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.
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FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com

Faithfully
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

Early November, 1984. Manhattan. A bench in Grand Central Station.

Blair Warner and her attorney and surrogate father Eduardo Ramirez were conversing over an impromptu breakfast of hot dogs from a nearby food cart. Blair and Eduardo were not seeing eye-to-eye.

"No," said Eduardo.

"Please?" Blair asked winningly.

"Out of the question," said Eduardo.

"Please?" asked Blair.

"No," Eduardo said firmly. "And you have mustard on your face."

Blair dimpled prettily. She dabbed delicately at her cheek with a paper napkin. "Please?" she asked with a charming tilt of her head.

Eduardo sighed.

It had been about fifteen years, Eduardo reflected – the summer of '69 – since Señor David Warner first dumped Señorita Blair on him. That was how Eduardo had seen it back then – the heiress had been dumped on him, without warning, one hot, dusty summer.

Eduardo had been rather indignant. He was a highly skilled attorney, an MBA and a veterinarian. He oversaw all of David Warner's considerable Texas interests, especially the vast Texas ranch of which Eduardo was foreman.

When Eduardo wasn't managing the Dallas-Fort Worth arm of Warner's financial empire, he was running the ranch, from the most complex budget issues to personally grooming and breaking in Warner's prize horses. Eduardo could negotiate a merger with the shrewdness of Solomon, and a couple of hours later he'd be side-by-side with the ranch hands, repairing a stretch of cyclone fencing or constructing a new chicken coop …

In short, Eduardo was a tremendously busy man, dynamic but already getting on in years, when suddenly, out of the blue –

"I need you to watch Blair this summer," David Warner said abruptly over the phone.

"Señorita Blair?" Eduardo had asked, baffled. "Your daughter?"

"What other Blair would I be sending to you?" David had asked irritably. "How many Blairs do you think I know?"

"But … What is she to do here?" Eduardo asked. "The ranch is no place for a little child."

"Then make it a place for a little child," David barked. "Her mother and I still having … issues. If I don't bring Monica to Monte Carlo and wine her and dine her this summer this goddamned marriage isn't going to make it. And with the pre-nup I was imprudent enough to sign Monica will bleed me dry!"

"Well … If it is a matter of romance," Eduardo said coolly.

"I don't need any of your smart cracks," said David. "I just need you to watch my daughter. Blair's getting into that tomboy stage and Monica doesn't know what to do with her and I can't get Monica back in line with the little princess in tow."

"But, Señor Warner –"

"This isn't a request, Eduardo. I need your help, dammit. Blair is really a very enchanting little child. Very bright and spirited."

Bright and spirited, Eduardo had thought warily. That sounded like code for being a lot of trouble!

"Señor –"

"Eduardo, I think you know how much I value your contributions to Warner Industries, but if you cannot see your way clear to managing a five-year-old child for a few months, why am I trusting you with my Texas interests?"

Eduardo had sighed. David Warner was a ruthless man; unless Eduardo was prepared to step down, he was going to have to accept this unusual and unorthodox new assignment.

"Certainly, Señor Warner. If you feel that strongly about it."

"Good man. You always see sense, Eduardo."

"When shall I expect Señorita Blair? I shall have Miss Blanding begin the preparations."

Miss Blanding was housekeeper at the Warner ranch. Hmm, thought Eduardo. I can probably put the child under Miss Blanding's care. Perhaps the little one will not be so much trouble at that …

"Blair will be there within the hour," said David.

"Perdón – I do not think I heard you correctly. Within the hour?"

"Yes, yes, within the hour," David said impatiently. "There's a car picking her up at the airport. If the plane landed on time they'll be en route to the ranch within the next few minutes."

"But, Señor Warner, there is nothing in place, there is –"

"I leave all that to you," David interrupted impatiently. "What kind of preparations do you think you need to make for a five-year-old? Honestly, Eduardo, you're clucking like an old hen!"

And with that David Warner rang off.

I have no idea, thought Eduardo, what kind of preparations to make for a five-year-old. And that, he reflected, was the problem. What the hell did he know about kids? Miss Blanding. Yes, decidedly, Miss Blanding would have to oversee the Warner heiress ...

Forty-five minutes later a luxurious town car rolled through the entrance gate of the Warner Bar B Ranch and drove along the long, dusty drive until it reached the massive ranch house.

Miss Blanding and Eduardo stood on the broad, shaded porch. It was 11 in the morning and already hot as fresh milk. Eduardo wiped his face with a checkered bandana. Miss Blanding cooled herself by waving a little painted fan that a long-dead beau had sent her from Japan just after World War II.

A hired chauffeur alighted from the luxurious vehicle. He walked around the car and opened the door for his sole passenger.

A little girl stepped out of the town car with great dignity and decorum.

She was tall for five years old and sturdily built. Waves of golden hair framed her angelic face. She gazed up at Eduardo and Miss Blanding with the largest dark eyes Eduardo had ever seen.

The child was dressed in a little mauve traveling outfit – blazer and skirt and tiny purple pumps – and a lavender hat. It was a pretty little ensemble but completely wrong for a summer at the Bar B Ranch.

The driver opened the trunk of the car and removed several suitcases and a garment bag and a tiny makeup case and a large traveling trunk. Winded, he piled the luggage next to the porch steps.

Eduardo lifted his arm. A couple of ranch hands materialized and began toting the luggage up the porch steps and into the house. Eduardo suspected that all of the clothes packed in that luggage would probably be as inappropriate for ranch life as the outfit the heiress was presently wearing.

He regarded the child thoughtfully. Those large dark eyes were highly intelligent as well as beautiful and, just at the moment, resentful as hell. She glared up at the two adults.

"Well don't just stand there, child," Miss Blanding said a little waspishly. "We aren't going to bite you. Come on up here before you get sunstroke. That hat won't protect you a lick from the sun. This isn't Manhattan, missy."

Blair wrinkled her small, tip-tilted nose. Clearly the child didn't like being addressed in this manner! She turned coolly to Eduardo, as if she sensed, instinctively, that the white-haired man in the jeans and checkered shirt outranked the waspish woman.

Eduardo gestured for Blair to join them on the porch. Blair climbed up the broad plank steps. She made a little curtsey to Eduardo and a much slighter curtsey to Miss Blanding. She looked up at Eduardo.

"Daddy says I have to stay here all summer," Blair said. She had a pretty little voice. It had a sweet tone, like a bell, and there was a musicality to the way she strung her words together. Her diction was perfect.

"Yes," said Eduardo. "You will stay here all summer."

Blair tilted her head. "You're Eduardo," she said, almost accusingly.

The man nodded.

"Daddy says you are going to look after me this summer and make it a fun summer."

Eduardo made a slight bow. "I shall endeavor to do my best, Señorita Blair."

"Well you'd better," she said. "If you don't I'm going to run away. Because I don't want to be here. I want to be with Daddy and Mommy. But they don't," her voice caught a little, "they don't want me this summer."

Eduardo felt a little stab of pain near his heart. The poor child! She feels it. She feels it keenly.

"I am certain," he said in his courtly way, "that that is not true. Your parents will miss you very much."

Blair lifted her chin defiantly. "No. They won't. They hate me." She said it very coolly, but again Eduardo heard that faint hitch in the girl's voice. "They hate me and that's why they sent me to this stupid place. And I'm going to hate it here! And you look dumb, and so do you –" she glanced at Miss Blanding, "and I bet you can't make it fun here, and I'm going to run away, and no one's ever going to see me again!"

She put her small hands on her hips and lifted her tiny, kittenish chin even higher. So there! said her posture.

"Well," said Miss Blanding, "that's enough of that nonsense! We don't hold with a lot of airs down here. This here's a working ranch, Miss Blair, and you'll keep out from underfoot and you'll keep a civil tongue in your head when you talk to your elders."

Blair squinted at Miss Blanding and leaned forward a little bit. "You can't talk that way to me!" said Blair. "I'm Blair Warner. I'll tell Daddy to fire you – that's what I'll do, you meanie!"

Eduardo took a step forward. Blair shifted her glare to him. But she seemed to see something in his eyes, some quality of authority, that caused her to take a step backward.

"You better not try to hurt me," Blair warned him.

"No one here will hurt you," Eduardo said firmly. He glanced at Miss Blanding, who was frowning at the child with deep disapproval. "Miss Blanding," said Eduardo, "Miss Warner has had a long journey and is, of course, tired. Some lemonade and perhaps a raspberry ice on the back porch seem to be in order."

"Hmph!" said Miss Blanding. She turned smartly on her heel and disappeared into the house.

Eduardo gestured for Blair to come to him. She shook her head.

"Come here," Eduardo said, his voice cracking like a whip.

Blair's eyes widened. Somehow, without meaning to, she found herself approaching Eduardo. She hadn't meant to obey the man, but somehow she had. She made up for it by scowling up at him.

Eduardo looked down at her. His mouth was serious, but his eyes twinkled a little under the shaggy white eyebrows.

"You can't be mean to me," Blair warned him. "If you're mean to me I'll tell Daddy to fire you, too!"

"Now, we will be perfectly clear on this point," Eduardo said authoritatively. "I am the foreman of this ranch. At the Bar B Ranch, nobody fires anybody except me. Is that clear?"

Blair's nostrils flared. "I'm David Warner's little princess!" she said haughtily.

"That is understood," said Eduardo. "But I am the foreman of the Bar B Ranch."

Blair looked around the porch. She saw benches and rocking chairs and boxes of pretty pink and white flowers under every window.

"Where is she?" Blair asked.

"Where is whom?" asked Eduardo.

"Barbie?"

"Perdón?"

"You keep saying this is Barbie's ranch," said Blair. "So where is she?"

With a great deal of effort, Eduardo held back a whoop of laughter. The child was too adorable. Barbie! He had seen the doll commercials on television.

Barbie's ranch indeed!

