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 3

Monday, December 12, 1983 Redux. The tip of Manhattan.

Taking advantage of Jo's marathon cram session at the library, Blair drove her truck into the city.

Mrs. Garrett had said yesterday that Jo was working on Christmas surprises.

Well, Jo doesn't have a monopoly on Christmas spirit, thought Blair. I'm going to try to spread a little Christmas cheer of my own … Although it would certainly be easier if I weren't flat broke …

Normally at this time of year Blair would be shopping, ringing up thousands and thousands (and thousands) of dollars on her charge plates, weaving a trail of conspicuous consumption from Bergdorf Goodman to Saks to Bloomies to Tiffany's.

Instead she was parking at a cut-rate garage, several blocks from Wall Street, where the attendants and even the security guard all looked like they had recently been released – or escaped – from Sing Sing.

Blair patted the red Chevy's hood. "Hope you're still here when I get back, girl!"

She walked the few blocks to Wall Street, stopping at a chic little coffee shop where men and women in dark business suits were standing impatiently in line at the counter, or sitting at tables in a variety of anxious postures, aggressively noshing bagels and sucking down caffeine.

Blair sat down at a narrow table in one corner of the room. When a harried waitress approached her, Blair ordered two black coffees.

Blair glanced at her watch. 12:58 p.m. He'd be there any minute …

As if on cue, the glass door swung open and Charlie Polniaczek walked into the shop.

Blair lifted one hand. "Mr. Polniaczek," she called pleasantly.

He saw her, nodded, went to her table.

"Blair," he said neutrally.

She gestured to the empty chair across from her. "Please," she said, "I know your time is precious, so I've already taken the liberty of ordering you a coffee."

Charlie looked from Blair to the coffee and back to Blair. He sat in the empty chair, reluctantly.

He looked good, Blair thought. He was wearing a new suit. Sears, off-the-rack, but still new, and Charlie Polniaczek was a man who knew instinctively how to wear even a cookie-cutter suit and make it look like class.

"I don't have a lotta time," Charlie said. "It's not like I'm anybody at Pitch and Lowe. I'm just a runner, you know? I'm late gettin back, they're gonna can me."

Blair nodded sympathetically.

The Warners were acquainted with the Pitches and the Lowes, who were minor luminaries, as compared to the blazing Warner sun, in the pantheon of Society.

Blair could have picked up a phone and told Bartholomew David Pitch that he should make Charlie Polniaczek the "Vice President of What's Happening Now," and Pitch would probably do it.

But Jo got her innate nobility, her bone-deep pride, from Charlie Polniaczek, and he would never forgive Blair for putting in a good word for him.

"You look good, Charlie," said Blair.

He ducked his head in uncomfortable acknowledgement of the compliment.

God, I can't be mad at this girl, he thought. I wanna wring her neck, but I just can't seem to hate her …

Blair looked good, he thought – she was one of those women that just couldn't look bad – but she was a lot less fancy than she usually was, than she'd looked at the Eastland graduation in June, than she'd looked in September when she and Jo started Langley. Was that only three months ago? Christ! How things could change in three months!

The girl was wearing a simple outfit, black slacks, red turtleneck, black leather coat and gloves. Her hair wasn't pouffed and feathery, the way he remembered it. It hung down straight, flowing over her shoulders. She wore a little makeup, mascara on her lashes, a touch of glossy pink on her mouth.

"You look good too," he said grudgingly.

Blair smiled. She would never not love a compliment. Her cheeks dimpled; her brown eyes shone.

Charlie shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He still hadn't touched his coffee.

"Look, Blair, I don't know what you think this is gonna accomplish, but it isn't gonna do any good. Jo's mom and I haven't always seen eye-to-eye, but I support Rose on this one."

Blair sipped her coffee. She nodded thoughtfully.

"You think it's a sin too?" she asked candidly.

Charlie blushed. He looked down at the tabletop. "A sin? Yeah. I do. I mean, I'm not sayin rosaries twenty-four-seven and lightin a million candles like Rosie, but when it comes down to it, yeah, it's not right with God, what you and Jo are doin."

"I see." Another sip of coffee. "So … You think we're going to hell?"

Charlie drew a deep breath, blew it out slowly. "Hell? I don't know. That's where I'm a little more easy-goin than Rose. You're a nice girl, Blair. And Jo's halfway to a saint. I'm thinkin … purgatory?"

Purgatory was a hazy concept for Blair. "Is that … like limbo?" she asked.

"Like limbo," Charlie agreed.

"Your coffee's getting cold," said Blair.

"I'm not drinkin the coffee," he said bluntly. "I'm not takin anythin from you. You know, when I think back to that meal at Ma Maison … I thought Rosie was just bein a bitch to you. But she was right, wasn't she? Rose could tell somethin wrong was goin on with you and Jo. She just didn't know what it was."

"Rose thinks I've corrupted Jo," said Blair.

"Yeah."

"Do you?"

Charlie scratched his neck thoughtfully. "No. No, I don't. Come down to it, I don't think Rose really believes that either. It's just somethin a mother's gotta tell herself. Jo's never done anythin, right or wrong, that she didn't wanna do. When Jo gets good grades, that's all Jo. And when she screws up, that's all Jo too."

Blair laughed. "You're telling me," she said.

Charlie chuckled. Blair's laugh was so bright, so warm – it was infectious.

"How, uh, how is Jo doin?" Charlie asked.

"How do you think?" Blair couldn't keep a note of reproach out of her voice. "She's very strong, but it's hurting her. Deeply."

Charlie drummed his fingers on the table. "Blair, if you're thinkin you're gonna guilt me into somethin, think again. Jo's brought this on herself."

"You're willing to throw away her future, not pay her tuition, because of some rule some men made up thousands of years ago? You're willing to hold back your love, when she loves you and Rose so much?"

"I told ya, Blair – you can't guilt me." But Charlie was looking distinctly guilty. "You and Jo are close friends," he said, looking at his coffee cup, rather than at Blair. "Girls feel all intense about things. I get that. In a couple years, you and Jo are gonna look back on this and feel embarrassed, you're gonna realize how foolish it was."

Blair bit back an angry reply. It won't do any good to get into a shouting match …

"See, we can't pay Jo's tuition for the same reason I can't drink this coffee," said Charlie. "As long as Jo makes this choice, we can't give her anythin. We can't support her in any way. And we can't take anythin from either of you."

Blair counted to ten. She blew an angry breath through her nose, slowly, as if she were trying to expel her temper before it got her into trouble. She liked Charlie – she liked Charlie a lot. She hadn't expected him to piss her off so thoroughly.

"Jo doesn't need your tuition checks," Blair said through gritted teeth.

"I suppose you've got that covered," said Charlie.

"As a matter of fact, I do. But Jo needs you. You and Rose."

Charlie shrugged. There was a lump in his throat – Christ, he missed Jo! But he wasn't going to tip his hand. They'll come to their senses, he thought, as long as we don't give 'em any encouragement …

"That's what I get?" Blair demanded. "A shrug?"

"That's all I got to give ya," said Charlie. He glanced at his watch. "Gotta get back now."

"Charlie –"

"Blair, nobody's wishin anybody any ill will, but this is just the way it's gotta be."

"Charlie, do you remember what you felt the first moment you saw Rose?" Blair blurted. "The very first moment? How you just, you knew she had your heart?"

Blair's question caught Charlie by surprise. Did he remember the first time he saw Rose? Of course! Those big, beautiful eyes, so warm, so vulnerable … but fiery, too …

He remembered. Blair could see it in his eyes. She pressed her advantage. "That's how I felt," she told Charlie. "I knew it, the moment I met Jo. She's such … She's a fine person," Blair said. "There's no one like her. I've loved her a long time and I'll never stop."

Charlie stood up. I can't hear any more of this. She sounds so damn sincere …

"Charlie –"

"Forget it, Blair," he grated.

"But Charlie –"

"Gimme a break, huh? Look, Blair – far as I'm concerned, you're family. But until you and Jo come to your senses, we got nothin to talk about."

"But if you'd just listen to me, if you'd –"

Charlie did something he'd never done in his life. His father would have given him the strap for it. Charlie turned his back on a woman and walked away from her while she was talking to him.


Before she returned to the parking garage, Blair took a walk to clear her head. She ended up at the Warner Building at the intersection of Water and Wall Streets.

Blair stood across the street from the chrome and glass spear, standing in its shadow.

My father's building. No. My family's building. Warners and Blairs and Wilkes going all the way back to the 1600's. The Warner Building represents sweat and toil and ingenuity and blood and imagination and ruthlessness … generations of it … I'm like a bead on a chain …

From time to time someone entered or left the building, always suited, glamorous, wealthy-looking. Blair noted with amusement a white-suited corporate warrior with hair like a dark tidal wave and a thick layer of Kabuki makeup. The businesswoman was accompanied by a muscular flunky – Probably her bodyguard! Blair thought.

She gazed up, up, up the side of the Warner Building, to the very top floor where she knew her father would be holding court – unless he was out of the country. She'd been to his office only a handful of times over the years.

But you were grooming me to follow in your footsteps? You had a funny way of showing it, Daddy …

She considered entering the building, talking her way up to her father's office. What would he do? Would he listen to her? Would he have security toss her out on her ass? Probably not, if she could actually bluff her way up to his office. He hated scenes …

In the end, she didn't go into the building. The meeting with Charlie had left a bad taste in her mouth. If easy-going Charlie Polniaczek wasn't going to listen to her, ruthless David Warner certainly wouldn't!

She took the subway instead.

Jo would have killed her, she knew, taking the subway alone, but it wasn't as if she were in the South Bronx. And although Blair's outfit was smart, it wasn't expensive; she looked like a college student or young businesswoman, not an heiress.

She took the subway from Wall Street all the way up to 50th Street; she walked along 5th Avenue to Rockefeller Center. Had it only been a few days ago she and Jo had been skating there, under the stars?

Across the street, she pressed her nose against the glass at Saks. The lavish Christmas displays, the fine fabrics, the intricate stitching, the gleaming jewels all called to her. She ached to go inside and hurl herself into a spending frenzy – clothes for her, clothes for Jo, for their friends – nothing best the best!

Finally she walked over to St. Patrick's Cathedral, on East 51st, between 5th and Madison Avenues.

At first she just stood outside, staring at the neo-Gothic monstrosity. It was cold grey stone, but spun and carved into such delicate spires and such an intricate rose window.

Then Blair went inside. She strolled up and down the narrow aisles. Everything was so narrow here – narrow and soaring. Navigating the cathedral was like threading needles, she thought wryly, remembering a scrap of New Testament verse from early, quickly abandoned Sunday school classes.

There were a lot of tourists in the Cathedral, easily identified by their cameras and the way they gawked and stared at every last thing.

But there were parishioners too, kneeling in the pews, lighting candles in the alcoves. Blair had never seen so many candles lit at once. They flickered everywhere in the vast cathedral.

Jo's always saying that, if there's something someone wants … "I'll light a candle for you" …

Jo didn't go to church every week, but some Sunday mornings she slipped away early, dropping a kiss on Blair's tousled hair. "Be back in an hour, babe …"

Blair noticed people making the four-cornered gesture Jo made sometimes made, touching their foreheads, chest and both shoulders in quick succession. The sign of the cross, Jo calls it.

The Warners were a Christian clan, Protestants – Lutherans and Anglicans, to be specific – but over the centuries it had faded to lip service and charitable endeavors. Personally, Monica Warner had no use for Catholics, but she was on several Catholic charity boards because it was what one did; one helped those less fortunate, and, not incidentally, cemented one's relationship with the city's might Catholic power bloc.

Monica had a nodding acquaintance, and in some cases close working relationships, with most of St. Patrick's leadership – the bigwigs – but that was all about fund-raising and politics. If Monica Warner were to pass the Archbishop of St. Patrick's Cathedral on the street, with no one else in eyeshot, she would snub him without a qualm.

Heck, thought Blair, if she saw the Pope on the street, she'd cross to the other side!

