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@gmail.com

Artemis & Aphrodite
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

Late September 1983. Langley College. A group of women's field hockey players jogged toward the gymnasium. A lone athlete still sprinted around the track.

Coach Anderson noticed the solitary runner, frowned, blew the whistle around his neck.

"Polniaczek! You can hit the showers!" he yelled.

"S'okay, sir," Jo yelled back, not breaking her stride as she circled the track at a feverish pace. "Just wanna get in a couple more laps."

"All right, all right, but don't push it too hard."

"No, sir, I won't."

"I mean it! You can't start Saturday if you sprain something."

"I won't, Coach!"

"You better not!" he shouted, with a hard stare, but Jo had already sprinted out of the range of his not inconsiderable bellow and his not inconsiderable stare.

Coach Anderson sighed. You could yell, you could shout, but did they listen? He headed for the gym.

Every year since he'd started coaching the Langley girl's field hockey team, there was always some hot shot, sometimes more than one – talented, driven, promising – who pushed herself too hard. Sometimes they learned to rein it in and save the intensity for game days. Sometimes – more often than not – they blew out a knee or tore a tendon, and that was the end of field hockey for them.

Polniaczek – she could go either way. He couldn't quite get a bead on her. When she started the season she was relaxed, in it for the fun, the competition, the camaraderie.

As the weeks passed, she started getting obsessive about it. She trained and played harder, like it was suddenly a matter of life and death. Why? It wasn't like she had an athletic scholarship. She was a scholarship kid, yeah, but it was an academic ride.

Whatever the reason, it worked to his advantage. Polniaczek was shaping up to be one of his best rookie players this year. But if she pushed too hard, injured herself, where would that leave the team? Especially this year, when it looked like they might finally have another shot at state?

As she dashed around the track, sweat streaming down her face and body, field hockey was the furthest thing from Jo's mind. She liked field hockey. She'd played it at Eastland. It was almost exactly like playing stick ball in the streets of the Bronx, except when you played for Eastland you had to be careful not to check your opponents viciously enough that they'd need stitches. Or crutches.

Jo liked field hockey plenty, but all she could think about this afternoon, in a stream of unsettlingly vivid images, was a beautiful blonde (bottle blonde, Jo always corrected herself) in various states of dress and undress, the blonde's shining hair, her perfect face, and her warm milk-chocolate eyes with their little green-and-gold flecks.

Jo ran and ran and ran some more. Her blue Langley Lions t-shirt was soaked with sweat at the collar, spine and arm pits. She ran until her lungs burned, and then she slowed to a jog … you had to ease out of a hard run, she'd learned when she played field hockey at the Eastland School for Girls. You couldn't just stop or your muscles would tense up and give you hell later.

Jo jogged a slow final lap around the track, then walked to the gym, mopping her damp face on her shirt. She'd run herself out, but all she could think about was Blair. Holding Blair, kissing her, making love to her, bathing with her, lying next to her and listening to her soft breathing deep in the night.

The rest of the team had showered already and left the locker room. That was good. They were a pretty neat crew, Jo had to admit, not hung up on social status, and Jo was bonding with them. But right now, Jo wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone.

Jo showered alone, making it an ice-cold one, not even turning on the hot water tap. She shivered, teeth chattering as she quickly shampooed her hair, soaped herself, scrubbed and rinsed. She wrapped herself in one of Langley's unimaginably soft towels, wrapped another around her long dark hair.

Still shivering, she combed her hair out, then dressed in her usual outfit – jeans, the worse for wear, a simple T-shirt, tube socks and sneakers. She pulled on her denim jacket, grabbed her book bag out of her locker. It was already getting dark outside, dark and chilly. She ducked her chin into her collar as the wind picked up, and made her way to Parker House.

In only a few weeks she had already become accustomed to the sumptuous luxury of life at Langley College. She worked her ass off in classes and over her homework, and at field hockey practice, and at her campus job. It was nice to come home to a dorm that looked like a damn fairy tale castle, with turrets and parapets and stained glass and thatched roofs (thatched! She still couldn't get over that touch).

As Blair had predicted, Jo's suite was every bit as large as Blair's set of rooms in Goodnow Hall, and every bit as airy, light, spacious and elegantly decorated.

At first Jo had felt like a fish out of water in her rooms, waiting for the knock and the door and the order to vacate the premises. Especially since her father's room-and-board check had originally bounced! At any moment, she expected to hear one of the fancy-pants servants announce "Miss Polniaczek, your room is actually the broom closet on the upper landing."

But Charlie's new check had cleared, and Jo had finally been established in her suite. She'd found it especially sweet to see the miserable, snobby little portress whom Jo had nicknamed Iron Britches choke back her bile and glue on a watery smile when Jo finally moved in.

Miss Pritt – such was Iron Britches' real name – did not like scholarship students from the Bronx with unpronounceable Polish names. In Miss Pritt's eyes, the mere presence of such a creature diluted the overall prestige of Parker House. As much as possible, Miss Pritt neglected Jo, almost as if ignoring the girl diminished – though it could not remove – the tarnish she put upon the dorm.

As far as Jo was concerned, being ignored by Iron Britches was as good as winning a lottery. Whenever Jo sailed in and Miss Pritt was on duty, the tiny woman with the pinched mouth and iron-grey bun made only the slightest nod, the minutest gesture that her sense of duty would allow. Jo would give Miss Pritt a big smile, one of Jo's megawatt grins, and clatter up the stairs at a rambunctious pace that gave the persnickety portress the vapors.

Jo's suite … ah, her suite! Jo loved closing and locking the door, tossing down her books and athletic equipment, shedding her clothes and settling into a warm bath. She'd never taken baths until she'd discovered the enormous, claw-footed Victorian tubs of Langley, with their steaming hot water and fragrant bath crystals, and the radio console (hidden in the massive vanity cabinet) that she could tune to anything from classical stations to rock and roll, depending on her mood.

Jo would soak for long periods of time, and then, refreshed, crack the books. She had managed to switch from "jock" English to the more appropriate and challenging Advanced English course. All of her classes were challenging, and that was how she liked it. In the delicious privacy of her beautiful suite, she devoured literature and math and chemistry and botany and ancient history.

For three years at Eastland, she'd had to study in a small, converted store room occupied by three other girls. She loved Blair, Natalie and Tootie; Nat and Tootie were her dearest friends in the world, and Blair was someone even more important, way beyond a mere friend.

But it had driven Jo crazy every day, trying to focus on her studies in such close quarters with three other girls. Nat was always making wise cracks and Tootie was always rehearsing some damn play and Blair was always nattering on about herself and putting beauty goop on her face and fogging up the whole room with her gallons of hair spray.

Having grown up as an only child, and having a natural preference for privacy, Jo had sometimes found her roommates a lot to take. Finally, in her suite at Langley, she could study in peace.

But there was such a thing as too much peace and quiet. It was starting to wear on her. After her studying was completed at night, it was pretty damn quiet in her rooms, no sound but the ticking of the gilt carriage clock on the mantle. Jo couldn't afford a television set, even a tiny one, and she'd refused Blair's offer to buy her one. There was rarely anything but crap on TV anyhow.

Sometimes, sitting in the silence, sipping her evening cocoa, Jo wished Natalie would burst in ranting about the latest injustice she was investigating for the school paper, or that Tootie would swan in reciting lines of dialogue from "The Sound of Music" or "South Pacific".

Jo had seen her two young friends infrequently for several weeks. The first Friday after classes began Jo and Blair had accompanied them to the Peekskill movie theater to see "Easy Money" with Rodney Dangerfield.

The movie was crude and farcical, a big "Eff-You" to the upper classes, and Jo had laughed her butt off all the way through. Tootie and Natalie had found it entertaining enough. Only Blair was unimpressed.

"Everyone involved with that production must've been lobotomized," Blair complained, hand to her forehead. "That was so bad, it's actually given me a headache."

"It got good reviews," said Natalie.

"The critics must've been lobotomized," said Blair.

"Eh, you're lobotomized," crabbed Jo.

"I wish! Then I actually might have enjoyed that claptrap."

"Eh, you're claptrap."

"Jo, that doesn't even make sense."

And it didn't, Jo knew, but to keep Tootie and Natalie from suspecting anything, Jo was trying to maintain an illusion of being constantly annoyed with Blair. Which wasn't that easy, considering Blair had been holding Jo's hand in the darkness and playing footsie with her during the whole movie.

"For Pete's sake," Jo had complained when she and Blair were headed back to campus, Blair at the wheel of the truck, "you gotta be more discrete next time. I can't believe they didn't notice anythin."

"Notice what?" Blair asked innocently.

"I thought you were gonna jump my bones right then and there!"

"No. Credit me with some decorum. Not then. Not there. I was thinking," Blair turned off onto one of Peekskill's many back roads, "we'd find a spot now. Along here … "

It had been fun going to the movies with Tootie and Nat, then catching up over ice cream before dropping the younger girls at Eastland. But then the full force of academic life had rolled over all of them like tsunamis. As much as they'd pledged to keep in touch, to just do it, they were being swept in wildly different directions and hardly saw each other.

To no one's surprise, least of all her own, Tootie had landed the lead role of Mary in "The Women", Eastland's school production that fall. It was Tootie's most emotionally complex role to date, and her character was in almost every scene, with reams of dialogue to master.

Natalie's father continued to battle high blood pressure, and continued to pass along the stress to his daughter, much as he loved her, by demanding straight A's. Which meant Nat was usually either in class or hunkered down in the library.

When Natalie wasn't there, she was at the school paper or out on assignment. And, increasingly, she was devoting her few hours of free time to Norman, the Bates Academy boy who'd asked her out at the beginning of the semester.

"Norman. From Bates. 'Norman Bates'!" Jo had said, cracking herself up. They were at the Eastland Harvest Festival, where Blair had passed the crown to a pretty sophomore.

Natalie had not been amused by Jo's joke.

"C'mon," Jo had said, "ya gotta admit, it's pretty funny."

"I admit nothing," Natalie had said. "Jo, do not make fun of my beau."

"I ain't makin fun of your beau. Just his name."

Blair had smiled at Natalie. "The way you're defending him, it sounds like it's getting serious."

"Oh, it is," Natalie had confirmed. "The seriousest. If that were a word. Which, I realize, it isn't. We're crazy about each other." She sighed. "He's even invited me home for Halloween to meet his parents."

"See," Jo had said, with a triumphant laugh, "he invited ya home for Halloween. Like I said, Norman Bates." She took a few steps back as Natalie advanced on her. "All right, all right, I'll put a cork in it! Jeez, Nat, romance has really killed your sense of humor!"

They were all planning to meet at the movies again soon to see "The Big Chill", which was getting rave reviews. But in the meantime, there was Jo's empty suite, and the ticking of that gilt clock …

Even Mrs. Garrett was incommunicado, slaving away in the Eastland kitchen with ancient appliances and little help. On the rare occasions Jo had seen her, the feisty red-head was a whirling dervish of energy and resentment. "For two cents," she'd muttered, "for just two cents …"

"For two cents ya'd what, Mrs. G?"

"I'm too much of a lady to say," Mrs. G had murmured. "But that Mr. Parker … that Mr. Parker …" Too incensed to complete the statement, Mrs. Garrett had stomped back to the kitchen, sputtering and muttering to herself.

I miss her, Jo thought, sipping her cocoa in the quiet sitting room.

There were very few people Jo let in to her life, really let in, and Mrs. G was right up near the top of the list. Besides Jo's parents (and Blondie) only Mrs. G could tell the spirited brunette what to do. Mrs. G was Jo's second mom.

Three years before, not long after Jo had enrolled at Eastland, she'd shoplifted a birthday gift for Mrs. Garrett, a wild Hawaiian-print blouse that the dietician wanted.

It was the wrong thing to do, Jo admitted. Back then she was still groping her way through a new world where you worked with authority and followed the rules, instead of flouting them at every opportunity. Jo had ended up paying the store back by working weekends – Mrs. Garrett had set up the punishment, and the tough Bronxite had to concede it was more than fair.

Shoplifting had been the wrong thing to do, but it had flowed from the right impulse. In Jo's eyes, Mrs. Garrett deserved a quality gift – nothing less.

"Well, see," Jo had explained haltingly, when the theft was exposed, "the thing is, you do a lot for us, crackin the whip, .chewin us out, pokin your nose inta our business. And it was my way of sayin 'Thanks'."

Miss Pritt, aka Iron Britches, was not even a pale reflection of Mrs. G. Pritt was such a brittle, spindly, washed-out grey entity, full of bile and a thousand little bigotries, a sharp-nosed, grey-bunned snob.

Mrs. Garrett on the other hand, she had so much life, so much passion, so much love for the girls in her care, it was almost volcanic. That was why she interfered, why she was always giving advice (solicited or not), and lecturing the girls, and standing up for them and sometimes even putting her own career and reputation on the line for them.

I've got to call Mrs. G tomorrow, thought Jo. Got to make time for her. Make sure she's OK, runnin herself ragged like she is in that old kitchen.

Jo poured herself another cup of cocoa. She sighed. Almost eleven o'clock at night, and no word from Blair. And that was really the elephant in her swank sitting room, the gigantic disappointment that she was trying so hard not to think about …

She had hardly seen Blair in three weeks.

Sure, they'd both known they'd be busy. They were carrying heavy class loads. Jo was working part-time at the Campus Grill, flipping burgers and mixing up milkshakes. She was playing field hockey.

Blair didn't need to work, of course, not in any traditional sense, but her classes were as intense as Jo's and she was busy with social events. As she had explained to Jo, in Blair's world, one's effectiveness, one's very future, often rode on the people one knew and how powerfully one influenced them.

Blair was still undecided whether she was going to study pre-business or pre-law or politics (or maybe all three) but she was damned if she was going to be some simpering socialite. She was determined to do something that mattered after she graduated.

And while Blair was way ahead of the game in being a Warner, and being almost inconceivably wealthy (she had never told Jo exactly how much she was worth, and Jo really didn't want to know), to be really influential she needed to keep doing what she'd always done at Eastland. She had to attend the right events and win the right awards and keep a high profile in her peer group. All of which was a lot of work, and involved events where Jo would feel absolutely out of her depth.

Jo had learned enough during her time at Eastland to realize that high society wasn't black-and-white. Some of the wealthy were down-to-earth, and there were plenty of philanthropists, plenty of well-to-do crusaders trying to make the world a better place.

And Jo liked the thought of Blair, Blair in five years, Blair in ten years, grown-up, womanly Blair using her brains and charm to fix some of the really screwed-up things in the world.

If Blair needed to rush some sororities and go to some cotillions and go back to New York every weekend for galas and museum openings and trips to Bloomies, well, that was all well and good. In theory. But as the reality set in …

I miss ya, babe, thought Jo.

And it wasn't just that. Sure, Jo was willing to accept that some of the rich were good folks … but a lot of them were, in Jo's opinion, horses' asses. At least the ones that she'd seen Blair hanging around with. Frivolous, mean horses' asses.

"All I'm sayin is, just watch your step," Jo had told Blair during one of their infrequent meetings. "You ever read 'Age of Innocence'? 'House of Mirth'? These people are not messin around. They find out you like girls, you're crucified on the front page of the Times!"

Blair had gazed at Jo so tenderly, had taken the brunette's hands and kissed them. They were enjoying a few moments in Jo's suite before Blair's limo picked her up for another weekend in the city.

"I love how you worry about me," Blair had said softly.

"Oh, well, nice for you! It ain't so wonderful bein the one who's doin the worryin!"

"Darling, what you have to realize is that I grew up in society. There's nothing they could do to me that I won't see coming. I've spent my whole life in that world."

"Yeah, you've spent your whole life in it, so if anythin happened, if ya were, like, embarrassed, if ya were cast out, it would be –"

"Shh." Blair had kissed Jo gently for a long moment, stroking her lover's dark hair. "As long as I have you," she'd whispered in Jo's ear, "I can't be cast out of anywhere. You are my life, Jo."

