DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Beauty Crowds Me: Chapter 15 of 16 Chapters. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 2, Episode 15, Free Spirit.
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THANKS: To Stacey for the Beta.
Beauty Crowds Me
15: The Family We Choose
Blair Warner awoke to the sound of birds whistling outside her window. A smile was already forming on her face before she opened her eyes. She sighed lightly as she studied Jo's features while the other girl slept.
Jo's mouth was slightly open, occasionally expelling a sound which Tootie claimed was snoring and her hair had fallen loose from its clips and was protruding in all directions. From Blair's perspective, the tangled mass covering half of Jo's face was cute. The whistling sounds emanating from Jo sounded like hummingbirds and when Jo stretched and grunted while waking, Blair was reminded of a sleek panther, ready to pounce at a moment's notice.
Perfectly content with her life, Blair looked down to make sure that Snuggle Bear was sufficiently hidden beneath the bed covers and drowsily closed her eyes.
Jo Polniaczek awoke with a start. A frown was already forming on her face before she opened her eyes. Jo often woke before her alarm clock sounded, her body rarely failed to begin stirring soon after daybreak. Today, however, the sun had barely risen and it was much too early to begin getting ready for class.
Jo sighed heavily as she studied the features of the girl sleeping in the bed next to hers. On Blair's bedside table were enough bottles of lotions and nail polish to stock an entire drugstore. Numerous curlers dangled from her hair and her thumb rested precariously close to her mouth.
'Who does she think she's fooling by trying to hide that stupid little bear?' thought Jo. 'She probably smuggled that old thing into our hotel room on our field trip to New York. What kind of seventeen-year-old still sleeps with a stuffed animal? This is just great, I'm dating a four-year-old.'
Jo scanned the room, trying to determine what had awakened her. Eyeing the open window, she groaned as she rolled out of bed and slammed the window shut with a bang.
"Damn noisy birds."
The sound, of course, woke up her sleeping roommates. Jo turned from the window and scowled at the sleepy eyes observing her, which only made Blair's smile grow wider.
"What are you looking at? Did I drool or something?"
Blair continued to smile pleasantly.
Jo glanced at her other roommates, concerned that they might also note the silly look of adoration on Blair's face.
"You look goofy." Jo mumbled.
Blair's smile quickly turned into a pout.
"I do not look goofy."
Jo walked over and patted Blair on the head as she passed her bed.
"Don't get mad. I'm used to you looking goofy."
After Jo left their room to go to the bathroom, Blair got out of bed and looked at herself in the mirror. She quickly removed the curlers from her hair and ensured that her nightgown was strategically placed for maximum effect.
Jo had also awakened Natalie, but it usually took an alarm clock and three or four nudges from Natalie to wake Tootie. Natalie wasn't surprised to find Blair carefully observing herself in the mirror.
"Good morning, Blair, you're out of bed earlier than usual."
"Natalie, do I look sexy?"
Natalie shook her head, making sure that she was really awake.
"Look at me."
Blair twirled around and pointed to the silk nightgown she was wearing.
"Maybe I'm wearing the wrong color. Does this color make me look goofy?"
'Ah,' thought Natalie. 'Jo has wasted no time irritating Blair. Can't they wait until after breakfast to start criticizing one another?'
"Uh, no, goofy, no."
Tootie, who had only been pretending to sleep since that's when she normally heard the best secrets, decided to assist her best friend, who was suddenly having trouble forming sentences.
"I think you look sexy, Blair. You always look good in blue."
"I do look sexy, don't I?"
Tootie looked down at her pre-teen body and back up at Blair.
"Yeah, you fill out your nightie in all the right places, Blair. How long do you think it will take for me to fill mine?"
Blair once again examined her body, looking for imperfections, before glancing at Tootie.
"You look fine, Tootie. You're not supposed to fill out your nightie until you get older."
Natalie looked back and forth between her two roommates, still half asleep.
"Because you're too young to be thinking about sex." Natalie grumbled.
Jo laughed from the doorway.
"Why are we talking about sex first thing in the morning?"
'How can she possibly take a shower that fast?' thought Blair when Jo joined the conversation.
"No one is talking about sex."
Tootie threw her legs over the side of the top bunk bed and grinned at Jo.
"Blair wants to know if she looks sexy in her new nightie."
Jo was halfway into the room when she turned to look at Blair, who was still standing in front of the mirror. What she saw took her breath away. The goofy grin on Blair's face was all Jo had noticed earlier while Blair was still tucked beneath her sheets. Jo had only seen a glimmer of the silk nightgown which was clinging provocatively to Blair's body. The childlike girl Jo had observed earlier that morning had morphed into an unsettlingly alluring woman.
With her face hidden from Tootie and Natalie, who were behind Jo, she stared openly at Blair, swallowing hard as her eyes drifted up and down her girlfriend's scantily clad body. An image of Blair standing in the dressing room at Harrison's Department Store flashed through Jo's mind, causing her to shiver. When Jo's eyes returned to Blair's, she realized that Blair had very correctly read her thoughts. Blushing with embarrassment at having been caught undressing Blair in her mind, Jo mumbled the first thing that came to her.
"I don't think it's turned warm enough to be wearing something like that, Blair. You look a little cold to me."
Blair couldn't have gotten a clearer image of what Jo had been thinking if the brunette had drawn a picture. Satisfied that Jo still found her attractive, Blair rolled her eyes dramatically and climbed back into bed, pulling the sheet up to her neck. She smiled wickedly as she decided to turn the tables on Jo. 'Let's see how she likes being mentally undressed.'
"Jo doesn't know anything about fashion, she'd be happy sleeping in nothing."
Natalie, who had almost hurt herself craning her neck to get a glimpse of Jo's face when she turned to look at Blair, was the first to laugh.
"Yeah, imagine Jo standing there naked. Now that would be sexy."
Jo was self-consciously pulling at her clothes as Natalie and Tootie laughed hysterically.
"Hey, cut it out. Stop lookin' at me like that or I'm gonna have to hurt somebody."
"What, since when isn't it sexy to be naked?"
Jo's embarrassment only increased when Blair joined Natalie and Tootie in giggling at Jo's expense.
"You're all weird." Jo muttered as she stormed out of their room.
Blair went to the bathroom shortly after Jo left the room, always grateful for any additional time in the shower.
"Okay, Tootie. You wanted proof. Come with me Saturday and you'll get it."
"Jo told Mrs. Garrett that she is going to spend the entire day at the library Saturday helping Miss Gallagher."
"So, I don't believe her. Jo is always telling Mrs. Garrett that she's helping Miss Gallagher with something. She can't possibly be spending all that time with a teacher. Jo is using Miss Gallagher as an excuse to see her girlfriend. Miss Gallagher doesn't even work in the library."
Tootie looked skeptically at her friend.
"I don't know, Nat. I don't want to waste my entire day following Jo around campus."
"That's okay. I'll just find someone else to help me."
"I haven't decided yet. I'll probably get someone older, who understands what it's like to be in love to help me. I shouldn't have asked you in the first place. You're much too young."
"I am not too young! I can follow Jo around better than anyone and she won't be suspicious if she sees me."
Natalie pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"Okay, you can come along, but you can't whine."
Saturday morning, Jo left the cafeteria as soon as she finished breakfast, with Tootie and Natalie following close behind.
"This is stupid. We're going to wind up at the library."
Natalie frowned at her pessimistic friend. Jo had been walking straight toward the library, but Natalie was sure that she was going to veer off in another direction any second.
"You'll see, just keep watching."
The two younger girls followed Jo all the way to the library and watched as Miss Gallagher opened the door for Jo to enter.
Tootie shook her head in disgust.
"See, Natalie. Jo is helping Miss Gallagher, just like she said."
Natalie didn't see. Her eyes were bulging out of her head and she was pulling Tootie away from the path, into the bushes.
"Ouch! What is wrong with you?"
"Didn't you see?"
"See what? Jo met Miss Gallagher, just like she said she would."
Natalie excitedly grabbed Tootie by the shoulders.
"Exactly! Why didn't I see it before? Jo's always helping Miss Gallagher. She carries her books around campus for her. She's been to her house. She stops by her classroom almost every day just to talk to her."
"That's why Jo was telling Blair that she had a problem with her girlfriend. Jo is in love with Miss Gallagher, but they can't be together because teachers can't date students. It's so romantic."
"Miss Gallagher is really old."
"No, she's probably in her early twenties. Jo's almost seventeen."
Tootie still wasn't convinced.
"Jo and Miss Gallagher, that's creepy. There's no way Jo could fall for a teacher and I don't think Miss Gallagher would do something like that anyway."
Natalie raised her eyebrows.
"Just like there was no way Blair could fall for a headmaster?"
Tootie's reasoning hit a glitch. Blair had fallen hard for Mr. Bradley the previous year.
"I don't know, Natalie. You'd better be sure about this."
Natalie looked up and down the walking path before whispering to Tootie.
"I have a plan."
"What are you going to do?"
"We're going to start following Miss Gallagher."
Tootie nodded conspiratorially.
Jo was surprised when she entered the library to see Miss Gallagher dressed casually in shorts and a brightly colored shirt.
"Hi, Jo, where's Blair?"
"She'll be here soon. Mrs. Garrett needed someone to go to the store with her today. I told Blair to go with her and that I'd explain. It's okay, isn't it?"
"Sure. Mrs. Muldoon can't be here either. It's just you and me."
Jo looked around at the piles of books surrounding Miss Gallagher and winced.
"It looks like we're going to be here for a while."
"Don't worry, Jo. It looks worse than it is and having someone to talk with makes the time go quickly."
"Uh, I was kind of hoping that we'd have a chance to talk a little before Blair gets here."
Miss Gallagher raised her eyebrows and grinned at Jo.
"Trouble in paradise? I thought you and Blair were doing very well since her birthday."
"Good. Do you mind if we get started on these books while we talk?"
"No, I think it might be easier to talk if I don't have to look at you."
Miss Gallagher tilted her head and tried to look offended, drawing laughter from Jo.
"I didn't mean it like that. It's just kind of personal."
As the two started sorting the books, Jo awkwardly began.
"You already figured out that it's about Blair?"
"Yes, Jo. That's a given."
"Um, you know how I've been trying to win her back by being nice and doing things for her?"
"Uh, it worked."
"She's not confused about her feelings for you any longer?"
"She's the least confused person I've ever met." Jo sighed.
Miss Gallagher had no doubt that Jo's efforts had paid off. The huge smile on Jo's face as she had practically skipped into the library was all the evidence Gail needed to know that Jo was happy with the status of her relationship with Blair.
"That's wonderful, Jo. Isn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Miss Gallagher stopped sorting books and looked over at Jo.
"Jo, are you telling me that you are no longer interested in pursuing a relationship with Blair?"
"No! No way. I've never been more interested."
"Then what's the problem?"
Jo kept sorting books, refusing to look directly at Miss Gallagher. Her voice was almost a whisper.
"I love her, but . . ."
"I want her to be happy, but."
"Jo, don't you think you're good enough for Blair?"
"Good enough? Yeah, she's lucky to have me, but . . . I don't think I can live up to her expectations. I'm not sure anyone could."
"I don't understand."
Jo shifted restlessly.
"She thinks I'm kinda perfect."
Gail chuckled as she went back to sorting books.
"When someone is first in love, they tend to overlook their partner's faults, but I'm sure Blair knows that you aren't perfect."
"I don't know. I love Blair, but I don't have any trouble seeing her faults. She's so used to being treated like a princess that sometimes I think she believes she is a princess. She's used to guys putting her on a pedestal so that all she has to do is look pretty."
Gail worked hard to stifle her laugh.
"I take it that you don't plan to put Blair on a pedestal?"
"No, she's better than that. Don't get me wrong, Blair has a tendency to be a little self-centered, but that's all the more reason why she needs someone with her who won't put up with it."
"You're afraid that Blair is going to expect you to cater to her needs."
"Not exactly. Look, I can't be telling her how nice she looks all the time. She knows how nice she looks. Why should I have to keep telling her?"
"Jo, it's not unusual for a girl to want to hear that she's pretty."
"I know. I, uh, told her that she looked goofy yesterday morning and she looked like she was gonna start crying. When I got back from taking a shower, she'd fixed herself up so nice I couldn't look at her without . . . uh, without her noticing how nice I thought she looked."
Gail leaned close to Jo and whispered.
"Y'know, Jo, telling a girl that she looks goofy probably isn't the best way to woo her."
"I know that, but she did look goofy . . . at first. She keeps lookin' at me like she's waiting for me to do something impressive."
"From her point of view, just being who you are is probably very impressive. Didn't you tell me that you are always encouraging Blair to be herself and not worry about what others think of her?"
"Then follow your own advice, Jo. Blair may surprise you."
"She surprises me every day. I just don't want to let her down."
Miss Gallagher touched Jo's shoulder.
"You're not going to let her down, Jo. However, you may want to refrain from criticizing her appearance. No one responds well to that."
"I wasn't criticizing her appearance, I just pointed out that she looked goofy."
Miss Gallagher cleared her throat and clucked at Jo.
"Do you like being told that you look goofy?"
"No one around here is brave enough to say something like that to me."
Miss Gallagher sighed.
"Don't pretend to be dense, Jo. You hurt Blair's feelings. The way I see it, the only way to make it up to her is to tell her that she's pretty."
"Aw, I hate doing that. She, uh, knows the effect she has on me. I think that being in love with Blair is going to be hard work."
Gail couldn't hold back the laughter any longer.
"Why don't you give Blair a chance to prove that she likes you just the way you are, Jo?"
"Yeah, she hasn't been acting like a princess lately. She, uh, asked me for a date."
"Good for her! I guess she got tired of waiting for you to make the first move."
Jo cocked her head to the side and grinned at Miss Gallagher.
"I make plenty of moves."
Pleased to see Jo's self-confidence still intact, Gail shoved more books in her direction.
"I hope she gets here soon. It's going to take all three of us working non-stop to get all these books sorted in one day."
"Don't worry, she'll be here. You can count on Blair."
"Count on me for what?"
Blair was smiling as she entered the library. She was wearing her version of work clothes, a plaid shirt and denim skirt.
"Hey, you're late." Miss Gallagher teased.
"I was helping Mrs. Garrett. Didn't Jo tell you?"
Gail Gallagher winked at Blair and smiled.
"I was kidding. Yes, she did. Don't worry, Blair. I'm not going to extend your punishment. Jo and I have already started sorting this group of books. Why don't you let Jo show you what to do here and I'll go get started on another set of books?"
Gail watched as Jo showed Blair how Gail wanted the books sorted. From their initial conversations, Gail had suspected that Jo's attraction to Blair was primarily physical, but the more she talked with Jo and saw the two girls together, the more she realized her error.
By watching them interact, she understood better how the girls had overcome their significant differences. Jo was totally focused on their task, working as quickly and efficiently as possible. Blair, on the other hand, was relaxed and playful. Blair would thumb through the books she was sorting and tug at Jo's sleeve to show her something she found interesting or amusing. Jo would scowl at the interruption, but then grin pleasantly once she read whatever passage Blair had considered noteworthy. When Blair spent too much time perusing a particular book, Jo would gently nudge her back on task.
'They complement one another perfectly', Gail thought, surprised that she hadn't seen it much earlier. Gail wasn't surprised to see Jo attack their task aggressively, since she applied the same intensity toward everything she did, but she'd been amazed at how easily Blair was able to elicit a smile or a playful jab from the normally serious-minded young girl. While they worked, Blair would take short breaks and walk around the library, taking time to touch a few art sculptures and talk to the fish in the aquarium. However, as soon as Jo would call her back to the table, she seemed happy to return to the tedious task of sorting books.
