applause, hoots and cheers.

Tootie smiled, basking in the response.

Jo and Blair's jaws had dropped.

Alec laughed. "Well," he said over the din, "I always say – 'There is nothing like a dame'."

"Is that legal?" Jo asked him. "Tootie becoming a dame? I mean, her not being British and all?"

"Are you daft, Artemis?"

"Not last time I checked."

"Our fair Tootie? Is it legal? It can only be honorary, of course, as she's not a British subject, but with her BAFTAs and her triumphant stint as Lady Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and all the fund-raising she's done for the coal miners and the UK's jobless and – well, for heaven's sake! Is it legal? Half of the UK consider her one of their own. Half, at least."

"I asked a simple question," said Jo. "A simple 'yes' would've been fine."

"Is it legal?" Alec repeated wonderingly. "The very question!"

"So, this means … what? Tootie's like a lady now?"

Jacqueline shook her head. She took another sip of milk. "But it's a great honor – a very great honor, and well deserved. When I think of all she's done for Angledun ..."

"Like what?" Jo asked curiously.

"Good grief, Jo – do you live in a bubble?" asked Alec. "Do you really not know all of the things Tootie has done?"

"Some," Jo said defensively. "Some. But I kind of have my own complicated life, you know. I can't follow Tootie around and write her damn biography."

"The only real surprise," said Alec, "is that it's taken this long for Her Majesty to honor Tootie."

"As always," Tootie told the crowd as the applause died down, "I want to thank my friends, my lifelong friends, for standing by me. In good times and bad, with all of the ups and downs, when you have real friends, who really have your back, well, that's the most important thing in the world."

Jo felt tears pricking her eyes. Blair smiled fondly at her wife.

"And now," said Tootie, "enjoy my daughter's concert, and the food and drink. Happy Valentine's Day!"

More applause … The spotlights went dark, and Tootie disappeared, seemingly by magic, slipping into the crowd and out of the room …

"You have to admire her candor," Portia said to her friends. "Not many stars would admit their careers are in the toilet."

"Amen," agreed Jo.

"Her career isn't in the commode," objected Blair. "It's merely on hold."

"Well, whatever the deal is with her career," said Jo, "at least she's going to be a fancy-schmancy British something-or-other, and a – what did she call it?"

"Cultural Liaison," Blair said helpfully. "For the 'Better Tomorrow' initiative."

"That sounds amazing," said Portia. "Just think. Cultural Liaison."

"It does sound nice," said Alec. He reached into the depths of his white jacket, withdrew an elegant pipe.

Jo hooted. "A pipe. A pipe? And when did that ridiculous affectation start?"

"When I gave up cigarettes," Alec said with dignity. "At the behest, it must be said, of your wife."

"It's lovely that you gave up cigarettes," Blair told him, "but if you could give up tobacco altogether …"

Alec dropped shreds of fragrant tobacco into the pipe bowl, tamped them down, fished in his pockets and withdrew a tiny silver lighter.

"Aphrodite, my dear," he said, "Rome was neither built nor destroyed in a single day. And my dear Artemis, you are not to call this an affectation. There's nothing affected –" he drew mightily on the stem, trying to keep the tobacco burning, "that is to say, there is nothing –" deep breath "affected about the smoking of a pipe."

Jo laughed. "For crying out loud – not affected? You look like Professor Plum or something."

"I must admit," Alec said imperturbably, continuing to draw on the stem, "I do have a rather professorial air when I smoke my pipe. A sort of debonair je ne sais quoi. And since I am a professor – as you wretched impertinents always overlook – what could be more appropriate than my looking professorial?"

"Yes, about that," Jo said, eyes twinkling, "The Cracker Jacks company keeps calling; they want that Ph.D. back."

Alec winced. "The unkindest cut," he said, "is always from the dearest hand."

Tootie materialized in their midst, suddenly. She hugged Blair, Jo, Jacqueline, Portia, Gerald and, finally, her ex-husband.

"Alec," said Tootie, coughing, "put that damn thing away."

"If you're referring to my pipe," he said coolly, "I respectfully decline."

Tootie glanced at Jacqueline, who shrugged.

"I have my milk," said Jacqueline. "I can't begrudge him his crutch."

Tootie's face softened. She took one of Alec's hands, and one of Jacqueline's. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "About Petal. It's not fair."

