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

Christmas Waltz
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

December 8, 1983. Manhattan. The corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West.

It was night, 10:40 pm. The world-famous Dakota Apartments – a formidable Franco-German block of gables and balconies and bay windows – were decorated with understated, twinkling holiday lights. In the park, the trees were festooned with strands of sparkling white lights.

An eclectic group of people had gathered across from the 72nd Street entrance.

There were students in sweatshirts blazoned with the name of their college or university. There were hippies in colorful combinations of sandals, jeans, dashikis, beads, and headbands.

There were businessmen and businesswomen in crisp dark suits with white shirts. There were tourists with cameras and guide books.

There were elderly people, and young people. There were individuals and couples and families with babies in strollers.

Those gathered were black, Latino, white, Asian, and Native American. People mingled, talking in low, reverent voices.

The loosely knit gathering included two attractive young women who stood close together, almost – but not quite – touching hands.

The blonde wore a caramel-colored Ralph Lauren coat, a Russian fur cap, and oxblood boots and gloves.

The brunette wore a butter-soft aviator jacket with fleece collar, heavy motorcycle gloves and boots.

Both women shivered; the temperature fluttered just below freezing, and though it was a crystal clear night, gusts of wind blew through Manhattan.

"Jo," said Blair, "why are we here?"

Jo glanced at Blair. "You don't know?"

"Some sort of masochistic gesture?" Blair hazarded. "Darling – have I upset you somehow?"

"Whaddya mean?"

"You know my father lives here – or don't you?"

Jo's eyes widened. She squeezed Blair's gloved hand.

"Babe, I didn't know that, or I woulda warned you where we were goin. Damn."

The tears Blair had been holding back for the last few moments spilled down her perfect cheekbones. She dashed them away impatiently with one gloved hand.

"You father still hasn't called?" Jo asked quietly.

Blair laughed and sobbed at the same time. She whisked a handkerchief from within her coat and blew her nose.

"Not only has my father not called me," Blair said, with a praiseworthy attempt at bravado, "he hasn't even had his secretary call me to tell me that he's not going to call."

"And … that means what?" Jo asked. Most of the behavioral nuances of the upper classes still eluded her.

Blair blew her nose again. "It means," she said, a hitch in her voice, "that I am completely dead to him."

Jo swore softly. She wanted to take Blair in her arms and comfort her, but that move would be nothing short of suicide in public – social suicidal, at best.

Blair wouldn't thank her for the gesture. What if one of the reporter-photogs at the edge of the crowd recognized the famous heiress and snapped a photo of her in the arms of another woman?

Jo could just imagine the picture and its caption in the local press: "Warner Heiress Gets Cozy With Unknown Gal Pal In Front Of The Dakota …" Of course, the real headline would be wittier. Someone like Natalie would come up with a spicier, pithier, even more provocative line …

And although this particular crowd looked pretty damn peaceful and live-and-let-live, even some of the most open-minded people weren't ready to accept women who preferred the company of women …

"Babe," Jo whispered, stepping as close to Blair as she felt she could without attracting undue attention, "if I knew David Warner lived here, I wouldn't have invited you. Or, I would have, cause this is somethin important to me and I wanna share it with you. But I would've let you know where we were goin, so you could decide if you were up to this."

Blair whisked her handkerchief back into her coat, gave Jo a warm smile. "Jo, I am one-hundred percent up to this," she whispered. "Whatever 'this' is. If this is important to you, it's important to me."

Jo blushed. She felt a warm, not unpleasant heat spread from her chest up her neck, her face, to the tips of her ears. "Jeez," she said bashfully. It was still hard for her to articulate her deeper feelings. Usually she demonstrated them physically.

"So … What are we doing here?" asked Blair. She glanced at the eclectic crowd. "Is this some sort of Christmas festival?"

"This is where John Lennon was shot, three years ago tonight," Jo explained quietly.

"Oh." Blair nodded; she remembered seeing newscasts about it in the Eastland lounge the night it happened.

"That friggin nut shot Lennon in the back, right there –" Jo pointed to the Dakota's 72nd Street entrance across the street from where the crowd was gathered. "John and Yoko had just gotten out of their car. He did that, you know, got out in front of the building a lot of times, so if any of his fans were waiting, he could give 'em an autograph. That's the kind of person he was."

Blair touched Jo's shoulder briefly, a quick gesture of comfort.

"I had no idea you were a John Lennon fan," she said.

"Yeah. Since I was a kid. The way he saw the world, I don't know, if it could really be that way, it'd be kinda cool."

Blair's eyebrows drew together as she cast her mind back three years. "I don't remember you saying anything after he was shot."

Jo shrugged. "Remember, Blondie … We weren't exactly so close back then."

Blair lifted her eyebrows. Weren't exactly so close! Jo was magnificent with understatements!

When Lennon was shot, Jo was in her first semester at Eastland, warming up to the school, and some of the people there, but for the most part still a chip-on-her-shoulder loner. And Jo and Blair were fiercely resisting, argument by argument, the bizarre truth that they were somehow becoming best friends …

At 10:50 pm everyone in the crowd gathered in a huge circle. It didn't feel organized; it just seemed to happen organically. Everyone either held hands or linked arms with the person next to them.

A short, tough-looking brunette in a denim jacket suddenly shouldered her way between Jo and the skinny hippie who'd been clasping Jo's left hand.

"Yo, Polniaczek, sorry I'm late!" said Jesse, taking Jo's left hand with an almost-bone-crushing grip.

"S'okay, Jess," said Jo. "Glad you made it."

Jesse peeked around Jo, fixing Blair with a wicked grin. "Hey, Farrah! Din't expect ta see you here!"

"Likewise, I'm sure," Blair said with a glued-on smile and a distinctly sub-zero tone.

Shit! thought Jo.

"What's it been, like, a coupla years?" Jesse asked Blair. "How's it hangin? Where's your fifty million suitcases?"

"Jess, put a damn sock in it," Jo crabbed under her breath. "Don't forget the spirit of why we're here, eh?"

"Oh. True," Jesse said with what sounded like sincerity. She nodded curtly at Blair. "No insult intended, Farrah. No serious, insult, anyway. Truce?"

"Of course," Blair said through her glued-on smile. Blair squeezed Jo's right hand with an almost-bone-crushing grip. Blair's truce with Jesse clearly didn't extend to Jo.

Shit! thought Jo. How do I get myself into these situations?

An elderly woman with flowing white hair began to sing "Imagine".

"Imagine there's no countries. It isnt' hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for – and no religion too …"

The old lady's voice was surprisingly strong and clear, Jo thought, considering she looked to be about a hundred and ten years old, with skin like parchment.

The old lady was joined by the rest of the crowd. The voices rose together into the cold night air, blending and drifting across 72nd Street to the Dakota entrance. The doorman on duty tilted his head, listening.

Jo mouthed the lyrics, but she didn't sing. She had a hit-or-miss voice, and she had too much reverence for the song to add her off-key notes.

Blair knew the lyrics. She sang in a rich, throaty mezzo-soprano that sent chills up and down Jo's spine.

Christ … Blair can sing! I always forget she can sing.

Jo closed her eyes. She listened to the crowd, to Jesse's slightly out-of-tune warbles, to Blair's beautiful voice.

The song always moved her. A life where everyone lived in peace, in unity, in the moment, in love … Rationally, Jo regarded it as a nutty, practically communist, hippie bunch of crap. But in her heart …

Why do some people hate and fear so damn much?

Hate, ignorance and fear were why she and Blair couldn't walk arm-in-arm down the street or kiss in public, for fear of being beaten, even killed. Ignorance and fear were why their parents had disowned them.

Happy damn Christmas – peace and good will to all! Jo thought ruefully. On the other hand … We've gotta be thankful for what we got.

And it was a lot, Jo reflected. Mrs. Garrett, Natalie, Tootie, Alec and Petal all knew about the couple, and were accepting and supportive.

Tootie's mother, Justice Ramsey, and Nat's grandmother Mona, seemed to suspect, but they hadn't shunned the couple or given them the evil eye – not yet, anyway!

Jo glanced reflectively at her old pal Jesse as the song wound down. Could Jesse handle it? What would her reaction be?

Eh … better not risk findin out! Jo decided.

Jesse had cleaned up her act in a lot of ways the past couple of years. She'd stopped drinking, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and earned her GED. She was fulfilling her community service – the sentence for a smash-and-grab last year – and even talking about enrolling in Bronx Community College.

That was all amazing … but Jesse still had some issues that made her anything but the poster child for international good will! She still had all kinds of cracks about "boat people" and Latinos and blacks and WASPs – about basically anyone who wasn't a Bronx-bred Italian Catholic.

What would she think about me fallin for any girl, wondered Jo, let alone a silver-spoon babe like Blair?

Would Jess slap me on the back and say, "Hey, Polniaczek, at least you landed a hot girlfriend?"

Or would Jess be disgusted, go back to the neighborhood and spread it around?

That would shame the hell outta Ma, if it got around …

On the whole, Jo decided she could wait to find out Jesse's opinion of the situation.

Sometimes Jo wondered why Jesse was such a big John Lennon fan. Jess knew all the words to the Lennon songs … but did she get what the words meant, all the talk of peace and tolerance? Or was it just a lot of pretty music to the tough girl?

When one Lennon song ended, someone would start another one, until finally a little girl haltingly started "Happy Xmass (War Is Over)". She had a pure soprano; after a few verses, everyone joined in.

So this is Christmas – and what have you done? Another year over, and a new one begun …

The song swelled poignantly over 72nd Street. The doorman across the street wiped his eyes on his braided sleeve.

As if in response to some invisible, inaudible signal, when "Happy Xmass" concluded, the crowd dispersed, everyone going off in completely different directions to live their completely different lives.

"So," Jesse said to Jo, pointedly ignoring Blair, "whaddya say you buy your ol' pal a cup of coffee?"

Jo shot a quick look at Blair. So, babe, what do we think about treatin Jess to some coffee?

Blair coolly lifted her eyebrows. Of course. It would be insufferably rude not to. But we are having a little conversation about this later. When we're alone. Darling.

"Sure," Jo cheerfully told Jesse, clapping her on the shoulder. "A cuppa coffee it is!"

Jesse looked from Jo to Blair and back again. "What the hell was that?"

"What was what?" Jo asked in what she hoped was a completely blank, innocent manner.

"It's like you two talk in ESP or somethin," Jesse said.

"Eh, you know, Blair just likes to make faces at me. I must irritate her or somethin!" Jo laughed.

Jesse laughed too. "Imagine that!" she said.

"So, Blair – where's a good coffee shop around here?" Jo asked.

"Well –"

"No, no, no way," Jesse said, interrupting Blair before she could even suggest a single Manhattan café. "I ain't dressed for snobbo city! I'm thinkin the Bronx. What about Madonia Brothers, you know, on Arthur Avenue?"

Jo grinned. "Now you're talkin!"

"S' a good place," agreed Jesse. "I ain't been there in a while. They got really good cannoli."

"No kiddin?" Jo glanced at Blair, eyes sparkling mischievously.

"Too bad Gloria Vanderbilt won't be able to go," Jesse said with mock sadness, shaking her head.

"Why won't I?" Blair asked with deadly sweetness.

"It's … the … Bronx," Jesse said, enunciating each word as if Blair were a little slow. "It ain't your kinda scene, Farrah. You go traipsin inta the neighborhood in that outfit, first they're gonna take your purse, then the coat, and so on. Ain't gonna be nothin left but your bones!"

Blair glanced down at her Ralph Lauren coat, considered the fabulous Chanel outfit that it covered. Damn – the little hooligan is right!

Blair had been to the Bronx plenty of times in the past few months, first looking for Jo's motorcycle, then serving as one of the producers on a film about the Fever dance club and break mixing. Blair had even become somewhat of a fixture at Madonia Brothers. But she always planned her trips to the Bronx; she dressed down and she generally arrived by taxi or on the back of Jo's motorcycle.

"Tatum O'Neal is right – I need to change," Blair told Jo. Blair nodded toward the Dakota. "I have a closet in Daddy's apartment. Let's just go up for a few moments and …" She trailed off, remembering that her father had disowned her.

Damn David Warner to hell! thought Jo.

Jo gave Blair a light little punch on the arm. "Hey, forget your dad," she said quietly. "We'll take a taxi."

"A taxi? Are you kidding?" asked Blair. "We can't afford that. We've got January rent coming up –"

"In, like, a month," Jo pointed out. "And if we're a little late, I don't think Mrs. G is gonna throw us out in the snow."

"That's not the point," Blair whispered. "The very fact that Mrs. Garrett would give us an extension makes it all the more important that we pay her on time. And we have spring tuition to think of, and Chestnut's board at the Langley stables, and million other little things that all add up. We have to save every penny this month, Joanne Marie Polniaczek."

"Jeez, agreed, agreed, but we're not ridin the subway to the Bronx with you in those glad rags. Just ain't gonna happen, Princess! We can afford one damn taxi ride."

"And then, after we bid your little chum goodbye, we'll be walking to the train station? In the dark, around midnight, with me dressed like, well, Gloria Vanderbilt?"

"OK, OK," groused Jo, "as usual, you're two freakin steps ahead of me. But yes, we can afford a taxi to and from the Bronx, if it keeps you safe – which keeps me safe by extension, by the way, since I gotta kick the ass of whoever messes with you."

"How noble, and, at the same time, incredibly self-serving," said Blair.

"Thanks."

"This is silly," said Blair. "Maybe I can't go up to Daddy's apartment, but they'll let us into the lobby. The doorman will recognize me. There's a payphone in the lobby; I can call one of my friends and ask for a ride."

"I see," Jo said. This time I'm two steps ahead of you, babe! "And your friends, who, I'm sure, all drive Mercedes and BMWs and Porsches, will be flippin thrilled to drive us into the Bronx practically at midnight, and it won't be dangerous at all."

"Touché," sighed Blair.

"What the hell are you two fightin about?" Jesse demanded, hugging herself and stamping her feet to keep warm. Her denim jacket, Jo realized, was pretty damn thin.

"We're just, ah, gettin organized," said Jo. "Cool your jets a sec."

Blair sighed. "You were right," she told Jo. "Much as it pains me to admit it. We should've taken your bike to the city, instead of the train. If we had your bike, you could drive us to the bakery, and Bonnie Parker could take the subway and meet us there."

"Her name," Jo said tightly, "is Jesse. Why do you have to be such a snob about her?"

"I'm a snob about her? Do you hear the way she talks to me? She was unbelievably rude the first time I met her, and she's just as uncouth – if not more so – now!"

"Yeah, yeah. I know," Jo grumbled. "But you gotta understand where she's comin from. She's like I was when I first went to Eastland. Before, ah, I got all civilized and softened up and stuff."

Blair and Jo met each other's eyes for a moment. Warm milk chocolate eyes (with green and gold flecks) smiled at sparkling blue-green eyes. The urge to fall into each other's arms was almost irresistible.

"I love you," mouthed Blair.

"I know," mouthed Jo.

Blair punched Jo in the shoulder. It didn't hurt, but –

"What the hell was that for?" Jo demanded, laughing.

"Stop quoting Han Solo lines from 'Empire'," said Blair.

"Look, your worshipfulness, let's get one thing straight – Ow!" said Jo, as Blair punched her in the shoulder again. "That one was from the first movie! And I wasn't quoting Han from 'Empire' before. I was quoting Leia from 'Return'."

Blair rolled her eyes. "And that matters how? No," she held up one gloved hand, "that was a rhetorical question."

"Guys, what are we doin?" Jesse called. "If I had any nads, they'd totally be frozen off by now."

Blair hid her face against Jo's aviator jacket and giggled.

"What?" asked Jo. "'Nads'?"

Blair giggled again.

Jo laughed. "You gotta be kiddin me. Miss Eastland Salutatorian 1983, the dignified Blair Warner, gets the giggles if she hears –"

"Stop it!"

" – 'nads'?"

Blair giggled helplessly. Jo grinned at her fiancée. Every day, thought Jo, I learn somethin new about this woman, whether it's big, small or just plain goofy …

"Ok, here's what we're gonna do," said Jo. "We're gonna go into the lobby and warm up, and I'm gonna get on the payphone and call Pauly. He'll drive us to the bakery, and then he'll drive us to the train station. Shit, he can drive us back to Peekskill! What are cousins for?"

