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 2

Monica's dramatic statement hit the table like a bombshell, inspiring wildly different reactions.

Tootie and Natalie gasped.

Mrs. Garrett bit her lip, looking worried.

Jo looked like she was suppressing a massive belly-laugh, her eyes dancing with amusement. Secret beau in the city! Yeah, right!

Blair's mouth tightened into an angry line. Her eyes were flinty. What is mother up to? And how much has she had to drink tonight? Do not mess this up, mother. Do not mess this up!

"Mother – that's not true. I do not have a secret beau in the city."

"Oh, don't be shy about it dear. Or, wait. Don't tell me you haven't told your friends yet?"

"There's nothing to tell."

"Fiddlesticks!"

"I thought you broke up with the garbage man," said Tootie.

"Sanitation worker," Natalie corrected her. "You have to get the details right on these scoops. And this is a scoop!" She held an imaginary microphone under Blair's chin. "When did you and your summer beau reconcile? Why did you reconcile? And when do we get to meet him?"

"I'm not seeing a garbage man," said Blair, "or a sanitation worker, or anyone in the city."

"I thought he was a mechanic?" said Monica, confused. "And, come to think of it, wasn't he in Peekskill?"

"The garbage guy was in the city," Tootie said helpfully.

"He was, but he's, that's yesterday's news," said Blair. "And he was a race car driver, not a garbage man. That was Jo's joke. And the mechanic is yesterday's news too."

It's so hard, keeping it straight, what Jo and I told Nat and Tootie, what I told my mom. I hate lying. And now this new lie … but it's in a good cause.

"Well the driver and the mechanic might be yesterday's news," said Monica, "but you're seeing someone in the city. Don't tell me. I know the signs." She winked. "You're glowing, you're gleaming, and you're defensive as hell. You've got it bad, darling."

"For the last time," Blair said through gritted teeth, "I am not seeing anyone in the city."

"Then who's been calling me all day? Didn't you get my messages, darling?"

Jo's amused smile froze on her face.

Her blood tingled, like frost in her veins.

Messages … thought Jo. Those notes – all those notes they gave Blair at the front desk when we checked in …

"Yes," Blair said tightly, "I received the messages."

"Well, I ask you, Blair – the messages he left, most provocative. Why can't you simply admit you have a new beau?"

"Because, mother, I don't," Blair grated.

When did Blair read the notes? wondered Jo. I never saw her read them … musta done it when I was takin my shower, when she said she was gonna go draw the curtains downstairs ...

"He sounds wonderfully rough-edged," Monica gushed. "Very masculine."

"He's not a beau," Blair said. If Blair's looks could've killed, Monica would've keeled over in her chair. But that was where Monica was emotionally deaf, dumb and blind.

"Sounds like he has a bit of a dark side," Monica swept on. "Like he could be a little dangerous."

"I wouldn't know. He's simply an, an acquaintance. He's helping me with a project."

Monica lifted her eyebrows to express incredulity – as high as she could lift them, anyway, since her most recent plastic surgery.

"'Tell Blair I'm sorry,'" Monica quoted. "'I made a mistake. I have to see her tonight or it's all going to', excuse me 'it's all gonna fall apart. Tell her she has to meet me at the Fever tonight.'"

"For Christ's sake, I read the notes, mother!" Blair hissed. "There was no need for you to memorize them!"

"Blair!" said Mrs. Garrett, startled. Nat and Tootie exchanged stunned looks.

"The Fever?" Jo said. "You ain't goin ta the Fever, Blair. That's South Bronx."

"I know where it is!"

Jo took a deep breath. "Do ya?" she asked with a dangerous quiet.

That streak of grease on Blair's cheek, Jo thought. All those trips to New York. Her mother practically told me when she called Monday, how Blair kept disappearin, being mysterious. Shit, what a chump I am! It was all right in fronta my face!

"Look," Blair said, lowering her voice and getting a tenuous grip on her temper, "I am not dating the boy that called. He's helping me with a project –"

"At the Fever," Jo laughed bitterly. "Sure!"

"Yes, at the Fever." Blair glared at her mother. "It's my business," she told Monica, with a Jo-like dangerous quiet, "and I'm asking you for the last time to back up out of it. No, I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. I don't know why you suddenly give such a damn about me, after practically ignoring me for nineteen years –"

"That's not fair!" said Monica, stung.

What the hell is happening? Monica wondered. The conversation was spinning away from her, taking an ugly turn.

Monica always teased Blair about her beaux, and Blair always told her friends about her conquests. Who was this mystery man? Why didn't anyone know about him, and why was Blair visiting him in the South Bronx, of all horrible places?

"What is this Fever place?" Monica demanded. "If it's unsafe, you're not going."

"Unsafe?" Jo said. "It's about ten miles past 'unsafe'. And she's not goin."

"Do you hear that, Blair?" Monica asked. "Your best friend and I are both putting our feet down."

Blair laughed, a little hysterically.

This is so ridiculous – it's all spinning out of control. Once again mother wins the clueless fruitcake-of-the-year award. But how can Jo actually think, how can she think I would ever … after what we just discussed, after how I bared my soul to her …

"We all need to calm down," Mrs. Garrett said sensibly. Especially Jo, she thought, seeing the bitter expression on the brunette's beautifully made-up face. If Blair and Jo have grown as close as I think they have … this is going to be a rough patch, to put it mildly!

"I'm calm. I'm dead calm," said Jo, glaring at Blair. Fool me once, shame on you, her look said. Fool me twice – well, you ain't never gonna get that chance!

Jo's glare bore into Blair. The blonde blinked back tears.

Jo kept glaring. Nah, tears ain't gonna do it, Blondie. You're just sorry ya got caught.

"Blair," said Natalie, trying to help Mrs. Garrett inject some sanity into the conversation, "all kidding aside, whoever you're seeing, that's your business. But please don't go visiting some dangerous neighborhood to meet him."

"Nat's right," Tootie agreed. "Blair, you should listen to what Jo's saying. Jo knows the neighborhood better than you do."

Blair turned on her friends. "None of this is any of your business," she seethed. "It's between me and Jo. So step off!"

"Now, wait just a minute," Mrs. Garrett said, feeling her own ire rising. She wagged a finger at Blair. "The girls are concerned about you. There's no need to be rude and you will not speak to them that way."

"With all due respect, Mrs. Garrett, you can step off too!"

"Don't you talk to Mrs. G that way," Jo said angrily.

Blair turned to her lover. Blair's eyes were hurt and angry at the same time. The tears that had been gathering fell. "Jo, you have to listen to me," she pleaded softly.

"I don't gotta do any such thing," Jo growled.

"If you knew what this was all about, if you just –"

"Why didn't ya just tell me, Blair?" Jo lowered her voice. "Why the big song-and-dance about not bein, about, ya know? Were ya tryin ta throw me off the scent?"

"I can't believe you actually think I would do this."

"What the hell am I supposed ta think?"

"You're supposed to trust me, Jo."

Monica was frowning. What did this have to do with the scholarship girl? Why was she being so intense? Suddenly, a ray of light pierced her confusion.

"Blair! You didn't!" she said disapprovingly. "Is he – you stole your best friend's fellow?"

Tootie gasped. "Jo's sandwich-shop guy?" she asked.

"Mister Ham-and-Cheese-on-Rye?" asked Natalie. "Blair … that's really low."

Blair closed her eyes. It was just getting worse and worse, more and more muddled.

"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" she said. She felt like she was six years old, perilously close to a tantrum. "This is my business, mine and Jo's."

"Don't worry about me," Jo said. "I wash my hands o' this whole thing."

Blair felt like Jo had stabbed her in the heart, a warm, aching pain that radiated through her chest. She tried to take Jo's hands but Jo pushed her away. Blair blushed, rejected, humiliated.

"Don't touch me," Jo whispered with deadly intensity.

"Or what?" Blair whispered.

"Or you'll see what. And, trust me: you don't wanna see."

"Well, well," said Alec cheerfully.

With the worst possible timing, he dropped into a chair between Blair and Jo. "You have by far the most entertaining table this evening. You've done an astonishing job, Professor Higgins," he told Blair.

"Piss off, Alec," said Blair. He laughed.

"And aren't you beautiful, Miss Doolittle!" he said to Jo. "Behold, the inner goddess revealed! You are the belle of the ball, and whatnot – and the ball hasn't even begun yet. Who can resist Galatea's charms, which far surpass those of her Pygmalion?" He shot a mischievous look at Blair. "But such drama! Such strife! What can we expect for the finale? A cat fight in the Pulitzer Fountain?"

"That'd suit me OK," growled Jo. She turned to Alec with startling speed, put her face close to his. He flinched. "Only, see, it'll be me kickin your ass in the fountain, Lord Blitheridge."

"Nethridge," he corrected her.

"Who effin cares? Get lost, nerd."

Alec blushed beet red, from his chin to his mane of crisply curling dark hair.

"I'm sorry – are you speaking to me?" he demanded incredulously.

"Yeah, I am – and I ain't sorry. Take a hike, milord. This ain't dinner and a show."

"How dare you speak to me that way, you little mud lark? If I –"

SLAP!!

Alec reeled back in his chair. Only by grabbing the edge of the table did he stop himself from toppling backward.

There was an angry handprint on his face, scarlet against the perfectly chiseled, porcelain flesh.

Monica, Mrs. Garrett, Tootie and Natalie simply stared, their mouths open.

Jo grabbed Blair's arm before she could hit Alec again.

"Let's just all cool it," Jo said quietly. "Let it go, babe," she whispered in Blair's ear.

The ethereal harp music continued, but diners at other tables had witnessed the slap; they gazed slack-jawed at the Warner table, whispering among themselves. Devon Abercrombie and Mitzy Rutherford were frankly sniggering.

Alec rubbed his face, staring at Blair.

"How … surprisingly violent of you, Blair," he said.

Blair glared steadily at him. Her eyes were so icy, so angry.

"Well," Alec said, attempting nonchalance, "a gentleman never outstays his welcome." He stood up, warily keeping his eyes on Blair. "À bientôt."

"Adieu," Blair corrected. "I don't ever want to see you again. Not near me, not near my friends."

"As you like." Alec turned to Monica. "My apologies," he said. "I don't think I can help you with your little problem after all."

The maître d' materialized next to Alec, accompanied by two strapping men with closely shaved heads. The men wore the Plaza's elegant uniforms, but there was something in their eyes and their stance that told Jo these weren't regular waiters.

Funny to think of the Plaza needin muscle, she thought.

Without making it too obvious, the two beefy men bookended Alec, standing intimidatingly close to him.

"Everything, is, ah, all right," Alec told the maître d'. "I don't intend to make a complaint."

The maître d' ignored him. The two muscular "waiters" effectively blocked Alec from going anywhere.

"Miss Warner," the maître d' said solicitously to Blair, "do you want to file a complaint?"

"Does she want to file a complaint?" Alec asked incredulously. One of the "waiters" grunted at him. Alec started to say something, but decided to keep his mouth shut. The "waiter" was more mountain than man.

"There's no need for a complaint," Blair said. "Lord Nethridge won't trouble us again."

"Shall we eject him from the hotel?"

"No. I shouldn't think that would be necessary."

"Very well, Miss Warner. Mrs. Warner." The maître d' bowed to the Warner women. He spoke quietly to the "waiters". "Please see that Lord Nethridge returns to his room immediately." The men nodded.

"What … the hell … just happened?" Natalie asked when she could speak.

"What she said," Tootie chimed in.

"I mean, that's Lord Nethridge," Natalie continued. "Chauvinist jerk? Yes. But Lord Nethridge. Since when does a blonde debutante outrank a duke's son?"

"He's a duke's son," Blair said, "but he's stony broke. It's uncertain when he'll inherit, and until then his bills are unpaid and mounting by the minute. I, on the other hand, will own twenty-percent of this place in a couple of years."

"Twenty-percent? Of the Palm Court?" Natalie and Tootie goggled.

"The Plaza," said Blair. "Thanks to my grandparents."

"The whole Plaza? The Plaza Hotel?"

"Jeez, newsflash: she's rich!" Jo said to Tootie and Natalie. "Get over it!"

"Blair, I'm very disappointed in you," said Monica. "I've never been so embarrassed."

Blair turned to her. "Really, mother? You can thank yourself for that whole scene. What did Alec mean? How was he 'helping' you?"

"Who knows what he was rambling about?"

Blair's eyes narrowed. "You put him up to it … Acting all gaga over Jo."

"I don't know what you mean." Monica's fingers twisted nervously in her pearls, always, Blair knew, a sure sign that her mother was prevaricating.

"Why did you do that, mother? Why did you create this whole mess?"

"Now, Blair, you know I never do anything that isn't in your best interest."

"Is that right?"

"And, with all of your disappearances, it seemed like you were getting, well, a tad bit too serious about your mechanic. Which is all very well for a fling, but, you know, you shouldn't grow too attached to someone like that."

Jo felt the blood pounding in her ears. She'd never wanted to shake anyone so much as she wanted to shake Blair's mother. Shake Monica until the pearls around her neck and the rocks in her head rattled.

"I happened to hear from Nell Anviston that Alec has been short of funds, and I had one of my brilliant ideas. I gave him a financial shot in the arm, and he, he wooed you. To take your mind off the mechanic, dear, and remind you of all the wonderful, eligible young men of your own background."

"But he didn't woo me," Blair objected. "He was salivating over Jo."

Monica waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, that. A mere ruse."

"Explain."

"You and Jo are always so competitive with each other. The idea was that if Alec seemed bedazzled by Jo, you would, well –"

"I would fall all over myself trying to win him? Mother – the entire thing is repellent!"

"All in your best interest," Monica insisted. "Especially now that I've spoken with your, your mechanic fellow. He sounds very common."

"And sharing my private messages, stirring up all this drama tonight – that was meant to push me into Alec's arms?"

"A mother has to do what a mother has to do."

"This was all for me?"

"Of course!"

"Nothing to do with you becoming the mother of a duchess someday?"

"Of course not!"

"Nothing to do with Alec's ancestral seat in Anviston? His palace in Florence?"

"I thought he was stony broke?" Natalie interjected. "If that's stony broke, sign me up!"

"No cash," said Blair. "Only property. All entailed, and expensive to maintain." She turned back to Monica. "Well, mother?"

Monica laughed girlishly. "Blair, you can't blame me for wanting the best for you. For us."

"Mother, you've done some low things before but this?"

"What's wrong with a castle on the moors, or a Florentine palace? Or being a duchess, for that matter? We have money, Blair, and American pedigree, but noble blood – that's the next logical step for us. And Alec needs cash. Badly. Oh, Blair, think of how pretty your children would be, with his curls and your cheekbones."

Jo stood up. She felt like she was going to heave. "I'll be waitin outside," she said.