"Funny thing about life, old thing," Alec told her lightly. He puffed on his pipe. "It's only fair in the movies. Not even then, really – only in the screwball comedies."

"She'll be all right," Tootie told the couple confidently. "Petal will pull through. She has before and she will again. Your daughter is an amazing girl."

"I sometimes think," Jacqueline's voice broke a little, "if only we hadn't named her Petal. I know it's mad, but … It's as if we were tempting the Fates."

"Nonsense," Alec said brusquely. His eyes glistened. "Change of subject," he said huskily. "Miss Dorothy Ramsey, ex-light-of-my-life, exactly what are you up to?"

Tootie tilted her head. "What am I up to?"

"Yes. What are you up to?"

"I'm sure," Tootie said innocently, "that I don't know what you mean."

"I see." He nodded. "So – you're going to play that hand. Baffled innocence."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're driving at."

"Precisely," said Alec. "Precisely."

"If you're referring to my becoming a dame, I can assure you it's true," Tootie said with dignity. "To tell you the truth, when I first heard about it, I thought it was a hoax. But it's the real deal. My people checked it out thoroughly."

"You've always been a hell of a dame in my book," Alec said. "I'm sure that's all exactly as you say it is. No … What I'm referring to, my dear, is this nonsense about becoming a Cultural Liaison for a Better Tomorrow."

Tootie bristled. "Nonsense? An opportunity like this, a chance to do so much good – you're calling it nonsense?"

"Yes," said Alec. "Nonsense. Balderdash. Folderol. Poppy cock."

"I beg your pardon," Tootie said coldly, "but I have actual guests to speak with. Guests who are not my ex-husband and who are not interested in insulting me." She smiled in turn to Blair, Jo, Portia, Gerald and Jacqueline. "Let me circulate for a few moments, and I'll be back to catch up with you all. I'm so happy you came. I'm so happy you're here to share this with me!"

"Of course," Blair said warmly. She glanced at the massive television. Lexi was crooning a scorching slow-burn rock ballad. "I can't tell you how wonderful it is, to see Lexi fully recovered."

Tootie put an arm around Blair's shoulders, hugged her. "Just wait," Tootie told her surrogate sister. "There's nothing like it, having a child. You'll never be the same." She turned to Jo. "You too, Jo. You'll see. It's more beautiful than anything. Anything."

"Yes," Jo said, shooting a loving glance at Blair. "We can't wait."

"Literally," said Blair, putting a hand to her belly. "The sooner the better!"

After Tootie drifted into the crowd to greet her other guests, Alec chewed thoughtfully at the stem of his pipe.

"Curiouser and curiouser," he said.

"Why do you have to break her chops?" Jo asked Alec. "I thought you two were friendly exes? How come you can't just be happy for her being this, this Culture Liaison thing?"

"Because, dear Artemis," Alec blew a smoke ring, "there is no such thing. No such thing as a Cultural Liaison, and no such thing as a 'Better Tomorrow' program."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean precisely what I said. I mean that Tootie was bending the truth."

"She was lying?" Portia asked bluntly.

"To the media," Alec agreed. "And to all of us – to her dearest old chums."

"Look, old sport," Jo said, "no insult intended, but don't you think it's possible there are appointments and programs in the British government that you don't know about? Even professors and ambassadors don't know everything."

"I'd know if there were a 'Better Tomorrow' program," said Alec. "And, more to the point, if Tootie were being made a 'Cultural Liaison' – whatever that dreadfully generic title is supposed to mean – I would have heard about it through the diplomatic grapevine. Someone would have mentioned that my ex is about to start spending a lot more time across the pond."

"I knew it," laughed Jo. "The diplomatic corps – bunch of gossips, that's what you all are."

"The world of influence requires a fluid exchange of information," Alec said with dignity.

"Yes – like I said," said Jo. "Bunch of gossips. But, you know, it's like that old game, 'telephone', things can get garbled, Alec, or drop out of the message completely. This is just one of those times when you didn't get the memo."

Alec shook his head. "Someone would have told me if Tootie were receiving an appointment. The Georges would have told me, or, more likely, had someone else pass on the information."

"You didn't know they're making Tootie a dame," Jo pointed out.