Blair slipped into one of the pews. She made the sign of the cross – a stab at it, anyway, copying an elderly woman in the pew just ahead. Blair knelt on the soft kneeler.

Hi, God. It's me, Blair. Which, of course, you already know. We haven't exactly talked a lot since I was eight, and you let my parents split up. Though, in retrospect, I realize that wasn't your fault. Even your divine intervention couldn't make those two see sense!

She looked around the cathedral's soaring interior, aglow with myriad rosy lights.

I believe in you. But I guess I'm angry with you. Not so much about my parents, but how the world can be such a rotten place. How can people be so hateful? How can a parent disown a child? Why don't you climb down off your throne and actually do some good?

That, Blair realized, was perhaps pushing it too far.

I don't mean to be rude. But I'm pissed off! Anything you can do for our parents, to make them want us back in their lives, anything you can do to keep Jo safe, that's all I'm asking for. Thy will be done, God bless Mrs. Garrett, Tootie and Natalie, and happy birthday Jesus. Amen.

Blair made another awkward sign of the cross …

She folded a dollar bill and slipped it into the little donation box near a bank of candles. It figures you're encouraged to pay, she thought, to have your prayer answered! It was like Daddy taught me … at the end of the day, everything comes back to money. But if the dollar might get to an orphan, or a widow, or some kid living on the street …

She lit a couple of candles.

Watch over me and Jo, she thought. Watch over girls like us. Even Boots St. Clair!

Before she left, she made a stop at the cathedral gift shop …

It took an hour on foot and by subway to get back to the parking garage, and then another hour to drive back to River Rock.

Jo was still out at the library, apparently. My little nerd, Blair thought fondly.

Natalie and Tootie were on the phone in the kitchen, holding the receiver between them, talking to Natalie's mother, apparently.

"Of course, mother," said Natalie. "We understand."

"Anytime on the 24th," said Tootie. "You have the address?"

Mrs. Garrett was humming to herself, peeling carrots over a big pot. When she noticed Blair, she jumped as if someone had goosed her.

"Oh, Blair!" trilled Mrs. Garret. "How lovely to see you! Look girls, it's Blair!"

"Thanks, gotta go, goodbye!" Natalie said hastily into the phone. She slammed down the receiver.

"Hi, Blair!" Tootie said brightly.

"Hi, Blair!" grinned Natalie.

Blair laughed. "You'd think you hadn't seen me for days!"

"Well, you were gone all weekend," said Tootie.

"Hey, I'm not complaining," said Blair. "It's nice to be missed." Especially after being given the cold shoulder by Charlie Polniaczek … "Is your mother coming up for Christmas?" Blair asked Natalie.

"My mother?" Natalie's face was blank.

"On the phone just now. Wasn't that your mother?"

"Oh. My mother. Yes. She's coming up. For Christmas."

"That's very sweet."

"Isn't it? Especially since we're Jewish. But, you know, my mother likes to move with the times. This Christian thing, it just might catch on," Natalie joked. She nudged Tootie. "Come on, Toot, we have to go work on that project. You know."

"Which one?"

"All of them!"

"Oh. OK."

Blair smiled indulgently. "That's what I love about Christmas," she said. "Everyone is suddenly working on all sorts of special 'projects'. I only hope one of them involves a gift or two pour moi."

"Oh, I think you can count on it," said Tootie. Natalie jabbed her in the ribs. "Hey!"

"Come on, Tootie, before you sing like a canary."

"Who's singing? All I said was –"

Natalie unceremoniously hustled Tootie out of the kitchen.

"The Snoop Sisters seem to be losing some of their stealthy touch," laughed Blair.

"I don't know about that," said Mrs. Garrett, carrot peels flying into the big pot. "From what I've overheard, they seem to be tackling their most ambitious challenge yet."

"Really? Well, bless their little hearts." Blair took an apron from a hook on the back of the cellar door, put it on. "What can I do to help with supper, Mrs. Garrett?"

"Why don't you dice some onions?"

"All right. I could use a good cry," said Blair. She pulled a knife from one of the drawers …

It was Tootie who came running into the kitchen later, tears in her eyes.

"There's been a bombing!" she said. "We just turned on the news, and it's all they're talking about!"

Dinner was ready; Mrs. Garrett and Blair made up plates, quickly, and carried them to the den.

The four of them sat and picked at their meal as they watched the news.

Blair was restless. She got up from time to time, almost left the room, paced, sat down again. When Alec came in, she was leaning against the back of the sofa.

"What's wrong?" he asked. It was directed at all of them, but it was Mrs. Garrett who answered.

"There's been a terrible attack," she said. "A bombing, in Kuwait."

"What was the target?" he asked tersely.

"The U.S. embassy," said Blair. "And the French."

"And the airport," said Natalie. "And some energy plants."

"Anyone hurt?" asked Alec.

"They think five … dead," said Blair. Her voice caught in her throat. She had been at Groton with a French ambassador's daughter. Was the ambassador still posted to Kuwait? If he was, would Miriam be with him?

Alec slipped a comforting arm around Blair's shoulders.

"Five is bad," he said, "but with all those bombs, it sounds as though it could have been considerably worse."

"Who could hurt all those people?" Tootie demanded. "Right before Christmas?"

They watched as the news anchor explained and repeated and augmented the story of what had happened. He added details as they were fed to him; he corrected previous errors. There were six dead, not five. Many more were wounded. Blair listened for the name of the French ambassador. The anchor never said it …

"What's goin on?" asked Jo.

Blair darted a glance at her fiancée. Jo stood just inside the door, her hair damp, her face looking oddly scrubbed and pink, like a little girl's – except, of course, for the dark bruises around her eyes.

"Again," said the TV anchor, "there are five, no, six confirmed dead in coordinated bombings at the American and French embassies in Kuwait."

"Christ!" breathed Jo.

"There were also attacks on Kuwait International Airport," the anchor continued, "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 her lover.


Friday, December 24, 2010. Christmas Eve Day. Peekskill.

Alec clanged his champagne glass with a knife.

"Your attention, please, fair dames!"

"Who are you calling a dame?" Natalie demanded.

"My apologies. Your attention, please, fair dames and Natalie!"

"How does he do that?" Nat asked Tootie. "How does he manage to make everything sound like an insult?"

"It's a gift," said Tootie. "And he's got it."

"I have just been informed by my wife," said Alec, "that today is a very important musketeer anniversary. Since every day seems to be some sort of musketeer anniversary, I didn't find that particularly earth-shaking news, but I have been told that if I do not make a toast, I will be drawn and quartered at dawn. So, if everyone will lift a glass …"

Everyone lifted a glass. Alec clinked glasses with everyone in turn.

"Thirty years ago," said Alec, "you celebrated your first Christmas as Eastland chums. The year was 1980. Disco was dying. Big hair was on the horizon."

"Boo!" called Jo. "This is a horrible toast! And you weren't even there. We hadn't met you yet."

"That's not completely accurate," Alec objected. "I've know Blair since we were in nappies."

"But you didn't know us," objected Jo. "You didn't know the musketeers in 1980. You weren't there when we celebrated our first Christmas."

"Well, technically," said Blair, "neither were we. I mean, the musketeers didn't spend Christmas together that year. Or the next year. Or even the next. You all went home to your families, and I went to Gstaad and Aspen."

"That's true," agreed Natalie. "We didn't all spend Christmas together until, what would it have been? 1984?"

"1983," said Tootie. "Our first year at River Rock."

"Does anyone want to hear my toast?" asked Alec.

"No," Jo said with finality.

"My God – Christmas 1983," said Natalie. "That was right after the Kuwait bombings."

"How do you remember things so clearly?" asked Alec, impressed. "I'm lucky if I recall yesterday."

"Well, the bombings did influence my career choice," said Natalie. "I mean, didn't they for you? I always thought that was why you switched majors."

"Come to think of, yes, that was the catalyst," Alec said. He sat down, eyes thoughtful.

"The bombings sure as hell influenced my career choice," said Jo. "Not just the bombings, though. Everything that was happening that year seemed to be driving me in one direction."

"I remember that Christmas party," said Jacqueline. "I mean, I remember that I didn't attend it."

"You were teaching me a lesson about something or other," said Alec.

"A lesson you no doubt richly deserved," Jacqueline said.

The doors banged open dramatically.

"Girls! Girls!" trilled Mrs. Garrett, bursting into the room. Her bun of flaming red hair, delicately frosted with silver strands, was slightly askew.

Alec and Jo leaped to their feet.

"What is it, Mrs. G?" asked Jo.

"It's Lexi," said Mrs. Garrett. "Now, don't anyone panic – but there's been an accident!"

"What accident?" Alec demanded, going white as paper. "What happened?"

"The roads are very icy tonight, and apparently that sweeping curve, near Wiltern Road, well –"

"Well what?" Alec demanded. Jo put a hand on his arm to steady him.

"She skidded off the road," Mrs. Garrett said. "And it's very wooded along there."

"Bleeding Christ, woman," said Alec, "what happened to her? Is she all right?"

"I think so, Alec." Mrs. Garrett was trembling. Blair reached up, slipped an arm through the arm of the woman who had been her surrogate mother for more than thirty years. "They were putting her in the ambulance. I, I stopped to see if I could help. I didn't know it was Lexi until I saw the bike."

"You're sure it was her bike?" Jo asked quietly. Dear God … Not to wish anyone else ill, but maybe it wasn't Lexi …

Mrs. Garrett nodded. "It was Lexi's motorcycle. Black. Silver. 'Hellraiser' stenciled on the side."

"You had to get her the damn bike!" Alec exploded at Jo.

"C'mon, Alec," Jo said softly. "It's going to be OK."

"You had to be the cool aunt! Had to encourage her recklessness!"

Natalie had flipped open her cell phone, was punching keys. "I'll call Peekskill ER," she said. "Make sure they're ready for her. See if they know anything more."

"Why don't you sit down," Jo coaxed Alec. "Come on, pal. Nat'll find out what's going on, and then we'll all drive to the hospital."

"Sit down? Am I a bloody old granny? Lexi's driven into a tree!" He pushed past Jo, out of the room.

Jo sighed. "I'll go keep him from doing something stupid," she said.

"Good luck with that," Jacqueline called after her.

"You should sit down," Blair told Mrs. Garrett gently. "Maybe a little sweet tea. I think you might be in shock."

"Me? Oh, I'm fine," said Mrs. Garrett. But she sank into Jo's empty chair next to Blair. The elderly woman's hands were trembling.

"Well," said Blair, pouring a cup of tea, dosing it liberally with spoons of sugar, "you may be fine, but have a little Earl Grey anyway. Just to humor me." She handed the cup and saucer to Mrs. Garrett.

"Thank you, Blair." The redhead took a sip of the sweet, hot liquid. "Tea is always good for what ails you," she said.

Fortified, Mrs. Garrett turned to Tootie. "Now don't you worry, young lady, I'm sure everything – Tootie!"

Natalie almost dropped her phone when Mrs. Garrett shrieked.

"What … the … hell?" Nat demanded.

Everyone followed Mrs. Garrett's pointing finger. Tootie was slumped forward in her chair, eyes closed.

"She's fainted!" cried Mrs. Garrett.

Natalie dropped to one knee next to her best friend, put a finger on one of Tootie's wrists, another on her throat.

"Is she all right?" asked Blair.

Natalie was silent for a moment, counting heartbeats, then she nodded. "Just the shock of hearing about the accident. I should have been watching her. Blair, can you help me?"

"Of course."

Under Natalie's direction, Blair helped to gently lift Tootie from her chair, stretching her out on the carpet. Natalie folded her own blazer into a makeshift pillow and put it under Tootie's legs. She checked to be sure Tootie's collar wasn't too tight, that her airways were clear.

"Is she all right?" called Mrs. Garrett.

"She'll be fine," Natalie said confidently.

Tootie's eyelids fluttered. She lifted her head slightly.

"What happened?" she asked.

"You fainted," Natalie said matter-of-factly.

Tootie shook her head. "Impossible. We don't faint in my family. Ramseys don't faint."

"Well, they do now."