Observing Blair with Jo gave Gail new insight into Blair Warner's personality. Gail knew that while Blair may have been spoiled when it came to material possessions, the young girl had been neglected in the most important areas. After spending only one afternoon with the two girls, Gail found herself in total agreement with one of Jo's comments. Blair Warner was definitely not confused about her feelings for Jo. The subtle touches, shy glances, and dazzling smiles confirmed it.
Later that afternoon, Miss Gallagher looked at her watch and abruptly stopped working.
"I'm sorry, girls, but I have to leave for a couple of hours. I need to take my car to the service station and have the oil changed."
Jo's expression was incredulous.
"It doesn't take two hours to change oil. That shouldn't take more than half an hour."
"I know, but they always make me wait and the one time I complained they mysteriously found several other things wrong with my car, costing me far more than the price of an oil change."
Jo pressed her lips together, forming a thin line of disapproval. She didn't like the idea of her favorite teacher being ripped off by unscrupulous mechanics. Jo's uncle often complained that it took only a few crooked mechanics to give them all a bad reputation.
"I can change your oil for you, Miss Gallagher. I do it for Mrs. G."
"I couldn't ask you to do that, Jo."
"Sure you could. If you give me the money for the oil, I'll buy it and then come to your house to change the oil. You won't even have to wait half an hour."
Blair leaned forward excitedly and added.
"Jo won't charge any more than the service station."
Jo scowled at her girlfriend.
"I ain't charging Miss Gallagher to change her oil."
Miss Gallagher smiled.
"Blair's right, Jo. I wouldn't feel comfortable asking you to do it for free. You'd be doing me a favor by coming to my house so that I wouldn't have to spend two hours sitting around a garage."
Blair nudged Jo.
"And you'd be able to save more money toward buying a new tire for your bike."
Miss Gallagher's expression turned from amusement to concern.
"What's wrong with Jo's bike?"
Since Miss Gallagher was looking at Blair when she spoke, Blair answered for Jo.
"One of the tires has almost no tread left on it. Jo thinks it isn't safe enough for me to ride, but she plans to drive it home for the summer anyway."
Realizing that she had just revealed to Miss Gallagher that she sometimes rode on Jo's bike, Blair became nervous.
"I mean, she takes me to the post office sometimes. She said she wouldn't let anyone ride her bike until she replaced the tire."
Gail felt bad for the teenager and wished that she could reassure Blair that she didn't have to hide her relationship from Gail. Jo, however, was still upset that Blair was suggesting that Miss Gallagher pay Jo for something Jo was happy to do for free.
Jo's scowl darkened, but if Blair noticed, she didn't seem to care. Miss Gallagher drummed her fingers on the countertop as she considered the situation.
"Jo, all of my colleagues take trips during the summer break. Most of us have our oil changed at the end of the school year so that we don't have to worry about it during our vacation. Would you be interested in providing this service for some of the other teachers as well?"
Jo's face lit up with excitement.
"Sure. I'm not sure I could get to all of their houses, but I'd be happy to do it."
"Oh, you must not be aware that Eastland provides rent-free housing for its faculty. Almost all of the homes in my neighborhood are owned by the school and most of the teachers live there."
"That'd be great! I can start today."
"Whoa, you don't have to start today. Don't you work at Harrison's on Saturday afternoons?"
"Uh, that job was only temporary."
Miss Gallagher hesitated. She didn't want to get Jo's hopes up and she didn't want to speak for Mrs. Muldoon, but she was convinced the librarian would agree to her recommendation.
"Well, there's a lot of work to do here in the library. The reason I'm helping Mrs. Muldoon is that her assistant resigned last semester and she hasn't been able to find a replacement. If Mrs. Garrett doesn't think it would interfere with your studies, I could probably get Mrs. Muldoon to hire you to come in after classes each day and do some work. It doesn't pay as much as you'll be making changing oil, but if you need to buy a new tire, it would help."
Blair beamed as she noticed Jo's shoulders straighten and her chin slightly rise. Blair considered Jo's pride an obstacle most of the time, but she knew how important it was for Jo to feel like she could support herself.
"That'd be great, Miss Gallagher. Thank you for putting in a good word for me."
Blair couldn't refrain from adding her own recommendation.
"Mrs. Muldoon will be thanking you, too, Miss Gallagher. No one works as hard as Jo."
"I'm sure she will. Since I won't have to run to town, we'll probably finish up here earlier than I expected. Why don't you two allow me to treat you to pizza for dinner and then we can stop by the auto mart on the way home to pick up whatever Jo needs in order to change the oil?"
Both girls nodded enthusiastically before returning to their task.
"Thanks for dinner, Miss Gallagher, and thanks for stopping by our room so that I could pick up some of my art supplies. I can finish my project while Jo works on your car, if that's okay."
"That's fine, Blair. Jo insists on walking back to campus, so I'll feel better if she has someone to walk with her."
Jo turned around often to glare at Blair, sitting in the back seat of Miss Gallagher's car. Jo knew it was selfish, but she didn't want Blair and Miss Gallagher to spend a lot of time together.
Gail decided that if Blair was intent on ignoring Jo's grumpy attitude, she could do the same. She suspected that Jo wasn't pleased to have her confidante and her girlfriend in the same car together and mentally reprimanded herself for enjoying the surly girl's discomfort.
Once inside her home, Gail wasn't surprised to see Blair running her fingers lightly over items as she perused the room. Gail had noticed Blair's habit of touching everything, testing textures, when they were in the library.
"Eastland owns the homes in this neighborhood?"
"Yes. It's within walking distance of the campus, but I drive when I have a lot of papers or books to carry."
"Well, I'm sure glad they're not making you pay rent for this place."
Miss Gallagher doubted that Blair was even aware of the insulting tone of her comment until Jo cleared her throat and glared her disapproval at her girlfriend.
"I mean, it's a nice fringe benefit."
"No, you were right the first time, Blair. Eastland is not a very good landlord. I don't think these walls have seen fresh paint in far too many years. Once I've been at Eastland a few more years, I'll earn the privilege of living in one of the nicer homes."
Jo silently endured her debutante girlfriend's 'I told you so' look. It was a look she'd been getting a lot lately and she wasn't happy that Miss Gallagher had so easily jumped to Blair's defense when Jo had expressed her disapproval.
"I'm gonna go out and get started on your car, Miss Gallagher. Just yell for me if Blair gives you any trouble and I'll run back to our room and get her muzzle."
Blair rolled her eyes and turned to Miss Gallagher.
"She's such a simple life form. Brute force is the only form of communication she understands."
Jo purposefully rattled her toolkit as she walked out to the garage, leaving Miss Gallagher to deal with Blair.
"You can use my desk while you work on your project, Blair."
"Great, where is the study?"
"Uh, the desk is in the den."
Blair started to carry her things over to the desk located in a small alcove of the den, but stopped short of her destination.
"I thought you were going to grade papers. Where will you work?"
"I'll use the kitchen table. It's fine, I work here more often than at the desk anyway. It has a better view."
Blair placed her things on the desk and walked back into the kitchen area, where Miss Gallagher was spreading her work across the table. Blair gazed out the window and nodded her approval.
"You have a beautiful flower garden. The birds seem to love it, too. I'll bet you can hear them singing in the morning."
"Yes, I enjoy the birds as much as the flowers. If it weren't for my sinuses, I'd leave my window open every night."
Blair thought about Miss Gallagher's words.
"Jo complains about her sinuses, too. I guess she wouldn't like it if someone opened a window at night."
Miss Gallagher remained silent, as she often did in class when a student was digesting new information.
Blair continued to scan the room, her eyes eventually landing on a row of trophies.
"Are all of these yours?"
"Yes. I attended college on a basketball scholarship."
Blair looked up at the much taller teacher while holding one of the trophies in her hand.
"The field hockey team is playing in the championship tournament this year. It's the first time any team from Eastland has gotten so far since I started attending."
Gail smiled, knowing where the conversation was going. In a school comprised almost entirely of pampered over-privileged girls, Jo's athletic abilities stood out as much as her Bronx accent.
"I understand that Jo deserves most of the credit for the improvement in several of our athletic teams."
Blair smiled as she returned Miss Gallagher's trophy to the shelf.
"Mr. Parker chartered a bus for the tournament so that everyone could support the team. Do you plan to attend the game?"
"I wouldn't miss it. Can I assume you'll be riding the bus?"
"Mrs. Garrett and I will be making boxed snacks for the team so we'll be riding to and from the game with them."
Miss Gallagher noted the pride in Blair's voice and was once again reassured that the snobbish heiress wasn't likely to intentionally break Jo's heart.
While Jo changed the oil in Miss Gallagher's car, the teacher graded papers, glancing often at the student working diligently at her desk. Blair was much more focused than she had been in the library. Gail attributed the difference to the fact that Blair was working at a task she loved and was therefore much more disciplined.
Both Miss Gallagher and Blair were somewhat relieved when Jo joined them. Although Jo's hands were smudged with oil, her clothes had remained remarkably unblemished by her task. When Miss Gallagher handed Jo some folded bills in payment for her services, Jo balked.
"I can't take all this. Those folks at the service station have been ripping you off. I'll be happy with half this amount."
Jo could be very stubborn, especially when it came to money, but Blair noted that Miss Gallagher seemed just as adamant.
"Jo Polniaczek, I will not have people saying that I am taking advantage of my students. I am going to pay you the same amount that I have always paid to have my oil changed as will any other teachers who choose to hire you. Furthermore, you will not embarrass me or offend them by complaining about your fees."
Jo nodded sheepishly and accepted the money Miss Gallagher offered without further argument. Once it was clear that the disagreement was over, Blair handed Miss Gallagher a stack of cards. When Miss Gallagher's brows rose in surprise, Blair's smile grew.
"You can give them to the other teachers when you tell them about Jo."
Jo looked over Blair's shoulder to get a glimpse of the cards.
"What are they?"
"They're business cards, see?"
Blair handed Jo one of the small cards with Jo's name and phone number along with a drawing of a car and a list of services.
Jo shook her head as she looked at the card.
"Why do y'have to make such a production out of everything, Blair? I'm just changing oil in a few cars. I don't need a fancy business card for that."
Seeing Blair's smile begin to fade, Miss Gallagher intervened.
"I think it's a lovely idea. Now I won't have teachers calling me at all hours because they've forgotten or lost your phone number. I can leave some of these in the teacher's lounge as well. You'll probably get some calls from faculty members that I don't normally have an opportunity to speak with."
Once again, Jo was forced to endure an 'I told you so' look from Blair, but she didn't mind. Although she felt awkward about distributing the cards, Jo secretly enjoyed seeing her name and services so distinctively displayed. It was only upon seeing the business cards that Jo realized that Blair must have also handwritten the invitation to the car show. Jo admired Blair's normal handwriting and was well aware of Blair's exceptional drawing ability, but she was amazed that Blair could free-handedly create cards that appeared as if they'd been professionally printed.
Jo slipped one of the cards into her pocket before lifting her toolbox.
"I guess it wouldn't hurt to leave some of 'em around campus. It wasn't a terrible idea."
Miss Gallagher was touched that such a sad excuse for a thank you brought such a dazzling smile to the pampered blonde's face. She made a mental note to have a talk with Jo about her inability to acknowledge the slightest degree of appreciation of Blair's efforts.
"Are you girls sure you don't need a ride home?"
"Nah, we like to walk, don't we, Blair?"
Blair smiled her agreement and Miss Gallagher watched as the two girls began the trip back to Eastland. 'Ah, young love,' thought Gail.
Knowing that Jo always spent Sunday morning at church and Sunday afternoon with Blair, Natalie decided to wait until Monday to begin her surveillance of Miss Gallagher.
After spending the day watching Miss Gallagher walk to work, eat lunch with several other teachers in the teacher's lounge, drive to the store to pick up a few groceries, and return home to grade papers, Tootie decided that Miss Gallagher was about the most boring person on the planet. She quickly abandoned Natalie in her efforts to follow Miss Gallagher. In Tootie's opinion, nothing they could discover would be worth the torture of following someone whose life was as unexciting as Miss Gallagher's.
While Tootie and Natalie had spent the day following Miss Gallagher, Blair and Jo had enjoyed the additional privacy. Since Natalie and Tootie had left their room over an hour earlier than usual in order to be outside Miss Gallagher's house in time to follow her to Eastland, Blair took the opportunity to slip into bed with Jo before their alarm clocks sounded. Snuggle Bear was nice, but he couldn't compare to the thrill of listening to Jo's heartbeat flutter upon waking up to find Blair nuzzling close to her while she slept.
While Natalie and Tootie followed Miss Gallagher to school, Jo treated Blair to a spring shower of early morning kisses.
When Natalie and Tootie disappeared after serving lunch in the cafeteria, Jo massaged Blair's shoulders while the artist created additional business cards to place in the administrative offices around campus. Jo rewarded Blair for each new card with kisses along the back of her neck.
As Natalie and Tootie crept around bushes along the street leading to Miss Gallagher's home late that afternoon, Blair met Jo in the library, where Jo had promptly reported to take over the evening shift for Mrs. Muldoon. With her new set of keys to the library office, Jo opened the door and almost fell into the room, lifting Blair up onto Mrs. Muldoon's desk and sucking in her breath when Blair's legs wrapped around her waist in order to pull her closer.
Although the ringing of the bell when someone was ready to check out a book interrupted them several times, every minute of separation only increased the pleasure of coming back together in a passionate embrace, plundering the recesses of one another's mouths until Jo closed the library at 9:30 that evening.
By the time Jo and Blair returned to their room that evening, Natalie and Tootie were sound asleep, exhausted from their day of investigative reporting. They were all the more fatigued by their inability to find anything to indicate that the relationship between Jo and Miss Gallagher was anything more than teacher and student.
Tootie had ended the day by very vocally expressing her discontent and Natalie ended the day questioning her reporter's intuition. She had been wrong about Miss Gallagher. As Tootie had pointed out, she may have misunderstood Jo's conversation with Blair completely. Sadly, there may not be a girlfriend to identify. Natalie felt a cloud of misery fall over her as she looked wistfully at her diary. 'Nothing new to write. It was just another typically boring day at Eastland Academy.'
The following week, teachers began gearing up for the end of the year and all four girls were swamped with assignments. Natalie's curiosity about Miss Gallagher and Jo's relationship took a back seat to her suddenly plummeting average in Spanish.
The library closed early on Tuesdays, so Blair and Jo chose to relax in the lounge after their classes. Blair watched as Jo worked to repair the broken leg on one of Mrs. Garrett's end tables. She reminded herself that she desperately needed to have a talk with Jo one day very soon about how a lady was supposed to sit when wearing a skirt. Just because Blair called Jo a barbarian didn't mean that she wanted Jo to actually act like one. The way Jo often crossed her legs wasn't proper. Blair found it amazing that Mrs. Garrett hadn't previously corrected Jo on her lack of modesty when wearing her Eastland uniform. Granted, there were only girls present during these lapses of etiquette, but it still wasn't proper.
Blair decided that it was a weakness in her own character that prevented her from addressing the issue with Jo earlier. She hated to admit it, but it gave her a little thrill to see Jo so close to revealing more than she should. Jo would sprawl out her legs no matter what type of clothes she was wearing. Sitting on the floor, repairing Mrs. Garrett's end table, Jo currently had one leg stretched out straight on one side of the table and the other one bent across the other side. Blair sighed, wondering why she was the only one who ever took the time to point these things out to Jo. Jo continued working on the end table while Tootie quizzed Natalie in Spanish and Blair thumbed through the latest fashion magazines.
"Um, Jo. You might want to adjust your skirt a little."
Jo looked down at her skirt. It looked fine to her, but she tugged the hem toward her knee.