"Well, ah, in point of fact, I did hear something about that," Alec confessed. "But I didn't want to spoil the surprise for the rest of you."

Jacqueline slapped his shoulder lightly with her coral-pink clutch. "You knew? I asked you the entire journey why Tootie was throwing this do, and you pled ignorance. I knew you were holding back."

Alec rubbed his shoulder. "The life of a diplomat is a lonely one," he said, with a martyred air. "There is so much that we have to play close to the chest."

"What about the 'fluid exchange of information'?" asked Blair.

"It's a delicate balancing act," he said. "What can we circulate? And what must we suppress?"

Jacqueline lifted one eyebrow. "When it comes to your wife, you suppress nothing," she said sternly. "I'm the flesh of your flesh, the bone of your bone – or something like that. Blair, do I have that right?"

"Close enough," Blair said.

"I'm confused," said Portia. She turned to Alec. "Is Tootie going to be a Dame, or isn't she?"

"Dame – yes," Alec confirmed. "But 'Cultural Liaison' – there's something amiss there."

"Unless Tootie's snapped her twig, why would she make up something like that?" Jo asked skeptically. "I mean, being made a Dame is cool enough – why throw in some Cultural Liaison thing no one's even heard of?"

"Because," Alec mused aloud, gazing into his champagne glass, "it will explain why she'll remain in the UK for an extended time. After the DBE ceremony, I mean."

"Why does Tootie need an excuse to stay in England for awhile?" asked Portia. "She's a grown woman. She can do as she pleases."

"But she's famous," Jacqueline pointed out. "Even if her career is cooling, her movements are still newsworthy. If she settles abroad for a time, people will want to know why."

"Precisely," said Alec. "So there's a reason Tootie will be in England that she doesn't want any to know … And she's covering it with this fictional appointment."

Blair shook her head. "I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill, milord," Blair told him. "Maybe Tootie's just tired; she wants some time away from the American media."

"Of course," Alec said drily. "Because the British press is so much gentler. And less intrusive. No. No, I scent a cover story. I scent, in fact, the Georges."

Jo darted a shrewd look at her wife. Her wife, the archbishop. The goddess of love. The one woman in their circle that everyone gravitated toward when they had a problem, a dilemma of the heart or spirit. The woman who knew Snake was leaving Natalie.

"Why is Tootie going to England?" Jo asked her wife.

Blair pinked faintly, caught by surprise. "How should I know, darling?"

"It'd be stranger if you didn't know," said Jo.

Alec turned to Blair. His keen blue eyes narrowed. "Jo's right," he said. "In common parlance, 'spill it', Aphrodite. 'The jig is up'. What do you know about all this?"

Blair sipped her seltzer water, looking, transparently, as if she were buying herself time. "Spill what?" she asked.

Jo shook her head. "And, as usual, the Academy Award does not go to Blair Polniaczek."

"If I knew anything," Blair said, "which I don't, it would simply be that Tootie is ready for a new chapter in her life."

"What kind of new chapter?" Jo probed.

"Yes, Aphrodite – what kind of new chapter?" asked Alec.

"She's going to help people," said Blair. "Like she said."

"But help people how?" asked Duke Nethridge. "Blair, dear, I don't normally threaten women with child, but I feel it's only fair to warn you that there is a dungeon at Nethridge Castle. At Jack's castle too, come to think of it."

Blair turned to Jo, extending her empty glass. "Darling, more seltzer, if you'd be so kind."

"Don't try to change the subject," said Jo. "Come on. Spill the beans."

"You wouldn't deny me more seltzer, would you?" asked Blair. "Your pregnant wife?"

"You don't need any more seltzer, Blair, and neither does the baby. Kid's going to turn out hyperactive or something, all those damn bubbles."

"The correct term is 'ADHD'," Portia said helpfully.

"Hyperactive, ADHD, whatever," said Jo, "our kid doesn't need any more seltzer, and neither do you, Blair, way you keep having to pee every ten minutes."

Blair drew herself up haughtily.

And there it is – thought Jo. Foot-in-mouth again.

"If you'll pardon me," Blair told her circle of friends with dignity, "I'm going to get myself another glass of seltzer – since my wife can't be bothered."

"Listen, babe – OK, about the 'pee' remark – I know that wasn't exactly classy –"

"Wasn't it?" Blair asked icily. "If you'll pardon me …"

She moved into the crowd, toward the distant bar.