Tootie started to sit up but Natalie put a firm hand on her shoulder. "Just lie still for a moment. Give the blood and oxygen a chance to get back to your brain."

"Natalie –"

"Just chill for a minute, OK? Can you tell me what day it is?"

"December 24. It's Christmas Eve."

"And what year is it?"

"1983. I mean, 2010. Nat, this is silly. I don't have a concussion."

"I know you don't have a concussion, Miss 1983; you didn't hit your head. I'm checking your mental processes; I want to be sure your brain is getting enough oxygen. Now, can you tell me where you are?"

"Peekskill, New York."

"And what year is it again?"

Tootie rolled her eyes. "2010."

"OK, OK, smartass, but that question wasn't so easy a few seconds ago, was it?"

"It's 2010, we're in Peekskill, and I just found out Lexi crashed her bike. I need to go to her." Tootie tried to sit up again. "We all need to go to her!"

"And we will," said Nat, "in a few minutes. Mrs. Garrett –" she turned, looked up at the redhead, "can we have some of that sweet tea?"

"Of course!" Mrs. Garrett handed her tea cup to Blair, who gently held the cup to Tootie's mouth while Natalie raised Tootie's head.

"Take a sip," said Natalie. "Just a sip, and then we'll go."

Tootie drank a few sips of tea. Natalie and Blair helped her to sit up.

"What year is it?" Natalie asked Tootie again.

"It's the year I strangle you for asking me the same question over and over!"

"Tootie – come on, what year?"

"2010! Now help me up. You can give me a CAT Scan, MRI, colonoscopy, whatever the hell you want once I see Lexi's OK!"

"You get bossier ever year," Nat told Tootie, as she and Blair helped the younger woman to her feet.

"Oh, I get bossier, do I? That's rich! Now, where's my coat? And where the hell is Alec?"

"He went into action-hero mode," said Jacqueline.

"Oh, he did, did he?" Tootie asked grimly. "And that's supposed to accomplish what? He'll be crashing into a tree next."

"Don't worry," said Blair, "Jo went after him."

"Jo went after him? And why would that worry me? Blair – your wife is even more reckless than Alec is!"

"I beg your pardon? Jo is very level-headed these days."

"Ladies, ladies – can we save the childish squabbling for the car?" asked Natalie.

"How can I help?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"Stay here with Jacqueline," Blair said over her shoulder. "That would be a huge help. Everyone will be arriving soon for the party. If you could keep this under wraps, that might be best. And if there are any media inquiries, send them to my cell phone."

"Media inquiries! Of course," said Mrs. Garrett. "I didn't even think of that!"

"We can at least try to keep this out of the tabloids," said Blair.

"If you can do that," Tootie said, "I'll fire my publicist and hire you!"

Blair laughed. "You can't afford me!" She threw a final glance at Mrs. Garrett and Jacqueline. "We'll call you as soon as we know anything definite. Jack, you have your mobile?"

"Of course," said Jacqueline. "I'll leave it on." She reached across the table, squeezed Mrs. Garrett's pale hand. "Lexi will be fine," Jacqueline told the elderly woman.

"I sincerely hope so," said Mrs. Garrett. It flickered across her inner eye: the flashing red lights of the ambulance, the dark line of trees, the bike, mangled, lying on its side. "I sincerely hope so."


Saturday, December 24, 1983. Christmas Eve Day. Peekskill.

Blair yawned and stretched luxuriously when she woke.

A faint dawn light was rippling through the high windows above their bed. The tiny blue Christmas lights that Jo had strung around the room were still glowing.

It had been a beautiful night, lying in Jo's arms under the Christmas lights, reminiscing over past holidays. The more Blair learned about her fiancée, the more she realized how much more there was to learn – how much there always would be.

"What was your best Christmas gift ever?" Blair had asked the brunette.

Jo had thought about that, long and hard.

"Promise you won't laugh," Jo had said finally.

"Nope. I make no such promise."

"Brat." Jo had tickled Blair's sides. "OK. I'll tell you anyhow. When I was a little kid, I liked the Donny & Marie Show."

"You've got to be kidding!" Blair had said, in her haughtiest Dina Becker impersonation.

Jo had tickled her again, mercilessly, until Blair giggled and squirmed.

"So, anyhow," Jo had continued, "I really, really wanted these Donnie & Marie dolls that came out that summer. I think, like, in August I was already writin to Santa to bring me these dolls at Christmas."

"Jo," Blair had said thoughtfully, trailing her fingers up and down Jo's arms, "Donny & Marie wasn't on that long ago."

"Sure it was."

"No, it wasn't. I used to watch that show too. My cousin Geri was on a couple of episodes over the years. You must have been about –" Blair had started counting on her fingers.

"Look, how old I was is immaterial," Jo had said hastily. "I wrote to Santa, I asked for the dolls, I got the dolls, happy-ever-after, end of story."

"Twelve!" Blair had said triumphantly. "You couldn't have been younger than twelve. Jo – that is so sweet!"

"No it's not," Jo had grumbled. "It's not sweet!"

"It is! It's adorable." Blair had kissed Jo's hands. "When did you finally realize that there isn't a Santa Claus?"

"Who says there isn't?" Jo demanded.

"Darling – you don't still believe in Santa?"

"I'm not sayin I do," Jo had said evasively. "But I'm not sayin I don't."

"Jo!"

"Look, never mind teasin me. We all got our belief systems."

"Does Santa Claus qualify as a 'belief system'?" Blair had wondered.

"Blair, stop insultin the deepest tenets of my existence, and tell me what your best Christmas gift was."

"Well …" Blair had considered the question thoughtfully. "The best present I ever received was Chestnut."

"Yeah, of course, but he was a birthday present. What's the best Christmas present you ever got?"

Blair's eyes had narrowed. "Jo Polniaczek, you'd better not be fishing around for ideas! You already got me a present – didn't you? I mean, I know we're broke this year, so it can be homemade, or found by the side of the road, or whatever, but you've already wrapped it – right?"

"Calm down, hothead, yeah, I already got your presents. I took care of 'em a million years ago. Now stop changin the subject. Best Christmas present. Answer in the next ten seconds or I'll tickle you until you fall outta the bed!"

"For goodness sake! Can we have one conversation without violent threats?"

"No. And the clock is ticking. Tick-tock!"

"It was a Dawn doll," Blair had answered hastily.

"A what?"

"A Dawn doll. They were these little dolls – kind of cheap, I guess. But I was crazy to get one. They had these glittery outfits. Dawn was blonde, and she had a redheaded friend, but I wanted Angie. Angie had black hair."

Jo had laughed. "So … You always had a thing for cheap brunettes!"

Blair had rolled her eyes. "Jo – I was eight years old." She had snuggled closer against her lover. "I remember really wanting that doll. Mother must have had a terrible time finding it – or, I should say, Mrs. Pip. Mrs. Pip, as I learned in later years, did all the gift shopping. But Dawn dolls were very popular, and they didn't carry them at the stores we frequented. Mrs. Pip must've had to go to Macy's."

"Macy's, oh, the horrors!" Jo had laughed. "Not Macy's! Regular children shop at Macy's! Macy's has cooties!"

Blair had whomped Jo in the head with a pillow, but Jo had just kept laughing.

"I went to Macy's," Blair had said with dignity. "To see Santa."

"You went to see Santa?"

"When I was eight!"

The conversation had devolved into laughter and tickling and flying pillows … Finally they had fallen asleep …

Now, lying in the dawn light on Christmas Eve day, Blair felt wonderfully rested and optimistic.

This last four months … I wouldn't trade a moment. Not the bad, not the good. It's all brought us here …

Jo appeared in the sitting room doorway wearing her blue silk pajamas and a blue silk robe. Her hair was brushed, hanging loose down her back and shining like mahogany. Her black eyes had faded completely over the past weeks, and her nose looked normal again.

Jo's eyes danced. "Hey, there, sleepy-head."

Blair yawned and stretched again. "Good morning, Jo."

"You, ah, might wanna come out here," Jo suggested. "I think Santa's been here already."

Blair smiled. She sat up, pulling on her white silk robe.

"Has he really?"

"Yep. Seems like," Jo said.

Blair climbed out of bed, slipped her feet into her white mules. She moved toward Jo with a faint swish of silk, her blonde hair flowing over her shoulders in fetching little tangles.

She looks like a movie goddess, thought Jo, her heart skipping a beat.

Jo gently stopped Blair in the doorway, putting one arm around Blair's waist.

"Not, uh, not quite so fast," said Jo.

She pointed up at the lintel, where someone had tacked a sprig of mistletoe.

Blair laughed, delighted. She kissed Jo, a long, deep, lingering kiss that brought a flush to Jo's face and chest. "Merry Christmas Eve," said Blair.

"Uh … yeah," said Jo, her head spinning.

Blair gently pushed past her lover.

She saw the surprise immediately – a lovely glass lamp sitting on the coffee table. It was a soft blue-green color, almost the shade of Jo's eyes; the morning light flowed through the lamp like seawater.

"Jo, it's beautiful," breathed Blair. "Is this …"

"For our pied-à-terre," said Jo. "To replace the one we broke."

"Where did you find it?"

Jo shrugged. "I didn't find it. Check the tag."

Blair found a pasteboard tag hanging from the lamp's delicate brass turn-key.

"For Blair," read the tag, "From Santa Claus."

"Hmm." Blair's mouth twitched. "I wonder where Santa found this?"

"The elves made it," said Jo. "You know. In the workshop."

"Well, since you seem to have some kind of special connection with the North Pole … Tell Santa I said 'Thank you'. And give him this." Blair kissed Jo on the cheek.

Mrs. Garrett was in the kitchen already, scrambling eggs with diced ham and Vermont cheddar.

"Tootie and Nat still sleepin?" asked Jo, pouring out three cups of coffee.

"I suppose so," said Mrs. Garrett. "You've been running them ragged, Jo."

"Running them ragged with what?" Blair asked curiously.

Jo shot her surrogate mother a thanks a lot! look.

Mrs. Garrett shook her head and yawned. "I'm sorry, Jo. Between filming the show, and all those late nights dancing with Drake, I'm a little punch-drunk these days."

"How have you been running Natalie and Tootie ragged?" Blair asked Jo again.

"They've just been … helpin me with stuff," said Jo.

"I'm sorry," said Blair. "That wasn't vague enough. Try again."

"They've been helpin me with some Christmas stuff," said Jo.

"Oh. I see." Blair's eyes sparkled as she regarded Jo over the rim of her coffee cup. "Helping with Christmas stuff – like, I don't know – little elves?"

Jo grinned. "I guess one could say that."

"What about elves?" asked Natalie, yawning hugely as she wandered into the kitchen, an equally sleepy Tootie in her wake.

"I love my lamp," Blair told them. "Where did you find it?"

Natalie looked at Blair like the blonde had gone off her rocker.

"What lamp?" Nat looked at Tootie. "There's a lamp?"

Tootie shrugged drowsily.

"What lamp?" Natalie repeated. "Why doesn't' anyone tell me anything?"

"For cryin out loud," Jo said to Blair, "don't get them all wound up. I found the lamp. Tootie and Nat have been helpin with other stuff."

Natalie threw open her arms in exasperation. "You told her, Jo? After all we did to keep the secrets? Does she know about –"

"Nothin," said Jo, "Blair knows nothin! And let's keep it that way."

"But what's this lamp she's talking about?"

"Just a little somethin I got her."

"So she doesn't know about –"

"No! Nothin."

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Curiouser and curiouser," she said. "It sounds like I have a lot of surprises in store."

"You don't know the half of it," said Tootie.

"No," Jo said significantly, "she doesn't."

Natalie glanced at her wristwatch. "Well she's going to know one of them PDQ. T-minus twenty minutes and counting."

"Oh, this is so exciting!" said Tootie, smiling around a yawn.

"Well, if this surprise is a person, they can make their own breakfast," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "I'm hanging up my apron until tonight. Girls – eat your eggs."

"Yes, Mrs. Garrett," the musketeers said obediently, as if they were back in the Eastland kitchen.

Alec wandered into the kitchen in pajamas and robe.