"This," he told Blair, "is not Barbie's ranch. It is the Bar B ranch. That is like the letter B with a line, a bar. You comprehend? The B, my dear, is for you. Your father named it for you, B for Blair."

Blair's eyebrows lifted. Eduardo could see the thoughts chasing across her face. She was disappointed that it wasn't Barbie's ranch, but extraordinarily pleased that her father had named the place for her.

The child tilted her head thoughtfully.

"Eduardo?"

"Yes, niña?"

"Since Daddy named the ranch for me, that means it's really my ranch, isn't it?"

This time Eduardo could not contain himself. He laughed, a rich deep sound, and held his stomach with his gnarled bronze hands.

Blair seemed to be torn. She didn't ever like people laughing at her, but this man seemed to be rather delighted with her – and she did like to enchant people. It felt good to make people adore her; and it was always so useful, later, if she needed something ...

Blair decided to press her advantage.

"And since it's really my ranch," she continued, "I can fire anybody I want."

Eduardo crouched down so that he was at eye-level with the extraordinary little girl. He could see in her eyes a defiance masking a deep loneliness. He put a kindly hand on her shoulder.

"Señorita Blair," he said, "someday everything that belongs to your father, and your mother, todos, will belong to you. But for now you must be a good, obedient niña. You must listen to your elders con el debido respeto."

"I don't know what that means," she objected.

"With respect. You must be courteous to those of us that are older than you, who care for you and take care of your property." He nodded vaguely toward the dusty road, and the land surrounding it, and then nodded toward the house.

The girl was only five, but she seemed to absorb that …

For the rest of the summer, she was constantly at his side. He repeatedly sent her back to Miss Blanding, but the girl had no use for the housekeeper – a feeling that seemed to be mutual.

Eduardo had practical clothes sent from outfitters in Dallas and Forth Worth, also from LL Bean up in Maine – little jeans and flannel shirts and small cowgirl boots and tennis shoes and bandanas. It seemed like everywhere he went that summer, out of the corner of his eye he saw the tiny cowgirl dogging his steps.

Blair watched Eduardo work the telephones and the Telex in his office; she watched him breaking new horses; she watched him repairing fences, and mucking out stalls, and giving instructions to the architect whom he had hired to build an addition to the stable.

She watched Eduardo all summer. Sometimes he pretended not to see her. Sometimes he called to her, and he would explain to her whatever he was doing. Sometimes he even gave her a task; she was mucking out stalls before the summer ended.

Eduardo let her ride the ponies sometimes, and one afternoon he scooped her up and let her ride with him for a couple of miles on his favorite horse, Angel. He would never forget how Blair's eyes lit up and how she gathered the horse's mane in her chunky little hands.

She had been on horses, briefly, since she was a baby; her mother would lift her up and hold her for photos, maybe even ride a few paces with Blair in her arms; but this canter while Eduardo held her safely in one arm, that was her longest and favorite ride thus far in her short life.

Monica sent for her daughter unexpectedly in the middle of August. The romantic Monte Carlo summer was a bust. She and David were fighting tooth-and-nail and she was escaping to Paris and she wanted Blair there. Immediately. Nanny Foster would meet the child at Charles de Gaulle Airport. All of Blair's fancy clothes, which had been so useless at the ranch, were to be sent with her. In Paris they would be perfect.

Eduardo said nothing to Blair about her parents' separation. He merely said, "Aren't you a lucky girl, that you and your mother will be in Paris? You will see such beautiful places and such beautiful things!"

"I don't want to go," Blair said fiercely. "I want to stay here! I hate Paris! I hate it! And if you make me go, then I hate you!"

She had kicked her small feet and cried stormily; Eduardo had let her cry herself out.

They had fallen into a routine that summer of eating supper (usually franks-and-beans or Sloppy Joes) on the porch, while watching the sun start to drop out of the infinite blue sky.

Blair did appear for supper that evening, her eyes and nose red from crying, ignoring Eduardo magnificently. She sat in the rocker next to Eduardo's and she ate in utter silence, refusing to look at him or speak to him.

When they had finished eating and one of Miss Blanding's subordinates had cleared the plates, Eduardo began, as he sometimes did, to sing. He had a surprisingly deep, resonant voice. Sometimes he sang in English, sometimes in Spanish. Tonight he sang a Mexican song Blair had never heard before. It sounded like a lullaby.

Eventually, without a word, she climbed out of her chair and went to Eduardo and climbed up onto his lap and hugged him. A few tears slipped down her face. Eduardo smoothed her golden hair with his gnarled old bronze hand and kept singing the soft lullaby. The sun dropped a little closer to the horizon.

"I'll never see you again," Blair said in a small voice.

"Time will tell, miha," said Eduardo. "This summer has been a good summer for you. I will tell your father. I think he will send you another summer."

Blair nodded. She had an incredible respect for Eduardo. If he said something might happen, she believed it might happen. And if Daddy wouldn't send her next summer, she'd simply run away …

As Eduardo had predicted, summers at the ranch became routine – particularly after David and Monica Warner finally, officially divorced when Blair was eight. For at least part of each summer, Blair went to the Texas ranch.

As she grew, she remained ever willful, frequently troublesome, but always delightful. When she wanted to do something even Eduardo couldn't dissuade her. There were incidents.

He still remembered when she was twelve, when she tried to drive his truck and ended up in the lake … Her enormous, terrified brown eyes pleading with him through the windshield. He shot out the back window of the truck with his shotgun; he barely pulled Blair free before the truck could sink and drag both of them down …

That was perhaps the most serious of her escapades. There were other incidents, mainly involving girls, when she was old enough to start attending balls on the Fort Worth debutante circuit. But Blair had survived all of the incidents, largely with Eduardo's help, and he wouldn't trade a minute, a second, of his years of taking care of Blair Warner …

"I need to see her," Blair said decisively, bringing Eduardo's mind back to the present, to 1984. "I'm not going to back down on this, Eduardo."

Eduardo sighed. "Blair, miha – you still have mustard on your face."

Blair once again dabbed at her cheek with a paper napkin, but she refused to be sidetracked.

"I've thought it through very carefully," she said.

Eduardo smiled. Of course Blair had thought it through. Of that he had no doubt. Blair was nothing if not thorough. Here she was, almost twenty-one, and still as stubborn and autocratic and delightful as she had been at five.

"No doubt you noticed that I am not wearing a typical ensemble," said Blair.

"Si," Eduardo agreed. Blair was atypically dressed in a dark business suit with big shoulder pads, a pink blouse with a rounded collar, and sensible, rather ugly, black heels. She carried a little black attaché case instead of one of her usual handbags or clutches.

"Behold," said Blair, "your legal assistant Nikita Derringer!" She slid a pair of dark-framed glasses out of the breast pocket of her suit and put them on. "Voila!"

Eduardo nodded. "I must admit," he said, "that you look the part to perfection."

"Tootie's been coaching me," said Blair. "Nikita Derringer has a detailed back story. I'm prepared for any questions. Nikita went to U Penn and now she's at Columbia Law School. She's assisting you for the summer, learning at the feet of a true legal master. She's a serious-minded young woman, but –"

Eduardo held up one weathered hand. "My dear Blair," he said, "it is to be commended that you have prepared so well, but this is not a summer stock performance. If I take you when I meet with Mona this morning – if I take you– then you must be silent. Completely silent."

Blair looked disappointed, but, "Of course," she agreed gamely. "Whatever you say. I just want to see Mona. And I want her to see me and know, and know," her voice broke a little, "how thankful I am for what she did, saving my life last February, and how much I'm here for her."

"Blair … She knows that," Eduardo said gently.

"But I want Mona to see it," Blair insisted. "Before the trial begins. I want her to have that image to hold onto. She saved my life. It's because of me that she's on trial. I need her to see that I'm with her one-hundred percent. Does that make sense?"

"It does," he agreed. And as always he marveled that David and Monica Warner, two utterly neglectful, selfish people could have created such an angelically loyal and warm child.

"You know I'm not her attorney," said Eduardo. "I prepared an outline for her defense, but my expertise is in corporate rather than criminal law – although at times there seems to be very little difference between the two! Señor Braithewaite was my classmate at Harvard; he is a criminal defense lawyer without peer; he has reviewed the police reports and the evidence, he has interviewed Mona and the primary witnesses, he has read my outline … In short, he is ready to defend her to the utmost. Now it is truly in the hands of God."

"You'll pardon me if I don't find reliance on 'the hands of God' altogether soothing," Blair said drily.

Eduardo shook his head. "Still the pequeña agnostic."

"Not so little anymore," laughed Blair, "and maybe not quite so agnostic."

"I am going to see Señora Green merely to, to hearten her before the trial," said Eduardo. "And to give her a few final words of caution. I can do no official good."

"Perfect," said Blair. "We seem to be on essentially the same mission."

"Blair, if you are recognized … Becker has so many people in his pocket, miha. That is why Mona's bail was set impossibly high. That is why she is not permitted any visitors beyond her legal team – let alone the woman at the center of this case. I am only being admitted because I am, technically, one of her legal consultants. You are –"

"Nikita Derringer," Blair said firmly. "Legal assistant extraordinaire. No matter what anyone asks me I can –"

"No, Blair," Eduardo said severely. "If I take you – if I take you – you cannot say one word. Not one. You comprehend? Can you be utterly silent for so long a time?"

Blair was honest enough with herself and with Eduardo to hesitate. "Yes," she said finally. "Although it won't be easy –"

"Ha! En verdad, you have never said truer words, my sweet child!"

Blair pouted a bit. "I know I like to talk. I'm admitting it. You don't need to dwell on it, Eduardo."

"Of course. I do not mean to harm your feelings, Blair. But we cannot take any chances unnecessary. We cannot risk Mona's life."

"I won't," said Blair. "And it will help her to keep her chin up, seeing me, seeing both of us. Don't you agree?"

She smiled one of her most bewitching smiles.

Eduardo clucked his tongue. He knew precisely what she was doing. But she was right.