Jo groaned.

"I know you're a bit long-in-the-tooth for it," Alec told Jo, eyes dancing, "but there's a marvelous finishing school in Switzerland where you could learn, oh, all sorts of useful things. Like not talking about your wife's bodily functions at formal public events."

"Bite me," said Jo.

"And not saying things like 'bite me'," Alec continued. "It's a truly exclusive place. They booted Lexi after forty-eight hours. You might last twenty-four – long enough to learn something, any road."

"Why is Tootie going to England?" Jacqueline wondered aloud. She looked to her husband. "You don't think …"

"That's exactly what I think," Alec told her.

"What?" asked Jo. "What do you think?"

"That it's something for the Georges."

"Like what? What could Tootie do for them?" asked Jo. "Maybe it's a USO kind of thing. Maybe Tootie's going to be entertaining the British troops in the Middle East and she's being modest."

"I see," Alec said gravely. "Tootie. Being modest."

Jo sighed. "Yes. I see your point."

Something caught Jo's attention at the other end of the room. It was the damndest thing, she thought, being an aunt; somehow she had a sixth sense for Brenda and Syd's squabbles.

Sure enough, the kids were arguing again, and this time it looked really heated.

Jo sighed again. What will it be like when I'm a mom? she wondered. Wow; I'll really have a sixth sense then! It's kind of like 'the force'. It's like this connection, between people, their feelings, their thoughts …

"If you guys will excuse me for a moment," Jo said.

"Need a pee?" Alec asked cheerfully. Jacqueline jabbed him in the ribs.

"Sure," said Jo. "Eventually. But first I have to break up a little rumble …"

Brenda was already taller than Jo, and Jo always found it a little disconcerting looking up at her niece when she disciplined her, looking up, and looking into features so astonishingly like, and yet astonishingly unlike, Natalie's.

"I don't know what the hell's going on," Jo told Brenda, "but you're practically an adult now, and you have to learn not to get all wound up when you and Syd disagree."

"He wants to go bother Madonna," Brenda said. "He wants to go ask for her autograph."

"Oh."

Jo glanced down at Syd. He was looking adorable, as usual, with his mop of sandy curls. He wore a blue suit and a striped clip-on tie – it was, as he had told Jo before they left for the party, the outfit he usually wore to temple.

Jo ruffled Syd's curls. "Brenda's right, kid. You can't just go up to guests at these things and ask for autographs."

"Why not?" asked Syd, disappointed. "I mean – she's Madonna. When am I going to get to meet Madonna again?"

I always forget, thought Jo, what a normal childhood Nat's kids have. They weren't hanging out with politicians and celebrities and royals all the time, the way Lexi and Petal had been raised. The way Blair's and my kid will be raised, thought Jo.

"Listen," Jo said kindly, "I know it's exciting for you, seeing all these famous people, but they're just here to visit Aunt Tootie. They're just here as guests. It's like, they're 'off the clock'. The last thing they need is someone bugging them for an autograph."

"I wouldn't bother her," Syd said sincerely. "I'd be real polite."

Jo smiled. "I'm sure you would, kid. Tell you what," she glanced at Brenda, "how about if I introduce you both? If you promise to play it cool."

Brenda scowled. "You know Madonna?" she asked skeptically.

"Sure," said Jo. "She helped with the 'Feed America' program couple of years back. Nice lady. Great vocabulary, too. You think I can cuss? I've got nothing on Madge."

Despite her best efforts, Brenda cracked a faint smile.

"Come on," Jo coaxed. "Let's go say 'hi' to her. You can be cool, right, Syd?"

He nodded solemnly ...

"You're kidding!" Jacqueline said to Portia.

"Not at all," said Portia. "Blair told me not to tell Jo, and Jo told me not to tell Blair."

"Not tell what?" Alec asked curiously.

"Whether the baby will be a boy or girl," said Portia.

"I'm lost," said Alec.

Jacqueline patted his cheek. "A not unfamiliar state for you, milord," she teased.

"Blair and Jo told each other that they don't want to know whether their baby is a boy or girl until it's born," Portia explained.

"I know," said Alec. "That's what they told me, when I asked."

"But Blair really wanted to know. So she asked the doctor. But she wants Jo to be surprised. Because Jo said she wanted to be surprised. So Blair's swearing everyone to secrecy."