"'Morning, fair dames," he said sleepily.

"And you eat your eggs too!" said Mrs. Garrett.

"Um … certainly," he said. What did I do? he mouthed to Jo.

Jo just shook her head. She's tired, mouthed Jo.

Mrs. Garrett hung her apron on a peg, and headed upstairs.

"Who are you calling a dame, anyway?" Natalie asked Alec.

"All of you. It's a term of respect," he said.

"Well it sounds sexist to me."

"It's not sexist in Britain. Perhaps it's one of those terms that doesn't translate well." He sat on one of the tall stools at the butcher block table. "Mmn – these eggs smell heavenly."

They all sat at the table, digging into the ham-and-cheddar eggs.

"All right," said Natalie, mouth half full, "let's go over everything one more time."

Tootie groaned. "Nat, between finals and Christmas, I've been dreaming about schedules and itineraries. Can't we have one boring, irresponsible breakfast?"

"Uh, that's a negative, Ramsey. What? You want something to slip through the cracks?"

"Frankly, at the moment, I could really care less."

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," said Natalie. She looked at Blair. "Who do you have coming to dinner tonight?"

"No one. Disowned, remember? And thanks ever so much for bringing it up."

"OK, so that's Blair plus zero," Natalie said unflappably. "Jo?"

"I don't need anyone but Blair," Jo said gallantly. Blair blew her a kiss. "Plus – I'm disowned too. No word from Charlie. No word from Ma. Uncle Sal and Bud and Pauly and Terry send their regrets. Ma still hasn't told anyone what I'm s'posed to have done, but everyone's forbidden under pain of excommunication to visit me for Christmas."

"What about Tatum O'Neal?" Blair asked Jo.

"Jesse? I dunno, haven't heard anything from her. Don't know how she'd get up here, anyhow."

"So that's Jo plus zero," said Natalie. "Alec?"

He sighed. "I invited Jacqueline yet again, but she refused me. Yet again. It really does seem to be over. And, to paraphrase our Blair, thanks ever so much for reminding me about my shattered, broken, bloody and battered heart."

"No problem."

"Who is on the guest list?" asked Blair, intrigued.

"Oh no." Natalie shook her head. "Even thumbscrews couldn't drag that information out of me! I can tell you that my parents won't be coming up. They're visiting Brenda in Orlando."

"How is Brenda?" asked Blair.

Natalie rarely spoke about her older sister. Brenda was a stewardess, Blair knew, and lived in Florida. Unlike Natalie, Brenda wasn't adopted, but from what Blair had gleaned, even though Nat wasn't Syd and Evie's natural daughter, she was closer to her parents than Brenda had ever been.

"Brenda is, well, Brenda," Natalie said enigmatically.

"What about your gran?" asked Jo. "Mona's such a pistol! If you could bottle her chutzpah, you'd make a million!"

"She respectfully declined," said Nat. "Which reminds me, I'm supposed to tell all you gentiles 'Merry Christmas' from her. She's spending Christmas with some of the ladies from the temple. They're going for Chinese food or something."

"Well what about your family?" Blair asked Tootie.

"They're staying in D.C.," Tootie said, sounding disappointed. "Dad and the boys really missed Mom when she spent Thanksgiving here. She had fun, but I guess when she got home, the mess was pretty crazy. My brothers played football in the dining room, and Dad burned the roast."

"A woman's work is never done," sighed Natalie.

"Is Belmont coming?" Jo asked her.

Natalie pursed her lips. "Belmont is MIA. Again. I don't think long-distance relationships are his forte."

"Jeez, I'm sorry, Nat." Jo punched Natalie's shoulder lightly. "If he's that stupid –"

"Yeah, I know," said Nat. "Still sucks, though. What is it we're all saying this morning? Thanks ever so much for reminding me of my broken heart!"

They all laughed. Tootie put a commiserating arm around her friend's shoulders.

"Petal coming?" Jo asked Natalie.

"Yes, that's a big 10-4," Nat said. "Petal and Portia. Alec, not to rub salt in your wound, but I find it hard to believe Jacqueline won't at least make an appearance, since two of her best friends are going to be here tonight."

"If she shows up, get her under some mistletoe," Jo told Alec. "You can't miss with a little romantic holiday mush."

Blair lifted one eyebrow. "Is that so?" she asked Jo.

"Well … So I've heard," Jo said a little smugly.

"But what should I say to her?" asked Alec. He groaned, leaned his head on his hands.

"Don't say anything," advised Tootie. "Talking is overrated."

"Especially when you can't seem to stop babblin marriage proposals," Jo told Alec. "Just get her under some mistletoe, look deep into her eyes, and get to the kissin."

"Speaking of 'getting to the kissing'," said Natalie, "who else has walked in on Mrs. Garrett and Drake?"

Everyone's hand shot up.

"I don't mean to be ageist," Natalie began, but Jo cut her off.

"If you don't mean to be ageist, then don't."

"But, I mean, they're like a couple of teenagers. They're making out here, there and everywhere!"

"It's Mrs. G's house now," said Jo. "She can do what she wants. Besides which," she grinned, "I think it's really sweet."

"Well at least they keep their clothes on," Natalie said, with a pointed glance at Jo and Blair.

"Hey, we've been keepin our clothes on," Jo said defensively. "If Blair wears any more clothes she's gonna start lookin like an Amish school teacher!"

"Let's keep it that way," said Nat.

"So … who else is coming tonight?" asked Alec. "Or is that it? Us, Drake, Petal and Portia? Seems kind of thin, especially after Thanksgiving. Did anyone think to invite Boots?"

"Boots St. Clair?" asked Natalie. "The Gamma Gamma president? The little waif who got tanked up at Thanksgiving and almost got into a wrestling match with Blair? Over Jo?"

"Hey, you don't gotta say that like it's crazy," objected Jo. "I'm a really great catch."

"The St. Clairs are all barking mad, back to the Crusades," said Alec. "But there's something rather … sweet about Boots."

Natalie sighed. "If you want to invite her, Alec, don't have any objection. But you have to be responsible for her if she has one of her … episodes. And keep her away from Blair. Blair seems to set her off."

"Actually," said Blair, "this might be a good occasion for Boots and I to have a little heart-to-heart."

"Oh, perfect," said Nat, rolling her eyes. "That will end well."

"So, it will be us, Drake, Petal, Portia and Boots," said Blair, ticking everyone off her fingers. "That's Christmas Eve. And everyone's staying over for Christmas morning breakfast?"

"Yes. That's the plan, anyway. Of course, if our usual luck holds, someone will storm out after a fist-fight, and someone else will be carried away in an ambulance! But don't worry," Natalie smiled mysteriously, "because we'll have some assorted mystery guests!"

Tootie smiled at Natalie. They high-fived triumphantly.

Blair shivered with excitement, like a little girl. "I'm getting very intrigued," she said. "Who have you invited?"

"You'll just have to wait and see," said Natalie. "In fact," she checked her watch, "our first special guest will be arriving at Fantasy Island just … about … now."

They all sat in pregnant silence. The clock ticked loudly on the wall.

Natalie looked at her watch again. "Just … about … now."

The doorbell pealed.

Jo grinned at Nat and Tootie. "Gotta admit, guys. Very impressive organization."

Tootie buffed her fingernails on her bathrobe. Natalie patted a yawn with mock modesty.

"The Snoop Sisters are a full-service operation," said Nat.

"Yeah," said Tootie. "And we knew what time her bus was getting in, and we had a taxi cab waiting at the bus stop. When you figure it's about fifteen minutes from the center of Peekskill, you can calculate that she'll arrive at –"

"Tootie," groaned Natalie, "I keep telling you … When you explain how we do it, you kill the mystique." She climbed off of her stool. "Come on, Tootie. Let's go admit our special guest."

"Who do you think it is?" Alec asked Blair while they waited for the younger girls to return with the visitor.

"I don't know," Blair said, "but I can't wait to find out." She touched Jo's face tenderly. "What have you been up to, darling? You masterminded all this, didn't you?"

Jo shrugged modestly. Her eyes gleamed.

"Merry Christmas, Blair," said a soft voice.

Blair turned. Her eyes widened, and filled with tears.

"Meg? Is that really you?"

Meg opened her arms. Blair slipped down off of her kitchen stool and hugged her step-sister.

"Let me look at you!" Blair said stepping back.

"What do you think?" asked Meg, twirling around.

The young woman was as pretty as ever, although her face was bare of makeup. Her silvery blonde hair was hidden, tucked under a white veil. She wore a black dress, black stockings, and simple black shoes.

"Very stylish," teased Blair. "I didn't know Yves St. Laurent made habits!"

"Oh, we're all about style," laughed Meg. "That's why everyone joins our order – for the fashion!"

Blair hugged her again.

"Oh, Meg. Meg. Are you happy?"

"Do I look happy?"

"You do," Blair said sincerely. Meg seemed to radiate a serenity that was almost palpable. "Oh, Meg, I'm so glad for you. Can you ever forgive me? For last spring? I mean, I know you forgave me, but I want to be sure that you know how much I'm sorry."

Meg took Blair's hands, shook them gently. "My dear sister … I do know. And I want you to forgive me for the way I dropped that bombshell. I could have eased into my announcement a little more delicately. But I was so excited. I should have remembered your, your –"

"Her complicated relationship with religion," said Jo.

Meg glanced at Jo, smiled. She opened her arms. "Don't leave me hanging here, Jo."

Jo climbed off her kitchen stool, went to the young novice and hugged her.

Meg looked thoughtfully at the young brunette. "You look … well," she said.

"Thank you. I am … well," said Jo.

Meg tilted her head. "Something's different." She smiled. "Are you still thinking about becoming a nun?"

Jo shook her head. "Not anymore. I think God's maybe got some other good plans for me."

"I'm sure He has great plans for you," Meg said fondly, "whatever they might be. But if you ever change your mind, and decide to join us, we could really use another decent player on our field hockey team!"

"Decent? Jo's incredible!" said Blair. "She's the captain of the Langley Lions team. She led them to nationals."

Jo blushed. "For cryin out loud, Blair."

"Well, you did."

"I mean, yeah, but," Jo lowered her voice, "vanity's a sin."

"It is?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that settles it," said Blair. "I could never be a nun."

Alec cleared his throat.

"Since no one seems interested in introducing me," he said, "I'll do it myself." He gave Meg a little bow; he took her hand and kissed it. He looked cheerfully at the novice with his clear, sapphire eyes.

"My name is Alec," he said "and I'm the purely platonic, brotherly housemate at this establishment. And before you ask, no, I have never, personally, considered joining a convent. Although that might have been narrow-minded of me, if you're any example of what nuns are like today."

Meg actually blushed. "Well, ah, thank you. It's very nice to meet you, Alec."

Jo kicked Alec in the shin.

"Bloody hell!" he swore. "Jo – that really hurt!"

"Well stop giving Meg that look! She's a bride of Christ, you knucklehead."

"Not quite yet," said Meg. "I'm still a novice. But I will be a bride of Christ someday. And Jo, you don't have to attack this young man for being nice to me."

"Too right!" said Alec, nursing his shin.

"Although, I do appreciate your looking out for me," Meg continued. "Jo – to be attracted to someone is human. There isn't anything bad or shameful in it, even for a nun, as long as we don't act upon our urges."

Jo kicked Alec's other shin.

"What the hell?" he demanded.

"Go put some regular clothes on!" Jo told him. "Stop givin Meg urges!"

Meg put a hand on Jo's arm. "Jo," she said gently, "I thought you were working on your temper."

"I am."

"She really is," said Blair, "believe it or not."

"Lovely to meet you, Sister," Alec said to Meg. "And now I shall limp to my room to put on some 'regular clothes' before our Jo amputates my limbs."

When Alec left, Meg sat on one of the kitchen stools and looked around the warm, timbered chamber.

"Where is Mrs. Garrett?" she asked. "She was so wonderful to me last spring. I'm looking forward to seeing her again."

"Mrs. Garrett is resting," said Blair. "She's burning the candle at both ends these days."