"Let us go now," he said, throwing the remnants of his hot dog bun in the trash can, "before I change my mind …"


Early November, 2011. Manhattan, New York. Central Park West. Archbishop Polniaczek's penthouse.

Senator Joanne Marie Polniaczek was having a lovely dream.

She was twenty again, Captain of the Langley Lions champion field hockey team, lean and unstoppable and grinning ear-to-ear as she raced up and down the field.

In the bleachers a cheering crowd was chanting "Li-ons, Li-ons, Li-ons …"

At the very center of the crowd in the bleachers was a beautiful young blonde in a caramel-colored Ralph Lauren trench coat and red gloves. She stood up. She blew Jo a kiss.

Jo waved to her beautiful young lover. Without missing a beat, Jo pointed to the distant goal with her stick. The blonde nodded. She understood. Jo was dedicating this goal to her.

Jo charged valiantly down the field. From every side she was beset by Dartmouth players. She wove, she dodged, she zigged and zagged. She never lost control of the ball.

Her valiant teammates – Jacqueline, Petal, Portia, Anastasia, all of them, all of those gallant young women – ran interference up and down the field.

The goal grew closer. Jo feinted left, tore right, spun past an opponent, pulled back her stick and swung it. The stick connected with the ball with a hearty, extremely satisfying clonk.

The ball flew … arced… landed squarely in the goal. The goalie had leapt left, but Jo had applied a masterful torque to the ball, and it had curved right.

The crowd in the bleachers erupted into cheers and hoots and shouts and whistles.

Jo looked back toward the blonde. The beautiful girl was clapping and beaming across the field at her lover. Jo made a courtly little bow. And then –

RIIIIING!! RIIIIIING!!! RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING!

Jo woke with a start.

Someone ringing the damn doorbell – no; someone leaning on it.

RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING –

The ringing was cut off abruptly.

And that, thought Jo as she groggily sat up, must be my security detail taking Ringy McRing into custody!

Jo swung her legs over the side of the bed, heard one of her knees creak.

Yeah. Wow. Definitely not twenty any more, the forty-seven-year-old thought ruefully.

She slid her feet into the soft moccasins next to her bedside.

"What is it?" Blair mumbled sleepily from her side of the bed.

Jo looked over her shoulder. She smiled at her wife – her fifteen-weeks-pregnant wife, plump and beautiful in a silver-white silk nightgown. Blair's long blonde hair was mussed, her dark eyes drowsy under half-closed lids.

"Someone at the door," Jo said. "Someone pretty insistent. I'm going to see who."

She leaned over and kissed Blair's soft mouth. She touched Blair's belly, which seemed to expand daily, almost before their eyes. "Good morning, kid," Jo told Blair's belly, before kissing it.

"I'll go with you," said Blair, starting to sit up.

Jo put a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "How about you catch a few more z's," Jo suggested, "and after I see who's at the door I'll bring you some grapefruit and oatmeal chamomile tea?"

Blair smiled. She stretched luxuriously.

"You're very good to me, Senator."

"Well, I do kind of, you know, adore you madly, Bishop," said Jo.

"It's mutual," said Blair.

Jo pulled her blue flannel bathrobe over her blue flannel pajamas. She tied the belt. The digital clock on her bedside table read 5:06 a.m.

The doorbell rang again – two crisp peals and then a long one. Her security team's signal: "All Clear".

Jo moved quickly to the front door, guided by muted, recessed lights that were always on, twenty-four-seven, so that Blair wouldn't stumble and hurt either herself or their unborn baby should nature call in the middle of the night. Jo had installed the lights herself during a visit last month.

Blair's Central Park West penthouse was comparatively modest. A master bedroom. Two bathrooms and a powder room for visitors. A small guest bedroom, soon to be converted to a nursery. A study/library that Blair used on a daily basis and that Jo "borrowed" when she was up from D.C. There was a modest-sized dining room. A modest-sized kitchen. A little studio apartment off the kitchen where Blair's new cook, Rory, lived. A postage-stamp-sized laundry room.

The largest rooms were the living room and foyer. They were also the most elegantly decorated. The private rooms were warm and cozy. The public rooms impressed.

Jo glanced through the peephole in the front door. She saw two of her dark-suited security staffers, Dagmar and Hans. Standing between them, looking royally pissed, was none other than that famous young pop and R&B artist, the fabulous Lady Lexi Anviston. Even with the hoodie and dark sunglasses, there was no camouflaging the pop star's identity.

Jo sighed. What the hell?

She opened the door.

"Morning, boss," said Dagmar.

"Barely," snorted Jo. "Five-freaking-a.m." Jo glared at Lexi. "What do you have to say for yourself, young lady, rousting me and your Aunt Blair out of bed, and giving my security team a work out?"

"They could use the work out," Lexi said snarkily, darting a glance at Dagmar and Hans' sturdy builds.

"First of all – totally rude and sizeist," said Jo. "Second of all – they're all muscle. Third of all – what the hell are you doing here, Lex?"

Lexi scowled.

No matter how many times Jo saw her niece – and it wasn't as frequently as Blair and Nat saw the girl – Jo was always struck by Lexi's beauty, such an arresting combination of Tootie and Alec's finer points.

Lexi had a glossy dark mane of curls, a legacy of both parents; enormous sapphire-blue eyes; perfectly chiseled, regal features; Alec's height; Tootie's curves; Tootie's voice and need to perform; Alec's musical virtuosity.

Given all of Lexi's gifts, not to mention the advantages of a mother who was a famous performer and a father who was a noble and ambassador, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the young woman would rocket to fame … but it had happened even faster than any of them had expected.

"Aunt Blair told me I'm always welcome here," Lexi said in a snotty voice. She was twenty-two. When she talked contracts and business, she sounded like a hard-bitten fifty-six. But most of the time, especially when she was tangling with her crabby Aunt Jo, she sounded about fourteen.

"I don't think Aunt Blair meant you could bust the damn doorbell at five in the morning," said Jo.

"I didn't bust it," said Lexi. She rolled her eyes. "You always exaggerate everything. And when Aunt Blair says I'm always welcome, she means I'm always welcome. She cares about me."

"Hey, who delivered you?" Jo demanded. "Who delivered you and dealt with all that blood and ick and yuck to bring you into this world?"

"All that blood and ick and yuck is part of the miracle of birth," said Lexi. "It's beautiful."

"Ha! You have obviously never been present at a birth."

Lexi flushed. "It's beautiful," she insisted. "Anyway, how do you think Aunt Blair's baby is going to arrive? You think a stork's going to deliver it to here in a little basket full of rose petals?"

Dagmar cleared her throat.

"Are we good, boss?" Dagmar asked Jo.

"Yeah. Sorry. We'll take the family feud inside …"

Jo led Lexi into the kitchen.

"Make yourself useful," said Jo, handing Lexi a grapefruit and a fruit knife.

Lexi pulled a face. "Damn sure of yourself, aren't you Aunt Jo? Letting me hold a sharp object."

"Yeah, yeah, we all know how tough you are," said Jo. "Get slicing, there." She poured a packet of instant oatmeal into a bowl, added some water, put it in the microwave. She jabbed some buttons.

"So," said Jo, while the oatmeal was heating, "what is it? What do you need Aunt Blair for? She's pregnant, you know. It'd be kind of nice not to have her being woken up at five a.m."

Lexi sliced viciously at the grapefruit. She removed the core like she was gutting an enemy.

"I can't talk to you," said Lexi. "You don't understand anything."

"Oh, of course not. I'm only a damn lawyer and Senator. What the hell do I know?"

"You don't understand anything spiritual," Lexi clarified. "Or philosophical. Or existential. If I had a legal or political issue, I'd bring it to you in a tick."

"Really?" Jo was surprised and mollified. "Well … That makes sense. But whatever it is, couldn't it wait until the sun was up?"

"Not everybody schedules things," said Lexi. "Some people just live their life, Aunt Jo. They just do things when things cross their mind. Aunt Blair understands."

And that, thought Jo, was true enough. Jo had always been more rigid than Blair, in a lot of ways. And since becoming a U.S. Senator Jo had only seen her life become increasingly scheduled, increasingly controlled. Whereas Blair, although she had incredibly important responsibilities, somehow seemed to just go with the flow …

The microwave beeped. Jo took the bowl of oatmeal out and set it on the counter. Still sleepy, she'd forgotten to use a potholder –

"Dammit!" she cursed, putting her burnt fingers in her mouth.

Lexi laughed. "Sometimes I wonder," she said.

"Wonder what?" Jo demanded. She turned on the cold water tap, held her red fingers under the water.

"I wonder if you were really poor when you were young," said Lexi. "I know you all tell those stories, but –"

"I was plenty poor," said Jo. "Our rats sublet to mice. Our mice sublet to cockroaches!"

"But you're so helpless sometimes," said Lexi. "I thought poor people knew how to do things for themselves."

"I do plenty of stuff for myself!" Jo said indignantly.

One of the doors off the kitchen slid open. A pretty young woman with dark brown hair stood in the doorway in her bathrobe. She yawned enormously.

"Anything I can do for you, Senator?" she asked Jo. "Was it breakfast you were wanting? Soft scrambled eggs, perhaps, with a bit of that cheddar? A rasher of bacon?" The young woman's voice had a pleasant lilt. She was Irish. Country Irish, not city Irish, Lexi knew. Lexi had spent enough time in UK boarding schools to be able to judge accents to a nicety.

Lexi shook her head at Jo. "Yes, Aunt Jo – you really know how to rough it!"

"Rory is Blair's cook," said Jo. "Blair can't be screwing around with heavy pots and pans and hot stoves and all that stuff while she's pregnant. For crying out loud. Blair's forty-seven. That already makes the pregnancy more risky. Plus she's not even supposed to be able to have a kid in the first place. You think I'm going to take any chances with her health? With the baby's health?"

"Bleeding Christ," said Lexi, "you politicians just can't stop making speeches! What are you running for? Just calm down. I'm only riding you."