"Well, that's like Aphrodite," Alec said approvingly. "Very considerate – and rather sneaky."

"But little does Blair know," Portia continued, "that Jo already asked the doctor whether the child will be a boy or girl. You see, Jo wanted to know too. But she thinks that Blair wants it to be a surprise. So Jo is swearing everyone to secrecy."

Alec laughed, a rich, robust sound. Several heads turned.

"God's teeth!" he said. "So Jo knows the baby's gender, and Blair knows the baby's gender, and all of their friends know, but Jo and Blair think – oh, it's too rich!"

"Should one of us – what is it Jo says? – Oh, yes – Should one of us 'spill the beans'?" wondered Portia.

"Not on your life," said Jacqueline. "This is too lovely. They're both rather hoist by their own sneaky petard!"

"Just by-the-by," said Alec, "what is the child going to be? Boy or girl?"

Portia opened her mouth to answer, but Jacqueline forestalled her.

"I think," Jack said, eyes twinkling with a merriment she hadn't felt for some time, "that milord can wait for that answer."

"I say, that's not fair," Alec objected. "Don't be cruel, Jacqueline. And remember that I am your lord and master."

Jacqueline patted his cheek fondly. "Just keep telling yourself that, dear …"

Late that night, in their Central Park penthouse, arms wrapped around each other, Jo and Blair couldn't sleep.

"Babe?"

"Mmn?" Blair mumbled sleepily.

"You awake?"

"Yes."

"I'm glad we didn't announce or vow renewal tonight," said Jo. "It wouldn't have been the right time."

"No," Blair agreed. "Not with Tootie's big news, and with the sad news about young Petal. We'll wait a week or two," she yawned, "and then we'll send formal invitations."

"Formal invitations?" asked Jo. "I thought we were going to keep it sort of loosey-goosey."

"Mmn, yes, darling, but Warner loosey-goosey, not Polniaczek loosey-goosey."

"So … It's going to be a really big event?"

"You surmise correctly," Blair agreed drowsily. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Not a bit, babe. Whatever makes you happy."

They lay quietly for another moment, and then Jo nudged Blair with her big toe.

"Why is Tootie going to England, Blair?"

Blair fumbled under the covers, found Jo's hands, squeezed them.

"I love you, Jo."

"Good for you, babe. Love you too. Now … Why is Tootie going to ye merry old land of scones and crumpets?"

"She didn't tell me why," said Blair. She yawned like a sleepy kitten.

"But you knew she was going?"

"Yes. Didn't know she was receiving an honorary DBE, though. Guess she wanted to surprise us all."

"Why would she keep something from us?" Jo wondered. "About moving to England, I mean. After all these years of friendship. I mean, misdirecting the press is one thing. Fibbing to us …"

"I think it's something she can't tell us," murmured Blair. "Like Alec said … If it's to do with the Georges, it must be top-secret …"

"But Tootie's too old for that stuff," objected Jo.

"She's younger than we are," said Blair.

Jo felt a faint frisson run along her spine. "Blair … do you really think … Could Tootie really be …"

Blair snuggled deeper under the covers. "Darling, could you please finish your question? I have to at least try to sleep. Early meeting tomorrow."

"Do you really think Tootie could be getting back into that world?"

Blair shrugged eloquently.

"But it's so … dangerous," said Jo.

"Tootie knows what she's doing," Blair said confidently.

"Ha! How do you know she knows what she's doing? You don't even know what she's doing."

Blair shifted, turned so that she was facing her wife. Blair kissed Jo's nose.

"Tootie," said Blair, "always knows what she's doing. She has that dramatic side, but she's very shrewd, really."

"Sure, she's no dummy," Jo agreed. "But if she's getting back into that world, it's no joke. Especially these days. When you think about all the – hey!"

One of Blair's hands had slipped under Jo's pajama top, and was fumbling for Jo's left breast. The other hand had slipped into Jo's pajama bottom, and was sliding between Jo's legs.

"Hey now, ah, that isn't fair," objected Jo – although she didn't sound too annoyed. "Blair, we agreed a long, long time ago that you can't just sex your way out of things."

"You agreed to that," Blair countered. "I never really got on board with that policy. Frankly," she cupped Jo's breast, kneaded it gently, stroked the instantly-erect nipple, "I never cared for that policy."

