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 2

Saturday, December 10, 1983. Morningside Heights, Manhattan.

In the morning, Blair woke first. She leaned on one elbow, staring down at Jo's disfigured face. She gingerly kissed the tip of Jo's nose.

"Ow," said Jo, opening one eye.

"Sorry," said Blair.

Jo leaned up, kissing Blair enthusiastically.

"Well," said Blair, when Jo finally settled back against the pillow, "you're full of vim and vigor this morning!"

"Yes," said Jo, pulling Blair down and kissing her, long and deeply. "And aren't you lucky that I am? Not everyone has a girlfriend who is so full of vim and vigor that she can perform amazing sexual exploits even after having been horribly wounded."

"Big talk," said Blair, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

"Don't worry, Blondie. I can deliver."

"So … deliver."

"Remember – you asked for it!"

The next hour was a tangle of bodies and limbs and mouths and blankets, panting and feverish exertions. At one particularly exciting moment a pillow went flying off the bed, knocking a little glass lamp onto the floor, where it shattered against the hardwood.

"We … have to … replace that …" panted Blair, before any further conversation was smothered by Jo's mouth …

Basking in the afterglow, Jo wondered if they would ever get tired of sex. It didn't seem possible, but lately she had noticed that she didn't always need to make love with Blair. She usually wanted to, and it was always amazing when they did, but sometimes lately Jo just wanted to hold Blair, to talk with her, to hear her lover's heart beat and smell the perfume of her hair.

What a lot of stupid mush! Jo thought. I must be cracked in the coconut!

But, cracked or not, that was how she was feeling ...

When Blair stretched and yawned and opened her eyes, refreshed from her post-coital nap, she began trailing a finger up and down Jo's torso. It was a tender, not seductive gesture

Jo looked into Blair's warm brown eyes. They gazed at each other. It was wonderful, Jo thought, to be able to look so clearly and honestly into someone's eyes, to know someone almost as well as you knew yourself.

"Almost" being the operative word, especially when it came to Blair. Because Jo was realizing, more and more, that Blair would always be a woman of secrets. The blonde was always holding something else up her sleeve. Like this apartment …

"Darling," Blair said quietly, "there are some things I have to tell you."

"Shoot."

"You're going to be … unhappy with me."

"Never."

Blair laughed. "Can I get that in writing? Notarized?"

Jo touched Blair's lower lip with one fingertip. "Babe, whatever it is, it'll be OK."

"I really lost it last night."

"After that scene with your Pop – scenes, I should say – of course you lost it! Blair, in case you never figured it out, you're a daddy's girl. I know a little bit about that; I'm kind of a daddy's girl myself."

"Do tell."

"Until you and your father smoke a peace pipe, you're gonna feel pretty crummy. Just how it is."

Blair kissed Jo's forehead. "I don't know why Daddy's taking it so hard. I mean, family honor, 'what will society think', all of that I expected, but this is affecting him emotionally a lot more than I expected. And I know I shouldn't, but I'm feeling very, very …"

"Guilty," said Jo. "I know. That's kinda what I'm goin through with my Ma."

"Rose is worried about your soul," said Blair.

"And your Pop is worried about your career. And your reputation." Jo sighed. "In their screwed up ways, I think they both mean well. They're tryin to save us, but …"

"But we don't need to be saved," said Blair. "Agreed. And I know that in my head, but –"

"It still hurts like effin hell in here," finished Jo, putting her hand over Blair's right breast. "I know. But, babe … Be totally honest with yourself. Is it really your father who's got you so upset?"

Blair shook her head. The tears started falling again – What a baby I am! thought Blair – and she buried her face in the pillow.

"Just say it," Jo said quietly. "As soon as you face somethin, it's like you cut its power in half."

"Is that from a fortune cookie?" Blair asked, voice muffled.

"Where else?" Jo kissed Blair's shoulder.

"It's Chestnut," Blair said into the pillow. Her shoulders trembled. "I can't believe … I won't be able to see him anymore."

Jo stroked Blair's back. She kissed the constellation of freckles on Blair's shoulder blades.

"I've known Chestnut for ten years," said Blair. "He's like a best friend, he's like my child. Like your bike is to you, Jo."

"We're gonna keep Chestnut," Jo said decisively.

Blair turned to face her lover. "How?"

"I don't know. But we will." Jo wiped a tear from Blair's cheek. She kissed the tip of Blair's perfect nose. "You got my bike back for me, babe. I'll make sure we don't lose Chestnut. Whatever it takes."

Blair hugged Jo fiercely.

I'm still not used to this, thought Blair. Being part of a 'we', having somebody who cares as much about what happens to me as I care about what happens to her. How'd I get so lucky?

"I feel like I, like we, can get through anything," Blair said.

"We can." Jo buried her face against Blair's neck, kissing the blonde's soft throat, her collar bone. "So that's settled," said Jo. "We're know we're gonna be OK, in the long run. So tell me, oh light of my life, what are these terrible things that I'm gonna be so upset about in the short run?"

Blair tensed slightly in Jo's arms.

"Jo – you really are going to be pissed at me."

"Language, Blair," Jo teased.

"I mean it."

"Well then, just tell me," Jo said cheerfully. "Get it over with. I promise not to explode."

She probably bought herself somethin extravagant, Jo thought affectionately. Some flippin shoes or somethin. She's worried to tell me cause we're supposed to be consultin each other on big expenses. But, Christ, like I wouldn't give her diamonds and pearls and yachts if I could! Nothin's too good for Blondie …

Blair drew a deep breath. She felt her heart start to pound. Jo felt it too, through Blair's rib cage. Jo kissed the hollow between Blair's breasts.

"Just relax, babe," Jo said encouragingly. Jeez – maybe she bought a couple pairs of shoes!

"Jo … When I asked my mother to cut me off the morning after Thanksgiving …" Blair trailed off.

"Yeah?" Jo asked encouragingly.

"The first thing I thought of was tuition," said Blair. "My tuition, and yours too. I knew your parents would probably stop contributing to your education, and that mine would too."

"Sure." Jo cocked one eyebrow, puzzled. "We knew that, babe. We been over it. I got half my tuition covered with my scholarship. You, as my fiancée, are coverin the other half with part of your allowance, which I'm gonna track it all and pay you back when I'm a fabulously wealthy somethin-or-other. And you're gonna cover your own tuition."

Blair sighed. "Jo … The first thing I thought of after I told mother to cut me off was tuition. But the next thing I thought of was Chestnut."

"Sure. Like you told your Pop – you're thinkin of some way you can pay to keep boardin Chestnut at Langley."

"I thought Chestnut really was mine – legally. I didn't realize Daddy never gave me ownership."

"Son of a bitch," muttered Jo.

Blair nudged Jo's leg with her big toe.

"Well … he is," Jo mumbled.

"He can be," Blair agreed. "But what I'm trying to tell you right now … Jo, the allowance grandfather set up for me before he died is tremendously generous by any standard, but it's only so elastic. Covering your half-tuition and my whole tuition and Chestnut's board and rent – it just wasn't going to work."

Jo didn't even hesitate. "Then screw my tuition," she said.

"Jo!" gasped Blair. "That was never an option!"

"Look," Jo said. "I got two good arms, two good legs, a not-too-stupid brain. I can figure somethin out for the other half of my tuition, babe. But Chestnut – he's a horse, for Pete's sake. He can't do anything on his own behalf. He's only got you lookin out for him."

Blair hugged Jo tight, a few more tears trickling down her face.

"Jo, you're amazing."

"Not even," Jo said. "It just makes sense."

"Jo … Did you ever see the movie 'Love Story'?"

Jo chuckled. "Uh, let's see … It's called 'Love Story', which sounds like a bunch of mush, so, ipso facto, no way in hell did I see it!"

Blair snuggled closer against her lover. "Well you're going to see it," she said firmly.

Jo groaned. "Is that the terrible thing you want to tell me? Cause, gotta confess – that is terrible!"

"Terrible is still coming up," said Blair. "Jo … In 'Love Story', Ryan O'Neal goes to law school."

"Good for him!"

"He's rich, but his parents don't like the girl he wants to marry."

"She must be poor, huh?"

"Exactly. But she's really beautiful. And brilliant."

"We poor girls often are," Jo said nonchalantly.

Blair nudged Jo again. "Shh. Let me get this out, darling."

"You gonna tell me the whole damn plot? If you do, I don't have to watch it."

"Shh. In order for him to get through law school, Ryan O'Neal and Ali Macgraw have to move into this horrid old apartment and subsist on peanut butter sandwiches. And she gets a job as a teacher. But they make it work. They put all their resources into his law studies, because they're looking at the big picture. Once he gets his degree, the sky will be the limit for them."

Jo stirred uneasily. She was starting to get a hazy sense of where this was headed.

"Blair …"

"Shh. You are very bad about interrupting this morning, Jo."

"Blair, if you're sayin what I think you're sayin …"

"Jo, if you interrupt me again, I'm not going to do that thing that you like for a whole month."

Jo sighed.

"All quiet now?" asked Blair. "Good. Jo. My beloved." She kissed Jo's cheek. "In a couple of years, I will be one of the wealthiest young women on earth. I will not only be able to pay my own tuition, I will be able to build my own university if I want to! So it simply makes sense that –"

"No!" said Jo. She pushed herself up on one elbow, glaring down at the heiress. "Blair, you are not puttin off your education. That's not even on the table! Pay your tuition, pay Chestnut's board. I will find the rest of my tuition some friggin way."

"Jo –"

"I ain't discussin this! Look, you keep sayin I'm kinda takin the groom's role in our engagement, so I'm gonna exercise my chauvinist rights and put my damn foot down! You are continuin your studies at Langley next semester and that is freakin that!"

Blair sighed. Jo was flushed; her eyes were flashing with an angry light. Blair ran her fingers lightly up and down Jo's sides.

"You ain't gonna distract me this time," Jo said firmly.

"I'm not trying to distract you," Blair said. "I'm trying to relax you."

"I am relaxed. I am totally friggin relaxed. I'm just pissed off!"

"No you're not," Blair sad. "Not yet."

Jo narrowed her eyes. "And what does that mean?"

"Jo … Beloved …"

"Oh, hell. What else is there?"

"It's not just a hypothetical. It's not just, 'What if I paid Jo's tuition and Chestnut's board, instead of my own tuition'."

"Blair … dammit … are you sayin … did you … did you already …"

"Shh. Stop sputtering, dear."

"I ain't sputterin! Blair! Did you already pay my tuition?"

"The first installment, yes."

"And Chestnut's board?"

"Yes. Although since Daddy will have him taken away –"

"Forget about that. Your father ain't takin that horse anywhere, Alec and I'll see to that. Look, stop payment on the check, the one for my tuition! Where the hell is the phone?" She looked wildly around the room. "Why isn't there a phone in here?"

"There's a phone in the living room. Calm down, darling and listen to me. The Bursar's office already cashed my checks. It's done. You are officially enrolled for spring 1984."

"Then you gotta undo it! Blair, you're not sacrificin your –"

"Anything," Blair said. "I'm not sacrificing anything, Jo. When are you going to understand that when I accepted your proposal, I accepted you totally and completely?"

"Blair, I don't care that we're engaged, I ain't taking any handouts!"

"Handouts?" Now Blair's eyes were flashing. She pushed her face up to Jo's, so that they were nose-to-nose. "Handouts? You think I'm patronizing you? Jo Polniaczek, I'm paying your tuition because what's mine is yours, and vice-versa. And because I have complete faith and trust in you. Because I'm counting on you, as my fiancée, to keep studying and use your beautiful brain get a degree so that no matter what happens to our money over time, you will always be able to support me in the style to which I am accustomed!"

Blair glared at Jo.

Jo glared back. Then her face softened, and she started to chuckle.

"Jeez, Blair – the style to which you're accustomed?"

Blair smiled. "I expect nothing less," she said primly.

Jo kissed her lover, a soft, almost chaste kiss, and then pulled the blonde close.

"You have that much faith in me, babe?"

"Of course! Do you think I would agree to marry a loafer? A loser? You are going to keep working your beautiful ass off, Jo. You are going to keep getting A's."

"Yeah, I will. But your degree, babe, your studies –"

"I'm not as academically inclined as you are, darling. This semester proved that. It's not that I'm not bright; I'm just not that scholarly. My studies can wait. I've already told the Dean's Office, and I'm taking Incompletes for my coursework this semester."

"Incompletes? Blair –"

"It's done, Polniaczek. With all the excitement this semester I didn't, well, I didn't do as well as I could have."

"Blair, I told you to study more for your art history tests!"

"It wasn't just art history. It was everything," Blair admitted. "Better to take the Incompletes and re-enroll when I can be more focused. Jo, I'm just not the incredible nerd that you are. Not a book nerd, anyway. I seem to be more of an art nerd. I'm going to focus on my painting for awhile, see what might come of it."

Jo sighed. She pressed a kiss against Blair's blonde hair. "All right. All right, what you're sayin makes sense, in a crackpot kind of way. You already paid Chestnut's board for next semester?"

"Yes. Not that it's –"

"Don't. I told you. Chestnut's not goin anywhere, not even if me and Alec gotta sit outside his stable with a couple of shotguns."

Blair raised her dark eyebrows. "I don't see the Langley stable master condoning that course of action."

"Eh, don't worry about it, Princess. It probably won't come to that."

Blair narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. "Jo … You've got something in mind. What is it?"

"Never you mind about what I've got in mind, Blondie. You aren't the only one can keep secrets around here!"

Blair smiled indulgently. "Jo, you know you can't keep a secret."

"Oh, I can't, can't I? Well, we'll just see about that, Miss Langley drop-out."

"I am not a drop out," Blair said with dignity. "It's not like I was sent down from Oxford. I'm taking a couple of years leave, that's all. Langley will take me back. They'll have to, if they want us to build the Blair Warner Arts Center."

"An Arts Center, huh? Boy, when you bribe, you bribe big, babe!"

Blair shrugged. "The Langley art classrooms are so tiny, and there's no light. The students need bright, airy studios. And the college needs a better theater. If I endow it when I come into my fortune, and if we hire the best contractors, it just might be complete by Tootie's sophomore year at Langley."

Jo kissed Blair's forehead. "You got a giant heart, babe."

Blair blushed. "Don't," she said.

"All right. But you do. Nobody knows you, Blair, not like I do. Nobody knows how freakin kind you are."

"As long as you know me, that's all I care about," Blair said.

"Well, I know you, babe. And I love you so much, it's like, it's like …" Jo couldn't find the words to express the way she felt about her fiancée, so she found the gestures.


After their shower, Blair set about making a batch of Blair Warner's famous oatmeal.

"Famous for its lumps!" Jo teased.

Blair's response was to flick Jo with a yellow-and-white checked dish towel.

"Get out of my kitchen," Blair ordered. The room was painted a cheerful yellow; morning sunlight spilling through the eastern-facing windows made the walls glow. "Call River Rock," suggested Blair. "They must be worried about us."

"Oh, yeah. Good idea."

Jo found the telephone in the living room, dialed the main number for River Rock. Mrs. Garrett had had a second phone put in when she took over the lease, her own private number.