"Don't go," Blair said impulsively. "The food is coming."

"Believe me, I ain't got any appetite."

"Jo, stay. My mother is leaving."

Monica raised her palms in a gesture of defeat. "Fine. I'm going. But think it over carefully, Blair. You're too old now to think only of yourself. The slap was ill-bred, but you're an extraordinary catch; we can smooth it over. You're tired, you're not yourself today –"

"Goodbye, mother."

"As you like."

Monica drifted away from the table, pausing here and there to engage in smiling, lighthearted banter with Society.

She's already 'smoothing it over', thought Blair. As if I cared!

Jo sat down when Monica left.

"Jo," Blair began, but Jo shook her head firmly. "Jo, I –"

"Look, let's just eat and act as normal as we can," Jo said. "But I do not want to talk right now."

"Did you really steal Jo's ex-boyfriend?" Tootie asked Blair. Tootie's eyes were solemn. Blair had always been a heroine to Tootie … an ideal. It made her feel almost physically ill to think of Blair doing something so low.

"Technically, you can't steal somebody's ex-boyfriend," Natalie said. "It's not really –" She broke off under the intensity of Jo's glare. "It's not really important," she amended.

That was when the soup course arrived.


It was a long meal and a mostly silent meal.

Natalie and Tootie seemed afraid to say anything that might set off either of their friends.

Mrs. Garrett looked worried – more worried, even, than when she found out about her high blood pressure, or when she had to prepare for graduation almost single-handedly. Her headache seemed to be getting worse, based on the frequency with which she put a hand to her temple, but the girls were too preoccupied to notice.

Blair kept glancing at Jo under her eyelashes, hurt and angry in equal measure. Why can't Jo trust me? Why can't she figure out there must be a logical explanation?

Jo's thoughts were dark. That Monica's a real piece of work. No wonder Blair's so screwed up. She's been taught from the damn cradle to manipulate, to lie … But that don't let Blair off the hook. Not by half!

They all declined dessert and coffee.

"Miss Warner," said the maître d', "I hope that your meal has been satisfactory. If there is anything else we can do for you –"

"Do you people ever stop fawning?" Jo demanded, disgusted.

"Everything was lovely," Blair told the maître d' reassuringly.

The maître d' shot a nervous look at Jo, but Blair's smile seemed genuine enough, and it was, after all, her satisfaction that mattered.

"So," said Tootie as they stretched their legs in the opulent lobby. "On to the ball?"

The celebrity-studded Charity Ball, so enticing a few hours before, had lost its appeal in the wake of the emotional dinner.

"I have to attend," said Blair, "at least to make an appearance. I think you'll enjoy it if you go, but if you don't feel up to it after that … mess … I'll understand."

"Hey, I have to attend too," said Nat. "I'm going to cover it for the Eastland paper. And I heard someone saying that Janet Jackson might be there."

"Janet?" asked Tootie. The Charity Ball was suddenly enticing again. "Do you think Michael might be with her?"

"It's the Charity Ball," said Blair. "Queen Elizabeth might be there. The President of the United States might be there. They keep the full guest list under wraps to discourage gate crashers."

"So … Michael might be there?" Tootie asked, excited.

"No reason he wouldn't be."

"Well I'm going," said Mrs. Garrett with spirit. "I wouldn't mind meeting the President. I have a few suggestions for him. And I need to chaperone you two," she told Tootie and Natalie.

"Mrs. Garrett, we're not little kids anymore," said Tootie. "When are you going to realize we're growing up?"

"I do realize it," said Mrs. Garrett. "That's why I need to chaperone you."

Blair looked at Jo. It was a challenge, an invitation, a plea.

I had no idea, thought Mrs. Garrett, seeing that look, how far things had gone. I let you down, girls.

Jo steadfastly avoided looking into Blair's eyes, but she sensed them on her.

"Jo?" asked Blair. "Are you going?"

"Of course." Jo snorted. "Someone needs ta make sure you don't skip out and run off ta the South Bronx."

"Jo –"

The brunette turned away, eyes dark with pain. She couldn't even look at her lover.

"Come on, girls," Mrs. Garrett said to Tootie and Natalie. "Let's go to the ballroom. We need to be sure our names are on the guest list."

"But I already checked," said Tootie, "and –"

Mrs. Garrett jerked her head toward Blair and Jo.

"-and we should, ah, check again," Tootie finished lamely.

"Good girl," whispered Mrs. Garrett. "Jo, Blair – we'll see you in the ballroom."

Jo grunted a grudging assent.

When they were alone in one corner of the lobby, behind a barricade of potted plants, Blair took Jo's hands.

Jo looked around nervously. The tall plants screened them, and the lobby was largely deserted anyhow; most guests had already checked in for the day, and many were already at the Charity Ball. Still, you never know who's gonna pop outta the woodwork in this nuthouse!

"If someone sees us, your reputation's toast," said Jo.

"I don't care," Blair said recklessly. "Jo. Listen to me. I am not dating anyone in the Bronx."

"So he's from Brooklyn?" Jo asked wryly. "Staten Island?"

"Jo, I'm not dating anyone from anywhere."

"So your mother made all that up? The messages? 'Blair, I'm so sorry, I messed up, you gotta see me tonight at the Fever'! How would your ma even know about the Fever?"

"She didn't make up the messages. But they don't mean what you think."

Jo laughed harshly.

The laugh felt like a slap. Blair's eyes narrowed. "Joanne Marie Polniaczek –"

"I told ya ta stop sayin that. Only my ma can call me that."

"Joanne Marie Polniaczek, I swear to God, I feel like strangling you right now. You are the most frustrating, pig-headed –"

"Don't forget stubborn."

"That too."

"And don't forget smart."

"So why are you acting so, so stupid about this?"

Jo finally exploded. "Blair, what the hell am I supposed ta think? You're runnin around the, the Bronx, with some guy, and he's callin ya, leavin messages like that, and I don't know anythin about it?" She felt a vein throbbing in her temple. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall.

"There's a very good explanation for it."

"Then what is it?"

"No. I'm not ready to tell you yet."

"Oh, and I'm stubborn. Right. You don't tell me, then what am I supposed to friggin think?"

"You're not supposed to think! You're supposed to trust me."

"Just trust ya? Blindly? In the face of totally dammin facts?"

"Yes, Jo! That's what love is! It's not just sex, it's not just saying romantic things, it's not just laughing and having a good old time."

"'Good old time'? Blair, the minute I knew I'd fallen for ya, I knew it wasn't gonna be a 'good old time'."

"And what does that mean?"

"It means you're a pain in the ass! My ass! I know you're difficult –"

"I'm difficult?"

"And high maintenance –"

"I'm high maintenance?"

"But you're worth it. Every up and down –and boy, are we gonna have ups and downs – I'm ready for 'em. But Blair – I gotta be able to trust ya. And with what I heard tonight, how can ya expect me to?"

Blair released Jo's hands. "Fine! Go ahead, run away from me. That's what you do so well!"

"Do I look like I'm runnin? I'm right here, Blondie."

"But you don't believe me. And I need you to believe me. That's love, Jo. Believing your lover when you have no reason to believe her!"

Jo shook her head. "No. That's takin it too far for me. That's bein a chump."

"You can't take trust 'too far'. You either trust someone … or you don't."

"Well, then … I don't, Blair. I don't trust ya. Not after what I heard tonight."

Blair's hands clenched into fists; she pressed them to her head. She turned away from Jo, facing the opulent wall.

"I swear, I want to hit you right now, Jo. I've never wanted to slug anyone this much."

"Try it. I got better reflexes than Blitheridge."

"I'm not actually going to hit you, Jo."

"Oh, I know, but feel free ta try it, if you want ta blow off some steam."

She's so quick to judge me, Blair fumed, and so damn smug about it –

Blair whirled, lunging at Jo with a little cry.

Jo caught Blair's wrists, pushed the blonde against the wall, arms pinned above her head.

"You're just all pissed off cause you got caught, Blair," said Jo.

Blair wouldn't give Jo the satisfaction of struggling. She glared silently.

"How'd ya meet him?" asked Jo. "He from the South Bronx, like me? God – Do I know him?"

Blair remained stone silent, stone still.

How could she do this ta me? wondered Jo. And why? Can we come back from this? Can I forgive her? I wanna … God, I wanna!

Jo found herself getting lost in Blair's eyes, without wanting to. Jo leaned in, closer and closer, until she was kissing the voluptuous blonde.

Blair hesitated before returning the kiss. She was so angry … so hurt … Jo was being completely impossible – but, of course, there was nothing new there. Once I explain … Once Jo understands … But I shouldn't have to explain!

Instead of returning the kiss, Blair nipped at Jo's bottom lip.

"Ow!" Jo jerked her head back.

She ran her tongue over her lips, tasted the coppery flavor of blood. "You flippin bit me!"

"Well isn't this cosy?" drawled an amused voice.

Blair and Jo turned, startled, but Jo didn't release Blair's arms.

Alec stood just inside the screen of potted plants, idly lighting a cigarette.

"Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" he asked. "Both of you?"

Blair blushed, but she didn't try to step out of Jo's grip. Her eyes flashed with anger.

"Get lost, creep," Jo snarled at Alec. "I've had just about enough of you today. I ain't playin."

Alec puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette.

"Like Aphrodite struggling with Artemis," he mused. "The goddess of love, and the goddess of the hunt. A most unlikely and enchanting combination. I'd love to paint this scene, both of you all tousled and flushed. But, alas – I'm no painter."

"Doesn't matter," said Jo, baring her teeth. "Ya couldn't paint with broken arms, anyway."

Jo released Blair and made a lunge for the young lord, but Blair grabbed the brunette's arms with surprising strength. Alec took a step backward.

"Blair, leggo! Let me deck him!" said Jo, struggling to break out of the blonde's viselike grip.

Blair held fast. She could control Chestnut; Jo was strong, but not that strong.

"No one is decking anyone," Blair said decisively.

"But he saw us just now! And he was messin with our heads today. And he's just, just a total a-hole!"

"All excellent points," Blair agreed.

"So let me go!"

"Not until you promise not to hurt him."

"I promise not to kill him."

"No, you have to promise not to hurt him."

"I, ah, promise not to – no. I'm sorry, Blair, but this guy really needs his ass kicked."

"True. But this weekend is about my world, remember? And in my world we don't literally kick anyone's ass. We use our words."

"But ya do bite people, in your world?" Jo ran her tongue over her bottom lip again; it was still bleeding.

"That happened in our world, darling. Our rules are still under construction."

"You two are so beautiful," said Alec, with genuine admiration.

"Shut up!" they both said at once.

"I don't mean any disrespect," Alec said hastily. "And as for my telling anyone about this, you don't have to worry. In the first place, I doubt anyone would believe me. In the second place, I'm more than a little afraid. Of both of you."

"So you're not as dumb as ya look," said Jo.

"Let me tell you what you are going to do," Blair said to Alec. "You are going to stop working for my crazy mother. Effective immediately."

"I was never working for her, I mean, not really," Alec said. "I was taking her money, yes, but I was following my own agenda." He blushed. "Blair, you've always been, I mean … you know."

"Amazing?" she asked. "Yes. I know."

"And you," Alec looked at Jo, "at first you were just a means to make Blair jealous. But you have a sort of, a kind of, quality – "

"I got your quality right here!" said Jo, trying again to break free. Blair held her fast.

"You're going to stop working for my mother," Blair told Alec, "and start working for me. Whatever she was she paying you, I'll double it."

"You don't have to do that."

"Sure I do. I want to be sure your loyalty is crystal clear, and I'm willing to pay handsomely to buy it."

Alec had the grace to blush. "What, ah, would my responsibilities entail?"

"I want you to keep my mother off my back for a few months."

"And I'm to do that how?"

"By pretending you and I are dating."

"What the hell, Blair?" demanded Jo.

"We're both going to have a change of heart," Blair told Alec. "You're going to forgive me for slapping you – since you so richly deserved it – and I'm going to forgive you for being a complete ass. We'll dance a few dances at the ball tonight, you'll fawn over me, I'll be my usual, unbelievably charming self, and the whole ugly incident at the Palm Court will be put to rest. Publicly."

Alec nodded admiringly. "I like it."

"Irrelevant. Immaterial. What matters is that you do it. And for the next few months, I want you to give my mother weekly reports about our romance. You'll be taking me to dinner, to concerts –"

"Now just a cotton-pickin minute," Jo interrupted. "If you think I'm sitting by with my thumb up my, ya know, while he's winin and dinin ya –"

"Alec's reports will, of course, be pure fiction, meant merely to pull the wool over mother's eyes."

"Oh," said Jo. "Oh! So, while she thinks you're out with Prince Charmless –"

"Exactly."

"You're smarter than ya look, too, Princess." Jo ran her tongue over her lower lip. "Damn! It's bleedin again. How hard did ya hafta bite me?"

"We need to get that cleaned up," said Blair. "You," she told Alec, "need to get to the ball. Start talking about how 'spirited' I am, and how much you admire me. Pave the way for our fairy-tale reconciliation."

He nodded agreeably. "Blair, I … I wish you would –"

Blair pointed. "March!" she said firmly.

Alec nodded glumly. He obeyed.

"What a snake!" said Jo. "You shoulda let me deck him!"

"No, Jo." Blair finally released Jo from her grip. "Alec is much more useful to us this way."

Jo turned, pressed Blair against the wall again, but tenderly this time. She nuzzled Blair's throat, her jaw, looked up the blonde with eyes that were hurt and pleading.

"Blair, what are you up to in the Bronx? Who's the guy? I promise not to flip out. Just … tell me."

Blair shook her head. "Not yet."

"Blair –""

"No," Blair said quietly. "I'm still angry that you didn't trust me. Come on." She kissed Jo's cheek. "Let's see to that lip."


The first level of the suite was dimly lit by one Tiffany lamp in the living area.

"Come on," said Blair, after Jo had locked, bolted and chained the door. Blair took Jo's hand, led her into the powder room on the lower level.

"Sit," said Blair, pushing Jo gently so that the brunette sat down on the closed lid of the commode. Blair opened the mirror, revealing narrow shelves of little boxes and bottles. "Hmm … this, I think … and this …"

In a moment Blair was kneeling in front of Jo, cleaning the brunette's lip with a cool wash cloth and then dabbing it with a cotton swab soaked in iodine.

"Son … of … a … bitch!" yelped Jo.

"For goodness sake, hold still. Your mother must've put iodine on your cuts before. Don't even try to tell me you weren't coming home all busted up when you were a child."

"Yeah, o' course ma was always patchin me up, but it's been a while. Somebody went and made me all soft and civilized at Eastland."

"Not that civilized. There. The bleeding's stopped, but we can't go the ball until it scabs over a little and I can put some lipstick on it."