"So, ah, I see," Jo said breathlessly.

"Permission to proceed?" Blair asked.

"I, um, thought you had an early meeting," Jo said. The feeling of Blair's hands on her, gentle, searching, dexterous … Jo's head swam.

"I do have a meeting," said Blair. "But maybe I can be a tad bit late." She wriggled further under the covers, mouth and hands all over her wife. "Jo," Blair whispered, "sometimes you think too much. Sometimes you just need to feel things."

"I like what I'm feeling now," Jo whispered.

"This? This is nothing, darling. Now … this, on the other hand …"

Jo moaned …


The Bronx. March, 1985.

In the gay pizza place on Jerome, Blair and Jo sat in a booth across from Pauly and Jesse. Blair was eating gnocchi with lady-like grace. Jo and Jesse and Pauly were devouring pizza as if they hadn't eaten in days.

"So freakin good," said Jo, belching softly. "'Scuse me, babe," she told Blair.

Blair nodded magnanimously.

"Jeez, what, we at the Ritz?" asked Jesse. "'Scuse me' – Christ. You've been snipped, all right, Polniaczek."

"Bite me," said Jo. She lifted another slice of pizza from the tin tray, bit into it, cheese and tomato sauce rolling down her chin. "Ain't nobody at this table been snipped," said Jo.

Blair looked at the cheese and sauce rolling down Jo's chin. Blair glanced meaningfully at the paper napkin at Jo's elbow.

Jo sighed. She wiped her chin.

"Sure," laughed Jesse. "You're a real maverick, Jo. Real free spirit."

"Hey, I just ain't a freakin slobbo," said Jo. "Don't have to be a mess to have sand, do I?"

"What the hell, don't get all pissy," said Jesse. "Just breakin your chops before you leave. No one up in Peekskill to break your chops the way I do, is there? Cept Blondie, here, and she can't break chops the way I do. She just breaks –"

"Look," said Jo, interrupting opportunely, "you two gotta visit us. A lot. Come up anytime. We're gonna miss ya so much I can't tell ya."

"Yes," Blair agreed, taking another bite of gnocchi. "I'm going to miss Pauly terribly."

"And you're going to miss Jesse," Jo prompted her. "Aren't you, babe?"

"That's … possible," Blair said grudgingly.

"Hey, no need to do me any favors," Jesse told Blair. "I ain't exactly gonna be cryin my eyes out when you go, Farrah. One less slummin richie in the neighborhood ain't gonna twist my undies."

"Isn't it great," Pauly asked Jo quietly, "how wonderful the girls get along now?"

"Sure," said Jo. "They hardly ever even try to knife each other anymore."

"We're not that bad," objected Jesse. "Me and Farrah been on great behavior."

"We have," said Blair. "Give us a break, darling."

"How'd Saint Rose take the news?" Jesse asked Jo.

Jo shrugged. "She was cool about it."

"No hysterics? Did she chew the drapes?"

"We don't have drapes," said Jo.

"You know what I mean."

"She was … cool," said Jo. "She's gonna miss us, but all the same she wasn't surprised. I think she was actually surprised we ended up staying as long as we did."

"And she's OK now – about you two bein queer?"

"She's learning to live with it," said Blair. "And I don't really care for the term 'queer', by the way."

"Good to know," grinned Jesse.

Blair rolled her eyes. Great … Nothing like giving Jesse more ammunition …

"Really, though," said Jo, "you guys gotta come up more. We're gonna have a St. Paddy's day thing, or come up for Easter. Hell, this summer you should just come up for a coupla months."

Jesse hooted. "And do what? Somes of us gotta work, Polniaczek."

"What do you think we're gonna be doin?" asked Jo. "I mean, we'll prob'ly be in Texas a coupla weeks, to visit Eduardo and Chestnut, but mostly we're gonna be in Peekskill workin our asses off. They got jobs in Peekskill, you know. The Bronx ain't got the market cornered on jobs. Pauly can work at the garage with me, maybe, and you could waitress with Blair."

"No way in hell," Jesse and Blair said together.

They glared at each other – and then burst into laughter.

"I mean, can you picture that?" Jesse asked, wiping away tears of laughter. "You and me, workin together?"