The phone only rang once before it was scooped up.

"Hello?" asked Natalie, sounding a little breathless.

"Hey, Nat," said Jo, "it's just me, checkin in. Blair and I didn't want you guys to worry."

"Oh, that's big of you!" said Natalie. "You didn't want us to worry? You know what might've helped with that? Not rushing out of the house. Oh, and how about calling us last night!"

Jo held the phone a couple of inches away from her ear. Natalie was very loud when she was angry. Or happy. Or in the grip, actually, of any strong emotion.

"For cryin out loud," said Jo. "We're sorry, OK? You're right; we shouldn't have run out like that and we shoulda called last night."

"Do you think? I mean, you get attacked by her dad, you're bleeding, Blair's shambling around like 'Night of the Living Dead', you head into the city on your motorcycle, on icy roads –""

"I get it, I get it! Sheesh! You're right! We're inconsiderate jerks! But we're OK. All right, Nat? That's the headline. We're OK."

"Where are you?"

"At Meg's apartment. It's near Columbia."

"I thought Meg was in the convent?"

"She is. Blair's watchin the place while Meg's doin her novitiate."

"So while Tootie and I were worried sick last night, you and Blair were whooping it up in a nun's apartment?"

"Nat, you saw what condition we were in yesterday. We were not whoopin it up last night."

"Oh. Right. Sorry."

"We didn't start whoopin it up until this morning."

"Jo, for God's sake!"

"Hey, you brought it up," Jo laughed.

"Did you go to see the doctor yesterday?"

"Yeah, Mom, I did. Right after we left the house."

"Well thanks for calling to tell us!"

"Nat, I ain't gonna apologize again. I said we're sorry. Accept it or not."

"What did the doctor tell you?"

"Bad news," Jo said mournfully. "Looks like I'm never gonna be a supermodel."

"Jo, will you be serious for one minute? What did the doctor tell you?"

"Jeesh, what a grouch!"

"That's what happens what I'm pacing the floor worried all night."

"The doctor said I'm fine. It's a clean break. I just have to keep icin it."

"And have you been icing it?"

"Uh, well –"

"Of course not! Jo, you are the worst patient ever. If you were my father's patient, he'd put you under twenty-four hour observation to be sure you did what you were supposed to."

"I'll put some ice on it in a minute," Jo promised. "Soon as we're done talkin."

"How's Blair doing?"

"Her nose is gorgeous."

"You know what I mean. She looked so numb yesterday. It was scary."

"She's thawed out," Jo reassured the younger girl.

Blair was, Jo well realized, one of Natalie's heroes. Musta really scared the hell out of her, seein Blair go so blank. Musta scared Tootie too …

"Blair is gonna be fine," Jo said firmly. "She's in the kitchen, burnin a pan of lumpy oatmeal as we speak."

"Well … that does sound encouraging," said Natalie.

"We talked through a lotta stuff," said Jo.

"Really?" Natalie asked incredulously. Natalie still couldn't understand how two girls could be attracted to each other, but what she found even more mystifying was how Blair and Jo, seemingly such polar opposites, could be attracted to each other, and, even more baffling, how civilized and docile Jo was with Blair. Jo Polniaczek, talking through things? That I would have to see and hear to believe!

"Blair's, ah, gonna be makin some changes," Jo continued. "We'll all talk about it when we get back to River Rock."

"Oh, dear Lord. Is Blair getting a sex change?"

"What? For cryin out loud!" Jo laughed. "Blair Warner? The girl who never met a ball gown she didn't immediately need to own?"

"Hey, I don't know what to expect from you two lately."

"Well nobody's gettin any sex changes. We like our parts just the way they are."

"Ew!"

"Again, Nat – you brought it up."

"So what changes are you talking about?"

"Not sex changes, and nobody's dyin, and we aren't movin out of the house. Did I cover your top three concerns?"

"Yes."

"OK, then. So it'll keep. We'll fill you in when we get back to River Rock."

"Which will be when?"

"Dunno. I think we're gonna spend the weekend here. We've got some things to take care of."

"I'm sorry, Jo, could you make that a little vaguer? And more cryptic?"

"We'll be back Sunday night," said Jo. "If that changes, I promise one of us'll call you."

"That's all you're gonna give me?"

"What, you writin a feature? We're fine, we'll see you Sunday night. End transmission."

Nat sighed. "Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to have you for a friend?"

"Nope. Can't imagine."

"And it's not just you. Tootie and I were here all alone last night, worried out of our minds!"

"Whoa, whoa, back it up, Nat. Whaddaya mean, you and Toot were all alone?"

"Just what I said. Alec never came home, and never called. Mrs. Garrett never came home, and never called. Not calling seems to be the cool new trend!"

"Well, where were they?"

"After Alec gave Mr. Warner the bum's rush, he said he was taking Jacqueline to a movie at the Majestic. Mrs. Garrett went for dinner in the city with Drake."

"Oh."

"Oh, what?"

"Oh, well then, they probably just, you know …"

Natalie sighed, exasperated. "Yes, Jo, I know. I'm not five years old! I know what they were probably doing. But could somebody pick up a phone so we don't think they're in a ditch somewhere?"

"Nat, sometimes when people, I mean, when they're in the moment," Jo said delicately, "they don't think about stuff like calling home."

"Well they'd better start thinking about it," Nat said grimly. "In this household, at least. I'm not spending another night like last night!"

"Fair enough," Jo said soothingly. "Look, we'll call you guys tonight and check up on you."

"Don't make promises you won't keep. And don't patronize me, Jo."

"Nat?"

"Yes?"

"Why doncha try to get some shuteye?"

Jo was grinning when she returned to the kitchen. Blair was ladling oatmeal into two white bowls. The kitchen was fragrant with coffee.

Blair nudged her chin toward the old-fashioned silver coffee pot; Jo poured out two cups, set them on the kitchen table. They ate and drank their coffee in companionable silence for a moment.

"How is it?" Blair asked.

Jo grinned. "Edible," she said.

Blair rolled her eyes. "When are you going to admit that I make amazing oatmeal?"

"Oh, it's amazin," Jo said, eyes dancing.

"How are the girls?"

"Pissed off. Nat, at least."

"We should have called them last night."

"I mean, yeah, but we did have a lot of stuff on our mind. I'm not gonna slit my wrists over not callin 'em. But, check this out, Alec and Mrs. Garrett didn't come home last night, and they didn't call the house either!"

Blair choked on her coffee. "Alec? And Mrs. Garrett?"

Jo laughed. "No, no, not like Alec and Mrs. Garrett. Alec was with Jacqueline and Mrs. Garrett was with Drake."

"Oh." Blair wiped her mouth on a paper napkin. "That makes more sense." She smiled softly. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if Mrs. Garrett has found someone?" she asked. "Someone who will treat her with the love and respect she deserves? You never met her first husband, did you?"

"Nah, but I heard some of the stories. He came to visit her once, huh? Got all the girls gamblin, screwed everythin up?"

"He had some issues," Blair agreed diplomatically. "Mrs. Garrett deserves so much better."

"Well maybe this'll be the guy," Jo said optimistically. "And if he ain't, and he hurts her, I'll just throw him off the Brooklyn Bridge."

Blair shook her head. "Jo, Jo, Jo. What would you be doing in Brooklyn?"

Jo lifted her eyebrows appreciatively. "Touché, Blondie. I guess it'd be the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge."

"Much better. And I'll help you. No one hurts Mrs. Garrett."

Since Blair had cooked the breakfast, Jo insisted on washing the dishes. She washed the cups and coffee pot and spoons and dishes in the little white sink while Blair scrubbed the table and the counters. Blair was wearing a yellow-and-white checked apron over her blouse and jeans. God she's sexy, thought Jo. I just want to grab her shoulders and kiss her and …

Blair darted a knowing look at her lover, winked.

Jo took a knife, started chipping at the congealed oatmeal in the bottom of the pot.

"Uh, Blair, I'm havin a little trouble cleaning this, on account of the layers of burnt oatmeal. It's like excavatin the ancient city of Troy here. You got a sand blaster or somethin? Jack hammer maybe?"

Blair pursed her lips thoughtfully. She set her damp dishcloth on the table, and slowly approached Jo.

Jo's mischievous smile faded. "Hey, Blondie, just kiddin. All in good fun –you know?"

Blair reached past Jo, turned on the hot water faucet. She set the pot under the stream of water, filled it halfway.

"You let it sit for awhile," Blair explained, as if Jo were a simpleton. "You clean it later, when the oatmeal is soft."

Jo touched Blair's arm. "Hey, I was just kiddin. You know that –right?"

"Yes, Jo. I know that." Blair smiled one of her most dazzling smiles, face dimpling prettily. She took Jo's hands. "And I did burn the oatmeal a little bit. As usual. But I keep practicing," she kissed Jo, "because one day I'm going to get it right." She kissed Jo again – a more lingering kiss.

"Practice, does, ah, make perfect," Jo said vaguely, head swimming from the kisses. She put her hands on Blair's hips.

"Someday I am going to be a wonderful cook," Blair said. "You are going to crave my cooking." She kissed Jo again. "You'll be begging me to make you oatmeal."

"I'll beg you right now, if you like," Jo said huskily. She pulled Blair's hips against her own.

Blair leaned her forehead against Jo's.

"Jo?"

"What babe?"

"I hope you won't ever get tired of me."

"Not possible. Not in a million years."

"Jo?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Kiss me."


They had an early lunch at a little café near the Columbia campus, drinking cups of coffee and splitting a sandwich at one of the sidewalk tables.

It was chilly, even in the sunshine, and the wind was gusting along the lane, but they both found the cool weather bracing.

Someone had left a newspaper on the table. Blair extracted the Arts section; Jo turned to politics and world news.

"Well that's a fine how-do-ye-do," Jo muttered around a mouthful of ham-and-cheese on rye.

"What?" Blair asked absently, focused on an article about a Guggenheim exhibit. She took a delicate bite of her half of the sandwich.

"They're givin the Nobel peace prize today," said Jo.

"And? Why would that be a bad thing?"

"They're givin it to Walesa, you know, the Polish peace advocate."

Blair smiled. "Jo – they're giving it to a Pole? That must feel gratifying."

"Of course it's gratifyin! But he can't be there to accept it! He's afraid if he leaves Poland to accept it, the freakin Polish government won't ever let him back in!"

"That's awful."

"No kiddin! So his wife and kid are gonna accept it for him." Jo tossed the newspaper down in disgust.

Blair took another genteel bite of the sandwich, eyes thoughtful.

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"I know you're thinking about teaching, and that is a truly noble profession. But have you ever thought about going into politics?"

Jo laughed.

"No," said Blair, "I'm serious."

"Yeah. That's why I'm laughin. Blair, Holy cow. Who would vote for me, for anythin? I've got a big mouth, I'm totally stubborn, I can't even freakin talk right."

"Having a big mouth and sticking to your guns – two qualities tailor-made for being a politician. And as for the diction – we'll keeping working on that."

Jo shook her head. "For cryin out loud, Blair – a politician? What would I do?"

"What you do now." Blair smiled. "Care about things. And stand up for people. And make things happen. No matter what the cost."

Jo blushed. She ducked her head. "Aw, Blair, gimme a break."

"Why? Isn't that what you do?"

"It's not like I'm tryin to do anythin. I'm just, I mean, it's just me."

"You would need a campaign manager," Blair said thoughtfully. "Someone polished and charming – someone to balance your direct, rough-and-ready style."

"Huhn. You think Tootie would consider it?" Jo deadpanned.

Blair kicked her under the table.

"Ow!" laughed Jo. "So, where's all that polish and charm now?"

"I seem to have misplaced it," Blair said sweetly. "Only temporarily, I'm sure."

Blair continued reading the Arts pages. Jo grabbed the Sports section.

"Son of a bitch!" yelled Jo. Several heads turned in their direction. "It's today!"

"What's today?" asked Blair.

"The Jets last game at Shea! It's starting –" Jo glanced at her wristwatch, the delicate timepiece with the silver face and brown strap that her father had found in a pawn shop and given her as a gift when she started Langley. "Aw, for cryin out loud! It's starting in fifteen minutes!"

Blair knit her brows. "This is a big deal?" she asked with sincere curiosity.

"Is it a big deal? Is it a big – holy cats, Blair, it's the Jets! It's their last game at Shea Stadium! Ever!"

"They're leaving New York?"

"No, but they won't play at Shea again. It's … Look, just trust me, if you're a Jets fan, it matters."

Blair tried to wrap her mind around the situation, and failed. If the football team was still playing in New York, who cared exactly where they were playing?

Jo watched this thought pass over Blair's face. Jo glanced at the article Blair had been reading. "It's kinda like, imagine if there was a Rembrandt exhibit at one museum, right, and the museum has a certain layout, certain lighting – right? And then they decided to move the Rembrandts to a totally different museum."

"That would be momentous," Blair exclaimed.

"Exactly," said Jo.

"Oh. I see." Blair smiled as something occurred to her. "Jo – Do you want to see the game?"

"Is there a TV in Meg's apartment? I didn't see one. Or, what – you wanna see the game the way a lot of New York really sees it? We can stand in front of a TV store and watch it through the window," laughed Jo.

Blair bit her lower lip. "I'm not one-hundred percent sure, Jo, so no promises, but I think I can do a little better than that …"

David Warner, Blair explained to Jo when they rocketed into the Shea Stadium parking lot astride Jo's Kawasaki, had a sky box at Shea Stadium. He generally used it for client meetings.

"But as upset as he was yesterday afternoon," Blair said as she and Jo entered the massive stadium on foot, "I doubt he's meeting anyone there today."

"Sure, but, babe, aren't we gonna be on the 'Do Not Admit, Shoot on Sight' list or somethin?"

"Maybe," Blair said, "but let's find out."

"This would really piss off your father, if he knew we were doin this," Jo observed.

Blair raised her dark brows, eyes dancing. "It would, wouldn't it?" she said, as if the thought had just occurred to her for the first time.

Jo grinned. "I love it when you're reckless," she said.

The game had already started. They could hear the roaring of the crowd in the near distance.

Blair led them through a series of winding corridors, up and down stairs. Sometimes they got powerful whiffs of what smelled like air venting out of locker rooms. Sometimes they got whiffs of hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn …

"What do we say if someone stops us?" Jo asked.

"We say we're going to Daddy's skybox."

"But what if they don't believe us?"

Blair shot Jo a puzzled look. "Why wouldn't they believe us?"

Jo sighed, shaking her head with admiration and even a little touch of envy. What it must've been like to grow up with that confidence … expecting everyone to believe you … to do what you want them to do …

Jo remembered one of her own childhood escapades, a little Bronx kid in tattered jeans and a creamsicle-orange T-shirt from Goodwill that was two sizes too large for her. She and young Jesse and a couple of other kids had snuck into Yankee Stadium. They were all bold as brass but scared as hell, feeling a weird mix of entitlement and guilt …

A Shea security guard rounded a corner, passed Blair and Jo, tipping his cap politely. He gave Jo a funny look, because even with the bill of a Jets cap pulled low over her forehead, Jo's swollen nose and black eyes were visible to anyone not legally blind. But although he slowed faintly, the guard continued on his way without stopping or asking Jo any questions.