"I'd be a lot more comfortable in my hockey uniform. I hope the new ones Mr. Parker is getting for us fit right. There's nothing worse than a starched field hockey uniform. I'd feel a lot better wearing my old uniform. It took all year to get it nice and soft."
Blair leaned forward on the sofa.
"You're just nervous about the game next weekend. You'll cream Mount Swain Academy."
Tootie nodded enthusiastically.
"Blair's right, they don't have a chance with you on our team. It's about time Eastland won a tournament. Those jerks at Mount Swain are always calling us Princess Academy. They'll eat their words after this year."
Blair was grateful that she'd cautioned Jo about her skirt when a young man entered the lounge looking for Mrs. Garrett. The girls were thrilled to discover that the handsome man was Mrs. Garrett's youngest son, Alex. Natalie, in particular, was immediately enchanted by the handsome musician.
"So you're Alex. Alex who has recorded with James Taylor and Billy Joel, and "
"Wait, wait, wait. It sounds like you wrote my resume."
Blair explained Natalie's knowledge of Alex's accomplishments.
"That's because your mother's only mentioned you a few million times."
Natalie beamed at their guest.
"She's not exactly ashamed of you. She's told us about your gigs and being on the road again, making music with your friends."
Natalie broke out into an oddly pop rendition of the Willie Nelson hit. As Natalie continued to moon over Alex, Tootie went to get Mrs. Garrett.
Edna Garrett, as always, was overjoyed to see her son. However, Natalie was too excited to allow Alex to leave with his mother. She wanted to know everything there was to know about the free-spirited musician.
"Hey, Alex, tell us about your gig in Chicago with Neil Diamond."
"You told them?"
"Oh, I'm your mother. How could I keep something like that a secret?"
The mention of Neil Diamond's name caught both Jo and Blair's attention, but for different reasons. Jo's mother loved Neil Diamond. Blair's mother actually knew Neil Diamond.
"So, you know Neil Diamond?"
Alex hedged Blair's question.
"Does anybody really know Neil Diamond?"
"My mother does, very well. She wrote me about his birthday bash."
Given what Jo knew about Blair's mother, she was curious as to just how well Monica knew Neil Diamond, but decided not to question Blair about it until much later. Alex jumped onto Blair's comment immediately, not giving Blair a chance to explain further.
"Oh yeah. That party was something else. The food was unbelievable and Neil jammed with the band till dawn."
Blair's expression turned from amused interest to undisguised mistrust.
"Oh yeah. He'll never top that one."
Mrs. Garrett soon put an end to all the questions, explaining that she wanted to spend some time alone with her son. Once the two left the room, the two younger roommates began to gush over Alex, but Blair wasn't a fan.
Tootie sighed deeply.
"He's full of such wonderful stories."
"That's not the only thing he's full of", Blair muttered.
"What do you mean, Blair?"
"He doesn't know Neil Diamond."
Natalie immediately jumped to Alex's defense.
"Come on. You don't party till dawn with a perfect stranger."
"There was no party. That's what my mom wrote me. It rained buckets and it was cancelled because the tent fell in."
Jo decided to play peacemaker between Natalie and Blair, who couldn't agree on anything lately.
"So, Alex is probably talking about last year's party. Those big shots have birthdays every year."
Blair found Jo's explanation ridiculous, but wasn't going to argue with Jo over a stupid party.
"It's not just the party. It's everything about him. Look, I know a phony when I see one."
"You should. You spend enough time lookin' in the mirror."
Blair wasn't surprised to hear Jo making fun of the amount of time she spent in front of the mirror. She'd brushed off Jo's advances twice that morning in favor of applying a new brand of makeup. She'd needed more time to experiment with the new shade and Jo hadn't been thrilled when Blair seemed more interested in looking at herself in the mirror than in snuggling with Jo.
While Natalie's school work had only hindered Natalie's sleuthing, Alex's arrival completely derailed Natalie's investigation into her older roommates' lives. She was instantly smitten with Alex.
Later that day, Natalie experimented with putting some of her poetry to music, after which she and Alex gave an impromptu performance for the other girls in the cafeteria.
"He's got you girls so snowed you were cheering when he tuned up. But you would think Mrs. Garrett would know mediocre when she hears it."
Jo hated it when Blair acted mean-spiritedly. She had tried to lighten up on Blair, but it drove her crazy when Blair's snobbish side emerged.
"We don't care what you think, Blair."
Tootie agreed with Jo.
"We think he's terrific and Mrs. Garrett does, too."
Natalie nodded and added her confirmation.
"Right and she's the one supporting him."
Blair was stunned by Natalie's disclosure. She knew Mrs. Garrett's son was a phony, but she never dreamed he was freeloading off of her beloved Mrs. Garrett.
"Just until he makes it."
Tootie didn't see why Blair was acting so upset.
"What's wrong with that? My parents and I worked out the same deal."
"You're twelve and Alex is twenty-eight! That's it. I have to talk to Mrs. Garrett."
Blair went storming out of the room in search of Mrs. Garrett, until Jo physically blocked her path.
"Uh, you don't have to, Blair."
Blair was livid.
"He's taking advantage of her! He's sponging off of her! He's . "
"He's her son! I'm telling you, Blair. Where I come from, you poke your nose in family business and you wind up breathing through your ears."
Blair could tell by the vein pulsing violently in Jo's neck that this wasn't a manufactured argument for the benefit of their roommates. Jo was earnestly attempting to prevent Blair from interfering while Blair was trying to explain why they needed to protect Mrs. Garrett.
"You're not doing Mrs. Garrett any favors. Someone's got to tell her that her son's a fraud!"
Jo hadn't wanted to confront Blair so abrasively, but Blair had a very bad habit of interfering in other people's lives and Jo felt that Blair needed to stay out of Mrs. Garrett's relationship with her son. There were few things in Jo's old neighborhood which were considered unforgiveable, but messing around in someone else's family business was one of them. Jo felt that Blair needed to learn that everything in the world didn't revolve around her. Just because Jo sometimes called her a princess didn't mean that it didn't bother her when Blair acted like one.
Once the two girls were alone in their room, Blair confronted Jo again about Alex.
"I thought you cared about Mrs. Garrett."
"I do care about Mrs. G., but that doesn't give me the right to interfere. You should leave it alone. I told you before, you can't stick your nose into other people's family business. You don't have the right to say anything to Mrs. G. about her son."
"And what would give me the right, Jo? If he was punching her, could I interfere then, or is that also against the code of the tough Bronx neighborhood?"
As soon as she saw the betrayed look on Jo's face, Blair regretted the question.
"I'm sorry, Jo, I was out of line. It's just that I'm upset and concerned about Mrs. Garrett. She doesn't make that much money. What's going to happen to her when she gets older if she can't put aside some money now?"
Jo didn't respond, preferring to sulk on her bed. Blair's words had stung. Jo had been very vulnerable when she confided in Blair about the abuse her mother suffered. She couldn't believe that Blair had thrown it back in her face in order to win an argument. In Jo's mind, she had been trying to do Blair a favor because she felt that she had a responsibility to let Blair know when she was out of line. Blair sat down at the foot of Jo's bed and hung her head.
"I mean it, Jo. I'm so sorry. I know that being upset doesn't excuse what I said. Please don't be angry."
Jo wasn't angry, she was hurt. She felt that Blair had broken her trust and she wasn't sure that Blair understood how much Jo continued to struggle over how little she was able to help her mother.
"Jo, you said that I shouldn't stick my nose into family business, but Mrs. Garrett IS part of my family. You'd be the first one to tell me that it's my responsibility to look after my family."
"We all love Mrs. G., but we're not her real family. You're not the one who is going to be taking care of her when she gets old, Blair."
"Of course I am! Mrs. Garrett has been more of a mother to me than my mother ever was. She's never once let me down. Never!"
Jo watched in shock as Blair paced back and forth in front of Jo's bed, ranting about Mrs. Garrett.
"She stood by me when everyone else was ready to turn on me. She held me when I cried over my mother's infidelity. She forgave me when I said unforgivable things to Cindy. She is my family and I'm the one who will be there for her when she's too old to take care of herself, not Alex!"
Blair lowered her voice, but she was still trembling with rage as she stomped over to the side of Jo's bed and looked Jo directly in the eyes.
"Mrs. Garrett took care of me when I needed her and I'll do the same for her. You can disagree with me about Alex all you want, but don't you dare tell me that Mrs. Garrett is not part of my family."
Jo had a snappy retort ready until she noticed the unshed tears glittering in Blair's eyes. Blair could produce a lot of emotions on cue, but she couldn't fake tears. Jo couldn't criticize Blair while her eyes were filled with tears as she declared her love and devotion for Edna Garrett.
Jo considered the possibility that she had misinterpreted Blair's motives. Perhaps this wasn't just another case of Blair meddling in the lives of those around her. Jo almost wished that she could still believe that Blair was simply meddling. The alternative was to believe that Blair was expecting much more of Edna Garrett than the maternal woman could possibly give. Mrs. G. had formed unique bonds with all the girls. It was understandable, in light of how shabbily Blair's parents treated her, that she would misinterpret the older woman's compassion for something more.
Jo struggled with what to do. She was still upset with Blair for comparing Mrs. Garrett's situation with Jo's mother's situation. Jo had to admit, however, that she had often questioned the fact that none of their neighbors had stepped in to help her mother, especially when Jo was much younger and sometimes suffered collateral damage from her mother's abusive boyfriends.
"Okay, Blair. I didn't mean anything by what I said about Mrs. G. not being part of your family, just like you didn't mean to drag my mother into this. I think we both need to take some time to cool down a little. If Alex has been taking advantage of his mother all these years, one more day isn't going to make much difference. All I'm saying is that you should take some time to think through what you need to do."
Blair sat back down on Jo's bed. She was grateful that Jo no longer seemed as distressed about what Blair had said about physical abuse.
"You're right. I should think things over. I know that I don't like it when people criticize my daddy, even when what they say is true."
"See, you do understand. That's all I was trying to say. Alex is her family, too."
"I'm sorry about what I said about your mother, Jo. I know you think I can't understand how much I hurt you, but I do."
"I know you didn't mean it, Blair."
Jo seemed to have forgiven her for her comments, but Blair was worried because Jo continued to fidget.
"Jo, are we okay?"
"Yeah, it's just that I was thinking of asking you for a favor and now it doesn't seem like a good time."
Blair was shocked. Jo never wanted anything from her.
"What do you want?"
"It wouldn't be for me, it'd be for my mother."
"Oh, well in that case you don't even need to ask, just tell me what I can do for her."
"Does your mother really know Neil Diamond?"
"Um, my mom is a really big fan of his. Well, all my aunts and uncles are fans. I was thinking that maybe your mom could get his autograph and I could give it to my mom."
Blair beamed. It was such a simple thing for her to do, but she could see how difficult it was for Jo to ask.
"Mother would be delighted to tell Neil that my classmate's mom is a fan. Consider it done."
"Thanks, Blair. I'll find a way to pay you back."
"No one is keeping score, Jo."
"Well, thanks anyway. I'm sorry that I made such a big deal about you interfering with Mrs. G. I know you mean well."
"Jo, if Mrs. Garrett had known what my parents did to me that summer, she would have found a way to stop it. I know she would have defended me when no one else did. That makes her more my family than all the relatives who stood by and pretended they didn't know what was happening to me. I won't say anything to her about Alex tonight, but I can't stand by and watch her get hurt. I can't do it."
Jo decided that was as good an opening as she would get in her efforts to prompt Blair to tell her more about her time in the clinic.
"I'll never understand how your father could have sent you to that place."
"He couldn't have known what it would be like. He never would have sent me there if he had known."
Blair had intended to defend her father, but the doubt in her voice made her comment sound more like a question than a statement of fact. It tore at Jo's heart to see how desperately Blair wanted to believe in her father.
"I think it might help you to talk about what happened."
"There's really nothing to tell, Jo. It wasn't all that bad. Talking about it won't change anything."
"Maybe not, but I'd like to know. I care about you, Blair. I'd like to know what happened to you there."
Jo couldn't remember ever seeing Blair's big brown eyes so sad. Jo sat quietly while Blair relayed her experiences at the clinic, often stopping to regain her composure and sometimes sniffling when she talked about how confused she'd felt. Blair admitted that her parents had always spoiled her, giving in to her slightest whim. As Blair continued, it dawned on Jo that the harsh words spoken to Blair by the priests at the clinic hadn't hurt the sensitive blonde nearly as much as feeling rejected and abandoned by her parents.
As Blair's words spilled out in a mixture of hurt and anger, Jo found it increasingly difficult not to cradle Blair in her arms and ask her to stop. It was as if Blair had opened a window into her heart and all the hurt and anguish buried there came tumbling out. When Blair reached a point at which the tears drowned out her words, Jo pulled her crying girlfriend into her arms and quietly whispered words of reassurance in her ear.
Blair was so distraught that she didn't hear Mrs. Garrett enter the room. Jo heard her, but continued to hold Blair in her arms.
Upon seeing Blair so upset while Jo was attempting to comfort her, Mrs. Garrett was shocked. She knew that Jo and Blair were best friends, but their constant bickering made her doubt that their friendship held the type of depth she was currently witnessing. Mrs. Garrett cleared her throat, gaining Blair's attention and prompting her to push Jo away, but Jo held tight.
"Mrs. Garrett, can you give Blair and me a few minutes alone?"
"Of course, Jo. Blair, if you need to talk to me later, I'm here for you."
Mrs. Garrett quietly left the room without asking any questions.
"I'm sorry, Jo. I know you don't like for people to see us touching."
Jo took a deep breath and tightened her embrace.
"I don't care who sees us, Blair. I love you."
Blair sniffled back some lingering tears before continuing. Her voice softer than before, the anger replaced with sadness.
"It was like being in prison, only I hadn't done anything wrong. I didn't understand how my mother could turn me over to the type of narrow-minded people I'd often heard her criticize. My father! Daddy had always treated me like I was made of glass. I begged him not to leave me there, Jo. I begged him to let me go home. I shouldn't have been so afraid, I felt like such a coward. I wish I could be more like you, Jo."
"Shhh, I'm afraid of lots of things."
Jo closed her eyes and continued to caress Blair's back before continuing.
"I used to hide in my room when I'd hear Sam fighting with my mom. I was so afraid that I didn't even sleep in my bed. I'd crawl under the bed at night and hope that Sam thought I was out with my friends."
Jo's hand moved from Blair's back to her hair as she continued speaking softly into Blair's ear. Just the gentle sound of Jo's voice made Blair feel better.
"I'd pray and then I'd feel better, like I wasn't all alone. I could tell that someone was watching out for me. They took that away from you, Blair. Those creeps made you think that you were all alone. I can't imagine how afraid you must have been."
Jo raised her chin defiantly.
"I can't promise that you'll never have to be afraid again, Blair. But I promise that you'll never be alone. I'll always be with you."
Blair continued to rest in the warmth of Jo's arms, thinking about what Jo had told her.
"What scares you now, Jo?"
"Sometimes I'm afraid that I might have to leave Eastland. That I'd have to leave you."
Blair backed away from Jo's embrace, but squeezed Jo's hand.
"We won't let that happen. I love you, Jo."
As much as Jo wanted to protect and reassure Blair, she knew that she may not be able to do it on her own.
"Blair, I don't want you to feel like you can't go to Mrs. G. because of me. If you need to talk with her, then I don't care what you tell her. Do you understand? You don't have to ask for my permission to discuss our relationship with her or anyone else if it will make you feel better, okay?"