"I hear she's going to be a morning TV star."

"The Snoop Sisters sure know how to spread the news!" laughed Jo.

"You're not kidding! After they fast-talked Mother Superior into giving me a Christmas leave, Natalie and Tootie brought me up to speed on the latest developments around here. Well – most of them anyway." Meg looked significantly from Blair to Jo. "There might be a few things you'll want to tell me yourselves …?"

Jo blushed. "Uh, no," she said. "I'm good."

Blair cleared her throat. She smiled one her toothiest, most glued-on smiles. "Uh, me too," she said.

I am still getting used to my step-sister being a nun. I am not ready to tell her about my love life with Jo!

"So, I'll grab your bags," Jo told Meg. Time for me to beat a hasty retreat, before Meg starts askin more questions!

Jo looked around the kitchen, saw only a small black bag on the floor by the kitchen door. "Is that it?" she asked incredulously. "You sure you're Blair's sister?"

"Not allowed to have possessions," Meg explained, "remember?"

"Yet another reason I'd make a terrible nun," said Blair.

Jo lifted the small black bag. It was feather-light. "Whaddya got in here – a roll of Certs and some lint?"

"A change of habit and a toothbrush," said Meg, "and my pocket Bible, of course. 'Don't leave home without it.'"

Jo looked to Blair. "I thought Meg would like the White Room. It's so pretty and, you know, pure lookin, and it gets all that nice mornin light."

"Oh, please don't go to any trouble," said Meg.

"It's no trouble," said Jo. "We're glad to have you here."

Meg turned to Blair. "If you don't mind, I'd like to bunk with you. We have so much to talk about. We can stay up all night, catching up and giggling – it'll be just like old times!"

"That sounds lovely," said Blair.

Jo cleared her throat. "OK, I'll, ah, run Meg's bag up to your room, Blair, and make sure everythin's, ah, ship-shape."

Oh, crud! thought Blair. For a few seconds she had flashed back to her childhood, when she had her own room; whenever Meg visited they'd hole up there and laugh and tell ghost stories and eat candy.

But my room is Jo's room too … Well … It's just for one night …

"Don't worry," Jo told Blair, with a reassuring smile, "I'll make sure the room is perfect. I know how much this means to you, havin Meg visit for Christmas."

Which translated, Blair knew, to: I'm cool findin another place to bunk tonight, babe. I want you to enjoy this time with your sister.

Blair prevented herself from rushing across the room, into Jo's arms, and giving her the biggest, warmest hug ever.

"Thanks," she said huskily.

"Hey, what are friends for?" Jo said breezily. And that's what I am babe, now and forever, first, last and always – I'm your friend Blair Warner.

Whistling "The Christmas Waltz" Jo headed upstairs …


Meg wasn't in Blair's suite for more than a few seconds before she noticed indications of Jo's presence.

Jo had clearly tidied things up when she dropped off Meg's bag. There was a sense that the place had been hastily cleaned and some of the objects adjusted, but amidst the hurried clean-up, certain things had been overlooked.

Exhibit A: a pair of motorcycle gloves draped carelessly on one of the bookshelves, as if dropped there for a moment and then forgotten.

Exhibit B: a botany book and a math text on the coffee table, subjects that held little to no interest for Blair Warner.

Exhibits C & D were a pair of motorcycle boots in the corner, and a field hockey stick leaning in the umbrella stand.

Meg sat down on the divan, patting the empty space next to her.

"Sit," she said gently.

Blair sat.

Meg looked significantly from the gloves to the text books to the boots to the hockey stick.

"Blair – I thought it would be fun for us to have a sleepover and catch up, but I don't want to put Jo out of your room."

Blair blushed a deep, deep crimson.

"Meg … What you must think of me!"

"I don't think anything bad," Meg said gently.

"But you're a nun. How could you not be appalled?"

"First, as I keep telling everyone, I'm not a nun yet. I'm a novice. This is my time to question and deal with my doubts."

"But you're going to be a nun. And from what I keep hearing, what Jo and I feel for each other is a big, big sin in the eyes of the church. How could you approve?"

"I didn't say I approved. But I'm not going to judge you."

"Why not?" Blair shook her head. "It seems like everyone else is. Not everyone. I'm exaggerating. But Jo's family … They're all freezing us out."

Meg took Blair's hands. "Blair, it's true that presently love between two women is considered a sin. But there are winds of change blowing through the Catholic church."

"Really? Well maybe you can you tell them to blow through the Bronx," said Blair. "Because it doesn't seem like St. Adalbert's received that memo!"

Meg laughed. She squeezed Blair's hands. "It's not like a memo, Blair. It's like a confluence of, of thoughts, and ideas, and feelings. Things are starting to loosen up in the church. It started with Vatican II. God's love, his mercy, is finally getting more attention than his wrath. And maybe someday, what you and Jo feel won't be considered a sin anymore ..."

Blair had an image of the interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral; the flickering candles; all their family and friends gathered together; Jo in a stunning white gown; Blair in a gown equally, no, even more stunning. "I now pronounce you woman and wife," intoned a priest …

Blair shook her head. "I would imagine that's a long way away," she said to Meg.

"Perhaps," Meg agreed. "But at least there are a few signs that the theological ice is thawing."

"Why aren't you shocked?" asked Blair. "About me and Jo, I mean."

"I guess because I know you. You're my little sister, Blair."

"Then … you've always known?"

Meg settled back against the divan. "Ever since you were small, Blair, I've noticed that your eyes light up whenever you see a pretty woman."

"But that doesn't mean anything," objected Blair. "I've always loved fashion."

Meg shook her head. "True … But it was more than that. I mean, I never knew for sure, and I didn't want to assume, but you always seemed attracted to girls. And when you settled in so happily at that girls' school, and when you went through date after date, boyfriend after boyfriend without ever really finding a serious beau …"

"So you've always known," Blair said thoughtfully. "My mother's always known, too."

"But I imagine she's not taking it quite as well as I am," said Meg.

"No. So I cut myself off. And mother and Daddy … they've let me be cut off."

"That's extremely brave of you."

"Yes and no. To be honest, I think deep down I expected them to give in. But it doesn't look like they will. Not anytime soon, anyway. And I'm making my peace with that."

"It's not easy, is it?" asked Meg with a wry smile. "Defying your parents? Defying convention, even though you know that what you're doing is the path that you have to follow?"

"It's not easy," Blair agreed. She hugged Meg impulsively. "I can never apologize enough," she said, "for not being more understanding when you said you wanted to be a nun. Now that was brave! You were brave! And when you came to me for support, I was so horrible to you!"

"Listen, you have to stop apologizing, Blair. Could you have been nicer? Yes. But if I could do it over, I would've made my announcement a little more intelligently. Looking back to last spring, I was so full of myself, so sanctimonious. That happens, sometimes, when you're really passionate about something. You're so convinced it's right, you don't try hard enough to explain it to the people that aren't so sure."

"I'm sure about Jo," said Blair. She smiled radiantly. "She's the love of my life."

"I had a feeling about you two," said Meg.

"Stop! You didn't!"

"I did."

"But Jo and I were fighting the whole time you visited Eastland! She hit me, for heaven's sake!"

"I know. I remember. It was like a really long, really bad episode of 'The Honeymooners'. You were Alice – and Jo sent you to the moon."

"But … you really saw something between us at Eastland?"

"Jo hit you because you insulted her religion. And you insulted her religion because you were afraid of losing her. That seemed pretty clear to me – clearer to me, probably, than it was to you at the time. So now, Jo sets in motion this whole elaborate plot to get me up here to surprise you for Christmas. If that isn't love, I don't know what is! And then I find little bits and pieces of Jo all over your suite …"

"Cogito ergo Jo," Blair said thoughtfully.

Meg laughed. "Your Latin always was hit or miss. So. Let's have a good old gab session, but then I want you to bring me to this famous White Room with its morning light."

"Meg –"

But Meg shook her head firmly. "I will not put Jo out of these rooms, and that's final. And you have to listen to me, because I'm your older sister."

"Well … when you're right, you're right." Blair settled back against the divan.

"I do have one concern, however. I want you to think about whether it's a good idea to have premarital sex with anyone – man or woman. I'm not casting any stones, Blair. No judgments. Just make sure you've really thought it through."

Blair laughed. "Meg, the only sex Jo and I can have is premarital. I mean, if you can find a priest or a minister or a rabbi or someone to marry me and Jo, just point us in their direction. I want to marry her; I'd do it in a heartbeat. But, quite literally, I can't. You know me, Meg. Do you think I'd be with Jo like this otherwise?"

"No. No, I suppose not."

"Look." Blair pulled a slender silver chain from within her blouse, held it up to the sunlight. A ring on the chain winked silver. "Jo proposed to me. Less than a month after we started dating. And I said 'yes'. It was the easiest decision I ever made."

Meg reached out a hand. "May I?" she asked.

"Of course."

Meg gently touched the little silver ring. She turned it from side to side, then let it fall back against Blair's chest. "The ring is beautiful," Meg said quietly.

"I know. Jo's grandfather gave it to her grandmother, right before they fled Krakow. It's a sign of commitment, of belief in love – no matter what."

"Blair … I can't say I approve. And I can't say you don't have a hard road ahead of you."

"Ahead of us, behind us and under our feet," laughed Blair.

"But I support you, sister. And for the record, I think your relationship with Jo is, well, beautiful."

Blair's eyes misted over. She slipped her engagement ring and its silver chain back inside her blouse. "Well," she said, "that's plenty about me. You tell me something about the convent. I supposed you have to wake up at some ungodly hour and scrub muddy steps and say the rosary twenty-four-seven?"

Meg's laughter filled the sitting room, a bright, merry peal. "Something like that," she said …

Jo, passing by the suite on her way to the attic, heard Meg's laughter and grinned.

They're havin a good visit! I knew they would. Merry Christmas, babe!


Christmas Eve dinner was a surprisingly lively affair, although it was more modest, relatively speaking, than Thanksgiving had been.

Jo, Blair, Natalie, Tootie, Mrs. Garrett, Drake, Alec, Meg, Petal, Portia and Boots gathered around the grand old dining room table, which the girls had set with the mismatched crystal and porcelain.

Red and gold candles flickered in crystal candleholders. Christmas records played on a battered old stereo in the corner.

Mrs. Garrett had outdone herself, as usual, with roast beef and hot fresh rolls and assorted other delights, including, in recognition of Alec's heritage, mince pies, figgy pudding, mulled wine, and a potent rum punch that would, in Jo's parlance, "melt the fillins right outta their heads".

Boots was her usual self, which is to say that she was unusual, interspersing blank stares with sudden, often incomprehensible exclamations of excitement.

Petal and Portia knew Boots from way back, however, and kept her occupied with chatter about which Gamma Gamma girls were dating which fraternity boys and the sorority social calendar for spring.

Everyone complimented the chef; she accepted the praises absent-mindedly, often too lost in Drake's eyes to fully absorb what was being said to her.

"Well, this is lovely," Blair said sincerely, when they were all sitting in a happy stupor after the last bite of dessert, "but I have one teensy complaint to make."

"Complaint?" demanded Mrs. Garrett. "After a meal like this?"

"It's not about the meal," Blair reassured her, "since it was divine. And it's not about the company, which is also divine. But I was told earlier today to expect an amazing roster of 'mystery guests'. Meg makes one. What happened to the rest?"

Natalie and Tootie grinned at each other and high-fived again.

"The night is still young," said Natalie.

"All in good time," said Tootie.

"So there are other mystery guests? That wasn't false advertising?" Blair pressed.

"O, ye of little faith," tisked Natalie. "Blair, when will you fully appreciate how amazing Tootie and I are? We can move mountains."

"Although we might have oversold it a little bit," Tootie conceded. "There's only one more mystery guest."

"But what a guest!" Natalie promised.

Jo was grinning ear-to-ear.

"Well," said Petal, pushing her chair back, "it's been a delightful meal, but Portia and I need to push along now. Prior engagement."

"We're going skiing with Jackrabbit," Portia elaborated. "That trip we were supposed to take over Thanksgiving break."