"Language, Jo," teased Blair.

"Yeah, sorry. When I'm back in the city, I kinda, you know, go back to my roots."

"So I'd noticed," Blair said drily. Whenever they were within several miles of the Bronx, Jo's diction unraveled, while her profanity increased exponentially.

"Well, look who's talkin," Jo said defensively. "Soon as we're around any of your fancy-schmancy friends, you get all formal, you get that Princess Grace voice, like butter wouldn't flippin melt in your mouth."

"Eloquently put, my little grease monkey," Blair drawled in diction so diamond-sharp and perfect it could've cut glass. "Except Princess Grace was one of the kindest, warmest –"

"Oh, yeah. Sorry," Jo said gently.

It still played with Jo's mind a little bit, the way Blair actually knew famous people. To Jo, Princess Grace was unreachable, a beautiful, perfect blonde icon. But the Warners had visited the Rainiers on a number of occasions, before and after the Princess' tragic auto accident the year before. To Blair, the Princess had been a real person.

Blair took a deep breath. "Jo, I promise to be on my best behavior with Jesse. But can you please keep her from making a scene in the lobby?"

"I mean, yeah, I'll try, but I'm gonna be on the phone with Pauly."

"Au contraire, cherie – I'll call Pauly. You keep an eye on your chum."

"Whaddya think, she's gonna steal the cushions off the lobby chairs?"

"Frankly, I don't know what to expect from her, after some of the stories you've shared."

"She's turnin over a new leaf," Jo insisted. I think. I hope. We'll see!


The Dakota doorman, at attention in his magnificent golden booth, tipped his cap to Blair.

"Miss Warner," he said politely.

"Hello, Thomas," said Blair.

"I hope you're well."

"Very well, Thomas. How are your children? Anxious for Christmas?"

He beamed. "Very!"

As they stepped into the Dakota, Jesse pursed her lips in reluctant approval.

"All right, Farrah," she said to Blair. "I gotta admit … That was kinda cool."

"What?" asked Blair, looking around the elegant lobby, trying to remember where the payphone was.

"Breezin right in here like that! That felt kinda cool."

"Lovely," Blair said absently. "Ah!" Blair spotted the alcove with the payphone. "Jo, I'll be right back."

The superintendent on duty recognized Blair Warner, although he couldn't place her underdressed companions. He shook his head with tolerant amusement.

These kids today, and their punk outfits! You could hardly tell the debutantes from the hooligans anymore.

His niece had come home the other night with a green streak in her hair and safety pins stuck into her ripped T-shirt. His sister had read the girl the riot act – as if that was gonna do anything except make the kid more determined to go punk!

While Blair dialed the payphone, Jo sank easily onto a divan, neatly crossing her ankles. Jo glanced around the elegant lobby, with its costly furniture, fittings and art. It was impressive – but not warm. She pictured a much younger Blair visiting her father here. Home sweet freakin home, she thought wryly. I can't believe how great Blair turned out, as much as her folks neglected her …

Jesse stood next to the divan, shifting nervously from foot to foot.

"Siddown," Jo told Jesse quietly. "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothin. I don't know." Jesse sat down next to Jo, perching warily on the edge of the cushion, ready to spring up at a moment's notice.

"Just be cool, Jess, and no one's gonna mess with us."

"I know, I know," Jesse said waspishly. She hated feeling nervous and she hated that Jo saw her in such a vulnerable state. "Places like this give me a friggin rash," she said. "Bunch of hoity-toity dipshits."

"Be cool."

"I'm cool," Jesse said defensively. "Do I look not cool?"

Jo glanced significantly at Jesse's left foot, which was nervously swinging, and at Jesse's left hand, nervously tapping on the divan's arm.

"Jess, you look like a junkie gettin ready to jump the next person comes outta the elevator."

"Thanks!"

"We're outta her in a couple minutes. Just keep it together."

Jesse shook her head. Damn, Jo's changed. She's cooler than a friggin cucumber! Couple years ago, place like this woulda given her hives. Now she's sittin all la-di-da, like she does this every day … which, for all I know, she does …

It happened so fast, neither Jo, nor Blair, nor Jesse, nor the superintendent would ever have clear memories of the incident. They would remember fragmented images, sounds, sensations.

Jesse, still living in the Bronx day in and day out, had street-whetted senses, and was naturally the first to notice something wrong. There was movement to her left, near the elevator, a quick blur of dark material and a flash of white shirt front.

"Jo!" she barked, at the same moment that Jo, senses dulled by months in sheltered environments, finally noticed someone was rushing her.

Jo stood up quickly, dodging away from the divan, but she wasn't quick enough.

The man in the costly dark suit with the pristine white shirt front struck her in the face, hard.

Blood sprayed from her nose, spattering the snowy shirt.

Jo rocked back on her heels, but she had taken harder hits many a time. She kept her feet, and stepped deftly behind the divan.

The man was breathing hard through his nose, like a race horse. His face was dull red, veins throbbing in his forehead and temples.

He was tall, with a handsome, closely shaven face going a little fleshy, a trim physique starting to go a little flabby. Dark, beautifully barbered hair flecked with grey and receding slightly. Mocha-brown eyes, intelligent, shrewd, just now flashing with indignation.

He wore a dark overcoat over his dark suit, carried a leather briefcase. His briefcase and shoes gleamed as if someone had just polished them to a mirror gloss – as, no doubt, someone had. The air immediately surrounding him was fragrant with costly men's cologne.

David Warner. Jo recognized him, and she could tell by his violent greeting that he recognized her. They had met only once. He had visited Blair at Eastland last year, when she was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, thanks to some of her father's "creative" accounting.

He kept breathing hard, and his eyes were angry and more than a little wild, but it didn't look like he was going to slug Jo again.

Keeping her eyes on David, Jo pulled a linty tissue from one of the pockets of her aviator jacket. But as it transpired she didn't need it, because Blair was at her elbow suddenly with one of her delicate white handkerchiefs.

Blair put one arm around Jo's shoulders, and held the crumpled hanky to Jo's nose, pressing firmly to try to stem the blood.

"Get your filthy hands off my daughter!" David Warner bellowed at Jo. His perfectly manicured hands bunched into fists.

"Her hands aren't on me," Blair said, her voice trembling, not with fear, Jo realized immediately, but with anger. "I have my hands on her." Blair pressed a little harder on the handkerchief. Why won't Jo's nose stop bleeding?

David raised one fist, as if to strike Jo again, but there was a snick of cool metal – all eyes turned to Jesse.

She held a switchblade in her hand, angled so that David could see it, but not the lobby superintendent. Jesse stepped closer to Jo, positioning herself between Jo and the angry man.

David lowered his fist.

He glared at his daughter.

Blair lifted her chin defiantly. She felt icy cold with anger. He struck her! He struck Jo! If not for nineteen years of impeccable deportment training, Blair would have flown at her father and clawed at him like Hell-Cat Maggie.

"So … what the hell is the story here?" muttered Jesse, looking from Jo to David Warner to Blair, and back to Jo again. Jesse held her switchblade low and at the ready. Crazy flippin rich people! Just shows you can get jumped anywhere in the city!

"My father has temporarily forgotten his manners," Blair said in a low, steely voice, eyes boring into her father's.

Jesse lifted her eyebrows in surprise and grudging admiration.

Farrah sounds a lot tougher than I ever woulda given her credit for. Wouldn't want her lookin at me the way she's lookin at douchebag here!

"D'ja get a hold of Pauly?" Jo asked Blair, voice nasal and muffled by the handkerchief.

"Yes."

"He comin to get us?"

"Yes."

"Let's wait for him outside."

"Good idea," said Blair, gaze coldly locked on her father.

What happened next would haunt her for the rest of her life.

One instant her father was wrathful and red-faced; in the next moment his face crumpled, and tears began sliding down his cheeks.

"Friggin freak show," muttered Jesse. She snapped her switchblade closed and shoved it into a pocket of her denim jacket as the lobby superintendent ambled toward them.

As a rule, the good-natured superintendent had a live-and-let live philosophy. Unless people were shooting each other or setting the lobby furniture on fire, the incredibly wealthy tenants and their guests were welcome to comport themselves however they pleased.

But David Warner was a lawyer, the superintendent knew, as well as a multi-millionaire with dozens of lawyers at his beck and call. If Warner's daughter and the other young ladies were harassing him, and the superintendent didn't at least attempt to intervene, there could be hell to pay.

And, conversely, it looked like David Warner had popped one of the young women in the nose. She was dressed like a motorcycle thug, but her father was probably a Supreme Court Justice, or editor-in-chief of the "Times"! And the Dakota never wanted law suits or negative press. Bad enough that the beautiful old building would always be associated with "Rosemary's Baby" and John Lennon's murder …

"Anything I can do to assist?" the superintendent asked pleasantly. He didn't address the question to anyone in particular, but rather to the group as a whole. No sense choosing sides until he saw which was the wind was blowing.

David Warner shaded his face with one hand.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! thought the superintendent. Is Mr. Warner crying, for Pete's sake?

The Warner girl turned her gaze from her father to the superintendent, who had never seen such a blazing cold look on any young woman's face. She's always seemed so sweet …

"My father isn't feeling well," Blair told the superintendent. "He stumbled and accidentally butted heads with my chum."

"I see," the superintendent said, not believing a word of it, but looking for any opportunity to settle whatever the hell was happening without police or press involvement.

"You should go lie down, father," Blair told David Warner with icy solicitude. She tugged gently at Jo's arm. "Come on," she said softly.

The three women departed. The Warner girl and her bleeding companion never looked back. The one in the denim jacket cast one quick look back over her shoulder, as if ascertaining that no one was following them.

"Can, ah, I help you with anything, sir?" the superintendent asked David Warner.

David shook his head, his hand still shielding his face. Without saying a word he turned on his well-shod heel, went to the elevator and jabbed the "Up" button. In a moment the elevator doors slid open; the elevator swallowed David Warner, and he returned to his apartment.

The Dakota superintendent pursed his lips. Should he write up a report? That would only raise questions with the chief superintendent when he came on duty in the morning. After all, I don't even know what the hell just happened. Nobody's filing any complaints; the girl looked fine; they said it was an accident; and David Warner wouldn't thank me for making a to-do about this.

In the end, the superintendent decided to do nothing. He returned to his post, whistling a little tune that he couldn't seem to get out of his head lately, even though he didn't recognize it. His green-haired niece could have told him that it was Madonna's "Holiday".


"So where the hell am I goin?" asked Pauly.

He was at the wheel of his white van, driving along Central Park West. It was his 'piece-of-crap van' – that's how he always thought of it. He'd been saving up forever for a real set of wheels. It made him nuts, working at his dad's garage, fixing fancy cars all day but never being able to afford one for himself.

Jesse had called shotgun – not that Jo or Blair wanted it – and was sitting in the bucket seat next to Pauly, an unlit Newport cigarette between her lips. She scraped a match against the sole of her boot, lit the tip of the cigarette.

"Hey, gimme one," Pauly told her.

"Fuck you."

"Hey, I show up, no questions asked, looks like a saved your asses from somethin. Gimme a smoke, already."

Jesse sighed. "Eh, you got a point, Pauly." She lit another Newport, handed it to him.

"S'more like it," he muttered. He took a deep drag.

"Why ain't your heat on?" asked Jesse, hugging herself, shivering. "This is Frosty the freakin snowman's van, or what?"

"The heat's on," Pauly said defensively.

"I don't feel no heat." Jesse started pushing buttons on the dash.

"Hey, cut it out! You don't know what you're doin!"

"I'm tryin to put the damn heat on's what I'm doin!"

"It's on. It's on, it just don't work so good."

In the back seat, Blair was pressing a fresh handkerchief to Jo's nose.

In the darkness and privacy that the back seat afforded, Blair had her arm wrapped around Jo's waist, holding the brunette close to her. They could feel each other's warmth, smell each other's perfume. That was comforting. But Blair could also smell the coppery-metal scent of blood – not comforting at all.

"Why won't it stop bleeding?" she murmured.

"Eh, it's just a trickle now," Jo said softly. "Don't fuss, 'kay? You know I don't like a fuss."

"For Christ's sake, Jo's been shot before," Jesse called from the front seat. "Her ass ain't made of fine china or nothin!"

"Thanks for the medical advice," Blair called coldly. "I'm not particularly worried about Jo's ass. I'm worried about her nose, which is where my father hit her." Blair pressed the handkerchief more firmly against Jo's nose. The bleeding had slowed to a mild spotting.

"I'm sorry my father hit you," Blair said quietly. "I'll never forgive him!"

Jo laughed, blowing a little bubble of snot and blood from one nostril. "You know, one way and another, your father's been responsible for me gettin pretty banged up lately," she said. "He gonna put me on his company Blue Cross policy or somethin?"

"It's not funny," said Blair.

"I know. It – ow! – it ain't funny at all. It's freakin tragic. Blair … He's just all screwed up about, you know, about our, our stuff lately. Did you see when he, I mean, he was cryin, Blair."

"Don't defend him. Not after he struck you like that. What he did was unforgivable!"

"What was all that shit about, anyhow?" Jesse called from the front seat. "What that really your pop, Farrah?"

"I'm ashamed to admit it, but, yes," said Blair.

"So what's his beef with Polniaczek?"

"He thinks I stole somethin from him," said Jo. In the darkness, she squeezed Blair's hand. He thinks I stole his treasure.

"Whaja steal?" Jesse asked curiously. She assumed Jo had stolen something. She remembered Jo's "sticky fingers" from when they were kids. Jo loved music and she could hardly ever afford to buy albums, so she was always lifting vinyl – not just the little 45's, but the much larger LP's too.

I stole David Warner's daughter, thought Jo, with a wry smile. Her heart. Her soul. Her future …

Blair's take was less sentimental. "First of all," she told Jesse, "Jo doesn't steal anything. Any more, that is."

Jesse snorted skeptically.

"Second," Blair continued, "my father is a ruthless bastard. Nobody has to actually do anything wrong to get on his bad side. He doesn't like it when he doesn't get his way. He had plans for me, and Jo sort of … talked me out of them."

Jo hooted. "I what now? I talked you out of your father's plans?"

Jo remembered how shy she'd been when she and Blair first discovered their mutual feelings for each other – had it only been about three months ago? Jo had blushed and trembled; Blair had been the far more confident, assertive one, instigating the kisses, pulling Jo onto her lap, moving her hands over the shy brunette's body …

"Well, let's say that you and I mutually, ah, talked each other out of my father's plans," Blair amended.

"Hmm. OK, I'll let that one slide." Jo gently moved Blair's hand away from her face, lowered the blood-freckled handkerchief. "I think it's stopped bleedin, Blondie."

Blair squinted at Jo's nose; it was difficult to see in the dim van, illuminated only by the streetlamps and the windows they passed on the street, but "I think you're right," Blair agreed.

Pauly took a final drag on his cigarette, stubbed it out on the dashboard. "So, anyone gonna tell me where we're goin? I wanna get outta this swank neighborhood. Cops love to pull over piece-of-crap vans like this in swank neighborhoods."

"Keep your wig on," Jo groused. She turned to Blair. "We still goin to Madonia's?"

"Uh, hell yes! I need cannoli and I need it stat!"

"Pauly, we're goin to Madonia's," called Jo.

"Suits me." He flicked the turn signal.

Blair tightened her arm around Jo, pulled the brunette even closer.

"I will never speak to my father again," Blair muttered bitterly. "He is dead to me."

Jo squeezed Blair's hand. She wanted very badly to cradle the blonde in her arms, to kiss her, so very gently, and murmur that everything was going to be OK. But with Pauly and Jess a couple feet away – not the best idea. Pauly could glance in the rearview mirror, Jess could suddenly turn around to say something …

"He's your pop," Jo whispered in Blair's ear. "He'll always be your pop. Just give him some time."

Blair shook her head fiercely, mouth a tight, angry line.