"What a nightmare!" laughed Blair.

"Christ – that would be somethin all right!" agreed Jesse.

Jo shook her head. "I don't get you two. I truly freakin don't. If you could only agree on everythin else, the way you agree you can't stand each other …"

"It's like Cheese Whiz and caviar," Jesse told her old friend. "We just don't mix."

"Exactly," said Blair. "Cheez Whiz and caviar."

"I mean – caviar," said Jesse, making a face.

"Cheez Whiz," said Blair, shuddering.

Jo stretched. She stood up. "Speaking of whizzes," she said, "gotta see someone about a horse."

Blair gave her a look.

"What?" Jo asked innocently. "Not like I said I'm gonna go take a piss or somethin."

"Oh, you're a real Emily Post," Blair said drily …

"Well," said Jo later that afternoon, when she and Blair had packed their few belongings, and were ready to leave. "Well … I guess … that's about it."

Rose nodded. Her eyes were bright with tears. She opened her arms and Blair hugged her, tightly, tears slipping down her own face.

"Tell Lou he was a great boss," said Blair.

Rose laughed and sobbed at the same time. "Nothing doing!" she said. "You think I want him getting a swelled head? Some of us still have to work for him."

"Well, tell him 'goodbye' anyway," said Blair. "And tell him 'thanks'. Not everyone would give a debutante a chance to sling coffee and sandwiches."

"I can tell him that," Rose agreed. She kissed Blair's cheek. "Don't be a stranger. Do you hear?"

"We hear," Blair assured her. "And the same to you, Rose. Come up any time. There's always room."

"I will. When I can get away, I will."

Rose turned to Jo. Her daughter's blue-green eyes were damp.

"We'll be seein you soon, Ma," said Jo, "one way and another." She cleared her throat. "Look, you two finish up your goodbyes. I'll bring the stuff down to the bike."

"All right," said Rose. "We'll be down in a minute."

"Great." Jo hefted her duffle bag, slung Blair's garment bag over one shoulder, lifted Blair's suitcase and makeup case.

"Can you get that all alone?" Blair asked solicitously.

"Sure," said Jo. "You kiddin? I been carryin your same stupid three bags forever, seems like …"

Uncle Sal had lent Jo a sidecar for the Kawasaki. Jo piled her and Blair's luggage into it, wrapped it around a few times with a cord and tied one of the unbreakable knots she and Jesse had learned as kids when they were thinking about running away to join the Merchant Marines.

Jo looked up and down the street she'd known since she was a kid. Grey snow along the litter-strewn curb. It was cold as hell so most everyone was inside – just a couple of crumb-bums drinking beer several stoops over. Sirens wailed in the near distance. Home, thought Jo. One of my homes, anyhow.

She went to the payphone on the corner – the one she'd used to call Blair what seemed like a million Thanksgivings ago. She dropped coins into the slot, heard them bing and bong, then dialed a number …

Mrs. Garrett answered and seemed surprised when Jo wanted to talk to the Georges, but she called the twins to the phone.

"What do you want?" Sebastian's scorn was clear across miles of telephone wire.

"Listen," said Jo, "are you two as good as you claim you are? This ACT thing, or whatever. Cause if you are, I got coupla jobs for you."

"Why should we do anything for you?" he asked haughtily.

"Rather," said George, her voice as insolent as her brother's. "You made fun of us. Why don't you go to your precious Snoop Sisters?"

"Cause I'm tryin to put together a coupla surprises for Blair," explained Jo. "And when it comes to Blair, I'm worried the Snoop Sisters might let somethin slip. But you two can't freakin stand us, so you ain't gonna let anythin slip to anyone."

"Too right," Sebastian agreed. There was a whispered conference between brother and sister, and then, "We want twenty US dollars," he said.

"Twenty bucks? You don't even know what I'm goin to ask ya to do," complained Jo.

"That's our flat rate," Sebastian explained. "For any endeavor. There will, of course, be expenses and á la carte fees as well."

"Oh there will, will there?" Jo asked grimly.

"If you wish to engage our services, yes," said Sebastian.

"Fine. I'll get the twenty. We'll negotiate the rest."

"Done," agreed Sebastian.

"Done," said George.

"What I want you to do," said Jo, "is find a coupla things. The first one shouldn't be so difficult. The second one – "

"You let us worry about the difficulty," George said. "What seems difficult to you is likely child's play for us."