"Vermont?" Alec asked dully.

Petal nudged Portia in the ribs.

"What did I say?" asked Portia, baffled.

"Going to Stowe, I suppose," said Alec, trying to sound casual.

"No," said Portia, "we're renting a cabin at Burke Mountain. But there's a lodge nearby. Rum toddies by a crackling fire – and plenty of ski instructors."

"Well, have a, have a lovely time," Alec said. "And tell Jacqueline I said … nothing." He stood abruptly. "Ladies, I think I'll clear some of these plates. They won't clear themselves." He picked up a hodgepodge of plates and silverware, and headed toward the kitchen.

"Well that was a fine 'Merry Christmas'!" Petal told Portia.

"What?" asked Portia. "What did I say?"

"For someone with such a high IQ you can be pretty damn dense. Can't you see he's crushed?"

"Is he? He doesn't look crushed."

"Portia, not everyone moons around like you do when their heart is broken. Some people actually try to keep a stiff upper lip."

"Alec is pretty devastated," Tootie said.

"Hey, he cleared the dishes," said Jo. "Alec helped with housework – he must be half outta his head!"

"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.

"What? I'm sympathetic. I feel bad for milord. But it is pretty wild to see him voluntarily do a chore."

"No one cares when I'm heartbroken," complained Portia. "Why is everyone feeling bad for Alec?"

"Because you're always heartbroken," said Petal. "It gets so tiresome, dear."

"Nobody cares when I'm heartbroken either," said Boots. "People can be very cold." She shot an acidic glance at Blair.

The doorbell pealed in the distance.

"I'll get that," Jo said excitedly.

"We'll go with you," said Petal. "You can see us out, captain."

Petal and Portia went around the table, hugging everyone and wishing everyone a "Merry Christmas".

"Don't be strangers," Mrs. Garrett told them. "Consider this the Langley Lions' second home."

"Thank you Mrs. Garrett!"

The doorbell pealed again, repeatedly and insistently.

Jo frowned. "That's odd," she said. "He wouldn't ring the bell like a little kid."

"He who?" Blair asked curiously. "Who wouldn't ring the bell like a little kid?"

"He 'never mind who'," said Jo. "Back in a minute."

When Jo, Petal and Portia had left the room, Blair turned to Tootie and Nat.

"Who is it?" she asked. "It's not … is it my father?" she asked hopefully.

Natalie and Tootie shook their heads solemnly.

"No, Blair," said Tootie. "Jo tried, but … no."

"Oh." Blair drew a deep breath. "Well, it's his choice."

Meg put a comforting hand on Blair's shoulder.

"Wait," Blair said to Tootie, "what do you mean, 'Jo tried'?"

"She crashed your father's office," said Tootie. "Right after your New York weekend."

"With our help," added Natalie.

"Hello, this is J.P.'s secretary," Tootie said in a nasal Noo Yawk accent. "I'm cawling to confirm J.P.'s appointment for two p.m."

Blair laughed. "Tootie, you're a wonder! Do you mean to tell me that Jo actually went to see my father? At the Warner Building?"

"She bearded the lion in his den," said Nat.

Blair's eyes filled with tears. She dabbed at them with a clean napkin. Meg gave her a little hug.

Jo went to see my father. My God! Jo is the bravest, kindest … there are no words …

"Thank you Nat. Tootie."

"Oh, all in a day's work," Tootie said airily.

Boots was glaring at the rum cake crumbs on her plate, pushing them about with her fork.

"Some people," Boots said darkly, "don't deserve half of what they get."

Blair sighed.

"Boots, help me clear the rest of the table," she said.

"I beg your pardon? I'm a guest here."

"There are no guests here today," said Blair, gathering plates and dishes. "It's Christmas. If you're here at this table, you're family."

"Blair Warner, if you think I'm going to –"

"Boots St. Clair, pick up some dishes and get your bony little butt into the kitchen!"

"Well!" Boot's nostrils flared in barely suppressed rage. But she picked up a plate and glass, and reluctantly followed the blonde out of the dining room.

"Wow!" said Natalie. "Jo is really rubbing off on Blair."

"I don't know about that," laughed Meg. "Blair was always pretty bossy. Although I don't remember her every telling anyone they had a 'bony little butt'. I think Jo's vocabulary might be rubbing off on her!"

"Well, I predict another one of our usual holiday blood baths. Those two, in the kitchen, washing knives and forks – not a good scenario. Tootie, is the first aid kit fully stocked?"

"What am I – Florence Nightingale?"

"They'll be fine," Mrs. Garrett said. "Frankly, it's about time those two had a chat."

"I don't think it's going to be a 'chat'," Natalie said doubtfully. "Blair is defending her, ah," she shot a quick glance at Meg, "her territory."

Meg smiled beatifically. "Natalie … Blair and I had a long chat today. I'm completely up to speed on her 'territory'."

"Oh. Oh!" Natalie put a hand to her chest as she grasped what Meg was saying. "So – you know? Is Blair going to be excommunicated?"

Meg laughed. "Of course not! First of all, I'm not going to report her to the Pope. And second of all, Blair can't be excommunicated."

"The Warners are that powerful?" Natalie marveled.

"No, Natalie, it's because the Warners aren't Catholic. Only Catholics can be excommunicated."

"Ah! Good to know. Note to self: remain Jewish."

"You're wrong, you know," Mrs. Garrett told Natalie. "Blair isn't defending her territory. Well – perhaps a little bit. But mainly she wants to help Boots. Boots seems to be going through some feelings and confusion that Blair has had to deal with herself."

"So, instead of a smack-down – it's an intervention?" asked Nat.

"I don't know if I'd put it that way, but, close enough," said Mrs. Garrett. "Now – there's still one more slice of figgy pudding. Who wants it? Going once … going twice …"


Boots had clearly never done a single domestic task in her life.

She stared at the dish towel that Blair extended. "That's the ugliest scarf I've ever seen," she said.

Blair sighed. "It's not a scarf, Boots."

"Well it's too short to be a sash … it wouldn't even fit around my waist." Boots glanced significantly at Blair's generous waistline.

Blair counted to ten.

"Boots," she said, "this is a dish towel. You use it to dry dishes."

"Ha!" Boots folded her arms across her narrow chest. "You can use it to dry dishes!"

"I'm washing the dishes," said Blair. "You're drying the dishes. Now."

Boots sighed. She accepted the dish towel with ill grace. "Is this what regular people do? They conscript their guests into forced labor?"

Blair rolled her eyes. "Boots, I want to talk to you."

She handed the slight debutante a plate.

Boots held the plate gingerly, as if it were a snake that might bite her.

"What do I do with this?" she asked.

Blair nudged her chin at the dish towel. "Use that," she said, "to dry it."

Tentatively, with nervous little movements, Blair dried the plate. "Now what?"

"You put it in the rack. There."

Boots set it carefully in the rack. She looked at her hand. "I think I hurt my finger," she said.

"You'll live, Boots." Blair handed her another damp plate. "Now. About these feelings you have for Jo."

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

"Oh, please! You look at her with those big brown eyes like a faithful puppy dog."

"I do not!"

"Yes, you do."

Boots shifted tacks. "Well – what if I do? Afraid of a little competition, Warner?"

"Not in the least," Blair said unflappably. "Jo's mine."

Boots sighed. She dried the plate, set it in the rack, held out her hand for another.

"It's not fair," said Boots. "You've hypnotized her. You've mesmerized her. No one else has a chance."

"How long have you had feelings for Jo?" asked Blair.

"Since Petal's Halloween party." Boots sighed again. "She's so … full of life. And … pretty." She ungraciously snatched a dish from Blair, began drying it. "Why am I telling you this?"

"Because I care."

"Ha!"

"I do, Boots. I know how lonely it can be to have feelings that you can't talk about."

"Well it's none of your business, Warner." Boots set the plate in the rack, reached for damp glass. "But it is lonely. It truly is."

"I know it is. Boots … Is Jo the first girl you've had feelings for?"

Boots flushed. "No. I've always … but, it's not something one talks about," Boots said briskly. "One puts it out of one's mind and, you know, just gets on with it."

"But you asked Jo to dance at Petal's party."

"I know. I've never had the courage to do anything like that before. Stupid, stupid, stupid!" She kicked the cabinet under the sink.

"Hey, don't be so hard on yourself," said Blair. "That took a lot of sand, Boots St. Clair. I don't think I could have done it."

"Couldn't you?" Boots smiled. She liked the thought of having done something the legendary Blair Warner couldn't do.

"Ask a girl to dance? At a big to-do, in front of God and Society?"

"I was pretty brave," Boots said, with a self-satisfied little smile. She took a damp serving dish, began to dry it. "But it doesn't matter, does it? Jo is yours."

"Jo is mine," Blair agreed. "But there are plenty of fish in the sea."

"Ha! Where?" Boots asked despondently. "Until I saw how close you and Jo are, I never met another girl who, you know, who felt the way I do."

"Well they're out there," Blair said firmly. "Keeping a low profile, obviously, but there. You'll find someone special. Heck, we'll help you find someone."

"They won't be like Jo," Boots said. "No one's like Jo."

"That's true," Blair agreed. "Jo is definitely one-of-a-kind. But you'll find someone. I promise. And in the meantime, if you ever want to discuss anything, you can always talk to me."

"And Jo," Boots said dreamily.

"Um, for now, why don't you talk to me," Blair said. "Jo isn't exactly the shoulder-to-cry-on type." And I still don't trust you near my woman, Boots St. Clair!

"Why are you being nice to me?" Boots asked suspiciously.

"It's Christmas."

"Hmm." Boots placed the serving dish on the rack, took a wet plate. "I always thought you were annoying and affected, Warner. But maybe you're not quite so annoying after all."

"Thanks," Blair said drily.

Something at the end of the counter caught Boots' eye – a can of spinach.

"Say, Warner – is that the spinach I brought?"

"Could be," Blair admitted.

"Well why didn't someone prepare it?" Boots asked indignantly. "I stood in line for ten minutes at the A&P to buy that spinach! The A&P!"

"Boots," said Blair, "Merry Christmas."


Jo let Petal and Portia out the side door closest to the garage, and then went to the front door, where someone was leaning on the bell.

"For Cripes sake," muttered Jo. "Someone's got a reindeer up their butt!"

Back in the old neighborhood, that was how you did it, Jo thought; you rang your friends' door bells over and over, you leaned on your friends' door bells – it drove their parents crazy, but that was part of the fun. But here in Peekskill, who the hell rang a door bell like that? It was friggin uncivilized!

When she opened the door, she almost fell over in surprise.

"Jesse? Pauly?"

Her friend and her cousin stood on the front porch, their breath painting white fountains in the winter air. Pauly was stamping his big feet on the porch; Jesse, in a thin denim jacket, was hugging herself to keep warm.

"For Crissake, we're turnin blue out here!" griped Jesse.

"Holy shit!" said Jo. "Come in, guys, come in!"

She held the door open wide and stepped aside as Jesse and Pauly all but ran into the house.

"Lemme take your jackets," said Jo. She hung their jackets in the foyer coat closet.

Jesse and Pauly, still shivering, looked curiously around the wood-paneled foyer with its black-and-white checked floor. Pauly whistled.

"Well la-di-da," said Jesse. "Looks like we landed in an episode of freakin 'Upstairs, Downstairs'."

"Since when do you watch PBS?" teased Jo.

"Since shut your ugly face, that's when," said Jess.

They both laughed. Jo and Jesse hugged, that warrior-like clasping of their upper arms, and clapped each other on the back. Then Jo hugged Pauly fiercely.

"Jeez, Pauly, you broke the Rose Polniaczek injunction against spendin Christmas with me? I'm touched! I'm damn freakin touched!"

"What the hell did you do, anyway?" Pauly demanded. "Your Ma's not celebratin Christmas this year. At all. Got the house in darkness. No decorations, no lights. Burnin candles, though. And she's practically livin at the friggin church."

Jo shook her head. It made her heart hurt, to hear how her mother was handling, or, rather, not handling, finding out who her daughter really was.