Jo sighed. This is how they raised her – bad winner, bad loser; all or nothin; they raised her to be as freakin cold as they are. But she ain't cold … and maybe they ain't so cold either …

In the front seat, Jesse snapped on the radio, started spinning the tuner. She spun past a lot of static, some R&B, some country-western, the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love?" and then Led Zeppelin's "All My Love".

"There we go, a little Zep!" said Jesse. "Good for what ails you."

"Go back," said Jo.

"What?"

"I said freakin go back."

Jesse spun the dial back, snagging "How Deep Is Your Love."

"Stop," Jo said decisively.

"On this crap? You gotta be kiddin!"

"It's a nice song," Jo said. In the darkness, she slid an arm around Blair's waist.

"You gotta be freakin kiddin! Polniaczek, you goin totally friggin soft up there in snobbo city?"

"Why don't you come on back here," Jo said with dangerous quiet, "and see how friggin soft I'm goin?"

"Eh, whatever," Jesse grumbled. It ain't worth gettin my undies in a bunch over a stupid, played out song. But still … the flippin Bee Gees?

"My van, my radio," said Pauly. "And my cousin gets to pick. And Blair too. Blair, you like this song?"

"I do."

"Song stays," Pauly said simply. He flicked on the turn signal, pointed the van toward the Bronx.

I believe in you, sang the Bee Gees. You know the door to my very soul. You're the light in my deepest, darkest hour. You're my savior when I fall …

Jo took a chance. She couldn't help it. She pulled Blair's face to her, kissed her tenderly. Don't let Pauly be checkin the mirror, Jo thought.

Blair kissed her back, nuzzled against her. Reluctantly, they moved apart.

How deep is your love? How deep is your love? I really need to learn, cause we're livin in a world of fools, breakin us down, when they all should let us be. We belong to you and me …

"So … who's got money?" asked Pauly.

Blair and Jo didn't answer.


Blair Warner had visited France, Italy and Belgium since she was a small child, so she knew from bread and pastries. And there was something about Madonia Brothers, tucked away in the Bronx, that enchanted her. The bakery's warmth, its effervescent aromas of warm bread and cheese, the crusty texture of its loaves, the divine taste of its cannoli – all of these things combined to intoxicate her.

"Shit, they're closin," complained Pauly. He slammed the door of his van, hard.

Jesse blew on her fingers, stamped her feet against the cold. "Figures," she said. "Our luck tonight."

Blair glided quietly to the dark-haired young man who was in the process of locking the glass doors. He smiled at her as if he knew her, nodded cheerfully, glanced over at Blair's companions, nodded again.

Blair waved to Jo, Jesse and Pauly. "It's all right," she called.

"Jeez, Miss Moneybags offer 'em a million bucks or somethin?" marveled Jesse.

"Jess," Jo said warningly.

"Hey, I don't gotta be on any best behavior here," Jesse said. "This is my turf we're on now."

"Just don't break her nads, OK? Blair ain't givin you any lip."

"Eh, whatever."

The bakery's warmth was heavenly after the chill of the night air and Pauly's van with its ineffective heater.

Behind the counter, the women looked less than pleased that the young man had admitted customers after hours. A beautiful blonde in a fancy-schmancy coat and oxblood gloves didn't cut any ice with them. They were distinctly cool with the unexpected customers, but the young baker whispered something to his coworkers and they nodded grudgingly.

Blair ordered close to a metric ton of cannoli, and four cups of black coffee, all to go. Blair paid for everyone.

"I insist," she said. "Money might be tight right now, but this is my treat."

Jesse laughed. "Do you hear anyone arguin with you, Farrah?"

Blair looked to Jo. Having been disowned, the two young women truly were pooling their finances now; it wasn't just a polite fiction.

Jo shrugged. Go for it, babe, said the gesture. Jesse had pulled a knife on David Warner to defend Jo. Pauly had picked them up in front of the Dakota, no questions asked, in his piece-of-crap van. In Jo's opinion, the least she and Blair could do was buy Jess and Pauly some grub …

Pauly drove them to Grand Central Station. They all sat on a bench, wolfing cannoli and pounding coffee, while Jo and Blair waited for the next Peekskill train.

A group of Salvation Army carolers sang at one end of the massive building. Their mournful "Silent Night" echoed and reverberated through the mostly deserted terminal.

"So," said Jesse, around a mouthful of pastry, "anybody gonna tell me what really went down at the Dakota tonight?"

"It don't work that way," said Pauly. He took a swig of coffee. "When you hang around with these two, they don't tell ya much of anythin. But it ain't ever dull."

Blair smiled at him. "Pauly, you're a sweetheart. You know that – right?"

He blushed, and ducked his head a little.

Jesse laughed. "Jeez, you really got that phony charm down pat, don't you, Farrah?"

Blair's eyes flicked coolly to Jesse.

"Not that it's any of my business," Jesse said hastily, holding up her hands. She'd seen enough steel in Blair at the Dakota not to want to get the debutante on her bad side.

Jesse turned to Jo. "She's kind of a surprise, this one," Jesse said, jerking her head at Blair. "Got some sand to her, huh?"

"Little bit," Jo agreed.

"Is that good?" asked Blair. "Sand?"

"Yeah."

"What does it mean?"

"Means you got nads, Blair."

Blair giggled, covering her mouth with one gloved hand.

Jesse shook her head. "Or maybe not," she said. No one with real sand giggled like that!

Pauly finished the last of his cannoli. He belched. "Look, Jo, I know you're tighter-freakin-lipped than, ah, what's the opposite of a canary? But I gotta ask you – what's goin on with your Ma?"

Jo stirred uneasily. She hadn't heard a word from her mother since Rose departed Peekskill in the early morning hours the day after Thanksgiving. I don't know, Pauly. What is up with my Ma?

"She's at St. Adalbert's all the time," Pauly continued, "practically livin in Father Kowalski's pocket. She won't talk about you. She says we're not gonna see you for awhile, and we're all supposed to pray for your soul."

"Yeah, about that," said Jo. "If you could maybe not mention you saw me and Blair tonight, or, at least, you don't got to mention I got slugged."

"I don't got to mention anythin," said Pauly. "Not like anybody's beatin a freakin path to my door for information, me bein the Largo screw-up and all."

"Pauly –"

"Hey, I'm fine with bein the Largo screw-up," said Pauly. "Keeps everyone off my back. Let Bud have all the pressure to be the golden boy – he loves it!"

Blair slipped her arm through Pauly's. "You're not a screw-up," she said sincerely. "Could a screw-up have helped me find Jo's bike?"

Pauly blushed again.

"So my Ma's actin all messed up, huh?" asked Jo.

"I dunno about 'messed up'," Pauly mused. "It's like she's sad … and sometimes kinda … frozen. She just ain't her. She just ain't Aunt Rose."

Jesse grinned. She laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles with satisfaction. "So – whadja do ta upset your Ma, Polniaczek? I knew this whole 'goin soft' thing was a crock. Come on. Out with it."

"Honest to God, Jess, I'm a model of civilized behavior. I've gone over to the other side, kid."

"I don't believe it," scoffed Jesse. "You're a fuckin maverick, Jo. Nobody tells you what to do."

Jo glanced at Blair. "Jess," Jo said earnestly, "nobody gets through life just doin whatever the hell they want. There's always, you know, compromises. But Ma and me, we've got somethin we just don't see eye-to-eye on right now. And it ain't like there's a middle ground."

"Well I wish you'd patch it up," said Pauly. "I love Aunt Rosie. She's a pretty great lady; I hate seein her all sad."

"Not disagreein," said Jo. She felt tears pricking her eyes at the thought of her mother, forced the tears back. Not the time or the place to lose it, she thought.

"Jeez, whadja do?" Jesse demanded. "Last I heard, your ma thought you walked on water! Oh … for cryin out loud – she musta figured out you got de-virginized!"

Blair spit her coffee out.

Jo pounded on Blair's back. "You OK, there, Blondie?"

"Yes. It just went down the wrong way. I swallowed wrong."

"How can you swallow wrong?" Jesse demanded. "Can you walk and chew gum, Barbie?"

Jo turned to Jesse. "For the last time, Jess – I flippin pray! – I did not get de-virginized by some guy. You gotta stop sayin that."

"Jo. Come on. It's me. I remember when we were fifteen, you wanted to meet at the pinball parlor so you could tell me all about how you let Eddie touch your –"

"Hey! Hey, that's ancient history," Jo interrupted.

"Jess, don't talk about that crap," complained Pauly. "Jo's my cousin. I don't wanna hear this."

"Aw, big deal," said Jesse, "so she let Eddie touch her –"

"Jess, I don't think you're hearin me," Jo said menacingly.

"I want to hear her," Blair said sweetly. "This is very interesting. Very … revealing."

"Well it ain't your business, Farrah," said Jesse. "This happened when I was Jo's best friend."

"Yeah, Farrah," said Jo. "Look, we're gettin totally off the topic here. Tonight was supposed to be all about payin tribute to a great musician and a great man. It was supposed to be about peace and love."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're right," said Jess. "I know you got some Casanova stashed up in Peekskill – but I'll let it go for now." She lifted her coffee. "Here's to John Lennon – the only Beatle that had any real sand."

"I can toast that," said Pauly, lifting his coffee.

"To John," said Blair.

"To John," said Jo.

They all took a sip, were silent for a moment …

Blair glanced at her Gucci wristwatch. "Jo? I think we should …"

"Yeah." Jo leaned over and hugged Pauly. "Tell everyone 'hi', Uncle Sal and Bud and Terry. Or, shit, don't tell 'em anythin. Cause you didn't see me tonight." When am I gonna get used to this, bein disowned? Am I ever gonna get used to it? I just gotta pray Ma has a change of heart, once she misses me enough …

"Don't worry," said Pauly. "I can keep a secret. Never knew Blair was lookin for your bike, didja?"

Jo gave him an affectionate cuff on the chin.

Jo turned to Jesse, embraced her upper arms, a warrior's embrace. When they broke apart, Jess stepped back, grinning at Jo and shaking her head.

"You can't hold out forever, Polniaczek. You gotta tell me about the guy sometime."

Jo glanced at Blair. Maybe she could tell Jess someday, about Blair … but today wasn't the day.

"You comin to the Bronx for Christmas?" Pauly asked Jo, and then, his face falling, "Oh. Sorry."

"It's OK," said Jo. "I'm gonna have an amazin Christmas at River Rock."

"What's that, like, a concert?" asked Jesse.

Jeez, thought Jo, with a pang of guilt, I've really fallen out of touch. She doesn't know anything about my life any more.

"River Rock's a house," said Jo. "We rent rooms there. And Tootie, and Natalie," she added hastily, so it didn't sound like she and Blair were in some love nest. "Mrs. Garrett runs the house."

"How long you been there?" Jesse asked casually, trying not to sound hurt.

"'Bout a month," Jo said, trying to sound casual herself. More than a month. And I never told Jess. Not even when I saw her at Thanksgivin. Not like we're still best friends, but even so … OK. I officially am a crap friend.

Blair saw these thoughts chasing over Jo's face. Blair sighed. Why do I have to be such a softy?

"Jesse," she said, "I don't know if we'll ever like each other –"

"Oh, I know," Jesse interrupted pleasantly. "We won't."

"Be that as it may, you're one of Jo's closest friends, and you really stuck up for her tonight when my father lost his temper. So it would make us very happy if you'd spend Christmas at River Rock."

Jesse lifted her eyebrows. "Who's 'us'?" she asked curiously.

Jo rolled her eyes. For Pete's sake … Leave it to Blair to phrase it as if we're a married couple! No, nothing suspicious there!

"All of us," Jo chimed in. "Mrs. Garrett, Nat, Tootie, Alec – they've heard me talk about you and we'd all love to have you."

"Who's Alec?" Jesse pounced, eyes mischievous.

"He's like our brother," Jo said firmly. "Don't go sayin anythin else, or I'm takin back the invitation."

Jesse mulled that over. "Jingle bells in snobbo city. Could be kinda fun, if it doesn't make me puke."

"Then we'll count on you," said Blair. "It's going to be very simple. We're all broke – well, except for Mrs. Garrett."

Jesse laughed. "Yeah, Farrah – you look like you're down to your last nickel!"

Blair drew a deep breath. She turned away.

"Jesse, you're such a bitch sometimes," said Jo. "Did you see the way her father treated her tonight? She's freakin cut off. By her own request. Stickin up for her principles. So put a sock in it."

"OK, OK, I'm sorry," muttered Jesse.

"Pauly," said Jo, "you can invite your pop and Bud and Terry – and I guess Tony, since those two are a package deal these days. But keep it quiet, huh? Don't let it get back to my Ma and get her all wrapped around the axle."

Pauly nodded. "Sure," he said. "Dunno if we can make it, but thanks."

Blair glanced at her wristwatch again. "Jo?"

"Yeah, I know. Bye, Jess. Bye, Pauly."

Blair and Jo made their way to the train platform.


It was after midnight, and the train to Peekskill was almost deserted.

Blair led Jo to an empty car, the last car on the train.

They sat in a seat at the back of the car. Blair slid her arms around Jo's waist.

"Princess, if someone comes in –"

"If someone comes in I'll let go," said Blair.

She gently tilted Jo's face left and right under the harsh lights of the train car, eyeing Jo's nose critically. It was red and slightly swollen. Blood was crusted in Jo's nostrils.

"Does it hurt?" Blair asked.

"Nah."

"Jo … it's me."

"Then, yeah. Yeah, Princess, it hurts like hell. Your pop a boxer or somethin?"

"He was actually – Harvard Boxing Club."

"Well … he ain't lost his touch."

Blair tightened her grip around Jo's waist. "Jo? Darling?"

"Yeah?"

"Where did you let Eddie touch you?"

Jo laughed.

"Really, Jo," Blair said earnestly, "I want to know. I thought, well, call it vanity –"

"Vanity? You?"

"Har-har-har."

Blair swatted Jo lightly with her gloves.

"What I'm trying to say, Jo, is that I know you and Eddie were serious, and you even tried to elope with him, but somehow, I always thought that, well, you and he never actually did anything more than kiss each other."

Jo chuckled. "It's drivin you crazy, isn't it, wonderin what I let him touch?"

"Yes," Blair said candidly. "It is driving me crazy. Because I thought I was the first one to touch your, well, your everything."

"Haven't we grown past this, babe? I mean, we're engaged, we're livin together – who cares who touched whose what, or when? Don't even try to tell me that half the boys at Bates didn't put some fingerprints all over your goodies."

Blair frowned.

"So to speak," Jo said hastily. "I mean, it doesn't bother me, 'cause I know you didn't care about 'em, you were just experimentin to see if any guy could get your motor revved up. Which, since I'm the one who does that, I don't need to dwell on who scaled Everest before me."

Blair's frown deepened.

"Which, that Everest thing, that is not a reference to size or anythin," Jo amended. Wow. I don't even need a shovel; I just dig myself in deeper and deeper!

"Jo," said Blair, "there are times when silence is the best course of action."

"Goin radio silent, startin right now," said Jo.

Blair nodded her approval.

She pulled Jo closer, laid her head on Jo's shoulder.

"As I thought I made clear, Jo, you were the first to 'scale Everest', as you so insensitively put it, if by scaling Everest you mean making love to me. I admit I was fairly liberal with many of the boys I dated. I let them do certain things because I kept waiting for something to click."

Blair glanced toward the tinted, sliding door that connected their car with the car ahead of them. The train clattered along, rocking from side to side in a dreamy, almost sexual rhythm.

"Sue Ann and I used to play a game called 'How Far Have You Gone?'" Blair continued. "We compared what we did with our dates, and Sue Ann and I were always even with each other. Nothing too serious; we both let boys kiss us," Blair kissed Jo, "do a little light petting over the clothes," Blair slid a hand into Jo's aviator jacket, lightly rubbed Jo's left breast through the flannel.

Jo gasped. She felt her nipple stand to attention.

Jo looked nervously around the empty train car. Outside the windows, the lights of New York City slid past, the street lamps, the bright windows, the twinkling holiday bulbs.

"One time I let a boy feel my breast through my bra," said Blair. She deftly untucked Jo's shirt, slipped her hand under the flannel, gently stroked Jo's left breast through the delicate silk of the bra.