"I don't appreciate your cracks," said Jo. "I let you into our home at five a.m., so the least you can do is not make snotty cracks."

"Er … Does anyone want me to make them breakfast?" asked Rory, clearly wishing she were elsewhere.

"No!" Jo and Lexi said together.

"Brilliant." Rory disappeared into her quarters, sliding the door shut behind her.

"Well I hope you're proud of yourself," Jo told Lexi. "That was very rude, how you spoke to Rory."

"How I spoke to Rory? How I spoke to Rory?"

Jo grabbed a potholder from a hook above the stove, and steadied the hot bowl of oatmeal while she poured in a dollop of milk. She stirred it in.

"How's that grapefruit coming?" she asked Lexi.

"Done." Lexi ungraciously slapped down a plate of jagged grapefruit slices next to the bowl of oatmeal.

Jo frowned. "Looks like Jack the Ripper sliced these!"

"I don't know how to slice fruit," said Lexi. "I'm a pampered brat – but at least I can admit it."

Jo rummaged in a cabinet above the sink, found a tray, put the oatmeal and the grapefruit slices on it. She poured out a glass of cranberry juice.

"Make yourself useful," she told Lexi. "Nuke a cup of hot water and throw a bag of chamomile in it."

"All I want is some advice," complained Lexi. "Why am I being conscripted to hard labor?"

"Nuke some tea," Jo said darkly. "Or you're getting booted out of here."

"I'm going to tell Aunt Blair you said that!"

"Good ..."

Blair was lying against her pillows, reading a book of devotional prayers.

"Hey, babe," Jo said softly. She couldn't put the tray over Blair's large belly, so she set it next to the blonde. "A little breakfast for you. Our mystery guest is making your tea."

Blair looked at the lumpy, sludgy oatmeal and the crazily sliced grapefruit. She smiled up at her wife.

"I love you, Jo," Blair said warmly.

"You must," laughed Jo, "if you're actually grateful for this breakfast. I know it's crummy but it's the best we could throw together. It's nourishing, anyhow; Rory can make you something better later."

Blair ate a spoonful of oatmeal. "Not bad," she said. She ate a few more spoonfuls, and then nibbled at a slice of grapefruit. "So … Who's our mystery guest, darling?"

"I'll go get her," said Jo.

Blair gave a little gasp. "Her? Is it Mrs. Garrett?"

"No. I wish! Nobody that great."

"Is it Natalie? Tootie?"

"Not a musketeer," said Jo.

"Is it Jack? Portia?"

"Not a Lion," said Jo. "Don't wear yourself out guessing, babe. Read some more prayers. And say some for my temper! I'll go get our visitor."

Temper, mused Blair. Temper? Ah!

Blair sighed. Lexi. It had to be Lexi. Nobody put Jo's temper on edge faster than their eldest niece ...

Sure enough, a moment later Blair heard muttering and sniping and bickering coming down the narrow hallway that connected the master bedroom with the rest of the penthouse. Then there were loud "shushing" sounds – that was Jo. Then "Stop shushing me!" That was Lexi.

Then the door was pushed open. Jo stood in the doorway with a glued-on smile. Lexi pushed past her rudely and handed Blair a cup of chamomile tea.

"Lexi!" said Blair, beaming at her niece. "You look beautiful! I can't tell you enough how wonderful it is to see you out of that hospital."

"I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be out of that hospital," said Lexi, with a little shiver.

Blair sipped the tea. "Delicious," she said. "Thank you, dear."

"She forgot the sugar," said Jo, nudging her head toward the tea cup. "And she forgot the milk."

"It's delicious," Blair said firmly. She looked at Jo. Why don't you go for a jog or something? she telegraphed. Please, darling?

Jo sighed.

"I think, uh, I'm going to take a jog," Jo announced. "Back in a bit."

"Take your time, darling," said Blair. "I know how you love your morning run."

Jo grabbed a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt and sports bra from her bureau. She would change in the master bathroom.

The last thing she felt like doing this morning was taking a morning run. She wanted to climb back into bed and snuggle up next to Blair and talk with her beautiful wife. But, as usual, someone else needed her wife's counsel …

Blair patted the bed. "Sit down, Lexi. What's wrong? Tell me all about it," she said.

Lexi sat on the bed, on Jo's side. She took one of the ragged grapefruit slices and gnawed at it.

"I need to talk to someone," Lexi said. "About …" She trailed off.

Blair sipped her tea. It needed sugar and milk, badly; it was too strong; Lexi had steeped it too long. But her niece had prepared it, and her niece was upset about something, so Blair forbore to criticize.

"About?" Blair prompted gently.

"About the crash," Lexi blurted. "About the damn crash."

"What about the crash, Lady Fabulous?"

Lexi shifted uncomfortably. "It's not easy to talk about."

"Take your time," Blair said kindly. She patted her belly. "You have a captive audience. But please try to keep the cursing to a minimum. Little pitchers and big ears – you know?"

"Do you really think it can hear us?" Lexi asked curiously.

Blair nodded. "They've done studies," she said. "Babies in utero can't understand what's being said, but they hear everything."

Lexi smiled. "I wonder if you'll have a boy," said Lexi, "or a girl?"

"Do you have a preference?"

"Not really. Do you?"

Blair shook her head. "All I want is a healthy baby with my dimples and Jo's brains."

Lexi snorted. "Aunt Jo's brains!" she said derisively.

"You two are in full cat-and-dog mode this morning," Blair observed.

"She's so bloody rude!"

"Sometimes," Blair admitted. "But she loves you. She had Hellraiser rebuilt for you, didn't she? That's the way she shows her emotions sometimes – it's not so direct. Instead of listening to what Aunt Jo says, try to watch what she does."

"Why are her stupid security goons always around?" Lexi complained. "They swarmed all over me like I'm some kind of terrorist."

"Aunt Jo has … enemies," said Blair. "It sounds melodramatic, I know, but it's true."

"Do you have any? Enemies?" Lexi asked curiously.

"Yes. But I have my own special security network." Blair nodded toward the ceiling.

Lexi followed her aunt's glance. "What – like cameras or alarms or something?"

"Like the Big Guy upstairs," Blair clarified.

"Oh. Well. I dunno what kind of protection that is, Aunt Blair. If you really have enemies you might want to think about investing in some hired thugs like Aunt Jo has."

Blair shook her head. "My pequeña agnostic," she said fondly.

"All I'm saying is you might want to hedge your bets," said Lexi. "When I'm on tour I always have a full security detail. I don't have any enemies yet but I already have a few stalkers."

"And you'll only have more as time goes on," Blair said sympathetically. "One of the prices of fame. Your mother has a legion of unfortunate souls obsessed with her."

"Not anymore," Lexi said darkly.

Blair lifted her eyebrows.

"Mum's career is cooling off," explained Lexi. "I feel awful for her – except she's coping by interfering in every damn aspect of my life! My career is my career! Mummy can't live through me. I feel so, so smothered!"

Blair squeezed Lexi's hand. "Tootie adores you."

"I know that. But there's always more to it, with Mum."

Blair couldn't argue with that.

"Let's talk about Hellraiser," said Blair. "What did you want to tell me about the crash?"

Lexi shifted uncomfortably. "I wasn't drinking. Well … not much."

"We know," Blair said. "The doctors went into all that when they first examined you. You weren't drunk, no drugs in your system – you just lost control on Cross Road. You weren't the first and sadly your probably won't be the last. When it gets icy near that turn –"

"I was driving too fast," said Lexi, looking down at the coverlet. "Much too fast."

Blair smoothed Lexi's curls back from her face. "You always drive too fast. You get that from Aunt Jo – by osmosis somehow. Lex … What are you trying to tell me?"

Lexi sighed. "I wasn't paying attention to the road. I was thinking; I was distracted."

"By what?"

"I was going to the Christmas party but I was thinking about … I was going to ask you for your advice that night."

"Well," Blair smiled, "here I am. The Bishop is in. I won't even charge you a nickel."

"I don't want to talk to Bishop Polniaczek. I want to talk to Aunt Blair."

"Well, she's here too … But she will charge you a nickel for her advice," Blair teased.

Lexi rolled her magnificent eyes. "Why do old people always think they're so damn funny?"

"Because we are," Blair said imperturbably. "You younger people are just too busy being serious to appreciate our keen sense of humor."

"Or you're just not funny."

"That can't possibly be it," said Blair.

"Aunt Blair?"

"Yes?"

"I think … That night when I was so distracted … You see … There's … Well, there was … This girl …"

Blair absorbed that. "Ah." Blair nodded. "I see. Well … If it's any consolation, I've been there, dear."

"But not for, like, a thousand years," objected Lexi.

Blair gave her niece a look.

"I mean, you and Aunt Jo have been together forever," Lexi amended. "You don't know what it's like to be young and confused and … to have your heart broken."

"First of all," said Blair, "I did have a life before I met your Aunt Jo, and even after I met her but before she and I became, ah, that is to say –" She wasn't quite sure how to phrase it. Lexi wasn't a kid anymore, but –

"Lovers," Lexi said helpfully.

"Yes," Blair agreed. "And second, even though my early relationships were way back in the mists of time, I'm sure not much has changed."

"You've got to be kidding. Everything's changed!"

"For instance?"

"When you and Aunt Jo got together it was the dark ages. You got to keep your love to yourselves. Now everyone's so fucking enlightened. If you're a lesbian you're supposed to run around and announce it and wave a big rainbow flag. But I'm not … I'm not ready for that. And being in the public eye …"

Blair smoothed an errant curl out of Lexi's eyes.

"Lexi," Blair said gently, "Aunt Jo and I didn't want to keep our love to ourselves. We wanted to shout it through a megaphone. But it was too dangerous back then."

"Well bully for you," Lexi said sarcastically. "But not everyone … I mean, that's great you felt that way, but I'm … You see …"

"I think I understand," said Blair.