Blair was stunned. Telling Mrs. Garrett about their relationship could change many things and it could threaten Jo's scholarship. Jo's willingness to allow Blair to confide in the woman who was so dear to her touched Blair deeply. She nodded, no longer feeling the need to cry as Jo embraced her.
Jo needed confirmation that Blair fully understood what she was offering.
"You understand, right? I only want what's best for you."
"I do understand, Joey. I love you."
Later that night, Blair sought out Mrs. Garrett.
"Blair, sweetheart, tell me what's wrong."
Blair was torn. She and Mrs. Garrett had a special relationship. Blair had never kept anything from the redhead. From childhood, Blair had always been very emotionally independent, she'd had to be. Edna Garrett, however, had earned her trust and admiration, gaining Blair's complete confidence. Despite Jo's proclamations that she didn't mind if Blair confided in Mrs. Garrett about their relationship, Blair couldn't bring herself to risk the possibility that Mrs. Garrett would insist on placing the girls in separate rooms.
"I guess I was having a bad day, Mrs. Garrett. I'm feeling a lot better now. I don't want you to worry."
Edna Garrett smiled at the young girl who had come to mean so much to her. The changes in the young debutante were staggering. During two short years, Edna had seen Blair mature from a brash, arrogant, snobbish child into a compassionate young woman. The memory of Blair's solicitous treatment of Edna on the night the older woman gave up her bed so that Jo and Rose would have privacy still lingered in Edna's heart.
Edna knew that whatever was bothering Blair must be significant. Blair didn't cry easily and she rarely allowed even Mrs. Garrett to comfort her in the way she had allowed Jo. However, she didn't want to press Blair for details. Edna felt that she needed to show Blair that she trusted the young woman to ask for help if she needed it.
"Did you and Jo have a nice talk?"
"Yes, Jo was a big help."
"I'm glad the two of you are so close. Sometimes I worry that I may have made a mistake in forcing you two together. You are so different."
Blair bit her lower lip, once again feeling the need to pour her heart out to Mrs. Garrett.
"We aren't that different. Jo and I agree on a lot of things."
Mrs. Garrett wasn't convinced, but she didn't contradict Blair. She was disappointed that Blair didn't tell her more about whatever was bothering her. She could always tell when Blair was holding back, just as Blair could sense the level of Edna's approval or disapproval by watching her expression.
"Blair, I'm always available to listen. If you want to tell me more, I'll be here."
"Thanks, Mrs. Garrett. I know I can depend on you."
"Try to get some sleep. You'll have a busy day tomorrow reviewing for your exams."
"I will. Goodnight, Mrs. Garrett. I, uh."
Mrs. Garrett chuckled as she hugged Blair.
"I love you, too, Blair."
The next morning, Edna Garrett was searching frantically for Natalie, who hadn't slept in her bed the night before.
"Natalie? Where could she be? Girls, check outside."
Mrs. Garrett went into the cafeteria while the girls went outside to look for Natalie.
"Natalie? Oh, she's in here, girls!"
Mrs. Garrett nudged the young girl, who was sitting at one of the cafeteria tables, sound asleep.
"Natalie, wake up."
"Five more minutes, Mom, five more minutes."
In her sleep-deprived state, Natalie thought she was at home.
"She must have been here all night."
Jo thumbed through some books on the table.
"It looks like the library exploded in here."
Mrs. Garrett was sympathetic. She hadn't meant to pressure Natalie to study so hard for her Spanish test.
"Oh, Natalie. I know that today's test is important but you shouldn't worry so much about your Spanish that you don't get any sleep."
"Oh, I wasn't studying Spanish."
"You mean you stayed up all night NOT to study Spanish?"
"I was working on a song."
Mrs. Garrett's expression hardened.
"It better be 'Lady of Spain'."
Tootie could spot trouble a mile away and her best friend was inches from trouble. Despite how angry she was at Alex, even Blair smiled at Tootie's joke, but Mrs. Garrett was in no mood for laughs.
"I wanted to finish the lyrics that Alex and I worked on last night."
"Alex? You were working on lyrics with Alex instead of studying Spanish? Natalie, I'm getting angry and I don't like to get angry because when I get angry I start to YELL!"
Blair was shocked. Mrs. Garrett was blowing a gasket. Blair had rarely seen the normally unflappable redhead lose her cool. The fact that Alex was the cause of her current state only fueled Blair's dislike of the easygoing musician.
"You get your tail into your uniform and go take that exam!"
"I'm not taking the exam."
Natalie's defiance brought on the fireworks. The more Natalie explained how she planned to be like Alex, the more enraged Mrs. Garrett became. When Natalie started quoting things Alex had told her about how great it was to live the life of a traveling musician, Mrs. Garrett went a little off the deep end.
"But Alex says "
"Alex is a great one to talk. He's twice your age and still doesn't pay his own way."
Blair felt vindicated. Alex had been taking advantage of his mother, but it was only after seeing Natalie mimicking her son's behavior that Mrs. Garrett seemed ready to acknowledge it.
"When I see him, I'm gonna wring his neck!"
Jo was a little confused. Natalie was the one who was out of line, not Alex.
"What are you so steamed at him for?"
"How dare he come in here and start messing up Natalie's life? It's bad enough he's messing up his own."
As soon as Alex arrived, Jo and Blair left him alone with Mrs. Garrett. They'd both gotten what they wanted. Jo had wanted Blair to stay out of Mrs. Garrett's family business and Blair had wanted Mrs. Garrett to know that her son was a phony. Blair felt bad for Mrs. Garrett, but she felt like it was past time she stop supporting her flighty son.
Later that night, once it looked like everyone else was asleep, Jo silently crept from their bedroom and walked across the hall to Mrs. Garrett's room. Jo could see that the lamp light was still shining, so she tapped lightly on her guardian's door.
"Hey, Mrs. G, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Is something wrong, Jo? Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"Nah, nothing like that, I just need to talk to you about something. I know it's been a long day with Alex and Natalie, but I only need a few minutes."
"Jo, I'm never too busy to talk with you. Come in and tell me what's kept you up so late."
Blair had a sixth sense when it came to Jo. She instinctively awoke as Jo was leaving the room. When Jo didn't return as soon as Blair expected, she became curious and got out of bed to check on Jo.
As soon as Blair left her bedroom, she could hear the muffled voices of Jo and Edna Garrett talking. Thinking that no one else would be up, Jo had neglected to close Mrs. Garrett's bedroom door completely, allowing Blair to hear their words even though both women were speaking softly.
"I just felt like you should know how Blair felt. I don't know if there's anything you could do to let her down easy, but it doesn't seem fair to let her go on believing that the two of you have some sort of special bond that makes you family."
Blair felt unsteady, so she sat down in the hallway outside of Edna Garrett's room while she continued to listen.
"But you're mistaken, Jo. Blair and I do have a special relationship."
Blair's smile was radiant as she listened outside Mrs. Garrett's door.
"Yes. Jo, I love all of you girls, but you all have at least one parent to guide and support you. Both Blair's parents are somewhat limited in their ability to give Blair the parental nurturing she needs. I love my sons, but I have always longed for a daughter. Blair is as much my child as either of my sons."
Jo nodded, but didn't seem satisfied with Mrs. G.'s answer.
"You want to know what it is about Blair that sets her apart in my heart, is that it, Jo?"
Jo felt uncomfortable asking such personal questions, but she was interested to know why both Blair and Mrs. G. had been so drawn to one another.
"Have I ever told you about the first time I met Blair Warner?"
Jo shook her head, eager to hear the story.
"I wasn't working for Eastland at the time; I was still working for the Drummond family. Kimberly Drummond attended Eastland and she asked me to alter a costume she was going to wear in a school play. When I arrived at the dormitory, it was total chaos. I was shocked to see how the girls were behaving. I told Kimberly that it reminded me of Animal House."
Jo laughed, picturing the scene.
"All the girls were running around the room dancing or tossing balls to one another . . . everyone except Blair. She was sitting on the sofa with a guitar, trying to ignore everyone around her. She looked like the loneliest girl I'd ever seen."
"I thought Blair was always popular."
"Oh, she was the most popular girl on campus, but that didn't mean that she wasn't lonely."
"Once Kimberly got everyone's attention, she introduced me as her housekeeper and told the other girls that I'd be helping with the costumes. Many of the girls you've met this year were in Kimberly's dorm. She introduced me to Nancy, Sue Ann, Molly, Tootie, Natalie, and several other girls you've never met."
"Didn't she introduce Blair?"
"Blair was the last girl she introduced, and I could tell that Kimberly didn't like Blair. I extended my hand to the young girl, but she completely ignored it. She mumbled 'Hi' and went right back to whatever she was doing."
"So Blair was as rude when she met you as she was when she met me?"
Mrs. G. laughed.
"Yes, I suppose she was."
Suddenly Edna's expression changed.
"Jo, have you ever met someone and instantly known that your life was about to change? It's difficult to explain, but I knew that the rude young woman sitting on that sofa was going to become a big part of my world."
Jo thought about the first day she met Blair and the way she tingled in the arrogant debutante's presence. Jo had attributed her initial attraction to Blair to the sexual chemistry between them; it occurred to Jo that other types of chemistry might be equally intense.
"I've had that happen before, Mrs. G. You meet someone and something about them makes you want to know them better."
"That's it. That's how I felt about Blair. It didn't make any sense to me at the time. She was the rudest, most sullen young girl I had ever met."
Jo laughed, happy to realize that she wasn't the only one immediately captivated by the snobbish heiress.
"I was waiting for Kimberly to bring down her costume when I saw smoke coming from one of the chairs. I thought something was on fire, but it was Blair, smoking a cigarette."
Jo's mouth dropped open in surprise. Seeing her reaction, Mrs. Garrett laughed.
"It's hard to believe that the Blair you know would be sneaking behind a chair to smoke a cigarette, but that's exactly what she was doing. Unfortunately for Blair, the headmaster came in and noticed the smoke. He was grilling all the girls, trying to get them to identify who was smoking. None of them had the courage to point the finger at Blair, but she'd been caught with the cigarette still in her hand."
"What happened to her?"
"Nothing. I took the cigarette and pretended that it was mine."
"You did that for Blair, right after meeting her, even though she'd been so rude to you? She must have been impressed."
"She wasn't impressed. She told me very quickly that she didn't need my help. She was trying so hard to appear to be an independent, sophisticated woman, when all I could see was a very tender-hearted little girl. The point is that I could tell how special she was even when she was acting like a brat."
Jo remained quiet, giving Mrs. Garrett time to sort through her thoughts.
"Blair can be exceptionally intuitive about people. She notices things that others don't notice. When I was feeling discouraged, thinking that I wasn't making a difference at Eastland, Blair would sense it and find a way to cheer me up. When I was feeling lonely, she would magically appear at my door. It was uncanny how well she was able to interpret my feelings. She was always doing little things for me, but she'd get angry and withdraw if I caught her at it. It was as if she was afraid to let me see how much she cared about me."
Mrs. Garrett stopped abruptly, not having meant to expose so much of Blair's insecurity to Jo, even though she suspected that Jo was aware that Blair wasn't as self-confident as she pretended.
"I've said too much. I don't think Blair would appreciate my talking about her this way."
"Wow. I thought Blair was imagining things, about how you felt, I mean. It's obvious how much she cares about you, Mrs. G."
"So, you're not upset? You don't think it's unfair of me to form a deeper bond with Blair than with the rest of you?"
"Heck no. I think it's great. I was only worried because Blair has been let down so many times, I didn't want to see it happen again."
"I'm glad she has a friend who is as protective as you are, Jo."
"Yeah, well, she ain't THAT terrible to live with."
Content that she'd heard enough of the conversation, Blair returned to her bedroom. For the first time in Blair's life, she fell asleep with the knowledge that the two people who loved her most were quietly talking only a few yards away. Blair knew that this was what it was like to be part of a real family and she marveled at the warmth and security she felt as she cradled Snuggle Bear and drifted back to sleep.
The following Monday, Jo awoke cautiously, scanning her room for signs that any of her roommates were aware of the significance of the date. Jo had practically begged Mrs. Garrett not to tell her friends that it was her birthday. Mrs. Garrett had reluctantly agreed, but secretly planned to give Jo a birthday cake late that evening.
Jo was relieved not to see cards or balloons cluttering her room. She walked to the bathroom, confident that her secret was safe. However, when she stepped into the shower she saw a note, enclosed in a zip lock bag, dangling from the shower head. 'Blair,' she thought. 'Who else would have made the effort to find out my birthday?'
Jo opened the note and was thrilled with the message inside. It was the first of many clues Jo would have to solve in order to retrieve her birthday present. Jo immediately understood that the scavenger hunt was as much a part of her gift as anything Blair would have purchased. She excitedly read the note which would lead her to the next message.
Jo spent the entire day chasing clues between classes. She was amazed that Blair had been able to successfully hide them throughout Eastland's campus. Jo enjoyed figuring out the hints, which led her to new ones, found inside kitchen appliances, taped under benches, hanging from light fixtures, etc. By the time she found the final clue submerged in the fountain in front of Warner Hall, Jo was having so much fun that she didn't care if there was a present at the end of the game or not.
Jo wasn't surprised late that afternoon when the treasure map inside a corked bottle at the bottom of the fountain led her to Cooper's Rock, where Blair was waiting for her.
"I was beginning to wonder if I'd made the clues too difficult to solve."
"Nah, I was just taking my time. I knew I'd wind up here eventually."
"You think you know me that well, huh?"
"Yeah, I do."
Jo walked toward what she considered one of the most romantic scenes she'd ever seen. Blair was sitting on a blanket with a picnic basket overflowing with Jo's favorite snacks. In the background, Jo could see an aerial view of the entire town of Peekskill - it was breathtaking.
"Did you enjoy the scavenger hunt?"
Jo sat down beside her girlfriend and began looking through the basket.
"You know I did. A lot of people thought I was a little crazy, crawling under the bleachers, for example, but I had a great day. Thank you, Blair."
Blair offered Jo a soda and showed her the variety of treats she'd brought as a reward for solving the puzzle. Jo eagerly reached for the chocolates and leaned back on the blanket to enjoy the landscape while she snacked.
"This is great, Blair. I don't know when you had time to run all over campus hiding those clues, but I can't think of a better birthday present."
"I know how much you like to solve mysteries, Jo. I'm glad you enjoyed the game."
As Jo rummaged through the picnic basket, she found a small gift box.
"It's your birthday present, silly."
Jo examined the box, turning it over in her hands and shaking it.
"You didn't go overboard and spend a lot of money, did you?"
"Of course not," Blair lied. "I'm sure it cost far less than what you gave me for my birthday. Aren't you going to open it?"
"The game would have been enough, Blair."
"I know, but I wanted to give you something. I, uh, helped make it. I wanted to make something for you, but I couldn't do it on my own, so I had some help. I hope you like it."
Jo continued to play with the box. She was having a great day and she wanted to draw out the moment as long as possible. Seeing that Blair was losing patience, Jo carefully untied the ribbon surrounding the box and looked inside.
Before Blair could ask Jo if she liked the present, Jo leapt over the picnic basket and captured Blair's lips. Each time Blair attempted to speak, Jo would cover her lips with her own, pushing Blair backwards onto the blanket. After she had sufficiently shown her appreciation, Jo retreated slightly to gaze into Blair's eyes.
"I love it. Thank you."
"Really? I wasn't sure you would even know what it was."
The sentiment made it perfect for Jo.
"It's a keychain. Now I know why you wanted to look for arrowheads."
"It's the one we found together. Do you remember the first time we came up here this semester?"
"I could never forget, Blair."