Jo had felt a tear slide down her cheek. If anyone else had said that to her … what a load of stupid mush! But when Blair said it, Jo's heart swelled up so fiercely it hurt. Her Princess. Her life.

Jo had crushed Blair to her. They'd clung together, kissing fiercely. Jo raked her nails along Blair's back, through her shirt. Blair started unbuttoning Jo's jeans.

"God, I want you," Blair had breathed.

"So take me already! I got no objections."

"Need to go. Need to leave now or … I won't be able to." Blair had given Jo a final reckless kiss and bolted for the door.

That had been Friday evening. And now it was Monday night.

Blair wasn't answering her phone, and Jo hated to drop by Goodnow Hall this late. Above all, she and Blair had to avoid any kind of scandal, and Spenlow, the Goodnow porter, was a nosy sod, no matter how polite he was or how fancy he talked.

Where are ya, Blair? Jo wondered. What are ya doin? Right this minute?

Jo closed her eyes. She pictured her lover's bright hair spread out on the white coverlet, mouth half-open, eyes half-closed in angelic ecstasy …

Jeez, I need another cold shower before I turn in!

Jo stood and stretched and was halfway to the bathroom when the phone rang. She almost leaped over the sofa to scoop it up. Be Blair, she thought. Be Blair, be Blair

"Hello?" she said excitedly.

"Hello, is this Jo?" asked a woman's voice. Charming. Cultured. High society. But a couple of decades too old to be Blair's voice.

"Mrs. Warner?" asked Jo, surprised.

"Yes. I'm so sorry to disturb you at this ungodly hour, Jo, but I'm trying to find my vagabond daughter. I just can't seem to pin her down these days."

Jo felt a faint stirring of unease. "I, ah, thought she was visitin you this weekend, Mrs. Warner."

"Please, Jo, call me Monica. And Blair was supposed to visit me this weekend, but I've hardly seen her. She's in and out of the penthouse at all hours, she misses half the meals Cook prepares for her, and, you know," a fluttering laugh, "I'm just her mother, so I am told nothing of her plans. She was at the Lincoln Center gala and she made a sort of appearance at the Fosters' ball last night, but then she bolted and I haven't seen her since. Have you seen her?"

Jo opened her mouth to speak but no sound came out. Blair, missing in New York City. Jo's stomach churned at the myriad horrible explanations that leapt to her Bronx-bred mind.

"Jo? Are you still there?"

"I, ah, yes. I'm here Mrs. Warner."

"Please, Jo, it's 'Monica'. 'Mrs. Warner' was my mother-in-law – and I prefer to forget her, the old harpy – may she rest in peace."

"I'm still here, Monica."

"And have you seen my daughter, or heard from her? I am sorry to disturb you, but I know you're one of her closest playmates. I already spoke to Mitzy Rutherford but she doesn't know anything."

Literally, I'm sure! thought Jo. Mitzy was a dim but well-connected legacy student who ran with Blair's Langley crowd.

"Mrs., er, Monica, I, ah –"

Jo turned as she heard her suite door open. Her heart soared as Blair walked in.

The blonde's hair was mussed; she wore ripped jeans and a denim jacket; there was a streak of grease – grease? – on her cheek. She looked, in sum, very un-Blair-like, but there she was, safe and sound.

Blair carried the keys Jo had had made up for her – a key to Parker House's back door, a key to Jo's suite. Jo had had a similar set made up for herself, keys to Goodnow's back door and Blair's suite.

"You can't get copies made," Blair had objected when Jo suggested it. "See. They key's have it stamped right into them: 'Do not duplicate'."

"Cough up the keys, Princess. I'll get copies."

"But how? How will you get duplicate keys?"

"I'll get keys. Jeez. Leave it at that."

The next day Jo had silently handed Blair a key chain bearing two keys and a Chevy logo.

"You got keys," Blair had said, taking them.

"Yep."

"And you won't tell me how?"

"I got keys."

"Sometimes I feel like I'm dating Marlon Brando."

"Hey!"

"Young, hot, rebellious Marlon Brando, I hasten to say. Not old, puffy-faced, 'Godfather' Marlon Brando."

Jo had turned that over, finally accepting it with a big grin and … other tokens of appreciation …

Blair gave Jo a tired smile, closing the door and locking it behind her. She slipped her Chevy keychain into the pocket of her denim jacket.

"Uh, Monica," Jo said into the phone, "Blair is –"

At the sound of her mother's name, Blair began vehemently shaking her head and waving her arms wildly like an air traffic controller on drugs.

"Blair is, ah, back on campus," said Jo. "She's fine. Want me to tell her to call ya when I see her?"

"Yes, that would be very kind of you. Tell her she can't duck me forever. She is absolutely attending the Charity Ball next Saturday, and I am expecting details about this new mystery beau of hers."

Jo laughed silently. Mystery beau!

What … is … she … saying? mouthed Blair.

"Mystery beau, eh?" asked Jo, waggling her eyebrows.

Hang up! mouthed Blair.

"Yes," said Monica, "some kind of mechanic person. Blair mentioned him just before her classes started, and she's being very close-mouthed about the whole affair. Do you know who he is, Jo? Does he work at one of the Peekskill service stations?"

"Nooooo," said Jo slowly, drawing out the word, "I can confirm that her beau does not work at one of the service stations."

Hang … up … the … phone! mouthed Blair. Now!

Jo shook her head, grinning mischievously at the blonde.

"Actually, I know her beau pretty well," Jo continued chattily. "Very good-lookin. Very smart, too. A Langley student."

"Really? A mechanic at Langley." Monica turned that over in her mind. "Studying engineering, no doubt."

"Hmm, I couldn't say, Mrs., that is, Monica. Still undeclared, I think. But a really good catch."

"Well that's lovely to hear. Thank you, Jo. You don't know how you've set my mind at ease. I mean, a little fling with the great unwashed, all very well, but if it's getting serious, it's nice to know he has prospects."

It was like a gut punch. A sucker punch, since it came out of nowhere. The great unwashed

Blair saw Jo's expression change, the puckish smile wiped clean.

"If you could just do that little thing, Jo, and ask Blair to call me," Monica was saying.

"Of course," Jo managed.

"Perfect. Ta, darling." There was a click as Monica – in her multi-million-dollar Manhattan penthouse, hundreds of feet above "the great unwashed" – hung up her phone.

Jo hung up her phone, slowly, and then sank onto the sofa.

"Jo, darling, what's wrong?" Blair asked. She crossed the room to Jo, stumbling and banging her shin on the coffee table. Blair cursed lustily, a string of cuss words Jo hadn't heard since her days with the Young Diablos.

"Jeez, Blair, you OK?"

"Yes, of course. That just hurt a bit," Blair said demurely.

She sat next to Jo, put her arms around Jo's shoulders.

"Where the hell d'ja pick up those choice phrases, Princess?"

"Saw a gangster film on the late show," Blair said dismissively. She kissed Jo's forehead, her face, her mouth. "God, I've missed you," Blair murmured hungrily. "It's like I haven't eaten for a week. I'm starving for you."

Jo wrapped her strong, slender arms around the blonde. She returned Blair's kisses absently.

Blair curled against Jo, her head on the brunette's breast.

"Your heart … it's beating so slowly," said Blair. "Have you had a shock?"

Jo shrugged. Monica's words still beat in her brain. The great unwashedthe great unwashed. It ain't even bein a girl that's a problem. I'm just never gonna be good enough for her daughter

It's something serious, thought Blair. Jo only shrugged off the serious stuff.

"Did my mother upset you?"

Another shrug.

"Jo. Darling." Blair gently took Jo's chin, tilted the brunette's face so that they were eye-to-eye. "Whatever my mother said, don't give it a second thought. She can be incredibly insensitive, but she genuinely likes you."

Another shrug.

"You know I don't really have a mystery beau, right?" Blair asked, concerned.

Jo nodded. "Or, actually ya do," said Jo, with a weak smile. "The mystery beau bein yours truly."

Blair laughed. She snuggled closer to Jo, closing her eyes. She had missed this so much, how Jo felt, her scent, just the feel of her chest rising and falling …

"How was your weekend?" Blair asked sleepily.

"Mine? Good. It ended yesterday, by the way."

"Har-har," said Blair. Eyes still closed, she shifted, settled herself even more comfortably against Jo. "I got caught up with something, so I took another day."

"That's OK," said Jo, stroking Blair's hair. It was long and loose; Jo loved it when Blair let it hang naturally, instead of teasing and torturing it with tons of Aquanet. "That's OK," Jo said again. "At least ya called me to let me know ya were delayed. Oh. Wait a minute. Ya didn't!"

Blair opened one eye. She sighed. "All right, I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry," she said, with what sounded like genuine contriteness, "that I did not call you and tell you I'd be back on Monday."

"I mean, it's not like I was that worried," said Jo, trying to sound casual.

"Of course not," Blair teased.

"I wasn't," Jo said defensively.

"I'm agreeing with you."

"No you ain't, you're pretendin, you're, you're –"

"I'm what?" asked Blair, both eyes open now, dancing with mischief. "I'm what, Polniaczek?" She tickled Jo's sides.

"Hey! Cut it out!" laughed Jo, squirming under Blair's hands. "That ain't fair! How would you like it if I suddenly –"

Jo lunged, began tickling Blair. They laughed and rolled off the sofa, tickling and squirming and giggling until they were breathless.

"OK, truce, truce!" Jo finally begged. She lay on her back on the black-and-white-striped Navajo throw rug, Blair lying half across her.

"You are such a wimp," Blair said affectionately. "If the Young Diablos could see you now, letting an airbrained debutante win a tickle fight!"

"Well, you're stronger than ya look," said Jo. She smiled, pulled Blair closer. She touched the grease stain on Blair's cheek. "The limo break down?" she joked.

Blair shuddered. "Don't ask."

"Did it? Seriously? What, d'ja hafta change a tire or somethin?"

"No, it's just … it's been an interesting weekend, full of mechanical challenges," Blair said. She sounded tired but happy.

"Blair." Jo held the heiress' perfect face between her hands. "Are ya … I mean, is there some mechanic or somethin in the city …"

Blair howled. "Jo! You're worse than my mother!" She laughed so hard tears ran down her face. "Yes, I'm seeing a mechanic in the city. One in Peekskill, too. At the Mobil station just outside –"

Blair froze. Jo had gone very still. Her eyes were hard, and sad, and Blair could feel Jo's heartbeat slow again to a dull thud.

"Jo, what –"

"'The great unwashed'," Jo said bitterly. "That's what your mother said just now. She didn't mind if ya had a fling with someone from 'the great unwashed', but she only wanted ya ta get serious with someone who has prospects."

Blair kissed Jo's hands. "Don't you have prospects?" she murmured.

"Coupla snobs," Jo said bitterly.

"Yes," said Blair. She took Jo's hands. Jo tried to pull them away, but Blair held firm.

"Yes, Jo, my mother is a snob. And for most of my life, I've been one too. It's how we were raised. I'm changing – you and Mrs. Garrett and Eastland have had too much influence for me not to be changing – but I'm still going to say and do stupid things sometimes. And you can call me on them. But never think I don't love you, adore you, respect you, Jo. You're, you're …" Blair buried her face against Jo's chest. "Jo, if I could ever be half the person you are. Your character …"

"Yeah, I'm a character, all right! A perfect representative of the great unwashed. Ya can clean us up, teach us to walk proper, talk proper –"

"Jo, you can call me on it when I say insensitive things, but I will not join your little self-pity parties. And let's be honest, darling; you still don't talk properly. And your walk could use a little work. And you could be a little cleaner sometimes, my grease monkey. Although, right now I'm the one that needs a bath."

Blair stood slowly, Jo looking up at her.

With a swift glance at the bow window to be sure that Jo's curtains were drawn, Blair let her denim jacket drop to the floor. She kicked her sneakers off. She unbuttoned her blouse at a leisurely pace, opened it, slipped out of it and let it fall.

Jo took a deep breath, riveted by the strip tease. Blair wore a lacy mauve bra. Blair unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, wriggled so that they slipped down her long legs. She stepped out of the crumpled jeans. Her lacy mauve underwear matched the bra. Both were new, or, at least, I ain't seen these ones yet, Jo thought.

The bra had hooks on the front, between the cups. What a flippin marvelous idea, thought Jo. Whoever thought that up oughta get a medal! Blair carefully unhooked the cups and drew them apart, revealing her generously proportioned, milk-white breasts.

"See anything you like?" Blair asked archly. Jo nodded, dumb. Blair slipped out of her delicate mauve panties. Standing before Jo in her naked glory, Blair turned slowly, letting Jo enjoy the view.

"It's … not fair," Jo mumbled in a strangled voice. "We agreed … you can't do this to win arguments."

"I don't do this to win arguments," Blair said calmly. "I win arguments with my impeccable logic. I just do this," she put one hand on her hip, "to keep you from making pointless counterarguments."

"My … counterarguments are … valid," Jo managed, feeling logic slipping away, fast, fast, fast as she gazed at Blair's toned thighs and stomach, and the inviting tangle of light brown hair between her legs. Jo found herself kneeling in front of the blonde goddess, placing her hands on the generous hips.

Blair leaned down, stroking Jo's dark hair.

"I've just had one of my brilliant ideas," Blair said thoughtfully.

"Me too," Jo said huskily. She trailed kisses over Blair's taut belly.

"Not that," said Blair. "Next weekend. New York. You're coming with me."

"Can't," said Jo. She trailed kisses over Blair's upper thighs. "Game. Saturday."

"What time?"

"Noon."

"Then we'll leave after your game. But you are going with me to New York."

Jo parted her lover's legs, a little roughly, began kissing the damp inner thighs. Blair gasped.

"Jo," she said, voice ragged, "you'll go with me, right? To New York. I'm going to show you how well you fit into my world. You have to put yourself completely in my hands. You, ah!" She gasped as Jo's tongue grazed her clitoris. "Jo? You promise?"

At that moment, Jo would've promised to go with Blair to the very worst, the very deadliest part of the South Bronx, if that's what the blonde wanted.

"Mmmn, yeah, I promise, I promise," Jo muttered. "I'll put myself in your hands then, if you put yourself in my hands now."

Jo's fingers tightened on Blair's hips; Blair's fingers tightened in Jo's hair. Jo drove her tongue deep into Blair's moist sex. Blair cried out, fell back against the fainting couch. Jo kept her grip, moving with lover.

They hadn't been together in a while, and they'd both been missing it. It was stupid to do it now, like this, of course. After eleven on a school night. With mean-spirited, nosy Miss Pritt on duty down at the desk. It was stupid, ill-advised, and totally damn wonderful.

After Blair came, Jo sat on the fainting couch next to her. She gathered the sleepy blonde into her arms and stood up. Blair was no underfed super model, but, as they had recently discovered, Jo was athletic enough to be fully capable of carrying the blonde for short distances.

Now, while Blair half-dozed in her arms, Jo carried her into the bed room.

"I can't stay all night," Blair mumbled. "Got to leave before anyone gets suspicious."

"Ya snuck in, right?" Jo asked, carefully setting Blair onto the bed. "With the key? Back door?"

"Uh-huh."

"So no one knows you're here?" Jo lay down next to Blair, wrapped her arms around the blonde.

"No."

"So as long as you sneak out by dawn …"

Blair grinned drowsily. "I like where this is going."

Jo kissed her cheek. "You ain't the only one who has brilliant ideas, Blair Warner. Just give me a sec while I set the alarm."


After a couple of hours of lovemaking and a few more hours of sleep, Blair finally took a bath. Jo "washed" Blair so attentively that the blonde had to follow their bath with a solitary shower to clean away the sweat and scent of their exertions.

The sun was just peeking over the towers of Langley College when Blair slipped out into the mist. She passed a few students who were up early to jog or grab an early breakfast. Many of them she recognized; she smiled pleasantly and waved to them.