"You do?" Lexi asked doubtfully.

"Yes. Just because you're a performer doesn't mean you're not a private person. It's one thing to sing a song in front of a million people. It's another thing to have your private life splashed all over TMZ and YouTube."

"That's exactly it," said Lexi. "People can watch me sing and dance twenty-four-seven if they like, but when it comes to, to who I go home to …"

"That's nobody's damn business but yours," Blair agreed.

"My … girlfriend," Lexi said the word rather shyly, "wanted us to come out last Christmas. To the world. To the world, Aunt Blair! It would have been all over the media. And I hadn't even … I mean, even the mater and pater don't know."

"Is your girlfriend –"

"Was my girlfriend," Lexi corrected.

"Was your girlfriend a performer too?" asked Blair.

"Yes. She was my road guitarist. Lead guitar. Whenever I toured. We, you know, rehearsed so much, I mean, with the whole band and crew, of course, but one day she came to me, she asked would it be all right if we ran through a couple of numbers, just us … And … I felt sort of … funny around her, and she seemed to feel sort of … funny around me, and then, you know, one thing led to another, and we just, we just …"

A tear slid down Lexi's cheek. Blair brushed it away. She opened her arms. Lexi leaned against her aunt, let the woman hold her comfortingly.

Lexi cried for a few moments. But she was made of fairly stern stuff, and after a few minutes she sat up straight and dragged a sleeve across her damp face.

"Well," said Lexi, "that's enough of that." She took a deep breath. "Lupita grew up in the Bronx," she said, "like Aunt Jo supposedly did."

"There's no 'supposedly' about it," Blair said. "I've seen where Aunt Jo grew up. I lived with Aunt Jo in her mother's apartment once."

"Really?"

"Really. Aunt Jo's family was very badly off."

"Was it a hell-hole?" Lexi asked curiously.

"Well … Not a hell-hole," said Blair. "Her mother kept it very nice. Cozy. But it was certainly a far cry from the Plaza."

"Lupita's place was a hell-hole," said Lexi. "I mean, I've never seen it but she told me all about it. Her life was very hard. But she could always play the guitar. She knew it would take her out of the Bronx someday. She loves her music like I love singing. All I want to do is sing and all she wants to do is play her guitar. She can make it … It sings for her, like a voice. She's amazing." Lexi's eyes softened and were very far away for a moment. Another tear trickled down her cheek.

"You sound like a beautiful match," Blair said encouragingly.

Lexi shook her head. "Everything was fine. And then just before Christmas last year … We were having our own little celebration, before I drove up to Peekskill for our big family 'do, and Lupita said … She …"

"That she wanted you both to come out of the closet," said Blair.

"To the world," Lexi said miserably.

"And you weren't ready."

"I don't know if I'll ever be ready! I mean, I know it's supposed to be OK now, being gay … Almost fashionable. But it's still … It's my private business. Me and Lupita, we belong to me and Lupita! Fuck the world! It's no one's damn business but ours. And it's still not completely … safe. There are still a lot of haters out there. I already have a few stalkers. If the world knew I was … the way I am, if they knew about me and Lupita, we quite literally could be in danger."

"You could," Blair agreed.

Lexi sighed. "Where did you get it?"

"Get what?"

"The courage! The sheer nerve you and Aunt Jo had."

Blair chewed thoughtfully at her lip. "Lex … It's not necessarily about courage. You've got plenty of guts, kid. But I do believe even celebrities have a right to some private life. And your sexuality and your sexual preferences – those are your private business. It's up to you when and if you come out. Just because things are better now than they were in 1984 doesn't mean it's easy street. There are still a lot of, what did you call them?"

"Haters."

"There are a lot of haters in the world. You do have to be careful. And only you will know when it's right for you. You and Lupita will have to work together to decide when and if –"

"But we broke up," Lexi said, pounding her fist against her thigh. "That's why I was so … When I told her I wasn't ready to come out, that I didn't know if I ever wanted to come out, she became – she was completely unreasonable!"

"Girlfriends sometimes are," Blair said wryly.

"She said I was ashamed of her, because she's poor! Because she's from the Bronx! Because her parents are from Cuba! As if I give a hang about any of that!"

"Her accusations must have hurt," Blair said sympathetically.

"Too bloody right!"

Blair bit back a smile. When Jo was in the grip of strong emotions, she went back to her Bronx roots. When Lexi was upset, she became all the more British.

"Lexi," Blair said gently, "it's natural that you would feel hurt that Lupita thought you were ashamed of her. But if you think about it, you can understand, can't you, why Lupita might think that you were ashamed?"

"Well … I suppose," Lexi said ungraciously.

"How, exactly, did you tell Lupita that you weren't ready to come out?"

Lexi shrugged. "I mean, she said she loved me and we should get married and we should tell the world. And I said she was bloody cracked, and what the hell kind of idea was that."

Blair nodded. "I see."

"Do you think …" Lexi mulled it over. "Do you think I might have hurt her feelings a little bit?"

Lexi is so much like Jo! thought Blair. That's why they aggravate each other so much …

"You might have, dear," Blair said calmly. "Lupita probably didn't appreciate being told that she was 'bloody cracked'. Or that her idea was ridiculous."

"I didn't tell her that her idea was 'ridiculous'," Lexi objected. "I just asked what the hell kind of idea it was, and how the hell did she come up with an idea like that."

"Still," said Blair, "you can see that might have hurt her feelings."

"Well I like straight talk," Lexi said defensively. "I just tell it like it is! And if Lupita loved me, she should have understood that!"

"So Lupita felt badly," said Blair, "and she accused you of being ashamed of her and her background."

"And I told her she was talking utter rot," Lexi said with spirit. "And I asked her how she dared to accuse me of such things!"

"And I imagine it all went downhill from there," Blair guessed.

"Pretty damn rapidly," Lexi agreed glumly. "She … I'd given her this little ring, you see, just a little silver something, nothing really, but it was so elegant. I saw it in the window of this little jewelry store and it made me think of her. It wasn't that it cost much or anything it was just … the idea."

"I understand," said Blair.

Blair toyed absently with the simple silver band on her ring finger. Jo had given it to her so many years ago, that October of 1983, at the Plaza, when Jo had asked Blair to marry her.

It was the ring Jo's grandfather had given to her grandmother in Krakow back when it looked like the world was going to tear itself apart in a spasm of warfare that would dwarf even World War I. It was a ring that had symbolized, both in Krakow and, years later, in Manhattan, a faith in love against all odds …

"Lupita loved the ring I gave her," Lexi was saying. "She wore it all the time. And she told me she considered it like an engagement ring. Which … That's sort of what I meant by it. But not … I didn't mean we were going to get married, not publicly, not telling the whole damned world!"

"Lexi," Blair said, "it sounds to me like you and Lupita were on different pages. That happens sometimes, even in the best of relationships. You were still in the courting stages. Lupita was already up to marriage. You were still basking in your private joy. Lupita was ready to yell it from the rooftops."

"Exactly," Lexi said miserably. "We were on completely different pages. It just couldn't work."

"Not at all, dear," Blair said encouragingly. "You just have to work through it. Together. You have to find a way to compromise, to respect where you're each at."

"But we can't," said Lexi. "We broke up! That's what I'm … what I'm getting to. She got angry at me and I got angry at her and we're on thoroughly different wavelengths and she told me to go to hell and I told her to bugger off and she said I never really loved her and she was just my piece of ass on the road, which is so vulgar, and so wrong, and it really hurt to hear her say that, and I told her we were through and she said that was fine by her and then, and then," Lexi finally paused to take a deep breath, "and then that's when I drove Hellraiser up to Peekskill and I was going too fast and I wasn't paying attention and I crashed."

Blair took a moment to digest all that. She hugged her niece.

"Lexi, if you and Lupita care about each other enough to hurt each other that deeply, this is something that you can repair," Blair said encouragingly. "I know you're not the biggest fan of the church –"

Lexi snorted.

"– But we offer counseling for gay and lesbian couples through the Episcopal Center," Blair continued, unperturbed. "Dating, engaged, married – it doesn't matter. Any gay or lesbian or bisexual couple at any stage of their relationship can come in for counseling."

"Counseling by whom?" Lexi asked dubiously. "You?"

"Trained counselors, my dear little smart-aleck" Blair said. "MFTs, MSW's – all scrupulously screened, all members of the congregation who volunteer."

"Who gives a damn?" Lexi asked rudely. "It doesn't matter now. Lupita and I broke up. We broke up! It's all over!"

"Don't be so dramatic, dear," said Blair. "It sounds as though that was your first big argument. Couples have a lot of arguments over the years – trust me! You have to learn how to argue. It's part of the growth of your relationship."

"Did you and Aunt Jo have a lot of rows?" Lexi asked curiously.

"Ha!" Blair laughed delightedly. "Did we have rows? Good Lord! Do you mean before or after we became a couple? The answer is the same either way: yes and yes. No one can argue like your Aunt Jo and I argue."

Lexi scowled. "So who cares, anyhow? Lupita and me … Lupita and I … "

"If you love each other," Blair said kindly, "you can still patch it up. And I'll do anything I can to help."

"But she never came to see me," Lexi blurted. "She never came to see me when I was in hospital! She must have, I mean, my crash was on the telly, it was in the papers, it was all over the web. But she never came!"

"Lexi, dear, she might have been ashamed," Blair said. "She might have blamed herself for your accident."

"And too right!" Lexi said petulantly.

"If you love this girl, you might have to swallow your pride," said Blair. "You might have to go to her and let her know that you want to work things out."

"Why should I have to? It's not bloody fair!"

"No, it's not. But if you're going to be in a grown-up, real relationship, you're going to have to get over worrying about what's fair and what's not fair. You have to be ready to make compromises – big compromises, sometimes, for the good of the relationship."

"Bugger that!"