"Pauly, if we … maybe if we can try not to talk about Ma tonight."

"Yeah, if that's what you want, Jo. Uncle Sal sends his love, and Bud and Terry. And Tony. They woulda come up here too, since Rose ain't holding any Christmas wingding this year, but, you know, we figured I'd represent the family, kinda go under the radar. We don't want to, you know –"

"Piss her off," said Jo.

"Nah – we don't wanna hurt her," said Pauly.

"For cryin out loud, pinhead, stop talkin about her Ma," said Jesse. "Din't you hear her? Jo doesn't wanna talk about Saint Rose tonight."

Jesse took another long look around the foyer, shook her head. "Jeez Louise – how the other half lives, huh? This joint is almost as nice as the Dakota!"

"It's pretty swank," Jo agreed, "but you get used to it."

"And look at you," Jesse said. Now that she was thawing out, she noticed Jo's outfit – blue slacks, immaculate white silk shirt, and blue blazer with a snowflake brooch on the lapel. "La-di-freakin-da! Who are you – Princess Di?"

"How'd you guys get up here?" Jo asked, turning the subject.

"In Pauly's piece-of-shit van," said Jesse, "which the heater frickin died just outside of the Bronx, and the engine conked out twice. I thought we were gonna hafta walk here, and probly get eaten by a bear on the way. Man, these woods are dark! It's like 'The Wildnerness Family'. Memba when we were kids?"

"Yeah. Yeah, Peekskill is pretty wildernessy. But, hey, I'm just glad you made it one piece," Jo said. "Where's your luggage?"

"Our luggage? Our luggage?" Jesse howled. "What are we, the freakin Duke and Duchess of Windsor?"

Jesse pulled a comb and toothbrush out of her back pocket. "Here's my luggage. I just brush my teeth and go – right, Polniaczek?"

Jo laughed. "Jess – I really miss you sometimes!"


They found everyone in the music room.

There were red and gold candles lit in every corner of the room.

Alec had rejoined the group; he sat at the piano, playing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".

Jo marveled anew at how beautifully Alec played the piano.

Everyone sang along, in between sips of mulled wine, Mrs. Garrett in her high, fluting voice, Drake in a pleasant baritone, Meg in a clear voice, Boots in an uneven warble, Natalie with gusto, Tootie in a lovely voice and Blair, of course, in the rich, throaty mezzo-soprano that made Jo's heart skip a beat.

"… 'Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled!' Joyful all ye nations rise; join the triumph of the skies. With the angelic host proclaim, 'Christ is born in Bethlehem!' …"

Jesse glanced down at her jeans and sneakers and Ramones T-shirt. She'd worn the outfit as a sort of "eff you!" to the upper classes. It had seemed funny and rebellious when she put it on, but now that she was actually here, a guest in Jo's home, she felt underdressed and intimidated.

Pauly ducked his head bashfully. He'd worn his best jeans and a neatly ironed blue oxford shirt, his nicest outfit. He'd clearly put in some effort, but he still felt out of his element.

Jo nudged them encouragingly, shepherding them into the room.

Jesse caught sight of Meg.

"A nun?" she whispered to Jo. "Holy cats, you guys really take Christmas serious around here!"

When the song concluded, everyone applauded enthusiastically.

"Von Trapp family, eat your heart out!" crowed Tootie.

"We should take this act on the road," said Natalie.

"Well hello there," said Mrs. Garrett warmly, noticing Jesse and Pauly. "Welcome, welcome! Merry Christmas Eve!"

"Guys, this is my friend Jesse," Jo told everyone, "and my cousin Paul Largo – but just call him Pauly."

There was a chorus of greetings.

"God's teeth, it's nice to have another fellow here," Alec said with feeling. "Pauly, you can back Drake and I against this vortex of estrogen!"

Blair went to Jesse. Jesse took a step back, as if expecting the blonde to slug her.

"Merry Christmas, Jesse," said Blair. She embraced the young woman, gave her a peck on the cheek.

"Uh, yeah, Merry Christmas to you, Farrah," Jesse mumbled awkwardly.

Blair hugged Pauly and kissed him warmly on the cheek. "Merry Christmas, Pauly. This is a wonderful surprise."

"Merry Christmas," he mumbled, beet red.

"I think that's plenty of Christmas cheer," Jo told Blair significantly. "Let's not overwhelm our guests."

Introductions were made all around. Neither Jesse nor Pauly had ever met Mrs. Garrett, Natalie, Tootie, Drake, Alec, Boots or Meg. Jo introduced Alec simply as 'Alec', not to overawe her friends with his title. Jesse talked a good game, but Jo knew she'd be nervous if she knew she were in the presence of an actual British lord.

"Sorry, we're, uh, kinda underdressed," Jesse said to the room at large.

"Not at all," said Mrs. Garrett. "If anything, we're all a little overdressed for a simple family Christmas. But it's hard not go overboard, isn't it?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Jesse said.

"Are you poor?" Boots asked Jesse brightly. "I mean, extremely poor? I've never met anyone extremely poor before. But any friend of Jo's is a friend of mine!"

Jo put a hand on Jesse's arm. "Don't kill her," Jo whispered. "Boots doesn't mean anythin by it. She's just a little … different."

Jesse eyed Boots warily. This one looks like a lulu! she thought.

"Let's have another song," Mrs. Garrett said hastily. "What shall we sing?"

"How about something for Nat?" suggested Tootie. "What about the dradle song?"

"A day late and a dollar short," complained Natalie. "Hanukkah's long over!"

"Oh, 'Little Drummer Boy'!" shouted Boots. "That's my favorite! Now that's a top-drawer carol!"

"What about the Grinch song?" asked Alec.

"How does that go?" asked Boots. "And what is Grinch?"

"Do none of you watch American telly?" Alec asked. He plunked out the opening bars, sang in a beautiful baritone, "You're a mean one, Mr. Griiinch …"

"Boo!" said Jo. "Phooey to that, milord. We wanna hear somethin peppy. How about 'Up On The Rooftop'?"

"That's 'Up On The Housetop'," corrected Natalie. "I think you're mashing together Christmas and Carole King."

"Well I don't know either bloody song," said Alec. "And the Grinch song is very peppy."

"What about 'O Come, All Ye Faithful'?" suggested Meg.

Jo made snoring sounds. Blair elbowed her in the ribs.

"Actually, our guests should choose the next song," said Mrs. Garrett. "Jesse, Pauly – any requests?"

Jesse felt distinctly uncomfortable as all eyes turned to her and Pauly. She swallowed. Pauly was so damn shy, he was gonna clam up, she knew. It was up to her …

"What, uh, what about 'Silent Night'?" she asked.

Jo hooted. "'Silent Night'? That's like a freakin dirge!"

"What Jo means," Mrs. Garrett said, with a hard glance at Jo, "is that 'Silent Night' is a lovely idea."

Alec ran his fingers up and down the keyboard, searching for the best octave in which to start. He paused … then dropped his fingers on the black-and-white keys, drawing almost magically gentle and resonant music from the piano. The notes were like snow falling on a dark, crystalline night.

Blair began to sing in her gorgeous voice. "Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright …"

Meg joined in, and then Tootie, and then Natalie, Mrs. Garrett and Drake. Alec sang, his dark baritone becoming the foundation for the higher voices soaring above. Boots joined in, softly. As usual, Jo didn't sing, but her mouth moved as she whispered the lyrics …


"Jo, we're being rude," said Blair. "And I'm freezing my derriere off."

They stood on the front porch of River Rock, under the galaxy of twinkling Christmas lights. Their breath pooled in frosty clouds. Notwithstanding Blair's thick, burnt-caramel-colored fur coat and her Russian hat, she was freezing. She slipped an arm through Jo's, snuggled against the brunette.

"Hey," said Jo, "Jess and Pauly don't know about us yet. They could be lookin out a window!"

"Let them look," said Blair. "Jo – it can't be more than ten degrees out!" Her teeth chattered. She pressed even closer to her fiancée. How can Jo not be cold in just that leather jacket?

"We're waitin for the next mystery guest," said Jo. "He's supposed to be here any minute."

"That's the call you just took?"

"That's the call I just took."

"Can't we wait for him in the kitchen? The warm, toasty kitchen?" Blair asked longingly.

"No," Jo said firmly. "It's more dramatic this way."

Blair glanced up at the sky, which was thick with gleaming, brilliant stars.

"Is he landing in a space ship?" she asked. "Or a sled? Is it Santa Claus?"

Jo laughed. "You are such a goof, babe!"

"I'm a goof? That's rich! You're the one that has us freezing our, our nads off out here."

"Why Miss Warner! Such language!" Jo dropped a quick kiss on Blair's mouth.

Blair slipped her arms around Jo's waist, pulled the brunette closer, holding the kiss and deepening it.

"Hey," exclaimed Jo, pulling away, "Jesse. Pauly. Remember?"

"I can't help it," said Blair, "you're so warm. I'd rather get caught than freeze to death."

A flicker of headlights washed over them for a second as a big truck pulled into River Rock's long, curved drive.

"He's here! He's here!" Jo shouted excitedly.

"For heaven's sake, who is it?" Blair asked.

Jo started waving her arms like a mad woman. "Pull up here!" she called. "We're here!"

"Jo, darling, I think whoever it is can see us."

Big tires crunched on snow, ice and sand as the truck pulled up on front of River Rock. It was a blue Chevy truck, a big old 1950's beast. The headlights went dark and the driver's side door opened.

Blair's mouth dropped open. "It's … it's …"

"Merry Christmas, babe," whispered Jo.

A short man with magnificent mane of close-cropped white hair and a magnificent, close-cropped white mustache stepped out of the truck. He stretched, then banged the door closed.

He wore a long, fleece-lined oilskin duster and cowboy boots. He carried a cowboy hat in one hand.

"Señorita Warner," he said quietly, "Feliz Navidad." He smiled warmly. He opened his arms.

"Eduardo!" Blair's eyes were wet with tears. She flew into the little man's arms, hugged him and clung to him as if he were her father and she were a little girl. "Feliz Navidad, Eduardo! It's so lovely to see you!"

"Igualmente, Miss Warner." He glanced briefly at Jo, eyes bright. He nodded faintly. "Señorita Polniaczek."

"Hey, Eduardo. Feliz Navidad, pal."

"Gracias."

"You drove all the way from Texas," Blair asked wonderingly. "To spend Christmas with me?"

"When I think of all the times you kept me company on the ranch," Eduardo said quietly, "this seems like a very small thing to do."

"But, my father," Blair said, suddenly concerned. "Eduardo, my father will be furious if he knows you came to visit me! He'll fire you."

"No," said Eduardo, "he will not. To Mr. Warner I have already tendered my resignation."

"What?"

"He tendered his resignation," said Jo. "He told your Pop to 'take this job and shove it!'"

"Jo, I know what 'resignation' means. Eduardo – what will you do? You've worked for the Warners for, for –"

"Thirty-five years," Eduardo said calmly. "And it has been an exciting thirty-five years. But I think it will be interesting to start a new chapter to my life."

"Is this because … Eduardo … you didn't resign because of me, did you?"

"Yes," Eduardo said distinctly. "Because of you, Miss Blair."

"Oh, Eduardo!" Blair sounded horrified. This loyal, noble, wonderful man – throwing his career away!

Eduardo chuckled. "Why should you be unhappy? It is thanks to your courageous example of standing up to your father that I have done what I wanted to do these past years. Señorita, since your father has become so ruthless of late … what he did to the Abercrombies … my conscience has not been well. To be shrewd in business is a good thing. But to be vicious … I have been contemplating leaving the Warner Company for some time. And when I learned how your father was treating you, that was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Jo slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders. To hell with who's at the window!

"Nat and Tootie tracked down the Texas ranch, got a number for Eduardo, and he and me had a coupla interestin conversations. Soon as he heard about what your father did to you, he was ready to resign, but he decided to do it in a, well, carefully thought-out way."