Good God, she thought, I hope I don't look too obviously like I just spent the night having amazing sex. She turned down the wattage on her smile a little.

"You're up early," called Alec Anviston when they passed each other near the center of the quad. Alec was headed south, toward the Campus Grill; Blair was headed north.

Alec. Duke and Lady Anviston's son – tall, dark, impossibly handsome, a billionaire at nineteen. Natalie would've classified him as a prime "hunka-hunka".

Blair remembered him as a good-humored dilettante. He'd escorted Blair to a cotillion when they were fourteen, and it had been an effortlessly pleasant night.

"Visiting the stables," Blair called to him.

"Ah. Still riding Chestnut?"

"Of course. Chestnut is the love of my life," she joked.

"He's a lucky beggar, then!" laughed Alec.

They went their separate ways.

Blair glanced at her watch. She had a couple of hours before American History. After everything she'd been through that weekend, and her passionate night with Jo, part of her just wanted to go crawl under her covers and snooze for awhile. Should she forego her morning ride in favor of sleep?

But part of her felt amped up, electric. This is what Jo feels, mused Blair. Jo was always energized after she came – the first couple of times anyway. Of course, Blair always finally wore Jo down to a good sleep. Blair blushed at a sudden, particularly intimate memory.

Sleep or a brisk ride? The ride won. Blair found Chestnut already quite awake and, in fact, a bit reproachful that she hadn't visited him all weekend. He gazed at her, dark eyes baleful.

"I'm sorry, boy," Blair apologized. "I'll make it up to you this morning."

The Langley equine trails ran for miles through campus, through wooded hills and glens and sudden expanses of meadow. Blair rode for an hour. Chestnut seemed as restless and full of pent-up energy as she was; they trotted briefly before accelerating into a canter and then exploded into a gallop.

Racing through the rural landscape at an almost breakneck pace, Blair felt her muscles relax and her spirits soar. The leaves were already turning all sorts of gorgeous colors, crimson, gold, paprika; they swirled up around Chestnuts hooves as he pounded along the trails.

By the time Blair had settled Chestnut in his stall and had groomed him and watered him, she was running late for American History. She managed to slip into the auditorium just as the professor began speaking, her hair wild, her upper lip damp with perspiration.

"You smell like a horse," whispered the boy sitting next to her. He was slender, wan, with a supercilious smile … Devon Abercrombie, son of one of her father's business rivals.

"Still," Blair said with quiet amusement, "at least my horse smells better than you."

Devon pulled a face. "Turn blue," he whispered.

"In your ear, Abercrombie," she chuckled quietly.

He had no retort for this bon mot of the streets, which Blair had learned from Jo a couple of years before. Blair had found that in the right circumstances, "in your ear" was an effective coup de grâce.


Saturday. Noon. Langley Lions girls field hockey. The opponent? Despised rivals Dartmouth. At stake? Honor and glory. The crowd? Thin. Girls' field hockey wasn't the biggest sport at Langley, and as usual there were less than a hundred fans in the bleachers.

The largest cluster of Langley supporters seemed to be focused around a lovely blonde in a Langley sweatshirt and stunning, caramel-colored Ralph Lauren trench coat.

Blair had invited Tootie, and Natalie, and Mrs. Garrett to watch Jo's game. Mrs. Garrett had declined, pleading an urgent meeting with Mr. Parker, the Eastland headmaster. But Tootie and Natalie had rearranged their schedules to be there.

Members of Gamma Upsilon Mu descended upon Blair and sat near her, part of their ongoing campaign to convince the heiress to join their sorority. Ditto members of Phi Upsilon Nu.

"For Pete's sake," Jo had laughed recently, "I thought the students were supposed to rush the sororities. Leave it to you, Princess, to have the sororities rushin you!"

Fraternity boys joined the group, less interested in field hockey than in the lovely heiress and the sorority sisters flocking around her. The result was a cluster of healthy, impeccably dressed, incredibly gorgeous young people of every nationality, cheeks ruddy and perfect hair gently ruffled by the late September breeze.

"Wow," Natalie whispered to Tootie, eyes sparkling, "I feel like we're in the best Benetton commercial ever. Check out that hunka-hunka there. Or there. And there!"

"What about Norman?" Tootie demanded.

"Who?" Natalie asked vaguely.

"Norman. Your boyfriend. Kind of a short little dude but a total fox. He just gave you his Bates pin."

"Nope. Not ringing any bells."

"Natalie," Tootie said disapprovingly.

Nat sighed. "All right, all right. I'll be good. It'll probably kill me, but I'll be good!"

Alec Anviston joined the group, gracefully wedging himself between Blair and a handsome fraternity brother. The frat boy scowled, but one look at Alec's height and muscle discouraged him from actually saying anything.

"Wouldn't have taken you for a field hockey aficionado," Alec told Blair cheerfully.

"I'm not," Blair confessed. "Per se. But one of my dearest old chums is playing."

"One of our dearest old chums," said Natalie. She leaned across Blair to shake Alec's hand. "Natalie Green. Editor of the paper at the Eastland School for Girls."

"Delighted," Alec said with a smile. After a moment, he managed, politely, to extract his hand from Natalie's wildly enthusiastic grip.

"Alec," said Blair, "please allow me to present two of my dearest friends, Natalie Green and Dorothy Ramsey. Nat and Tootie, please allow me to present one of my dearest acquaintances, Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge."

"Charmed," said Alec, bestowing a light kiss, a mere touch of the lips, first on Natalie's hand and then Tootie's.

"Ch, ch, charmed," stammered Natalie.

"Yes," said Tootie, shooting Nat a look that said Remember Norman! "We're both charmed, Lord Nethridge."

"I prefer 'Alec' if you don't mind," he said. "I'm not one for scraping and bowing. Unlike our Blair. When our families last visited the Rainiers, even the princesses called Blair 'princess'."

"The Rainiers?" breathed Tootie. "You mean, Princess Caroline? And Princess Stephanie?"

"And Princess Grace," said Alec, "God rest her soul. She was a lovely woman."

"Name dropping is vulgar," chided Blair.

"But fun," Alec countered, grinning.

"Please," said Nat, "drop names, drop names! I'm getting a royal contact rush!"

"They're just people like us," Blair said dismissively.

"Of course, Blair. They just have slightly better housing," Tootie deadpanned.

"And a few other little perks," added Nat. "Crown jewels. Royal guards."

"And a lot of responsibility," said Alec. "It's not all trumpets and tiaras."

"Good grief," said Blair with fond exasperation, "when have you done anything but romance princesses and ride your polo ponies?"

"I didn't say I fulfilled my responsibilities," laughed Alec. "I just said there are some. Mummy dragged me to a tea at St. Cross Hospital last month. Dreadful old doctor nattering on and on. We gave them a new Children's Wing; you'd think they wouldn't punish us making us listen to a lot of tiresome drivel."

"Oh, poor baby." Blair ruffled his curly dark locks.

Tootie nudged Natalie. Natalie nudged her back.

"Did you enjoy your ride this morning?" Alec asked Blair.

"I did, thank you."

"I have Simon quartered here," he said. "We'll have to ride together some morning."

Tootie and Natalie nudged each other again.

"I don't know," said Blair. "Simon is … sweet, but it's not as if he could keep up with Chestnut."

"I can't keep up with you, is what you really mean," said Alec, amused.

"Lord Nethridge, you know I would never be so rude as to say that."

"Only imply it."

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

"Tomorrow morning?" suggested Alec. "Give me a chance to prove myself."

Natalie and Tootie clutched each other's arms.

"I'll be out of town tomorrow," said Blair. "I'm leaving Peekskill today, after the game."

"Another morning, then. Monday, perhaps? I won't be put off, Blair."

"She'd love to," said Tootie, finally unable to contain herself.

"Tootie!" said Blair.

"He won't be put off, Blair," said Tootie reasonably.

Alec laughed.

"You should listen to your friend," he told Blair. "I can be quite a pest if I –"

He broke off, his gaze caught by something on the field.

"If you what?" asked Natalie. Alec was silent.

The Langley girls' field hockey team was streaming onto the field, resplendent in their blue uniforms.

They were an interesting hodge-podge: a tall, gangly young woman who might've looked more at home on a basketball court; a tiny girl that looked as if she couldn't be more than ten or eleven years old; a tall, heavy young woman who looked like she could bench press the rest of her team; a pimply girl with dark-framed glasses; a plump, India-rubber ball of a girl with yellow pigtails. And so on.

"Hello 'Bad News Bears'," cracked Natalie.

In their midst, Jo looked particularly lovely, almost goddess-like, in her thigh-grazing tight blue shorts.

Those shorts! Those damned shorts! thought Blair, suppressing a smile.

The first time she could remember being consciously attracted to Jo was when Jo had joined the Eastland field hockey team and started running around in her field hockey short-shorts. It had been like an electric shock, the first time Blair saw Jo wearing them, a powerful thrill that ran through her body. It had answered a lot of questions in less than a second.

"Who's that angel?" asked Alec, nodding toward Jo with his perfectly chiseled chin.

"That's Jo," said Natalie.

"'Our dearest Eastland chum'," said Tootie, in a fair imitation of Blair.

The Langley players began scrimmaging together, passing the ball, running up and down the field. Jo seemed to be in the middle of every play, graceful and powerful and flashing her million-watt smile. Her pony-tail, glinting with auburn highlights in the sunlight, bounced up and down as she ran.

"She's a breath of fresh air," commented Alec.

"That's what I always say," Nat agreed.

"Beautiful girl. Reminds one of Emmie Savoy."

"Jo is part Italian," said Blair, "but I doubt they're related."

"Emmie Savoy?" asked Tootie.

"Principessa Emanuela Vittoria Alberta of the House of Savoy," said Alec, his eyes still on Jo. "Niece of Italy's exiled prince."

"We know her cousin!" Tootie said excitedly.

"Alexandra?"

"Yeah, Alex. She goes to Eastland."

"Does she?" Alec asked politely, but his gaze never left Jo. "I always found Alex a little wooden. And glum. Never quite accepted that her father lost the throne. Emmie's a lot more practical – and fun. Lot of life. High spirits and whatnot. Life hands you lemons, well, lemonade, and all that."

"Could you imagine our Jo being related to Italian royalty?" mused Natalie.

"Fat chance!" laughed Tootie. "I can see it now. 'Off wit dere heads!'" she growled in exaggerated Bronxese.

"Jo doesn't talk like that," objected Blair.

"Well she definitely doesn't talk like a princess," said Tootie.

"She's a … then she's …" Alec searched delicately for the right word.

"A commoner," said Blair. "Like most of us. It's not a four-letter word, Alec."

"But, I mean, she's from, she's …"

"Yes, Alec," said Blair. "She's from 'the wrong side of the tracks'. In fact, she's so far off the tracks, she couldn't hear the train whistle."

"Ah." Alec's face fell a little, but he never took his eyes off Jo.

Blair regarded him surreptitiously from beneath her long lashes. Alec was a simple sort. His feelings were on the surface, his heart on his sleeve.

Poor Alec! she thought. Even if Jo weren't already secretly committed to Blair, the no-nonsense brunette would never, in a million years, fall for someone like Lord Nethridge.

"Hey!" said Natalie, "Jo's coming this way."

Jo and several teammates stormed across the grass near the bleachers, shunting the field hockey ball back and forth with impressive virtuosity.

Natalie waved her arms. "Jo! Jo!"

"Jo!" shouted Tootie, waving frantically. "Up here!"

"For Pete's sake," said Blair, as one of Nat's flailing arms almost clocked her, "I think she sees us. It's not like it's a sold-out crowd."

"Yeah, but she's concentrating," said Natalie. "She hasn't looked at the bleachers once. Jo! Yo, Polniaczek!"

Finally noticing that she had a fan club in the stands, Jo glanced up. Recognizing Natalie and Tootie, she flashed them a grin, and then her smile softened as she saw Blair. Jo's eyes shone and she gave Blair a quirky little salute.

"Boy, she's happy to see you, Blair," said Nat.

"Probably can't believe I'm making time in my busy schedule for this barbarism," yawned Blair.

Inwardly Blair was thanking her mother for teaching her, from the cradle, how to mask her feelings. Because Jo's soft smile and little salute had turned Blair's brain to mush. She wanted to rush down onto the field and crush Jo in a passionate bear hug; unfortunately, that would've destroyed their reputations and college careers in one fell swoop.

I have to talk to her about not drawing attention to us. She really should've scowled at me. A "Who the hell invited you, Blondie?" expression would've been much better.

Jo might've been thinking the same thing, because abruptly she broke her eye contact with Blair. Her gaze slid past the heiress to Lord Nethridge.

Blair expected Jo to scowl or smirk at the boy (or both), and tease Blair later. So, who was Little Lord Fauntleroy? Do I gotta be worried about a little competition, babe?

Instead, when Jo made eye contact with Alec she lowered her eyes. Her cheeks, already ruddy with exertion, tinged a deeper red.

Jo turned to her teammates, shouting for them to pass her the ball. They did; Jo ran it across the field, far from the bleachers, her teammates scrambling to keep up with her.

Natalie and Tootie looked at each other. "What was that?" they said at the same time.

"What was what?" Blair asked vaguely, examining her perfect nails with a bored air. Inside, her heart was hammering. What was that look? It was as if … as if … Her head spun at the possibility. It was as if Jo found Alec attractive. More than attractive … as if she found him, found him –

"Enchanting," said Alec, almost under his breath.

Nat and Tootie exchanged another meaningful look. Nat nudged Blair in the ribs.

"Ow!" said Blair.

"I'm sorry," Natalie said sweetly. "My arm must've slipped." Her eyebrows waggled, telegraphing to Blair to look at Alec.

He likes Jo! Natalie mouthed.

Blair rolled her eyes. She checked her watch.

"When does this game start, anyway?" she complained.

"It's actually a 'match', not a 'game'," said Natalie. "Like in tennis. I learned that covering Eastland's field hockey matches." She dropped her voice and whispered significantly, "And if you ask me – which I realize you didn't, but anyhow – if you ask me, that's not the only match I see in the future!"

Blair rolled her eyes again.

"Alec and I are just friends," she said, purposely misunderstanding. "Arent' we, Alec?"

"Of course," he said absently, watching Jo run up and down the field.

"Well if you weren't already, you are now," Tootie said significantly. Natalie chuckled.

Blair shivered. The breeze felt suddenly very chill, notwithstanding her stylish trench coat. She folded her arms across her chest, hunched down, ducked her chin into her collar.

What was that look? Jo couldn't actually, she couldn't possibly …

A whistle blew on the field. The Langley Lions stopped scrimmaging and gathered on the sideline, near a grizzled, grumpy-looking man who appeared to be their coach.

Alec stood. "Would you ladies care for some hot chocolate?" he inquired politely.

"Sure!" said Natalie.

"No thank you," said Tootie.

Blair merely shook her head.

"One, then," said Alec. He included all of them in his bow, and headed toward the bleacher stairs.

"Oh … my … God!" said Tootie. "Did you catch that eye action when he saw Jo?"

"Catch it?" asked Blair. "He did everything but yell out 'Ah-oo-gah!' and whistle like one of those cartoon wolves. It was a disgusting display."

"Are those the rantings of 'green-eyed jealousy'?" teased Tootie.

"'Jealousy?'" scoffed Blair. "As if I … as if … as if I couldn't …"

"Well, whatever it is it's got her pretty tongue-tied," observed Natalie.

"I am not tongue-tied. Or jealous," said Blair.

"'The lady doth protest too much, methinks,'" teased Tootie.

"Tootie, could you can the Shakespeare?" snapped Blair.

"Yeah, Tootie," Nat agreed. "You know I love you to death, but it's starting to get on my nerves."

"I can't help it," Tootie said defensively. "It's a reflex. I was Portia and Queen Gertrude at drama camp this summer."

"We know, we know," Natalie and Blair said together in a tone of long-suffering.

"Well pardon me for being talented," sulked Tootie.