"That's incredible," Jo said admiringly.

"What?"

"He was polite to us. He didn't even ask to see our tickets or anythin!"

Blair regarded Jo affectionately, felt an almost overwhelming desire to ruffle her fianceé's hair. Blair loved it when Jo lit up like a kid on Christmas, and Jo lit up about the funniest things.

"We look like we know where we're going," Blair said, "like we belong here. Why would he bother us?"

"Trust me," Jo said, "he saw me wanderin around here alone, in my old denim jacket instead of this," she pointed to her expensive aviator jacket, "there'd be all kinds of hassles."

Blair shook her head. Jo followed the blonde up another staircase. "Even with those shiners," said Blair, "you don't give off a thuggish vibe. Face it, darling … you're not the same little tough that roared into Eastland three-and-a-half years ago."

Jo sniffed. "I still got my mojo," she objected. "It ain't like I turned into Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or somethin. And if I was such a little thug when I started Eastland, how come you supposedly fell in love with me at first sight?"

"There's no 'supposedly' about it," Blair said decisively. "I loved you the second I saw you. It just took me a while to figure it out. And you aren't Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – and I sincerely hope you never will be!" She shuddered at that thought. "You've still got your mojo, darling. You'll never lose it."

"Damn straight," said Jo.

"But you're not a refugee from the Wild Bunch anymore. You still have your – what did you and Jesse call it? You still have sand. But you're not a barbarian anymore."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you're still dangerous, Jo," said Blair, "but only if provoked."

Jo mulled that over. She nodded, satisfied.

After one final set of stairs they emerged in a long hallway that appeared to curve all the way around Shea Stadium. Here and there along the wall there were doors. Jo followed Blair about ten doors down, and then the blonde halted in front of one that bore a sign reading "Warner Textiles".

Blair pulled her key ring from her pocket, selected a small key. She pushed it into the lock.

"Wow – you literally got the keys to the city there," said Jo.

Blair was just pulling open the door when a security guard appeared around the curve of the corridor.

He raised his hand. "Hey, ladies!" he called in a thick Spanish accent. "Hey! One moment!"

He broke into a trot, was at their side in a moment. He was a thin drink of water with closely cut dark hair and eyes that looked like they could be kind, but were presently wary.

He glanced at the door, then back to the young women. "Lo siento," he said, "but we got orders this morning. No one in this box except with Señor Warner."

"It appears that Daddy didn't waste any time," Blair murmured bitterly. Well … It was worth a try, anyway. Although …

Blair began fishing around her jacket pockets. Jo knew what she was doing; she was looking for money. And Jo knew it was absolutely the wrong approach with this young man.

Jo tapped Blair's arm lightly. When Blair looked at her, Jo shook her head. Lemme handle this, said Jo's eyes. Blair shrugged. Be my guest, darling.

Something about the young man's stance and his accent told Jo he was Bronx. She talked to him not in the formal Spanish she'd studied at Eastland, but the Spanglish she'd picked up on Bronx playgrounds. The guard slipped easily into the same patois.

Yes, he had attended the same elementary school as Jo, although a few years ahead of her. And yes, he was familiar with the Catholic school where Rose had sent Jo for a time. He knew a friend of a cousin of Rico, one of the bouncers at the Fever. He had even had his car tuned up at Uncle Sal's garage …

Blair hung back a little bit. She was fluent in French, German and Italian, fair in Russian and Swedish, and could stumble through Latin and Greek. Spanish was one of her weaker languages, but it was close enough to French and Italian, and Jo and the guard were throwing in enough English words, that Blair could largely follow their conversation. But she wasn't neighborhood. Jo was drawing out a trust and forming a genuine connection with the guard that Blair couldn't share.

When the guard was smiling and very much at ease, Jo doffed her Jets cap. It was dim in the corridor but the guard could see, clearly now, her black eyes, her damaged nose. He whistled.

"Who did this to you?" he demanded.

Jo jerked her head toward the door. "Mr. Warner," she said.

The guard – his name was Francisco – spat on the concrete floor. That was what he thought of someone hitting a woman, in general, and what he thought of Señor Warner in particular.

"We ain't gonna mess up anythin in there," Jo said in Spanglish, jerking her head toward the half-open door again. "We ain't gonna cause any trouble. But it's important to us to use this box. It's a kind of, it's a sort of revenge. Just bein in there."

Francisco nodded. "I didn't see you," he said. "We never spoke."

Jo clapped him on the shoulder. "Muchas gracias, Francisco."

"De nada, señorita. Vaya con Dios, Jo." He made the slightest of bows; he turned and slipped away down the corridor.

"Now that was impressive," said Blair, as they entered the sky box.

"Nah. Just knowin how to talk to people. Everythin don't begin with the almighty dollar, Blair."

"No," she agreed. "Things usually seem to end with it, though."

Jo closed the door behind them, locking it. Then she let herself take in the interior of the sky box. This was the kind of thing she'd fantasized about in the Bronx –only at Yankee Stadium, of course, instead of Shea – being in one of the boxes up high in the sky, with a God's-eye view of the games.

The room itself was less impressive than she'd expected, especially after having seen some of the fancy places that Blair and her crowd lived and played.

The skybox was, after all, just a room, albeit nicely carpeted, with an array of comfortably upholstered chairs and a couch. There were little tables, but no snacks on them, since Warner hadn't officially booked the box for the game, or ordered any food.

The room – not that amazing, Jo thought. But the view …

Blair had already sunk down onto the sofa, was peering down at the field. She patted the empty cushion next to her. Jo sat. She gave a little gasp.

It was a God's-eye view! The teams were already engaged in their titanic battle below, their lines laid out like the lines of warriors on some ancient field of conflict.

"Wow," said Jo.

Blair smiled at her. She kissed Jo's cheek.

"Happy early Christmas, darling."

"Thank you, babe."


The Jets lost their final game at Shea Stadium, and lost it badly. The Steelers kicked their ass 34 to 7 – but Jo didn't care.

She and Blair ate Chinese food for supper at a little place in Greenwich Village that was as bright red as arterial blood – the booths, the walls, the carpet – and limned with red neon signs. They split plates of chow mein, fried rice and egg foo yung.

All through supper, Jo talked animatedly about the football game, every moment of it burned into her brain. Blair didn't care much for football, didn't understand it, and didn't follow a word Jo was saying. It didn't matter. She loved seeing that light in Jo's face.

"Where to?" asked Jo, as they stepped out into the biting cold. Jo handed Blair her helmet.

"5th Avenue," said Blair.

"Wanna drop by Dina Becker's?" teased Jo.

Blair made delicate little gagging motions. She climbed onto the Kawasaki, slipped her arms around Jo's waist.

"The museum," Blair said.

"Which one?"

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just drive to 5th and 80th."

"They gonna be open?"

"Yes. It's Saturday."

"Whatever you say, babe." Jo had seen the Jets play their final game at Shea. If Blair wanted to go to the museum, or the moon, whatever she wanted, Jo would see that she got it!

The museum was open, but it was largely deserted. Saturday night in New York, people were just sitting down to dinner, getting ready to out dancing, to the theater, to the movies – anywhere, it seemed, but to the museum.

Jo liked the quiet. She had always liked museum trips when she was a kid, but people were so damn loud; everyone always had some damn opinion on everything, and seemed determined to deliver these opinions at the top of their lungs.

Museums, for Jo, were not unlike churches. Both were beautiful buildings full of beautiful artifacts, shadows, dim golden light and that soothing beeswax scent. As much as it was important to show reverence for God, in Jo's view it wouldn't hurt anyone to show a little damn reverence for art and archeology, too!

Blair seemed to share her feelings, because they moved from room to room in companionable silence, merely touching each other's arms or shoulders from time to time to draw attention to something that caught their eye.

Just ahead of them were a mother and child, going from room to room. The woman wore an exquisite dark dress and sable coat. The little girl, no older than six, wore a dark dress and a tiny sable coat and a little red hat. They were quiet, the mother and child, except for occasional, brief conversations in hushed French.

Jo pressed her lips close to Blair's ear. "Was that you?" Jo whispered.

Blair regarded the little girl, the mother. She smiled indulgently.

"Yes," Blair whispered, and then, as the mother smiled radiantly at the child, "and no."

Jo gently squeezed Blair's arm …

At some point the mother and child went another way, through another set of rooms, and Jo and Blair found themselves alone among the statuary.

Blair tugged lightly at Jo's sleeve. "There," she said quietly. "This is what I want you to see."

It was Diana – the Roman Artemis – in all her lithe, nude glory, a thirteen-foot tall golden figure with her bow and arrows, wrought by Augustus St. Gaudens. There was a beauty and a dignity to her that Blair saw always in her lover. Jo, she was sure, was too modest to see herself in the goddess.

Jo walked around the figure twice, fascinated.

"She's beautiful," she whispered to Blair.

"She's you," Blair said softly. Jo blushed.

"Gimme a break."

"I know you don't see it, but I do. Even Alec sees it. Jo … I wish you could see yourself the way your friends see you."

"Eh, maybe it's better I don't. Probably I'd get a swelled head or somethin," Jo said shyly.

"I know how humble you are, darling, but if you ever feel discouraged, if you ever feel there's something that's beyond you, I want you to picture this statue. You're a goddess, Jo."

Jo was pleased, and touched, but crimson to the roots of her dark hair. "Blair … come on." She led the blonde from the room … but cast one last, lingering look over her shoulder.

The statue had stirred Jo's memory.

"When's the art contest, anyhow?" Jo asked Blair. That autumn Blair had painted Jo as Artemis, nude, promising her lover that no one would ever figure out Jo was the model. The heiress planned to enter the painting in Langley's annual art competition.

"The contest is in February," said Blair.

"And can you, I mean, if you're not a Langley student then – which I still don't totally accept, by the way; we're gonna figure it out – but if you aren't a student, can you still submit the painting?"

Blair nodded. "It's a town-and-gown competition. You don't have to be an active Langley student, as long as you're a Peekskill resident."

"OK. Good. So you haven't thrown everything away."

Blair looked around. They were alone in a large room of Renaissance paintings. She took Jo's hand. "Darling … I haven't thrown anything away."

When they left the museum, Jo drove them along 5th Avenue, past the thousands of twinkling holiday lights and the warmly lit church and shop windows.

When they passed Saks 5th Avenue, one of Blair's favorite stores, and its oasis of merchandise and vivid Christmas decorations behind the gleaming glass, Blair wrapped her arms tighter around Jo.

Jo cut over onto the West 49th, and suddenly they were at Rockefeller Center, with Radio City Music Hall, the dazzling Christmas tree, and the ice rink where New Yorkers were stumbling and skating over the glassy surface under the blind gaze of the golden statue of Prometheus.

Jo stopped her bike within view of the rink. "Always wanted to do that," she said.

"Me too," said Blair.

Jo gave her lover a look. "C'mon. Little Blair Warner never went ice skatin at 30 Rock?"

"Never."

"You're joshin me!"

"I'm not exactly sure what that means, but if it means kidding you, I'm not."

"Your father never took you?"

"Too busy."

"Your mother?"

Blair rolled her eyes. "Jo … Can you see my mother strapping on ice skates and trusting her precious, precious flesh and bones to the vagaries of ice-rink physics?"

"That's it," said Jo, "gonna find a place to park the bike. We're goin skatin, Blair!"

Jo recklessly spent the last of her Campus Grill paycheck renting skates for herself and Blair.

The locker room was damp and a little smelly, and the line was long, but it was worth it.

Jo had only been on ice a couple of times in her life, on day trips to frozen ponds around Eastland.

Jo skated mainly on her ankles; despite the lean, highly trained muscles in her legs and glutes and torso, she was a field hockey player, not an ice skater, and she fell on her butt twice within her first five minutes on the Rockefeller rink.

The third time she fell, Jo shook her head in good-natured exasperation. Seemed like everyone else in the rink was some kind of Olympic contender; even little kids were zipping past her like Wayne Gretzky.

But even falling on her ass, she was still loving the rink, the Christmas music, the lights, the towering buildings of Rockefeller Center, the democratic mix of people on the rink, young and old, rich and poor, in fur coats and tattered coats.

Someone dashed past Jo, a gorgeous woman in a dark leather jacket, blonde hair flying.

The woman executed a dazzling turn, feet flashing on her skate blades, and glided back to Jo. Blair smiled down at her lover, extending one gloved hand.

"Blair – Jesus, I thought you said you never skated before!" Jo exclaimed. "You're like freakin Dorothy Hamill!"

Blair helped Jo to her feet, steadied the brunette as she tried to balance on her blades.

"I said I never skated here," said Blair. "Of course I've skated. Winter breaks in Zurich, in Gstaad, in the Cotswolds, in Aspen –"

"Yeah, OK; I get the idea, Princess."

"Lean on me," said Blair.

Jo looked around nervously. "Blair, we can't just, I mean, we're completely out in the open here."

"Au contraire, my bashful mate, no one is paying attention to anyone else here – everyone's listening to the music and trying not to break their legs!"

Jo took a closer look at the other skaters.

Maybe they weren't quite as skilled as they had appeared at first glance … Some of them were, frankly, flailing and holding on for dear life to their partners. And they were an eclectic group. Couples, sure, but parents and kids too, and friends, and siblings … Who was to say she and Jo weren't cousins? Very, very, very distant cousins?

Jo let Blair put an arm around her waist and guide her along the outer edge of the rink in long, slow glides. "That's it," Blair said encouragingly. "You're a natural athlete. You just have to get used to the rhythm …"

In a semester of amazing moments, skating under the towering Christmas tree in the heart of Manhattan was an experience they would never forget, for the rest of their lives, through every up and down. Blair kept her arm around Jo's waist until Jo was more comfortable, but even then she stayed close at hand, often darting to Jo to put a steadying hand on her back, on her arm.

When Jo was really up to speed, she and Blair skated around the rink together, Blair singing along with the music in her throaty, beautiful voice. Blair and Jo clowned around a little bit, cutting in front of each other from time to time.

When Jo stumbled and almost face-planted on the ice, Blair grabbed her arm, and held it tight. They skated another lap around the rink, arm in arm. "The Christmas Waltz" began.

"Frosted window panes," sang Blair, "candles gleaming inside; painted candy canes on a tree …"

Jo beamed at Blair. Their cheeks and ears and the tips of their noses were stung pink by the cold. Their eyes shone.

"It's that time of year," sang Blair, "when the world falls in love, it's that time of year when we say 'Merry Christmas – May your New Year's dreams come true …"


It was wonderful, thought Jo, burrowing under the blankets in Meg's guest bedroom, to come in from the cold to a toasty apartment, to strip off all her wet things and towel the icicles out of her hair, and climb into bed next to her fiancée.

She lay on her back. Blair had turned on the bedside radio, tuned it to a station that was playing Christmas music. Blair held Jo, kissed her, trailed her fingers along Jo's arm.

"I want to give you everything, Jo. There are so many places I want you to see."

"We'll see 'em," said Jo. She yawned contentedly.