"It didn't exactly shake my world," said Blair. "So the next time we went out, I let him feel my breast under my bra." Blair moved her hand under Jo's left bra cup, rubbed her palm over Jo's rock-hard nipple, squeezed her breast. Jo closed her eyes, moaning softly.

"When that didn't excite me, I knew that men weren't my cup of tea," said Blair. "I mean, I already suspected it, but that was about as clear a signal as I could ask for. It wasn't just that it didn't excite me, it actually felt strange. It was all wrong for me. So," she took Jo's nipple between her thumb and forefinger, gently rubbed it. Jo moaned again. "That's all I ever did with boys, Jo."

Jo cleared her throat, not opening her eyes. "I, ah, can I talk now?"

"Can you?" Blair asked innocently.

"Babe, all I did," said Jo, "was, oh, wow. Damn, that's nice." She tilted her head, so she and Blair were touching foreheads. "Blair, God … I love how you touch me."

"And I love touching you, Jo. But you were saying," said Blair. "About what you let Eddie do."

"Oh. Yeah, I just … oh," Jo groaned. She felt the heat building between her legs. That was all it took, Blair's voice, Blair's gentle fingers on her breast. "One time I let Eddie feel my butt," she confessed. "Through my jeans."

Blair laughed. She kissed Jo's mouth quickly, impulsively. "That's it?" Blair teased. "Your behind? Through your jeans?"

"Hey, that was a big deal for me," said Jo. "I was fifteen, for Pete's sake. And … oh, Blair …"

Please, thought Jo, please don't let anyone wander into this car just now …

Blair's other hand fumbled with the buttons of Jo's jeans.

"Blair, that's not … a good idea …"

"Shh."

"Oh … God!"

Well, this is it, thought Jo, hips starting to rock rhythmically. Transit cops're gonna catch us, whomp us with their billy clubs, throw us in the bucket. Not even juvie, cause we're nineteen ...

But Jo's body was singing; Blair was playing it like an instrument, and for the next few moments, Jo gave herself over to the sensations. Blair's fingers stroked her, moved slowly, sensuously, taking their time …

Anyone who had stumbled into the train car would've seen two beautiful young women huddled together in the far seat, one of them apparently having some type of fit, the other one trying solicitously to help her. But once the stranger traveled further along the aisle, they would have realized that something else was in progress …

Luckily for Jo and Blair, no one did stumble into the car.

"I'm comin," rasped Jo, "I'm comin …"

"I know, darling." Blair kissed Jo's throat, her jaw, her mouth.

Jo's hips rocked faster and faster; she buried her face in Blair's long, blonde hair, and with a muffled cry she came …

Blair kissed Jo's lips with infinite tenderness. She slipped her hands out of Jo's shirt and jeans, dexterously tucking in the brunette's shirt … In a moment, the only sign that anything unusual had happened was the dreamy smile on Jo's lips.

"You are a maniac," Jo whispered affectionately.

Blair merely smiled.

"Someone coulda come in," said Jo.

"But they didn't."

"But they coulda."

"True."

"What would you have done?" Jo asked, curious about and fascinated by Blair's nonchalance.

"If someone wandered in? I would've said you'd fainted, and asked them to go get a cup of water."

Jo's eyes danced. "You are a freakin genius, Blair Warner."

"Well … to steal a line from my fiancée, I have my moments. In fact, to use one of my own lines, I'm having one of my brilliant ideas right now."

"Such as?"

Blair nodded toward the back door of their train car.

"We're in the last car," said Blair. "That little passage doesn't lead anywhere." She grinned wickedly.

Jo shook her head. It was intriguing, but … "C'mon babe. It's too risky."

"Why? Who's going to go in there?" Blair asked reasonably. "Who is going to try to go through the back door of the train?"

"I don't know – what if someone's plannin to jump?"

Blair rolled her eyes. "For heaven's sake, Jo."

"Well, it happens."

"When has that ever happened?"

"It happens," Jo insisted.

Blair took a deep breath. The more she got to know her lover, the more she learned that the very strong, very together Jo Polniaczek sometimes had irrational fears; Jo's mind was so sharp, she could imagine and project dangers where none existed.

"Jo, darling, if someone bursts in on us because they're planning to leap off the back of the train, we'll stop them. Think of it this way: We'll be saving a life."

Jo considered that angle. "Well … I guess that would be pretty altruistic."

"Of course it would. Heroic, even! So …" Blair fixed Jo with one of her most devastating looks, dark lashes lowered in a hungry, drowsy, incredibly arousing way, milk-chocolate eyes warm with desire. "What do you say, Joey? Wanna go learn something?"

Jo ducked her head and gave Blair a crooked little smile. Jo felt suddenly bashful, but not unpleasantly so – not by a longshot! Blair's always surprisin me … Gotta say, havin a hot, more experienced girlfriend – it doesn't suck!

Blair held out her hand. "C'mon," she whispered, her wicked grin widening.

Jo took her hand.

Blair all but dragged Jo to the little door. Now that the idea of what they were about to do was really sinking in, Jo was feeling electric and tingling between her legs again.

Jo fumbled with the door latch.

Blair gently pushed Jo's hand aside, and unfastened the latch. "So much for your mechanical skills," Blair teased, as the door slid open.

"You just got a magic touch," said Jo, gathering Blair into her arms and pulling the debutante into the tiny passageway.

The door, with its green-tinted window, slid shut behind them with a soft hissing sound. Jo pressed Blair up against the door, crushing her body against the blonde, crushing her mouth against Blair's.

Blair's mouth was always soft; just now her lips tasted like strawberries and cream and bitter black coffee. Jo darted her tongue into Blair's mouth; their tongues danced and fought hungrily.

Jo had never made love in such a confined space before. She banged her elbow against one of the metal walls, she banged her rear end against the locked door behind her – at least, she hoped it was locked, since it led only to the freezing cold night outside, to the train tracks rapidly receding behind them.

Blair started to unbutton Jo's jeans while they kissed, but Jo firmly stopped her. "No," Jo murmured into Blair's mouth. "In awhile …"

Jo put her hands possessively on the blonde's hips and pulled her closer. She worked her hands into Blair's coat, fumbling feverishly, slid them under Blair's Chanel top and Chanel skirt, under her bra and into her panties.

Blair was already so hot, and so wet, that Jo almost came again just feeling her lover's arousal.

"Joey," murmured Blair, her head tilting back against the interior door. "Oh … Oh! …"

Blair began bucking her hips in an easy rhythm. She was giving off a tremendous heat and a sweet, musky aroma. She tangled her fingers in Jo's hair, guiding her.

"Joey … Joey …"

Jo loved going down on Blair, the sensation, the taste, the ecstatic little cries Blair made while she rocked her hips faster and faster.

Blair sometimes found it difficult to believe that she was Jo's first girlfriend; Jo's tongue was so confident, so skillful, always unerringly finding Blair's most sensitive and pleasurable spots …

"Hang onto something," Jo panted.

"What?"

"Hang onto something."

"I know what you … said … I … hang onto what?"

"Something."

Dazed, Blair released Jo's hair, reached above her, fumbled for purchase, found a narrow shelf stretching from one side of the narrow passage to the other. She grasped the shelf.

"Now I'm gonna lift you," said Jo …

The train made a long, sweeping turn at that moment. The little passageway rocked crazily ...

"Oh … my … God …" moaned Blair a moment later. She hung on tightly while Jo delighted her as she had never delighted her before.


Friday morning, December 9, 1983. Peekskill.

When the alarm rang, Jo was so tired she wanted to slap the clock off the nightstand, roll over and go back to sleep.

Instead she slapped the clock off the nightstand, climbed out of bed and took a shower.

When Jo was dressed she shook Blair's shoulder, gently at first, then more forcefully. The heiress was huddled under the blankets, only a rumpled mane of blonde hair peeking out.

"C'mon, babe – rise and shine," said Jo.

"Mnph," Blair mumbled.

"Babe, you got a test this morning."

"No I don't," Blair mumbled. "No classes today."

"Ha!" Jo nudged a lump in the blanket – it appeared to be Blair's derriere – with the toe of her sneaker. "You've got an art history test. Don't even try to tell me you don't."

The lump shifted to the other side of the bed, out of the range of Jo's foot. The covers were pulled up over the blonde mane. "Go away," Blair mumbled.

"Blair Warner, get out of our bed right now and go take your test!"

"Mnph!"

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that." Jo peeled back the blankets and sheets, lifted Blair into her arms.

"Jo! What are you doing?"

"Givin you a lift to the shower, babe."

Blair's hair hung frowsily in her eyes. Jo kissed the wild mane as she carried her girlfriend into their bathroom.

"Jo, this is kidnapping!"

Jo laughed. "Kidnappin? I'm just takin you to get clean." She gently deposited Blair in the tiny shower, handed her a bar of soap. "Good luck with your test, babe."

"Jo Polniaczek, for the last time, I –"

Blair let out a little squeal as Jo turned the faucet and a cataract of cool water drenched the blonde. Blair sputtered, spitting out water, then hugged herself, teeth chattering.

"Kinda takes a minute to warm up," Jo said, grinning. "You know."

Angry brown eyes glared at Jo from between damp strands of golden hair.

This is far, far from over! said the glare.

"Love you, babe!"

Jo strolled out of the bathroom, whistling.


At 2:30 pm, Edna Garrett and TV producer Drake Dante entered the kitchen, holding hands and beaming at each other like teenagers.

"Good show?" Blair asked. She sat at the big butcher block table eating a bowl of corn flakes. Her hair was pulled into a simple ponytail. She wore no makeup. A fluffy pink bathrobe covered a pair of Jo's blue flannel pajamas.

"It was wonderful!" trilled Mrs. Garrett. "I had no idea how much fun it would be to host a cooking show!"

"You're a natural," said Drake. "The camera loves you." He embraced Mrs. Garrett, kissed her tenderly.

"Ahem," said Blair. "Should I take my cornflakes elsewhere?"

"Of course not," said Mrs. Garrett. "We're just … very happy about how well the show is going."

"And when do we get to watch the first episode?"

"Early January," said Drake. "Right after the new year. And I predict that 'Edna's Edibles' will be the top-rated morning program in the New York market!"

"Well," Mrs. Garrett blushed, pleased, and smoothed her red bun of hair, "I don't know about that."

"Edna, I'm telling you – I've been in television for twenty-five years and I've never seen anyone take to the medium so quickly."

"Well, thank you, Drake. And I'm not saying you're wrong," Mrs. Garrett patted her hair again, "but you might be just a little bit biased."

"No – I'm very biased." Drake kissed her again. "But even love can't cloud my professional vision." He took Mrs. Garrett's hands, gazing deeply into her eyes. She smiled back at him, eyes sparkling.

Blair scooted down off of the kitchen stool. She knew the look Drake and Mrs. Garrett were exchanging; it was a look she and Jo got, what Jo called their "Tony-and-Maria, West-Side-Story" look, when they were so lost in each other that everything around them melted away.

And it couldn't have happened to a nicer couple, Blair thought fondly. She loved Mrs. Garrett like a mother. Drake she didn't know well, not yet, but he seemed like a hell of a smart, nice guy, in addition to being handsome and gainfully employed.

"You know, I think I will take my cornflakes upstairs," Blair said, smiling at Drake and her surrogate mother. "You two crazy kids should have some alone time."

"Hmm?" Mrs. Garrett asked dreamily, not moving her eyes from Drake.

Blair laughed. "I'll see you at supper," she said fondly …

… In her and Jo's suite at the top and back of River Rock manor, Blair sat on the divan in the snug little sitting room, surrounded by shelves of well-worn books.

How am I going to tell Jo? she wondered. How am I going to explain it? She loves me, but will she understand this?

Blair sighed. It was exciting to love someone so different from herself … but it could be challenging too.

There was a knock at the suite door.

Blair glanced at her watch. Jo was still in class – and, anyway, Jo wouldn't knock.

"Enter," Blair called.

The door swung open slowly. Alec hesitated on the threshold. As always, Blair was struck by his uncanny beauty, his dark, curling hair, his perfectly chiseled features, not to mention his height and strength. I have to paint him, she thought.

"Do you have a moment?" he asked tentatively.

"Of course." She lowered her voice, mimicking his solemn tone. "Why so serious?"

Alec closed the door behind him and sat on one of the antique chairs.

"Oh, no," said Blair. She patted the empty half of the divan. "Next to me," she said. "You look like you need a sisterly shoulder to cry on."

"Anvistons don't cry," Alec objected in his beautiful, plummy British accent. "We are made of stern stuff. If you were to pierce me with a sword, I would look about nonchalantly and comment upon a mild tickling sensation." Nonetheless, he did sit next to her. Blair put a sisterly hand on his shoulder.

"Shoot," she said.

He lifted an eyebrow. "You sound more like our Jo every day."

"Thank you. But don't change the subject."

Alec sighed. He looked down at the beautifully worn Persian rug.

"Blair, has anyone, ah, ever proposed to you?"

Blair smiled dreamily, cheeks dimpling, lashes half-lowering over her milk chocolate eyes.

"Shall I interpret that radiantly half-witted look as a 'yes'?" Alec asked.

Blair nodded. She raised her left hand toward the lamp on the end table, turning her hand from side to side so that the light winked off the plain silver ring on her third finger.

"Nice little trinket," said Alec. "Some lad proposed to you before you and Jo declared your true love?"

"It's a beautiful ring," Blair said, eyes shining, "not a trinket. Jo's grandfather presented it to her grandmother back in Poland."

"So, Jo … Jo gave you a ring?"

"Yes."

"Then she, um, how can I put this …"

"She proposed to me," Blair said calmly, still turning the ring from side to side, admiring it.

"But, I mean, not to rain on the Warner-Polniaczek parade, but, er –"

"Women can't marry each other," Blair said. "I know, milord. We're not simpletons. But it's the spirit of the thing, Alec. It's the gesture. Jo and I can't marry in a church … or a courtroom … but we're married in our hearts."

Alec sighed again. He buried his face in his hands.

"Hey." Blair put an arm around his shoulder. "What's the matter?"

"I proposed to Jacqueline," Alec said, voice muffled by his hands.

"You did? That's wonderful!" Blair hugged him enthusiastically. Far from returning the hug, Alec sat as still as stone.

"She said 'no'," he muttered miserably. "She didn't even … didn't even think about it. She merely … laughed at me."

Blair frowned. "Oh she did, did she?" Blair liked Jacqueline, known as "Jackrabbit" to field hockey teammates like Jo. Jacqueline was a brisk, bright, Katherine Hepburnesque young woman, a hell of a field hockey player, and so damn modest that she refused to let any of her friends treat her like the viscountess that she was.

But how dare she hurt Alec! How dare she!

Then again … Blair remembered how nervous Jo was when they first declared their love for each other. The first couple of times they kissed, Jo was so nervous she trembled like a terrified rabbit. People did odd things when they were in the grip of strong emotions.

"You can't give up," Blair told Alec stoutly. "Ask Jacqueline again. And again, if need be. Maybe she's scared. Maybe she's testing you. She's a strong woman."

"'Struth, you don't have to tell me that!" Alec agreed fervently. "That's what I most love about her, but sometimes I'm a little scared of her."

"You can't be scared," Blair objected. "The wooer must be stalwart. I mean, you can feel scared and your knees can knock together but you can't give up."

"'Screw my courage to the sticking post', and all that?"

"Precisely, milord."

"How many times did you make Jo propose to you?"

Blair flushed hotly at the memory of how enthusiastically she had accepted Jo's proposal at the Plaza.

"Uh … once was enough."

"Why can't Jacqueline be sensible like you?" murmured Alec.

Blair laughed. "I don't know … Is instantly accepting a marriage proposal from a girl from the Bronx 'sensible'?"

"When it's you and Jo? Eminently sensible. Congratulations, by the way."

Blair smiled radiantly. "Thanks."

"Jacqueline is very sensible," mused Alec. "She doesn't play games. If she wanted to marry me, she'd simply have said 'yes'."

"Jacqueline's sensible," Blair agreed. "But you? Not so much. You have, Lord Anviston, the not-undeserved reputation of being a confidence artist and a ladies' man."