Blair threw the bloody cotton swabs in the trash basket. She remained kneeling in front of Jo. She put her hands on Jo's shoulders, looked at her very seriously.

"God, you're beautiful. You're going to be turning heads at the ball tonight."

"I only care about turnin one head," Jo said huskily.

"Well, it's turned. All the way around and back again." Blair smiled. "I'm sorry for all that drama. My mother –""

"Hey, I don't give a flyin fig about your mother. I'm just waitin for you to come clean about whatever you're up to."

"Soon. I just wish …" Blair sighed. She leaned in close, embraced her lover. Jo still smelled of the expensive scent Blair had dabbed on her before supper, behind Jo's ears, in the hollow of her throat, at the nape of her neck. Chanel No. 5 for a Chanel gown. Blair kissed Jo in each of these places.

"Let's go upstairs," Jo breathed in her ear, voice ragged with desire.

"No." Blair pulled away, shaking her head decisively. "No, if we go up, we'll never get to the ball."

"All right," Jo said ungraciously. "Since we gotta fix our reputations. Jesus, havin a reputation sucks. It's a lot easier just bein a Johnny nobody!"

Blair laughed. "My Jo," she said fondly. She looked critically at Jo's lip. "I think it's safe to put some lipstick on it now."

"Look, if ya don't mind, will ya get that lipstick you showed me earlier? The, whaddaya call it? P-, p-, somethin with a 'p' in it."

"The plum? I don't think that would match your ensemble, Jo."

"Nah, nah, it was some other –"

"The puce?"

"Yeah, the puce! I think that'll look good with my eyes."

Blair quirked her lips, trying to picture that shade on Jo's mouth. "Hmm. I don't think –"

"Let's just try it. You can't really tell till ya put it on me, can ya?"

"True. Frankly, I'm just impressed you're actually taking an interest in what shade of lipstick you wear!" Blair pecked her cheek. "I'll be right back, darling."

As soon as Jo heard Blair's footsteps going up the stairs, she snatched up the gilt phone receiver hanging next to the toilet.

Leave it to the rich and famous to jabber on the phone while they're goin ta the john! Well, whaddaya expect from people who run around naked half the time?

Jo dialed the number quickly – she'd known it by heart since she was a kid.

At the other end the phone rang, and rang …

"Hello, Largo residence," said a deep, grumpy voice.

"Hey, Uncle Sal," said Jo. "How's by you?"

"Jo!" The voice brightened perceptibly. "How's by me? How's by you? Hey, where are ya, anyhow? You sound like you're in a cave."

Jo looked around the powder room. It was glamorous, everything gilt and gleaming, but it was cramped.

"Kinda," she said. "Listen, I don't wanna be rude or anythin, but –"

"I know, I know, you wanna talk ta Terry. But she's out, see, on a date with that bum Tony. I kinda blame you for that, Jo."

"Hey, the kid's growin up. She couldn't be a tomboy forever. Ya gotta let her fly the nest a little, Uncle Sal."

"A little? She's out with him every night, who knows where?"

"Aw, Terry's smart. She's not gonna do anythin stupid, Uncle Sal."

"She's not, but that bum Tony – hell, I wash my hands o' the whole thing."

"Listen, I was actually callin ta talk ta Pauly."

"Pauly? Whaddaya wanna talk ta him for?"

"Can't a girl talk ta one of her favorite cousins?"

"I mean, yeah, ya can," Sal sounded puzzled. "Except he was headin out. Everybody's got flippin 'Saturday Night Fever' around here these days!"

Sal must've put the receiver against his chest; Jo could hear Sal's voice, somewhat muffled, yelling "Pauly! Pauly!! Ya still here? C'mere, ya got a call. What? It's Jo. No, I said 'Jo'! How the hell do I know? You get over here and talk ta your cousin! I don't give a crap if you're late to meet your dimwit friends, this is your flesh and blood on the phone, your dead mother's sister's daughter!"

There was a pause, and then Sal's voice speaking directly into the receiver again. "Hey, Joanne, honey, here he is. You have a good night, sweetheart."

"Right back at ya, Uncle Sal."

"Jo!" Blair called down the staircase, "I can't seem to find the puce."

Jo covered the receiver with her hand. "Keep lookin'!" she called. "I really want to see how it looks!"

"All right."

Poor Blondie! thought Jo. Talk about your wild goose chases … What Blair didn't realize was that while Jo was finalizing her ensemble earlier in the evening, the brunette had accidentally knocked the puce lipstick into the toilet, then flushed it …

"Jo, what is it?" Pauly asked, sounding none too pleased at being delayed from his night out.

"Pauly? I need a favor."

"What kinda favor?" he asked warily.

"The kinda favor where I'm your cousin and ya just gotta do it without any questions or attitude. That kind!"

Pauly groaned. "Jo, I got … Well, I can't go inta the details, but –"

"Yeah, yeah, I can just imagine the 'details'. Spare me! Whoever she is, you're gonna hafta take her out another time."

"It's not like that," Pauly said defensively. "I'm workin on a special thing, it's really – but I can't talk about it."

"Please, what, d'ja join the FBI or somethin?" she asked scornfully. "Look, I need your help with maybe a matter of life or death. You memba me talkin about my friend Blair?"

There was a pause.

"Pauly? Ya still there?"

"Yeah. Yeah, your friend, what did ya call her, the 'airbrain'? She's the one that Mission-Controlled ya through getting the beauty goop on Terry's face that time."

"Yeah, that's the one. I don't have any time to explain, but Blair's meetin some joker in the South Bronx, don't know who or why, but he's meetin her at the Fever tonight. Could be trouble."

Another pause.

"Pauly?"

"Yeah, I heard ya. What's this got to do with me?"

"I need ya to go to the Fever and just sit tight."

"Why me?"

"Because I need ya to! I'm gonna keep an eye on her, try to keep her from goin, but, she's real clever, and I've got a feelin she's gonna give me the slip. So if ya see Blair at the Fever, just keep an eye on her. Make sure no one gives her a hard time."

"Jesus, what am I, a babysitter?"

"Look, Pauly, someone gives her a hard time, I give you a hard time. Ya got that?"

"Yeah, sure, OK! You don't gotta be such a hardass! Christ, Jo, I thought all your fancy education was supposed to make a lady outta ya."

Jo looked down at her sapphire-blue Chanel gown, her long white gloves, her gleaming heels.

"It's … kind of a complicated process," she said thoughtfully.

"So, ah, what does she look like, besides an 'airbrain'? How'm I gonna know her?"

"She's a beautiful blonde. Kinda like Princess Grace. Or one of the Gabors – the pretty one. She's prob'ly gonna be flashin around a wad of cash or an Amex card, just temptin someone to clonk her on the head. Totally out of her element."

"Got it."

"You better! I'll call ya later at the Fever to see what's what."

"Wait – what if I need ta reach you?"

"Call the Plaza. Tell 'em it's urgent and they'll page me."

"The Plaza? Like, the hotel the Plaza?"

"Yeah, the hotel the Plaza. Don't leave a message if ya call, just tell 'em ya need to speak to Joanne Marie Polniaczek, and tell 'em to page me at the Charity Ball. Or in my suite."

"The what? Your what?"

Jo heard Blair's footsteps on the stairs.

"Just do it!" she said. She put the phone back in its cradle just before Blair pushed open the door.

"I'm sorry, Jo, I couldn't find the puce. I brought the plum. It might look all right." She knelt in front of the brunette. "Put your bottom lip out, like this. Yes …"

Blair touched the lipstick lightly to Jo's mouth. She brushed it gently with one manicured finger, blending it. She handed Jo a tissue. "Here. Blot." Jo blotted.

"It look OK?" Jo asked.

"Yes – a lot better than I expected. You're just a natural beauty, darling."

Jo blushed.

"Jo?"

"Mmn?"

"Were you talking to yourself in here?"

"When?"

"Just now, when I came downstairs."

"Oh, yeah. I'm practicin my diction. For the ball."

"'Practicin', eh?" Blair's eyes twinkled. "Well, 'ya might wanna keep practicin'."

Jo took a deep breath. She twined her fingers with Blair's. "My dear Miss Warner … would you care to accompany me to the ball?" she asked in a reasonably decent upper crust accent.

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Well, well, well. You're full of surprises, Miss Polniaczek."

"Always, babe. Always."

"You're getting a handle on the local lingo. But how's your waltz?"

"My waltz?"

"You waltz, Jo."

"I don't have one."

Blair stood, held out her hands. "Come here."

Blair led Jo into the living area. The blonde went to the hi-fi, snapped it on, found a radio station that was playing a dreamy orchestral version of "Moon River".

Blair loved the Mancini-Mercer song; it was the theme from "Breakfast at Tiffany's", one of her favorite movies. The film was more than twenty years old, now – only a little older than Blair – but New York City, her city, looked so young in it, so bright and unsullied.

Blair opened the curtains. She turned off the single Tiffany lamp. The room was dark, except for the moonlight and the glittering lights of her city – their city – shining through the tall windows.

For a moment Blair and Jo regarded each other from a distance of several feet, two glamorous silhouettes, with their ball gowns and gloves and carefully arranged hairdos.

Blair stepped forward, putting her right hand on Jo's back.

"That feels nice," said Jo.

Blair extended her left hand to take Jo's right hand, pressing their palms together, loosely clasping Jo's fingers.

"That feels nice, too," said Jo.

"Your left hand," said Blair quietly. "Put it on my upper arm. My right arm. Lightly. That's good. Now, step on my feet."

"You're kiddin."

"Step on my feet, Jo."

Jo slipped out of her heels, stepped tentatively onto Blair's shoes. "Am I hurtin ya?"

"You're light as a feather. Now turn the right side of your torso toward mine … beautiful." Their right breasts grazed each other through the rich material of the dresses. "Now hold your frame, just as you are right now. Take a deep breath, and …"

Blair began to dance, slowly, gracefully, carrying Jo along with each step.

From the hi-fi, a female singer began to croon the simple, timeless lyrics to "Moon River" …

Moon River, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style some day. Oh dream maker, you heart breaker, wherever you're goin, I'm goin your way.

"You're doing very well," Blair complimented Jo.

"You're doin it all," said Jo. "I mean, doing it all. I'm just along for the ride."

Two drifters, off to see the world – there's such a lot of world to see. We're after the same rainbow's end, waitin 'round the bend, my huckleberry friend, Moon River and me …


The Plaza's vast, dizzyingly opulent Grand Ballroom. Light glinting off chandeliers, off toothy white smiles, off men's white shirtfronts, and clusters of women's diamonds.

A tuxedoed orchestra played. Politicians, celebrities and socialites mingled and danced gaily.

"I think I'm getting whiplash!" Natalie said excitedly.

"Well, you sure look happy about it," Tootie observed.

"I can't believe we saw President Reagan! And Nancy! Boy, can that woman wear red!"

"Blair's gonna be seeing red when she realizes she missed seeing Baryshnikov!"

"This is such a scoop for the Eastland paper. Indira Gandhi! Mitterrand! Helmut Kohl! The Queen of Denmark!" Natalie fanned herself. "This is a young journalist's dream. Pinch me, Tootie – by which I mean, don't pinch me. It's just an expression."

"I wish Michael Jackson were here," Tootie said, a touch sulkily.

"You got to see Janet."

"I know. But Janet's no Michael."

"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!" Natalie clutched Tootie's arm. "It's him! It's Prince Rainier!"

"Where?"

"There!"

"That frumpy little guy?"

"Frumpy?"

"Dumpy, then."

"Dumpy?"

"Come, on, Nat – he isn't exactly Prince Charming."

"Bite your tongue, Tootie! He's a dream. And he's available."

"Poor guy. He's probably still mourning Princess Grace."

"Oh my God, oh my God, it's Paul McCartney! And is that Clapton?"

"It is! And there's Elton John! Look! Look, he's sitting at the piano! I think he's going to play!"

"Girls!" trilled Mrs. Garrett, approaching them. She carried a plate of steamed spring rolls and a glass of red wine. "You look like you're having conniptions. Come on, now. Where's that Eastland dignity?"

"Mrs. Garrett, we're trying," said Tootie, "but we're surrounded by the most famous, the most important people in the world."

"Nevertheless," said Mrs. Garrett, "try to behave like well-bred young ladies, instead of crazed Bobby-soxers."

"Oh my gosh," said Nat, "there's Dustin Hoffman!"

"Dustin Hoffman!" Mrs. Garrett's hand flew to her heart, and the spring rolls flew everywhere. "Dustin Hoffman? I love him!"

"So we gather," said Nat, pulling a spring roll out of her hair.

Tootie took the plate of rolls and the glass of wine from Mrs. Garrett.

"Tootie, what are you doing?" asked the redhead.

"I'm creating a spill-free zone, Mrs. Garrett. Because I'm about to tell you something that's going to flip your wig."

"What? What?"

"That gentleman right behind you. In the grey suit. It's Walter Cronkite."

"Walter Cronkite?" This time both of Mrs. Garrett's hands flew to her bosom as she whirled around. "It, it is Walter Cronkite!" Mrs. Garrett looked as if she might swoon. Natalie supported one of her elbows, Tootie the other.

"Nice decorum, Mrs. Garrett," said Nat.

"Yeah," said Tootie. "That's the old Eastland dignity."

"That's … it's … that's …"

"Yes, Mrs. Garrett, it's really Walter Cronkite."

"I wonder if I should, if I could … Is my hair OK, girls? Do I have lipstick on my teeth?"

"You look beautiful, Mrs. G," said Jo, materializing next to her surrogate mother. "Go on; knock 'em dead."

"Not to rain on any parades," said Nat, "but he is married."

"Mrs. G ain't gonna try ta steal him," Jo said playfully. "She's just gonna show him what he missed."

Mrs. Garrett affectionately pinched Jo's face. "Jo, you're like Cinderella tonight."

"That's thanks to my fairy godmother," said Jo.

"I do pretty good work, if I do say so myself," said Blair, joining the group.

"Are you two friends again?" Natalie asked warily. "You're not going to have a Krystle-Alexis catfight right here in front of God and high society – are you?"

"We couldn't," Blair deadpanned. "No lily pond."

"I don't know," said Tootie, "there's a pretty big champagne fountain."

Blair laughed. She drew her arm through Jo's. "Jo and I are friends again. The best of friends."

"Yeah, Toot, we got everthin sorted out," Jo said reassuringly.

"In that case," said Mrs. Garrett, smoothing her blazing red bun of hair, "you girls can spare me for a few moments. I'm going to make Mr. Cronkite's acquaintance. 'And that's the way it is.'" She bustled off.

"You're really not fighting anymore?" Tootie asked Blair and Jo.

"We're really not fightin anymore, Stretch. And, ta set the record straight, Blair did not steal my guy or anythin. It was all just a big misunderstandin."