"All I'm saying," Natalie said soothingly, "is that you can still be funny in twentieth-century speak. Or even nineteenth-century speak. So how about giving old Bill a rest? That Arthur Miller had some great quotes. And how about Tennessee Williams? What a pistol!"

"Har-de-har-har."

A whistle blew again, and both teams took their positions on the field, facing each other down.

The Dartmouth women were trim and fresh-faced. Their white and green uniforms were as clean as if they were brand new.

The Langley Lions, on the other hand, were a motley crew to begin with, and their blue uniforms were already streaked with grass stains and dirt from their warm-up. Sweat darkened the backs and armpits of their shirts.

"Jo's the only looker on our team," Tootie observed.

"Tootie! That's so sexist," complained Natalie.

"Well, I guess I can't say anything right today!"

"You're absolutely right, in my opinion," Alec told Tootie, handing Natalie a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. He sat next to Blair, took a sip of his own hot chocolate. "Your – Jo is it? - is indeed the loveliest creature on the field."

"This is a sports competition," said Natalie, "not a beauty pageant."

"Hear, hear," said Blair.

"We should be judging them by their athletic performance alone," Natalie continued.

"Precious little else to judge them by," Alec murmured. "The Westminster Kennel Club comes to mind."

"You know what?" said Natalie, turning on him, "I don't care that you are a lord. Another sexist crack like that and I will lay you out."

"This is where American feminism baffles me," said Alec. "You didn't mind my fetching you a cup of hot chocolate, but I'm to pretend that this ragtag coterie is a galaxy of beauty?"

"You don't have to pretend anything," said Natalie, "just put a sock in it. My Lord. And you can have your hot chocolate back." She set the cup down next to him so hard that cocoa sloshed over the rim, splashing his immaculate trousers.

Alec calmly took a large white handkerchief from his breast pocket, scrubbed at the cocoa spatter, put the handkerchief away. He yawned.

"Nothing to say in your defense?" Natalie challenged him, eyes blazing.

"Nothing I can vocalize," he said placidly, "since I've been directed to 'put a sock in it'."

"Don't feel badly, Lord Nethridge," said Tootie. "Natalie's telling everyone what they can and can't say today."

"Are you defending his sexist remarks?" Natalie demanded, outraged.

"I'm defending his right to have an opinion!" blazed Tootie.

Another whistle shrilled down on the field. The players sprang into action, a whirlwind of white, green and blue, flailing ponytails, flashing limbs.

"Will you all shut the hell up?" Blair asked sweetly, through gritted teeth and a glued-on smile. "The game is starting."

"The match," Natalie corrected her.

"Be careful, Blair," said Tootie, "she'll be telling you to put a sock in it next. Apparently you can only speak if you say exactly what Natalie Green wants to hear."

"That's not fair!" Natalie flared.

"Tootie, Natalie," said Blair through her glued-on smile, "I love you both like sisters. But if you're going to carry on in this juvenile way, Jo and I can't invite you to Langley events."

"But that's not –"

Blair shook her head. She pressed a finger to her lips.

"But … but –"

Blair shook her head again, firmly.

Juvenile? Tootie mouthed to Natalie.

Natalie shrugged, looking baffled. Beats me! she mouthed.


As the match unfolded, Blair's world shrank to the field and the women racing up and down it, sticks and limbs thrashing.

Blair had never watched – nor had any interest in watching – field hockey, but the Langley-Dartmouth match converted her. She wished fervently that she'd watched Jo play at Eastland. If I'd known what I was missing, she thought …

The morning after they'd first made love, Blair had watched Jo sleep. God, was that less than a month ago? Seems like a lifetime … She'd been struck by how feminine Jo's body was, strong, lithe, powerful, vulnerable.

Now, watching Jo tear up and down the field, playing offense, defense, seemingly everywhere at once, Blair was struck again by Jo's vigorous and intensely feminine beauty.

The brunette's lean muscles gleamed with perspiration. As she ran, tendrils of dark hair escaped from her pony tail, framing her face. Jo moved with the unselfconscious grace of a young animal. Every motion was economical, graceful, balletic.

And yet Jo retained a dangerous edge. She flew toward her opponents and the Dartmouth goal as if there were rockets on her heels. She swung her stick ferociously.

Jo never actually hurt an opponent; she checked her swing, or turned the stick aside, at the last possible second, but there were a lot of wild-eyed Dartmouth players who'd thought they were about to be brained, gutted or kneecapped, who saw their lives and careers flash in front of their terrified eyes.

She's a goddess, thought Blair, heart heavy with pride and love.

Blair was distantly aware that Tootie and Natalie had put aside their squabbles for the duration of the competition. Whenever Jo scored a goal or thwarted an opposing player, Tootie and Nat erupted into united cries of "Go, Jo!" and "Way to go, Jo!" and the like.

When the first half ended and the players streamed onto the sidelines, Blair shook her head a little bit as if waking from a dream. She stretched; her muscles were taut from sitting still so long.

"Riveting, isn't it?" Alec asked. He was regarding Blair thoughtfully.

She shrugged. "Not bad," she said indifferently. "I'm not much of a sports fan."

"Aren't you?" He reached into his jacket, removed a heavy little silver flash. It made faint gurgling sounds as he opened it. "Interest you in a snort?"

Blair shook her head.

"Sure, Blair? 1930 Macallan Scotch."

"We're underage," said Natalie, sounding disgusted. "And no one is allowed to drink at these events."

Alec deftly poured two fingers of Scotch into his empty cocoa cup. He capped the flask and slipped it back into his coat.

"Natalie?" he asked, holding the cup toward her.

"Did you listen to a single word I said?" she asked.

"Certainly. That's why I thought you could use this. You'll pardon my saying that you're one of the most uptight, self-righteous young women I've ever met."

Natalie opened her mouth but no sound came out, just a sort of strangled sound. Her eyes bulged.

"Is that a 'no' then?" Alec asked. "Sure? All right, then. I don't suppose I blame you. It's really not the same without a whisky glass, and a little clear water." He swirled the Scotch in the Styrofoam cup, sipped it, rolled it around his mouth, savoring it. "Nectar," he murmured.

"So you're a lush," said Natalie, "as well as a boor!"

Blair sighed. "Why is the same show always playing on this channel?" she asked the universe. She stood, tightening the belt of her trench coat.

"Where are you going?" asked Tootie.

"To see Jo." God. I hope I sound casual.

"I'll come with you."

"No, Tootie, I'll just be gone a moment," said Blair.

"So will I," Tootie said stubbornly.

Blair shrugged. "Suit yourself."

It was a matter of moments to reach the Langley Lions. They were stretching their ham strings and chugging water on the sidelines while the coach chewed them out. He had a gruff voice and a deeply lined face that bespoke a lifetime of frowning. Blair and Tootie hung back while he spoke.

"Just because we're ahead now," he barked at his players, "doesn't mean we'll stay ahead. Keep your head up, Barclay! Keep your balance, Von Schuylkill! Hargrove – keep your eye on the ball!" Etc., etc.

What a martinet! thought Blair. She noted with some pride that he had no criticisms for Jo.

"All right, listen for the whistle. Easy on that water, Barclay, you're gonna cramp up!" The coach stalked off to talk to one of the umpires, giving the young women a few moments of peace.

"Jo!" cried Tootie, running up to the brunette and wrapping her in a cheerful hug.

"Hey, Toot," laughed Jo. She returned the hug affectionately, clapping the younger girl on the back. "Didn't know you were gonna be here!"

"Blair invited us. Nat's here too."

"I know, I saw her in the stand, remember? This was, like, the best surprise ever!" Jo smiled at Blair. It was a shy, sweet smile. Jo's eyes shone. "Thanks, Warner."

"Don't mention it," said Blair, with a self-deprecating little wave. But she was tingling. It had made Jo happy. She'd made Jo happy.

"Hey, we only got a second, but meet the guys," said Jo excitedly. She waved her teammates over. "Guys, these are two of my best friends since forever, Tootie Ramsey and Blair Warner."

There was a chorus of "Pleased to meet you."

"The Blair Warner?" asked the tall, gangly girl. She had an unfortunate haircut.

"The one and only," said Jo. "On account of they broke the mold while they were making her."

Blair swatted Jo on the shoulder.

"Hey, not my good arm," laughed Jo.

"This is Lurch," said Jo, pointing to the tall girl. "Tiny," she gestured to the childlike player. "Bullet," indicating the sprightly, rotund girl with yellow pigtails. "Moose," pointing to the tank-like young woman. Jo introduced all the players by nicknames that, if not original, were certainly descriptive.

"What's your nickname?" Tootie asked Jo. "Wait, don't tell me. Let me guess." She pressed her hands to her temples. "'Flash', right? Because you're so fast?"

"Eh, my nickname's not important," said Jo, blushing. "Well, Tootie, Blair – thanks for stopping by."

"'Skinny'," guessed Tootie. "No. I've got it! 'Slim'. Like Lauren Bacall in 'To Have and Have Not'!"

"Nah, it ain't 'Slim'," said Jo. "And it ain't important."

"I know – 'Speedy'!"

"Wow, Tootie, totally wrong. But thanks for playin! OK, now, we gotta get ready. See ya after the match."

Tootie chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. "Oh, it must be good," she said.

"All right, let's go, let's go!" shouted the coach. "Bullet, Tiny, Moose, Lurch – front and center!"

"Gotta go," said Jo. "Coach'll be callin me in a sec." She clapped Tootie on the shoulder. "Great to see ya, Toot!"

Jo clapped Blair on the shoulder, too, in a purely chummy manner, but the moment she touched Blair an electric current ran up her arm. Without thinking, as if her arms had a life of their own Jo pulled Blair to her and hugged her fiercely.

Jo was damp with sweat; she smelled salty and sweet at once, the way she did when they made love.

"Are you crazy?" Blair whispered in Jo's ear.

"Seems like," whispered Jo. "Mmn, you smell great."

With infinite discipline Jo broke the embrace, all but shoving the blonde away.

"Flatfoot!" yelled the coach. "Legs! Red! Lefty! Jackrabbit! Bones!" He glared at Jo. "C'mon, Princess, you gonna grace us with your presence the second half?"

Tootie howled. "Princess? Princess?" she said incredulously.

Jo was already running to join the coach and her teammates, but she cast one patented Polniaczek death glare over her shoulder. I'll deal with you later, Toot! said the look.


"Princess? Princess!" Tootie chuckled for the umpteenth time, as she and Blair returned to their seats.

"Princess who?" asked Natalie. She was pointedly ignoring Alec, who was still sipping his Macallan.

"Princess you'll-never-guess-who!" laughed Tootie.

"So if I'll never guess, tell me already."

Tootie's eyes shone. "Everyone on the team has these crazy nicknames. Guess what Jo's is?"

Natalie's eyebrows shot up. "Princess? Our Jo?"

"It suits her," Alec said quietly.

"Just when I think you've said the dumbest thing you could possibly say," Natalie told Alec, "you say something even dumber. Our Jo is tops, but she's no princess!"

"Not even a duchess!" laughed Tootie.

"Heck – not even a baroness," said Nat. "She hates fuss and feathers."

"Being a princess," said Alec, "isn't about fuss or feathers. That's the circus that accretes around it. Being a princess is more … an inner quality." His eyes were riveted to the field, where Jo was charging toward the Dartmouth goal. "It's inner strength, inner beauty … greatness of spirit."

Jo drove the ball into the Dartmouth goal.

A cheer rippled through the Langley bleachers. Jo and her teammates regrouped, the other women pounding Jo on the back, Jo grinning ear to ear and exchanging high-fives with the other Lions.

"Go Jo!" shouted Tootie!

"Way to go, Princess!" shouted Nat.

Blair watched Jo with what she hoped was a poker face, but inside she was soaring.

My God, she's amazing! I am so lucky to know her, to love her. Blair wanted to rush down onto the field and take Jo into her arms.

Perhaps something of these thoughts did show on Blair's face, because she felt someone looking at her; when she turned she saw Alec regarding her thoughtfully.

"You've changed since we last met, Blair."

"I assume that's a compliment," she said coolly.

"Naturally."

"You've changed too," said Blair. "Since when do you use words like 'accrete'?"

He shrugged modestly. "I might have cracked open a book or two in preparation for Langley."

"So you plan to do more than charm your way through the next four years?"

He smiled at her, a boyish, winning grin. "I'd like a chance to charm your friend. If you don't object, Blair."

If I don't object? If I don't object? Hell, yes, I object! Stay the hell away from my Jo!

These were the words trying to tumble out of her mouth, but Blair maintained perfect control.

"Hah!" It was a single, harsh laugh. "As if I'd let a smooth operator like you within a hundred feet of my, my best friend!" Best friend, not girlfriend. Best friend.

"Don't worry, Blair," said Nat. "Jo doesn't need us to protect her."

"If he puts the moves on her, she'll send him to the moon!" Tootie smirked.

"Not having seen my moves, how can you be so sure?" Alec asked good-naturedly.

Tootie gave him a quick up-and-down, one eyebrow cocked. "I've seen enough to know that you are not Jo's type."

"Because?" asked Alec.

"Because she has taste!" said Nat.

"I don't know," mused Alec. His eyes followed Jo up and down the field. "I think she might like me very much."

Blair's jaw clenched. It drove her crazy to see his eyes lingering on Jo. Blair was an artist, a diplomat and a lover – never a fighter. But suddenly she felt an unusual sensation in her hands; they curled into fists, itching to give Alec a pop in the mouth!

"Trust me," she said tightly, "Tootie's right. You're not her type."

Alec shrugged and stood up languidly. "No point arguing about it. Time will tell." He bowed very slightly to Tootie, Natalie and Blair. "Ladies. It's been a distinct … pleasure."

"Sorry we can't say the same!" said Natalie.

Alec favored her with a deep bow, then turned on his heel and sauntered down the bleacher stairs.

"The colossal nerve!" fumed Nat.

"Did you see the creepy way he kept ogling Jo?" demanded Tootie.

"I'm sorry," Nat told Blair, "your friend might be a hunka-hunka, but he is the biggest chauvinist pig I've met in a long time."

"The piggiest," agreed Tootie.

"We're talking major 'oink' factor," said Nat. "Blair? Blair?"

"Earth to Blair," said Tootie.

Blair was lost in her own uneasy thoughts. 'Time will tell,' Alec said. Time will tell what? Was he really going to go after Jo? Did he like her, or was he just baiting Blair? And, the most terrifying question: what if Jo actually liked him? …

"Earth to Blair, come in, Blair," Tootie said again. She shook her friend's shoulder gently.

Blair started, blinking as if she'd just awoken from a dream.

"Are you all right?" asked Natalie.

"Mm? Yes, I'm fine. Just a little tired. I didn't sleep much last night."

"Are you worried about something, Blair?"

Not until just now! Blair thought. Aloud she said, "No, Nat, everything's fine. I think it's just catching up to me, traveling back and forth from New York every weekend."

"Don't tell me there's no helicopter in the Warner empire," joked Tootie. "There must be at least one. You should have it fly you back and forth on weekends."

"I've considered that," Blair said seriously, "but there's no helipad at Langley."

Natalie sighed. "Lifestyles of the rich and famous," she said wistfully.

"Which reminds me," Blair glanced at her watch, "the car will be here in an hour and a half."

"You're going to New York today?" asked Tootie, sounding disappointed.

"Yes," said Blair.

"Well, there goes our surprise," said Natalie.

"What surprise?"

"Tootie and I were going to suggest you and Blair come over to Eastland tonight and all of us cook up a big supper for Mrs. Garrett."

"We thought it might cheer her up," said Tootie. "But if some fancy New York weekend is more important to you than Mrs. Garrett – "

"Nothing is more important than Mrs. Garrett," Blair said. "But why does she need cheering up?"

"She's been so down lately," said Natalie. "And usually nothing gets her down. Mr. Parker's been running her ragged with special fund-raising dinners, special events. Giving her no advanced notice, of course! You know how he is."