"You'll love Gstaad," Blair said dreamily. "And London. A real English Christmas – there's nothing like it! Of course, Bavaria has a lot to recommend it. The fir trees are sugared with snow, and when you're sitting in front of a crackling fire …" Blair kissed Jo passionately.

"That all sounds real good," said Jo. She yawned again. "And we're gonna do all that. But Blair, honest to God, I got all I need right here." She pulled Blair closer, began stroking Blair's long blonde hair. "You and Alec say I'm Artemis. Well I don't know about that, except I am pretty handy when it comes to ass-kickin." She yawned again, turned her head sleepily against Blair's shoulder. "But you're Aphrodite," she mumbled. "You're definitely … zzzzzzzz."

Blair smiled fondly at her exhausted lover.

"I'll never give you up," she whispered. "I love you forever, Jo Polniaczek."


Sunday, December 11, 1983. Morningside Heights.

Jo woke first, perhaps because she had fallen asleep so early.

Blair was still sleeping, a warm tangle of long limbs under the covers, a snarl of mussed blonde hair peeking out above the blankets. She wasn't snoring but her nose was whistling. It was a sound Jo had not only grown used to, but one that actually comforted Jo. It meant Blair was there, with her, ready to begin another day.

Aw, jeez – another day. Nat! thought Jo. We never called Nat!

She slipped out of the bed as quietly as she could, pulled on her jeans and blouse. She and Blair had to return to Peekskill today, if only to change clothes!

In the living room she dialed the main number of River Rock. Natalie answered before the first ring concluded.

"Peekskill Orphanage," Natalie said drily. "Home of abandoned and neglected teens."

"Aw, Nat – come on," said Jo. "We're sorry. OK? We just got caught up in the night."

"Who is this?" asked Natalie.

"For cryin out loud! Never mind the guilt trip, Nat – I need your help."

"You've got to be kidding! You neglect Tootie and I for two days, and now you need my help?"

"Her help too."

"Well, you've got some nerve, Jo – that's all I can say!"

"OK." Jo's shrug was eloquently evident in her voice. "I mean, if you think the Snoop Sisters aren't up to it –"

"Now, just a moment there," Natalie cut in. "The Snoop Sisters are up to anything."

"I don't know. It might be a little bit beyond you."

"Beyond who? Beyond us? Perish the thought! What is it? Do you need David Warner investigated?"

Jo made an indelicate noise. "Forget about him," she said. "I got a few other assignments for you and Tootie. I mean, if you're sure you can handle them."

"Jo … Don't push it."


When Blair woke, she found Jo sitting next to her, wearing Friday's clothes but freshly showered, hair damp. Jo balanced a tray of only slightly burned toast and only slightly charred oatmeal. There was a cup of coffee on the night table.

Blair inhaled deeply. "What's all this?" she asked.

"This is me sayin I love you," said Jo.

I wonder what the kitchen looks like? mused Blair. She had a feeling cleaning up the kitchen was going to take a little longer today than yesterday. But it was such a sweet gesture …

She kissed Jo, and then downed the toast and oatmeal with a great deal of black coffee.

Christmas music was still playing on the bedside radio. Blair looked out of the windows. It was another sunny day, the light painting the air crystalline and delicate, like a chilled Chablis.

"It's gonna be cold," said Jo, "and kinda windy, but clear. Good day for drivin."

Blair laughed. "Is that your subtle way of asking if I'm ready to go back to River Rock?"

"Well, yeah. But we kinda hafta, Blair. I mean, number one, we aren't gonna top a perfect day like yesterday any time soon. Time to get outta the city for awhile and quit while we're ahead."

"Good point," Blair said approvingly.

"And second, we didn't bring any other clothes, and even your glad-rags are gettin a little bit, shall we say, ripe?"

"We shall not," Blair said with dignity, "because it isn't true. But you, my little grease monkey, could definitely do with a change of clothing. So, all right … back to River Rock, as soon as we clean up."

"I'll wash the dishes," said Jo.

Blair grinned. "If that's my cue to object and say 'Oh no, I'll wash the dishes,' I'm going to have to disappoint you, because I'm going to take a shower."

"That's fine," said Jo, smiling. She kissed Blair and left the room.

Blair showered slowly.

Jo was right, although Blair refused, in principle, to agree with Jo's outrageous comment … Blair's clothes were getting a little … fragrant, and the blonde did her best to counteract that by soaping and shampooing herself thoroughly.

Funny … I would've thought Jo would join me … How long does it take to wash a few dishes, anyway?

When the hot water grew tepid and her teeth started chattering, Blair wrapped herself in a towel and dried her hair …

When Blair was dressed she found Jo in the living room, on the phone.

"OK, I'll talk to you soon," Jo said hastily into the phone. She hung it up. "Hey, babe – you ready to go?"

"Yes. Is the kitchen –"

"Clean as a whistle," Jo assured her. "Even put in a fresh trash bag. We can dump that –" Jo pointed to a small trash bag sitting by the door "on our way out."

Blair looked around. Meg's apartment was as clean and quiet as if no one had been in it. It looked like Jo had even swept the floor. That was how Blair liked to leave it – neat and clean, so that if Meg ever decided to leave the nunnery, she would return to her apartment and find it just as she had left it …

"Do you have everything?" Blair asked Jo.

"Well, considerin I didn't arrive with anythin, uh, yeah," said Jo. "How 'bout you? Got everythin?"

Blair slipped her arm through Jo's. "Now I do."

Jo glanced at the bag in Blair's right hand. "Stealin the silver, babe?"

"I'm taking the towels we used," said Blair. "We can wash them and bring them back next time we're in the city."

"So, this is gonna be, kinda, kinda like …"

"Our pied-à-terre. Unless and until Meg needs it back."

"She won't," Jo said confidently. She opened the door, stepped aside to let Blair precede her out of the apartment. She followed Blair onto the landing, stepped aside again so that Blair could lock the door.

"You really think Meg will become a nun?" Blair asked as they descended the five flights.

They were alone; through some of the doors on the other floors they heard faint Christmas music or the muffled murmur of Sunday morning television.

"I'm positive," said Jo. "And Meg'll be a great nun, too. When I spent that time with her at the retreat, the weekend I was supposed to go to Princeton, I've never seen anyone so darn at peace with a decision as Meg was. That's why it made such a big impression on me."

Blair slipped her arm through Jo's again. She leaned her head against Jo's shoulder. "I'm glad you decided not to join a convent," she said earnestly.

"That really freaked you out, huh?"

"The thought of losing you to a nunnery? Uh, yes."

"You already knew by then, how you felt about me?"

"Yes. For quite some time."

"But you never said anything."

"I didn't want to risk our friendship."

"You didn't have any suspicions about how I was feelin? That I was startin to like you?"

Blair shook her head. "You were so serious about Eddie, and there was that boy you met in France, and your other dates. Nobody would ever call you 'boy-crazy Jo Polniaczek', but it definitely didn't seem like you were interested in girls."

"Only you," Jo said. "So you never suspected?"

"Every once in a while you'd look at me a certain way, Jo, and I'd wonder. But the next second you'd look normal again. A fleeting expression … it was nothing I'd risk our friendship over."

"Blair … Do you ever wonder, if I wasn't so upset our first day at Langley, if we hadn't had that fight about how much you care about me … I mean, do you think … Would you ever …"

Blair shivered. What a terrible thought …

They had reached the ground floor hallway; Blair withdrew her arm from Jo's.

"The garbage chute is over there," Blair said, pointing.

"Thanks." Jo tossed the little bag of garbage down a chute into the cellar. "Bombs away," she said, and made a whistling sound through her teeth. She heard the bag land with a muffled thud far below, closed the hatch to the garbage chute.

Blair was already holding the front door open.

"Here's your hat, what's your hurry," laughed Jo.

Blair looked puzzled.

"Old expression," said Jo. "My dad uses it."

"But what does it mean?"

"In the vernacular, it means 'get lost'. It means you're doin everythin but flingin us off the stoop, Blair, you're in such a damn rush to get out of here."

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

Jo shrugged. "OK."

"I don't," Blair said stubbornly.

"I said OK." Jo stepped through the building's front door; Blair quickly closed and locked it behind them.

It was another cold but beautiful day in New York City. A young couple in their church best strolled past along Amsterdam Avenue.

As they walked down the steps, Jo turned to Blair. "You didn't answer me, babe," she said quietly.

"About what?"

"About whether you think we'd be together if I hadn't lost it that day. Would you have gotten up the nerve to kiss me another time?"

"I don't know. Would you ever have found the nerve to kiss me?"

Jo considered the question seriously. "No. I don't think I would've. I was really afraid about what I was feelin. Remember how I was shakin like a leaf? I don't think I would've had the nerve to do it myself."

Blair shivered again. She pushed her hands into her pockets. "I don't like to think about what ifs," she said firmly.

"But just imagine, Blair. If I had just kept cool, and you had just kept cool. I woulda dropped you off at the stables and walked back to my dorm and probably right out of your life. Cause you probably woulda rushed a sorority. And Nat and Tootie would still be living at Eastland. And Mrs. Garrett wouldn't have a TV show, cause she wouldn't have gone to Petal's Halloween party and met Drake Dante. And Alec wouldn't be with Jackrabbit. Natalie wouldn't have met Belmont. Tootie probably wouldn't have gotten over her stage fright, her mother wouldn't have seen what an amazing actress she is … Jeez, Blair. It's crazy, how different everything would be, if we never got together."

"I know," said Blair, an edge to her voice. "That's why I don't like what ifs. Can we change the subject now?"

"Blair … what's the matter?"

"Nothing is the matter. I just don't care for this subject."

"Did I do somethin to upset you? Cause I want this to be another great day."

"It is. It's a great day, Jo. But as I've now said about five times, I don't like thinking about not being with you." She climbed astride the Kawasaki. "Can we go now?"

Jo bit her lip. Just when Jo thought she knew Blair down to her soul, Blair was suddenly a stranger. I know I pissed her off … or hurt her … but damned if I know what I did …

When Jo was troubled, she drove a little wildly. When she was younger, it was very wildly, but now, in college, and with the love of her life sitting on the back of the Kawasaki, driving a little recklessly was all she would risk. She wove in and out of Manhattan traffic, then out of the city, and then gunned the engine when they reached the winding lanes of Westchester County.

The trees were iced with snow, the bare branches dripping icicles. The red barns were prominent against the snowy fields. Little puffs of smoke drifted from farmhouse chimneys. Porches were draped with tiny white and blue lights, many still lit although it was mid-morning. It was beautiful … a beautiful, frozen world. Jo pictured the families inside, warm in front of wood stoves and fire places.

Blair clung tightly to Jo's back, as she always did, more from affection than to balance herself. Blair was a wonderful passenger; all her years of equestrian sports and skiing and swimming had given her strong thigh muscles and a confident seat. The blonde sat the Kawasaki perfectly around every curve.

Jo's heart swelled when River Rock finally came into view. It was a beautiful old Victorian manor of weathered wood and slate and fieldstone, with its many gables and turrets. Blair and Jo had had to turn the lease over to the suddenly well-off Mrs. Garrett … But we'll get it back someday, babe, thought Jo.

About fifty years before, River Rock's stable had been converted to a garage, and just now it contained Mrs. Garrett's small car, Alec's sporty coupe and Blair's red Chevy truck. Jo parked the Kawasaki next to Blair's truck.

"Looks like everybody's home now," Jo observed.

"Mmn," Blair said distractedly. She unfastened her chinstrap, removed her helmet absently, tucked it under her arm.

Jo pulled off her own helmet. She kissed Blair's cheek.

"What's wrong, babe?"

"Nothing. I think it's all starting to hit me, what it means to be disowned."

Jo brushed a few strands of blonde hair out of Blair's face. "Any regrets?" she asked gently.

"No. Of course not." Blair turned on her heel. "Don't mind me, Jo. I'm going to lie down for awhile."

"I'll bring you up some cocoa."

"Jo … I want to be alone for a little while."

"OK." Jo felt like she'd just been slapped across the face, but she kept a neutral expression.

Blair headed toward the porch, boot heels crunching against the sand and slush of the drive.


In the bedroom of their suite, Blair lay on the bed, crying stormily.

She hadn't cried this hard since she was eight years old, the day her parents' divorce became final.

The thought was horrifying. Not being with Jo? And it could have happened, so easily.

If Jo hadn't started crying that day … If she hadn't kissed Blair's hands, when Blair was comforting her … if she hadn't turned and brushed her mouth against Blair's jaw … Blair would never have found the courage to kiss Jo's mouth …

One split-second decision, thought Blair. It literally can change everything. Up until I kissed Jo's mouth, the rest of it, we could've written it off as loving each other as close friends. Even Jo's little peck on my jaw. But once I kissed her mouth, there was no going back. It was like leaping into the pitch darkness, but she caught me. Dear God, she felt the same and she caught me.

I can't believe I was that brave. Would I ever have been that brave again? If I'd missed that opportunity, let it slip away, where would we all be now?

She'd be one of the wealthiest young heiresses in the world, attending society event after society event with a charming smile on her face and a careless grace … and, inside, feeling utterly empty, because she was living a lie.

She'd be living in Gamma Gamma, missing Jo like hell, but she and Jo would already be growing apart, and they'd never be close enough again, vulnerable enough with each other to confess how they felt …

Life is so fragile, thought Blair, sobbing into the pillow. Happiness … love … you could miss it by inches. You could gain it or lose it in an instant. How could her father reject her like that? Her mother's rejection … that Blair understood. But her father? He was never there for her, but deep down he always seemed to love her. How could he take Chestnut away? The cruelty of it was unfathomable …

It was noon, but it was grey out, and only a pale, feeble light, like twilight, spilled into their bedroom. In the cool dimness Blair finally cried herself out, and dropped into a troubled sleep.


Jo found everyone in the kitchen, the room to which everyone at River Rock always seemed to gravitate.

Mrs. Garrett was rubbing a tray of raw steaks with spices and herbs.

Alec was sitting listlessly at the butcher block table, sipping a cup of tea.

Natalie was on the moss-green Princess wall phone, talking animatedly, and Tootie was at the table, making notes on a yellow legal pad.

"Hello, family," Jo said cheerfully. It had hurt, Blair ditching her at the garage, like that, but they could sort that out later. Right now she wanted to be with people that loved her. She realized that she had missed her friends, without even realizing, until just now, that she was missing them.

"Well it's about time!" said Tootie. "Have we got news for you. Lots and lots of news!" She peered over Jo's shoulder. "Blair's not with you, is she?"

"Nah, she went up to take a nap. Kind of worn out."

"Please," said Nat, hanging up the phone, "spare us the details."

Jo scowled. "I wasn't gonna give any details."

"I wouldn't mind hearing the details," Alec said glumly. "At least someone has details to share."

"Welcome home, Jo," Mrs. Garrett said.

"Thanks, Mrs. G."

"Natalie told us that your nose is going to be OK. It was a clean break?"

"That's what the doctor says, Mrs. G."

"And I suppose you haven't been taking your medication. Or icing your nose."

Jo grinned sheepishly.