"If I simply gave notice," Eduardo said, "that would not have been the way. I have been well compensated over the years, Miss Blair, and I have made wise investments. Compared to the Warners, I am a pauper, but compared to most people – well, I am a very wealthy man. I created a shell corporation – entiendes?"

Blair nodded. A shell corporation was an organization on paper, concealing the true identity of the interested parties.

"It is time for me to put my education to better use. My law degree; my business degree; my veterinary degree; can I not do more with it than help a ruthless man who is becoming more ruthless day by day? So my shell corporation bought the Texas ranch. Including the mineral rights. It was a fair deal; your father made a very nice profit." He chuckled again. "Señor Warner sold me the entire property, lock, stock and barrel, as the saying is. Every board, every nail … every animal."

Blair gasped.

Jo tightened her arm around Blair's shoulders. "Steady on, babe."

Eduardo reached inside his duster. A piece of thick paper crackled as Eduardo drew it from an inner pocket.

"Señorita Warner … Blair … to you I make this Christmas present. You have been like the daughter I never had – a reckless, spoiled, wonderful little daughter. You have made me cry, and you have made me laugh. And so, I am very pleased to give you irrevocably and in perpetuity, legal ownership of the stallion known as Chestnut."

He held out the heavy paper. Blair stared at it. Tears welled over her eyelids, ran down her face. She made a little sobbing sound.

Jo gently took the paper.

"I'll keep it safe for the moment," she whispered, tucking it into the inner pocket of her leather jacket. Eduardo nodded.

Blair flew into Eduardo's arms again, hugging him tightly.

"You don't know what you've done," she whispered. "Thank you! Thank you, thank you …"

Eduardo stroked her long hair in a fatherly manner. "Shh. Calma-te," he said soothingly. "It is only a piece of paper. It is no great thing. You have always owned Chestnut. Chestnut has always owned you. I remember, very clearly, the first time that you and Chestnut met each other. Recuerdas?"

Blair nodded. "I remember." She wept against Eduardo's coat, which smelled of horses and hay and saddle leather and saddle soap, among the most soothing scents in the world for the young heiress.

"I won't lose Chestnut," she murmured. "I'll never lose him …"

Eduardo gave Blair a final hug, then gently but firmly stepped away from her. "It is Jo, really, who deserves your thanks," he said. "Miss Jo is the one who told me how your father was using Chestnut as a bargaining chip." Eduardo shook his head darkly. "To do that to one's child …" He shook his head again.

Blair flung herself into Jo's arms, pressing her face against Jo's neck. "I can never thank you enough," Blair murmured. "Not ever."

"I don't need you to thank me," Jo said softly. "Just be happy. That's all I ever want for you, Blair."

"I am happy. Oh, Jo."

Eduardo cleared his throat.

"This is a very joyful occasion," he said, "and I don't wish to spoil the moment with prosaic matters. But if we might go inside now? It was a long drive."

"Of course," said Jo. She smiled her sweet, crooked smile at Eduardo. She couldn't hug him – her arms were full of Blair – but she nodded at him, eyes damp with unshed tears.


After midnight everyone made their way to their rooms.

Blair made sure Meg was settled in the White Room.

Alec settled Pauly and Drake and Eduardo in the Blue and Green and Amethyst Rooms, respectively.

Jo walked Jesse to the Rose Room, a vision of soft pinks and warm rose colors and an old-fashioned four-poster bed thick with white blankets. A cheerful fire burned in the little hearth.

"Well – guess I ain't gonna freeze tonight," Jess said, looking from the blankets to the fire.

"Not hardly," agreed Jo. She nodded toward a little door in the far wall. "Toilet and sink through there, case you need 'em. There's soap and toothpaste and gunk like that in there."

"OK. Cool."

Jesse sat on the edge of the bed. She kicked off her sneakers.

"Gotta say, Polniaczek, I like your friends. Don't know what you did to piss of Rose, but looks like you got a pretty cool new family here."

"Yeah. I miss my folks like hell, but … I'm really damn lucky."

Jesse snorted. "Lucky? Always so freakin modest! Whyja think all these cool people wanna hang around with you, Polniaczek? It's because you're so cool. You're OK, kid."

"Eh, right back at ya."

"I mean, you're different here, kinda. But not la-di-da. I just say that to break your chops, you know? You're still Jo, you're just … I don't know, I guess we're all growin up or somethin."

"You gonna start BCC in January?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I am. Who knows?" Jesse looked around the cozy room. "I play my cards right, keep my head screwed on, maybe I end up some place like this someday."

"Jess, the door is always open here. Any time. You need a place to crash, or think things over –"

"Yeah, yeah. Look, Jo, I might be steppin outta line here, but, ah, there's just one thing I think I oughta tell ya. Sometimes when she don't think anyone's payin attention, Farrah looks at you funny. All gushy-like. I mean, I know it sounds kinda crazy, but I think she might be a little bit warm for your form, Polniaczek."

Jo laughed. She laughed so hard she almost doubled over.

"Well cheez Louise," groused Jesse, "try to give a pal a friendly little warnin …"

"And I totally appreciate it, Jess. I truly do. But you do not got to worry about Blair bein 'warm for my form'. I can handle the Princess."

Jesse shrugged. "If you say so."


Sunday, December 25, 1983. Christmas morning, Peekskill.

Blair rose before dawn. She shook Jo's shoulder.

"Come on," whispered Blair, "there's something I want to do."

Still half asleep, Jo pulled Blair close, began kissing her fiancée's throat hungrily.

"Not that," laughed Blair. "I mean, yes, a little later, but there's somewhere I want to go now."

They dressed hastily, pulling their hair into ponytails, slipping into old jeans and flannel shirts, boots and gloves and watch caps.

Blair drove her truck, Jo dozing in the passenger seat.

The sun was just starting to spill over the horizon. The country roads of Peekskill were winter wonderlands, fields glimmering white with snow, delicate icicles hanging from tree branches and eaves.

Blair parked at the Langley stables.

She shook Jo's shoulder gently. "We're here darling."

Jo stirred, opened her eyes, blinked at their surroundings. She grinned.

"Of course," she said softly.

"Jo … Darling, how much you do trust me?"

… Jo clung to Blair, locked like a steel vise around the blonde's waist, half terrified, half delighted, as Chestnut cantered through the snowy woods.

The branches were sugared with snow. Icicles glinted like candles in the dawn sunlight.

The only sound was Chestnut's snorting, and the crunch of his hooves breaking the thin veil of snow.

From a canter, Blair and Chestnut decided via that telepathy that only horses and their riders understand to press into a gallop. They dashed pell-mell down the snowy trail, weaving among the pines.

Jo held on for dear life. It was the most amazing sensation – like riding a gargantuan, living Kawasaki.

Her face was cold, stung by the chill air, but her body was warm. It was astonishing to feel Blair's muscles ripple and shift as she guided Chestnut, astonishing to feel the horse's rippling musculature under her …

After they rode, Jo sat on an overturned cask while Blair watered and brushed Chestnut, and then fed him carrots and an apple in honor of Christmas.

"I love you boy," Blair cooed to the horse, caressing his long, handsome face. "We own each other now, boy. Never gonna be split up …"

Before Jo climbed back into the truck, Blair stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm.

"Jo, I don't want to wait," she said. "I want to give this to you now."

Blair pulled a small white cardboard box from her jacket pocket. She handed it to Jo.

"Merry Christmas, darling."

Jo smiled. "Aw, Blair, you didn't hafta … I mean, with everythin bein so tight right now …"

"Stop talking," laughed Blair, "and just open it. Don't worry – it's not the Hope diamond."

Jo opened the lid of the little cardboard box.

She gasped.

Nestled inside, on a sheet of white tissue paper, was a simple silver cross on a chain.

"Blair … it's … jeez."

"Do you like it?" Blair asked hopefully.

"Babe … it's beautiful." Jo's eyes glistened with tears. "Here," she took the necklace out of the box, handed it to Blair. "Put it on me, would you, Blair?"

Fingers trembling, Blair unclasped the chain. She stood behind Jo, lowered it around Jo's neck, and then fastened it, taking great care not to catch any of Jo's abundant hair in the clasp.

Jo turned to face Blair. "How does it look?" she asked softly.

The cross hung just below Jo's collarbone, winking silver in early morning sunlight.

"It looks lovely," said Blair.

Jo took her fiancée's hands. "Blair, thank you. It's the best gift. It's the best gift ever."

"No," said Blair. She held up the silver ring that she always wore either on the chain around her neck or on the ring finger of her left hand.

"This," she said huskily, "is the best gift ever." She slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders. "You are the best gift ever."

"Not even," Jo said shyly. "Blair, you're like … you're like …"

"Shh." Blair kissed Jo, a feather-light brush of the lips. "Thank you for talking to my father."

"How'd you know about that?"

"It doesn't matter."

"Oh. Of course. The Snoop Sisters. Well, you weren't s'posed to know about that unless it worked, unless he decided to –"

"Shh," Blair said again. Another feather-light kiss. "It doesn't matter what he did or didn't do. What matters is that you tried." She pressed her face against Jo's.

"Babe," Jo whispered, "where did you get my cross? It's friggin gorgeous."

Blair smiled against Jo's neck. "Let's just say I think we crossed paths in the city that day."

"Huh?"

"Never mind, darling. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, babe."


Sunday, Christmas morning 1983 – the Bronx.

In the early morning light Rose finished saying her rosary. She made the sign of the cross.

A cup of coffee, a slice of toast – it was all she could choke down for breakfast. She felt so sick to her stomach, ever since Jo had told her … Always a thin woman, she was worn down to skin and bones, and there were dark circles around her eyes.

I thought she'd be here last night. I really thought she'd come to surprise me. To say she was sorry, that she realized the gravity of what she's been doing.

Rose pulled on her thin coat. It had a patch on one sleeve and one near the hem; she'd been making do with that coat for almost four years so that she could send Jo to the very best schools.

I've just got time to stop in for early morning Mass, she thought, and then it's off to the coffee shop.

Rose was pulling a double shift at the Coffee Spot. Tips were always really good on Christmas Day. Some people were in an unusually good mood; some were in a maudlin mood; some were drunk out of their minds. For those, and many more reasons, people tipped like Rockefellers on December 25th!

Dear God, thought Rose as she locked her apartment door, why don't you seem to be hearing me? Please send me some kind of sign … How can I get my daughter back?

She walked down the narrow staircase. Mrs. Verengo's poodle had piddled on the steps again; of course, there was no way to prove it was Mrs. Verengo's poodle, but in Rose's mind, the dog was the logical suspect. Rose sidestepped the puddle.

As she walked out onto the stoop she was careful to close the building's heavy front door behind her, to make sure it was locked. The neighborhood wasn't as bad as a lot of neighborhoods in the Bronx, but you could never be too careful, never let your guard down.

When Rose walked down the stone steps to the street, she saw a tall, lanky woman in a dark coat standing at the bottom of the stairs. The woman had mousy brown hair, bright blue eyes … She looked strangely familiar.

Is she that new woman that moved into apartment 42? Rose wondered. But no … that woman was younger. This woman at the bottom of the steps appeared to be about Rose's age.

The woman looked distracted; she seemed to be having some kind of internal struggle, as if she were debating different courses of action, and not finding any resolution.

Maybe she's lost, thought Rose.

Hearing Rose's steps, the woman looked up. Her face broke into a sunny smile.

"Rose!" she said. "I've been debating whether or not to go up and bother you – and here you are!"

Rose tilted her head. "Do I know you?"

"Not for a long time," said the woman.

She just stood there smiling. She didn't give Rose any hints. Either Rose would remember her, or she wouldn't.

Something clicked in Rose's head. The cheerful blue eyes, the sunny smile …

Rose took one shaky step back up the stone staircase.

"Holy Mother of God," Rose breathed. "You're Peggy Winkle O'Meara."

"That I am, Rose."

"But … Peggy, what are you doin here?"

"I'm … sort of a Christmas gift," said Peggy.

"A Christmas gift?"

"A blast from the past, like the DJ's say. A piece of your childhood, Rosie. Merry Christmas."

Rose sat down on the stoop, covering her face with her hands …

The End

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