"Don't be vulgar, dear," Blair chided mildly. "And if you're going to be this vulgar and this childish, I'm thinking your Lupita might have been right. Not about your being ashamed of her, but about breaking up with you. You might not be ready for a real relationship … Not yet, anyway."

"Bollocks!" An emotional dam seemed to burst; angry tears rolled down Lexi's face. "I love that damn, that damn, that woman! I love her and I want to reconcile but she never came to visit me and she can go to hell!"

"I see. Well. Yes, dear … You definitely sound ready for a mature relationship."

"And you can go to hell too, Aunt Blair!" Lexi buried her face in a corner of the coverlet. She sobbed like a child. "No one understands me! No one cares!"

Blair patted her eldest niece's shoulder. Having thrown a few tantrums in her day, Blair had an instinct for the rhythms of her eldest niece's tirades. After a few moments Lexi stopped crying. She dried her eyes on the coverlet.

"I hate being dramatic," Lexi complained, "but it isn't my fault. Damned dramatic Anviston and Ramsey genes! I mean, not all of them. Pater's father was a wet firecracker by all accounts. But the pater … and Mum …"

"Tootie's been known to be a bit dramatic from time to time," Blair agreed.

"I wish I could just be cool and sensible," said Lexi, "like cousin Wills. He knows how to keep his temper. It's such rubbish I was in a coma when he married Kate! She has a lovely sweet temper, too. They're going to have a perfect, sensible marriage. Whereas I'm going to be alone forever."

Blair sighed. "Dear … I'm a tad bit tired this morning." Blair patted her belly. "We're a tad bit tired this morning. I think I'm going to close my eyes for a few moments. Wake me when the pity party is over and you actually want to hear my advice."

Suiting her actions to her words, Blair closed her eyes and leaned back against the pillows.

Lexi sighed. "I'm sorry, Aunt Blair," she said contritely. "Truly. But I just get … I get …"

"I know how you get," Blair said, not opening her eyes. "I'm married to Aunt Jo – remember? But I'd like you to think about what I've said. Even if you don't go to couples' counseling, you might want to look up Lupita. It might give you some closure, just seeing her again. If you can find a way to talk with her and to part without anger, if you can let go of the past … Then you'll be able to move on."

"That sounds … reasonable," Lexi said somewhat grudgingly.

"Well, you caught me early in the day," said Blair. "I don't start giving unreasonable advice until the afternoon."

Lexi laughed.

Blair lifted one eyebrow, her eyes still closed.

"Was that laughter? Is sweet, delightful Lexi rejoining the conversation?"

"I suppose," said Lexi.

"And will you think about talking to Lupita?"

"Yes. I'll think about it."

"Good. Good, dear." Blair reached blindly for Lexi's hands, found them, held them. "Whatever you and Lupita decide, I hope it brings you both joy. If you can't find a way to be lovers, at least part as friends."

They sat in companionable silence for a moment. The electric alarm clock on Jo's bedside table made a low humming sound. The gilt carriage clock on Blair's bedside table ticked.

"Mum doesn't know," Lexi said finally, in a quiet voice. "Neither does the pater. I know Mum and Dad always accepted you and Aunt Jo. And Mum sings at all the AIDS benefits and the pater is on committees supporting gay rights and … They accept … They accept being gay in principle, you see. But their own daughter … Their only child …"

"They'll accept you," Blair said quietly. She squeezed Lexi's hands. "I don't know how they'll process it, or what the timeframe will be. But they will accept you. Whatever their faults, your parents are two of the most open and loving people I've ever been privileged to know. And they love you no matter what, Alexis."

"I'm just not ready for the conversation," said Lexi. "You know – the conversation. You have to promise not to tell. Anyone. You're the only one who knows."

"Not the only one," said Blair. She opened her eyes. "Lupita knows. And, you'll notice, she seems to have kept it to herself. She could have gone to the press when you broke up. She could have poured out her secret online. Why do you think she didn't?"

Lexi wriggled a little uncomfortably. She shrugged.

"Lupita was ready to shout it from the rooftops," Blair continued. "But she didn't. Not when you were lying in a coma. Not when you came out of the coma. Why would she keep it quiet?"

"I suppose she's … I suppose she's respecting my wishes."

"A poor girl from the Bronx could make a lot of coin selling that story," Blair mused, closing her eyes again. "I suppose road guitarists don't make millions of dollars, do they? Not nearly what they could make selling juicy stories about superstars like Lady Lexi."

"If you're trying to make me feel guilty, it's working," Lexi complained.

Blair smiled. "Good. It's an important skill in my profession, being able to inject an irritating little needle of guilt from time to time."

"Mission accomplished."

"Wonderful." Blair smile became positively serene. "Now that my mission is accomplished, would you mind making me another cup of that chamomile tea, dear?"

"Hard labor," Lexi grumbled. "It's like the workhouse, coming here."

"Yes, Lexi. And if Rory's up, could you ask her to make me bacon? Just a rasher. Well … maybe two. Or three. Three rashers. And Aunt Jo doesn't need to know about it. The bacon – not the chamomile tea."

"Doesn't she?"

"No. She doesn't," Blair said decisively.

"You love her a lot, don't you?" Lexi asked curiously.

"I love Jo more than anything or anyone in this world," said Blair.

"But you still fight sometimes?"

"We see the world very differently sometimes. We always have. In some ways we're completely aligned. It's almost uncanny. But in some ways, we'll always have to agree to disagree."

"And that's when you fight? Before you get to the part where you agree to disagree?"

Blair laughed. "I never thought about it quite like that, but … yes."

"Being in love is stupid," said Lexi. "It's too much work, it's totally irrational. It's rubbish."

"Maybe," said Blair. "But it's the most wonderful thing in the world."

Lexi sighed. "Yes," she said. "Dammit. Yes. I know."


Jo had gone for a run only because her pregnant wife, the love and light of her life, had asked her to.

But once she hit her stride, running through Central Park, she was glad Blair had asked her to go.

In D.C. Senator Polniaczek hit the gym every chance she got, but with her hectic schedule she didn't always get the chance. She hadn't been running – really running – in more than a month.

It felt good, the cold November breeze raking her as she ran. Her lungs burned pleasantly.

Autumn in New York, she thought, breathing in the scent of cold earth and damp fallen leaves. Christ, I love this city – in any season!

Dagmar and Hans were running about ten paces behind her. Jo had no illusions; if they wanted to, the younger man and woman could leave Senator Joanne Marie Polniaczek in the dust. But they were hired to protect her, not remind her that she was approaching the half-century mark.

Dagmar and Hans had skinned into black sweatpants and sweatshirts in their black van. They loped easily behind Jo, earpieces in place, their SIG-Sauer P229s bulging on their hips, tucked into the waistbands of their sweatpants. Jo knew that if some nut leaped out of the bushes and tried to attack her, Dagmar and Hans would have their weapons trained on the attacker in less than a second; the nut's life wouldn't be worth a plug nickel. It was a comforting thought.

Not that there appeared to be any maniacs in the bushes this morning. Jo passed the usual assortment of well-heeled New Yorkers – lawyers, businesspeople, bankers – in their expensive workout clothes, jogging in the opposite direction. And Jo passed the usual assortment of unfortunates who appeared to be living in the park. It broke her heart … And it pissed her off.

Richest damn country in the fucking world! No excuse … No excuse …

One kid sitting huddled up against a tree couldn't have been more than fifteen, she figured. His hair was shaggy, face grimy, clothes filthy. He wore a sweatshirt that was too big for him. No jacket. No jacket in this cold! she thought. Christ!

She veered off the concrete path, toward the kid. He looked up warily.

Afraid I'm going to hurt him, thought Jo. Poor guy!

Dagmar and Hans drew abreast of her instantly.

"Threat factor?" asked Hans.

"Zero," said Jo. "Just a kid. Look, I don't have my wallet on me. Give me a twenty and one of my cards, would you?"

Hans drew a crisp twenty-dollar bill out of his sweatshirt pocket, and one of Jo's business cards.

"Pen?" asked Jo.

Hans drew out a ballpoint pen.

Jo scribbled on the back of her card.

"Hi," she said to the kid, who had drawn back, clearly intimidated by the big, handsome, sweating woman and her hired muscle. Jo extended the twenty and the card. The kids hesitated, then reached warily for both.

"Get yourself some breakfast," Jo said kindly. "And something hot to drink. And call that phone number on the back of this card. That's the number for the Episcopal Charity Center; it's not too far from here. Tell them I sent you, OK? And if you have any friends around here, you tell them to go with you. And you call my office if anyone hassles you. Right?"

The kid nodded mutely. He read the front of the card and his eyebrows went up and he looked at Jo again.

Thank you, he signed. Thanks.

He signed something else, but Jo's sign language abilities were sketchy at best.

"You're welcome," said Jo, glad the kid could apparently read lips. "Take care of yourself, kid."

She started running again. Hans and Dagmar waited a few seconds, and then fell into step ten paces behind her.

Jo ran hard. It made her so mad to see anyone suffer. She pushed herself. Even in the cold of the November morning, she felt sweat pooling between her breasts, running down her back.

She ran herself out, and then, as she looped back toward the penthouse, she slowed incrementally. She'd learned that long ago, as a young jock. You never just flat out stopped running; you eased out of it, or you cramped up.

She thought about her dream again. Being young again, a hotshot college athlete. Blair looking on adoringly from the stands. It wasn't just a dream; it was a memory. It was a thing that had happened, and more than once. It was part of her amazing life …

The doorman let Jo and Hans and Dagmar into the building respectfully.

"Thanks, Fred," said Jo.

The young man behind the ornate lobby desk was new. He looked like a kid – almost as young as the kid in the park.

Kid, thought Jo. Yeah, I'm getting older. Anyone under thirty is a 'kid' now …

The kid looked dubiously at Jo, at her sweaty running clothes and straggly ponytail. She was gorgeous and she had that air of being somebody … but … still … And the goons trailing her … Were they Mafia? The young man had just seen a black-and-white movie about the mob on AMC …

"Are you, uh, visiting someone in the building?" he hesitantly asked Jo.