"But I've turned over a new leaf, and all that," Alec protested. "Changed man. Walking the chalk line."

"But Jacqueline might want to wait awhile, Alec. To be sure that you really have changed. That would be sensible, wouldn't it?"

"I suppose," he grumbled ungraciously. "So … she wasn't laughing at me. She was laughing at the idea that she would accept me so quickly."

"It seems like the most logical explanation." Blair kissed his cheek. "Just be patient with her, Alec. And try not to screw it up."

"Well, with a vote of confidence like that …"

"You're a beautiful couple," Blair said encouragingly. "I don't mean just how you look together, I mean how you are together. You balance each other."

"Like you and Jo," said Alec.

"Would your," Blair hesitated, "would your parents object to your marrying Jacqueline?"

Alec howled. "Object? The Anviston clan without a pot to piss in, three entailed properties to maintain, object to my marrying the Jacqueline Messerschmitt and all her filthy lucre? Object? The mater will be goose-stepping us down the aisle at the point of a shotgun!"

"So they'll see it as a good match because of Jacqueline's money and her title?"

"Of course. But I hope you know me by now, Blair. Hang Jack's money, and hang her title. If she were waiting tables at the Campus Grill, I'd still be smitten."

Blair smiled wryly. "I think you proved you're not a snob when you got your little crush on Jo. But if you did fall in love with a waitress at the Campus Grill, your parents would be … less smitten."

"They'd think I'd gone barking mad," Alec agreed bluntly.

It washed over Blair suddenly, with an irresistible force, the image of her father last night, his red, wrathful face, the way he was breathing angrily through his nose, and then, worst of all, when his face crumpled and he began to cry … Blair felt tears pricking her eyes.

Alec put an arm around her. "Blair? What's the matter?"

She buried her face against his shoulder. She began to sob.

"Blair? What is it? Have I said something insensitive?"

She shook her head – but she sobbed harder.

"Aphrodite … dearest … what can I do for you? What's wrong?"

The door swung open and Jo strolled in, bundled in her vintage aviator jacket and a dark watch cap, arms full of books.

She took it in with a single glance – Blair and Alec sitting on the divan, arms around each other, Blair weeping against Alec's shoulder.

Jo dropped her books, was on her knees in front of Blair in an instant. She took Blair in her arms, kissing her hair, her face.

"Shh, babe, what's the matter? Shh, it's all right, babe. Whatever it is, it's all right."

Alec removed his arm from Blair with something like gratitude. He never knew what the hell to do with crying women.

Blair wrapped her arms around Jo's shoulders, pressed her face against Jo's neck.

"M-m-my f-f-f-father," sobbed Blair.

"I know. I know," Jo murmured soothingly. "He's gonna come around. Wait and see."

Alec coughed and glanced away. The intensity of the young women's emotions, the nakedness of their love for each other, their trust in each other, was overwhelming to witness.

Jacqueline and I aren't even halfway there, he thought. Not a quarter of the way. Not an eighth. No wonder Jack bloody laughed in my face when I proposed! I was rushing it …

Blair's crying subsided into a soft hiccupping. Jo kissed her forehead, and then looked up, glaring at Alec.

"What the hell did you do to her?" she asked belligerently.

Alec pointed to himself. "What did I do to her?" he asked.

"What, you deaf all of a sudden? What did you do?"

"He didn't do anything," Blair hiccupped. "We were just talking, and I was thinking about Daddy and how he hit you last night, and I just … lost it."

"David Warner hit you?" Alec asked Jo. He looked intently at the brunette's face. Yes, there was a faint bruise above Jo's lip, and her nose was swollen. Not a knock-out punch – but it must have hurt like hell!

Jo wriggled uncomfortably. She was slowly warming to the young lord, but she didn't like him feeling sorry for her. "No big deal," she said, dismissing David Warner's violence.

Blair buried her face against the front of Jo's jacket. "Why does it hurt so much?" she asked, clearly meaning her emotions, and not Jo's face.

Jo held Blair close, pressed her lips to the blonde hair.

"Course it's gonna hurt like hell, Blair. I mean, he's your Pop. Yeah, he got you audited and he's a ruthless freakin corporate warrior – but he's still your dad. It's like me and my Ma. I know Charlie's gonna come around and accept us. Eventually. He freakin adores you, babe. When the shock wears off, he's gonna be OK. I think. But my Ma …"

"Rose loves you, Jo."

"I know. But, I, ah, can't exactly compete with Christ the Lord, you know? Especially not durin the season of his birth." Jo chuckled, but she felt tears stinging her own eyes. Damn! Not gonna do this right now. She ducked her head.

"Well I'm boycotting Christmas," Blair said, eyes flashing.

"What?" Alec and Jo asked together.

Jo glared at Alec. "Hey, she's my girl," said Jo. "I say 'What?' when she says crazy stuff."

"It's not crazy," said Blair.

Blair gave a final sniffle, drying her eyes on the fleece collar of Jo's jacket. She sat on the couch again, next to Alec, flexing her long, beautiful fingers as if she were a cat exercising her claws.

"Blair … Babe, you can't boycott Christmas," Jo said reasonably.

"I just did. It's done. I'm not going to celebrate it."

Jo climbed onto the divan, squeezing next to Blair. It wasn't a large divan, more of a love seat, really; Alec was shoved halfway off of his perch, and Blair was pushed practically onto his lap.

"I beg your pardon, Blair," laughed Alec. "I'm not Father Christmas, you know."

"Sorry," said Blair. "Not my idea." She scooted over so that she sat on Jo's lap, slipped one arm around Jo's shoulders, twined the other hand in Jo's long dark hair. "We don't need Christmas," Blair said quietly. "We only need each other, darling."

"Blair, you're upset," said Jo. "You don't realize what you're sayin."

Blair bristled. "Don't you tell me what I am or am not saying, Jo Polniaczek! Or what I am or am not feeling!"

"Babe –"

"And don't 'Babe' me!"

"Is she often this petulant?" Alec asked curiously.

Jo shrugged. "Eh – depends on the situation."

Alec nodded. "It seems I had a rather narrow escape."

"And don't talk about me like I'm not here!" Blair flared.

Jo kissed Blair's cheek softly. "Blair," she whispered, "let's talk about this later."

"And don't patronize me! There's nothing to talk about. Our parents are being impossible and everything sucks. Ergo: no Christmas."

Jo sighed.

"Honestly, Blair, don't be so grim," said Alec, putting a fraternal hand on the blonde's shoulder. "You're our Pollyanna. What will we all do if you lose that optimism?"

"You can stuff it!" Blair said with spirit. "Pollyanna is on strike! You'll all just have to be responsible for your own damn optimism."

Jo was looking at Alec with a funny expression on her face. "Alec – did you just make a freakin Pollyanna reference?"

"Jacqueline's reading it," he explained. "For her children's literature course."

"Oh."

Alec tilted his head, looking critically at Jo's face. "Jo, let me look at your nose."

Jo rolled her eyes. "Alec, one friggin semester of freshman pre-med doesn't make you even close to a real doctor."

"No, but I am an amateur pugilist."

"Hey, you said it, not me," laughed Jo.

"A pugilist," said Alec, leaning forward and putting one wary hand on the side of Jo's face, "is what you Yanks call a boxer. And I don't like the look of your nose."

"Yeah? Well your nose don't win any popularity contest with me, neither!"

Jo submitted with ill grace as Alec carefully examined her nose and the swollen tissue surrounding it.

"I think it might be broken," Alec mused.

There was a light rapping on the suite door, which Jo had left half-open.

"Enter," called Blair.

Tootie leaned hesitantly into the room. Natalie was constantly walking in on Jo and Blair in compromising positions; Nat seemed to have some kind of curse on her. Whether Natalie was breezing into the laundry room or the kitchen or the garage or the billiard room, any of River Rock's thirty-four chambers, somehow Jo and Blair would be in the room, making out.

Natalie's proposed solution was simple – Jo and Blair were only supposed to give in to their passionate feelings when they were in their own suite. But young love being what it was, and Jo and Blair being who they were, the throes of passion got the better of them all over the house.

"Lemme tell you how to avoid this," Jo had told Natalie bluntly after she walked in on Jo and Blair making out in the den. "Knock!"

"I shouldn't have to knock on every door in this house!" Natalie had sputtered indignantly.

"Fine," Jo had shrugged. "But don't blame us when you get an eyeful!"

Natalie had gone straight to Mrs. Garrett. Since Blair had cut herself off from her parents, and they had disowned her, Blair no longer had the funds to rent River Rock. Mrs. Garrett, suddenly flush with cash from her morning cooking show, had taken over the lease.

"You're in charge now," Natalie had reminded Mrs. Garrett. "What about the no-hanky-panky-below-the-second-floor rule? I just found Jo and Blair engaged in all sorts of hanky-panky in the TV room. In the TV room, Mrs. Garrett! Is nothing sacred?"

"Natalie," Mrs. Garrett had said calmly, "when people fall in love, they want to express their feelings."

"Well do they have to 'express their feelings' during the evening news? Some of us have journalism assignments to do! And I can't concentrate on world events when Romeo and Juliet are rolling around on the couch!"

"Don't you think perhaps you're exaggerating a little bit, Natalie?"

Natalie's eyes had narrowed. "Mrs. Garrett, I think you're in cahoots with those two."

"Cahoots?"

"Cahoots! Now that you're seeing Drake Dante, you're going to look the other way on the no-hanky-panky rule!"

"Why Natalie," Mrs. Garrett had chuckled, "that's a silly accusation."

But the very next day, Natalie had walked in on Mrs. Garrett and Drake smooching in the kitchen ...

Tootie supported Jo and Blair's love, but she didn't want to see them in flagrante any more than Natalie did. And Jo and Blair's suite was a prime place to find them locked in a passionate embrace.

"Is everyone decent?" asked Tootie, only half kidding, as she entered the sitting room.

She took in the scene at a glance – Jo, Blair and Alec all crushed onto the little divan, Blair wearing a bathrobe and sitting on Jo's lap, Alec with one arm stretched along the top of the divan, one hand on Jo's face.

"Er, is this something I'm too young to be seeing?" asked Tootie. She half turned, ready to flee.

"For cryin out loud, Tootie, get back here," said Jo. She shook Alec's hand away. "Alec was just checkin my schnozola to be sure it ain't broken. Which it ain't."

Alec pursed his lips. "Jo, I think you should see a real doctor. If it's broken, which it appears to be, you should have it set. Properly. You don't want anything to mar that classic Artemisian beauty."

"Dunno," said Jo. She touched her nose gingerly. "I think maybe havin a broken beezer would give me a little character."

"You're already enough of a character," Blair said decisively. "You're going to the campus infirmary."

"But –"

"We'll go in a few minutes," said Blair, in a tone that ended all discussion. She looked at Tootie. "What can we do for you, Tootie?"

Tootie bit her lower lip.

Blair sat up straight on Jo's lap. "Is it bad news?" she asked.

"Well … maybe. Blair, your father's downstairs."

"Daddy? Here?"

Jo gave Blair a friendly little shake. "Hey. It's all right, babe. He's in our house. Well. Mrs. Garrett's house, now. But partly our house too. If he gets violent, we just show him the door."

Blair trembled. "I don't want to show him the door," she said miserably. "I want him to accept us. I want him to be my father again."

"So, maybe that's why he's here," Jo said, trying to sound encouraging. Though it's a hell of a lot more likely he's here to shoot me, she thought darkly. Wonder if Tootie noticed if he was carryin a shotgun?

"How did he … seem?" Blair asked Tootie, perhaps thinking along the same lines.

"He seems serious," Tootie said. "Like someone died."

Blair nodded. Tootie, natural actress that she was, had an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of other people's emotions. Daddy feels like I died, Blair thought sadly.

Blair pushed a hand through her tangled blonde hair, looked down at her bathrobe and pajamas.

"I can't see him like this," she said. "I have to operate from a position of strength. Tootie, can you keep him occupied for a few minutes?"

"Sure. I can bring him to the music room, play him a few songs."

"That's perfect. You're a real friend, Tootie."

Tootie shrugged with mock modesty. "I mean, sure – I'm only the best friend ever!"

When Tootie departed Blair climbed off of Jo's lap, stretching and cracking her neck.

"I need to shower," Blair said.

Alec grinned. "Do you require any assistance?" he asked. "Because I'm a marvel with a wash cloth, a regular – Ow!" Jo pegged him with her cap. "I was only bloody jesting, Jo," he complained.

"Yeah, yeah, just keep walkin, milord. You got Jacqueline now. This is my girl." Jo looked curiously at Blair as something finally sank in. "Babe? Didn't you shower this morning?

"I, ah, never quite got around to it."

"Did you go to classes today?"

"What do you mean?"

"What do I mean? I mean you're wearing my pj's and that frumpy old robe –"

"Frumpy?"

"And your hair looks like Mr. Balducci's old cat. Are you feelin sick or somethin?"

Blair sighed. "Jo, I need to tell you something, but now is not the moment."

Jo put her hands on Blair's shoulders, massaged them. "Blair, all the bad news we been gettin lately, there ain't any good time to break it. What gives?"

Blair glanced at Alec. He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"I know when I'm not wanted," he said.

"And yet," said Jo, "you still live here."

"Touché, Artemis." Alec tipped an imaginary top hat, gave Jo a little bow. He left the suite, closing the door behind him.

Jo went to the door, locking, bolting and chaining it.

Blair yawned and stretched again. "Darling, there's no need for such elaborate precautions. I'm not planning on making love with you before I face my father."

Jo peeled off her aviator jacket and tossed it on the divan. She began unbuttoning her shirt.

"We ain't gonna make love, but I'm takin a shower with you, babe. Keep you company." Jo flung her shirt after her jacket. She unbuttoned her jeans.

Blair smiled. "That does sound nice. It does get very lonely in the shower when you're not there."

"I know. I was all lonely when I took my shower this morning." Jo tossed her jeans after her shirt. She scooped Blair into her arms. Blair giggled …

They stood almost nose-to-nose in the narrow shower, the warm water running down their faces and bodies. They soaped each other, gently, but they didn't make love.

This is … comfortable, thought Jo. She wanted Blair – she always wanted Blair – but this wasn't the moment. There were too many serious things going on.

"Turn around," she told Blair quietly. The blonde turned, accidentally jabbing Jo in the ribs with her elbow. Jo worked shampoo into her fiancée's hair.

She's so at ease now, Blair thought with affectionate amusement, remembering how shy Jo used to be. At Eastland Jo locked the bathroom door whenever she changed her clothes or showered. And now, I can hardly keep clothes on her! Blair thought, grinning.

Jo rinsed the lather out of Blair's hair, gently, sensually. "Mmn," said Blair. "That feels really nice." She turned so that the left side of her face was cupped by Jo's hand.

"Babe?" Jo asked quietly.

"Mmn?"

"Why didn't you go to class today?"

Blair pressed her damp body against Jo's.

Jo laughed. "Not gonna work," she said.

"What's 'not gonna work'?" Blair asked innocently.

Jo finished rinsing the lather out of Blair's hair. "There," she said. "Breck girls, eat your hearts out! No one's hotter than Blair Warner."

"Blair Warner-Polniaczek," Blair said dreamily, closing her eyes and leaning back so that her head rested against Jo's shoulder. "Someday, anyway."

Jo slipped her arms around Blair's waist, laced her fingers over Blair's taut stomach. She kissed the blonde's neck. "Blair –I know you've been skippin classes lately. But I got a feelin you been skippin more than I realized."

Blair sighed. "I don't want to talk about this right now, Jo."

"All right." Jo kissed her neck again. "But we do need to talk about it."

"And we will. After we find out what my father wants. We can talk about it at the infirmary."

Jo groaned. The damn infirmary …

Now it was Blair's turn to chuckle. "You didn't think I'd forget, did you? You are getting your nose set, Jo Polniaczek. I refuse to marry a girl who looks like Jimmy Durante."

"Eh, you look like Jimmy Durante."

Blair laughed. Whenever Jo became childish, it was an admission that Blair had won the argument; the brunette had no retort other than a juvenile insult.