"And anytime she asks him for new equipment, he pleads poverty," said Tootie scornfully. "She's supposed to whip up all these meals with pre-war appliances."

"And we're talking Civil War," cracked Natalie.

"Revolutionary War," corrected Tootie.

"Believe me, I remember," said Blair, thinking back to her three years of indentured servitude in the Eastland kitchen.

"And, on top of everything else, well, I think she kind of misses you and Jo," said Natalie. "Not to pull a Mrs. Garrett guilt-trip or anything, but I think she really does."

"Of course she does," said Blair. "Who wouldn't miss me? Or even Jo?"

"Just think," said Tootie, "next year Nat will be gone, and I'll graduate the year after that. Mrs. Garrett will be all alone at Eastland."

"Hardly all alone," said Blair. "She's popular with the students. They like her, and she likes all of them."

"But it's not the same," said Tootie. "They're not her family, not like we are."

"True." Blair chewed her lower lip. "Well, the first thing I need to do is call Daddy. I think it's high time the Warners subsidized a brand new Eastland kitchen."

"Wow!" said Tootie.

"That's an outstanding idea," said Natalie. "Too bad you couldn't have thought of it three years ago!"

"Oh, I did. But mother and Daddy refused. They said it would be wrong to modernize the kitchen just because their daughter was working there."

"Your parents said that?" asked Nat, incredulous. "Mrs. Serial Marriage and Mr. IRS Audit?"

"I know, right? But whenever it comes to me, they suddenly get all these ethics, and principles."

"Principle, schminciple," said Natalie. "I've got permanent dish-pan hands thanks to your parents!"

"They wanted me to learn a lesson," said Blair.

"And did you?"

"I'd like to think so. At the very least," Blair linked one arm with Tootie, one arm with Natalie, "I got to spend a ton of time with the best friends I'll ever have."

"Aw!" said Tootie and Nat together.

The Langley crowd broke out into cheers – Jo had just scored another goal. The Lions were trouncing the Big Green.

"Yay, Jo!" shouted Tootie and Nat.

Blair smiled. "Nat? Tootie? I'm having one of my most brilliant ideas ever."

"More brilliant than a new kitchen?" asked Natalie.

"Much, much more brilliant. How quickly can you two get back to Eastland, get packed and kidnap Mrs. Garrett?"

"Kidnap?" asked Natalie.

"An hour. Tops," Tootie said confidently. "That includes travel time."

"Kidnap?" Natalie asked again. "Like, actual kidnap-kidnap?"

"Take two hours, if you like," said Blair. "I'll have James pick you up at 4pm."

"What are we packing?" asked Tootie.

"All you'll really need is a toothbrush and a formal gown."

"Gowns? We don't have gowns," objected Natalie.

"What about the ones you wore to Stone Academy?"

"Oh. Right. We do have gowns. Which only leaves the not unimportant question: where are we going?"

"Who cares?" asked Tootie. "Wherever it is, it's more exciting than Eastland!"

"Trust me," said Blair, "it will be much, much more exciting Eastland!"


Jo paced back and forth in her suite, almost literally trembling with excitement. Every few moments she checked her wristwatch, the pretty one her father had bought her when she'd started Langley College.

Earlier in the week, when Blair had conned her into agreeing to go to the city, Jo had been skeptical. How the heck were they both going to have a good time? They came from different worlds. They didn't like the same things. Just one for-instance: Jo couldn't stand shopping, but it was Blair's favorite sport.

As the week progressed, however, Jo reconsidered. New York City, alone with Blair? That had definite possibilities, especially now that they were dating.

There were actually a lot of things they both liked these days, from Italian food to old black-and-white movies, from Shakespeare plays to art museums. Not to mention, well, not to mention certain other interesting activities …

"What should I pack?" Jo had asked Blair.

"Nothing."

"C'mon, o' Queen of the Garment Bags. I'm not kiddin. What should I pack?"

"I'm not kidding either, Jo. Nothing."

Jo had grinned and waggled her eyebrows roguishly. "Nothin, Princess?"

"Nothing."

So Jo had packed, literally, nothing.

After kicking Dartmouth's Big Green butt up and down the field, Jo had hugged and high-fived her teammates, declined the post-game pizza, and raced back to her dorm. She was in such a good mood, she'd even smiled at grumpy old Iron Britches before pounding up the dorm staircase.

She jumped into her shower, scrubbing herself clean and washing her hair twice. She toweled off, put on her nicest slacks and nicest blouse. She combed out her long, dark hair so it hung loose over her shoulders.

This is gonna be a great weekend, she thought. I can feel it.

Yeah, OK, she was a little nervous. A few butterflies in the old stomach.

Blair had said she was going to show Jo how well Jo could fit into her world. And that meant, what? They'd be staying at Monica's place, probably.

I can handle that. Monica was kind of a goof, and definitely a snob, but she meant well, and she liked Jo. The only reason, Jo had realized in retrospect, that Monica would make a crack about 'the great unwashed' to Jo was that she didn't consider Jo in that light. Which didn't make the remark any less offensive, but certainly less personal.

Frankly, Jo was interested to observe Monica, and to see the penthouse where Blair had grown up – well, on the rare occasions that Blair wasn't at school or camp or the Texas ranch or en vacance overseas. Jo had learned so much about the heiress in the last few weeks, and she was hungry to learn even more.

The more I learn about her, the more I wanna know. Everything about her is so interestin. So fascinatin. It's crazy. I'm crazy. Where can this thing between us possibly go? But I don't care. Damn, I'm in it full speed ahead now. If we go over the cliff, we go over the cliff …

The telephone rang. Jo scooped up the receiver before the first peal ended.

"Hi, uh, hello, Jo Polniaczek, here, yo," she stammered. Jeez, I'm jittery!

"I should hope you are Miss Polniaczek," murmured Miss Pritt in her gloomy, condescending tones, "since I am ringing Miss Polniaczek."

Yeah, well I'd like ta wring your neck, Iron Britches! thought Jo.

"The Warner car has arrived," Miss Pritt continued coolly. "That is all." She hung up with a click.

Jo dropped the receiver in its cradle. The car's here! The car's here!

She remembered once when she was a kid, after her parents had started having real problems but before Charlie went into the slammer, he was going to take her for ice cream and to see "Escape to Witch Mountain".

Jo had felt then just like she felt now, all keyed up looking out the window every two seconds, and then when Charlie had called up from the payphone on the corner (he didn't want to actually come up and have to see Rose) she'd been so happy she almost jumped out of her skin.

Now, Jo practically sprinted down the staircase, then got ahold of herself by the final landing.

I might feel eleven years old, but I ain't. And I don't need that old battleaxe speculatin how come I'm so revved up ta see Blair.

With great dignity Jo strolled through the glorious Parker House lobby. She even nodded graciously at old Iron Britches, who was glowering at Jo from behind the porter's desk.

"Have a lovely weekend, Miss Pritt," said Jo.

"Hmph," sniffed Miss Pritt.

And that, mused Jo, is the well-bred servant's equivalent of "In your ear."

"Holy mother of God," breathed Jo when she saw the Warner limo idling on the curved drive in front of her dorm. It was a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI, an opulent black-and-chrome creation that made Jo's heart skip a beat. She walked to it on feet that seemed to float several inches above the ground.

The chauffer, in black and grey regalia, was waiting next to the passenger door. He was a short, middle-aged man with thick glasses and a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair. He nodded at Jo.

"Miss Polniaczek," he said politely, opening the passenger door.

"Thanks, ah, James," Jo said a little breathlessly.

I'm climbin inta a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI.

Blair was already sitting inside. She wore the same caramel-colored trench coat Jo'd seen her in at the field hockey match. Blair's hair was pouffed and teased and her makeup was impeccable. It was, Jo realized, Blair's city look, her going-home-to-see-the-parents look.

"Jo," Blair said politely, "lovely to see you."

"Yeah, ah, lovely ta see you too," said Jo. She sat at the other end of the bench seat from Blair. When Jo was settled in the back seat, no feet or limbs hanging out of the car, James closed the door.

While James walked around the car to the driver's side, Blair slid across the seat, pecked Jo's cheek and then slid back, so quickly Jo almost wondered if she'd hallucinated the kiss. But a quick glance at Blair's impassive mouth and mischievous eyes told Jo it had really happened.

James opened his door and settled into the driver's seat. He released the parking brake, stepped on the gas pedal, and drove at a stately pace through the Langley campus.

"Wonderful match," Blair said conversationally, as she took Jo's hand and squeezed it. "I never knew field hockey could be so bracing."

"It is," Jo said casually, returning Blair's squeeze. "It is a very, uh, bracin thing."

Jo glanced nervously into the rearview mirror. Could James see that she and Blair were holding hands? No. The angle was all wrong. They were safe.

Blair rubbed Jo's palm with her thumb. It was an intimate, sensual gesture, bringing to mind many little private exchanges over the past few weeks. Jo blushed.

"So, ah, what's on the old agenda?" Jo asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Shopping," said Blair.

Jo groaned softly.

"For you," Blair said.

Jo groaned again.

"Remember, you promised to put yourself completely in my hands," said Blair.

"I know, but," Jo lowered her voice, "I kinda had somethin other than shoppin in mind."

"This will be a multi-faceted trip," Blair said reassuringly. "It won't all be shopping."

"What else will there be?" Jo asked dubiously.

"Fine dining."

"I can deal with that."

"The Plaza Charity Ball."

"Now just a –"

"Dancing. Schmoozing. Lots of time with my mother."

Jo sighed. "Did I do something to get you mad?"

"Every day. But I promise, this is going to be a weekend you'll never forget."

"Yeah, I'm gettin that impression!"

"You can't back out on your promise, Jo. Remember the Code of the Bronx."

"You don't need ta remind me about the Code of the Bronx," groused Jo. "My word is gold, Blondie."

"Wonderful." Blair gave Jo a smug, sidelong glance, eyes sparkling in triumph.

Oh, Warner, you are soooo lucky James is in this car, thought Jo.

Unfortunately, the Phantom was not equipped with one of those tinted, sound-proof glass windows that Jo had seen in movies, the kind where you flipped a switch and the window separated you from the prying eyes and ears of the chauffer. Because if it had been, Jo would have told Blair at length – between kisses, of course – exactly what she thought about this chi-chi weekend.

In the past month Jo had learned how little privacy the upper crust enjoyed. There were servants and dependents and hangers-on everywhere. Even if they weren't in your face they were around the corner, down the hall, lurking somewhere, just ready to pop out at the most intimate or inconvenient moment.

It's amazing, thought Jo, that Blair's mom and dad found the privacy to make Blair! Ha! Mr. Warner musta sent the butler out for ice or somethin!

Blair's thumb traced lazy little circles on Jo's palm. The slight motion was driving Jo crazy, sending electric sparks up her arm and through her body. Her arm tingled, not to mention other, more interesting parts of her anatomy, and she ached to grab Blair and kiss her soundly.

Jo glanced into the rearview mirror again. James was silent, serious, and seemed completely focused on the winding road unrolling before them, but he had to be hearing everything they were saying. The only safe course was to watch every word they said. Banter was OK. Friends bantered. But they couldn't push it too far.

I gotta be careful not to call her 'babe'. And what if she slips and calls me 'darlin'? Although, rich people call people 'darlin'. Zsa Zsa Gabor does that all the time. So that wouldn't be such a big deal …

Jo shook her head darkly. The drive to the city, shopping, some charity wingding, schmoozing (what exactly was schmoozing, anyhow?), talking to Mrs. Warner. Wanting to grab Blair and make love to her, but not even being able to touch her. It all sounded like a nightmare. But at some point –

At some point we're gonna have to go to sleep. In Blair's room. And I'm gonna make her beautiful head spin. I'm gonna love her like I never loved her yet. She's gonna double, triple-swoon. And after, when the moment is right, I've got a surprise for her. My princess … my love … Jo's pinky idly touched something in her jacket pocket …

Blair was adept enough at reading Jo's face to decipher some of these thoughts in Jo's wicked grin. Blair's mouth twitched, suppressing a wicked grin of her own.

At some point it dawned on Jo that they weren't heading toward the city.

"Hey, what gives? Where we goin, Warner?"

"Slight detour."

"What detour? I didn't agree to any detour. There was no detour in our agreement, Blair."

"Relax. You're going to love this detour."

James guided the Phantom through the gates of the Eastland School for Girls. Within moments they pulled up to the Eastland dining hall, where Tootie, Natalie, Mrs. Garrett and a small mountain of luggage waited on the kitchen porch.

Tootie and Natalie grinned ear to ear. Mrs. Garrett looked spaced out, like she wasn't really registering what was going on.

Blair unrolled her window.

"Mes chres amies!" she cried. "Are you ready?"

"We sure are!" said Tootie.

"The readiest!" said Nat.

"Ready for what?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "The girls won't tell me a thing."

"Did you pack a gown, Mrs. Garrett?" asked Blair.

"The only one I have – the baby blue gown I keep on hand for weddings and cotillions."

"That'll be perfect," smiled Blair.

"Perfect for what?"

James had climbed out of the car and rapidly stowed the luggage in the Phantom's boot. He opened the passenger side door for the newcomers.

The Phantom was the last word in luxury, but it wasn't designed for large parties. After Tootie and Natalie piled into the back seat ("Get your keister outta my face, Toot!" "Nat! You're on my foot!"), Mrs. Garrett shook her head decisively.

"I'm not shoehorning myself in there, girls; we'll never get out again!"

"Don't worry, Mrs. G, we can make room for ya," said Jo. "We'll just tie Blair ta the roof."

"That won't be necessary," said Mrs. Garrett. In the end, she sat in the front seat next to James.

As the Phantom pulled out of the drive, Tootie and Natalie cheered.

"Get ready, gang," said Tootie. "The five musketeers are going to New York!"


The drive to New York City was a pretty one; Westchester County wore its early autumn best.

Tootie peppered Blair with questions about the weekend, but Blair maintained a sphinx-like silence, responding with vague nothings like "You'll see," and "All in good time".

Jo hunched in her corner of the bench seat, maintaining a scowl throughout the journey.

She loved Toot and Nat and Mrs. G like they were her own family, but she didn't want them tagging along on a romantic weekend with Blair any more than she'd want Rose or Charlie being there.

"Did you two have another blowout?" asked Natalie.

"Not yet," Jo said darkly, "but one's brewin."

"Oh, pish," said Blair. What the hell is Jo sulking about, anyway? Blair had gone out of her way to arrange an amazing weekend for all of them, but particularly Jo. And this was Jo's attitude?

"Pish?" asked Jo. "Pish?"

"As in 'pish-posh'," Blair said with a tight smile.

"Yeah, well I got your pish and your posh right –""

"Hey, wow, look at that!" Natalie said hastily, intervening before the argument escalated.

"Yeah, look!" said Tootie, blindly backing up Nat.

"At what?" asked Blair.

"At, ah, that tree," said Natalie. "Wow! You don't see a lot of those."

"You sure don't!" Tootie agreed.

"Right," scoffed Jo. "In rural New York. Big tree shortage."

"Listen," said Tootie, "we just don't want a bloodbath. Can you two try to get along for twenty-four hours? Or is that too much to ask?"

Jo sighed. She turned to Blair, a smile twitching her mouth.

"I, uh, guess I am bein a bit of a brat."

"A bit?" Blair asked.

"Don't push it, Blondie. I'm tryin ta apologize."

"She is, she is!" said Natalie. "Hear the woman out."

"She sounds sincere," said Tootie encouragingly.

Blair decided to take the high road. "Well, I realize that I am being mysterious, keeping you all in the dark. That must be a little frustrating."

"A little?" Jo demanded.

"Jo!" said Tootie, her last nerve hanging by a thread. Can't these two even get through an apology without fighting?

"For Pete's sake," said Jo, even more tired of the whole argument than Tootie was. "I'm bein sulky and Blair's bein mysterious and let's just drop the whole thing."

"I can live with that," said Blair.

"Thank the Lord!" said Natalie.