Jo retrieved the keychain from the box. The arrowhead was smooth to the touch, with the exception of both girls' initials engraved into the dark black slate. The initials couldn't easily be seen, but they could be felt. The arrowhead was encircled by a heart, made of gemstones. The deep red stones sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. They appeared to be rubies, but Jo wasn't sure exactly what type of stones Blair had used to form the heart. Although she was aware that the value of the stones could vary dramatically, Jo felt certain Blair would know better than to use the highest quality gems for a keychain. She couldn't help but notice, however, the superior sparkle of the heart-shaped portion of her present. Jo decided that for this one occasion, she'd prefer to remain ignorant as to the type of gem that had been used to fashion the heart surrounding the arrowhead.
"I thought you could put the key to your bike on it and maybe you would think about this place . . . and us . . . when you looked at it."
"It's beautiful. When did you have it done?"
"I worked on the arrowhead myself. I didn't change it much. I used some chemicals from my sculpting class to smooth the area before I used an engraving tool to etch our initials. You don't mind that both our initials are on it?"
"Mind? It's perfect. I love it."
Blair smiled, but she was obviously still nervous.
"Um, I had a jeweler surround the arrowhead with a heart. I, uh, hope you like it. Red isn't very subtle, but red seemed the most appropriate to form a heart."
Jo knew the reason for Blair's anxiety and she quickly reassured her. She hoped Blair hadn't spent too much money, but she didn't want to ruin the moment by asking about it.
"I love everything about it, Blair. I'll always keep it with me to remind me of you. I'm glad that you gave it to me here, where we found the arrowhead."
Blair's eyes misted as she enthusiastically returned Jo's earlier kisses. Blair had worried that Jo would balk at the cost of the gift, even though she suspected that Jo would never have a clue as to how truly extravagant it was. When Jo didn't even question Blair about the gems dotting the outline of her new keychain, Blair felt as if she had also been given a gift.
Once her birthday present was securely tucked away in her pocket, Jo resumed her meal, often questioning Blair about when and how she had been able to place some of the more difficult-to-locate clues.
"C'mon, Blair. Give me a peek."
"Not now, Jo."
Jo continued to suckle Blair's earlobe, eliciting yet another moan from the blonde.
"I only want to look at it, I won't touch it. I promise."
"It's too soon."
Jo's fingers were feather soft as they trailed the inside of Blair's thigh, lingering dangerously close to previously unchartered territory.
"I've waited so long . . . and it's my birthday. Don't you want to make me happy? Just show me a little. C'mon, don't keep me waiting."
Blair dug her fingers into Jo's back, trying to release a small amount of the tension quickly building within her.
"Jo, I'm not sure it's the right time."
Jo groaned as she returned her lips to Blair's mouth, her tongue coaxing her reluctant girlfriend into submission.
"I know you want to, Blair. You promised. C'mon, it's my birthday."
"Stop whining. If it means that much to you, I'll let you see it."
Jo moaned into Blair's neck.
"Do you really mean it? You're not teasing me, are you?"
Blair sighed audibly.
"I mean it. I want to show you."
Jo's grin split her face and suddenly Blair's body was swept with warm air where her girlfriend used to be as Jo raced to retrieve Blair's backpack.
"Here, get it out so I can see it."
Blair retrieved the barbarian puppet and handed it to Jo. Jo examined the puppet carefully, trying to determine what materials were used for each part of the puppet. The puppet was dressed in a fur skirt and shoulder strap, like the images of cavemen she'd seen portrayed in movies. Its eyebrows were angled, forming a permanent scowl. Bright green buttons had been utilized to make the eyes and a small screwdriver had been covered with brown cloth to form a club.
"It doesn't look anything like me."
Blair smiled, shrugging.
"It is a he."
"Well, I want to see his show."
Blair bit down on her lower lip and glanced toward her backpack.
"Uh, I thought I'd do something a little different for you. It's not really ready, but if you'd like to see it."
Jo nodded enthusiastically and sat back on the blanket with her arms crossed, waiting for Blair to begin her routine.
"I made a . . . friend . . . for him. Would you like to see her?"
Blair reached for her backpack, but Jo got to it first, digging eagerly through the bag until she located the new puppet. Blair could count on one hand the number of times she had heard Jo giggle and was surprised to hear her react to the new puppet with such delight. She attempted to regain custody of her new puppet, but Jo was in no mood to relinquish the prize.
"What's her name?"
"The barbarian calls her Princess. Doesn't she look like one?"
Jo struggled to suppress her laughter, uncertain as to how funny Blair intended the new puppet to appear. The puppet's hair was blonde, or more accurately yellow. Pink felt had been attached to several strands of hair to mimic the sponge curlers Blair often wore at night. Instead of a club, the new puppet held something resembling a hair dryer. The puppet was dressed in a pink silk dress and a tiara was fastened to the top of its head.
Blair waited impatiently for Jo to give her the puppet.
"I can't give you a preview of the new show if you won't give me the Princess."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. She's . . . very regal."
Blair yanked the puppet from Jo and wrapped it around one hand while the barbarian puppet was attached to her other hand.
"Don't expect too much. I've never tried to work with two dummies at once. I usually interact with the barbarian myself, but I thought it would be more fun for him if he had someone his own size to play with."
Jo grinned expectantly, anxious to see what Blair was going to do with the puppets. Blair had created the new puppet because she was apprehensive about flirting with the barbarian in front of Jo. The effect of having the Princess puppet perform Blair's part of the show, however, had an even greater impact on the gruff brunette. As the show progressed, Blair began to wonder who was entertaining whom as she watched Jo roll back and forth on the blanket holding her stomach as she laughed hysterically throughout the performance.
The more the Princess flirted with the reluctant barbarian, the more Jo seemed to enjoy the show. Each time the Princess's efforts to embrace or kiss the barbarian were thwarted, Jo would howl with delight. Blair considered it a compliment to her ventriloquist abilities that Jo rarely even looked at her. Jo's attention was focused instead on the two puppets. Toward the end of the performance, Blair had to constantly modify the dialogue between the puppets because Jo kept interrupting them and trying to engage them in conversation.
When Blair ended the performance with 'and they lived happily ever after', Jo frowned her disappointment.
"Hey, she didn't kiss him."
"He wouldn't let her."
Jo balked. "He's not much of a barbarian if he's afraid of a silly little princess."
"Well, how do you think it should have ended?"
Jo's eyes sparkled as she reached for the barbarian puppet and thrust it toward the princess.
"Jo, be careful. You're going to break him."
"I ain't gonna break him, I'm gonna make him happy. You can't end it by saying they lived happily ever after unless he gets the girl."
Jo grinned devilishly as she demonstrated what she felt constituted a happy ending for the barbarian as Blair blushed.
"Uh, my act is 'G' rated, Jo."
Jo had been so absorbed in her version of what constituted happiness for the barbarian that she seemed surprised to find Blair watching. Releasing the puppets, Jo touched Blair's hair and then her face, examining her in much the same way she had the puppets. Blair, who normally enjoyed the spotlight, became embarrassed under the intense level of scrutiny.
Blair caught her breath as Jo embraced her with one arm and gently lowered her backwards onto the blanket. As they kissed, Jo continued to gently explore Blair's hair, face, neck, and arms. Feeling overwhelmed by the gesture, Blair broke their kiss, her lips quivering slightly as she shyly smiled.
"Happy birthday, Joey."
Jo hesitated for a moment, then lightly slapped her chest a couple of times.
Jo's caveman response brought giggles from Blair.
The following Saturday, Jo was surprised to find Blair's bed empty. Recalling the probable reason for Blair's early departure, Jo smiled. Although Jo didn't really consider the antique auto show their first date, she was looking forward to attending the event with Blair. Jo suspected that Blair had already arranged some type of transportation to the show, but when she had informed Blair that she had been able to earn enough money to replace the tires on her motorcycle, Blair had graciously accepted Jo's offer to drive them to the convention center where the auto show was being held.
Jo stretched, but remained in bed. She knew instinctively that Blair would monopolize the bathroom most of the morning, as was her usual tendency when she was getting dressed for a date. Jo had waited numerous times for Blair to finish primping for an evening out with one of the twerps from Bates; she enjoyed the idea of Blair spending as much time making herself beautiful for Jo.
When Blair returned to their room, Jo was pleased to see that the style-conscious debutante had not overdressed for the occasion. Jo suspected that the only reason Blair had chosen to wear jeans instead of a skirt was because they would be riding her bike to the show. Although the pink silk blouse with pearl buttons and matching sweater vest wasn't as casual as what Jo planned to wear, it was one of Jo's favorites.
Jo winked at Blair as she gathered her things for her turn in the shower. Natalie and Tootie appeared to be waking, so Jo didn't take time to speak to Blair before leaving the room. She was suffering from an unexpected case of nervousness and thought that her stomach would settle once she and Blair left for the show.
After a quick breakfast with Mrs. Garrett, Jo tried to appear nonchalant as she and Blair mounted her bike for the short trip into town, but it was impossible to mask her excitement. She marveled at how poised Blair appeared, apparently at ease with the concept of attending the auto show as Jo's official date.
Once they arrived and Jo glimpsed the massive crowd, her excitement grew. Jo didn't like crowds, but being surrounded by so many cars reminded her of all the time she spent learning about cars in her uncle's garage. Jo was familiar with most of the cars on display, but had only seen them in magazines. Mimicking the way Blair had guided Jo through various art works at the museum during their field trip to New York, Jo enthusiastically led Blair through the exhibits. Jo took the time to explain to Blair what characteristics made some antique cars more valuable than others. She also provided insight related to the manufacturing and history of many of the cars, while Blair seemed to soak in every morsel of information Jo divulged, giving Jo her undivided attention.
Jo had often marveled at Blair's ability to effortlessly gain the interest of any boy she considered worthy as a potential date. In Jo's opinion, Blair was beautiful, but Blair's ability to attract boys went beyond good looks. As the day progressed, Jo began to form a better understanding as to why boys were willing to stand in line for dates with Blair Warner.
Blair was not only entertaining; she treated Jo with the kind of respect the brash Bronx native had rarely experienced. Jo had often watched Blair flirt with boys and had been on the receiving end of Blair's flirtatious nature on more than a few occasions when they were alone, but none of that had prepared her for a full onslaught of Blair's focused attention.
When Blair first twirled her hair and giggled, Jo glanced behind her to discover which of Blair's boyfriends had suddenly appeared. Somewhat embarrassed by the attention, Jo almost made the mistake of accusing Blair of acting instead of being herself. It soon became clear, however, that Blair wasn't putting on an act for Jo; she was simply allowing her flirtatious nature to flourish.
It was somewhat daunting for Jo to realize that Blair was oblivious to everyone except Jo. When Blair started looping her hand through Jo's arm, resting it on the inside of Jo's elbow and pulling Jo from one exhibit to another, Jo found herself entranced by her girlfriend's openly affectionate gestures. Blair went out with boys because it was expected of her, but she flirted with them because she enjoyed flirting. The opportunity to focus her attention on someone she was actually attracted to exponentially accentuated Blair's magnetism.
Jo quickly realized that some of the traits she had initially identified as 'goofy' were more accurately categorized as 'charming'. After listening intently to Jo's description of each car's make and model, along with any other features Jo deemed relevant, Blair invariably found something uniquely fascinating to say about the car. It soon dawned on Jo that Blair was applying many of the same style standards she used to evaluate fashion in her appraisal of cars. Remarkably, Blair's methodology seemed to work. Her comments were not only witty, they were invariably insightful.
As they walked through the exhibits, Jo noticed the attention Blair garnered from those nearby every time she would toss her hair, laugh, or make some otherwise outwardly flirtatious gesture. Jo knew that Blair had an uncanny awareness of her effect on men and was certain that the flamboyant blonde noticed the attention she was receiving. However, Blair seemed determined to ignore everyone except Jo, only moving her gaze away from Jo to look at a car Jo was describing.
Although Blair found the cars interesting, they couldn't compete with Jo's appeal. Jo was unconsciously using her most authoritative voice when expressing her opinions, exuding confidence. Jo never talked down to Blair, who knew about as much about automobiles as she did about astrophysics, as she spoke passionately about transmissions, motors, lubrication, suspensions, and a host of other things Blair attempted valiantly to comprehend.
While Jo was endeavoring to educate Blair about automotive systems, Blair, who routinely studied Jo's mannerisms, was much more fascinated by Jo's newest habit. Delighted by her discovery, Blair wondered if Jo realized how often she reached into her pocket to trace her thumb along the initials engraved on her keychain.
When Blair suggested that they eat lunch at one of the picnic tables in the park adjacent to the convention center, Jo readily agreed. Since they weren't the only ones to consider the park a better alternative to eating in the congested convention center, Blair insisted that Jo remain at their table, reserving it, while Blair ordered their lunch. Jo glowered as no less than three young men approached Blair while she was waiting to place her order. Granted, most of the people attending the auto show were men, but Jo wondered why so many of them felt entitled to hit on her girlfriend.
Blair felt her heart flutter as Jo politely stood when Blair returned to the picnic table with their lunch. Blair knew that Jo had good manners, but she only exhibited them on special occasions. Blair felt that Jo had treated her with deference all day and she was thrilled beyond reason that Jo was taking their date seriously.
Blair congratulated herself again for selecting an event about which Jo was so knowledgeable for their first date. She loved the way Jo's eyes would sparkle when she saw a car that she liked and the enthusiastic way in which she described the various vehicles. Jo's knowledge of motorcycles was understandable, but Blair had not been aware of the scope of Jo's knowledge of antique cars. Jo seemed specifically interested in cars from the 50's and 60's. Jo had practically been hypnotized by a 1965 Shelby Cobra, barely able to speak in its presence.
Blair continued to pump Jo for more automotive trivia during lunch, enjoying the sound of Jo's voice as she told Blair about the history behind some of the cars and why they were considered classics. Jo's eyes shone with pride when she told Blair about her father's 1966 Mustang. Charlie and Jo had often worked on the car when Jo was much younger and it had been stored in her Uncle Sal's garage while Charlie was in prison.
Jo would normally have considered such rapt attention to her ramblings as phony, but she knew Blair well enough to confirm that the animated blonde's interest in what Jo had to say was genuine. If Blair was acting a little nicer than usual, it was understandable since Jo was also on her best behavior. After lunch, Jo was careful to clear the picnic table of empty boxes and cups from both lunches. Blair suspected that if she'd been sitting in a chair, Jo would have offered to pull it out for her. When they returned to the exhibit hall, Jo opened the door and waited for Blair to enter first, eliciting a bashful, yet appreciative giggle from Blair.
With each passing hour, Jo and Blair became more acclimated to the concept of dating. The differences between the outing to the auto show and other events they had attended together were subtle, but both girls internally acknowledged the distinction.
When Blair noticed a subtle change in Jo's body language, she instantly scanned the area. As much as Jo loved focusing her attention on Blair, the somewhat cynical girl from the Bronx was always wary around crowds. Blair hadn't been paying attention to anything but Jo. She had grown to depend on Jo's heightened sense of alertness whenever she was with her girlfriend, relaxing in the knowledge that Jo was always remarkably aware of their surroundings.
Jo felt her muscles tighten when Harrison and two of his friends approached them. It took Blair longer to notice the trio, but she had time to place a mask of politeness on her face before the boys joined them. Jo was surprised that Blair didn't seem to remember that her hand, as it had been for most of the day, was still resting on Jo's arm. If they had bumped into any other acquaintance, Jo would have subtly extracted her arm from Blair's grasp, but she couldn't bring herself to break contact with Blair for Harrison's benefit.
Harrison reeked of wealth and privilege, but Jo could understand how she had initially fallen for his charms. He was courteous and suave when he approached the girls, complimenting them both on their appearance. Like Blair, Harrison had impeccable manners when dealing with someone he wanted to impress. Unlike Blair, Harrison seemed incapable of empathizing with anyone whose name didn't appear in the social register.