"Um-hmm. Just as I thought." Mrs. Garrett selected a steak that had as yet escaped the spices and herbs. She handed it to Jo. "Here. Put this on your eye."

"Which eye?" laughed Jo.

"Both of them. Alternate," Mrs. Garrett said firmly.

Pressing the steak to her left eye, Jo poured herself a cup of coffee. It was a house rule that there was always to be a pot of hot coffee on the stove, at any time of day or night.

Jo settled herself at the table, next to Tootie and across from a miserable-looking Alec.

"Who rained on your parade?" Jo asked the young lord.

"Jacqueline dumped him," Tootie said helpfully.

"Why?"

"Because Alec proposed to her."

Jo choked a little on her coffee. "He proposed to her? Already?"

"Yeah. He really spooked her."

"No kidding! Of course that woulda spooked her!"

"I'm sitting right bloody here," Alec said mildly. "You can address me directly. And under the heading of sheer bloody hypocrisy, need I remind you, Artemis, that you proposed to Blair a month after you began dating."

"Yeah, but we knew each other three years before that, milord."

"I've known Jacqueline Messerschmitt off and on my entire life. The Anvistons have roots near Angledun. She made me cry at my fifth birthday party. Told me the clown was going to carry me off to the haunted forest."

"Not necessarily the foundation for a happy marriage," Mrs. Garrett observed from behind a cloud of spices.

"She was seven," said Alec. "Thought it would be amusing. Was, rather, in retrospect."

"Look, me and Blair didn't just kinda know each other off and on," said Jo. "We lived together in very close quarters for three years. And we went through lotsa life lessons and milestones and stuff together. By the time we finally started datin, it was like we were practically already married!"

"But when something's right, it's right," said Alec. "What's the point of waiting?"

"Eh, I ain't gonna argue with you about that," said Jo. "I believe in getting right to it myself. But some people get spooked. You can't rush 'em. You gotta give 'em space."

"Space for what?"

"Alec, people process things at different paces," Mrs. Garrett said. She lifted the tray of steaks, opened one of the kitchen's broilers, and slid the tray onto the rack. "Give Jacqueline a little time, and then invite her for a cup of tea. Just conversation – no pressure. You'll be back on track before you know it."

Alec smiled wanly. "Do you really think so?" he asked skeptically.

"I know so. But if you need to mope for awhile, that's perfectly normal. I'm used to it with the girls."

"Mope?" asked Tootie.

"When do we mope?" demanded Natalie.

Mrs. Garrett smiled fondly at her girls, wiping her hands on her apron. "Oh, it's been known to happen from time to time," she said.

"Like what times?" Natalie pursued.

"How 'bout the great Thanksgivin mope-a-thon just a coupla weeks ago?" laughed Jo.

Tootie laughed too. She clasped her hands together theatrically. "Oh, Belmont," she said in a dramatic voice, "oh, Belmont, why haven't you called?"

Natalie folded her arms across her chest. "Yuk it up," she said. "Go ahead. I'm glad my searing pain was able to provide entertainment!"

"Hours of enjoyment for the whole family," laughed Jo.

"Girls. Don't mock each other," Mrs. Garrett chided gently. "Now where is that potato peeler?" She began rummaging through a drawer.

"If I'm such a joke," sulked Natalie, "I guess you don't want my help with your little schemes."

"Au contraire, ma cherie," said Jo in her terrible, terrible French accent. "Why doncha pull up a chair and tell me what you've found."

"I don't know that I want to," sniffed Natalie.

"Nat. Come on. You're so sensitive lately. All seriousness, are you and Belmont doin OK now?"

"I guess. I mean, it's tough to say. He hasn't called yet this week."

Jo scowled. "Seems to be a pattern with that guy. You can do better, Nat."

"That's what you said about Norman!"

"And?"

"And … You were right," Natalie admitted.

"There's millions of fish in the sea, Nat. Take your time till you hook the right one."

Natalie sighed. She sat down next to Alec, across the table from Jo and Tootie.

"So," said Jo, cracking her knuckles, "what have you dug up?"

"Jo," said Mrs. Garrett, spiritedly peeling a potato, "far be it from me to interfere now that you're an adult, but what are you up to?"

"Oh, all kinds of things," said Tootie. "Jo is going on a Santa Claus spree."

"A Santa Claus spree?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "Is that some new slang?"

"I'm tryin to pull an 'Emma'," said Jo. "Or a 'Blair'. Tryin to give some people some things they could really use for Christmas."

"That sounds awfully expensive, Jo," said Mrs. Garrett, a worry line appearing between her ginger eyebrows. "Don't over-extend yourself."

"Eh, none of it's gonna cost me a thing," said Jo.

"Well … the phone bill's gonna be kinda high this month," Tootie said.

Jo airily waved away the high phone bill. "Gonna be worth it," she said. "So. What did the Snoop Sisters turn up?"

"So much stuff!" Tootie said excitedly. She leafed through her legal pad. "First of all, that woman you wanted us to find – still in New York City."

Jo pumped her fist victoriously. "Outstandin! How'd ya find her?"

"She never changed her name – not too surprising, under the circumstances. And what a name! Only one listing in the phone book."

"Don't tell everyone how easy it was," Natalie objected.

"But it was easy," said Tootie.

"But don't tell everyone that. It's like when a magician explains how a trick is done. It dilutes the mystique. The Snoop Sisters have a reputation to maintain."

"Oh. True." Tootie flipped to another page. "So, she has the same name, but she's living in Manhattan now, not the Bronx."

"Huh. Good for her. You got an address?"

"And a phone number." Tootie tore off part of the page, folded it neatly and handed it to Jo.

"Thanks, Toot. You done good kid."

"Well, there's plenty more. That out-of-state information you wanted? That really was a challenge. But after a few chats with Directory Assistance, and a little garbology, I got what you wanted."

"Garbology?" asked Jo.

"She rifled through Blair's trash," Natalie explained.

"Hey!" said Tootie. "What happened to keeping the mystique alive?"

"Oh. Sorry."

Tootie tore off another sheet of paper, handed it to Jo. Jo accepted it, grasping it by the corners.

"You washed your hands, right, Toot? After goin through the garbage?"

"Of course. And when did you get so particular?"

"Blair is really rubbing off on her," said Natalie.

"And that's a problem how?" Jo asked darkly.

"No problem. It's actually wonderful," Nat said hastily.

Jo skimmed the second piece of paper Tootie had handed her, nodded her head approvingly. "This is great. Good work, Toot." She turned to Natalie. "What did you come up with?"

"My goodness," said Mrs. Garrett, peeling another potato, "this sounds like a very elaborate project. What do you call it? Operation Christmas?"

"Operation Christmas? Heh. I like that, Mrs. G."

Natalie took a pencil from behind her ear, began ticking off items on a pad of notepaper.

"You have an appointment for two o'clock tomorrow," she told Jo. "Here's the address." She tore off a piece of notepaper, handed it to the older girl.

"What's my name?" asked Jo.

"J.P."

"J.P.? That's it?"

"Well, we didn't want to give a phony name. If this thing goes south, using a false name could come back and bite you in the butt. Fraud or something. And J.P. has a tycoon-ish ring."

Jo chewed on that. "OK," she said. "J.P. J.P. I can live with it."

"Jo, you aren't doing anything dangerous, are you?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"No. Well … not really."

"That's not the most comforting answer I could ask for! It isn't illegal, is it?"

"No. But it's real clever," said Jo, "if I do say so myself!"

"Crafty, even," said Natalie.

"But not technically illegal," Tootie concluded.

"Hmm," Mrs. Garrett said dubiously. "I just don't want to have to bail anyone out of the Peekskill hoosegow on Christmas Eve."

"You won't," laughed Jo.

Her mind flashed back to her first night in Peekskill, all those years ago.

She and Blair and Nat and Tootie landed in the Peekskill jail that night.

Blair and Jo were arrested for underage drinking at the Chugalug roadhouse, not to mention borrowing the Eastland van. Nat and Tootie were arrested for assaulting an officer when Tootie, with Nat's full support, poured a pitcher of beer on the undercover cop!

Mrs. G had bailed them out – the first of many financial, emotional and moral bail-outs that the feisty redhead would provide over the years.

Jo remembered the hour they'd spent in the cramped jail cell. She'd been locked up before, so that part didn't bother her. What upset her was the feeling that she'd screwed up her new life, before it even started.

She'd been so torn … Part of her wanted to screw things up, so that she could go back to the Bronx, back to Eddie. But part of her was already falling in love with the campus, with the possibilities of a brighter future, and, deep down, with that annoying, snobby bottle blonde …

"Earth to Jo," Natalie was saying. "Jo – can you hear me?"

"What?"

"I said, you should wear a full face of makeup tomorrow. That's how businesswomen do it in the city, and it'll make you look older."

"I can do your makeup," Tootie offered. "And your hair. You'll be picture perfect. I'll have you looking like a young Alexis Carrington!"

"I dunno," Jo said doubtfully. "How'm I supposed to keep my hair and my beauty goop lookin good when I'm ridin my bike? Helmet's gonna screw it all up."

"Oh, no. No, no, no," said Natalie. "You can't roar into Manhattan on your bike, not in a business suit and a full face of makeup."

"Can't afford a train ticket just now," said Jo. "So it's gotta be my bike."

"I'll drive you," Alec said. "Not as if I have anything else to do."

Jo considered the offer. "OK," she said, "but you cannot bitch and moan about Jackrabbit the whole way there."

"Save it for the ride back," Tootie deadpanned.

"I mean it!" said Jo. "This is the Christmas season. I don't want to hear anythin that ain't jolly and merry. No mopin allowed!"

Natalie turned to Tootie. "Have you ever heard Christmas cheer sound so threatening before?"

Tootie shook her head. "Can't say that I have."

"Hey – Where am I gettin a fancy business suit?" Jo asked.

"Already covered," said Tootie.

"The Snoop Sisters are a full-service operation," Natalie said with dignity.

"You lifted somethin from Blair's closet," guessed Jo.

"We lifted something from Blair's closet," Tootie agreed.

"Will I look OK in it? I mean, she's a little more, you know," Jo made vague gestures in the air around her bust and posterior.

"It's one of her older suits," said Tootie. "The winter white one that she wore a lot the first year you were at Eastland. She was skinnier back then."

"Yeah, that's right," Jo said, casting her mind back. Blondie had been a little bit twiggy back then. The blonde hadn't developed fully yet, into the curvaceous bombshell she was destined to become …

"Once again," said Natalie, "earth to Jo, earth to Jo!"

"Huh?"

"Stop thinking about Blair's physique."

Jo blushed. "Who says I was?" she asked defensively.

"It's only written all over your face!" Natalie referred to her notepad again. "OK, so Tootie's on hair and makeup, we've got costume ready to go, Alec's on transportation – the rest is up to you, Jo."

Jo glanced at the scrap of yellow legal paper in her hand. "We can hit this address after the appointment," she said thoughtfully. "Kill two birds with one stone."

"And the other project?" Tootie asked.

"I think I'm gonna get on that right now." Jo turned to Mrs. Garrett who, having peeled a little mountain of potatoes, was beginning to julienne them. "Mrs. G, you mind if I use the phone in your room? Your private line? I gotta make a call and I don't wanna take a chance of Blair picking up a phone and hearin anythin."

Mrs. Garrett pursed her lips. "It's not anything dangerous, Jo? You promise?"

"Cross my heart," said Jo, "Girl Scouts' honor." She raised one hand, holding up her index and middle fingers in a "v".

"Jo – that's a peace sign," said Natalie.

"Well, just pretend it's the Girl Scout sign," said Jo. "I never got to be a Scout, OK? And I can't flash the Young Diablo sign, cause it ain't a polite gesture."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head in fond exasperation. "Yes, Jo, you can use my phone."

"Thanks, Mrs. G." Jo gave her mentor a quick hug. She turned to Tootie and Natalie. "If Blair's lookin for me, tell her I'm workin on my bike or somethin. Or, no, she'll just go out to the garage if you tell her that. Tell her I'm in the attic, lookin for Christmas lights. She hates goin up into the attic."

"You know," said Mrs. Garrett, "after you make your mysterious, private call, it would be nice if you would take out the Christmas lights. You and Alec could hang them later this afternoon."

Jo groaned. "We could?" she asked.

"Yes. I think that would be a nice thing to do. But I leave that up to you and Alec. Do what you think is best."

Jo smiled at her surrogate mother. Nobody did guilt better than Mrs. G.

"I guess we can work that into our schedule," she said.

"Can we?" asked Alec.

"We can," Jo told him firmly.

Whistling "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," Jo headed upstairs, toward Mrs. Garrett's suite.

Get ready, Blair, thought Jo. I don't know what's got you so down today, but I'm gonna give you the best Christmas yet!


When Blair woke the sun was setting and the room was cold.

She rubbed her eyes, which were gummy with sleep crud and dried tears. She stretched luxuriously.

What a baby I was, she thought. But she had to admit to herself that after her crying jag and her nap, she did feel better.

There was a knock on the suite door, determined but civilized. It was Mrs. Garrett's knock.

Blair slipped out of bed, patting her hair, which felt wild after having been crushed under a motorcycle helmet for an hour, then slept on and cried into. Blair took the heavy gold hair brush off the dresser, dragged it through her hair a few times.

The knock came again, a little firmer.

"Coming," Blair called.

She went through the small, cozy sitting room, with its shelves of old books, and opened the door.

Mrs. Garrett smiled gently at her. She was carrying a tray.

"May I come in?" she asked.

"Of course," said Blair. She held the door open, stepping aside so that Mrs. Garrett could enter and place the tray on the coffee table.

Mrs. Garrett shivered. "You need a fire in here," she said.

"I know." Blair went to the small fireplace, which was already laid with logs and tinder. She took a long match and spill from a little vase on the mantle, lit the spill, knelt and lit the tinder. She blew on the flame, watched it spread …

When the fire was beginning to crackle, Blair drew the chain-mail fireplace screen across the hearth.

Mrs. Garrett had poured out two steaming cups of hot chocolate. She sat in the easy chair, sipping her cocoa. "Jo said you were a little tired," said Mrs. Garrett.

"I was," said Blair.

"Do you mind some company?"

Blair smiled warmly at her surrogate mother. "Of course not. Not at all."

Blair sat on the love seat, on the end closest to Mrs. Garrett's chair, and took one of the cups of hot chocolate. She blew on it, took a sip; the beverage was fresh and sweet and creamy.

"You made it with milk," Blair said approvingly.

"That's how we made it on the farm, when I was small," Mrs. Garrett said. She drank another sip. "Blair?"

"Yes, Mrs. Garrett?"

"The girls told me about what happened Friday. With your father."

Blair sighed. "Mrs. Garrett … I don't mean to be rude, but I don't want to talk about it."

"I can understand that, Blair. But I think you need to."

Blair put a hand to her face, closed her eyes. "I've just been crying about it," she said quietly. "And now I'm all cried out. I don't want to think about it. My father … He's never done anything but disappoint me. So it shouldn't be a surprise that he's not in my corner when it comes to Jo. But even so … Mrs. Garrett, it hurts."

"I know, Blair." Mrs. Garrett poured herself another cup of hot chocolate. "But isn't there a little more to it than that?"