The friends were unusually quiet during the remainder of the ride. Even when Tootie spotted the first skyscrapers, pale smudges on the horizon, and cried out excitedly "There's the city!" the only response she got was a grunt from Jo and indulgent smiles from Natalie and Blair.

Which made sense, Tootie realized. She had grown up in Washington, D.C., a spectacular city in its own right but nothing compared to New York City. She still felt a thrill run up her spine every time she visited NYC. But it was old hat to Blair, Natalie and Jo, who'd been raised in the city that never sleeps, Jo in the mean streets of the Bronx, Natalie in a pleasant brownstone, Blair in a glittering penthouse in the sky.

Mrs. Garrett was silent during the entire journey – completely out of character for the feisty redhead. She never said a word, even when they reached their destination.

Is she OK? Blair mouthed to Tootie and Natalie.

The two girls shrugged helplessly. Who knows? mouthed Nat.

Blair made a mental note to talk to Mrs. Garrett, really talk to her, before they all parted for the night.

Jo noticed that the car had stopped moving. "We here?" she asked.

"We're here," Blair said, smiling. Just in time she stopped herself from reaching out to touch Jo's face. Can't even imagine how I'd explain that gesture!

Jo stretched luxuriously, cracking her back and neck in a machine-gun-like burst.

"Ew, Jo!" complained Tootie.

"Whatsamatter, Stretch? I used ta crack my back all the time when we roomed together."

"I know. I just forgot how much it freaks me out."

"Eh, see, without me at Eastland, you're already gettin soft."

Jo gazed out the window. James had stopped the Phantom in front of a glorious French-Renaissance building. Jo whistled.

"Gotta say, Blair – I approve. We visitin the Count of Monte Cristo?"

"Jo," said Natalie, "you know that's a fictional character. Right?"

"Yeah. But he sure makes a mean sandwich!" Jo flashed her megawatt grin. "Seriously, though, where are we?"

Tootie and Natalie goggled at the brunette. "You're not kidding?"

"Kidding about what?"

"You don't know where we are?" Natalie was incredulous.

"No, I don't. What was your clue, Nat? Oh, right, when I asked, 'Where are we?'"

"Ladies," said Blair, with a grand sweep of her arm, "welcome to the Plaza!"

"The Plaza," breathed Tootie. "I've always dreamed of dining at the Plaza."

"It's heavenly," said Natalie. "The Cobb salad is to die for."

"Huh. So this is the Plaza," said Jo. "Pretty nifty old pile of bricks."

"You've really never seen the Plaza?" asked Natalie.

"Jeez, Nat – deal with it. I never seen it before. Come on – what would I be doing in this neighborhood?"

"Grand larceny?" Blair suggested innocently.

Jo shot her a look. On the surface it said Har-de-har-har, Blondie. The subtext was more nuanced. Good shot, babe. We'll discuss it at length, whenever the hell we have minute alone.

"But how can you grow up in New York City and never visit the Plaza?"

"There's different New Yorks, Nat. You still don't get that?" Jo shook her head. "One of these days I'll take ya on a field trip to my neighborhood, show ya some of our chateaux."

"Pack a can of mace," advised Blair.

"Blair!" said Natalie. "That's so insensitive."

"No it's not," said Blair, "it's sound advice. It can get pretty dicey around the South Bronx."

"How would you know that?" scoffed Jo. "You never been ta the Bronx in your life."

"Well, of course not," said Blair, with a strange little laugh. "But I do read the Times, Jo, and sometimes I even watch this thing called the evening news. 'The Bronx is burning.' Ring a bell?"

"Sure. Cosell. The '77 World Series. Ma and I were goin back and forth between watching the game on TV, and watching the fire out the window. Man, that fire was so close, we almost coulda roasted marshmallows over it."

"How awful!" said Tootie feelingly.

"I mean, yeah, but it wasn't that … Look, ya gotta be in it ta get it. Now are we just gonna sit here and look at the Plaza, or are we gonna actually go inside?"

James had already opened the front passenger side door for Mrs. Garrett. She stood on the sidewalk, looking blankly at the Plaza's glorious main entrance. James waited politely for Blair's signal to open the Phantom's back passenger door.

"Of course," said Blair, giving James a smile and nod.

As the girls piled out onto the sidewalk, James removed their luggage from the trunk. A resplendent Plaza bell captain stacked the bags on an elegant luggage cart.

"We're staying here?" asked Natalie, eyes wide.

"Surprise!" said Blair. "The five musketeers are having a Plaza weekend!"

Tootie fanned herself. "Natalie, catch me if I faint!"

"Catch you? Who'll catch me?"

"Jeez," said Jo, taking in the beautiful façade, "this is real neat of ya, Blair." Jo smiled at her lover, finding it hard not to wrap her arms around the blonde and express her thanks in concrete terms. If ever-curious Tootie or Natalie had caught that look, Jo would've had a lot of explaining to do. Luckily, the two Eastland girls were completely mesmerized by the Plaza.

"What do you think, Mrs. Garrett?" asked Blair, putting a hand on her surrogate mother's shoulder.

"Hmm?" Mrs. Garrett was lost in thought.

"What do you think of the surprise?" asked Blair.

Jo put her hand on Mrs. Garrett's other shoulder. "You OK, Mrs. G?"

"What? Oh, yes, I'm fine." Mrs. Garrett looked around, finally noticing where they were, the Plaza in front of them, the park behind them, the bronze fountain statue of the goddess Pomona, world-famous Bergdorf Goodman's across the street. "My goodness, Blair! We're at the Plaza!"

Jo and Blair locked eyes above Mrs. Garrett's head. I'm worried about her, said Blair's eyes. Me too, said Jo's.

Jo put an affectionate arm around Mrs. Garrett's shoulders.

"Isn't this great, Mrs. G? Blondie's treatin us all to a Plaza weekend. Pretty swank, eh?"

Mrs. Garrett teared up. She sniffled and dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve.

"You girls are wonderful, wonderful," she said.

"That's not news," said Blair. "And it's certainly no reason to cry."

"Oh, I'm not crying." Mrs. Garrett pulled herself together, smiling through her tears. "What a lovely surprise, Blair. So thoughtful. So like you." Mrs. Garrett pinched the blonde's cheeks.

Blair flipped her hair with mock modesty. "Mrs. Garrett – when you're right, you're right."

"Don't give her a swelled head," warned Jo. "Next thing ya know, she'll be floatin down Broadway like a Macy's Thanksgivin balloon!"

Blair turned to the chauffeur. "Thank you, James," she said politely. "That will be all for now."

"Very good, Miss Warner. Do you think you'll require the car tonight?"

"I don't believe so, James."

"Simply call if you do." He inclined his head, and then climbed into the Phantom.

The bell captain wheeled their luggage inside. The girls followed, Natalie animatedly describing the Plaza's Palm Court restaurant to Tootie, Blair and Jo escorting Mrs. Garrett.

"Miss Warner," said the braid-and-badge-encrusted doorman as he held the door open for the quintet. "Always a pleasure to see you at the Plaza."

"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," Blair said warmly. "Do you know, has my mother arrived yet?"

"Not since I've been on duty, Miss Warner."

Tootie, never shy, pantomimed a heart attack as she took in the marble, crystal and gold of the sumptuous main lobby. Gawking tourists and blasé socialites mixed and mingled in the vast space.

Natalie, although she'd dined at the Plaza before, was almost as swept off her feet as Tootie at the thought of staying there.

"Pinch me, Tootie!"

"Can't, Nat. I think I really am going to faint!"

"Will you two cool it?" hissed Jo. "Try to show a little class, for Pete's sake!"

"Oh, let them enjoy it," Blair said indulgently. "You only live once."

"That's true," Mrs. Garrett said with a strange, faraway look. "We only live once …"

"Yeah, but they're actin like they just fell off the tulip wagon. It's embarassin."

"I believe it's 'turnip truck'," said Blair. "And since when do you give a fuh-, a fig about what anyone thinks?"

"Language, Blair," Mrs. Garrett chastised. "Jo really is rubbing off on you."

"Hey, don't blame me," said Jo. "Princess is developin her own vocabulary lately, and it ain't cause of me. I think she's moonlightin as a Teamster."

"I said 'fig'," Blair said defensively.

"At the last minute," said Jo.

"Well, if you're going to be technical …"

"Miss Warner!" Behind the reception desk, the concierge beamed at Blair. "We were so pleased to learn that you and your party would be joining us!"

"I apologize for the last-minute changes," Blair said charmingly.

"Not at all! It's our pleasure to welcome you and your guests at any time, with or without advanced notice."

As Blair signed the hotel register, the concierge procured three sets of room keys.

"As requested," he said, handing the keys to Blair, "three adjacent, city-view suites with private terraces. They are on the 20th and 21st floors."

Tootie's face fell. "We won't be on the same floors?"

"Hey, don't look a gift horse in the mouth," said Jo.

"We're all on the same floors," Blair explained. "They're two-level suites."

"T-t-t-two-level suites?" stammered Natalie. Tootie put a hand under her elbow.

"Steady, there, Nat."

"Two-level suites," Natalie explained to her best friend, as if Tootie wasn't getting the picture. "Two-level suites. As in, two different levels. In one suite. At the Plaza."

"Wow, Jo's right," said Tootie. "You are embarrassing. Pull it together, Green."

"I'm trying, Tootie, I'm trying."

Blair handed a key to Mrs. Garrett. "I thought you'd appreciate your own suite, Mrs. Garrett. As hard as you work, you deserve a little pampering."

"Thank you, Blair. This is overwhelming." Mrs. Garrett kissed Blair's cheek.

Blair handed the second set of keys to Tootie and Natalie. "I figured you and Nat wouldn't mind sharing."

"I think we'll be able to rough it," laughed Tootie.

"Two levels," Natalie marveled under her breath. "Two. New York, we have arrived!"

"You might want to splash some cold water on her face when you get to the room," Blair suggested to Tootie.

"Splash some cold water? Ya should dunk her whole head in the sink," suggested Jo.

Natalie put a hand to her chest. "I'll be all right, guys. Really. The palpitations have almost stopped."

Blair handed one of the final keys to Jo. "We'll, ah, be sharing the third suite. I'll try not to get in your way."

Jo's fingers brushed Blair's as she took the key. They both felt an almost electric current tingle through their fingertips.

Our own little private penthouse in the sky, thought Jo. Damn! This weekend is lookin better and better by the second!

Their eyes met and locked for a split second, and for a split second all the fire that they felt inside, all the aching love and need, was naked in their eyes.

Tootie and Natalie were chattering away, completely distracted, but Mrs. Garrett caught the look that passed between Jo and Blair. It was so raw and tender that Mrs. Garrett looked away; it was a private, infinitely powerful look and she felt like a voyeur having caught it.

Poor things, poor things, thought Mrs. Garrett. I'm so caught up in my own life … They're going to need me. I have to be there for them.

"Uh, well," said Blair, shaking her head slightly to clear it, "let's go upstairs. We can meet for supper later, before the ball."

"Ball?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"Ball?" echoed Tootie and Natalie.

"Oh, didn't I mention?" Blair said casually. "You all have invitations to the Plaza Charity Ball."

"The Plaza Charity Ball?!" This was too much for Natalie. Tootie held one of her elbows and Mrs. Garrett took the other. "The Plaza Charity Ball? That's like, the most, the most, prestigious, the most …" She sputtered into stunned silence.

"So that's why you had us bring the gowns," Tootie said to Blair. "I figured you were bringing us to some shindig, but the Charity Ball? Nice, Blair."

"Miss Warner," called the concierge, "forgive me for interrupting, but you have several messages."

"Thank you." Blair took the folded papers absently. "From mother, probably," she told Jo. And, turning back to the concierge, "My mother is not on the 20th and 21st floors, I presume?"

"No, Miss Warner. She has her usual suite on the 11th floor."

"Wonderful!"

"Amen," Jo said under her breath. I want you to myself, babe. As much as possible, anyway.

"Pardon me," drawled an aristocratic male voice.

Alec, Lord Nethridge, leaned indolently against the reception counter. He addressed the concierge, but he was looking at Blair.

"What does a fellow need to do to get his key, I wonder?"

"Turn blue," Blair suggested sweetly.

"Greetings, Lord Nethridge," the concierge said with a bow. "Always a pleasure." He gave Alec a key. "Your usual suite, on the 11th floor."

"Thank you." Alec sauntered over to Blair. "Miss Warner. What a coincidence, meeting you here."

Blair raised her eyebrows. "Coincidence. Of course."

"Well, it is possible that I remembered that the Plaza Charity Ball is being held this evening. And that your family always attends."

He turned suddenly toward Jo. It was a quick movement that would've caught most people off-guard, but Jo had the steely reflexes of the Bronx. She regarded him coolly, unruffled. His sapphire-blue eyes regarded her intently.

That's it! thought Blair. Those eyes. Like Eddie's eyes. Jo's Eddie. The boy she almost eloped with three years ago

"Miss Polniaczek," said Alec, "Blair's very dearest old chum. It was a pleasure to see you trounce Dartmouth, and it's an even greater pleasure to meet you."

Natalie nudged Tootie. Tootie nudged Natalie.

"Since Blair seems to have temporarily forgotten her manners, allow me the impertinence of introducing myself. Alec Anviston." He extended one hand.

Blair held her breath. This was the part where Jo should say "Get lost, nerd," or "Take a hike, nerd," or "Get bent, Little Lord Dorkeroy," or, forgoing words altogether, simply deliver a patented Polniaczek death-glare.

Instead, Jo did exactly what she'd done on the field that afternoon when she first caught sight of Alec. She looked from Blair to Alec, and then back to Blair. Jo's steely cool evaporated. Her cheeks flushed a pretty pink, and she lowered her eyes. "Er, hello," she mumbled.

"Charming," smiled Alec. Since Jo didn't take his hand, he took one of hers.

OK, this is where Jo decks him, Blair thought.

Alec kissed the back of Jo's hand lightly, then gently released it.

Come on, Jo – Clock him!

But Jo remained curiously passive. Her blush deepened if possible, and she looked at the floor.

"Miss Ramsey. Miss Green," said Alec, bowing to the younger girls. "Lovely to see you again so soon. Miss Green, I trust you've forgiven my boorish remark?"

"To which of dozens of boorish remarks are you referring?" Blair asked coolly.

"Touché, Miss Warner – but it's Natalie's good opinion I seek."

"Keep seeking," Natalie said firmly.

"Pity," said Alec, amused rather than insulted. He tried to fix Jo with his almost-hypnotic blue eyes, but Jo gazed steadfastly at the floor.

It's not even that she looks shy, thought Blair. She looks … she looks guilty. Why? Because she's attracted to him?

"Hello," Mrs. Garrett said to Alec, intervening. "My name is Edna Garrett."

"Charmed, Mrs. Garrett. You are – the governess? The nanny? A family factotum?" It was said pleasantly enough, but it was a challenge and an insult, and Mrs. Garrett had spent enough time among the upper classes to understand the tone.

"I'm their friend," she said firmly. "And you seem to be making the girls uncomfortable. My girls. You need to leave now."

"Ladies," said Alec, bowing again. "Until tonight."

He sauntered toward the elevators, whistling an aria.

"Mrs. Garrett," said Blair, "I'm impressed."

"I know when someone's up to something," said Mrs. Garrett darkly. "And if that Alec isn't up to something, I'll eat my hat."

"He's rude, chauvinistic – a real royal pain," said Natalie. "Still ... Kind of a hunka-hunka – though I hate to admit it!"

"He certainly has eyes for Jo!" said Tootie.

Jo looked startled. "Whaddaya mean, he's got eyes for me?"

"Come on, Jo," said Natalie. "He did everything but sweep you up onto his white steed and carry you off into the sunset."

"Nah, he doesn't like me," said Jo, incredulous.

"Then why were you so bashful?" asked Tootie.

"Bashful? Who's bashful?" Jo flared.