While Harrison was doing his best impersonation of a gentleman, Jo scowled. She noticed that Blair remained silent, scanning the area for onlookers. Jo steamed at the realization that Harrison had approached them because he knew Blair would consider it bad manners to do anything to agitate him in a public setting.
Blair's mask of civility remained intact until Harrison moved into her personal space. Taking a step back from the boy she had once admired, she gave him a warning look. Jo had seen the look before and had learned to respect it. Harrison, however, was not as in tune with the heiress's expressions as her girlfriend.
"Come on, Blair. We've never been this formal. You aren't going to let one little misunderstanding stand in the way of years of friendship. Don't forget, I've seen you topless . . . in a diaper, of course."
Harrison smirked as he finished the sentence, pausing long enough to see Jo's jaw clench before clarifying his innuendo. Harrison was so busy enjoying the irritation he was causing for Jo that he didn't notice the crimson blush on Blair's face.
"They may have to put you back in diapers, Harrison, if you continue to harass me . . . or my friends."
Harrison leaned back, increasing the distance between them.
"Now, Blair, is that any way to talk to the guy who taught you to kiss?"
Jo reprimanded herself for not being able to hide her surprise. Blair had spent time with Harrison prior to the cotillion, but they hadn't gone on an official date. It hadn't occurred to Jo that Harrison and Blair might have dated prior to his enrollment at Bates Academy and it threw her for a loop to consider that he might potentially be the first boy Blair had ever kissed. Jo loved the way Blair kissed, and she felt a little nauseous at the idea that Harrison may have been the one to teach Blair how to express herself in some of the ways Jo had come to appreciate.
Jo's fears were confirmed when she found herself physically restraining Blair from attacking Harrison for the second time. Not since the night of the cotillion had she seen Blair so livid.
Harrison chuckled as he directed his comment toward Jo.
"I guess you like me better than I thought, Jo. This is the second time you've protected me from Blair's . . . uh, passionate . . . outbursts."
Jo barely heard Harrison's comments. She was busy following Miss Gallagher's advice and counting to ten, then twenty, then thirty. The counting didn't lessen Jo's anger, but it did give Blair enough time to compose herself. She glared at Harrison, relieved that Jo didn't remove the arm she had wrapped around Blair when keeping her away from Harrison.
"You are a slimy, ill-mannered, uncouth jerk. I'd sooner kiss a pig than let you anywhere near me."
While his friends snickered in the background, Harrison glared at Jo as he spoke.
"I think you're already proving that point, Blair."
Blair immediately grabbed Jo's hand, which was resting on her waist and held it tight.
"I should have known better than to try to have a polite conversation with you, Harrison."
Continuing to hold Jo's hand, Blair pulled Jo in the direction of the ladies' restroom, the only place she was certain Harrison and his friends would be unable to follow them.
"Did he upset you, Jo?"
"Nah, I'm not going to let a jerk like Harrison ruin my day."
Blair bit her lower lip, not wanting to leave Jo's unasked question unanswered. Taking a deep breath, the rattled blonde plunged ahead.
"You are aware that Harrison and I have been friends since childhood, right?"
Jo nodded, hoping her instincts were wrong.
"Harrison has always . . . liked me. I mean, he did what most boys that age do when they have a crush on you. He usually tried to aggravate me in order to gain my attention. You know, pulling my hair or teasing me. We were only nine years old the first time he kissed me. It was nothing, Jo. We were just . . . experimenting . . . mostly."
Jo sucked in a deep breath.
"So Harrison is the one who taught you how to kiss?"
"No. I taught him how to kiss."
"Blair, if he was the first boy you ever kissed, then ."
"Hey, I was the first girl he ever kissed. Jo, I've never kissed anyone else the way I kiss you. Yes, I've kissed a lot of boys, but it's different with everyone and no one has ever made me feel the way you do. Kissing you is nothing like kissing Harrison. You have to believe that, Jo."
Blair's heart pounded as she tried to read Jo's expression, which was guarded.
"How long did you . . . experiment with Harrison?"
Blair touched Jo's face to make sure Jo looked her directly in the eyes.
"We kissed, Jo. We never did anything more than that."
"We were friends, good friends, until he went away to school."
"How old were you?"
Jo pressed her lips together and stared at the ceiling. She counted ceiling tiles until she trusted her voice.
"Is he the reason your mother thought you needed birth control pills?"
"I, uh, I don't know. I never thought about it that much. Jo, I have never been attracted to Harrison."
Blair looked around the restroom for the third time, making sure they were alone before whispering softly.
"I've never been attracted to any boy. You have to believe that, Jo. Don't let Harrison come between us."
Jo swallowed hard and looked at Blair.
"It wouldn't change the way I feel about you, y'know. I won't say that I don't care about who you might have been with before me and how much you might have done with them, but it wouldn't change how I feel about you."
Blair blinked her eyes several times, her hands trembling.
"How do you feel about me, Joey?"
"I love you, Blair. You can tell me anything about your past and it's not going to make me stop loving you."
Blair sighed and presented Jo with her most dazzling smile.
"Every time I think I can't love you more, you do or say something that . . . I love you more every day."
Jo lifted her eyebrows and then winked at her girlfriend.
"Yeah, I've been told that I'm a real catch."
Blair playfully punched the smiling brunette in the arm and pulled her toward the exit.
"Let's see if that swollen head of yours will fit through the door."
Once they were back in the exhibit hall, both girls quickly scanned the area, seeing no sign of Harrison or his friends.
"We've seen all the exhibits, but we can stay a little longer if you like. I saw an ice cream vendor in the park. Would you like some?"
Blair was happy for an excuse to extend their date. This time, Blair waited at the table while Jo purchased ice cream cones. Jo didn't ask Blair what flavor she wanted; she knew that Blair would want the most flavorful concoction available. When Jo returned to the table with her usual chocolate cone and a second cone which looked like a rainbow of swirls, topped with sprinkles, Blair beamed. When Blair immediately reached for the elaborately adorned scoop of ice cream, Jo withdrew it.
"How do you know which one's for you?"
Blair laughed and pulled Jo's arm until her ice cream cone was within reach. It was exactly what she would have selected if she had gone to the vendor herself. Blair doubted that anyone else had ever taken the time to learn her likes and dislikes. Jo not only knew what kind of ice cream she preferred, Jo knew her favorite songs, movies, artists, books, and poems. Jo knew everything from her favorite time of day to her favorite shampoo. Blair was exhilarated to add Jo's favorite make and model of car to her expanding knowledge of her girlfriend's preferences.
As they walked side by side to the parking area, Jo's hand dipped into her pocket to retrieve the object that had become so familiar. It was impossible for Jo not to smile as her fingers touched the unmistakable shape of the heart. Jo had long since memorized the location of each gem along the edge of the heart as well as every textural nuance of the engraved arrowhead.
When they reached Jo's motorcycle, Jo paused. Staring back and forth between Blair's eyes and her keys, Jo struggled to find the right words to convey her feelings. Unable to come up with anything adequate, she smiled shyly and licked her lips, making no move to get on her bike or to assist Blair.
"Thank you for coming to the show with me, Jo. I hope you had a good time."
Jo nodded affirmatively before kneeling to unlock their helmets from the latch on her bike. Blair allowed Jo to place her helmet on her head and fasten the chinstrap, even though she was capable of doing it herself.
Once they were on Jo's bike, Blair was able to do what she had wanted to do all day, embrace her girlfriend. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the cool night air as they rode through the downtown streets of Peekskill. The low hum of the motorcycle's engine lulled Blair into a dreamlike state, where her thoughts revolved around Jo. 'So this is what it's like to date Jo Polniaczek. I wonder if she'll kiss me goodnight.'
Three days after her first official date with Blair, Jo stomped into her bedroom, her hair and clothing dripping wet.
Tootie and Natalie were sitting at the desk studying while Blair was lounging on her bed drawing in her sketchpad.
Jo began ransacking the closet she shared with Blair, looking for dry clothing. Since Jo didn't own very many clothes, it was easy for her to determine that something was missing. She glanced over her shoulder and surveyed the room, her gaze finally settling on Blair.
"Hey, who told you that you could wear my shirt?"
Blair was happily snuggled into one of Jo's flannel shirts. She stuck out her lower lip in what she hoped was a cute pout and twirled her hair between her fingers as she smiled sweetly up at Jo.
"It was cold and your shirts are so soft and comfortable. I didn't think you would mind."
"I was gonna wear that shirt today. Now it'll smell like perfume."
"What's wrong with that?"
"It'll stop up my sinuses! It's bad enough that I got drenched walking back from class."
Blair tried not to get angry, attributing Jo's grumpy attitude to a case of nerves due to the upcoming game.
"Wear one of my shirts, I have hundreds."
Jo stormed over to tower over Blair's bed.
"I don't want to wear one of your shirts, they itch. I want to wear my own shirt. Give it back!"
Blair put down her sketchpad and stood within inches of the fuming brunette. Her lips were pressed tightly together into a frown as she began slowly unbuttoning the shirt. Jo didn't know what she had expected when she demanded that Blair return the shirt, but she certainly hadn't counted on Blair undressing in front of her.
"What, what are you doing?"
Blair defiantly stepped closer to Jo as she continued unbuttoning the shirt.
"I'm returning your stupid shirt, you selfish barbarian."
Jo glanced toward the desk where Natalie and Tootie had been studying to find both girls giggling into their textbooks. When she returned her gaze to Blair, the irritated blonde was holding the shirt in front of her. Having Blair stand so close to her in nothing but her jeans and bra was unsettling Jo. Jo couldn't tell if she was shivering because of her anger, her soaked clothing, or Blair's state of undress. She glanced toward Natalie and Tootie again before reaching out and grabbing the shirt, trying her best to divert her gaze from her girlfriend.
Once she had the shirt, Jo stood awkwardly in front of Blair, staring at her in confusion when Blair made no attempt to move.
"Are you going to stand there gawking at me all day or are you going to move?"
It was only when Blair's words registered that Jo realized she had been blocking Blair's path to the closet. She quickly stepped aside, allowing Blair to walk past her. She continued to stare as Blair yanked a shirt from the closet and took her time removing it from the hanger before pulling it over her head. It was only after Blair returned to her bed and began drawing that Jo abruptly turned and stomped out of the room toward the bathroom.
Once in the shower, Jo lowered her head to allow the hot water to pound into her back, relieving some of the tension which had built up during the day. Jo was normally in and out of the shower in only a few minutes, but she lingered under the soothing spray until the warmth of the water penetrated deep within her skin.
Jo toweled her hair dry before sliding into her jeans and finally gathering the flannel shirt into her arms and lifting it to her face. The shirt didn't smell perfumed, it smelled like Blair. Jo hastily finished dressing, embarrassed by the length of time she had spent in the shower. When she returned to their room, Blair was still sitting on her bed drawing, but Tootie and Natalie were gone.
"Uh, where are Tootie and Nat?"
"Natalie is covering the ping pong tournament for the school newspaper and Tootie went along to photograph the winner."
Jo looked toward the window, noting that it had stopped raining and the sun was shining.
"You didn't want to go with them?"
Blair looked up from her drawing to glare at Jo before returning to her sketch, but she didn't respond to Jo's question.
"What are you drawing?"
Blair lowered her sketchpad, crossed her arms in front of her, and glared at Jo again.
"It's not as if you don't have plenty of shirts of your own, Blair. Don't make me out to be the one at fault when you took my shirt without asking."
Blair continued to glare at Jo while Jo self-consciously ran her fingers along the hem of her shirt.
"You didn't have to embarrass me by taking off your clothes in front of everyone."
Blair only sighed and reached for her sketchpad. Jo, however, wasn't finished. She sat down on the side of Blair's bed and jerked the sketchpad out of Blair's reach.
"How long are you going to give me the silent treatment?"
Blair folded her hands in her lap and spoke in a very measured, level voice.
"I was having a bad day, too. You weren't the only one who got caught in the rain returning from class. Sometimes."
Blair paused as Jo waited for her to finish.
"Sometimes when I feel bad, I put on one of your shirts and then I feel better. I don't know why, but I do."
Jo was confused. She'd never seen Blair wearing one of her shirts before.
"I hadn't noticed."
"I only wear them when you're not here. I promise that it won't happen again. May I have my sketchpad now?"
Jo closed her eyes and recalled how Blair's scent had surrounded her when she'd put on the shirt after showering. Jo opened her eyes to stare at the floor, but didn't return Blair's sketchpad.
"I was mad. I don't like getting wet."
"It's not my fault you got caught in the rain. You blame me for everything. What gives you the right to stomp in here like little Hitler? You can't yell at me every time you're in a bad mood, Jo."
Jo retrieved the keychain from her pocket and stared at the sparkling heart, rubbing her fingers over the etched initials. Blair watched, wondering if Jo was considering storming off on her motorcycle. After a couple of minutes, Jo tucked the heart safely into her pocket and folded her hands in front of her. She looked down at her hands, her voice barely a whisper.
"Cindy kissed me."
Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill
Jo Polniaczek was an early riser, so it was unusual that she would awaken with the sun already streaming through the bedroom windows. It was not unusual, however, that she would find her body entangled in a warm cocoon of arms and legs, with her head resting on the soft pillow of her lover's breasts. Jo smiled as she snuggled against Blair, pressing gentle kisses upon her cleavage.
Jo's kisses didn't wake the sleeping heiress, nor did Jo's tender caresses. The warm reception she received from Blair's body even as the affectionate blonde slept was a constant source of amazement to Jo. It was only when Jo carefully eased herself away from Blair that she would inevitably find soft brown eyes watching her. The absence of her cuddle partner was much more likely to awaken the sleeping beauty than physical contact.
She would have preferred to let Blair sleep, but Jo wanted to check on their children, needing to reassure herself that the false alarm from the night before had not made either of them anxious. E.J. and Garrett would be up soon and Jo wasn't sure whether or not Mrs. G. planned to stop by and help prepare breakfast. As predicted, as soon as she rolled away from Blair and toward the edge of the bed, Blair mumbled.
"What time is it?"
"It's still early, I'm going to check on the kids and make some breakfast. Would you like for me to bring you anything?"
Blair rolled onto her side and rose up on her elbow, resting her head on her hand.
"You were serious about pampering me?"
Jo turned from the dresser, where she had been removing a new pajama top and almost dropped the clothing when she looked at Blair. Jo found Blair infinitely adorable in the early morning hours, with her tousled hair, half-lidded eyes, and sleepy smile. She took a few moments to drink in the visage before answering Blair's question.
"I think you deserve it, after last night."
"The night wasn't a total disaster then?"
Jo nodded, reminded that she should check on their children.
"No, it wasn't a total disaster."
As Jo opened the door to her bedroom, the unmistakable smell of coffee brewing confirmed that Mrs. G. had arrived and was preparing breakfast for E.J. and Garrett. Not for the first time, Jo gave a silent word of thanks for the maternal woman who had become an essential part of their family.
She knocked on Garrett's bedroom door first. Like Jo, Garrett was an early riser.
"Good morning. I wanted to talk with you a little about what happened last night, if you have time."
Jo knew that Garrett would have to leave soon. She was proud of his initiative, having obtained a summer job as a lifeguard at the Highcrest Country Club. At his mom's inquiry, Garrett's smile, so much like Blair's, filled his entire face.
"Mom, burglar alarms go off all the time. E.J. and I aren't babies. We can handle a little excitement."
"You're speaking for E.J., too?"
Garrett shuffled his feet, not having realized that his boast would require an admission.
"I, uh, stopped by her room already this morning. I knew she was fine, but . . . you know how it is. I, uh, just wanted to make sure."