Blair turned around so that she was facing Jo. They were just about the same height, Jo only marginally taller when they were barefoot. In the confined space, their breasts and hips were crushed together.

This is … nice, thought Jo. It felt great, as always, being pressed up against Blair's naked body, but Jo had no overwhelming need to make wild love to the blonde. Interestin, she thought. It meant something, Jo realized, some new plateau in the relationship, but she wasn't in the mood to analyze it.

Blair kissed her lover's nose tentatively. "Does that hurt?" Blair asked.

"Actually? Yeah. Little bit."

"Poor baby."

"Aw, for cryin out loud! It's just a stupid nose. It ain't like I can't breathe through it."

Blair kissed the wounded nose again, tenderly.

"Ow!" said Jo. "All right. All right! I think it's broken. I admit it. You happy?"

"No." Blair kissed Jo's forehead. "But, as usual, darling, I'm right."


The music room was just off of the parlor, which was accessible only via River Rock's mazy, haphazard stairs and narrow hallways; they zigzagged drunkenly through the house like the cozy, haphazard halls of Bleak House.

Blair and Jo held hands as they navigated the corridors.

Blair's outfit was a declaration of independence, a mélange of the casual and the classic: Levi's, Jo's red-and-blue flannel shirt, a Christmas-red Ralph Lauren blazer, her oxblood cowgirl boots. Her hair hung straight and gleaming – Jo had brushed it for a full ten minutes, until it crackled with static electricity in the dry winter air, and then pulled it back from Blair's face with a Christmas-red velvet ribbon.

Jo's outfit was a declaration of confidence. She wore jeans, a white silk Ralph Lauren shirt Blair had given her on their three-month anniversary, and a navy blue blazer. Her hair was pulled back in her trademark ponytail, but secured with a white silk ribbon that Blair had tied neatly.

Blair wore only the most discrete of makeup, a touch around her eyes and lips. Jo wore a light layer of mascara, a kiss of Blair's sizzling pink lip quencher. Jo had dabbed some foundation over her bruise and the swelling around her nose, but Blair had gently scrubbed it off. "Let Daddy see it," she'd said quietly.

Jo caught a glimpse of their reflections as they passed the warped, bubbled old glass of the conservatory's French windows.

"We look friggin beautiful," she said.

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Of course. You sound surprised, darling."

Jo grinned at her.

As Blair and Jo neared the parlor, they heard the most beautiful, dreamy piano music rippling through the halls. The closer they grew to the parlor, the louder it became. It was passionate, it was tragic … it was transcendent.

"Is that Tootie?" asked Jo. During their time at Eastland she'd heard Tootie plunk out the melodies of Broadway show tunes by ear on the old piano in the auditorium. Tootie did all right for someone winging it, but she'd never played anything like this.

Blair's eyelids lowered and she smiled. She looked like a sated, sleepy feline. "Rach 3," she said.

Jo shook her head. "Trust me, babe – that ain't rock. It's some kind of classical."

"Rachmaninoff," Blair explained. "Piano Concerto 3."

"Oh." Even in her violent, graffiti-tagged Bronx junior high, a young Jo had managed to get her hands on Shakespeare, Milton, the great poets, history texts and even some Latin, but she had missed the boat completely when it came to classical music. She liked it, but it was all aural Greek to her.

They entered the parlor. The music was much louder now, flowing from the half-open doors that led into the music room. The notes ran in a swift, liquid stream, tripping along like little torrents of water splashing over stones, flashing in sunlight …

"Does your father play?" asked Jo, mystified.

Blair shook her head. "Only the stock market."

When Jo and Blair stepped into the music room – a large, airy chamber with sea-foam blue walls and tall windows that let the winter sun stream in – they saw Tootie and Natalie sitting on the sofa and David Warner sitting in an extremely uncomfortable-looking high-backed chair.

Tootie and Natalie leaned forward, rapt, listening to the music and gazing at Alec, who sat at the baby grand, fingers flickering over the keys, feet working the brass pedals.

David Warner was looking down at the briefcase that he held on his lap. He wore one of his bespoke black suits with knife-edge creases, a snowy white shirt and heavy gold cufflinks and black shoes that gleamed like mirrors. His hair had clearly been barbered that morning ("Daddy gets his hair trimmed every day," Blair told Jo once; Jo had thought that was crap, some story David told Blair when she was a little girl, but clearly it was true).

The poignant music swelled and filled the room. It had enchanted Tootie and Natalie and it had had a profound effect on David Warner as well. He was biting his lower lip, and there was a shadow in his eyes, a haunted expression. He didn't fidget – David Warner never fidgeted – but he did pick idly at one of the latches of his briefcase with one beautifully manicured finger.

Caught up in the Rachmaninoff, no one noticed Jo or Blair's entrance. The two young lovers stood on the threshold, listening to Alec play. The piece was nearing its close; Alec drew the final notes from the piano and then his hands fell still.

The silence, thought Jo, was like stars going out. It was like a spell being broken. No one spoke or moved or even breathed for a moment.

Tootie and Natalie stirred as if waking from a dream, and then burst into spirited applause.

Alec looked up from the piano. He smiled at the Eastland students, and then, noticing Jo and Blair, smiled radiantly at them. He gave them the slightest of bows.

"Artemis and Aphrodite," he greeted them. "Does my humble playing meet with your approval?"

"It's only the most beautiful rendition of Rach 3 I've ever heard," said Blair. "You're a dark horse, Alec."

"I'll take that as a compliment," he said, clearly pleased.

"Where'dja learn to play like that?" asked Jo.

"Lessons. Many, many lessons. The mater insisted. From the moment I bounded into this world with my darling curls and my fetching dimples, mother has done everything possible to make me irresistible to eligible heiresses." His smile twisted sardonically, as it usually did when he discussed the Duchess.

David made a curt, barking laugh. "Obnoxious gigolo," he said. "And self-pitying to boot! Blair had a narrow escape with you."

Alec smiled coldly at David. The young man turned his back on Blair's father, began plinking odd notes on the piano, until they resolved themselves into actual music. He closed his eyes, played a reverie of rapid notes that pattered like rain on water in a dark night …

Jo looked at Blair. "Ravel," Blair told her quietly. "'Gaspard de la Nuit'."

"Nuit" … That's night, thought Jo. She didn't know much French, but she could remember that from the Paris trip the year before. Night … the notes sounded like night, like dark waters under a cool moon …

"I didn't drive all the way up here for a concert," David complained. "I want to talk to you, Princess." He noticed that Blair and Jo were holding hands, cleared his throat, looked away. "Alone," he said firmly.

Blair and Jo, still holding hands, walked to the loveseat near the piano. They sat, easing back against the cushion with far more confidence than they felt.

Jo's heart was hammering in her chest – partly in anger, partly in frustration.

Christ, he looks at me like I'm a freakin clod of dirt! He's got ice water in his veins! Imagine my beautiful girl comin from a cold fish like him …

But he could be, conceivably, her father-in-law someday. And he was her lover's father. Jo still didn't understand all the cockamamie rules the rich lived by, but in the Bronx, your lover's father was a person worthy of great respect, no matter what kind of an a-hole he might be.

Blair felt numb. She knew she felt hurt, terribly hurt, by her father's rejection. She'd been sobbing about it less than an hour ago. But right now, steeled for this confrontation, she felt frozen. She felt diamond-cold and hard.

"Father," she said, inclining her head. "Whatever you have to say to me you can say in front of my friends."

Tootie and Natalie leaned forward, partly in support of Blair and Jo, partly because they didn't want to miss a word of the conversation. As Tootie had been wont to say when she was younger, it looked like Blair was in trooouble … Big-time trouble with her dad.

David's brow creased; his mouth tightened into an angry line.

Funny, thought Jo. Just like Blair, when she's really pissed off about something. Blair might've got her drama and her pouting and her deviousness from her mother, but her temper and her hauteur were pure David Warner.

"I will not discuss private family business in front of outsiders," David said curtly. "And particularly not in front of her." He lifted his chin toward Jo. He didn't look at Jo; he looked at a point several inches above the top of her head.

Blair glanced from Tootie to Natalie to Alec's fingers flying over the keys and then to her fiancée. Blair smiled at Jo, a warm, almost goofy grin. Jo returned it, squeezed Blair's hand.

Blair looked at her father. "This is my family, Daddy. I know how valuable your time is, so don't waste it on a pointless argument. Just say what you came here to say."

David's face flushed a dull red. A vein began throbbing in one temple. He took a deep breath through his nose, held it, and then expelled it slowly, as if he were counting to ten in his head, trying very hard to keep his temper.

"Blair … Princess … I'm prepared to make what I consider to be a very fair proposition. Your mother has spoken to one of her contacts at the Gamma Gamma national chapter, and Langley's Gamma Gamma House is ready to welcome you immediately. If you will move into Gamma Gamma House this evening, and say good bye to your, to your unfortunate friends, we can put all this behind us. We can start fresh, as if none of this nonsense ever happened."

Blair regarded him coolly. She didn't even blink. After a moment she lifted one dark eyebrow. "Is that all of it?" she asked.

David swallowed. He had never been so disconcerted before. "That's it in a nutshell," he said. "Just leave this … place, and these people and get back on track."

Blair didn't move a muscle. Then she tilted her head, ever so slightly, in the negative.

"Daddy," she said, "I've never been so on track in my life."

He clenched one fist, pounded it on his thigh. "Blair, dammit … Listen. We had a conversation at Lutce. At the beginning of the semester – you remember?"

"We have so few dinners," Blair drawled. "Of course I remember."

"I was a little autocratic, perhaps," said David. "I admit I could have handled that conversation better. You felt, perhaps, that I was trying to control your life. And your mother has confessed to me, some of her little machinations …" He trailed off, looking very hard at Alec's back.

If Alec felt David Warner's eyes boring into his back, the young lord gave no indication of it. He continued to play Ravel's strange, sad, difficult piece.

"The point is this," said David. "Between us, your mother and I gave you every motivation to rebel. Very well. You have … rebelled." He swallowed again, glancing at Jo and Blair's entwined hands. "You have made your point, Princess. You're growing up, you're becoming a woman, you have to have some say in your life. It might have been nice if you'd chosen a less dramatic and ridiculous method of rebellion, but that's neither here nor there. At least you've had the good sense to keep this nonsense out of the press and out of the gaze of society."

Jo stared at David Warner, fascinated. Jo had always loved her father. Even when Charlie was in prison for helping to arrange a warehouse theft, even when young Jo, furious at her Pop for getting himself sent away, tried to tell herself that Charlie was dead to her, even then, she had loved him.

In this moment, listening to David Warner's frosty ramblings, Jo realized that she had never fully appreciated the things that made Charlie Polniaczek so special. Even when he was a bastard, Charlie just was who he was!

Gotta call Pop soon. Gotta try to explain this to him, work it out …

Blair was staring at David Warner too, as if seeing her father for the first time. She calmly lifted both of her eyebrows. "So … is that all of it?"

David pounded his fist against his thigh again. "Blair, this is a very serious matter."

"Not to me," Blair said. "I already told mother that I wanted you to cut me off. And you have. I am completely independent now. I am my own woman. So unless and until you and mother are interested in a genuine reconciliation, there isn't anything to discuss."

Wow! Jo thought admiringly. She squeezed Blair's hand. Blair squeezed Jo's hand in return, but kept her attention on her father with a laser-like focus.

David scowled. "You won't make it," he said. "You can't possibly live on that pitiful little allowance until you're twenty-one."

"I'm already doing it," Blair said coolly.

That took some bravado, Jo knew. Blair was barely scraping by on the allowance, the one flow of cash that was hers by right, part of a trust set up by one of her dead grandfathers. When she and Jo began dating, Blair had done her homework and discovered that there was no way for her parents to touch or tamper with the allowance or the principal from which it was derived.

When Blair was twenty-one she would come into an unfathomable fortune; Jo didn't know how much, and she wasn't ready to know. It was too daunting, too alien to her. Until then, Blair had to live on the allowance, and somehow it had to cover rent to Mrs. Garrett, and Blair and Jo's Langley tuition, and a hundred other expenses that used to seem like pittances to the heiress.

David knit his brows again, and then leaned forward, steepling his fingers under his chin.

"Blair, we have cut you off, as you requested, and if you do not agree to depart this house now, and go to Gamma Gamma and leave this, this person," he sneered openly at Jo, "behind, then you will remain cut off. We will not reinstate your charge cards. We will not pay your Langley tuition. You will not have access to the family cars, the helicopter, the houses, the ranches –"

A muscle jumped in Blair's cheek, but she maintained her composure.

The Texas ranch, thought Jo. And Eduardothe multi-talented foreman of the Texas ranch, lawyer, veterinarian, MBA, and Blair's surrogate father. To be cut off from that place, from Eduardo …

"Furthermore," said David, "we will no longer pay to board Chestnut at Langley. He will be returned to the Texas ranch."

Shit! thought Jo. Blair loved her horse. She'd had him since she was nine years old. "I always knew he was my horse," she'd said, "and he always knew I was his person." Chestnut had been Blair's constant companion through a largely loveless, lonely childhood. What kind of bastard takes his daughter's best friend away from her? wondered Jo.

"As Hamlet said, 'I must be cruel only to be kind,'" said David Warner, spreading his soft, pale hands as if Blair were bringing all of this on herself.

"And as my friend Jesse says, 'In your ear'!" Jo told David angrily, unable to keep silent any longer.

David ignored Jo. She might have been a stick of furniture.

But Blair was leaning forward, looking squarely at her father, an exultant smile on her lips.

"I'm boarding Chestnut," she said triumphantly. "I already spoke to the proper parties. I'm going to take over Chestnut's board. It won't cost you a penny."

David pursed his lips. "How can you possibly afford to do that? Between your tuition, your bills and fees … It doesn't add up."

"That's not your concern," Blair said dismissively. "I can do it, and I will do it."

David shrugged. "Whether or not you can afford to board Chestnut is immaterial. What you're forgetting, Princess, is that you don't own that horse."

Blair blanched. For the first time during their confrontation, David had rattled her. Blair swayed a little bit from side to side; Jo slipped an arm around her shoulders.

Blair licked her lips; they were suddenly dry as sandpaper.

"What do you mean?" she asked. "Chestnut is my horse. You gave him to me on my eighth birthday."

David laughed sharply. "I let you ride him, Princess, but he was never a gift in the legal sense of the word. All of the papers – he belongs to me, Blair. Well … to Warner Textiles. And Warner Textiles does not give you permission to board Chestnut at Langley College. Chestnut is going to be transported back to the Texas ranch, where he will live out the rest of his life, and you will never see him again."

Jo was on her feet, fists clenched. Hey blue-green eyes flashed. She was a slender young woman, her hands actually as delicate as a surgeon's, but she had a lean, muscular strength and a passionate nature that gave her a formidable air.

"You will not threaten Blair," she said. "Not in our own house."

David wouldn't look at her. The vein in his temple throbbed again. "I will not address the opportunistic guttersnipe who has corrupted my daughter."

Alec's hands fell still above the keyboard of the baby grand. Slowly, he turned on the piano bench, fixed David Warner with a gleaming, sapphire-blue glare.

"Will you address me, sir?" he asked angrily.

"I will not," said David. He shot a glance at Tootie and Natalie, who were sitting on the edge of their divan, glaring at him. "And I won't address them, either. Blair, you must return to your own circle, before your common escapades become common knowledge. How will you be able to run Warner Industries with a hopelessly tarnished, ridiculous reputation?"

Blair said nothing. She sat stiff and cold in the circle of Jo's arm. Chestnut … he's taking Chestnut away … Blair's face was smooth and blank, a veritable Lady-of-Shallot mask …

David smelled victory. He smiled faintly, tapped his briefcase with one finger. He seemed oblivious to the fact that only their love for Blair was keeping Jo Polniaczek and Lord Nethridge from tearing his head off his neck.

"I have contracts with me," said David, "If you'll leave this den of sycophants immediately, Blair, I'll transfer ownership of Chestnut to you. He'll be yours – legally. And all of your charge cards will be reinstated, all of your privileges. I'll double your allowance. I'll triple it. Princess … you have to see reason."