"So who is your mystery guy in the Bronx?" Natalie asked Blair, holding an imaginary mic to the blonde heiress. "Inquiring minds want to know."

"That's her business," Jo said, gently moving Natalie's hand away from Blair's face. "Let's give her some breathin room on that. For now, anyway."

"Breathing room?" said Natalie. "Pulitzer-prize winning journalists do not give anyone breathing room."

"They do if they wanna keep breathin," Jo said significantly.

"Just once," said Nat, "I'd like to attend an event where I wasn't threatened."

"Then you might want to look into a new profession," suggested Blair.

"Uh-oh," said Tootie. True to her social, inquisitive nature she was continually scanning the room. "Jackass alert, dead ahead!"

"Tootie!" said Nat, shocked.

"What? Everyone else is swearing up a blue streak tonight."

"Where's the jackass?" asked Blair, looking around.

"Hard ta tell, in this crowd," laughed Jo.

"Over there," said Tootie. They followed her gaze. Alec was standing next to Blair's mother, their heads close together, deep in conversation.

"Tootie, you're forgiven for the 'jackass' crack," said Jo. "That's about the nicest thing anyone could call that guy!"

"Oh, come now, Jo," said Blair. She still had her arm through Jo's; she gave Jo a friendly – mostly friendly – little shake. "Remember, we've all agreed to be friends."

"You have?" Natalie asked incredulously.

"Of course," said Blair. "Alec's attentions may have started as a plot hatched by my interfering mother, but it turns out he really is smitten with me. And who can blame him?"

"Sure," said Jo. "You know what crummy eyesight those aristocrats have."

Blair lightly slapped Jo with her clutch bag.

"And he has nothing but admiration for Jo," Blair continued. "So, we're all friends now."

Natalie looked keenly at Jo's narrowed eyes, the way Jo was biting her lip.

"Well," Nat said dubiously, "that's, ah, terrific."

"In fact," Blair said brightly, "at the risk of being a little Steinemesque, I'm going to ask him to ask me for the next dance."

Blair darted a quick look at Jo, eyebrows slightly raised. You're OK with this, darling? You understand?

Jo nodded minutely. She caught and held Blair's eyes for a fraction of a second; for just an instant, all Jo's love was naked in her green-blue eyes. I hate this, babe. I hate that he's gonna even be touchin ya. But I understand it'll get Monica off our backs, and I'll do whatever it takes ta keep us together. I love ya, Blair. I love ya forever and back.

Blair squeezed Jo's arm and slipped away, through the dancers, toward Alec and Monica.

Tootie shivered. She had caught the infinitesimal look between Blair and Jo, and she didn't understand it. The look was intense, profound, so brief and yet eternal. It was private, it was raw.

Blair and Jo seemed to be developing a language of their own, beyond words or gestures. Tootie loved Natalie like a sister, and had thought it was impossible for anyone to be as close as she and Nat were. She and Natalie had grown up together at Eastland, through every good time and every bad time. They shared everything. They were the epitome of best friends.

But Jo and Blair had grown so intensely intertwined this semester … it was like they were each half of one creature. Neither girl seemed to be complete without the other.

There was something beautiful about it; it was so loving – even when they were fighting. But it was unlike anything Tootie had ever seen or felt before. It stirred her artist's soul; it disturbed her.

Tootie watched Jo watching Blair as the blonde drew abreast of Monica and Alec.

Blair kissed her mother on the cheek, and then briefly embraced Alec. Jo's eyes narrowed; she looked away.

The people nearest Blair and Alec noted the embrace. Most of the Charity Ball guests had either witnessed or heard about the fact that heiress Blair Warner had slapped Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge, in the Palm Court.

A hushed whisper rippled through the ball room, flowing from guest to guest. It was audible as an undertone to the music.

"My dear, did you see …"

"She's forgiven him …"

"He's forgiven her …"

"Such a lovely couple …"

"A reconciliation …"

Devon Abercrombie and Mitzy Rutherford were dancing together – badly. When the news reached them, they scowled.

Tootie watched Jo as the brunette hunched her shoulders and tried to stuff her hands in her pockets, one of Jo's favorite, self-comforting gestures when she was feeling upset. But, Chanel ball gowns not having any pockets, Jo's gloved palms simply slid down the sides of her beautiful blue gown.

Jo sighed, settled for clasping her hands behind her back.

The tuxedoed orchestra fell silent. New York City's still relatively new mayor, Mario Cuomo, stepped up to the podium.

There was a flutter of refined applause. Cuomo held up his hands, both as a recognition of the applause and a request for it to cease.

"Good evening again, ladies and gentlemen. You know I'm not one for a lot of fancy speeches. This is a very glittering evening, but we're here for something not so glittering, to help the orphans of this city to get three squares a day, and a roof over their heads. So let's dig deep tonight. Let's not just talk about helping the kids who need it, but really lead by example. Thank you."

Another wave of applause.

"Now," said Cuomo, "it is my distinct honor to present one of the great songbirds of this generation, all the way from Malibu, California. She's not just a singer, she's an environmental activist and a Music for UNICEF singer: Miss Olivia Newton-John."

A round of deafening applause this time, as the slender blonde singer took the stage.

"Holy shit!" said Jo. "It's Sandy!"

"Good evening, everybody," Newton-John addressed the crowd in her soft, unassuming Australian accent. "I'm so pleased to be part of this event, which is raising so much money to help the many unfortunate children of New York City.

"There are orphans all around the world going hungry, this very minute. Won't you please, be a hero for these children, and give as much as you can? Right now I want to invite a friend of mine to help sing a song for every hungry child, and every person who steps up to help them. Cliff?"

A tall, craggily handsome man strode out onto the stage next to Newton-John.

"Ladies and gentleman – Cliff Richards," said Newton-John. Another wave of applause.

Natalie clapped with wild enthusiasm. "Isn't Cliff Richards positively dreamy?" she enthused.

"Eh, every guy is positively dreamy to you," teased Jo.

The orchestra broke into the opening strains of "Suddenly".

Alec and Blair stepped out onto the dance floor. Alec took Blair in his arms. They danced.

"Gotta say," said Natalie, "jackass and Blair do look good together."

Yeah, they do, thought Jo. His silhouette, in his custom-fitted tux, was sleekly perfect. Blair was a vision in her mauve Dior gown. With their porcelain skin, perfectly chiseled features, and dimples, they're like flipping Prince and Princess Charmin, thought Jo.

Richards began singing.

"She walks in; I'm suddenly a hero. I'm taken in; my hopes begin to rise."

"Oh, how romantic," said Tootie. "Do you realize, if they stay together, this'll be their song?"

Jo grunted. Not damn likely. This is our song, one of our songs, anyhow, me and Blair's.

Jo remembered how "Suddenly" was playing on the radio of Blair's truck the night before they first made love … Should be me out there, dancing with her. Should be us twirlin around.

"Look at me," sang Newton-John, "can't you tell I'd be so thrilled to see the message in your eyes?"

Alec and Blair whooshed gracefully past Tootie, Natalie and Jo.

Jo caught Blair's eyes, just for an instant, but it was long enough to give Blair a message of her own. I love ya, babe.

Blair's eyes twinkled. Of course you do, darling.

"You make it seem I'm so close to my dream, and then suddenly it's all there," sang Richards.

It was all building to the pretty chorus. Newton-John took Richards' hand and they sang together: "Suddenly, the wheels are in motion, and I'm ready to sail any ocean. Suddenly, I don't need the answers, cause I'm ready to take all my chances with you …"

Jo felt tears pricking at the backs of her eyes. She turned away from the dance floor. They were tears of joy, she realized, not pain. I am so lucky to have Blair. My God! And I don't need any answers.

Something clicked, in Jo's soul, some philosophical puzzle piece snapped into place. I don't need to know what Blair's been doin in the Bronx. I know it's nothing to hurt me, I know I can trust her. I don't know how I know, or why, I just … I just trust her. I'm all in.

"How can I feel you're all that matters?" sang Richards. "I'd rely on anything you say."

Me too, Blair, Jo thought fervently. Me too.

"I'll take care that no illusions shatter," sang Newton-John "if you dare to say what you should say."

"You make it seem I'm so close to my dream, and then suddenly it's all there …"

Natalie was staring rapt at Cliff Richards, until she felt Tootie nudge her, none too gently.

"What?" Nat asked, annoyed.

Tootie tilted her head toward Jo. The beautiful brunette was staring as raptly at Alec and Blair as Nat had been staring at Richards. Jo's eyes gleamed with unshed tears.

She does like Alec! mouthed Tootie.

Natalie's eyebrows shot up almost into her hairline. Who knew? she mouthed back, shrugging helplessly.

"Hello, girls," trilled Mrs. Garrett, sweeping past them in the arms of Walter Cronkite.

They waved to her absently, as if Mrs. Garrett and Walter Cronkite tripped the light fantastic every day.

What are we going to do? mouthed Tootie. For her, it was always a foregone conclusion that she and Nat would meddle – helpfully, of course – in the older girls' business.

Nat made another helpless shrug.

Jo was oblivious to the younger girls' attention. She was focused completely on Blair, how she moved to the music, how perfect the words of the song were for everything Jo was feeling.

"… Suddenly, I don't need the answers, 'cause I'm ready to take all my chances with you …"


"You dance very well," Blair complimented Alec as they whirled around the floor.

"Better than your inamorata?"

Blair laughed. "Sorry, Alec, but there's nothing you can do as well as she can."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing," Blair said firmly. She wasn't worried about anyone overhearing their conversation. That was one of the odd things about dancing. It was such a public act; you were on display. But because of the music and the motion, only you and your partner could hear what you said to each other …

"Have you two already, do you, ah –"

"None of your business," said Blair. The tips of her ears turned pink at the thought of making love to Jo earlier in the day. The song was making her think of Jo. "Suddenly" and "Faithfully". Their songs. The ones they heard on the radio the night before they made love for the first time.

"Right," said Alec. "None of my business. Which, along with your blush, I'll take as a resounding 'yes'."

He twirled her; she spun gracefully back into his arms. Guests watching them broke into appreciative applause.

"It makes sense," Alec continued. "I have this theory that really beautiful women, goddess like women, are meant to be together. Or, it's actually my great-aunt Vivienne's theory. She's been testing it in Italy for the better part of a half century."

"I didn't know you had a great-aunt Vivienne. Is she an Anviston or an Arbuncle?"

"Anviston," said Alec, "but we don't acknowledge her, for obvious reasons. Which is a pity. She's a really delightful old broad, for a countess. She's gotten me out of more than a few scrapes."

Italy, thought Blair. Exile in Italy. Was that her and Jo in a few years? Hiding out in a foreign land? Never spoken of by the Warners, or the Wilkes – or the very Catholic Polniaczeks and Largos, for that matter. Banished, buried. Could they make that life work?

As she spun around the floor, Blair locked eyes, for just a second, with Jo. They both smiled.

Yes, thought Blair, wondering how she could've doubted it for even a moment. In a teepee, an igloo, an attic, a coldwater flat … all I need is Jo … But we've got to put it off as long as we can …

"I meant what I said before," Blair told Alec. "You're working for me now. If you tell anyone about Jo and me, I'll ruin your reputation beyond repair. Scorched earth, Alec – scorched and salted."

"Ouch! Duly noted!" He gave her his most engaging grin. "I remember you as such a fluffy-headed, charming little thing when I escorted you to the Blenheim cotillion. When did you get so ruthless?"

"When I had to. And what about you, Lord Nethridge? I seem to recall a good-natured, harmless pretty boy. What happened to him?"

"He grew up," Alec said ruefully. "And realized what it really meant to have no money and three entailed properties to keep up."

Blair sighed. She didn't want to feel sympathy for Alec – but she did.

"I can't imagine how difficult that must be," she said.

"No." He laughed bitterly. "You can't. Always being stony, and everyone knowing it. All I have are my looks and my title, and I'm reduced to pimping them out like, well –"

"Listen," Blair said severely, "with me, you're engaged in a legitimate business endeavor. I genuinely need you to keep my mother off my back, and you genuinely need the cash flow. Now," as the song was wrapping up, "dance me behind those potted palms."

Alec lifted his eyebrows. "Really? Do you want me to make tender love to you among the palms?"

"I want it to look like you're taking me back there to pitch woo."

"Avec plaisir, mademoiselle."

Alec languidly guided Blair behind the rows of tall, potted palms.

"Look!" said Natalie. "Where are they going?"

Jo shrugged. "Probably gonna make out," she said, trying to sound casual. Her lips twitched as she suppressed a smile. Like Blair would even let Alec give her a peck on the cheek! But she's gotta make it look good for her mother.

Jo skimmed the crowd; yes, sure enough, Monica had her eyes glued to Alec and Blair as they slipped behind the screen of palms. Monica was smiling a dazzling, one might even say triumphant, smile.

"Jo," Tootie said, with a strange look on her face, "doesn't that bother you?"

"What?"

"That right now Alec is probably playing tonsil hockey with Blair."

"Bother me? Nah, why should it?" Jo asked, a touch defensively. Hell, does Tootie suspect somethin?

"'Tonsil hockey'?" Natalie asked Tootie. "Where do you pick up these expressions?"

"I hear things," said Tootie, shrugging.

"Where? I ask you … 'Tonsil hockey'?"

Tootie put a friendly hand on Jo's arm. "Listen, you don't have to be brave for us. We know."

"Ya know what?" Jo demanded warily. For Pete's sake, I hate keepin secrets from them, Jo thought. But I'm not ready for them to know yet. Blair and me, we gotta tell 'em together. When we're ready. If we ever are.

"We know that you have feelings for Alec," Tootie said.

"Alec?" Jo howled. "Feelins for Alec?"

Natalie put a friendly hand on Jo's other arm. "Jo, like Tootie said – you don't have to be brave. It was written all over your face."

Natalie looked at Jo sympathetically with her big blue eyes. Tootie looked at Jo sympathetically with her big brown eyes.

Jo sighed. This is getting outta control. Two of my best friends, lookin at me like sad little cartoon chipmunks. I'm sick of lyin to 'em. What can I say that isn't a total bunch of baloney?

Onstage, Olivia Newton-John began singing "Hopelessly Devoted to You".

"See, I don't got feelins for Alec," Jo said carefully. "I'm just admirin, ya know, how Blair and Alec look together. And thinkin, if they end up gettin married or somethin, whenever Blair, you know, flies the coop and leaves us, ya know, when we stop bein the four musketeers –"

The big blue eyes teared up. The big brown eyes teared up. Natalie and Tootie looked at each other.

"Someday we're going to all be apart!" said Tootie. "I mean, really apart. All of us!"

"And here we were just worried about growing apart during Blair and Jo's first year in college!"