For crying out loud, thought Jo. I'm a U.S. Senator now … And still, these snobbo gatekeepers always grill me like I don't belong …

"My wife is Bishop Blair Polniaczek," Jo said coolly. "You know, in the penthouse. OK with you if I go upstairs and make love with her?"

The kid blushed. "Uh … My apologies," he said.

Jo sighed. I can really still be a bitch-on-wheels, she thought. Not this kid's fault about that other kid in the park, about me being from the Bronx, about me being in a crabby mood …

"Hey," said Jo. "I'm sorry. I haven't had my coffee yet. For future reference, I'm Senator Jo Polniaczek. And I am married to Bishop Polniaczek. We're having a baby so I'm going to be visiting here a lot. You'll get used to seeing me."

The kid grinned. "A baby?"

"Yeah." Jo felt herself grinning too. A baby. Blair and I are having a baby …

"Congratulations," the kid said sincerely.

"Thanks," said Jo …

Lexi was in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee. Rory was cooking a big pan of sizzling bacon and a pan of scrambled eggs with cheddar and chives.

"Damn, that smells good," Jo said appreciatively. She sat on a stool at the kitchen counter.

Lexi wrinkled her nose and waved a hand in Jo's general direction. "P-U!" Lexi complained. "Take a shower, why don't you?"

Jo scowled. "I shouldn't have delivered you," she said. "I should've sent you back to the stork."

Lexi rolled her eyes.

"Rory, throw some of that bacon on a plate for me, why don't you," said Jo.

Rory shook her head. "I'm sorry, Senator," she said regretfully, "but Bishop Polniaczek told me I have to cook you turkey bacon."

"Oh she did, did she?" Jo asked grimly.

"She said it's for your own good," said Rory in her soft, lilting voice. "Because of your blood pressure. Everything I cook for you when you visit has to be low-sodium. The Bishop said that it was actually your particular request. She said that you want both of you to start eating healthier food."

"I see." Technically, Jo had to admit, that was true. Jo had told Blair that they were both going to start living healthier lives. But when it came right down to it … The bacon just smelled so damn good!

"So, if the Bishop told you we're eating healthier now, exactly who is all that for?" asked Jo, nudging her chin toward the pan of sizzling, fragrant bacon. "We expecting a bunch of ranch hands to drop by? The cast of 'Bonanza' maybe? Or 'Big Valley'?"

"This, ah, this is for …" Rory trailed off uncertainly.

"Don't worry," said Jo. "I'm not going to make you fink on the Bishop. She must have thought I was going to take a longer run."

"She's probably forgotten," said Lexi, "how old and broken down you're getting. She thought you could run more than ten meters."

"That's about enough out of you, kid," Jo said firmly.

"I'll start your turkey bacon," Rory told Jo kindly, taking another skillet out of a cupboard. "It's brilliant, really. You can't tell the difference between it and real bacon."

"Maybe you can't," said Jo, "but I can. And eating healthy was my idea in the first place, so I can make an exception if I want. Blair is pregnant. Blair is the one who needs to eat healthy."

"Perhaps Aunt Blair wants her child to have two mothers," said Lexi. "Perhaps Aunt Blair doesn't want you pitching over dead from a coronary before the little cherub is born."

"Perhaps you might want to put a sock in it," suggested Jo.

"Perhaps you could go to hell," suggested Lexi.

"Perhaps you could go first," said Jo. Then she sighed, remembering that Lexi almost had gone to the great beyond first, before any of them, when she crashed Hellraiser into the tree … "Why do we always do this?" asked Jo. "It's so stupid. Why can't we get along? Your mother is a musketeer. Your father is my best friend. You adore Blair. What's the problem with us?"

Lexi shrugged. "You're a bitch."

"Haha."

"Not supposed to be funny," said Lexi.

"And to think you were so cute when you were born," said Jo.

"Was I?" Lexi asked coolly. "I thought it was all blood and ick and yuck?"

"Touché. Touché. I shouldn't have said that earlier. I'm sorry, Lex."

Lexi raised her eyebrows. "Did you just say you're sorry?"

"Don't milk this? OK? But, yes, I did say I'm sorry. You're so beyond your years sometimes, I forget you're basically a kid."

"I am not a kid," Lexi bristled. "I hate it when you say that!"

"And here we go again." Jo sighed. "Well … It was a nice three-second truce."

"Would you like some nice soft-scrambled eggs?" Rory asked Jo. "With some nice salt substitute?"

"What I'd really like," said Jo, "is a big thick steak and a cup of black coffee and an omelet full of all kinds of bad things, like ham and bacon. But since I don't, actually, want to drop dead of a coronary before my little cherub is born, I'll take some turkey bacon and some soft-scrambled eggs with salt substitute."

Rory nodded like a governess pleased with her charge. "Quite sensible, Senator," she said approvingly.

"It's Jo," said Jo. "In the apartment, I'm 'Jo' and the Bishop is 'Blair' – OK? We're not on 'Upstairs, Downstairs'."

"As you like, Senator."

Lexi was regarding Jo curiously.

"What?" asked Jo. "I have something on my face or something?"

"You're going to eat the turkey bacon," said Lexi. "You're going to do what Blair wants."

"Yes. And not for the first time – that's for sure!"

"Even though she's having Rory cook her real bacon. Even though Aunt Blair's sneaking real bacon, you're doing what she wants."

Jo laughed. "Listen, kid, haven't you figured out by now who wears the pants in this family?"

"Well, I mean, I know Aunt Blair is in charge, but … you don't mind?"

"Sometimes. But not as much as I let her think." Jo put a finger to her lips. "You don't have to tell her that, however. I kind of like her thinking she's putting something over on me. It makes her feel good sometimes."

Lexi considered that highly irrational statement. "So if she's happy …"

"I'm happy," Jo said. "Exactly. And it's a two-way street."

"Did you and Aunt Blair really live in your mother's house once?"

"Wow. Yes. But it was an apartment, not a house. Where the hell did that come from?"

"Aunt Blair just told me."

"It was a very brief time. My mother's cracker-box-sized apartment. It was this tiny little place where I mostly grew up."

"And you didn't have a maid or anything?"

Jo laughed.

"Or a cook?" Lexi asked.

Jo laughed harder.

"So you were really poor?"

"We were really poor," said Jo. "I told you. You know that already."

"Aunt Blair was really rich and you were really poor but … you made it work."

"Well, since it's twenty-seven years later and we're married and having a baby, yes, we made it work."

"But you had … fights?"

"Fights? Christ! Madison Square Garden kept trying to book us! Fights! Your aunt and I have always had a gift for full-on nuclear blow-outs. But then, the making up …" Jo trailed off dreamily.

"The making up," Lexi said thoughtfully.

"When you have an earth-shattering blow-out and then you make up, it's about as amazing as it gets," said Jo. And then, cocking one eyebrow, "Hey. How come you aren't saying 'ew' and 'gross' and 'don't talk about things like that in front of me'?"

Lexi rolled her eyes. "God blind me, Aunt Jo, I'm not twelve years old anymore. When are you going to realize I've grown up?"

"Whenever you actually grow up," said Jo.

"Old people are so not funny," complained Lexi.

"Young people are so rude," complained Jo.

Lexi frowned thoughtfully. "Aunt Jo? Were you and Aunt Blair having a fight when I was born?"

"What do you mean?"

"I asked the question in plain English. Why wasn't Aunt Blair with you when you delivered me?"

"For Pete's sake, who can remember that far back?"

"You're evading the question."

"I believe the stock phrase is, 'I do not recall'."

"Aunt Blair would never let you deliver me alone if she knew where you were, if you and she were together. Oh my God!" exclaimed Lexi as the truth dawned on her. "You were broken up! You and Aunt Blair were broken up!" She said it accusingly, as if, somehow, it must have been Jo's fault.

Jo shifted uncomfortably on the kitchen stool. "Your Aunt Blair and I … When you were born, we were taking a little time off."

"And what does that mean?"

"I answered the question in plain English," said Jo.

"'Taking a little time off' isn't plain English. It's a euphemism," said Lexi. "Typically it's a euphemism for breaking up."

"We did not break up," said Jo.

"So … Aunt Blair broke up with you," Lexi said. "Wow."

"She did not break up with me," said Jo. "No one broke up. But if someone did break up, how do you know I didn't break up with her?"

Lexi shook her head sadly. "Really? You'd actually try to put that one over on me?"

"Why couldn't I break up with her?"

"You said it yourself, Aunt Jo – you're completely whipped."

"I'm not whipped. Who said I was whipped? I never said I was whipped."

"You said she wears the pants in the family."

"Because I let her wear the pants."

"Hmm," Lexi said skeptically. "'Let her.' Right."

"Look," said Jo, "it was almost the 90's. We were finishing grad school. It was a very stressful time. Aunt Blair and I decided, rationally and calmly, that we needed to take a step back."

"So … She broke up with you. Like I said."

"We took a step back," Jo insisted. "And during that, er, stepping back, you were born. Believe me, nobody planned it that way. I'm the last person who should've been delivering a baby. But here you are, thanks to yours truly."

"And mater and pater."

"They had a little something to do with it," Jo conceded magnanimously.

"But, back to you and Aunt Blair being broken up," said Lexi.

"Taking a step back."

"Whatever. Were you still living together?"

"We were living, uh … We lived apart for awhile," Jo conceded.

"For how long?"

"Awhile."

"And did you, were you still talking to each other every day? Or were you really broken up, like, no communication?"

"It was a step back. That meant, no, we weren't talking every day."

"Then how often were you talking?"

Jo shifted again, even more uncomfortably. "Why do you want to know this? This is, it's like an ancient, painful, unimportant chapter in the Jo-Blair saga of our lives."