"No one, no one," Natalie said quickly. "Right, Tootie?"

"What she said," Tootie agreed.

"It's Blair that's got all the admirers," said Jo. "Case in point." She nudged her chin toward a slender, supercilious young man at the other end of the lobby. He was talking to a pretty redhead, but every three seconds or so he glanced across the lobby toward Blair.

Blair groaned. "Devon Abercrombie."

"Nerd seems smitten," Jo observed.

"Hardly. The Abercrombies and Warners are mortal enemies. We're Warner Textiles. They're Abercrombie Fabrics. Our success eats into their share points, and vice versa."

"So if he ain't smitten, why does he keep starin at you?"

"Trying to figure out how to poison me," Blair said drily. "And he's talking to Mitzy Rutherford. Perfect! I'm in her bad graces since I missed the Sorority Row tea Wednesday."

"I wouldn't worry about it," said Jo. "They don't look like they have a single brain between 'em. What kinda plot could they hatch?"

"They might be dimwits," said Blair, "but they have a sort of stealthy cunning that makes me nervous."

"Eh, forget 'em. Forget all these society twits. We're here to have a good time, right? So, I say, let the good times roll!"

"Hear, hear!" agreed Natalie.

Mrs. Garrett put a hand to her forehead, wincing.

"You OK Mrs. G?" asked Jo.

"I'm fine, Jo. Just a little headache. I'll be better after I lie down for a few minutes. What do you say, girls? Shall we find our rooms?"

"Onward and upward!" Tootie said grandly.

"To our 'deluxe apartments in the sky'!" Nat added with a grin.


They rode one of the richly appointed elevators to the 20th floor.

"Jeez," said Jo, looking around the elevator, with its marble and crystal touches, "who needs a room? I'm gonna camp out here!"

Their suites were next door to each other, Mrs. Garrett's on the left, Tootie and Natalie's in the middle, Blair and Jo's on the right.

"Oh, I can't wait to get out of these shoes and lie down for awhile," trilled Mrs. Garrett.

"We're meeting for supper before the ball, right?" asked Tootie.

"Of course," said Blair. "We'll dine in the Palm Court. Let's meet there, say, sevenish?"

"Sevenish it is!" grinned Natalie.

"The five musketeers are going to the Palm Court!" said Tootie.

"Eh, Tootie, that's startin ta get old," said Jo.

"Not to me!"

Blair unlocked the door to their suite and pushed it open. She entered, Jo right on her heels.

"We'll have a view of 58th Street upstairs," said Blair, searching for a light switch. There was natural light pouring in through the tall windows, but it was still dim.

Jo closed the door behind her. She locked it, bolted it, fastened the security chain.

"There's a study down here," Blair continued, still not finding a light switch, "and a lounge, a mini-bar and a half-bath. Upstairs is the bedroom, the master bath, and the terrace. If we need anything we just ring for the butler. Do you like it, darling? Jo. Jo?"

Blair looked around the sumptuous living area, squinting in the shadowy, late afternoon light.

"Jo? Where did you go?"

"Up here, babe," Jo said softly.

Blair looked up.

Jo stood on the staircase, halfway up, already nude. Blair's breath caught in her throat.

"I don't need a tour, Blair," Jo said quietly. "I ain't lookin ta buy this place. I just want you. Right now."

Blair tossed the room keys onto an end table.

Unbuttoning her trench coat, she climbed the stairs. For each step Blair climbed, Jo retreated one step, tantalizingly just out of reach. Blair let her trench coat drop. She began unbuttoning her blouse. When she hit the top landing, she let her blouse fall to the floor.

Jo lay in the shadows on the enormous king-sized bed, her beautiful, lithe body relaxed against the pillows. Her eyes sparkled with desire.

"I have to paint you," Blair said huskily. "We have to make time for that."

"Yeah," said Jo, "but not now."

"No," said Blair, "not now." She stripped away her bra, kicked off her shoes, unfastened her slacks. She pulled her slacks and her panties down in one quick movement, stepped out of them.

God, she's perfect, thought Jo, head swimming. She held out her arms.

Blair slipped onto the bed, lying next to Jo, letting Jo's arms encircle her. They lay together, warm flesh pressed to warm flesh. Jo tangled her hands in Blair's hair. She tilted Blair's face up, kissing the blonde girl slowly, deeply.

Blair moaned. She trailed her hands up and down Jo's torso. She's so perfect, thought Blair. She's a goddess. How did I get so lucky?

How do I deserve her? wondered Jo, kissing her lover. What cosmic lottery did I win? How can this be real?

They made love, very slowly, taking their time, never saying a word.

This was different than their hectic lovemaking the first few weeks they were together. Their early lovemaking had a frenzied quality, as if they were making up for lost time, the years when they had been attracted to each other but didn't know what to do about it.

Now they were settling into a slower, more intense rhythm. They had learned a lot about each other's bodies, even in the few stolen hours they'd carved out of their crazy schedules.

They understood each other's sounds, now, could interpret the pace of their breathing, the tone of their moans. Jo knew exactly when Blair was on the edge of an orgasm. Blair knew when it was time to bring Jo to climax, or when she could draw it out to make it even sweeter when the brunette finally came.

Neither of them liked to talk when they made love, other than fragmented words or phrases, "Oh, God!" being the most popular exclamation, next to crying out each other's names.

After Blair had taken her post-coital nap, when they were tangled together in each other's arms, dreamy and sated, they always talked.

"Strange day today," murmured Blair, still buzzing from the afterglow.

"Mmm," said Jo, lazily nuzzling Blair's throat.

"I'm worried about Mrs. Garrett. We have to find out what's bothering her."

"Mmm-hmm," Jo agreed.

"It felt … off with Tootie and Natalie today. At the game, and in the car."

"They seem happy," mumbled Jo.

"Happy, yes, but … off."

Jo stroked Blair's taut stomach. Her fingers itched to move higher, but no … Blair wanted to talk, and if Jo's fingers moved higher, that would be the end of conversation for a while.

"It's not Tootie and Nat that are off," Jo said quietly. "It's us. We're keepin a secret. A pretty damn big secret. That's what happens when ya hide somethin. It puts everyone else at a distance."

"Jo," whispered Blair, shifting so that her head was pillowed against Jo's breasts, "I want to ask you something important."

"Shoot," Jo murmured amicably, eyes closed.

"You have to promise not to get mad."

"I promise."

"You have to really promise."

Jo pushed herself up onto one elbow. She smiled down at Blair, the crooked, shy little smile that made the blonde's heart skip a beat.

"Just how serious is this question?" teased Jo. "Do I gotta pinky-swear?"

"It's very serious," whispered Blair. "And I need you to be completely honest with me."

"Always am," Jo said simply. "Shoot."

"Do you ever … do you …"

"Do I ever what?" Jo asked gently. Blair looked so solemn, and a little embarrassed too. What's she tryin ta ask me?

"Jo, do you … Are you …"

Jo stroked her lover's face. "Blair, you know you can ask me anythin. I love you. There's nothing you can say or ask that's gonna be a problem."

Blair sighed.

It was so dim in the master bedroom, it was difficult to be sure, but Jo thought Blair was blushing.

What would embarrass the debutante? It had to be pretty personal. Jo blushed a little herself. She smiled shyly. "Is it about, is it somethin like, about touchin yourself or somethin? Cause that's normal. Didn't Mrs. G cover that in her sex-ed class?"

"It's not about that," said Blair. Although that's certainly an intriguing topic. Hmm. We'll have to talk about that another time!

"Then what is it, babe? Just say it."

Blair drew a deep breath. "Are you still attracted to men?" she blurted.

Jo's eyebrows lifted in surprise.

"Huhn. Am I still attracted to men? Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am." Jo pulled Blair closer, kissed her softly. "I always have been, and I probably always will be. But I love you, Blair."

Blair felt the tears start.

Dammit. I wasn't going to do this. She tried to turn away, but Jo had already seen the tears, felt them, tasted them as they rolled down Blair's face.

"Blair, it's OK," Jo said quietly. "There's nothin for you to worry about. I love you. It doesn't matter if I'm attracted to guys or girls or winged freakin monkeys. You're my soulmate. You got my heart, Blair. I don't understand how, or why, and I know there ain't a lot we can do about it, but as long as we can find a way to be together, that's all I wanna do."

"But it's not … it's not fair to you," Blair sobbed softly. "You could be dating, you could be out there with your pick of any guy. You're so smart and so beautiful and so, just, so Jo. Instead you're all alone, creeping around with me."

"Creepin around?" Jo chuckled. "Ya make it sound like we're pullin off heists or somethin. Look, Blair, it ain't like I'm makin some grand sacrifice. I love you. Every minute we're together, it's like, like magic. I mean, I ain't good at poetry and all that, I'm no Dickinson, but when we're with each other, it's kinda like we're in a poem. It's the most beautiful thing. I feel more safe but more alive than I ever did in my whole life. Does that make any sense?"

Blair nodded, dumbly, her throat too constricted to speak. Jo kissed her again.

"If anyone should feel guilty, it's me," Jo said, the shadow of a frown between her brows. "When I look at you next to a guy like that Alec, ya know? When I see how perfect you look with a guy like him … Not him, exactly, because he seems like a royal a-hole. But a guy like him. When I see you standin next to him, you look like a princess with a prince. And I think, if I had any brains, or guts, I'd call this off. Let you just be free to go with someone like him. I feel sometimes," she blushed, lowered her eyes guiltily, "like I'm bein so selfish, Blair."

My God! So that's what her expression meant! She's not attracted to Alec … She thinks I should be with someone like him …

Blair lunged at Jo, startling the hell out of her, peppering the brunette with passionate little kisses.

"Jeez, guess I said somethin right," laughed Jo.

"You did," said Blair. "I was sort of afraid … I was worried that …"

Light dawned in Jo's eyes. She laughed. "You thought I was attracted to Little Lord Fauntleroy? Christ! That'll be the day!"

"Thank God!"

"Why would ya even think that, Blair?"

"You were blushing. You were acting so strangely around him, and I didn't know why."

"I'd never be with a guy like that, Blair. You – I could see that. And maybe someday you'll find someone like him, but better. And, I just want you to know, it's, I would never stand in the way of your happiness or anythin. That's all that matters ta me."

Blair hugged Jo fiercely. "There's still so much we don't know about each other, Jo."

"Yeah, there sure is, if ya think I'd be interested in Prince Charmless!"

"Jo, there's something … I guess I haven't made myself clear. Not crystal clear anyway. You see, I'm not ever going to be attracted to Alec, or anyone like him. I'm not attracted to men. At all."

Jo tried to absorb that. "Not at all?"

"Not at all."

"Not even, like, a little bit?"

"Not one iota. So you don't have to feel guilty about me not dating Alec. It's not your fault."

"So … all those dates, when you were at Eastland …"

"I enjoy the company of men," explained Blair. "In a friendly way. And, to be honest, in a shallow way, just looking good on each other's arms. And my whole life, I've understood that I'm expected to marry – to marry a man, of course – someone suitable."

"But … if you don't like men at all … how are you supposed to do that?"

"You know how they arranged marriages in the middle ages? They still do that, in my world. I mean, it's all right if love happens to enter into it, but eligible young women have to marry, and they have to marry someone with the right pedigree. Business empires rise and fall on a good or bad marriage."

"That's inhuman!"

Blair smiled wistfully. She traced Jo's mouth with a well-manicured finger. "You remember one time you said I wasn't born – you said I was 'withdrawn from a Swiss bank account'?"

"Sure I remember. That was one of my best slams ever."

"Agreed. And, well, it's kind of true. My parents will always love me, and I'll always be their daughter, but I'm also part of their empire. I'm … a card to be played at the right time."

Jo shivered. She pulled Blair tight against her. "Christ, give me a cold water flat in the Bronx any day! Blair … I don't even know what ta say ta ya. How could you bear it, knowin you have to live a lie someday?"

Blair shrugged. "When I was little I didn't really understand. I always felt differently toward girls – warmer, more connected – but I didn't mind the thought of marrying a nice, pretty, rich boy some day. It was when I became a teenager that it finally hit me: what my friends were feeling for boys, I was feeling for girls. That was the wakeup call. But I still kept hoping there was, I don't know, some switch in me that hadn't been flipped yet. If I kept dating boys and making out with them and trying to make it click … And that's where Steve came in. I told you about Steve."

"The delivery boy ya wanted to deflower you."

"Only when it came down to it, I didn't."

"So it wasn't just that he was the wrong guy – any guy would be the wrong guy."

"Yes."

"So … so …" Jo was still trying to wrap her mind around it. "You plan to get married someday, some guy you won't love, or be attracted to, and you'll have kids with him, and live your life with him."

Blair shrugged. She felt tears pricking behind her eyes. "It's just what I have to do. I've been resigned to it for awhile."

"But why? I mean, can't ya just stay single?"

"Be a spinster?" Blair looked scandalized. "I could never do that. Everyone in society would wonder why. I'm beautiful, I'm charming, I'm brilliant, I'm inconceivably rich, I'm a delight to be with –"

"Don't forget how modest you are," Jo teased, stroking Blair's hair.

"Put it this way: I'm a catch, Jo. If I didn't marry, speculation would run rampant. There would be rumors, ugly rumors, started by the petty, the jealous, my father's business rivals –"

"Eh, you could tell 'em all to go jump in the lake."

"That's not how it works. Whether I go into business or law or politics, even if I pursue the art world, any kind of notoriety will undermine my credibility. I have to play by the rules – at least in public."

Jo felt a stirring of unease deep in her gut. "So, that means, what? Ten years from now, we're sneakin around in hotel rooms while your husband brings the kids to the zoo?"

"I don't know what it means," Blair said helplessly. She wiped her damp eyes. "I don't want to marry a man. I want … it doesn't matter what I want. It's not possible and not worth thinking about. But I always want you in my life somehow."

"Sure," Jo said hollowly. "We'll meet at Langley reunions every ten years. We'll talk about what great chums we were."

"We are great chums, Jo."

"Let me give ya a newsflash, Blondie, I ain't sneakin around any hotel rooms with a married woman. There's got to be some other way we can, we could … dammit!"

"It's a dilemma," Blair said sadly. "That's why I'm trying to just enjoy this, us, and not look too far ahead. But if you ever do meet a man that you, that you like as much as you like me, I want you to be with him. I'm not saying it won't hurt, but I want you to be happy."

"I don't like ya, Blair, I love ya." Jo kissed her fiercely. Jo's slender fingers clutched Blair's shoulders with a bruising strength. "I love you, Blair Warner. No guy is ever gonna change that. No person is ever gonna mean to me what you mean."

"You say that now, but –"

"I say that forever, Blair. Look, I ain't buyin inta all this gloom-and-doom. There's gotta be a way to figure this out, and we will. I got a lot of faith in our combined brain power."

"My Jo," Blair said wistfully. "Always trying to slay the dragon."

"Well why can't we? Your problem, babe, is you don't come from the Bronx."

"That's my problem, is it?"

"Yeah. One of 'em, anyway. See, where I grew up, ya got a problem, ya gotta be resourceful, ya gotta find a way to fix it. It's dog-eat-dog, babe. Kill or be killed."

"Be the shover, not the shovee," said Blair, paraphrasing a philosophical gem Jo had shared once at Eastland.

"Exactly! You're always such a optimist, Blair. I want ya ta be optimistic about us."

Blair covered her face with her hands. "I'm scared to," she admitted.

Jo scoffed. "Blair Warner? Scared? Never gonna happen."

"I am. I am so damn scared, Jo. It's easier to just assume, to just plan for, for –"

"For us ta have ta split up?"

"Yes. Because if I convince myself we can be together somehow, and then we can't, I don't know if I'll survive that."

"Listen to me." Jo put her hands on either side of Blair's face, gazed intently into Blair's warm milk-chocolate eyes. "Blair Warner, we will find some way to be together. Some way that won't screw up your plans. Or mine. You have my promise."

"God, if we could, somehow."