Tears rolled down Tootie and Natalie's faces. They hugged each other, then each one threw an arm around Jo, pulling her into a group hug.

"Eh, watch the gown," muttered Jo. She hated mush.

She patted Tootie and Natalie's shoulders awkwardly. OK, so I got 'em sidetracked again. But now I got 'em all depressed. I'm gonna burn in hell for my lies, I just know it!

"Look, Nat, Tootie, it ain't gonna happen for a long time. I mean, you guys are still at Eastland, and me and Blair got years at Langley. At least four, and then if Blondie goes inta law and if I go for a Master's in teachin, I mean, we're gonna be there so long, we'll have ivy growin on us, just like the buildins!"

"Yeah?" asked Tootie.

"Yeah," Jo said decisively. "We're all gonna be stuck with each other for a long, long time. Now come on. Is this a party, or what? Enough of this solemnity crap."

"Language, Jo," Mrs. Garrett said absently, joining their little group. She chided Jo out of habit, but she didn't really seem to care; Mrs. Garrett was beaming after her dance with Walter Cronkite.

"Mr. Cronkite dances even better than he reports the news," she said dreamily. Then she noticed Tootie and Natalie drying their eyes on their gloves. "Why, girls – what's wrong?"

"Nothing, Mrs. Garrett," said Natalie. "But just promise us that you'll be staying in Peekskill for a long, long time."

Mrs. Garrett regarded them all with surprise. Then big tears gathered in her big blue eyes. "Girls, I … I've been trying to figure out how to tell you this …"

"Oh, no! You're dying!" cried Tootie.

"Toot, why do ya always think everyone's dyin?" demanded Jo. She looked quickly at Mrs. Garrett. "Mrs. G – ya ain't dyin, are ya?"

Mrs. Garrett shook her head, smiling through her tears.

"No, Jo. Tootie, Natalie. I have something to tell you. I was going to try to find the right moment to talk to all of you girls, together. Where is Blair?"

"She's, um, momentarily indisposed," said Jo, with a hasty glance toward the screen of potted palms. That Alec creep better not be givin Blair a hard time! "So, you got somethin ta tell us, Mrs. G? That's why ya don't seem like yourself today?"

"Honestly, girls, I haven't felt like myself in quite some time."

"Is it your blood pressure?" asked Natalie. "Of course. It's your blood pressure! I'm telling you, Mrs. Garrett, you've got to watch your blood pressure. My father always says it's the silent killer!"

"With all due respect to Doctor Green, my blood pressure is fine, Natalie. But my spirits have never been lower. I haven't been able to convince Mr. Parker to invest in upgrades for the Eastland kitchen."

"So your meeting with him today," said Tootie, "that didn't help at all?"

"Well, it did and it didn't, if you know what I mean."

"We don't, and we don't," said Jo.

"I presented Mr. Parker with all of the facts and figures – estimates, projections, cost benefit analyses. In plain black-and-white I showed him how renovating the kitchen and hiring more workers just makes sense – how it's in the best interest of the school."

"And he wouldn't listen?" Natalie asked, incredulous. "Now, this is a scoop for the Eastland paper. 'Penny-pinching Parker puts pinch on progress!'"

Jo laughed. "I love how ya come up with those off the top of your head!"

"Me too," Nat agreed, pleased.

"Girls, I'm trying to tell you," said Mrs. Garrett, "Mr. Parker and I were not able to come to an amicable agreement."

"And that means … what?" asked Natalie.

"More scarf-and-barf at the old barfeteria," said Tootie. "Don't worry, Mrs. Garrett, the girls are used to it. At least you tried."

"I'm afraid it's more serious than that," said Mrs. Garrett. "When Mr. Parker told me I'd just have to like it or lump it, I'm afraid, well –"

"Oh, jeez," said Jo, light dawning. "Ya quit!"

"I quit," Mrs. Garrett agreed.

"You quit?" Tootie and Natalie demanded.

"As in 'sayonara'?" asked Nat. "As in 'hasta la vista', 'adieu', 'see ya later'?"

"More like 'see ya in hell'," said Jo. "Good for you, Mrs. G! Parker's been pushin ya around for years. But whaddaya gonna do now?"

"I don't know. For the first time in my life, I honestly don't know. That's why this weekend with you girls, it's such a godsend. It's giving me some time to think, and to be with you girls. So if I have to leave Peekskill –"

"No!" Tootie and Natalie cried together. "No, no, no, no, no!"

"There will be no leaving of Peekskill," Natalie said firmly.

"Come on, Mrs. Garrett. There's got to be something you can do in town," Tootie said encouragingly.

Natalie snapped her fingers. "Remember when you needed extra money and you were the night manager at Howard Johnson's? Maybe they'll take you back."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "The lady they hired to replace me is still there, and doing a wonderful job from what I hear."

"Well, maybe they need a day manager. Working at night made you cranky, anyway."

Mrs. Garrett smiled at the recollection. She certainly had been a crab for a few weeks! "That's a very good suggestion, Natalie, but I already checked; they don't need a day manager either."

"Maybe Bates Academy needs a dietician," said Tootie. "Or Stone Military Academy."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head sadly. "I called them right after my meeting with Mr. Parker. Those posts are filled."

Tootie hugged Mrs. Garrett, clinging to the big, motherly woman like a child. "Don't worry, Mrs. Garrett, we'll figure something out. You can't leave us!"

Mrs. Garrett looked at Jo, eyes were brimming with tears. I don't know what to do, her expression said.

Jo put an arm around Tootie, gently pulled her away from Mrs. Garrett. "Look, Toot, none of us wants Mrs. G ta go anywhere. But she's gotta do what she's gotta do. And we gotta support her, whatever decision she makes."

Tootie pulled away from Jo, bristling. "You don't care," she accused. "You and Blair are already off at Langley, leading your glamorous, soap opera lives! You couldn't care less if Mrs. Garrett goes away."

Ow. "Tootie, that just ain't true," Jo said quietly. "Mrs. G, she's like, like a second mom to all of us. But that's why we gotta be there for her – whatever she's gotta do."

"Pardon me," said a deep voice at Jo's shoulder. Jo jumped, startled.

Petal Von Schuylkill – known to her fans and teammates as Moose – stood next to Jo. A tall, dapper young man held Petal's arm.

"I just wanted to be sure that you're all right," Petal told Jo. "Every time I see you, there seems to be some drama unfolding." Petal sounded genuinely concerned, rather than critical.

"Oh. Heh-heh. Thanks, but, all appearances ta the contrary, Moose, we're doin OK."

"We are a very dramatic group," said Natalie. She extended her hand. "Natalie Green."

"Petal Von Schuylkill," said the tall, heavyset woman, shaking Natalie's hand with great delicacy "but you can call me Moose. This is my date, Arthur Wingley." The young man made a half-bow that included all of the women.

"Tootie Ramsey," said Tootie.

"Edna Garrett," said Mrs. Garrett. "I'm the dietician at, that is, I was the dietician at …" she trailed off.

Jo patted Mrs. Garrett's shoulder comfortingly. How to turn the subject?

"Hey, Moose," said Jo, "Natalie's with the Eastland school paper. How 'bout givin her an exclusive?"

"Really?" Moose looked flattered. "I've never been profiled in a paper before. Well, except for my debut."

"It's just a school paper," Natalie said modestly. "It's not like being in the Times."

"Say, what's doing?" asked a clear, rather high-strung British voice. Jacqueline Messerschmitt, a wiry young woman full of nervous energy, joined them, towing in her wake Anastasia Hargrove, a tall, lantern-jawed woman with a very expensive but very bad haircut.

"Jackrabbit!" said Jo, shaking Jacqueline's hand. "Lurch!" She reached up to clap Anastasia on the shoulder.

"Well," said Moose, looking around, "if we find Portia, the gang's all here."

"I saw Lefty by the punch bowl," said Lurch in an impossibly deep, foghorn-like voice. "She was flirting with Henry Kissinger."

"Henry Kissinger? Good one!" laughed Natalie.

"Sure, Henry Kissinger," Lurch said seriously. "Lefty hasn't stopped talking about him since she read 'Years of Upheaval'. She's totally smitten."

"Totally smitten?" Natalie asked. "With Henry Kissinger?"

"Sure."

"But he must be, like, a hundred now," objected Tootie.

"Sixty," corrected Lurch. "Lefty doesn't care about age. She's looking for a perfect brain match."

"Brain match?" marveled Natalie. "And here I am just trying to find Bates guys that have brains!"

Lurch laughed. It was a deep, gravelly laugh, like rocks being rasped into powder. "You're funny, kid. Anastasia Hargrove." She extended her hand and Natalie shook it.

"Natalie Green," said Nat, "and this is my friend Tootie Ramsey."

"Well, Natalie Green and Tootie Ramsey, don't worry. When you get to college, the boys are a lot smarter than they seem in high school."

"I don't know about a lot," objected Jackrabbit.

"Well they couldn't get much dumber," said Tootie.

"Standing right here," said Arthur pleasantly.

"Oops. Sorry," Tootie said.

"I don't know," Natalie mused, "my boyfriend Norman is pretty smart. Most of the time."

"But not Kissinger-smart, surely," said a pretty blonde, dreamily, as she joined them. She carried a glass of punch in her left hand. She extender her right hand to Natalie. "Portia Barclay – but call me Lefty."

"Lefty, I'm Natalie Green. This is my friend Tootie Ramsey."

"You can call me Tootie."

"Then I shall." Lefty sighed. "He's still married – very married – to wife number two."

"Who's married?" asked Natalie. "Oh. Kissinger."

Lefty nodded. "You could almost feel the electricity vibrating off his brain. As if he was throwing off sparks of mental energy." She held out her right hand. It trembled. "I'm still shaking."

"Enough of your grave-robbing," said Moose. "Welcome back to the land of the living."

Jo grinned, watching her old friends meet her new teammates, listening to the jokes and ribbing. Tootie and Natalie were such sweethearts, the older girls were taking to them right away.

Life is good, Jo thought. We just gotta help Mrs. Garrett. Blair will have an idea.

Speaking of which …

Jo glanced nervously at the screen of potted palms.

It was one thing for Alec and Blair to slip behind the foliage for a couple of minutes to make it look like they were smooching.

It was another thing entirely for them to stay back there long enough to make it look like they were, well, doing a lot more than locking lips. And Blair was very careful of her reputation where things like that were concerned.

Suddenly, Jo got it.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit!" she said.

She all but sprinted toward the screen of potted palms.

"Language, Jo!" Mrs. Garrett trilled as Jo darted into the crowd.

"See?" said Moose to her date and her teammates. "Like I said: Drama. Non-stop excitement with Jo's crowd."

"Oh, 'you ain't seen nothing yet'!" promised Tootie. "This here is a slow night for us."

"Really?" asked Jackrabbit.

"Well, no," admitted Tootie. "This is actually a pretty wild night."

"But where did Jo go?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"There," said Lurch, pointing toward the far end of the room, where dancers and bystanders were hastily dodging to the left and the right, as if pushed aside by an invisible force. "She seems to be making her way toward that bank of palms."

Tootie gasped. "She's gonna kick Alec's behind!"

"Or Blair's!" said Nat.

"Do we follow her and help?" asked Moose. "We are her teammates. For the Langley Lions, it's all for one and one for all."

"Sure, but we're her friends," said Tootie. "So you follow us!"

"Fair enough," Moose agreed.

Tootie, Natalie and Mrs. Garrett bustled across the vast plain of the ballroom, making their way through the throngs of guests as quickly as politeness would allow.

It was easier than they expected; with Moose, Lurch, Jackrabbit and Lefty making up the rear guard, guests tended to see and hear them coming and melt out of the way.

When they cleared the potted palms, they saw Jo grabbing Alec by the collar, nose-to-nose with him, the tips of her ears red with fury.

"Jo!" cried Mrs. Garrett. "Don't hurt him!"

Jo released his collar, gave him a disgusted push.

He took a clumsy step backward, almost falling on his ass but stopping himself by pin wheeling his arms just in time.

"This looks jolly violent," said Jackrabbit excitedly. "Can we hit him, Jo?"

"Eh, don't bother."

Alec held up his hands, palms outward, as the group of women advanced toward him.

"Now, see here," he said, "I run up the white flag. I surrender. I know when I'm beaten."

Jo pounded her leg with one fist. "Damn! I knew she'd find a way ta give me the slip!"

"She didn't!" said Nat.

"She did, all right!" said Jo. "She's gone ta the Fever, in one o' the crummiest parts of the South Bronx, and you let her," she snarled, turning on Alec.

"Blair is my, Blair told me to – look, with me, whatever Blair says, goes."

Lurch looked down at Alec down appraisingly. "You'll make a good husband, Lord Nethridge."

"I gotta go after her," Jo told her friends. "But I can't go in these glad-rags. I'm going up ta change, real quick – Nat, Tootie, can ya flag down a cab? Keep it at the curb till I get there."

"Of course," said Nat.

"Count on it," said Tootie.

"Mrs. G," said Jo, turning to her mentor, "I got my cousin Pauly waitin at the club, he's supposed ta call me if she, I mean, when she gets there. Will you stay by the front desk, take any calls that come in for me? Tell Pauly I'm on the way?"

"Jo," said Mrs. Garrett, "you know I'll always do anything I can to help you. But if this place is so dangerous, shouldn't we be calling the police?"

"The police?" Jo laughed harshly. "Oh, Mrs. G, I luv ya. You know that? But that ain't how things work in this situation. Now, I gotta go get changed, real quick." She hugged Mrs. Garrett briefly, dashed toward the nearest of the ball room's exits.

"Wow, Princess is like the best friend ever," said Lurch admiringly.

"Who thinks we should let her go after her friend alone?" asked Moose.

Nobody raised their hand – except Alec. The women glared at him.

"She'll be fine," Alec said. "You know. She's like a one-woman army – with Patton and Rommel and Nelson at the head of it."

"Nelson was navy," Jackrabbit said scathingly. "Learn our history properly. Milord."

Alec smiled thinly. "Viscountess," he said with a bow. Jackrabbit blushed.

"Viscountess?" asked her teammates.

"Please," said Jackrabbit, "I despise making a big to-do of it."

"Look," said Moose, "are we going to help Jo, or not?"

"Not," said Alec.

"Yes," chorused everyone else.

"The 'ayes' have it," said Moose. "Let's go!"


Do I kiss her first, or kill her, pondered Jo. Or do I kiss her while I kill her?

When she got up to the suite, she remembered that she didn't have any casual clothing with her. She'd worn a nice outfit to the Plaza, and, per her promise to Blair, hadn't packed a damn thing.

Son of a bitch! Do I go ta the South Bronx in my fancy outfit or this ball gown? Lookin like Mary Sunshine or the flippin Queen o' England? Either way, it's a big, neon invitation for an ass-whipping!