Blair nodded. "I've been thinking about Jo and me. About how, if I hadn't … I wouldn't take back anything that's happened, you understand, but if I hadn't … kissed Jo, if I hadn't showed her how I felt …" She trailed off.

"Yes?" Mrs. Garrett prompted encouragingly.

"Sometimes I think maybe I sort of … overpowered Jo with my feelings."

"You don't think she really loves you?"

"No. I mean, yes, I think she really loves me. I know she does. But if I hadn't taken that first step, she would have been free to date someone else, someone she could love without all this drama. She wouldn't have been pulled into … all of this. When I see her face, what my father did to her face …"

Mrs. Garrett sipped her cocoa thoughtfully. "You know Jo's temperament. No one can make her do anything she doesn't want to do," said Mrs. Garrett.

Blair laughed sadly. "I know. But there are so many things she could do, so many paths she could take. Do you know what? She would be an incredible nun. Or a journalist, or teacher, or politician. And she's so lovable. So many people will love her. But she's saddled with me."

"She doesn't see it that way."

"But that's how it is. All the baggage I bring to the table. My devious mother, my ruthless father, not to mention my own assorted bratty behaviors."

"I don't know, Blair. As someone who's seen your bratty behavior since you were twelve, I feel qualified to say that you have become one of the most giving, selfless people I know."

Blair's eyes welled with tears.

"Mrs. Garrett … That's so kind, but …"

"It's true," Mrs. Garrett said implacably. "You have an immense generosity of spirit, Blair. I imagine that's part of what Jo loves about you."

"And look how I've repaid that love," muttered Blair. "If it weren't for me, Jo might be a nun now. Or with some nice boy who could give her a real future."

"But she doesn't want to be a nun – or with some nice boy. She wants to be with you, Blair."

"But it's getting … I mean, it's so beautiful being with Jo. It's like a dream, Mrs. Garrett. But at the same time, it's getting so ugly."

Mrs. Garrett nodded. "The honeymoon doesn't last forever," she said, "especially not for a couple contending with prejudice. Now reality is setting in. Now is when, as you kids say, the rubber really meets the road."

Blair made a funny little sound, half laugh, half sob. "Mrs. Garrett," she said, "I don't know anyone who says that."

"Well, the metaphor is still apt. This is where you really find out what you're made of, Blair, you and Jo both, and how much your relationship can take. In the first blush of love, you think 'Well, we can take anything the world throws at us.' But then, when the world starts throwing things …"

"I knew my parents wouldn't like it, I just didn't know how much their rejection would hurt," said Blair.

"I know, dear. And it's not the kind of pain that fades. It's the kind that hurts more over time."

Blair darted a shrewd glance at her mentor. "You seem to know a lot about it," she said.

Mrs. Garrett nodded. "My first husband … My parents knew Robert was a wrong 'un. I knew it too, although I thought I could change him. My parents froze me out the first ten years Robert and I were married. And I got used to it … but it hurt more every year. Every birthday I didn't get a card. Every Christmas that the card I sent was 'returned to sender'."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Garrett."

"So was I. They were wrong to do it, I think. They were right about Robert … but wrong about missing out on ten years of my life, ten years they could have spent with their grandchildren. Blair … Jo has always had a rough road. She's used to not getting things she wants, making do with imperfect situations, fighting for the things she really believes in. The greater the challenge, the more she thrives. So I'm not too terribly worried about Jo, and any sacrifices she's making. But you, my dear …" She covered one of Blair's hands with her own. "I realize you had a lonely childhood. I know full well that it was no fairy tale. But once you enrolled in Eastland –"

"I know. I know," said Blair, squeezing Mrs. Garrett's hand. "My life hasn't been perfect, but on the whole it's been a charmed life. You're wondering if I have the strength to love Jo. Well … I'm wondering too …"

"I think you do," said Mrs. Garrett. "In fact, I know you do."

Blair smiled. "Jo says I have 'sand'. You know what that means?"

Mrs. Garrett nodded. "Jo's right. But it's going to be painful, Blair. You can't kid yourself, and you have to stay strong. It's going to get darker before it gets brighter. And I want you to remember, always remember that you can talk to me at any time, about anything."

Blair ducked her head. "Jo didn't make love to me last night," she whispered. "Or this morning."

Mrs. Garrett squeezed Blair's hand reassuringly. "I see."

"I've heard that couples don't always, that they slow down after awhile. But it's only been a few months. And Jo is very …" Blair searched for a delicate phrase.

Mrs. Garrett hid a smile. "Well, Blair, let's just say that Jo is a very athletic young woman with, um, a healthy appetite for physical activity."

Blair nodded. "Exactly. But last night she didn't even try to, ah, and this morning she was already dressed when I woke up. She seemed completely disinterested in sex. It didn't even seem to cross her mind."

"Did she reject your advances?"

Blair looked surprised. "My advances? I didn't … I guess I was afraid she would reject them, so I didn't make any."

Mrs. Garrett finished her cocoa, set the cup on the table. "Blair, as a Registered Nurse I can tell you that all couples do slow down in the bedroom, eventually. Every couple is on its own time table. But many times slowing down is a good sign."

"It is?"

"Well, sex can be wonderful, can't it? But a relationship that's going to make it has to be about a lot more than sex. If Jo is starting to reach a point where it's just about being with you, whether you're making love or not … I'd say that's a very good thing."

"I didn't think about it like that," mused Blair. She quirked her lips in a self-deprecating smile. "I thought about it, of course, from a narcissistic perspective. 'Poor me. Maybe Jo's getting tired of me.'"

"Ah, that's what started all the trouble," Mrs. Garrett said. "Maybe Jo's getting tired of you … so maybe you shouldn't have seduced her, started all this hoopla, when Jo doesn't love you after all! But she does love you. And from what I just saw and heard downstairs, that's not going to change any time soon!"

"What did you see and hear downstairs?" Blair asked curiously.

But Mrs. Garrett just shook her head and smiled enigmatically. "It's not for me to say," said Mrs. Garrett. "Apparently Jo has some holiday surprises up her sleeve –for everybody."

"But Jo doesn't have any money," Blair said, mystified.

"Jo's gifts will be the best kind of gifts, Blair. They're not about cost – just a lot of love." She frowned, perplexed. "And, for some reason, a lot of phone calls and some kind of disguise."

Blair bit her lower lip. "You really think Jo and I can make it work? In the long run?"

"Yes. If you can tough it out, yes, I think you can. And you'll have my full support every step of the way."

"Then we can't fail," said Blair. She poured herself another cup of the rich hot chocolate.


It involved a lot of un-Christmas-like cursing, and Jo almost fell off the roof several times, but by the time full darkness descended, she and Alec had strung strands of twinkling white lights around River Rock's eaves and gables.

Mrs. Garrett, Blair, Natalie and Tootie stood in the drive, shivering in sweaters and scarves, for the big reveal. Jo was hanging from a third floor balcony, lowering a power cord to Alec, who was to plug it in and set all the lights ablaze.

"Jo – be careful!" Blair shouted up to the brunette.

"Eh, I'm fine," said Jo, ignoring the pounding of her heart as she stretched even further, lowering the cord toward Alec's waiting hands.

"That looks very dangerous!" Blair called. "What about your fear of heights?"

"Jo's afraid of heights?" asked Natalie.

"I ain't afraid of heights!" called Jo, lying through her gritted teeth. "Now everybody pipe the hell down and stop distractin me."

"I ask you – what kind of Christmas spirit is that?" wondered Natalie.

"That's Christmas spirit Jo-style," said Tootie. "Be merry, or heads will roll!"

Alec finally caught hold of the dangling cord, and pressed the prongs into the socket of the cord he was holding.

A galaxy of little twinkling lights bloomed across the face of the gracious manor.

Everyone gasped.

"It's beautiful!" trilled Mrs. Garrett.

"It looks like Santa's Castle," breathed Tootie.

"It's lovely," said Blair, eyes shining like a little girl's.

Jo climbed back onto the balcony, her heart beat slowing as she drew away from the edge. She regarded the brilliant little points of light.

Like stars … Me and Alec did a pretty damn good job, if I do say so myself …

"Well done," Alec called up to Jo. "Happy Christmas, Artemis."

"Merry Christmas to you, Alec."

Jo looked down at the ground, which seemed to be about fifty stories below her. She held tightly to the post as her head swam. She saw Blair, face alight like a child's. Jo smiled shyly at her lover. Blair looked up at her, smiling radiantly.

"Merry Christmas, Jo," she called.

"Merry Christmas, Blair."

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Please get down from there before you fall off something."

Jo rolled her eyes … but she went inside.


"I'm sorry I was such a brat this morning," said Blair, as she and Jo lay in their bed that night.

"No problem," said Jo. She yawned. "It's not exactly like you've never been a brat before, babe."

Blair laughed. She nestled closer to Jo. "It's been a very emotional weekend," said Blair.

"It's been a very emotional semester," said Jo. "Believe me, Blair, I understand. I mean, OK, I don't always understand you; some days I feel like I'm meetin you for the first time. But any time you need space, you got it. Just tell me. And if I ever do somethin to hurt your feelins, you can always tell me. You know that, right? I know I can be kinda insensitive sometimes –"

"No," Blair interrupted her. "I mean, yes, sometimes you are, but today was all me. Jo … I've been thinking about something. I'm glad I kissed you that day. I'm glad we're together, and I don't regret anything."

"Good," said Jo. She pulled Blair tighter. "But, technically, I kissed you first. I've been thinking about our first kiss too. I was so nervous, you know, such a wreck that afternoon, it all blended together. But I kissed you, right? Like this." She dropped a glancing kiss on Blair's jaw.

"True," Blair agreed. "But that could've been a fluke."

"A what?"

"A fluke. I mean, you could have backed out of it. You could've said, 'Whoops, I meant to kiss your cheek'."

"Blair, babe – I've never said 'Whoops' in my life."

"But the point is the same. However you said it, you could have backed out of it. But then when I kissed you –" Blair kissed Jo softly, full on the mouth, "that was an undeniable declaration. And then I did it again." Blair kissed Jo again, a deeper, lingering kiss.

"And then you fell outta the truck," laughed Jo.

"I don't recall falling out of my truck," Blair objected.

"Just about, babe."

"I do recall needing some air. My head was swimming. It felt so damn wonderful to kiss you. And it felt like you kissed me back."

"Because I did! Blair, that was the single most thrilling, beautiful, amazing moment of my life so far. You kissed me. It was like my wildest dream coming true! Babe … that's when my life really started."

"Our life," Blair said quietly.

"Exactly! Our life."

Jo wrapped her arms around Blair's waist. One of Jo's thighs slipped between Blair's legs; one of Blair's thighs slipped between Jo's.

Blair felt it immediately, a jolt of pleasure between her legs, like an electric shock. Her hips began to rock instinctively. Jo's hips began to rock too. Jo's hands slid down Blair's butt, cupping it. Jo buried her face in Blair's hair, kissing the blonde's face, her neck …

"Blair," she murmured. "I love you, Blair …"

Jo slid her hands under Blair's pajama top, up and down Blair's back.

"Jo … Are you making love to me?" panted Blair.

Jo laughed into her lover's hair. "For cryin out loud, babe … Can't you tell?" Jo rocked her hips harder, trailing her fingers along Blair's rib cage, toward the blonde's generous breasts …

A few moments later, in the parlor where Mrs. Garrett and Drake Dante sat alone, kissing, a muffled shriek shattered the stillness.

Drake broke away from Mrs. Garrett. He tilted his head, listening.

"What on earth was that?" he asked.

"I wouldn't worry about it," Mrs. Garrett said calmly.

"But it sounded like someone screamed," Drake said. "One of the girls might be hurt."

"The girls are fine," said Mrs. Garrett. "In fact … the girls are better than fine."


Monday, December 12, 1983. The streets of Manhattan … the concrete jungle.

Traffic was bumper to bumper.

"Turn left," Jo told Alec. "I mean right. Now turn right … I mean left! Left!"

Alec was grinding his teeth and white-knuckling the steering wheel.

He intensely disliked driving in New York City during daylight hours – the gridlock, the honking horns, the aggressive drivers – especially taxicabs – cutting into one's path out of nowhere.

"God blind me, Jo, will you stop barking at me, or if you must, will you stop changing your directions every three seconds?"

"Look, gimme a break, Alec. I'm a little dyslexic!"

Alec ground his teeth harder. "Then you're probably not the best person to navigate …"

The Warner Building was an intimidating skyscraper of some seventy or eighty stories, a chrome and glass spear rising from a much older granite foundation. It sprang from the concrete near the intersection of Wall and Water Streets, at the tip of Manhattan, almost within spitting distance of both the Stock Exchange and the wharves.

Alec found a nearby parking garage. After he parked, he looked in the rear view mirror, brushed his dark curls out of his eyes, settled his tie. He wore a bespoke suit, black with the most subtle white pinstripe, and a fresh white shirt, and a red tie. His cufflinks were heavy gold – real gold – decorated with onyx and subtle diamond chips.

"Gorgeous," he told his reflection, "if I do say so myself."

Jo rolled her eyes. She did not look in the rear view mirror. She didn't want to see again how she looked; one glance in the mirror back at River Rock had been enough.

It wasn't that Jo thought she looked bad; on the contrary, she looked like a freakin super model! But it was such an alien look for Jo Polniaczek that it disturbed her. At the Plaza Charity Ball, when Blair had made her up and put her in a ball gown and piled her hair on her head – that had been like a Cinderella moment. Jo had looked pretty and ultra-feminine – but she still looked like Jo.

This look, on the other hand … Tootie really had made Jo look like Alexis Carrington Junior! (If Tootie doesn't make it on Broadway, Jo thought, she could do makeup and hair and costume backstage!)

Jo looked like a balls-to-the-wall corporate warrior. It was a vicious ensemble, the cool white blazer and slacks, the blood-red shirt, the diamond-chip earrings and bracelet winking coldly.

Jo's eyelids were smoky with grey and purple eye shadow, and heavily lined with black. Her eyelashes were thickly layered with mascara. Her green-blue eyes shone like lasers from their dark sockets. Her skin, under a layer of foundation, was pale and cold as a vampire's. Her mouth was a blood-red gash.

Tootie and Nat had teased her damp hair and moussed it and blew it dry until it was a big, highly stylized dark helmet of hair. If they don't let me in, thought Jo, we can use my hairdo as a freakin batterin ram …

"God, you're beautiful," Alec told her admiringly as he closed his door.

Jo slammed the coupe's passenger door, scowling.

"Truly," said Alec. "You're a vision. An apocalyptic vision – but a vision nonetheless."

"Alec?"

"Yes?"

"Bite me."

When they reached the front of the Warner Building, Jo paused just outside the gleaming revolving door. There was a bronze plaque next to it. "Warner-Blair-Wilkes Industries. Warner Textiles, Inc. Warner-Blair Communications." Not far from the plaque was the original building's cornerstone. "Warner Textiles," it read, "1883. F.H. Furness."