Blair nodded slowly, face still frozen.

"It's funny," she said. "I've always heard about how ruthless and how clever you are. And now I know what it feels like to be at the other end of your dealings."

"Don't dramatize, Blair."

"Am I dramatizing? I'm sorry." She leaned forward, fixing her father with her large, dark eyes. "You've put a great deal of thought into all of this."

"Of course."

"And I realize, Daddy, that you have my interests at heart. Or, perhaps not my interests, but the family interests, the company interests."

"Do you doubt it?"

"No. I believe that in your own way, you think this is the right thing to do. So for that, and because I love you, I'll give you one more chance."

Thatta girl! thought Jo, her heart soaring.

"You'll give me one more chance?" David asked incredulously.

"Yes, Daddy."

"One more chance for what?"

"To accept me for who I am, and to accept the life I've chosen."

"The life you've chosen?" he snarled. A little strand of spittle flew from the corner of his mouth. He wiped his chin on his perfect white shirt cuff. "Blair, I'm not playing a game. Will you do what I've told you, or not?"

Blair leaned back against the love seat. She took Jo's hand.

"Not," Blair said decisively.

David exploded. "You ungrateful, spoiled, short-sighted little –"

"Temper Mr. Warner," Alec said grimly. "Ladies present, and all that." Alec didn't stand up, but he leaned forward slightly and somehow, the way he folded his arms across his chest, and squared his shoulders, he looked intimidatingly strong.

David shot a glance at Alec, lip curling with contempt. "And where do you fit into this ridiculous ménage, Lord Nethridge?"

"I'm a friend."

"Friend?" David sneered. "You realize that if Blair doesn't accept my agreement, your gravy train grinds to a halt?"

Alec flushed. A tiny muscle jumped in one cheek.

"You don't talk to my friends that way," Blair said coldly. She stood up. "Good afternoon, Daddy."

David Warner drew a deep breath. It appeared that he was mentally counting to ten.

"I said 'Good afternoon, Daddy'," Blair said in a tone of finality. Her face was frozen in a beautiful but coldly imperious expression, like sculpted marble.

David stood up, slowly, reluctantly. It was clear that he didn't like the outcome. Blair seemed immovable, at least for the moment, so he turned his attention to Jo, glaring at the brunette.

"We have unfinished business," he told Jo. "If you think I'm going to let you corrupt my daughter, throw her future away, you are sadly mistaken!"

"Maybe you can hire someone to rub me out," Jo said quietly. "Like Abercrombie hired someone to kill Blair."

The blood drained from David's face.

"Seems to me I ain't the one putting Blair in harm's way," Jo continued. "But, fact is, anyone tries to hurt Blair, in any way, they're gonna regret it."

"Deeply," added Alec.

"We'll see to it," said Jo.

"Are you threatening me?" David demanded incredulously.

"Nah. Just lettin you know that your daughter's safe. You don't need to worry about her. Cause even though you're treatin her totally shamefully, I figure maybe you're still gonna worry about her from time to time. But you don't gotta."

Blair's expression remained frozen, but she gratefully squeezed Jo's hand.

David was glaring so hard at Jo, it seemed to be a miracle that he didn't pop a vein. His breath came very hard through his nose. He was grinding his teeth.

It would be like a melodrama, thought Tootie, the villainous old stage father – if it weren't so serious and sad. If he had a mustache he'd be twirling it!

"You can't corrupt an innocent young woman and walk away scot-free," David growled menacingly. "This matter is far from over. Blair obviously needs help of a specialized nature. And it's my duty as her father to be sure she receives it."

Blair squeezed Jo's hand again, this time with alarm. But the heiress' coldly beautiful expression never changed.

Natalie leaned forward, smiling a deceptively friendly smile at David Warner.

"You mean you're going to put Blair in a mental hospital?" she asked in a chipper voice.

David threw her a strange look. He was hazy on who Natalie was – who any of these people were, except for Jo. Blair's friends had never held much interest for him.

"I'm going to do whatever I need to do to protect my daughter," he said firmly.

"Well, I think that would make a great story," Natalie breezed. She held her hands apart, one on either side of her face, bracketing an imaginary headline. "Warner Wunderkind is Wacko! Blair Warner – Bonkers and Bellevue Bound!"

David's eyes narrowed. "Who are you again?" he demanded.

"Oh, little old me? I'm Natalie, one of your daughter's oldest friends. I'm a journalist."

David's mouth quirked contemptuously as he took in Natalie's crimson and royal-blue Eastland uniform. "What's your circulation?" he asked. "Sixty-five? Seventy-five?"

"Four hundred, actually," said Natalie. "Eastland Academy is much larger than people realize. And there are the alumnae subscriptions. But for a story about Blair Warner being committed, I'm thinking that's an expose the Times would love to get their inky hands on."

"The Times!" sneered David. "As if they'd listen to a little school girl from Peekskill."

"Sure they would," said Jo. "Blair would give Natalie an exclusive." She squeezed Blair's hand reassuringly. We're bluffin your Pop, babe. You get that, right? "Can you imagine the interest in that story?" Jo mused aloud. "Beautiful Blair Warner, shut away in a nuthouse by her father. Why? Is he tryin to get his hands on her loot?"

"You little bitch," snarled David, turning on Jo.

"Now, now," said Jo. "Language, Mr. Warner. I'm not sayin you're tryin to get your hands on Blair's loot. In fact, I sincerely doubt you are. But it would make a hell of a story, wouldn't it? Remember what a splash old Nelly Bly made, back in the day, with her little expose. That was Bellevue, wasn't it, Nat?"

"And Blackwell's Island," Natalie added.

"People love stories about the rich and beautiful," Jo continued. David appeared to be restraining himself from attacking her by some superhuman effort of willpower. "And when a rich and beautiful dame like Blair gets shut up in the loony bin by her dads, jeez, that oughta cause quite a stir. And just to make it real juicy, me and Blair could tell Nat all about our torrid love affair! Nat, how many papers you think that sell?"

"Oh, quite a few," said Nat. "Tens of thousands."

"Hundreds of thousands," said Tootie. "I mean, it's the Times."

"And other papers would pick it up," said Natalie. "It'd be a sensational story. TV news stations would pick it up too. I think we're actually talking an audience of millions."

"And we could keep the story going," said Tootie. She clutched her hands together, put them over her heart. "Blair's daily journal of her indignities! Her pathetic pleas for her father to relent! Her romantic pleas for Jo to rescue her!"

"Funny thing," Alec said thoughtfully, "my mother, the Duchess, actually knows the Times' managing editor. And he owes her a rather large favor. Story as exciting as this … and the editor wanting to clear the slate with my mother, well, there's simply no telling how far we could take this."

"Enough!" shouted David. "You've made your point. You're a disgusting coterie of delinquents and you're all hell bent I'm helping my daughter to throw her life away. Very well! I know when to fold."

He shot the strangest look at Blair – disgusted, sorrowful, regretful, angry. "Blair … Princess … This is your final chance. Come with me now, back to your mother's penthouse. Forget any of this ever happened. Or never see either of us again."

Blair squeezed Jo's hand so tightly that Jo lost circulation for a moment. Blair lifted her perfect chin.

"Goodbye, Daddy," she said coldly.

"Dammit!" David lunged forward and slapped Jo hard across the face, a stinging blow that echoed through the room. Jo's head snapped back and a fresh spray of blood spattered David's face and shirt front.

"Son of a bitch!" shouted Jo, putting her hands to her face. It hurt like hell – it felt like someone had shoved a red-hot poker into her face. Same damn spot he got me last night! she thought.

"Jo!" Blair cried. She put her arms around Jo, positioning herself protectively between Jo and David. Blair had a handkerchief pressed gently below Jo's nose in an instant.

Alec was surprisingly quick, for all his muscle and height. He was off the piano bench and had David's arms pinned to his sides in a twinkling.

David was a tall man, but his strength was lean, and some of his muscle was beginning to soften into middle-aged flab. He was no match for Alec, and he knew it; he didn't struggle.

"Let me go," David said quietly. His attack on Jo seemed to have released all of his rage. He looked suddenly weary, and older than his forty-eight years.

Alec looked to Blair and Jo.

"Shall I call the Peekskill Police?" asked Alec.

"We should just put them on retainer," said Natalie. "How many times have we called them in the last year?"

"No one can claim we don't keep Peekskill interesting!" said Tootie.

Jo shook her head at Alec. "No police. Just let him go." Her voice was nasal and muffled by the handkerchief Blair held to her nose. "He's gonna be my father-in-law someday. Even though he clearly doesn't wanna be."

"Father-in-law!" David scoffed softly.

Alec pulled David's arms tighter – uncomfortably so. David made a little gurgle of pain.

"Pardon?" said Alec. "I didn't quite catch that remark, Mr. Warner."

"Don't hurt him," Jo said. Alec reluctantly loosened his grip on the billionaire businessman.

The handkerchief against Jo's face was soaked through, bright red. Blair whisked that handkerchief away, pressed a fresh one to Jo's face. She pinched the bridge of Jo's nose to try to stop the bleeding.

"May I go now?" David asked dully.

Jo and Blair nodded at Alec.

"Now then," said Alec, still holding firmly to David as he guided him toward the door, "I'll see you out, you bloody plonker." As they reached the doorway, Alec seemed to stumble and David's face connected with the doorpost. There was a thud. "Terribly sorry, old man," said Alec. "Uneven floors, you know."

"Alec," Jo said darkly.

"What? I stumbled," Alec said innocently.

"Well don't stumble any more. Get Mr. Warner to his car in one piece."

"Of course! What do you take me for, Jo?"

There was a thin cut on David's forehead, and a thin line of blood dripping from it.

"One piece, Alec," Jo repeated.

"Of course, Artemis."

Alec and David disappeared through the doorway.

Blair sank onto the love seat. She was as still and blank as marble.

My father has disowned me. He's really, truly disowned me. It wasn't the financial implications that bothered her. She'd had months to prepare for that, ever since she'd realized how much she loved Jo.

No, what ached was the sheer disgust Blair had seen in her father's eyes, playing across his face, and all his other dark emotions. Her father … her Daddy … the man who, although he ignored her most of the time, always had a brilliant smile and a warm hug for her when he did see her, who indulged her, who called her his Princess … he now found her utterly repellent.

And it's not just because of Jo, Blair thought numbly. I don't love men. I simply don't love men, and I never will. If it hadn't been Jo, eventually it would've been some woman. And I always feared Daddy couldn't accept that … but now I know

Jo sank down next to Blair, gently taking the handkerchief from her lover's hand.

"Guess I really do need the infirmary after all," Jo said, trying valiantly to chuckle.

"You sure do!" said Tootie. "Jo, you look awful!"

"'Awful' would be an improvement," objected Natalie. "Jo, you look dreadful. Horrible, even!"

"Hey, guys," laughed Jo, "don't everyone try to cheer me up at the same time or anythin!"

"Alls I'm saying is, I hope Blair loves you for more than your looks," said Natalie.

"We know it ain't my common sense," said Jo, "since I keep gettin within range of dear old dad. I like to think Blair loves me for my stoicism."

Blair leaned her head against Jo's shoulder.

"You OK babe?" asked Jo, concerned. Blair looked so blank, like she was in some kind of shock.

"I need to get out of here," Blair said.

"Of course. Of course, babe."

Jo twisted the half-soaked handkerchief, screwing it into her left nostril – the one that seemed to be spouting the most blood.

"Let's go to the infirmary, Blair."

"Can we take your bike?"

"'Course we can."

"Uh, not to be all doom-and-gloom," said Natalie, "but Jo, should you really be driving your Kawasaki around on icy roads after getting punched in the face twice in twenty-four hours?"

"That last one wasn't a punch," objected Jo. "It was more like … a really hard slap."

"Don't split hairs, Jo."

"Who's splittin hairs? Jeez, you guys shoulda seen me when I was runnin with the Diablos. You think a few friggin pops to the nose can put me outta commission?" Jo twisted the handkerchief deeper into her nostril. "This is freakin nothin. Honestly. I ain't made outta glass."

Blair held Jo's arm. Tightly. "Darling? Can we go now?"

"'Course we can." Jo stood up, helped Blair to her feet. The blonde definitely looked as if she were in shock, eyes glassy, skin pale, movements dull.

"Jo, this is a bad idea," Natalie said. "Blair doesn't look any better than you do."

"Then it's a good thing we're goin to the infirmary," said Jo.

"Jo – I'll drive you," Natalie said, scrambling for any plan that would keep Jo off her bike.

"You don't have a car," said Jo.

"I'll borrow Mrs. Garrett's car. She said I could borrow it anytime to practice for my driving test, as long as I'm always accompanied by a licensed driver."

"Nah. That's nice, Nat, but we're goin into the city afterward."

"You're what?"

"We need to get outta Peekskill for a few hours. Clear our heads." Jo turned to Blair. "That sound good, babe?"

Blair nodded. "Yes," she murmured. "Let's get away."

Natalie stood up, putting her chunky hands on her hips. Her blue eyes flashed angrily. "Jo, I don't seem to be getting through to you. Neither of you are in any condition to be racing off to the city on these roads, let alone on a motorcycle!"

Jo's carefully controlled composure began to crack. "Natalie, it ain't your business," she said warningly.

Now Tootie sprang to her feet, dark eyes flashing. "It's both our business," she told Jo. "We're your best friends, and we are not letting you roar off to Manhattan in your condition!"

Jo laughed bitterly. "You know, I just lost one mother, and I ain't in the market for a new one just yet! So back the hell off. We're gonna be fine. C'mon," she pulled Blair's arm. Almost like a zombie, Blair followed Jo out of the room.

"Jo Polniaczek!" shouted Tootie. "Blair Warner! You get back here right now!"

"What she said!" yelled Natalie. "Jo! Blair!"

But the older girls' footsteps retreated steadily … and in a moment, a door slammed, and all was quiet.


Blair would never remember more than fragments of that evening, that night. Later, Jo would fill in pieces of the puzzle for her; but there were things Jo didn't remember, details that escaped her, or that faded over time. They were both, in their own ways, in shock.

In the late afternoon darkness and cold, Jo drove her Kawasaki to the Langley College infirmary. It was below freezing and the roads were icy, as Natalie and Tootie had said, and slushy with snow that had started to melt a little bit earlier in the day. Ice and slush, a slippery and dangerous combination. Jo drove with unusual restraint …

The Langley infirmary was all but deserted. Most student were eating an early supper or preparing for a night of parties. And, of course, there were always the grinds that were burrowed into the library on a Friday night. Finals were coming up, after all …

A doctor saw Jo right away. He was a young man, for a doctor, and not bad looking, and he flirted with Blair a little bit while he treated Jo, which Jo would've found amusing if she weren't in such pain.

He looked up Jo's nostrils with a light, and felt the swelling around her nose and eyes.

"Did you faint?" he asked Jo.

"No."

"Vomit?"

"No."

"Your breathing doesn't seem to be obstructed," he said with satisfaction.

"Is it broken?" Jo asked.

"Oh, yes. Most definitely. But it appears to be a clean break. I don't think we need to straighten it, and surgery isn't indicated." He scribbled on a prescription pad, an indecipherable scrawl to Jo, tore off a sheet and handed it to the wounded brunette. "Get this filled at the pharmacy window. Take two pills every six hours if there's pain. Other than that, just ice your nose while it heals. And you might want to pick up a pair of sunglasses. You're going to have a couple of nasty shiners for awhile."

"Couple a black eyes, I can handle," Jo said dismissively. "So, that's all? I'm gonna live?"

The doctor smiled. "Absolutely. But you'll need those sunglasses if you plan to be in any holiday photos!"

He turned to Blair. She was a stunning young woman. All that golden hair, that lush figure, those warm chocolate eyes. But there was something wrong with her. His professional eye told him that when he looked beyond her beauty. She was in shock – physical or emotional. Or maybe both.

"And what happened to you?" he asked Blair with a forced professional cheerfulness that annoyed Jo.

"Hmm?" asked Blair.

"I said, 'What happened to you?'"

"Nothing," said Blair dully. She seemed a million miles away. "Just … a little family disagreement."