But, ah! Luckily, Blair always packed for weekend trips like she was moving to a new country, never to return!

Jo yanked open the closet in the master bedroom. The Plaza housekeeper or butler or whoever had unpacked Blair's clothes and placed them neatly on the hangers and in the drawers.

Jo dug through the outfits like a madwoman.

Jesus – doesn't Blair own anything casual? You'd think she'd have at least one casual outfit – but, of course, if she does have one, hopefully she's wearin it herself right now …

Jo finally found a pair of jeans, stepped into them and pulled them up. Too roomy – Blair was about Jo's height but far more curvaceous. No problem. Jo grabbed a belt from the closet, stuffed it through the belt loops, cinched it tight.

She tore the Chanel gown off over her head – literally; she heard something rip, felt the fabric give. Eff it! She can buy me a new one when she's back here, safe.

Jo found a deep blue Ralph Lauren T-shirt in one of the drawers. She pulled it over her head. If only Blair had a leather jacket. Even if it was a fancy one … Jo dug into the back reaches of the closet.

What … the … hell?

Jo touched the rich brown leather of the aviator's jacket. It was soft as butter. She stroked the fleece collar. It was a beautiful jacket, a beautiful piece of vintage workmanship. It was also too small for the busty heiress. It was, in fact –

My size, thought Jo. Must be, must be a present or somethin.

She reverently removed it from the hanger, slipped into it. A perfect fit.

Blair Warner, what are you up to? she wondered for the hundredth time that evening.

She almost missed the note, barreling her way out of the suite, but it caught her eye, a scrap of pink paper on the table by the door, held in place by a porcelain cupid.

"Jo," it read, in Blair's perfect handwriting, with her confident loops and flourishes, "if you're reading this, you've left the party and you're going to come after me. That's what I want you to do, Jo. That's what this whole weekend was leading up to, although I'd hoped to tell you in my own time. So come after me, Jo. With all my love, your faithful Airbrain."

Jo folded the note in half, shoved it into one of the jacket's many pockets.

Great note, Blair. Way to keep our forbidden love secret!

Servants were always in and out of these places; how many maids or butlers or whatnots had read Blair's message? Of course, if today ends with a little blackmail, it'll just be icin on the cake. I don't even think we'll bat a flippin eye!

The elevator seemed to take forever. Jo fumed. Waiting gave her time to think, and she didn't want to think. She wanted to sprout wings and fly to the South Bronx, sweep in and take Blair in her arms.

Christ, I wish I were Artemis. Goddess of the hunt, goddess of the moon … I'd dash over there in my chariot … If anyone was hasslin ya, my steeds and my chariot and I, we'd run 'em down …

Jo missed her bike, her real-life chariot, every day, but particularly at moments like this, when she was really pressed for time. Sorry, girl. I hadda sell ya. It was you or tuition ...

When Jo burst out of the elevator and into the lobby, she was annoyed not to see Mrs. Garrett at the front desk.

Jo strode to the counter, buttonholed the night concierge with an imperious eye.

"Any messages for Jo Polniaczek?" she demanded.

"Er, no," said the night concierge. He rapidly took in Jo's incredibly expensive jacket, the two-hundred-dollar shade of lipstick, the look of authority in her eyes and the confidence in her voice. Even at the Plaza, he could sense she was somebody!

"What about for Joanne Marie Polniaczek?" she demanded.

"No, ma'am. No messages for any persons of those names. I regret to say."

"Have you seen Edna Garrett? Short, red hair – feisty?"

He cringed. "I regret, ma'am, that I have seen no one of that name or description." It was very upsetting, having to answer constantly in the negative to this magnificent, frightening young woman. There was something about her, as if one more negative answer might result in a lightning bolt.

Instead, she simply spun on her heel and dashed out of the lobby, onto the street.

There were two cabs waiting. The drivers honked the horns.

"Jo!" trilled Mrs. Garret, leaning out of the first cab. "Come on!"

"Hey, Princess!" shouted Moose, leaning out of the second cab. "We'll follow, but where are we headed?"

Jo grinned. Now, these are friends, she thought.

"167th and Jerome!" Jo called.

The second cab driver popped his head out of the window.

"South Bronx?" he asked, incredulous. "I dunno 'bout that. Why you girls wanna go there?"

"Five-hundred dollars," said Moose, "if that's the last question you ask this evening."

The cabbie whistled appreciatively. "The South Bronx it is!"

"Wait!" shouted Alec, pounding down the steps of the Plaza. He'd changed out of his tux into jeans, white button-down shirt, navy blazer and pristine white Adidas sneakers – his idea, apparently, of high fashion in the Bronx.

"Buzz off, creep," Jo said warningly.

"Please, Jo. I've, I've been thinking about it, and I feel responsible. I feel, actually, physically ill. If anything does happen to Blair, I couldn't live with myself, I just –"

"Jeez, if you'll shut up you can go," Jo said impatiently.

Moose pushed open her door. "Shut up and get in," she told Alec.

Mrs. Garrett opened the door of the lead cab and Jo dove in, cramming herself between Mrs. Garrett and Tootie. Natalie sat in the front seat next to the driver.

"167th and Jerome," said Jo. "And don't spare the damn horses."

"We don't have horse," said the cabbie in a thick Krakow accent. "We have engine."

Jo dredged up some fragments of conversation from years ago, with her grandparents.

"I know you don't have horses," she said in Polish. "It's a joke."

"I know it's a joke," the cabbie told her in Polish. "It's not funny."


Driving into the South Bronx was like crossing an invisible border, teleporting into a completely different world.

Many of the streetlights were broken. The cabs' headlights washed over abandoned brick buildings, windowless, sometimes burned out, filigreed with graffiti.

Drifts of trash layered the sidewalks. Indistinct figures in dark clothing lounged on stoops, at the mouths of alleys.

In the front seat, Nat's eyes grew wider and wider. She pressed her nose against the passenger-side window, drinking it in.

Tootie had crossed her arms, an unconscious, defensive gesture, and hunched forward a little. Mrs. Garrett put a comforting arm around the girl's shoulder, but Mrs. Garrett looked uneasy herself.

There were plenty of dicey patches even in Manhattan, but Tootie, Natalie and Mrs. Garrett had never seen anything like this outside of the movies.

"Jo," Mrs. Garrett said quietly, "are you sure Blair came here?"

Jo nodded.

"Do we know why?"

Jo shook her head.

"Jo," said Tootie, "you don't think Blair is, is taking, you know, drugs or anything?"

Jo snorted. "No way!"

"How can you be sure?"

"Look, I'm sure."

Back when Jo went to public school in the Bronx, she'd known some kids who got caught up in drugs. There were plenty of signs, depending on the drug of choice, including weight loss, nosebleeds and needle marks; having just recently gone over every square inch of Blair's body, Jo could give the heiress a clean bill of health.

"But how?" Tootie asked insistently. "I mean, why else would Blair come to a place like this? Unless, unless she really is seeing some guy here."

"She's not," Jo said firmly. "I mean, she is, but it's not a romantic thing. That was all just … Look, I don't know what's goin on any more than you guys, but let's just hold our water till we see what's up."

"Why is it like this?" Natalie asked, so entranced with the landscape that Blair was the last thing on her mind. "Do people know about this?"

Jo laughed harshly. "Do people know about this? Are you for real, Nat?"

"I'm serious," said Nat. "What happened here?"

"Life, Nat. Cities rise and fall. The people with money moved into Manhattan, or north Westchester County. The criminals moved in here. They tagged everythin, they burned everythin, the ripped all the copper and brass and marble off the nice buildins. There's lotsa families here, ya know, just people, not crooks or anythin, we just keep our heads down. Keep your head down and your powder dry, like they say."

"Who says that?" asked Tootie.

"It's an expression, Toot. It means, be ready for anythin, anytime."

"Sounds like good advice tonight," said Mrs. Garrett, as the two cabs slid past an abandoned tenement with flames and smoke pouring from the upper windows.

"Don't the police protect the families?" asked Natalie.

"The police! Jeez, din't you see 'Fort Apache, The Bronx'?"

"No. Tootie and I saw 'Arthur' instead – remember?"

"Well, the police are more scared than anybody. I mean, I guess I shouldn't say that, they're probably doin what they can. But they seem ta send a lot of washouts here, like a punishment, and around here cops got big red bull's-eyes on their foreheads. They spend a lotta time hunkered down at the 41st ."

"The what?"

"The 41st. The 41st precinct station."

"But, how come it's like this?" Natalie asked. "How come nobody does anything?"

"Do what, Nat? Everyone's just busy gettin through life as best they can. Jeez, I'll give you guys a whole civics lesson later. All I can think about right now is Blair."

Mrs. Garrett squeezed Jo's hand reassuringly.

Tootie leaned her head against Mrs. Garrett's shoulder. "You kids don't know how lucky you are!" Her father was always saying that; her mother too, come to think of it. Harrison "Rifle" Ramsey, former football star, present big-time lawyer, and Judge Ramsey, her mother.

The Ramseys had raised their children in a large house in a swanky suburb of Washington, D.C. It was nothing like being a Warner, but it was a very comfortable life. All of the children were attending Ivy League colleges and exclusive prep schools.

"You kids don't know how lucky you are!" Suddenly, watching the South Bronx slide by her windows, Tootie knew.

Natalie couldn't keep her eyes off the broken, shattered landscape. Some of the old buildings looked like they'd once been nice, glamorous, even, in a "streamline moderne" way. The images outside the cab windows reminded her of photos of German cities after World War II.

Like there's been a war here, Nat thought.

She was reminded too of the haunting black-and-white photos Jacob Riis took in the late 1800's, images of New York's extreme poverty in the old days. Who knew that for some people, it's still the old days? she thought.

"Jo," Natalie said, "we've got to do something about this."

"Yeah, Nat, I'll get right on it."

"I mean it."

"I know you do. And that's sweet and all, but I grew up here, Nat, my whole life, so I think it can wait another day. Let's save Blair before we save the Bronx."

Mrs. Garrett was unusually quiet. She felt a little shell-shocked. She'd read Jo's file years ago. And, intellectually, she understood that there was crime and extreme poverty in the city. But she'd never been smack-dab in the middle of it. This was about as far a cry from the fresh air of Appleton, Wisconsin, where Mrs. Garrett grew up, as anyone could imagine.

She squeezed Jo's hand again. "Jo, you're an extraordinary young woman."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, Mrs. G." Jo was distracted, squinting through the darkness, reading street signs as they passed.

"We're almost there," the cabbie told her in Polish.

"Tak, wiem," said Jo. Yes, I know.

"Jo," Tootie said carefully, "you know I'll do anything for Blair. But, ah, what do we expect when we get to this club?"

"We should be safe in the club," said Jo. "There's a gun check."

"A gun check?" asked Natalie.

"Like a coat check," Jo explained. "But you leave your piece, instead of your mink. Uncle Sal does body work for the owners; they seem cool. My worry for Blair is she doesn't belong there. All she needs to do is pop off some well-meanin remark that rubs the wrong person the wrong way …"

Jo's Bronxese seemed to be getting thicker the deeper they drove into the Bronx.

"What kind of club is it?" asked Tootie.

"Disco Fever? It's, it's … jeez, it's tough ta explain."

"Disco Fever?" asked Nat, distracted from the ruined streets by such a ludicrous thought. "Jo, how would you know about this place? You hate disco."

"Yeah. I know. They called it Disco Fever, on account of it sounds catchy, ya know, 'Saturday Night Fever' was real popular at the time. But it ain't really a disco place. It's … the Fever's like … the music is like … it's this whole new sound. But who flippin cares? We ain't goin there ta dance, just to get Blair outta there before she starts a riot!"

The cab pulled up in front of a building with a single splash of light in front.

In the pool of light stood three young men with closely shaven hair, one white, one African-American, one Latino. They wore jeans, satin jackets, baseball caps and sneakers, not plain track shoes, but sneakers with unusual color combinations, red with green, green with yellow.

Jo glanced through the back window of their cab. The second cab containing Alec and the Langley Lions pulled up behind them.

"Look," Jo said to Mrs. Garrett, "you guys sit tight. Don't lose the cabs. We don't wanna be stranded here." Jo wrenched open the passenger door and leaped out of the vehicle.

"Wait, Jo!" trilled Mrs. Garrett.

Jo approached the three men in front of the entrance. Beside the door was what looked like a handmade sign, red and yellow lettering on a black background. "Disco Fever. Catch it! Sweet G. Kurtis Blow. Love Bug Starski."

"Hey, Jo," said the Latino boy. "Long time no see."

"Pauly in there?" Jo asked tersely.

"Yeah. Got here, like, an hour ago, mebbee. Nice ta see you too."

"Sorry, Rico. Kinda distracted tonight. You guys seen a pretty blonde girl, fish outta-water?"

The three young men grinned appreciatively. "You mean Angel?"

"Angel?"

"Rich girl. About yay high," Rico held his hand, palm flat, about an inch above Jo's head. "Kinda like Pollyanna crossed with Loni Anderson crossed with Princess Di."

"That's her."

Rico jerked his head toward the entrance. "Inside. Got here a little before you."

"Thanks!" Jo headed for the door, but Rico dropped a hand on her shoulder.

She gave him the Polniaczek death glare – pure ice.

"Cover," Rico said calmly.

"Oh. Yeah." Jo dug through her jeans pockets, pulled out a dollar bill.

Rico shook his head, held up five fingers.

"Five bucks?" Jo protested.

"You're wearin sneakers," Rico explained.

"C'mon, you're kiddin! You're wearin sneakers."

"Sure. Nothing wrong with wearin sneakers. Specially mine. But it's five bucks."

Jo tore another four bucks out of her pocket, stuffed them into Rico's hand.

"Damn highway robbery," she muttered.

The white boy and the African-American boy stepped aside so she could pass. They smiled pleasantly at her.

"You have a nice evenin, duchess," the white boy said amiably. Like the concierge at the Plaza, he had judged to a nicety her custom-made aviator jacket and her makeup.

"Turn blue, nerd!"

The young men laughed.

In the smoky foyer, Jo was patted down for weapons. She could hear music pumping from the dance floor. It was hot. Jo felt sweat beads forming instantly on her forehead. It felt like it was about two-hundred degrees, with all the people crammed into the place, dancing their asses off under the hot lights. The Fever smelled like sweat and cigarettes, beer and gin, hairspray, cologne, and illicit substances being smoked in back rooms.

No weapons being found, Jo was waved into the club.

All right, Angel – here I come ta save the day!


"I can't stand it another minute!" said Natalie.

She pushed open the passenger-side door, stepped out onto the sidewalk.

"Natalie!" shrilled Mrs. Garrett. "You get back into the car this instant! Jo told us to stay put, and that's what we're going to do."

"Jo's been gone forever," said Natalie.