Jo's mouth felt suddenly dry. She looked up at the towering skyscraper. This was the seat of control for Blair's family. They had built this damn thing. The money that it represented was one thing. But the power that it represented … It staggered the mind.

"Steady on," said Alec, taking Jo's elbow. "Not too late to turn back, if you like, Jo."

She shook her head. "Gotta do this," she said.

As she pushed the revolving door forward, Alec right behind her, she couldn't help but catch a glimpse of her reflection. The sharp-edged suit, reminiscent in color of snow and blood. The exaggerated mask of her makeup. I get it, she thought. It's armor. It's freakin armor and shield and helmet …

The Warner Company wasn't screwing around, thought Jo. Not just anybody could stroll in and hang around. There was a big marble reception counter right after you entered, and an emaciated-looking model-type behind the counter asked for your name.

If you name wasn't on a list, you would be asked to leave. Jo noticed the big, heavily-muscled, blue-uniformed security guards off to the sides. If someone didn't want to leave, the guards were ready to spring into action.

Jo swallowed hard as she approached the counter. Alec stayed close, on her right side, but he stayed a pace or two behind her; this was Jo's show.

The twig behind the counter barely looked up. She appeared to subsist on croutons and vinegar.

"Name," she said in a bored voice.

"J.P." said Jo. Her voice came out deeper than she meant it to. She'd been worried her voice might squeak, so she dropped it to compensate.

The receptionist flipped through an appointment book.

"You're meeting Mr. Warner at two p.m.," she said. She uncapped a magic marker, wrote "J.P." on a visitor's pass. Her eyes flicked to Alec.

Suddenly, she didn't look quite so bored. Her eyes widened and a faint smile touched her mouth. It was an effect that Alec seemed to have on women with a pulse.

"Name?" she asked Alec, her eyes shining.

"Alec," he said, with a winning smile, the dimples in his cheeks matching the dimple on his perfect chin. "I'm J.P.'s secretary."

"Are you really?" The receptionist wrote "Alec" in large dark letters on a second visitor's pass. She handed the "J.P." pass to Jo without even looking at her, then handed Alec his pass with exquisite courtesy. "Last elevator," she told Alec. "Press 'P'. For Penthouse level."

Alec made a little bow.

"Come on, boss," he said to Jo.

Jo's pass kept coming unclipped from her lapel. She reattached it repeatedly during the long, long elevator ride.

"Try not to think about it," Alec said.

"About what?"

"About how high up we're going," said Alec. "There's nothing to be worried about."

"For Pete's sake! I wasn't even thinkin about that until you just said it." Jo felt fine beads of sweat spring out along her hairline, but the thick layer of foundation seemed to absorb them. "Thanks a lot, Alec!"

"I'm sorry. I was trying to help."

"Then keep your trap shut."

"Aye-aye."

When the doors finally slid open, they stepped out into a large lobby bookended by massive glass walls with stunning views of lower Manhattan.

Directly ahead of them was a reception desk roughly the size of a yacht, staffed by a competent-looking old battleaxe in a grey tweed suit.

"We can still turn back," Alec told Jo in a low voice. "Last chance."

"No way."

The old battleaxe looked up, fixing Jo with a steely eye. You might be a fabulously wealthy corporate warrior, said that eye, but I am Mr. Warner's right hand. And if you don't have an appointment, I'm booting your million-dollar ass back downstairs …

Something about the old battleaxe - maybe her resemblance to Jo's former Langley portress, Iron Britches – got under Jo's skin. She strode purposefully to the desk, her chin tilting defiantly.

"J.P." Jo said coolly. "2 p.m."

The battleaxe made an elaborate show of consulting several leather appointment books. Her intention was clearly to make "J.P." sweat … had there been some mix-up about the meeting? But Jo had been brushed off her whole life, by teachers, cops, social workers. She saw right through the little ruse.

Jo glared hard at the woman. "What's the delay?" she demanded. "How many two p.m. appointments can there be?"

The battleaxe flushed. Nobody questioned her competence! She flipped immediately to a page in the red leather book. "Here it is," she said. "J.P. 2 p.m."

"About damn time," said Jo.

The woman pressed a button on her intercom.

"Mr. Warner? Your two o'clock is here."

"Very good, very good." David Warner's voice, sounding impatient and annoyed, crackled through the intercom speaker.

"Shall I send them in?"

"Yes, send them in." The connection was terminated with a burst of static.

"Mr. Warner will see you now," sniffed the executive secretary.

"Yeah. We got that," said Jo. What a bunch of damn stuffed shirts!

The woman nodded toward a door in the far wall. "There," she said. She turned away from them, began threading a sheet of blank paper into a massive electric typewriter ...

Jo raised her fist to knock on David Warner's door, but Alec gently forestalled her. "We just go in," he said.

It seemed rude to Jo to just barge in, but everything about this place had been rude so far. She pushed the door open. Alec followed her.

The office was enormous, the far wall a series of large glass panes beyond which New York's wharves and waters gleamed.

There was a hearth and a billiard table and a bank of leather chairs, and another door that probably led to David Warner's very own executive wash room.

David sat behind a massive mahogany desk. He wore one of his multi-thousand dollar suits, a crisp white shirt and a no-nonsense charcoal-and-silver striped tie.

He ignored them for a moment, eyes flickering up and down a ledger. He pushed a pair of reading glasses high up on his nose, the better to read the ledger. On the left side of his desk sat a computer terminal, displaying lines of green numerals against a black screen.

"With you in a moment," David muttered. He waved absently toward the oxblood leather chairs in front of his desk. "Take a seat."

Jo looked at Alec. Alec looked at Jo. They shrugged. Jo sat in the nearest leather chair, Alec sitting in the one on her right. They leaned back comfortably. Alec gave Jo a thumbs-up sign. Jo grinned.

David finished reading the ledger. He removed his reading glasses, folded them, tucked them into the breast pocket of his suit.

"Now then," he said, "what can I do for –"

He broke off, scowling. It was Alec that he recognized, and Alec that he scowled at.

"What do you want?" David demanded. "If you have a message from Blair, I'm not interested."

Alec looked to Jo.

"Cat has your tongue?" sneered David. He glanced at Jo. "Who is this?" David asked Alec.

"My boss," Alec said calmly.

"Who are you?" David asked Jo. "I'm not in the mood for jokes today."

"Good," said Jo. "'Cause we're here on very serious business."

The blood drained from David's face. That voice! That damned plebeian voice! He sank back in his chair, as if unconsciously putting more distance between himself and the young woman.

His face twisted – a spasm of rage? Of pain?

"You," he all but spat when he could speak.

"Yep – little old me," said Jo, flashing her megawatt smile. "How's by you, pop-in-law?"

"Don't … call me that," he grated. His pulse pounded in the fine vein on his right temple.

David turned to Alec, because he couldn't stand to look at Jo, or because he was trying to appeal to Alec man-to-man, or both. "What is this all about?" he asked the young lord.

Alec shook his head. "Not my meeting," he said. "Ask your daughter-in-law."

"Don't call her that." David looked from Alec to Jo and back to Alec. "You're both ridiculous!"

"Be that as it may," said Jo, leaning forward, "we're here. And we're not leaving until we get a couple things straight. And if you hit me again, this time I'm gonna hit you back."

David had the grace to blush. "I shouldn't have done that," he muttered.

"Which time?" Alec asked sarcastically.

"Alec," said Jo.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but it still boils my blood. In my experience a man doesn't strike a woman unless the man is the lowest form of gormless prat."

"I agree," David mumbled. "It was unforgivable. But I can't seem to help … seeing red. Which is all the more reason –" he shot a hangdog look at Jo "that you need to leave right now."

Jo felt sorry for David as she watched him hunched and twitching in his chair, looking in a hunted way from Alec to Jo. He looks like Nixon did, sayin he wasn't a crook, thought Jo. He looks so effin guilty … He knows he's wrong to treat Blair this way …

Jo leaned forward in her chair. Unconsciously, David sat even further back in his oxblood leather throne.

"I love your daughter," she said quietly.

David Warner closed his eyes. "You're disgusting," he said.

"No. I am not. And neither is your daughter."

"She's confused. You've mesmerized her, somehow." He kept his eyes closed, as if Jo might somehow mesmerize him if he looked at her.

"Sure," said Jo. "I hypnotized her with all my money, and my class, and my amazing looks. For cryin out loud, Mr. Warner – if your daughter didn't love me, why would she be with me? Who the hell am I? Blair loves me. What other explanation is there?"

David shaded his face with one hand. His shoulders were trembling, as if he were holding back tears.

"Young people experiment," he muttered. "They become confused. But they can conquer it, as long as the unhealthy impulses are not … indulged."

He sounds like an old psychology textbook, thought Jo.

"Mr. Warner. Sir? You might wanna read somethin printed after 1950. There's nothin wrong with your daughter, except she needs you to stop freezin her out. It's tearin her up. You've totally freakin neglected Blair her whole life, but for some reason she loves you. And you love her. You wouldn't be all screwed up about this if you didn't. Why don't you just love her?"

David slammed one hand down, palm flat, on his desk top. It made a sound like a rifle shot.

The intercom buzzed. "Mr. Warner? Do you need anything?" asked the old battleaxe.

He pressed a button. "No. I don't want to be disturbed."

"Very good." The old battleaxe rang off.

David Warner was weeping. He wiped his damp eyes.

"My daughter needs treatment," he said through gritted teeth. "She's not well. She'll never be able to take her place in society … or at the helm of this company … until she's well. I have not been … the best father. My business consumes me. It is my life's work. But Blair is my treasure. When she began college, I saw that as … a new chapter for us. She would spend more time with me. She would learn the business from me. She would marry a suitable young man. Some day she would know the joys of parenthood, as well as victory in the business world."

"That sounds real great," Jo said gently, "you and Blair spendin more time together. I know she'd like that. And there's no reason that can't happen. But she ain't gonna, that is, she isn't going to marry a young man. She's committed to me."

David Warner groaned. He leaned his head on his hands. Several strands of his impeccably barbered dark hair broke free from their coif, fell over his eyes.

"We're not idiots," said Jo. "We aren't plannin on walkin down Wall Street holdin hands. We ain't, that is, we aren't ready to break this news to the world any more than you or her mother are! All Blair needs right now is for you to love her."

David groaned again.

"You do love her," said Jo. "Why can't you just accept her the way she is?"

"It's unnatural," David muttered.

"Says who? I been doin a little research the last couple months … It ain't that uncommon, Mr. Warner."

"I didn't say 'uncommon'. I said 'unnatural'." David looked up, finally meeting Jo's eyes. She saw with surprise that he was pleading with her. "Do you understand how the world will turn against Blair if this gets out? The board, the stock holders, the family, and the media. Dear God! The press will have a field day! Do you know what that will do to her? And you'll be dragged into it too. Your family."

Jo had a sudden image of her mother's thin, pretty face in black-and-white, a photo on the front page of a tabloid, her mother's eyes large and hunted, like David's were right now.

"You don't like that thought, do you?" asked David, correctly interpreting Jo's expression. "Not so nice when the shoe's on the other foot, is it?"

Jo took a deep breath. "Mr. Warner. Sir. I don't want Blair, or my mother, or anyone else I care about hurt. But Blair and I love each other. And that's not going away. Either she and I get through this alone, or our families step up and help us, and we do it all together." She stood up. "Ball's in your court, Mr. Warner."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you're invited to Christmas dinner. Come by any time on the 25th. Hell, come on the 24th! We got plenty of room." She looked at Alec. "Ready, pal?"

Alec nodded. He stood up, slowly, muscles bunching under the costly dark fabric of his suit. He didn't make any overt threats, but it was in his posture – Don't mess with these women or I'll kick your ass!

David cleared his throat. "I understand that you think you're doing a good thing," he told Jo. "And, however misguided they are, you believe that your feelings for my daughter are genuine. But I cannot change my stance. It's for Blair's own good. I … I really am sorry about hitting you. About everything. Blair, the way she is … it's my fault."

"How?"

"It's … not important." He slid open a drawer, rummaged around.

Christ – is he pullin a gun? wondered Jo.

Alec moved smoothly to position himself between David's desk and Jo.

David laughed bitterly. "What – you think I'm going to shoot you?" He held up a crystal glass in one hand, a crystal decanter of dark liquid in the other. "Just a little something to steady my nerves," he said. "Conference call with Tokyo at three."

Jo and Alec stepped out into the lobby.

As Jo pulled the door closed behind her, she heard the gurgle of fine Scotch being poured into a glass.


Their next stop was in Greenwich Village, on West 13th, between 7th Avenue and 8th Avenue. It was a handsome brick and stone building, circa the mid-1800's, fronting right on the sidewalk.

Jo stood near the main entrance, glancing at the scrap of yellow legal paper between her fingers. "208 West 13th," she read aloud. "This is it."

The front door was ajar. Taped to it was a cardboard sign.

"Welcome! Future site of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center," read the sign.

"Er … maybe I should go wait in the car," suggested Alec.

Jo gave him a hard look.

"It's just that I have certain bits and bobs to which I'm very attached," said Alec. "And, should Jacqueline ever consent to become my bride, she'll want said parts to be intact."

Jo's eyes narrowed. "You're just lucky Nat ain't here," said Jo. "Chauvinist flippin cracks like that! Just when I think you're becomin an OK guy, you gotta be a jackass."

"What's chauvinist about what I said? I've never met a group of lesbians before, only my elderly Aunt Vivienne and her elderly inamorata. Have you ever met a group of lesbians?"

"Well … no. But people are just people, Alec. As long as you keep your mouth shut and don't reveal what a cretin you are, I'm sure you'll be fine."

Inside, Jo and Alec strolled through a series of empty rooms and halls.

"Looks like maybe it used to be a school," said Jo.

There were stepladders and cans of paint and roller brushes and tarps propped here and there. The Lesbian and Gay Community Center was clearly just moving in …

There was a sound of muffled voices and footsteps from a back room. Jo and Alec moved toward the sounds.

"Hello!" called Jo. "Anybody around?"

"Hello yourself!" a woman's cheerful voice responded. "We're in here!"

Jo stepped into a large room where six or seven women and men in painters' hats and smocks were in the process of painting the room a cheerful shade of lemon-yellow. Some of the workers held brushes, some rollers. There were open paint cans everywhere, and the strong smell of paint instantly cleared Jo's sinuses.

"Well, well, well," said a cheerful voice. A tall, lanky woman with twinkling blue eyes smiled at Jo and Alec. She had mousy brown hair pulled into a pony tail under her white painters' cap. Her lean face was speckled with yellow paint; her white coveralls were spattered with yellow splotches.

"Can't shake hands, I'm afraid," she said, holding up her paint smudged palms. "But you're very welcome. Are you here to help?"

"Not exactly," said Jo. "I'm lookin for someone."

The woman's eyes flicked over Jo's white power suit and red shirt, her thick makeup and big hair. The woman smiled encouragingly. "Are you here for our transgendered group?" she asked kindly. "I'm afraid we aren't starting regular meetings until the renovations are complete, but we have a temporary space over at –"

"No, no," Jo said hastily. "Thanks, but, ah, I don't need a transgendered group. Or any group. I'm tryin to find Peggy Winkle O'Meara."