The doctor frowned. He glanced at Jo's nose, the purple bruises already beginning to darken Jo's eyes.

"Were you …" He hesitated. He glanced from Blair to Jo and then back to Blair.

They weren't sisters, he decided – far too dissimilar-looking for that close of a relationship. Cousins? People got stressed out around the holidays, he knew, especially in the present economy. At what were supposed to be festive gatherings, male relatives sometimes lashed out at the women in the family.

"Did anyone hurt you?" he gently asked Blair. He turned to Jo. "Either of you?"

Jo shook her head. "Pick-up game," she lied. "Field hockey. Ball caught me right in the face."

"Oh," he smiled. "Good. I mean, not good, but –"

"But you're glad my Uncle Joe ain't back-handin me over the pre-Christmas goose," said Jo.

"Something like that." The doctor turned to Blair. "And you're all right, Miss …"

"Yes," she said absently.

"She's just worried about me," said Jo. "Gettin hit twice in the same place –"

The moment the phrase was out of her mouth, she could have kicked herself. The doctor was onto it in a flash.

"So, you were hit twice?" he asked. "Same pick-up game."

"No, ah, two different occasions, as a matter of fact," she said.

He glanced at her intake form. Jo Polniaczek. He knew the name. "You're the captain of the Lions," he said. "Brought the team to nationals this year. Not bad for a freshman."

Jo shrugged modestly. "Eh. You know."

He squinted at her wounds again. It didn't look like a ball had caught her in the face once, let alone twice. The skin of the nose wasn't abraded. It was more like a wound caused by a fist – or an open palm. A flesh-to-flesh wound.

"So, twice in one game," he said conversationally.

"Yeah, weird," said Jo. And then, catching herself, "I mean, no, it was two separate games. I said that. Remember?"

"Oh, right." The young woman was lying – he was sure of it now. And lying badly. "Funny thing," he said, "you're a star player, but you get clocked in the face during two separate games."

"Yeah. Heh-heh." Jo laughed lamely. "We stopped practicin regular after nationals. Guess I'm already gettin rusty!"

The doctor sighed inwardly. You couldn't make people throw their no-good, violent relatives under the bus. There were always some damn extenuating circumstances. No one wanted to be the one to send daddy or mommy or Uncle Joe to the slammer – although, even in the doctor's brief experience, that's where they belonged, the slammer or a psychiatrist's office.

He fished a little piece of pasteboard out of his lab coat pocket, handed it to Jo. "Call me," he said, "if you need anything. Another prescription, or if you start to feel faint or nauseous."

"Sure," said Jo, tucking the little card into her jeans pocket. Did he believe that B.S.? Seems like.

"Anything at all changes," the doctor said significantly, "you call me. OK?"

"Yeah, sure."

When Jo and Blair left the examination room, the doctor watched them go with troubled eyes.

Jo had tucked the prescription into her jeans pocket, but she didn't fill it at the infirmary. She hated medicine, never took it unless absolutely necessary. If I start feelin really crummy, I'll fill it later …

The infirmary parking lot was almost pitch dark, lit only by a couple of feeble, widely spaced street lamps. Nice to know we pay a freakin fortune in tuition for a campus the administration keeps lit like a friggin horror film! thought Jo.

Jo pulled on her white helmet, Blair her black helmet. Blair settled onto the bike behind Jo, slipped her arms around Jo's waist and held her tight. They were both dressed down tonight, jeans and warm, fleece-lined leather jackets, Jo's the butter-soft gift Blair had given her at the Plaza. They had dark watch caps pulled down over their long hair, dark scarves around their necks, leather gloves.

"Still wanna go to the city for awhile?" Jo asked Blair, breath steaming in the freezing air.

Blair nodded.

"Where you wanna go, babe?"

Blair shrugged.

Jo drove them into the Bronx, one of its most dangerous pockets, very fast, with Blair clinging to her with a steely, vise-like strength.

Jo loved the feeling of Blair holding her while they tore along Peekskill's dark roads, the Kawasaki thrumming between their legs. It was a mutual feeling; Blair loved holding Jo, feeling Jo's lean muscles shift as she guided and controlled the bike, just as Blair guided and controlled Chestnut.

But tonight, Blair was almost oblivious to Jo's movements, or the wind tearing at their clothing, or the vibration of the bike. Blair hung onto Jo and gripped the bike with her thighs through force of habit and an innate sense of self-preservation.

They had only been at the Fever a few moments when Jo realized that it had been, not a mistake to come, but pointless. Blair loved the Fever, the Bronx's revolutionary disco rap and break mixing club. She loved the lights and the eclectic, democratic mix of people and above all she loved the pounding beat of the music and the surprising blends of songs and melodies.

Blair loved the place, and the music, so much that she had become an 'angel', an investor and producer on an independent film about the club. As soon as she had asked her mother to cut her off from the family funds, she'd called Mr. A, the dapper young club owner, and told him she couldn't invest any more money for awhile.

Like almost everyone who met Blair, Mr. A seemed to be more than a little in love with her. She had a way of dazzling everyone around her. Mr. A expressed regret that she couldn't infuse any more cash into the struggling project; other investors had dropped out as well, and the film was presently on hold. But he made it clear that she and Jo were always welcome at the Fever and that Blair was going to receive a production credit if and when the film was finally completed.

Tonight, as usual, they sailed in past the bouncers, Jo exchanging a high-five with Rico, a young man she remembered from her days in the Bronx public school system.

They were searched in the foyer – everyone was searched, no exceptions, and had to check their guns. Blair and Jo, not packing any heat, were quickly waved into the club.

Jo ordered a club soda, since she was driving the bike. She ordered Blair a white wine spritzer. They sat at the bar and sipped their drinks and watched the writhing dancers, moving their bodies in time with the pulsing lights and the incredible music.

Tonight there was a beautiful, lithe drummer dominating the stage. Her hands flew so fast over her drums and she laid down such a mesmerizing beat, that Jo felt oddly attracted to the woman.

They stayed about half an hour, and although Jo enjoyed listening to the young drummer, the visit was pointless in terms of cheering up Blair. Blair remained still and quiet – neither of which were normal traits for the vivacious blonde.

"Wanna hit the dance floor?" Jo asked Blair. Jo really, really disliked dancing, but it was one of those things she did because it made Blair happy.

One of the things Jo found most fascinating – and rewarding – about being in love was the weird halo effect: if something made Blair happy, it made Jo happy that Blair was happy, and vice-versa. Which was why even though Blair kept threatening to ban all Star Wars paraphernalia from their suite, she hadn't yet carrier out her dire threats.

"Wanna dance?" Jo repeated when Blair didn't answer.

Blair shrugged. "Not really," she murmured, so quietly Jo had trouble distinguishing the words over the loud music.

"Whaddaya wanna do?" Jo asked.

"Movie," said Blair.

"OK. OK, let's go."

Jo drove them out of the Bronx, south into Manhattan, to a cineplex where they were unlikely to run into anyone that either of them knew.

Standing in line for tickets, Jo regarded the marquis critically.

"Whaddya think?" she asked Blair. "Somethin funny? Somethin romantic, maybe?"

Blair shrugged. "You pick," she said listlessly.

Jesus, thought Jo, these choices are an effin minefield! Yentl, that's like, Streisand's supposed to be all obsessed about makin her dead dad proud of her – not what Blair needs to see right now! Terms of Endearment, Alec said that's about an overprotective mother, and the daughter dies, jeez, ixnay on that!

"How 'bout Christine?" Jo finally suggested. "It's this beautiful old car that gets possessed and kills a bunch of jerks."

Normally, if presented with a pitch like that, Blair would have lifted her dark eyebrows with mild scorn. "Jo," she would have asked, "is that what you think of me? Do you think I'm the kind of girl that one takes to movies about demonic cars that murder people? And could you perhaps, just for the sake of novelty, suggest a film that does not star a vintage automobile?"

But tonight, Blair seemed to actually consider the possibility of seeing Christine, before finally shaking her head. Blair pointed at the marquis.

"Scarface," she said.

"Eh, I don't know if that's a good idea," Jo said doubtfully. "It's supposed to be super violent, with lots of cussin, and there's lots of nudity and stuff."

"So … it would be like one of our typical dates," Blair deadpanned.

Jo laughed. Blair's jokin like that, she must be feelin a little better!

Jo wanted to put her arms around Blair and kiss her, but standing on the street, on line for a movie, they couldn't even hold hands.

"Seriously, Blair, it's supposed to be a really rock 'em, sock 'em kinda movie."

Blair drew a deep breath. "The way I feel right now," she said quietly, "it's like … I'm frozen inside. I want to feel normal again. I need something to snap me out of it. I need to see something visceral."

"Well, this should be plenty visceral," Jo said doubtfully. "I mean, we're talkin a ton of viscera, Blair."

"Can we try it?"

"Of course. Anythin that might help you, Blair."

They sat in the back row. Wherever they watched movies, they usually sat in the back so that they could hold hands in the dark, but this theater was too crowded, there were too many people on either side of them that might notice.

It seemed like a fairly peaceable, upscale crowd but you just never knew; someone could follow them out after the movie if they saw the young women holding hands, could decide to teach them a lesson. That was a nightmare Jo frequently had, more and more lately …

It was a long movie, two-and-a-half hours, wall-to-wall violence and eff-bombs. It was, incidentally, a freakin masterpiece about the criminal underworld and Jo heartily enjoyed it. But it was a hundred-percent not Blair's type of picture.

Jo kept glancing over at her fiancée, ready to leave the theater if it looked like it was all too much for the refined blonde. But Blair sat very still, completely rapt, through the entire picture.

When they left, Jo asked solicitously, "Did you enjoy that?" Blair answered enigmatically that it had started to "thaw her" a little bit …

"Back to River Rock?" asked Jo as they sat on Jo's Kawasaki, donning their helmets. "I mean, it's gettin pretty late."

Blair shook her head.

"I don't want to go back there tonight," Blair said, tightening her chin strap. She shivered in the intense cold. She slid her arms around Jo's waist, leaned against Jo's back.

"OK, but, Blair, it ain't like we've can afford a hotel or anythin. I mean, not one that I would ever want to take you to. And we can't stay with my folks, or your folks, or at any of your family's apartments."

"I know where we can stay," said Blair. She gave Jo an address in Morningside Heights. "It's near Columbia University," she said.

"Well, that's great Blair," Jo said slowly, "but, ah, can you promise no one's gonna slug me there? Cause I ain't exactly vain, but I don't wanna get popped again tonight."

"No one will be there to slug you, darling."

"If you say so …"

Even in the dark Jo could see that this was a relatively safe neighborhood, on a stretch of high ground in the heart of the city, a mix of residential apartment buildings and elegant academic institutions. All of the buildings and the trees seemed to be strung with twinkling little Christmas lights, white and blue.

In the dark, their breath pouring out in frosty fountains, Jo and Blair glided past the gates of Columbia University, Julliard, Barnard College …

The building was a five-story walk-up on Amsterdam Avenue. It looked like it was built in the 1920's, during one of the grand old city's spasms of prosperity and growth.

Jo, always scanning her environment, no matter where she was, noticed sixteen buzzers and accompanying nameplates – sixteen units in the building. Some of the windows above them were lit with warm golden light, although most were dark; presumably the inhabitants were still out on the town, painting it red.

"Who lives here?" Jo asked quietly.

Blair tapped one of the narrow nameplates next to one of the buzzers. "Meghan Warner – 5A."

Ah! Meg used to live here, thought Jo. Blair's step-sister – her favorite step-sister – the one presently living in a convent, trying to determine whether her calling to be a nun was a real vocation, or just another pipe dream that would fizzle.

Blair slipped a key ring out of her pocket, fumbled in the faint light cast by the windows above them, finally selected a key. Jo followed Blair up the worn stone steps to the glass-paned front door.

Blair slipped the key into the lock, opened the door. Jo followed her into a pleasant foyer that smelled of floor wax and Lemon Pledge and Christmas cookies that someone was baking in one of the ground floor units …

Jo was glad they didn't have any luggage with them. Five floors was a long way up. By the time they reached the top floor, Jo was frankly winded, already shucking out of her aviator jacket. Blair paused at the top of the landing, smiled over her shoulder at her fiancée.

"Would you like me to carry you the rest of the way?" Blair asked.

"Turn … blue," Jo said, panting.

As it transpired, 5A was the only apartment on the top floor – a modest sort of penthouse. Blair unlocked the door, then locked, bolted and chained it behind them once they were inside.

There was a long central hallway that seemed to go on forever – it gave Jo a mild feeling of vertigo – and opening off of each side of it an eclectic series of rooms – a kitchen and dining room and parlor and library, bedrooms and bathrooms and closets.

Nothing seemed to flow logically into anything else, but the rooms were charming, and nicely proportioned, not cramped but not ostentatious. The walls were painted in soothing off-whites and pale blues. There was very little furniture; what little furniture the apartment had was attractive and simple, apparently heavily influenced by Shaker design.

Blair went directly to the kitchen; she had apparently been in the apartment before. She filled a kettle with water from the tap, put it on the gas stove to boil. She rummaged through a cabinet, retrieving a couple of bone china cups.

"Tea?" Blair asked Jo.

"Sure." Jo sat on one of the daisy-yellow chairs at the kitchen table, which had a sparkly Formica surface, like the table in her Aunt Evelyn's kitchen. "So how come you got a key to Meg's?" Jo asked.

Blair sighed. "I know I was awful to her – really awful to her – when she first decided to be a nun. Once I got used to the idea – I'm not saying I agree with it, but I agree with her right to follow her instincts – well, I've been, you know –"

"Tryin to make up for bein a creep?"

Blair grinned. She sat on Jo's lap, settled herself comfortably.

"Very rude, darling, but completely accurate – as usual." Blair leaned her head on Jo's shoulder. "I offered to watch her apartment. Meg gave up her car and her money and most of her worldly goods, but she decided to keep the apartment for now. She owns it; she inherited the building, actually, so there isn't any rent to pay. If, for some reason, it turns out she's not mean to wear a habit, she'll come back here. I look in every couple of weeks, sometimes more often, depending on when I'm in the city."

Jo twisted a strand of Blair's blonde hair around her fingers.

"You feelin better now?"

"A little. I just can't face … I don't want to see River Rock for a couple of days, Jo. That was so ugly. I need to be away for a bit. It's not the house's fault, it's just …"

"It's just River Rock is where most of the trauma and drama's been happenin lately."

"Exactly."

The tea kettle whistled …

After they drank their tea they settled in one of the bedrooms. They brushed their teeth with extra toothbrushes that Blair, ever the perfect hostess, even in an unoccupied apartment, had on hand. They washed their faces with soap that Blair had on hand. Then they stripped off their clothes and, not having any pajamas, climbed naked into the big old-fashioned bed.

Jo stirred a little uneasily. "Blair – this wasn't Meg's room, was it?"

"No. It's one of the guest rooms. Why?"

"It's just, you know, she's gonna be a nun. I wouldn't want us to sleep in the bed that used to be hers."

Blair smiled. "Jo Polniaczek – do you think a lightning bolt is going to cleave the roof of this building and turn us to ash for our sins?"

"No. But, come on, Blair, it isn't funny. Meg is, like, a kind of holy person now. Monkeyin around in her bed would be wrong."

"Well, this wasn't her bed. So feel free to monkey around, my Neanderthal!"

Jo pulled Blair close, began to kiss her, slowly and tenderly.

Blair returned the kisses, enthusiastically at first, but then with a distracted air.

Jo finally pulled away, gently; in the dim lamplight she saw the distant look in Blair's eyes.

Jo trailed a finger along Blair's perfect jaw line.

"He loves you," said Jo.

"I know."

"You're his Princess. He's gonna find a way to make peace with this."

Blair held Jo's face gently between her hands, softly kissed Jo's wounded nose and the circles darkening around her green-blue eyes.

"Daddy is ruthless," said Blair, "but he's not violent. Jo … I'm so sorry he did this to you, darling."

Blair began to cry. At first it was a soft weeping, but it gathered force and before long sobs were wracking her body. Jo held her lover close, running her hands up and down Blair's back.

"It's all right," Jo murmured over and over. "It's gonna be all right …"

Part 2

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