As she drew her son into a fierce embrace, Jo gave another word of silent thanks that her children, like Blair, were always receptive to hugs and kisses. After allowing his mom to hold him for what he considered an excessive amount of time, Garrett finally pushed her away.
"Hey, why don't you drive the Mustang to work this morning?"
Garrett stared at his mom in disbelief.
Allowing Garrett to drive her 1966 Mustang was a ridiculously extravagant gesture, but Jo was bursting with pride and couldn't resist rewarding her son with something she knew he would appreciate. It was the car her father had sold in order to cover the down payment toward Jo's first year's tuition at Langley. Despite Jo's scholarship, she was required to make an initial deposit of several thousand dollars in order to register at Langley. Charlie had boasted at the time that the fates had been looking out for him, since the collector who purchased the automobile offered him triple its value. It wasn't until after they had graduated from Langley and started a family of their own with Bailey that Blair admitted to Jo that she had hired a broker to purchase the car, intending to return it to Charlie one day. Although Jo had been shocked, Charlie had always suspected that Blair Warner was responsible for the massive check he had received for the automobile that Jo had helped him maintain as a small child and had continued to maintain in her uncle's garage during Charlie's incarceration. When Blair offered the car to Charlie, he graciously, but firmly, refused the gift, insisting that the car belonged to Jo. Considering the car as much a gift from her father as it was from Blair, Jo treasured it. Jo felt she was the one receiving an award when Garrett returned her earlier hug, holding his mom for just as excessive an amount of time as she had held him.
Jo's morning visit with E.J. was extraordinarily mundane as E.J. talked excitedly about spending the day with her best friend. Marie had been away for two weeks and E.J. couldn't wait to saddle the horses and go riding with her friend. During the school year, the two young girls were inseparable. E.J. was far too young to comprehend how much her friendship with Marie meant to Jo, but it touched Jo on so many levels that just the sight of the girls playing in the pool or walking to the stables warmed Jo's heart.
When Jo returned to her bedroom several minutes later, carrying a tray with coffee, toast, and sliced fruit, Blair was still lounging in bed. Jo tried not to stare, wondering how long it had taken Blair to achieve the haphazard appearance of the sheet draping her body. It wasn't that Jo didn't appreciate Blair's efforts, she simply didn't want to give Blair such a huge advantage in what she hoped would be a morning filled with teasing. Blair had stacked their pillows behind her, sitting up in the bed, the sheet pulled up to her chest with one bare leg exposed, bent at the knee so that Blair could rest her arm on it. If Jo didn't know her lover so well, she'd never have known that the look was contrived, but the way the sheet tantalizingly threatened to shift at any moment, revealing more than it should, was one of Blair's favorite methods of seduction.
"Can I assume that the huge smile on your face means that our children are doing well?"
"Our children are spectacular, as always."
Blair almost cooed when she spoke.
"Bringing my breakfast was sweet of you, Jo, but that's not the kind of pampering I was hoping for."
Jo grinned as she sat down at the small desk in their bedroom and sipped her coffee.
"It's not for you. I figured I would need a nutritional breakfast. Pampering you can build up an appetite."
"Are those strawberries?"
"Yeah. It's too bad you aren't interested in breakfast."
Seeing Blair's extended lower lip, Jo moved her chair so that she could sit by the bed, allowing Blair to take what she liked from Jo's plate. Blair had been drinking from Jo's glass and eating from Jo's plate since they were teenagers. It didn't seem to matter that Jo consistently made sure that Blair had her own coffee or soda and that Blair's meals normally consisted of all the same foods as Jo's, Blair always seemed to find a reason to take something from Jo's plate. After years of living with one another, Jo finally abandoned her attempts to change Blair's habit, reconciling herself to sharing her meals with her possessive mate.
Blair wound up eating all of Jo's strawberries, two pieces of toast, and a blueberry muffin she knew Edna had prepared especially for her. At Jo's raised eyebrows, Blair explained.
"You're not the only one who will need a little extra stamina this morning."
Jo choked on her coffee, which was just as well since Blair confiscated the cup and appeared intent on draining it before returning it to Jo.
As Jo began putting away the remnants of their breakfast, the soft sincerity of Blair's voice took Jo by surprise. She had expected the often goofy blonde to tease her all morning. Instead, Blair's expression reflected much more emotion than her words expressed.
"You're too good to me, Jo."
Jo turned from her task and leaned toward Blair, bringing their lips into contact for a tender kiss. Jo's eyes drifted up and down the bed, absorbing every detail of the woman smiling up at her. When Jo's gaze came to rest on the scars along Blair's knee, the once vain blonde didn't shy away from the scrutiny.
"It was a long time ago, Jo. I was a little worried last night when E.J. became clingy, but it appears to have been only a momentary lapse. I don't think she was even aware that she was doing it."
Jo hadn't intended to bring up hurtful memories for Blair, but her eyes had drifted toward the evidence of her thoughts. Sighing, she returned her gaze to Blair's eyes, which reflected the depth of Blair's concern.
"I don't know what I would do . . . how I . . . I couldn't bear it if I lost you or one of our kids. We almost lost E.J. before she was even born and then . . . when I thought I had lost both of you . . . that day is never far from my thoughts."
Blair's father hadn't meant to be intentionally cruel, but after Blair and E.J. were caught up in the attempt to kidnap the executive, he neglected to contact Jo with any information prior to news reports detailing the incident, including confirmation of three casualties. Jo had been frantic, unable to find out the identities of the three individuals killed in the attack. It was only when the hospital called Jo, who was listed as Blair's emergency contact, that Jo knew for sure that Blair was alive. The hospital representative, however, didn't have any information about E.J. Jo was halfway to New York by the time David Warner thought to call and reassure her that E.J. was uninjured, physically at least.
Blair smiled sympathetically at the woman she admired as much as she adored. She was beginning to regret her decision to host such a large reunion. Jo never liked reunions. The intense former cop preferred to live in the present or plan for the future. Jo was never comfortable looking back on a past that contained so many things she would never be able to change. It didn't help that many of their friends from Eastland hadn't always treated Jo as well as Blair thought they should.
"We have a lot to be grateful for, Jo. Don't let Nancy and that crowd keep you from enjoying the banquet this coming weekend."
"I'll try, Blair. My social skills just haven't improved that much over the years."
"Don't worry, Jo, your talents in other areas more than make up for your discomfort when socializing with dimwitted debutantes."
Jo grinned, happy that her hopes for a fun-filled day of playing hooky with Blair weren't ruined by the serious turn in their conversation.
"I do have other talents. Are there some that you are more fond of than others?"
Jo's hands, unlike when they were teenagers, didn't fumble as she gently tugged the sheet covering Blair, sending it to the floor in one fluid movement. Blair's eyes sparkled as she considered which particular talent she'd like to have Jo demonstrate that morning. Hoping that her lover wouldn't be too disappointed with her choice, Blair teasingly whispered.
"Dance with me, Joey."
Jo looked down at her comfortable pajamas.
"Would I have to change clothes?"
"Would you have to put on clothes?"
Jo loved that her partner was so uninhibited. Even as a child, Blair loved being the center of attention. She always dressed and primped in an effort to draw attention to herself and there was no one's attention she enjoyed more than Jo's. Blair wasn't shy about her body, just the opposite. She found as much pleasure in being the object of Jo's gaze as Jo did in admiring her lover.
Looking down at herself and feigning surprise at her state of undress, Blair smiled.
"I would like to put on something, but you can select whatever you'd like for me to wear."
Seeing Jo's waggling eyebrows, Blair elaborated.
"Anything from my closet."
Jo was warming up to the idea. She'd gone so far as to take ballroom dancing lessons in her efforts not to embarrass Blair when attending high society functions with the debutante and in the process Jo had learned to love ballroom dancing.
"You put on the music while I select an appropriate outfit for my dancing partner."
Grabbing a nearby robe, Blair perused their CD collection while Jo threw one outfit after the other from Blair's closet and onto the bed. Exasperated by the mess Jo was making, Blair complained.
"I was hoping that we might wind up back in bed at some point this morning, but I can't see that happening if you pile everything I own on top of it."
Jo looked at the discarded pile of clothes and shrugged.
"I was looking for something in particular, but I can't find it."
Curious as to what outfit had captured her lover's attention, Blair joined Jo in front of her closet as the CD she'd selected began playing. Jo smiled at her lover, imagining how difficult it must be for couples who didn't share such a rich history to read one another so well. As the first strands of 'Fascination' echoed through their bedroom, Jo's thoughts turned to the first time Blair watched her dance. At the conclusion of Jo's dance lessons, the participants paired off and participated in a dance contest. Jo and her partner had danced to Fascination. Jo would never forget the look on Blair's face as she entered the ballroom in the dress Mrs. G. had altered for her. She and Blair had locked eyes for several moments, Blair's appreciation for Jo's attire shining through in her brilliant smile.
"You were so beautiful that night. You're always beautiful, but I was so moved that you would go to so much trouble in order to be able to dance at the functions we would be attending together."
"If only I could have danced at those functions with you."
"You can now, Jo. You must know that I plan to be your only partner at the reunion banquet this coming weekend."
"I don't imagine they'll be playing this kind of music at the dance, Blair."
Blair slightly raised her nose into the air, confirming that she had not forgotten how to project the image of a snob.
"I hired the band. They'll play whatever song I tell them to play."
"Ah, is that what this is, practice for the banquet?"
Blair shook her head, smiling innocently.
"No, this is not practice. I want you to dance with me, Joey. I want you to dance with me the way you did when we were teenagers, when we didn't need music to dance."
Jo licked her lips, finally understanding Blair's impromptu request to dance.
"The outfit I'm looking for will be perfect for the type of dance on your mind, Blair."
"If you describe it to me, perhaps I can help find it. I am a little more familiar with my closet than you are."
"That won't be necessary."
Jo almost giggled as she held up one of her old flannel shirts.
"That's not mine!"
"It's in your closet."
Blair opened her mouth to object, then jerked the faded garment from Jo's hands.
"Okay. I can admit that I sometimes borrow your clothes. You know that you are just as welcome to take anything you like from my closet."
"Yeah, but I don't like anything in your closet."
Blair made a face at her frustrating dance partner.
"Okay, so what else are you planning to pick for me, pants or a skirt?"
Jo's grin grew.
"You said you wanted to wear something, this is something."
Blair held the shirt in front of her, certain that it wasn't long enough to double as a dress, even a mini. Seeing the gleam in Jo's eyes, however, she knew it was pointless to argue. She decided that if Jo wanted to play rough, she'd have to suffer the consequences. When Jo continued to stand silently watching her, Blair balked.
"Well, don't just stand there gawking at me, turn around so that I can get dressed."
Jo's confusion was evident.
"Uh, but I like watching you get dressed."
"Not in this. Turn around."
Jo obeyed, still not totally convinced that Blair was willing to don the faded shirt. It took Blair all of two seconds to slip into the shirt.
"I knew you liked those old cars, but I never realized your fascination with the classics extended to fashion. You should have mentioned this years ago."
"So, uh, you're interested in getting 'friendly' in one of my classic cars?"
"I didn't say that."
"Does that mean you're not interested in getting friendly in one of my classic cars?"
Blair tossed her hair, noncommittally.
"I didn't say that, either."
When Blair started to walk past Jo to open her dresser drawer, Jo grabbed her by the waist and twirled her around.
"You weren't listening, Princess. This is what I want you to wear."
Blair looked down at the ragged shirt and rolled her eyes dramatically.
"Do you have any idea how much time and money I have spent in filling my wardrobe with the sexiest lingerie available?"
"I like this."
It was perfect timing, as the programmed CD player began repeating the song. Blair was surprised when instead of grabbing her, Jo curtseyed and waited for Blair to lead her in a formal dance. A few minutes into the dance, Blair seemed to forget her wardrobe, focusing on perfecting the dance steps. When it came time for the dip, Jo tried to redirect the dance.
"Hey, what are you doing? I always lead."
"You can't dip me."
Jo might have argued the point, if seeing Blair, wearing the threadbare shirt that barely came to her thighs, furiously patting her foot with her hands placed defiantly on her hips hadn't rendered her speechless.
Blair demonstrated that she could support Jo's weight in the dip and was perfectly confident that she could also manage the lift, but Jo was steadfast in her refusal to include the original lift in the dance steps. The more times they went through the steps, the more in sync they became, both immensely enjoying the dance.
It was only after their fourth turn around their bedroom that Jo altered the course of their dance, drawing Blair into her arms and teasing the hem of her shirttail. That's the position they were in when Bailey came rushing into their room.
"Ugh. What are you wearing?"
Blair blushed, as much because of her discomfort from being caught in something so tattered as by being interrupted during an intimate embrace.
"Since when do you enter our bedroom without knocking first?"
"Give me a break! It's the middle of the day."
Jo walked to the bedside table to retrieve her watch, shocked at the late hour.
"That's no excuse. You know the rules."
"I'm not going to wait downstairs all day while you two stay up here . . . what are you doing anyway?"
Jo's smile was ridiculously huge.
"Dancing. We're very good. Do you want to see?"
Bailey took one look at Blair's attire and rolled her eyes.
"No, I don't want to see any dance that has Mother dressed like that. I didn't drive all day just to sit around the kitchen either. I went to a lot of trouble bringing you a surprise and the first thing you do is start fussing about rules."
Bailey spun on her heel and stormed from their room.
"I don't know where she gets that temper."
Blair hid her smirk.
"Or her fashion sense."
When Natalie and Jo entered the basement, they found Blair and Dorothy curled up together on the sofa, drinking soda and snacking on popcorn.
Natalie looked over at Jo, her eyes sparkling with delight.
"Well, it's finally happened. The two of them have dumped us for one another."
Dorothy picked up the nearest cushion and threw it at Natalie, hitting Jo in the head. When Dorothy gasped, Blair giggled enthusiastically.
"Jo, do you remember the pillow fight Dorothy started when we were trying to study for our senior exams?"
Jo played along, glaring at Natalie.
"I remember getting clobbered by someone wearing a stupid hat with lightning bolts sticking out of the sides."
"Why can't any of you understand the symbolic representation of the lightning bolts? That hat was my secret weapon during exam week."
"That hat was the silliest thing I'd ever seen. There's no telling how high my GPA would have been if I hadn't had to look at that ridiculous thing every time I studied for an important exam."
Natalie didn't like it when the other women made fun of her hat, so she changed the direction of the conversation.
"I had Bailey pick up a special surprise for all four of you and this is how you repay me?"
As if on cue, Bailey, Garrett, and E.J. entered the room. Natalie couldn't have planned her introduction any better.
"I should start charging you a fee, Aunt Nat. You treat me as if I were your personal shopper. Have you been stirring up trouble this week while I was away running your errands?"
Dorothy watched as Natalie and Bailey went through their usual routine of ribbing one another affectionately. Natalie seemed close to all of Blair and Jo's children, but Dorothy recognized a special bond with Bailey. 'It's probably because she looks so much like Blair', thought Dorothy. Natalie always did have a soft spot for their flirtatious older roommate.
Jo interrupted the reunion.
"Did you bring the big surprise?"
Bailey removed a video from her purse and handed it to Natalie.
"You must have called in some huge favors for this, Aunt Nat. No, I didn't watch it. I'm judging by the surprised expression on the face of the lady who gave it to me that it has something to do with Mother. She looked at me the way all your old friends do when they try to figure out if Mother has just held up very well over the years or if I'm simply related."
"Hey, Blair, we should send Bailey to the final reunion banquet with Jo and see if anyone notices that it's not you."
"Very funny." Despite her tone, Blair couldn't hold back her smile. She loved her remarkable resemblance to Bailey.