"Well, I don't gotta worry you aint' got enough confidence to do the job," said Jo, shaking her head. "So, OK. First thing I want you to find is –" Jo lowered her voice …

When the conversation concluded, the Georges gave the phone to Mrs. Garrett.

"Jo, I don't mean to pry," said Mrs. Garrett, "but why are you calling the twins on my private line? And why did they just leave here laughing in a conspiratorial fashion?"

"They're just doin a little somethin for me."

"I see. And this little something won't involve Drake and I bailing them out of the Peekskill hoosegow, will it?"

Jo laughed. "Mrs. G, are you ever gonna let us girls live down the Chug-a-lug incident?"

"No, Jo – I don't think that's likely."

"Mrs. G, I promise I just got them doin some research, and it ain't gonna get them in trouble, and it could mean some nice surprises for Blair. OK?"

"That sounds harmless enough," Mrs. Garrett said. "Jo … I can't tell you how happy I am you girls are coming home."

"Me too, Mrs. G."

"And Rose knows she's welcome here any time? You told her?"

"We told her," said Jo.

"Good. And your father? He knows he's welcome too?"

Jo grimaced into the phone. "Pop's pretty hung up with his own life, these days. Did Blair tell you about him and Carol?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact she did. Jo, I don't think Charlie meant to exclude you. He probably –"

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," said Jo. "He figured we were all too messed up about Petal to wanna go to a weddin. I know his heart was in the right place. But him and Carol and the two brats sneakin off to city hall like that –"

"Jo."

"Look, I love Pop like crazy, but I just gotta wrap my brain around it. You know? Suddenly I got a step-mother and step-sister and step-brother, who I still haven't even met, by the way, and I didn't even get an invite to the weddin."

"We can talk about it tonight, Jo," Mrs. Garrett said kindly. "Do you know when you and Blair will be arriving?"

"Hour," said Jo. "Maybe two, if the roads are bad. Don't wanna take a chance of spillin the bike again."

"How is your knee, Jo?"

"Healin fine," Jo assured her surrogate mother. The front door of her mother's apartment building swung open. Rose and Blair stood in the doorway. "Jeez, gotta go," said Jo. "See you soon, Mrs. G!"

Jo hung up the phone.

Rose and Blair were talking. They embraced each other, then pulled apart.

My Ma, thought Jo, heart swelling. My Ma, and my girl.

Blair gracefully descended the snowy steps of the stoop.

"Ready, darling?" she asked Jo.

Jo smiled at her lover, handed Blair her black motorcycle helmet. Jo continued to smile at the beautiful blonde as she pulled on her helmet and secured the chin strap.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Blair asked Jo.

"Like what?"

"Like you're a little goofy in the head, darling."

Jo laughed. "I guess, you know, cause you make me a little goofy in the head."

"Well that's sweet, Jo. And you make me goofy too. But as you say in the Bronx, unless we want to get our asses jumped, you might want to stop looking at me that way."

"OK. OK, whatever you say." Jo made a gallant little gesture toward the Kawasaki. "Our chariot awaiteth us, babe."

Blair climbed onto the Kawasaki's back seat. Jo climbed onto the front. Blair slid her arms around Jo's waist.

"Goodbye, girls!" Rose called from the top of the stoop. "Goodbye! I love you!"

"Love you too!" called Blair.

"Yeah –what she said," called Jo, who refused to shout gushy things like "Love you too!" on the mean streets of the Bronx.

Jo revved the engine. She felt Blair's arms tighten around her waist.

Gonna miss you, Ma, thought Jo. Gonna miss you like hell. I needed this. But now … Time to move forward, back to my grown-up home.

Jo hit the accelerator, rocketed along Arthur Avenue. In a moment, Rose and the dilapidated old brownstone were pinpoints in the rearview mirror.

Will it always be this way? Jo wondered. It was something she'd never really thought about. Was that what life was – a series of homes, and wherever you were, there was always someone missing, always someone you had to leave behind?

Don't matter, Jo thought decisively. She felt Blair's arms around her waist. As long as me and Blair are together, whatever crazy garbage is goin on around us … Blair's my home now.

She nosed the bike out of the city, toward River Rock, and her friends, and her future.

The End

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