The woman looked confused. "Peggy O'Meara? But what would you want with her?"

"She used to be a friend of my Ma's," said Jo. "Long time ago."

"Really? How lovely." The woman squinted thoughtfully at Jo. "As a matter of fact, I'm Peggy O'Meara. And you would be …?"

"You remember Sisters of Eternal Peace? On Arthur Avenue?"

"Yes." Peggy's eyes widened. She saw something familiar in the person before her, under the inch of makeup. The shape of the green-blue eyes, and the light in them … the smile. "You're Rose's child," Peggy said softly. "My God. She was a beautiful girl. You're beautiful, like her."

"Thanks."

"What's your name, Rose's child?"

"Jo Polniaczek."

"Well I'm pleased to meet you, Joe." Peggy extended one large, hearty hand. Jo shook it, the spatters of paint notwithstanding. Jo's hands were usually covered with motorcycle grease; she wasn't particular. "Well, isn't this something! Rose's son. Tell me … How is she handling your gender identity exploration?"

Alec bit back a smile, covering it with a cough.

"Gesundheit," Jo told Alec, with a hard glare.

"Danke," he said politely.

"Look, uh, I'm Rose's daughter," Jo told Peggy. "All this heavy makeup, it was for a meetin, it ain't really me. You know?"

"Oh. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have assumed. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. So Jo is short for …"

"Joanne Marie," said Jo. "Joanne Marie Polniaczek. And I ain't uncomfortable."

She shifted from foot to foot.

The painters had stopped their work and were looking at her and Alec curiously. Jo hated being the center of attention. She toyed nervously with her collar.

"Well, I'm just about ready for a break," said Peggy. "How about a drink, Joanne Marie Polniaczek?"

"Sure."

"You can bring your bodyguard." Peggy grinned at Alec. He grinned back.

"Alec," he introduced himself, making a slight bow. "And before you ask, no, I am not Rose's son. Nor her daughter, for that matter."

"Alec – for Pete's sake!" said Jo, rolling her eyes.

But Peggy laughed. She took Alec's right hand and shook it firmly.

"Alec, it's nice to meet you. Any total stranger who's friends with Rose's daughter is a friend of mine ..."

She took them to a little bar nearby.

It was mid-afternoon but the joint was already jumping. Madonna's "Holiday" was blasting on the jukebox. It was a cozy little place, all varnished oak and red leather seats and twinkling holiday lights strung along the bar and around the walls.

Alec ordered Scotch – "Macallan, with a little clear water". Jo ordered a Budweiser. Peggy ordered a cup of coffee, black.

"Who's your new friend, Peggy?" asked the bartender, shooting Alec an admiring look. Alec blushed.

"Nobody interested in your nonsense," Peggy said decisively. "Come on," she told Alec and Jo, "there's a good booth back here. No one will bother us ..."

Jo liked Peggy immensely. And the more they spoke, the more she liked the lanky, down-to-earth woman. There was still some Bronx in Peggy's accent, but it was muted. It came out a little stronger, from time to time, when Peggy talked to Jo, a young woman fresh from the old neighborhood.

Alec liked Peggy, but he didn't have the vested interest in her life story that Jo had. Alec half-listened to the older woman, half let his eyes drift around the bar. There were men sitting with men, and women sitting with women.

A real-life Greenwich Village gay bar, he thought. Let's just hope it's not raided with us in it!

"So," Peggy said, wrapping up her story, "I decided it was time to get more directly involved in the community. And when I heard that they'd purchased the old school house, to create a center for the lesbians and the gay men that seem to gravitate here, well, my path was clear."

Jo shook her head admiringly. "Jeez, you got balls," she said. "I mean, metaphorically speakin."

"Thanks. But I'm not exactly unusual around here. For anyone that wants to live their life out in the open, this is one of the places to be." She signaled to the bartender for a top-up on her coffee. "So. I've babbled on about my life," said Peggy. "What brings you in search of me, Jo?"

Jo shifted a little uncomfortably on the bench. She wasn't ashamed of loving Blair … but it was weird talking about it to a virtual stranger.

"Rose has been a really great mother," Jo began. "My Dad's a good guy in his way, but they split up off-and-on, and then he got thrown in the joint for awhile. Ma's worked her ass off her whole life so we could have a roof over our heads and three squares."

Peggy nodded. "Rose was always a hard worker," she said. "Always a ball of energy."

"Well, that sure ain't changed!" said Jo. "We were pretty close when I was little, but when I got into junior high, you know, I wasn't the best kid. I started runnin with a bad crowd."

"A gang," Peggy said bluntly.

"Yeah." Can't bullshit this lady! thought Jo. She's no dope. "It was never like I was a hardened criminal, but lookin back now, I can see that's where I woulda ended up."

Alec stopped looking around the bar, and focused on Jo. He'd caught bits and pieces of her back story over the last few months, but this was new.

"Ma tried to straighten me out, but with Pop in the bucket and Ma workin twenty-four-seven, and the messed-up kids I was runnin with, I mean, she was spittin in the wind. I got pinched for some fights, for some B&E's … You were a social worker. You know the drill."

"I do," nodded Peggy.

"So then I got jumped out of the Young Diablos, cause I met this boy. I thought he was gonna be the one. The love of my life. He dropped outta high school and joined the Navy."

"What a catch," Alec said drily.

Jo shot him a scalding look.

"Kidding," Alec said. "Really, Jo. Just kidding."

"Go on," Peggy told Jo.

"So that was the last straw for Ma," said Jo. "She looked at me and Eddie runnin around at all hours, and she figured either she had to break us up, or next thing you know I'd be pregnant at fifteen. So I'd taken these aptitude tests, right, and I scored really high? And my guidance counselor, who it turns out was in cahoots with Ma, was sending my scores around to private schools. And sometimes, when I was actually in school, the guidance counselor would have me take these tests. She'd say they were more aptitude tests, but they were, you know, entrance exams for real schools."

"Ah!" said Peggy. "I see where this is going."

"Yeah. I got a 98 on the Eastland Academy exam right before it started gettin real serious with Eddie and me. So Ma ships me off to Eastland."

"And I'll bet you were fit to be tied," said Peggy.

"Damn straight. I felt like Ma was sendin me into exile. And I missed Eddie somethin awful."

"But at Eastland, you straightened up and flew right. Right?"

"Yeah. After a bumpy start, it turned out to be the makin of me. I was valedictorian when I graduated. And I was accepted to Langley College."

Peggy grinned. "Rose must've been fit to bust!"

"Oh, jeez, yeah, she was proud. Pop too. And he'd been out of the joint awhile by then. They were both at my graduation."

Peggy took a deep draft of her coffee. "Well, Rose's daughter, it sounds like you got off to a rocky start, but life is comin up roses now. Which still leaves the question – why are you looking me up? Not that I'm not enjoying talking with you, but I feel like you have some definite purpose."

Jo sighed again. "See … When I was at Eastland, I got to be friends with this other girl. Well, three other girls. We kinda got into some trouble when school started, so we had to room together and work in the school kitchen to pay somethin off."

"Was that when you stole the van?" asked Alec.

"Yeah. But the point is, we all had to bunk together in this little room, right across the hall from the school dietician. Nicest lady in the world. Next to my Ma, Mrs. Garrett is it. She's, jeez, I respect her more than pretty much anyone in the world. She always had our backs, but she could chew us out when we needed it too. So, those were really great years, at Eastland. Even though me and Blair were always at each other's throats."

"So … her name is Blair."

"Yeah." Jo took a sip of her beer. "She was really rich, see? Not just like her parents did OK, she's like one of those rich kids you'd see in a movie or somethin. We would fight cause we saw stuff really differently. But then, we'd fight sometimes cause we're a lot alike, too. She's got this strong personality. And she's just, well, you know, I was only fifteen when I started there but then we both got scholarships to Langley. And we met up the first day, because, you know, we already know each other, so, a friendly face. And then, it kinda, it sorta came out that we'd been havin … these feelins."

"Ah," said Peggy.

"You know what I mean?" asked Jo.

"Yes. I'm familiar with those feelings," Peggy said, eyes twinkling.

"So, that was it. We been together now almost four months. And we moved into this house together with Mrs. Garrett and our friends. And everyone in the house knows about us, and they're real supportive."

Peggy nodded. "Jo –that is a very precious thing. To be surrounded by people that accept you – not everyone has that. A lot of the kids that move here, they're running away from a home or a school where they're not understood. Or their parents threw them out. It's not easy."

"Well, that's just the thing," said Jo. "At Thanksgivin, me and Blair decided to tell our mothers. And it went really badly. I'm talkin, really badly."

"Is your mother still extremely religious, Jo?"

"Yeah. She sure is. And, I mean, I love that about her. But …" Jo trailed off. She sipped her Budweiser.

"Did your mother tell you about us?" asked Peggy. "When we were thirteen?"

"She said … she said you kissed her."

Peggy nodded. "I did. I thought your mother hung the moon, Jo. She was my very first crush." Peggy smiled at the memory. "She never talked to me again, of course. Rose was a very black-and-white person. She didn't wish me any ill, but … we could never be friends again, me being damned, and all."

"She's got the whole family prayin for me," said Jo. "They don't know why they're prayin for me, of course. She's keepin that part dark. Except she told my father, and he won't return my calls. But I got a feelin he'll get over it. Ma … "

"Black-and- white," said Peggy.

"Yeah. Like you said. That's Ma. Not such an easy sell."

Peggy spread her paint-spattered hands. "Jo, I'm glad you looked me up. And if you and Blair ever want to visit me, or visit the center, you're welcome. Sometimes just having a place where people know, really know, what you're going through can help."

"Thanks."

"But I have a feeling you want something else from me."

Jo nodded. "Here's what I was thinking …"


Alec was unusually quiet during the drive back to Peekskill.

Jo wiped as much of the makeup off her face as she could manage with a handkerchief pinched from Blair's unmentionables drawer.

"I'm an ass," Alec said, apropos of nothing, when they passed the "Entering Peekskill" sign.

"True," said Jo. "Very true. But to which of hundreds of ass-like incidents are you referring?"

"I deserve that," said Alec.

Jo sighed. "Actually, no, you don't. Look … you were good about not mopin durin this trip. So the anti-mopin mandate is hereby lifted. What's on your mind, milord?"

"Nothing," Alec said sincerely. "I behave as if I have all these tragic problems – and I don't. Here I am maundering on about how Jacqueline won't marry me, boo-hoo, and then when I think what you and Blair face, every day … No wonder you call me a cry-baby!"

Jo shifted uncomfortably. "Alec, look … I know I bust your chops, but just because you ain't in a complicated relationship like me and Blair … Jesus, I'm startin to think every relationship is a freakin challenge, in its own way. Look at Nat and Belmont, with him always away in L.A. Nothin's perfect. And you do got real problems, when it comes to money – somethin I know a little somethin about! So don't go beatin yourself up. You got a right to feel bad Jacqueline left you."

"Well … thanks," Alec said. "But I'm taking a page out of your bloody playbook, Jo. I'm not just sitting on my arse while Jacqueline goes gallivanting about with other lads. I'm going to win her back! I'm not going to give up!"

"Atta boy, Alec," Jo laughed. "Now you're talkin!"

"I won't take no for an answer," Alec said with spirit. "I'll pursue her and pursue her until she sees sense!"

"Well, ah, don't become a crazy stalker or somethin," Jo cautioned. "But I like your general gist."

Alec turned off onto a side road. It was a misty night; he turned on the windshield wipers and they thumped back and forth …

"Where did you tell Blair you were going today?" Alec asked curiously.

"Library. Big cram session for finals."

"Looking like that?" Alec laughed. "She'll be on to you in a trice! You've got to chip off that makeup before she sees you. And deflate your hair. And change that outfit. It's Blair's, is it not?"

"Yeah. From a few years ago, but she'll recognize it. Blair's never met an outfit she didn't instantly commit to memory!"

"Use my room," Alec suggested. "It's right off the kitchen, you can wash up, borrow one of my shirts –"

Jo rolled her eyes. "Oh, right! Flippin brilliant. Let me tell you how that ends. Someone sees me creepin outta your room, in your shirt, with wet hair … Misunderstandins and high jinks ensue!"

Alec shrugged. "Not as though we haven't had misunderstandings and high jinks before!"

He cut the wheel, turned onto another side road. River Rock appeared suddenly on the bluff. Against its magnificent silhouette, the strands of lights that Jo and Alec had hung yesterday twinkled like stars.

"We do good work," Jo said quietly.

"Too right!"

"Happy almost-Christmas, old chap."

"Happy almost-Christmas, Jo."


As it transpired, Jo had no problem sneaking into Alec's room to wash off her elaborate makeup and change her clothes. River Rock seemed to be deserted. There was evidence in the kitchen of a hastily prepared meal, but no one was gathered at the butcher block table.

Blair wasn't in their suite. No one seemed to be anywhere, until Jo finally checked the den, where River Rock's only TV set, a massive old black-and-white number from the local Salvation Army store, dominated the space.

Tootie and Natalie and Mrs. Garrett were jammed onto the sofa, arms wrapped around each other supportively, eyes glued raptly to the TV screen. There were half-empty plates of food on the table.

Blair stood behind the sofa, leaning on it, and Alec stood next to her, a comforting arm around her shoulder.

Jo glanced at the television.

"What's goin on?" she asked.

Reception at River Rock was hit-or-miss at the best of times; now all Jo could discern was the grainy image of shattered buildings, people running, soldiers, ambulances.

The image cut to an evening news anchor, a talking head reading off a sheet of paper in his hands.

"Again," said the anchor, "there are five, no, six confirmed dead in coordinated bombings at the American and French embassies in Kuwait."

"Christ!" breathed Jo.

The anchor continued. "There were also attacks on Kuwait International Airport, electrical and petro-chemical plants, and housing for American employees of Raytheon."

Jo went to Bair, slipped her arms around Blair's waist. Blair leaned back against Jo.

"Who did it?" Jo asked the room at large.

"They're not sure," Blair said quietly.

"Take your pick," Natalie said with a bitter laugh. "It's like a smorgasbord of militant nut jobs running around these days!"

"So much for peace on earth!" muttered Jo. "Happy friggin Christmas!"

"Shh!" Tootie and Mrs. Garrett said together.

"At this time," the anchor continued, "all we know is that shortly after the bombs were detonated, the Islamic Jihad Organization called to take credit for the attacks. However, their involvement is unconfirmed, repeat, unconfirmed at this time and will be investigated."

"What do these wackos think they're accomplishing?" Natalie shouted at the television.

"Nat, calm down," Tootie said softly. Her eyes were welling with tears. "It's OK."

"It's not OK, Tootie! It's anything but OK!"

"Well, no, it's not," Tootie agreed quietly, "but it doesn't help anything getting all worked up." Tootie brushed a tear away. "Those poor victims! And their families."

"I can't imagine what they must be going through," said Mrs. Garrett.

"Eh, the whole cockamamie world is goin crazy," muttered Jo. She buried her face in Blair's hair. "Happy friggin Christmas," she repeated, voice muffled against Blair's neck. "Peace on friggin earth ..."

Part 3

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