Always the most curious member of the group, Dorothy impatiently asked Natalie to explain the video.
"Do you remember when Beth McNeil, Class of 1969, came to Eastland to interview us for the book she was writing about Eastland women?"
Blair leapt to her feet and grabbed the video, spinning around as she hugged it.
"Natalie, this is perfect. How did you manage it?"
"I am an influential CNN correspondent, when I want an old interview tape, I get it."
Everyone turned toward Jo, surprised by her outburst.
"We were told that no one else would see that tape. It's probably illegal for us to watch it."
Blair passed the video to Garrett as she twirled over to Jo and wrapped her arms around the grumpy brunette's neck.
"You said something nice about me, didn't you? I don't know why you hate for anyone to hear you compliment me."
Jo squirmed, confirming Blair's suspicion.
"I talked about a lot of things."
Blair tossed her hair and playfully reached for a strand of Jo's hair, only to have Jo forcefully push her hand away.
"Stop that! You're embarrassing our kids."
"I'm not embarrassed." Garrett snickered.
"Me either." E.J. confirmed.
Bailey giggled, gaining everyone's attention.
"I'm absolutely mortified, but after surreptitiously spying on you for Aunt Natalie for the past fifteen years, I can't really claim to be embarrassed."
Jo's head jerked toward Natalie, who was glaring at Bailey.
"It's a joke! I don't where the kid gets that weird sense of humor."
Garrett shushed everyone and Blair pulled Jo over to the sofa. Dorothy slid over to make additional room, but Blair motioned for Jo to sit and then she jumped into Jo's lap, causing a loud humph from Jo. Jo tried to maintain her scowl, but she couldn't resist Blair's infectious enthusiasm.
"Come on, baby, it'll be fun."
Dorothy was the first girl interviewed. As soon as the young woman appeared on the large theater screen, everyone clapped and cheered. Natalie howled when Dorothy told the interviewer that she preferred being called Tootie instead of Dorothy.
"Don't you ever criticize me again for forgetting to use your grown up name, Tootie Ramsey-Williams!"
Jo, who was leaning forward on the sofa, completely absorbed in the video, shushed Natalie.
"Be quiet, Nat. I want to hear what she has to say."
Blair giggled and kissed Jo on the cheek, whispering something in her lover's ear that made Jo laugh.
Like Jo, Bailey was enthralled.
"Wow, you must have always known you were going to be an actress!"
"Aunt Natalie should save this for when you win one of those awards. Wouldn't it be cool for people to see that you knew you were going to be a famous actress when you weren't much older than me?"
Garrett was interrupted when Natalie Greene began banging on the table.
"Rewind it. Rewind it to where she talks about her best friend."
"Shut up, Nat. We're trying to watch this."
Natalie threw a kernel of popcorn at Jo, who wondered why she was the only one being pelted with cushions and food crumbs.
"Aw, you guys are Tootie's next best friends. Isn't that sweet? Of course, it's not as if you were her best, best friend. That person is very clearly me."
"Throw her in the pond if she keeps talking, Jo."
"Uh, she was never as little as you, Tootie, and I'm not nearly as strong as I once was; I think I'd have to get Garrett to do it for me."
Garrett leapt to his feet, ready for action, causing everyone to laugh so hard that he had to rewind the video so that they didn't miss anything.
When Dorothy began talking about Mrs. G. during the interview, the redhead's eyes grew misty.
"I don't know. She really doesn't have an official title. She's a combination of mother, friend, guardian, nudge."
The last term drew laughter from everyone as Dorothy left her place on the sofa and sat down next to her mentor, pleased that Mrs. G. was so moved by the interview.
When Dorothy explained that she often went to Mrs. G. late at night to talk about things, but that no one else knew about it, all four girls looked around at one another, realizing that they all shared that same secret. All four were further surprised, when they heard E.J. quietly whisper to Mrs. G.
"Did I take Miss Tootie's place, Mrs. G.? You're always telling me that our talks are so special because I'm the youngest."
Edna patted her lap, inviting E.J. to sit with her. She smiled back and forth between Dorothy and E.J.
"No one can take Tootie's place, just like no one will ever take your place, E.J."
When Mrs. G. shifted uncomfortably under E.J.'s weight, the young girl started to get down, but Dorothy detained her, offering her own lap as a substitute. It was a tense moment as the shy child considered her options. E.J. wasn't comfortable around strangers and she had known Dorothy for less than a week. Sensing the situation, Dorothy slid over and E.J. happily sat between the nice actress and her beloved Mrs. G.
"What part of your school experience has meant the most to you?"
"Aw, that's so sweet."
"Stop making fun of me. I'm sure your interviews will be just as sappy."
The other girls stopped hazing Dorothy, only to find themselves growing misty-eyed as the most sentimental member of their group continued.
"The four of us have had some really great times together. I think that in ten years we'll still be together. Really. Ten years, twenty-five years, all of us with our careers and our husbands and children and grandchildren. All of us together . . . and living over Mrs. Garrett's store. Wouldn't that be a riot?"
Tears of sentiment gave way to tears of laughter as a very idealistic Tootie expressed her fondest desire that she and her friends would live together forever. Garrett paused the video after the first interview, giving his parents and their friends time to compose themselves.
The next interview was with Natalie. Everyone laughed as their humorous friend began by joking. The room grew somber however when the interviewer mentioned the new security wall surrounding the campus and Natalie explained that some girls had been attacked a few years earlier. When she further revealed to the interviewer that she had been one of the girls who were attacked, an audible gasp came from Bailey, E.J., and Garrett. E.J. in particular seemed very distressed by the news, leaving her seat beside Mrs. G. to join her Aunt Natalie in the oversized recliner. E.J. held Natalie's hand as she leaned forward, giving the video her rapt attention.
"I was lucky, I only had the life scared out of me. Boy, that was a major league awakening. We used to think life here was pretty perfect. What could go wrong here in the boonies? Then . . . overnight, everyone was walking around . . . looking over their shoulders. I guess I was looking over the wrong one."
Jo and Blair tried not to be too obvious as they watched E.J. trying to comfort Natalie during the interview. Natalie had a great relationship with all of their children, but E.J. had always been a little overwhelmed by their boisterous friend, often shying away from Natalie. It was a significant turning point in their relationship and Natalie realized that she had just become a role model for the young girl, whose admiration of her parents' friend had grown exponentially.
As the interview turned toward career topics, it was no surprise that Natalie mentioned journalism. It was surprising, however, that she also mentioned politics. Bailey enthusiastically turned to Natalie.
"You should do it, Aunt Nat. You should run for office. We could all help with your campaign. You'd make a great politician."
E.J. smiled brightly at Natalie, obviously thinking that Bailey's assessment was correct.
"Hey, Nat. Are you interested in running for office again?"
"Again?" Bailey was confused.
"Didn't you know? Natalie was a candidate in the mayoral election right here in Peekskill."
"Many light years ago and I lost that election. It was a dark blemish on an otherwise magnificent resume."
When Tootie interrupted Natalie's interview in order to pull a twig from Natalie's hair, Blair's giggle fit caused her to fall from Jo's lap. Since Dorothy had vacated her seat on the sofa, Blair didn't return to Jo's lap, but sat close beside her mate, resting her hand on Jo's knee.
"What would you say Eastland has given you?"
"I don't know if it's Eastland, or my friends. I guess they're the same in a way, but I'd have to say a sense of myself. I hope that doesn't sound too sixties. What I have is this feeling that no matter what happens out there, I'll be okay. You know what I mean?"
E.J.'s smile brightened as she turned admiring eyes toward Natalie, capturing the lively woman's heart completely. When Garrett paused the video at the conclusion of Natalie's interview, Jo whispered to Blair.
"Why didn't we think to ask Natalie to tell E.J. about her experience? It never even occurred to me that E.J. would relate so well to Nat."
Blair shrugged, flashing a grateful glance toward her dear friend, who was coaxing E.J. out of her serious mood by tickling the child mercilessly.
Jo and Blair exchanged anxious glances as they watched their children lean close as Garrett prepared to play the next interview. Bailey winked at Jo as soon as the video started and Blair appeared, tossing her hair and posing for the camera. Bailey, E.J., and Garrett howled with laughter as they watched Blair continue to primp and perform for the cameraman. As their mother shifted gears from outrageous exhibitionist to coy flirtation, Garrett began rolling around on the floor as Bailey begged him to stop the video.
Blair responded to their behavior by extending her lower lip, gaining her a quick peck on the lips from Jo as her lover wrapped her arm around Blair's back and held her snugly. Blair found Jo's restraint admirable as her amused partner refrained from joking about Blair's blatant display of vanity.
"I guess the biggest difference at college is the dating. I mean, I dated at Eastland a lot, but I didn't date."
The subtle difference in Blair's inflection took on a significance that would have otherwise gone unnoticed if everyone in the room wasn't aware of the secrecy Blair and Jo maintained, to some degree, throughout their years at Eastland.
"How would you describe yourself, Blair?"
Blair hid her face in her hands, knowing what was coming and the response it would garner from her friends and family.
"Do you want me to be brutally honest? I'm wonderful."
"I appreciate your honesty."
As everyone else responded with gales of laughter, Jo leaned toward Blair and whispered.
"You were never very modest, sweetheart, but why deny the obvious?"
Blair smiled into her lover's eyes, seeing nothing but admiration in Jo's bright green gaze.
"How many years did you attend?"
"Since I was twelve. What I loved most about it was the tradition. I mean, you look at the class pictures on the wall of all the girls who came before you, like you, there's just this sense of continuity. We're not big on that in my family . . . so I guess I appreciate it."
Blair felt Jo's eyes on her as much as her touch, but she was afraid to return her gaze. When Jo gently touched her chin and lifted it, encouraging Blair to look at her, the once lonely heiress found one of the tenderest expressions she'd ever seen on Jo's beautiful face. After Jo leaned forward and kissed her gently, they realized that Garrett had stopped the video and that everyone in the room was watching them.
Jo quickly cleared her throat, drawing attention away from Blair, who was uncharacteristically bashful, given the vulnerability exposed during the interview.
"Thank you for pausing the video, son. I wouldn't want to miss anything. You, uh, can start again now."
"I'd send my daughter to Eastland. I suppose that says it all . . . but I wouldn't send her until she was much older. I'm afraid I'd be pretty selfish with her time. I'd want her to be with me a lot."
A cheer went up from Bailey and E.J. while Garrett complained that he wasn't mentioned. Natalie explained that boys weren't allowed to attend Eastland until after Blair bought the school, mollifying the young man.
Jo, feeling emotionally exposed and knowing that Blair must feel doubly exposed, solicitously checked on her partner.
"Are you okay, sweetie? We can take a break if you need one."
Blair shook her head, but was grateful for Jo's concern. She'd forgotten how much she had revealed about her hopes and dreams for the future during the interview. Looking across the room at her children, she was overcome with joy.
"Do you think you've changed much over the past five years or so?"
"Oh, yes. Absolutely. You see, I've always been a privileged person. I'd never had to work for what I had and I never gave much thought to people who did . . . until I met Jo, my roommate, Jo Polniaczek."
At the mention of Jo's name, her children cheered.
"You should have seen her when she first arrived at Eastland. No money, no clothes, no matching luggage. All she had was this confidence. It really irritated me. No, wait . . . wait, confidence isn't the right word, strength is better. She knows who she is. A friend like that is very valuable. Did I say that? Are you sure she's not going to see this tape?"
Jo wiped her eyes as Blair rested her head on Jo's shoulder.
"The best time I ever had at school? Well, I know one of the best. Thanksgiving, two years ago. Mrs. Garret decided to invite all the town vagrants to a Thanksgiving dinner, and they came . . . all these vagrants . . . it was the most lovely time. We exchanged stories, we sang songs . . . it was so sad when the evening ended and Mrs. Garrett had to ask for the silverware back."
While the others giggled at Blair's parting joke, Edna motioned for Garrett to pause the video again, tears flowing down her face.
"I'm afraid I'm going to need a tissue. You girls have gotten me so emotional that I can't see."
When Garrett rose to get a tissue for Mrs. G., his mom caught his eye as well, indicating that he should bring tissues for his mother. Before he left the room, the young man scanned the room, amused to see that every woman was in need of a tissue.
"I'm sorry, Edna. I forgot about telling them that."
"Don't apologize, Blair. It was wonderful to hear that one of the best times you had at school was when you were helping others. You'll never know how proud I am of you. I've never known anyone capable of so much growth. Most people stop growing once they reach a certain age, but you continue to mature year after year. You are an exceptional young woman."
Blair walked over to her second mother and they embraced.
"I love you, Edna. I can't imagine what my life would have been like if you hadn't taught me how to love."
Leaving Edna and returning to Jo, Blair stopped to touch Natalie's hand.
"Thank you for this. I'm always trying to tell Edna how much she changed my life and how grateful I am that she loves me. Your video did a much better job of communicating my appreciation than anything I could say."
Natalie dabbed her eyes and nodded. She knew Blair to be a compassionate adult, but she had not realized how sensitive Blair had been as a student. She glanced at Dorothy to see if her friend was coming to the same conclusions and was gratified to receive a knowing nod from her best friend.
"What do you hope for in the future?"
"A lot of things. You mean more than anything? Most of all I hope to have a good, solid family. I know that's not easy. It hasn't been for anybody I know, but it's what I hope for. You know, I read somewhere that the Japanese write their prayers on little slips of paper, tie them to the branches of trees, and let the wind carry them off to be answered. I should try that."
Jo's voice was choked and Garrett looked up in surprise, fumbling with the remote control.
"I'm sorry. I guess I'm a little emotional. Would anyone mind if we wait to watch the last two interviews another night?"
Mrs. G. responded enthusiastically, through her tears.
"Jo's right. I can't take much more reminiscing. I'd like to wait until another time to watch my interview as well. I can't recall what I said, but I'm sure I'll need more tissues."
Dorothy's yawn confirmed that she was happy to cut the evening short. Garrett and E.J. grumbled a little, but Blair's stern stare held their complaining to a minimum.
As Blair and Jo started to leave, Bailey blocked their path. Tears were in the young woman's eyes as she held open her arms for Blair, who gave the younger woman a fierce hug.
"Thank you, Mother, for letting me grow up in the kind of family you never had. The kind of family Monica wanted for me, but could never have given me."
"I have that kind of family now, Bailey, that's all that matters. I'm so grateful that you are part of it."
Alone in their bedroom, Jo could barely talk, her emotions were still raw from watching Blair's interview. She sat down in a chair and covered her face.
"I'm such a crybaby. I didn't want the kids to see me like this."
"Joey, baby, you know that you've given me everything I wished for in that interview and more, don't you?"
"I guess. It's just hearing you say it like that, so honest about what you wanted your future to be like, it was such a small dream."
"Are you kidding? It was a huge dream. Do you know how rare it is for two women who grew up in broken homes to be able to successfully form a solid family? Both of us were so distrustful at first. It's so hard to learn to count on someone when all the people you should have been able to count on have let you down. You taught me to trust again, Joey. You taught me to love unconditionally."
"I never had any dreams until I met you, Blair. Even then, I never dreamed that I could have what we share. You and our kids, you're my world."
Blair sat on Jo's lap, this time straddling the stronger woman and gently easing herself onto Jo, pressing herself against her lover's lean frame. When they kissed, it held as much passion as tenderness and both women lost track of time as they enjoyed the intimacy.
Later that night, a gentle knock at their door almost went unnoticed. When Jo opened the door, she found all three of their children. Each child took a turn kissing Jo and then Blair, telling their mothers that they loved them. When their children left, Jo cradled Blair in her arms, showering her face and neck with tender kisses.
16: Leaving Home
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