"We can, and we will." She kissed Blair with great tenderness. "Now, I think one of us needs ta start singin that song, you know, from 'West Side Story'. The one at the end about how 'somewhere there's a place for us'."

"'Somewhere'?"

"That's the one."

"Jo, Tony died at the end. He had to die for everyone to accept each other."

"Oh. Yeah. Scratch the song, then."

Blair slid her hands along Jo's narrow hips. She feels so good. Always. This feels so right and so good – why does it have to be so complicated?

"Let me ask you a question, Jo. Hypothetically, of course."

"I'd rather ya let me take you like you've never been taken before."

"You can do that in a minute."

"OK. Shoot."

"Suppose you never got married, Jo. What would they think of you in your neighborhood?"

Jo shrugged. "I mean, whatever. Some girls get married, some don't. I'm already kind of weird as it is, going to Eastland and now Langley. Weird-good, but weird. Nothing I do is too surprising."

"But what if you lived with a girl? Like, an actual girlfriend?"

Jo shook her head decisively. "Couldn't do that. Not in the neighborhood. We'd get jumped every other day and twice on Sundays. They'd spraypaint our door, they'd leave burning bags of dog crap on our welcome mat."

"Burning bags of what?"

"We'd have ta act like we were just roommates, ya know, and we'd have to be sure we went out with guys from time to time. The more often, the better."

"So in my world, or your world, we'd be living a lie."

"Blair. We will figure this out. We really will. But not today. Look, this is supposed to be our big New York weekend. You're supposed ta be findin me new threads and gussyin me up like flippin Cinderella. That was the sales pitch. But look at me, lyin here naked as a jaybird."

"Oh, my gosh," Blair said, sitting up, "we have to find you a gown. And jewelry. Thank God Bergdorf's is just across the street!"

"So we have a little time, then," said Jo, pulling Blair down, kissing her hair, her face, her throat. "That's good. Cause ya did just promise I could take ya like you've never been taken before."

"That's quite a boast," murmured Blair.

"Don't worry." Jo twined her legs around Blair's hips. "I'm up to the challenge, Princess."


Even years later, many years later, Blair always describe it as the greatest shopping triumph of her life: finding an elegant, sapphire-blue Chanel ball gown that fitted Jo to a nicety, as well as white gloves, appropriate undergarments, and jewelry, in less than an hour.

"It was a feat," Blair boasted, "that even I have never matched."

Jo always rolled her eyes good-naturedly at that point in the story. "Anything is possible, Princess, when you're waving around a no-limit American Express card and threatening that 'heads will roll' if the great Blair Warner isn't satisfied."

"I made no such threats!" Blair objected.

"Hmm … I seem to remember you tossing around phrases like 'No Warner will ever shop at Bergdorf's again if you can't accommodate us!'"

"Perhaps I was a little bit pushy," Blair conceded. "But we were under a deadline. An insane deadline, thanks to you making us late. And you have to admit, I put together a beautiful ensemble."

"I admit it. You did. I don't think I ever looked better than I did that night."

"Except –"

"Of course. Except."

"Every head turned when you walked into the Palm Court," Tootie remembered. "It was like Cinderella arriving at the ball."

"Such a great start to the evening," said Natalie. "Who could've predicted the whole night would go to hell in a handbasket? And so quickly?"

"I could've," Blair said. "I'd had a bad feeling all day. And dressing Jo up like a princess? Just asking for trouble."

"It was like tempting the fates," said Natalie.

"It was like throwing chum into a shark tank," said Blair.

"Pardon?" Jo asked coolly.

"You know what I mean, Jo. I had a feeling something was going to go wrong. I was so proud of you, but the moment we entered the Palm Court I knew it could only end badly. Someone was going to throw a punch."

"Sure," Jo laughed. "But who knew it'd be you?"


New York City. Saturday night in late September 1983. The Plaza Hotel's famous Palm Court restaurant.

Fine linen, fine china, glittering chandeliers, potted palms, ethereal harp music. Most of high society dining, fortifying themselves before the annual Plaza Charity Ball.

Tootie, Natalie and Mrs. Garrett were growing restless at their table.

Because Miss Blair Warner had reserved the table, it was one of the best, occupying prime real estate at the very heart of the Palm Court. It was the perfect vantage point if you wanted to see (and be seen by) the other diners.

Natalie looked pointedly at the table's empty seats.

"If Blair and Jo aren't here in two minutes, I'm ordering."

"Natalie, that would be rude," objected Mrs. Garrett.

"Not as rude as being half an hour late for dinner!"

"Nat, we're not back at the dining hall," said Tootie. "We're in high society now." She mock-flipped her hair in a pretty good imitation of Blair. "We can't order before Blair and Jo arrive. It just isn't done."

"You know, Tootie, just 'cause you're playing Mary in 'The Women' doesn't suddenly make you an expert on New York society."

"What a crab! Here – have another breadstick."

Natalie accepted the breadstick, but snapped it in half, rather violently, and dropped the pieces on her bread plate.

"I repeat," said Tootie, "what a crab!"

"You know starvation makes me crazy. What I wouldn't give for a nice deep dish pizza right now!"

"Girls – behave," said Mrs. Garrett. She winced, put a hand to her forehead.

"Are you all right, Mrs. Garrett?" Tootie asked.

"I'm fine, Tootie. I just have a bit of a headache today."

"See what you did?" Tootie said accusingly to Natalie. "You gave Mrs. Garrett a tension headache!"

"It's not a tension headache, it's a hunger headache. We need to order before we all waste away!" Natalie snatched up a breadstick fragment, gnawed at it. "Where are they, anyway?"

"I think they were going shopping," said Tootie.

"Shopping! Terrific! When Blair goes shopping, time loses all meaning for her. They probably won't be here 'till midnight!"

"Jo won't let her shop forever. She'll put Blair in a headlock or something."

"That won't do any good. When Blair's shopping, she's deadlier than a ninja. Remember that Bloomie's sale last year? I thought Blair was gonna karate chop that old lady!"

"I'm telling you, Nat, they'll be here any minute."

As if on cue, two things happened at once: the harp player started a new piece, the waltz from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" … and the Palm Court doors swung open.

The diners glanced up, idly, out of habit, to see who would enter the restaurant.

If it was someone notable, Society would try to catch their eye. If it was someone under a cloud, Society would gossip with genteel viciousness among themselves …

In this instance, the young woman who entered the Palm Court was neither prominent nor scandalous. She was, to Society, a complete unknown.

There were several audible gasps. A low murmur of excitement swept through the dining room.

"My dear, who is she?"

"What an exquisite ensemble."

"She's perfection!"

"My Edelbert must meet her …"

Tootie, Natalie and Mrs. Garrett gaped at the new arrival.

"Is that, is that …" Tootie couldn't complete the question. For once in her life she was at a loss for words.

"It is. It is!" said a dazed Natalie.

Mrs. Garrett smiled softly, her headache forgotten. Her eyes shone with pride as she watched Jo hesitate on the threshold.

Jo looked shy – Mrs. Garrett knew the young woman well enough to recognize the slight ducking of her chin, the slight lowering of her green-blue eyes – but Jo kept her shoulders straight with the natural carriage of a royal. Her touch of bashfulness was an endearing counterpoint to her confident beauty.

The sapphire-blue Chanel gown flowed from Jo's shoulders and bosom down to the floor in sleek, glittering folds. The long white gloves complemented Jo's slender hands and arms. Sapphires and white-gold glimmered at her ears, at her throat.

Someone had piled Jo's long dark hair in soft coils atop her head. A few tendrils had escaped, curling charmingly near her perfect, shell-like ears.

"She's beautiful," said Mrs. Garrett, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.

Jo flushed as she noticed that all eyes were upon her. She took a step back. She looked for a fleeting moment like a spooked colt that was considering turning around and galloping the hell out of there. But then she felt the pressure of a reassuring hand on her arm.

After giving Jo her moment, Blair had quietly entered the Palm Court. Blair was a vision in a gleaming mauve Dior gown, flared and flowing in all the right places, emphasizing – in an elegant manner, of course – the voluptuousness of Blair's bosom and derriere, her trim waist.

Diamonds sparkled at Blair's ears, throat and wrist. Her golden-brown hair spilled in soft waves over her shoulders. Her hair wasn't outrageously puffed and teased tonight; it was elegant, sleek, minimalist.

Blair's hand lingered on Jo's gloved arm just long enough to quell the brunette's nerves. Jo's so gorgeous. No one can touch her. And yet …

Blair's eyes skimmed the room. So many friends here, acquaintances, business partners … but so many rivals, so many enemies, too. Blair felt an icy finger of fear along her spine. She had a bad feeling about this. But there's no reason to worry Jo.

"You are a goddess," Blair breathed sotto voce. "No one in this room compares."

"Love you, Blair."

"Love you too."

"But you're wrong. You're the most beautiful girl in the room, babe." Jo's voice broke a little. "Ya always are."

Blair's heart skipped a beat. For a second she couldn't breathe.

"Come on," she said huskily. "We've made our entrance. Any longer and we're milking it."

They ran the gauntlet of Society as they made their way to their table.

Everyone knew Blair, and she knew them, by reputation if not personally. Blair never stopped, or even slowed, but she greeted people charmingly as she passed, making each feel, for an instant, as if they were special, as if they were the only one in the room who mattered.

"Mrs. Becker, so lovely to see you. Dina couldn't make it? Such a pity … Mr. Hall, what a delight! Is Kiki going to Eastland next year? Yes? She'll love it … Mrs. Templeton! Always a pleasure …"

When they arrived at their table, the Palm Court's maître d' intercepted them as neatly (as Jo would later say) as a defensive tackle. "Miss Warner," he beamed, pulling out her chair.

Blair had had the foresight to brief Jo about the basics of fancy dining.

"It ain't like I never ate somewhere nice before," Jo had grumbled. "Memba Pagliacci's?"

"You've never eaten anywhere like the Palm Court, darling. Remember, don't pull out your own chair. Someone will pull it out for you – the maître d' himself, if he's available."

"But what if no one pulls out the chair? Then I'm standin there like a nerd."

"Trust me, someone will pull out the chair."

"But –"

"Jo, if no one pulls out your chair, I'll do it myself."

So now, Jo waited patiently next to her chair while Blair was being seated. Once Blair was settled, the maître d' moved to Jo, pulled out her chair with a flourish, and as soon as she was seated, dropped a linen napkin on her lap.

"Mademoiselle, it's a pleasure. Welcome to the Palm Court. All of you." He spread his hands in an inclusive gesture. "If you require anything at all, any little thing, simply ask." With a bow, he retreated to his post.

Waiters materialized with icy glasses of water, more baskets of breadsticks and rolls and mounds of fresh butter. When they retreated, Tootie gave Jo a hug.

"Jo, you really do look like a princess! If your teammates could see you now!"

"Oh, they can," Blair said matter-of-factly. "There's Lurch – otherwise known as Anastasia Hargrove – and Moose – actually Petal Von Schuylkill –"

"Petal?" asked Nat. "Far be it from me to be sizeist, but Petal?"

"Don't crack wise about Moose," Jo said, with a hard look at Natalie. "She's a sweetheart."

"I withdraw the question," Natalie said hastily. "'Petal' suits her perfectly."

"And there's – what's her nickname?" Blair asked Jo.

"Jackrabbit."

"Right. Also known as Jacqueline Messerschmitt. And there's, what's her nickname?"

"Lefty?"

"Right. Portia Barclay."

"The 'Bad News Bears' clean up pretty good," said Tootie. "But none of them can hold a candle to our Jo!" Tootie hugged Jo again.

"Hey, you're gonna mess up my face goop," Jo complained, clearly pleased but uncomfortable with the attention. "Anyhow, they're great. Who knew a bunch of rich girls could play such a mean game of hockey, right? These girls, you could parachute 'em into the South Bronx to play street ball and they'd kick some serious ass!"

"Language, Jo," Mrs. Garrett and Blair said at the same time.

"So how come your nickname is Princess?" Natalie asked Jo. "Have to say – never would've seen that coming!"

"Eh, it's stupid." Jo's cheeks flushed. "Just, I guess 'cause I'm kinda, kinda …"

"Because you're beautiful," Blair said matter-of-factly.

Jo shot her a look – half-annoyed, half-flattered. "I think it's more ironic than anythin," Jo said. "Ya know, like if someone's always clumsy and ya call 'em 'Slick'. Or if they're really big, so ya call 'em 'Tiny'. Like that."

"Not on your team," Natalie disagreed. "All the nicknames are literal. Portia's left-handed, and Jacqueline's really fast, and Moose, well –"

"I told ya, Nat, lay off of Moose."

"I'm not trying to insult anyone; I'm just making a point. If they're calling you Princess, I think you should take it as a compliment."

"Hear, hear," said Tootie.

"Double 'hear, hear'," said Mrs. Garrett. She pinched Jo's cheeks. "Jo, you look lovely."

Jo ducked her head, a little overcome. "Aw … jeez …"

She wanted to turn the subject. Yes, she felt like a princess, and yes, it felt damn good … especially remembering those hurried, intimate moments when Blair had dressed her, from the skin up, even combing out her hair, and carefully arranging it, and touching her lips with the faintest trace of gloss, her eyes with mascara, her cheeks with rouge …

"Hey," said Jo, to change the subject, "there's the brain trust." She nudged her chin toward a nearby table, where wan Devon Abercrombie and vapid Mitzy Rutherford sat. Devon and Mitzy leaned their heads together, chatting in a conspiratorial fashion.

Blair felt that icy finger along her spine again …

As usual when they were somewhere swanky, Blair ordered for the table.

Mrs. Garrett ordered a glass of red wine – "for my headache," she told the girls.

They were chatting animatedly, still waiting for the soup course, when Jo gently elbowed Blair.

"Monica alert," she said quietly.

"My mother?"

"Blair!" Monica Warner called gaily as she approached the table. She wore a contour-hugging, gunmetal-grey ball gown that was glamorous, but just marginally too young for her. "Darling!"

"Lord, save me from matricide," Blair murmured.

"Everything OK between you two?" Jo whispered.

"Yes. Kind of. She's very … smothering this year."

"Blair, you look divine!" crowed Monica when she reached the table.

Society's heads swiveled to watch the Monica Warner greet her daughter, the Blair Warner. Devon and Mitzy scowled.

Blair stood. "Mother!" she cried through a glued-on smile, in a fair imitation of enthusiasm. She and her mother embraced at a safe distance that mussed neither their hair nor their makeup. They air-kissed twice.

"My beautiful baby," said Monica, squeezing Blair's hands. She smiled at the rest of the table. "Mrs. Garrett, Tootie, Natalie – and, is that Jo? My! Aren't you a revelation. Lovely to see all of you again."

Pleasantries were exchanged. Blair remained standing.

"Aren't you going to invite me to sit down?" Monica asked finally, pouting.

"Oh, I don't want to monopolize you," Blair said with a toothy grin. "I know how you love to work the room."

"Work the room? Goodness, Blair – you make me sound like a nightclub chanteuse!" Monica chuckled.

"I simply mean that you have a lot of acquaintances to greet. We don't want to detain you."

"Nonsense. Well, if you are going to be rude and not invite me to sit down, I shall be rude and simply sit." Monica suited her actions to her words, dropping gracefully into a chair between Mrs. Garrett and Blair.

"You're very welcome, of course," Mrs. Garrett said warmly. She telegraphed a look to Blair, over Monica's head: What's wrong?

Blair shrugged philosophically. Never mind.

"It's unfortunate that I have to resort to such gaucheness," Monica said to the table at large, "but it is simply impossible to pin Blair down this semester. Darling, I hardly see you at all."

"You see me now more than ever," Blair countered. "I'm in New York every weekend."

"Certainly you're in New York every weekend, but not with me. I see you for, what? An hour here, five minutes there. You're always on the go – and so mysterious." Monica raked the table with her most charming smile, dropping a wink. "Blair has a secret beau in the city!"

Part 2

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