"Nat, it's only been three minutes," said Tootie, holding up her wristwatch.

"Three minutes too long," Nat said decisively. She slammed the car door shut.

"Natalie!" cried Mrs. Garrett.

Tootie pushed open the car door and all but tumbled out.

"Tootie!" cried Mrs. Garrett.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Garrett," said Tootie, "but I can't let my best friend go in there alone."

"Well I can let either of you go in there alone!" said Mrs. Garrett. She slid her curvaceous, middle-aged figure across the bench seat, and climbed out of the cab. She leaned back in and spoke to the driver. "Please wait for us," she said.

"Tak," he nodded, "I wait for you."

Alec, Moose, Lurch, Jackrabbit and Lefty streamed out of the second cab.

"What's the program?" Alec asked Mrs. Garrett.

"I guess we're going inside," she said. "Make sure you tell your cab to –""

With a squeal of tires, the second cab tore away from the curb and rocketed away along 167th Street. The red taillights were pinpoints in an instant.

"Never mind," said Mrs. Garrett.

"Bloody hell!" swore Alec. "I told you girls to stay in the cab!"

"This might come as a surprise to you," Jackrabbit said in her crisp English voice, "but we are not your servants."

"If you were, you'd all be drawn and quartered," Alec said darkly.

"If Jo needs us, we're all going in," said Moose. "Langley Lions are 'all for one and one for all'."

"And now we're all stranded in the bowels of hell," said Alec. He turned to Mrs. Garrett. "'Lay on, Macduff. And damned be him,' er, her 'that first cries "Hold! Enough"'."

Mrs. Garrett stared at him blankly.

"You go first," he paraphrased.

"Oh. Yes."

Tootie shot Alec an appreciative look. "Pretty good," she said. "That's one of Shakespeare's most misquoted lines."

"Can we discuss the bard later?" demanded Natalie.

"Good evening, gentlemen," Mrs. Garrett said to the three young men at the door, who'd been watching the Plaza crew with a mix of amusement and confusion.

"Evenin, ma'am," Rico said politely.

"We need to go inside," said Mrs. Garrett.

Rico nodded. "Dollar for each girl, five for him."

"Why five for me?" Alec demanded.

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Alec, I think you can afford it."

"But why five?"

Rico looked pointedly at Alec's pristine white Adidas sneakers. "Five for sneakers," he said. "Club rules. You seem like a guy understands club rules."

"Who has money?" asked Mrs. Garrett, untangling a crumple of one-dollar bills in her purse. "I have, let's see, one, two, three, that's me, Tootie and Natalie. Four, five, six, seven –"

"Allow me," said Moose, peeling a twenty off the thick stack of bills from her clutch. She handed the twenty to Rico. "That should about do it."

Rico took it. "Thanks," he said, "but, you ain't gonna wanna flash that wad in there."

"Thanks for the advice." Moose tucked the money into her clutch.

"De nada. Listen, you guys with Polniaczek?"

"Jo's our best friend," said Tootie.

"And, ah, who are you people supposed ta be?" he asked curiously.

"Supposed to be?" asked Mrs. Garrett, confused.

"Yeah, I mean," he eyed their outfits, "do ya sing, or are ya like, with the burlesque, or what? Or are ya, like, like –"

Catching his meaning, Mrs. Garrett flushed. "We are the U.S. cavalry," she said with dignity.

"All right, then."

The young men stepped aside to let them pass.


It was so hot and smoky and crowded in the club, such a mass of writhing, dancing bodies, that it took Jo awhile to find Blair.

It was a melting-pot crowd, white, black, Latin, Asian, mostly young, mostly poor but wearing their best, out for a Saturday night dance fever in a musical oasis far, far away from their Monday-to-Friday cares.

The DJ was blasting a classic funk tune, pausing the music every few seconds to add his own comments, accompanying his patter with squeals and scratches from the vinyl records on his two turntables.

Behind the DJ, a band was warming up, their disconnected guitar riffs and percussion beats adding, in a strange way, to the DJ's sound.

"Yeah, man, what's the best club in town, the best club around?" the DJ called out repeatedly in his honey-sweet, deep voice.

"The Fever!" the crowd roared in response.

"I can't hear you!"

"The Fever!"

Jo finally spotted Blair near the center of the dance floor.

Jo's breath caught in her throat.

Blair was smiling from ear-to-ear, eyes sparkling, hair tossing as she danced. Blair, in jeans and a pretty but inexpensive – inexpensive? – blouse.

She was dancing with a boy, some tall kid with longish dark hair.

God, she's so beautiful.

It was like all the light in the room died away, except the lights on Blair's hair, her eyes, her smile. Everything around the blonde was dark and indistinct. She glowed like a goddess, body loose and free as she danced.

It's like in "West Side Story", when Tony meets Maria at the dance, thought Jo. Love at first sight … only for me, it's thousandth sight. Every time I see her, I just fall in love all over again. Will I ever lose this? Will there ever be a time I see her, and my heart doesn't stop beatin for a second?

Jo slipped between a knot of dancers, moved to Blair's side.

Blair saw her lover, smiled even brighter.

"Jo," she said over the music, taking the brunette's hand. "Finally!"

"Blair, what the hell ya doin here?"

Blair raised her eyebrows. "Dancing," she said innocently.

"You know what I mean! What's all this about?"

Blair released Jo's hand. "Jo Polniaczek, please allow me to present someone I think you already know pretty well. Jo, meet Paul Largo."

The tall kid with the longish dark hair turned to face Jo head-on. The young man grinned sheepishly.

"Pauly!" Jo said, staring incredulously at her cousin. "I told ya to watch out for her, not dance with her!"

"Oh, Pauly and I are old friends," Blair said. "We go way back."

"Way back," Pauly agreed, blushing.

"All the way back to about three weeks ago," said Blair.

Jo's eyes narrowed. "You," she said to her cousin. "You're the mystery guy in the Bronx!"

He nodded, blushing even deeper. "I'm sorry, Jo. When ya called me this evenin, I almost, I wanted ta tell ya. I was actually already on my way over here! At first when ya called, I thought the jig was up! You know I hate ta keep anythin from you. Especially since you can kick my ass. But Blair said it'd be OK."

"Oh she did, did she?" Jo asked grimly. She turned to Blair. "And what do you have ta say for yourself? You had me worried sick. What the hell is goin on?"

"Jo," Blair said, "your pants are falling down."

"Huhn?"

Jo looked down at her waist. Blair's jeans, too large for her, were indeed starting to slide down, giving her a bit of a plumber's crack. "For Pete's sake!" Jo tried to cinch the belt tighter. "Ya mighta left me something that fits," she complained. "D'ja think I was gonna follow ya in my ball gown?"

"You were in a ball gown?" goggled Pauly. He hooted, slapped his knee.

"Pauly, you're lookin ta swallow some teeth!" warned Jo, struggling with the belt.

"Here," said Blair, reaching out and pushing Jo's hands aside. Blair deftly unbuckled the belt, slid it tighter, fastened the clasp. "How's that?"

Jo gave Blair a quick look. That was like, the sexiest thing ever, said her look.

Aloud she complained, "Eh, they still feel all loose. They're gonna fall down."

"Well, that's as tight as it goes," said Blair. "You'll just have to live with it. Who knows? Maybe you'll start a new fashion."

"Har-har. And you still ain't answered my question."

"I guess I can go now," said Pauly, trying to slip away.

"Guess again!" said Jo. "What's your part in these shenanigans?"

"Shenanigans? Jo, cuz – you're really startin ta go soft," he teased.

Jo curled four fingers into a fist. "Wanna see how soft?" she threatened.

"Er, no. Not really," he said.

"Pauly's been a dream," said Blair. "If it wasn't for him, none of this would've been possible."

"Oh, it was all you," said Pauly. "I just helped." He turned to Jo. "You got the best friend ever," he told his cousin. "I wish I had a best friend like her. None of this woulda happened without her."

"None of what? What're we doin here?" asked Jo.

"Surprising you," said Blair.

"Well, consider me surprised!"

"Jo! Blair!" trilled a high, fluting voice that soared above the music.

"Is that Mrs. Garrett?" Blair asked wonderingly.

"You ain't the only one with a surprise," said Jo. She caught sight of Mrs. Garrett's red bun on the other side of the floor, and right behind it the tall forms of Moose, Lurch and Alec.

"Yo!" yelled Jo, waving her arms above the crowded dance floor. "Over here!"

With feisty Mrs. Garrett and towering Moose, Lurch and Alec at the lead, "the cavalry" easily parted the crowd.

"It's like Moses and the Red Sea," Pauly said admiringly. "Who are all these people?"

"My friends," Jo said proudly.

"Our friends," Blair corrected.

"Looks kinda like a drag revue," Pauly said, eyeing Moose and Lurch uncertainly. "Ooph!" as Jo elbowed him in the stomach.

"Lay offa my friends, Pauly," said Jo.

"Jeez!" Pauly clutched his stomach. "Can't a guy make a joke?"

"Not about my friends, no."

"Blair!" Reaching them, Mrs. Garrett swept Blair into a smothering hug. Tootie and Natalie swarmed the pair. "Thank goodness you're all right!"

"Of course I'm all right, Mrs. Garrett. I'm perfectly fine." Blair disentangled herself gently from her friends. "I'm sorry Jo worried you."

"I worried them? Me?" Jo demanded.

"Yes, dah-, Jo, or else they wouldn't look so concerned." Blair put one hand on Mrs. Garrett's shoulder, one hand on Tootie's. "It's just a little surprise I've been cooking up for Jo, with her cousin's help. Everyone, this is Paul Largo."

"The mystery man from the Bronx!" Tootie crowed triumphantly.

"None other. We've been meeting at the Fever as a sort of command central," Blair explained. "Have you ever heard music like this before? Isn't it astonishing?"

Mrs. Garrett put a hand to her head. "Astonishing is one word," she said wryly.

"It's called 'disco rap' or 'break mixing'," said Blair. "It's very compelling, don't you think?"

"Marshall has a record that sounds like this," said Tootie, referring to her older brother. "But he didn't call it 'disco rap' or 'break mixing'. He called it something else."

"Oh, it's something else," said Mrs. Garrett. "Blair, I'm so glad that you're all right. But, since you are, I think I need to get to a quieter place."

"Is your headache coming back again?" Blair asked solicitously. She took Mrs. Garrett's arm. "Come on; let's all go backstage."

"Eh, Blair, you can't just go backstage," objected Jo.

"Of course I can." Guiding Mrs. Garrett, Blair headed toward a door near the stage. Tootie, Natalie and Pauly followed.

"What do we do?" Alec asked Jo.

She shrugged. "We follow, and keep her from gettin her ass kicked when she tries to barge backstage."

Oddly enough, when Blair reached the door, a mustached man with dark hair grinned at her and gave her a little bow. He appeared to be about thirty, and was nattily dressed.

He gave Blair a peck on the cheek, briefly embraced Mrs. Garrett, Tootie and Nat. He clapped Pauly on the shoulder. He stood aside and let them all walk backstage.

"That's Mr. A," Jo said wonderingly.

"Who?" asked Alec.

"He runs the club. His pop owns it."

"Well he seems to be acquainted with Blair."

When Jo and Alec and the Lions drew abreast of Mr. A, she nodded politely to the man.

"Hi, uh, Mr. A."

"You must be Jo," he said.

"Uh, yeah. Nice place here." Somehow she felt more nervous meeting this local Bronx celebrity than she had been seeing Kissinger tripping the light fantastic in the Plaza's Grand Ballroom.

"Thanks," said Mr. A. "Pop and I are pretty proud of what we're doin here. Your uncle's Sal Largo?"

"Yes, sir."

"He did some work on my pop's car."

"Yes, sir."

"Angel has a quite a surprise for you, Jo."

"'Angel'?"

"Miss Warner," said Mr. A. "You know anythin about show business? No? An angel is an investor. Miss Warner is gonna invest in a film about our little place here. We're gonna get this music out ta the world."

Jesus, Blair sure has the world on a string! thought Jo. A film about the Fever! What next?

"That's great," said Jo. "Can we, uh, go backstage, sir?"

"Course. How else ya gonna get your surprise?" Mr. A chucked her under the chin fondly. He nodded at Alec, looked appraisingly at Moose, Lurch, Jackrabbit and Lefty in their resplendent gowns. "You signed ta anybody?" he asked them.

"Pardon?" asked Jackrabbit.

"They're already under contract," Jo said hastily.

Mr. A slipped a piece of pasteboard into Jo's hand. His business card. "They're free, give me a call. They sing, right?"

"Right," said Jo. "Thanks."

She darted backstage, Alec and the Lions on her heels.

It was the usual cavernous backstage maze. There was a strong smell of illicit, hazy pleasures filtering from behind closed doors. Yeah, thought Jo, David Warner would really want his daughter producin a movie about this place! Holy shit! Blair Warner – an original B-girl, straight outta the Bronx!

They pressed onward until they came to the delivery area, where caged industrial lights hanging from the rafters dropped columns of harsh white light.

Mrs. Garrett, Tootie and Natalie stood off to one side, chattering excitedly. They beamed at Jo when they saw her. Pauly was nowhere to be seen. Must've slipped out the back door, thought Jo. I'll deal with him later!

Blair stood in the center of the delivery bay, standing next to something draped in a green tarp.

"Hi, Jo," she said, eyes twinkling.

"Hi, yourself," Jo said crankily. "So what's all this about? Whadja get us all down here for?"

Blair placed her hand on the tarp, twitched at it. It slid partly off the object, but caught on something. Blair pulled at it again.

"For Pete's sake," said Jo, striding to Blair. "If ya need help, just say so."

"I need help, Jo," Blair said. Only the most intense effort allowed her to keep her voice steady.

Jo gripped the tarp with both hands. "What the hell are you hidin under here anyway?"

"Language, Jo," Blair chided softly.

Jo gave the tarp a couple of good, strong tugs. It lifted, flapped, fell away.

Jo gasped.

In the bright column of light, her Kawasaki motorcycle gleamed.

The bike she'd had to sell to help pay for college.

Her bike. My baby.

Tears ran down Jo's face. She looked at Blair with infinite gratitude.

"You told me your Uncle Sal found the buyer," Blair said quietly. "So I got Pauly to find out who it was. We tracked him down, but he'd sold it, I mean, her, for parts. So Pauly found the shop, and he made them an offer, but they wanted more. He turned them down, and he thought they were going to scrap her. He thought he made a mistake playing hardball. So he left those urgent messages at mother's …"

"I get it," Jo said, wiping her eyes. "My God. Blair. You have no idea …"

"So, you're happy?"

"The happiest."

Jo forgot about Mrs. Garrett, Tootie, Natalie, Alec, her teammates. All she saw was her Kawasaki and her lover, both glowing in the shaft of pure light.

Jo folded the blonde in her arms, hugged her so tightly she heard Blair exhale sharply.

"I love you," Jo whispered in Blair's ear. "I love you, I love you, I love you."

Jo's face was damp against Blair's. Blair's eyes filled with tears of her own.

"I'm so glad you like it, darling" she whispered. "But we have an audience."

Jo released Blair reluctantly from the crushing hug.

"You're the best friend ever, Blair," Jo said loudly.

We gotta tell 'em soon. We gotta find a way. I can't do this much longer.

"Well, it was no big deal," Blair said, trying to sound nonchalant, wiping her eyes. She sniffled. "I just, you know, got so tired of your fuh-, frequent complaints about missing your bike."

Jo laughed.

"So this is where you've been picking up your colorful vocabulary!"

"Well, you know what they say … you can take the debutante out of the Bronx, but you can't take the Bronx out of the debutante."

Jo ran her fingers over the Kawasaki's handle bars, the gas tank, the seat.

"Blair … you know I'm going to pay you back for this?"

"Of course. Polniaczeks pay their way. I know the drill by now. Wouldn't have it any other way."

Jo's arms, her heart, literally ached to crush Blair against her again.

"What a lovely surprise," said Mrs. Garrett. She'd given the two girls a few moments together, holding back Natalie and Tootie, but now everyone swarmed the pair.

"Jolly nice ride," said Jackrabbit, admiring the Kawasaki.

"So this is the famous bike," said Moose. "Nice. I suppose." For all her bulk, Petal Von Schuylkill was one of the most feminine creatures Jo would ever meet.

Tootie and Natalie hugged the stuffing out of Blair.

"What's all this about?" laughed the heiress.

"I'm so sorry!" said Tootie.

"Me too!" said Nat.

"Sorry for what?"

"That we could ever think you would steal Jo's boyfriend," said Tootie.

"Ex-boyfriend," corrected Natalie.

"Either way," continued Tootie. "Blair, you are the best friend in the history of best friends. Except for Nat," she added loyally.

"And except for Tootie," said Natalie.

"Eh, what am I?" asked Jo. "Chopped liver?"

Blair pursed her lips. "I don't know, Polniaczek. What have you done for any of us lately?"

"What have I done? Jeez, I don't know, just racin down here to save your ass, which didn't even need savin!"

"Language, Jo!" everyone said at once. Jo laughed.

"Oh, so it's like that," said Jo, pretending to be miffed. "Well, I know when I ain't wanted."

She climbed onto the bike. Jesus, this is awesome. Hello again, girl!

There were two brand new helmets on the floor next to the bike, one white, one black. Jo leaned down, picked up the white one. She slid it over her head.

"How do you know that one's yours?" Blair teased.

"Because you always say black is slimmin." Jo leaned down, picked up the black helmet and handed it to Blair. "Whaddya think, Warner? You finally ready ta take a ride with me?"

Blair's smile was the answer. She pulled the helmet on. She slid her arms around Jo's waist.

The key was in the ignition. Jo turned it. She revved the engine.

"Jo!" cried Mrs. Garrett. "Blair! Are you going back to the Plaza?"

Jo gave her a thumbs up.

"Wait!" shouted Alec. "Our cab fled! How are we all getting back to the hotel?"

Blair and Jo shrugged. Jo unleashed the Kawasaki's full power. She and Blair tore down the delivery ramp, through the bay doors and onto the streets of the Bronx.

"Jo!" yelled Alec. "Blair!"

They roared away. Alec's last image of them that night was of two goddesses racing at top speed on the shadowy wings of the night.

"Artemis," he murmured, shaking his head. "Aphrodite."

"What are you mumbling about?" demanded Jackrabbit.

"Oh, nothing, Lady Messerschmitt," he said. "Just wondering how in the bloody hell we're getting back to the Plaza. We won't all fit in one cab."

"I'll give you a ride in my van," offered Pauly, emerging from behind a stack of boxes. "Now that it's safe to come out."


"Where did you two go that night?" Tootie asked years later. "We never got a straight answer out of you on that one."

"Drove around," Jo said simply. "All over the city."

"All night," added Blair. "It was dawn when we got back to the Plaza. We were coasting on fumes. Do you know I'd never been on a motorcycle before? It just never came up. Seeing the city like that, from the back of Jo's bike –"

"It was amazing," Jo agreed. "I'd been on my bike a million times, but seeing the city through Blair's eyes – it was all fresh and new."

"That's all well and good, but you missed one hell of an after party!" said Natalie. "Grandmaster Flash hitched a ride with us. And he brought his turntables. You haven't lived till you've seen Kissinger break dance!"

"And he was actually pretty fly!" said Tootie. "But you won't read about that in his biography."

"The best part," said Nat, "was when Dustin Hoffman got Mrs. Garrett out on the dance floor."

"The best part for me," said Tootie, "was singing with Janet with for the first time."

"We didn't miss anything," Jo said firmly. "Because the best part of that night was riding with Blair. And the best part of the morning – "

"Of course," said Blair, with a soft smile.


1983. Sunday morning after their Saturday night at the Fever. Jo and Blair's suite at the Plaza.

Jo arched her back, crying out in ecstatic agony as Blair finally, finally brought her lover over the edge into full-blown orgasm. Jo fell back against the pillows, sheened with sweat, hair wild.

Blair lapped gently at Jo's sex, then trailed kisses through the tangle of dark hair, up Jo's stomach, over Jo breasts and her collarbone.

"Mmmn," Jo said lazily.

Blair nuzzled Jo's throat. Jo was always energized after she came. But this time …

Blair nuzzled Jo's ear. "Jo? Darling?"

Jo snored softly.

"Jo?" Blair shook Jo's shoulder gently. Then … not so gently.

"Wha?" Jo mumbled wearily.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Blair asked, with what she felt was model restraint.

"Mmmn?"

"It's my turn now, darling," prompted Blair.

"Mmn … later," Jo mumbled.

Blair stared. Oh, no, Polniaczek. This is simply not acceptable.

Jo began snoring again.

Blair shook Jo's shoulder, quite ungently.

"Jo? Jo?"

Jo woke from her half-doze with a snort. She looked confused for a moment. "Blair … please … we drove all night …"

"So this is it?" Blair demanded, frankly pouting.

She yanked the sheet up over her generous breasts, sulkily turning her back to Jo.

Jo groaned. She forced her eyes open, lifted herself onto one elbow. She stroked Blair's bare shoulders, kissed Blair's shoulder blades with great gentleness.

"Blair. Babe. Light of my life."

"Hmph!" said Blair. She pulled the sheet up over her shoulders and rolled to the other side of the enormous bed.

Jo groaned again. Well, she thought … fall in love with a princess …

Jo scooted across the bed, slid her arms around Blair's waist.

"I love you, Blair." She kissed Blair's hair. "I love you forever."

"So you say," Blair said coolly.

"You feel so good," Jo murmured, pressing against Blair's back. She lifted her hands to Blair's large breasts, stroked them gently. "You always feel so good."

"So you … say," gasped Blair.

"So I say," Jo agreed.

She released Blair, climbed out of the enormous bed.

"Hey!" said Blair. "You can't just start the engine and then just leave it in neutral."

"Your automotive references are gettin a lot better, babe," Jo said admiringly, as she disappeared into the closet.

Blair heard the brunette rummaging around; it sounded like Jo was looking for something. There was muffled cursing.

"Jo? What are you doing?"

More cursing. The sound of a drawer slamming.

Jo reappeared. She sat on the edge of the bed.

"C'mere, Blair."

Blair folded her arms over her breasts. "Why should I?"

"Blair. C'mere."

Jo looked so sincere. She had her hands behind her back, hiding … what? A gift of some sort?

Blair's curiosity won out. She scooted across the bed and sat next to Jo.

"Yes?"

Jo took Blair's left hand.

"Blair," Jo said, keeping her own left hand hidden behind her back. "I have known you now for more than three years. We've been through thick and thin. You've always been there for me. I know I kinda, I had a habit of runnin when things got hard. You're the one, well, you and Mrs. G, you got me to stop runnin, to hang in there."

Jo kissed Blair's left hand. "Even last night, when your ma dropped that crazy bombshell, when I thought maybe you were, like, steppin out on me, I knew I hadda stay and figure it out."

Blair rolled her eyes. "I still can't even believe you thought for one minute – "

"Blair. Please, babe. Let me say this."

"Sorry. Proceed," Blair said magnanimously.

Jo cleared her throat. "I think I've loved ya since I first saw ya. First heard your voice, first smelled your Aviance. Since the first time ya pissed me off, which was the first time I met you. It took me a while to figure it out. To get that you weren't just a friend, even a best friend, that you were … you're the love of my life, Blair. It doesn't make sense, and anyone would think we're crazy, but, whether it makes sense or not, I'm not ever gonna love anyone like I love you. Like I've always loved you."

Blair's eyes glistened. A tear spilled onto one cheek. She tried to speak but her throat was closed with emotion. Instead she kissed Jo's mouth, once, softly.

"You're not the only one with a surprise this weekend," Jo continued. "When you invited me up here, I had no idea how this weekend would turn out – Jeez, who coulda predicted how this cockamamie weekend would turn out? But I decided I wanted to give you somethin special to show you just how much you mean to me."

Still holding Blair's left hand, Jo slipped gracefully from the bed, got down on one knee.

Blair's breath caught in her throat.

"Blair, it's not like we can do this officially or legally or whatever, but I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to marry you." Jo's heart pounded in her chest. "Blair Warner, will you marry me?"

Blair made an inarticulate little cry. Tears streamed down her face.

"Are you OK?" Jo asked, frightened. I scared her. I totally freaked her out!

Blair leaned off the bed, throwing her right arm around Jo, hugging the brunette fiercely. She nodded vehemently.

"You're OK?" Jo asked again.

More vehement nodding.

"And, will you marry me?"

More nodding. Blair kissed Jo's hair. She couldn't speak with words; she tried to make her thoughts known with gestures.

Jo felt like her heart was going to burst with joy.

"Oh, Blair, I love ya so much, you don't know!"

"I know," Blair managed to whisper huskily. "I know, Jo."

"Here." Jo slid a little silver ring onto the third finger of Blair's left hand. "It's just, it ain't anythin special. My gramma left it to me. It was her engagement ring. Just plain silver, something my gramp got her in Poland, before they came here. I think, it seems like it fits ya pretty good."

Blair held out her left hand, tilted it, saw the light wink off the small silver band.

"It's beautiful," she managed. "God. Jo. It's beautiful." She cleared her throat. "Come here." She pulled gently at Jo, who climbed back onto the bed. Blair took Jo in her arms, laid her head against Jo's chest. "Your heart is pounding," Blair said huskily.

"Adrenalin," laughed Jo. She felt giddy. She felt drunk. She said yes! Blair said yes!

Jo lay back against the pillows, tightening her grip around Blair.

"Jo," said Blair, "we won't ever let anything come between us."

"That's right," said Jo. "No matter what, Blair, we're gonna find a way to be together."

"It won't be easy," Blair said.

"Hey, haven't you noticed?" asked Jo. "You and me – we don't do easy. It's always the hard way for us!"

Blair laughed. "That's true."

"So we're engaged, Blair."

"We're engaged," Blair said dreamily.

They lay quietly in each other's arms for a time. Jo's heartbeat finally slowed to a steady rhythm.

We're engaged. We're engaged! Jo couldn't believe her good fortune. To have found her best friend, the love of her life – and to be loved back. Completely, without reservation.

She loves me, Blair thought dreamily. The love of my life loves me. Never wants to be without me.

"This moment," Blair murmured, "couldn't be more perfect."

Rrrrriiiiiiiing. Rrrrrrriiiiing. A shrill bell pierced their roseate halo.

"What the hell is that?" grumbled Jo.

"Will you get more grumpy, or less grumpy, do you think, as you age?" wondered Blair.

"More grumpy, probably," Jo said honestly. "So fasten your seatbelt, babe."

Rrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!

Jo sat up. "What the hell is that? Is that the phone? 'Cause I'm gonna rip it outta the wall."

"That," sighed Blair, "is the doorbell."

"Oh. Well, we're gonna ignore it."

The bell stopped ringing, but was quickly followed by the sounds of fists pounding on the suite door downstairs.

"That's Tootie," said Jo.

"And Natalie," said Blair.

"Well, let 'em knock. We're not in."

"Jo!"

"We can't open the door like this, can we?" Jo gestured to their mutual nudity.

Blair untangled herself from Jo and the sheets.

"Hey!" Jo protested.

Blair went to the closet, found a Plaza Hotel bathrobe and pulled it on.

"Come on," pleaded Jo. "They'll give up. They'll go to breakfast. We'll see them later."

The pounding intensified.

"Jo," Blair said, "I assume that I will manage the social engagements in our marriage?"

"I, ah, hadn't really given that a lot of thought yet." Or, to be honest, any thought at all.

"Well, I will. And on a gloriously happy occasion such as this, we have to welcome our dearest friends with open arms."

"We do? I mean, Blair, it's not even like we can tell 'em the news."

"We have to welcome them," Blair said sweetly, "unless you want to sleep on the couch downstairs, alone, after they leave."

Jo's eyes narrowed. "Now, hang on a sec. That's blackmail, Warner."

"Warner-soon-to-be-Polniaczek," corrected Blair.

"Oh. Yeah." Jo's head felt funny again, giddy and drunk.

"You were saying?" asked Blair.

"Oh. Nothin." Jo climbed off the bed, slipped into the robe that Blair was holding open for her.

"We can't share the news with them," Blair said, "but we can share our good mood."

"You're right."

Jo pulled Blair into her arms. She lifted the heiress like a young groom about to carry his bride across a threshold. Blair sighed happily, laying her head against Jo's breast.

Jo smiled down at the blonde, her shy, crooked smile. Blair gazed up at Jo, eyes sparkling.

"When we feel so happy," Jo said quietly, "I mean, you're right; it'd be a crime not to share it."

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Will you," Blair's voice broke a little, "will you love me for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live?"

"Already do." Jo kissed her. "Blair?"

"Yes?"

"Will you love me for richer and poorer, sickness and health, till death do us part?"

"Yes," said Blair, "but it won't. Nothing is going to part us."

Jo kissed Blair again. All Jo wanted to do was place Blair on the bed, stretch out beside her, hold her close until they both drifted into a perfect sleep.

But downstairs, Tootie and Natalie started pounding on the suite door again. Rrrrrriiiiiiing trilled the doorbell.

"Let's share our joy quickly," said Jo. "Cause after they leave, the honeymoon begins. Well, first a nap. To gather our strength for the honeymoon. And then, the honeymoon."

"I like how you think, Polniaczek."

"Eh, I got my moments."

The End

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