"Well if it's still painful, it's not that ancient. And it's interesting. You two always seem to get along so well, it's kind of boring. You're so old and dull now. Well, you are. Aunt Blair's still kick-ass. But you're such a fuddy-duddy old married couple, it's interesting to know you had a rocky past."

"Rocky? Who says it was rocky? And who's a fuddy-duddy?" Jo demanded.

"So when you and Aunt Blair were broken up, how often were you talking with each other?"

"For crying out loud! It was way back in 1989. Who remembers? We … There was a sort of longish period of time where Aunt Blair and I didn't talk."

"How longish?"

"Longish. Too long. It sucked. I missed her like hell. And I found out later she missed me."

"Did you see other people?"

Jo scowled. "If you want to get into Harvard Law, counselor, I can maybe pull some strings," she sniped. "You'd make a hell of a prosecutor."

"Don't evade the question."

"Christ! I really do feel like I'm on the witness stand!"

"And you're still being evasive, Aunt Jo. So … ipso facto … you did see other people."

"Now just a –"

"Did Aunt Blair see other people too?"

"None of this is any of your business, Lex. Why don't you drop it?"

"It is quite interesting," Rory chimed in from the stove.

Jo directed her scowl at the pretty young cook. "Why don't you focus on not burning the bacon," Jo told Rory.

"Yes, Senator," Rory apologized.

"Jo. Call me Jo."

"You can call her Jo – but don't burn the Senator's bacon," Lexi told the young cook.

"Listen, you little wisenheimer, I've had just about enough out of you," Jo told Lexi. "A long time ago your aunt and I took some time off, and it's none of your business what happened, and we patched it all up, end of story."

"What on earth is all the arguing about?" asked Blair, strolling into the kitchen, cheeks rosy and fresh-scrubbed, hair neatly brushed and falling in gentle waves around her face.

Jo felt her heart skip a beat looking at Blair; looking at her wife, and remembering that awful time, so long ago, that they'd been apart …

"Darling – are you all right?" asked Blair, concerned. She went to Jo, put an arm around her wife's shoulders. "You look so sad."

"Eh, I'm fine," said Jo. She kissed Blair's cheek. Blair smelled delicious, as always. This morning her scent was a combination of Chanel No. 5 and some fragrant floral soap – wild roses, perhaps.

"Did you see other people when you and Aunt Jo were broken up?" Lexi asked bluntly.

Blair flushed. "Uh … We're discussing what now?"

Lexi shook her head. "Oh … my … God. Complete and total evasion – and utterly transparent! You saw other people, Aunt Blair. You saw other people! It's heartbreaking."

"It's ancient history," crabbed Jo. "Get off the topic, Lex. Now."

"Darling," Blair said to Jo, "don't bite her head off. It's not a very pleasant topic, but she's just taking an interest in us."

"So take an interest," Jo told Lexi. "Ask me about the Children's Health Care Bill. Ask me about the Gay Marriage Bill. Ask me about quorums, or who's putting the moves on whom in committee meetings."

"Who is putting the moves on whom in committee meetings?" Rory asked curiously.

Jo gave her a look.

"The bacon," said Rory, turning back to the stove. She flipped strips of bacon with a long, two-tined fork. "Right-o."

"You can ask Aunt Blair about scripture," Jo continued. "You can ask her about the new Children's Center. Or how she keeps her hair so beautiful."

"Why Jo," said Blair, touched. "Thank you for noticing."

"Of course, babe. It looks extra beautiful lately," Jo said admiringly.

"I'm trying a new conditioner," said Blair. "Bumble and Bumble."

Lexi rolled her eyes. "For heaven's sake, to hell with Bumble and Bumble."

"She doesn't mean that," Jo told Blair. "Don't worry. She's just upset."

"I do too mean it," said Lexi. "Bumble and Bumble can go to hell. I want to hear more about when you and Aunt Blair were broken up."

"Why? Frankly it isn't your damn business, kid."

"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.

"But it isn't. She's not a kid anymore – as she herself keeps telling us. I'm not going to sugar-coat this stuff anymore. Lex, it's not your business and we don't want to discuss it."

"Fine!" snapped Lexi. "Last damn time I show any damn interest in your stupid, boring life!" Lexi dropped down from her kitchen stool with the grace of a young panther and flounced out of the kitchen. A moment later they heard the front door slam.

"Nicely done," Blair told Jo. "Judges' score: Zero points out of ten."

"You know a lovely way to divert one's minds from one's troubles?" asked Rory.

She slid a heaping plate of bacon in front of Blair, and a smaller plate of turkey bacon and soft-scrambled eggs in front of Jo.

"Breakfast makes everything seem brighter," said Rory. "A nice, piping hot breakfast. And in your case, Senator," she placed a shaker of salt substitute next to Jo's plate, "a nice, piping hot, healthy breakfast. There. Isn't that a treat?"

Jo glanced significantly from her rasher of turkey bacon to Blair's three rashers of crisp, still-sizzling, mouth-watering real bacon.

"Er, my goodness, Rory," said Blair. "You've gone and cooked real bacon for me."

"Yes, your grace. Just as you –"

"Now, don't be too hard on yourself," Blair said hastily. "You're still settling in, so these little mistakes will happen."

"Little mistakes, your grace?"

"Yes. I want turkey bacon too. Just like Jo has. Mmn. That turkey bacon looks so … delicious."

Jo laughed. She pulled Blair to her and gave her a hearty kiss.

"My goodness," Blair said a little breathlessly when Jo released her, pleased but surprised and a trifle embarrassed at Jo's sudden display of affection in front of the new cook. "What was that for, darling?"

"I'm consoling you," said Jo. "Because the Academy Award does not go to Bishop Blair Polniaczek!"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Blair said innocently. "And you're embarrassing Rory."

"Ah, sure, don't mind me," Rory said cheerfully. "Me Mam's got a girlfriend back home."

"In the old country?" asked Jo.

"No; in Queens. When I emigrated to the United States I took Mam with me."

"That's lovely," said Blair. "That you took your mother with you," she clarified. "And, it's lovely too that she has a girlfriend."

"Me Da doesn't think so," said Rory. "That's why I took Mam with me when I emigrated. It was a fairly bitter divorce. And there weren't a lot of out-and-proud lesbians for Mam to meet in Lighnonny."

"Lee-what-now?" asked Jo.

Blair nudged her softly in the ribs.

"What?" asked Jo. "I'm interested. I never heard of Lee-whatsit. I'm expanding my geographic knowledge of Ireland."

"Lighnonny is a gnat on a flea on a freckle one-hundred kilometers from nowhere," said Rory.

Jo looked at Blair.

"It's a tiny village, darling," Blair translated. "Now eat your turkey bacon. While Rory prepares turkey bacon for me."

"But what about all that great real bacon?" asked Jo. "That Rory worked so hard to prepare for you?" Jo brushed a strand of hair back from Blair's face. "The cravings starting already, babe?" she asked kindly.

Blair sighed. "I think so," she admitted. "Since I woke up I've been lying in bed craving a big heaping plate of bacon. And, don't get me wrong, I enjoy bacon, but you're the carnivore in this family. If I were craving a hot fudge sundae, a chocolate milk shake, a decadent little dish of crème brulée, now that wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary. But a passel of bacon?"

"Babe – did you just say 'passel'?"

"Raised on a Texas ranch – remember?"

"Oh. Yeah. Look, babe, if you're craving bacon, Rory's already made it all nice and crispy, so why don't you go ahead and pig out. So to speak. Just, will you promise me you won't eat like this every day? That much fat and grease all the time just isn't healthy for you and the baby."

"I know. I know, darling." Something occurred to Blair as she eyed the plate of bacon. She put a hand to her belly. "Jo … Do you think it's possible that it's our baby that's craving the bacon?"

"Hmm." Jo's eyebrows knit skeptically. "Kid's only fifteen weeks old, Blair. I don't think it's craving anything specific yet."

"But I was at that seminar last week," said Blair. "And there was a breakfast buffet and I honestly don't care a much for bacon, but Deacon Eldren was raving about it, so I had a couple of pieces to be companionable, and then suddenly I went back up and got about ten more pieces and maybe, well, maybe –"

"Maybe the kid got a taste for it? Huh." Jo chuckled. "Maybe you are onto something there, babe. This is kind of fun. We've got to keep track of this. If you start craving stuff you usually don't care about. We have to write it down, you know?"

"I'll be happy to assist with that," offered Rory. "I am, after all, at the culinary epicenter of the household."

"Great," Jo said absently. She grinned happily at her wife. "Wow. This whole pregnancy thing gets more fun every day!"

"With one exception," said Blair. She turned away. "Be right back."

"Morning sickness?" Jo called solicitously as Blair hurried from the room.

"No. Have to pee," Blair called back. A door closed in the distance …

Jo chomped on a piece of turkey bacon. She ate a few mouthfuls of scrambled egg with cheddar and chives.

"Is it to your liking?" Rory asked a trifle anxiously.

"Hmm. Oh, yeah. It's great," Jo said politely, although, with her thoughts on Blair and the baby, the breakfast could have tasted like sawdust for all she noticed.

"You're sure? I didn't use too much cheese?"

"What? No. It's perfect."

"Lovely. Because I want everything to be perfect for you and the Bishop."

"Well it is," Jo said. "Everything's perfect." There was something, Jo thought, vaguely dog-like about Rory. She was so loyal and friendly and attentive and determined to please.

"Look," said Jo, pulling out of her Blair-baby reverie, "you don't have to try hard with us, Rory. Just throw some stuff together that's healthy and edible. As long as Blair's eating enough to keep her and the kid healthy, that's all we need. Don't stress – OK?"

"OK," said Rory. "And I have to say, Senator, I don't think it will ever be dull working for you and the Bishop."

"Thanks. Although, the way Lexi tells it, we're about two steps from the Fuddy-Duddy rest home."

"She's a pop star," said Rory, beginning to slice bananas. "Everything must seem dull to her. But when you come from a wee bump in the road like Lighnonny, as I do, everything is exciting."

"Well … The Bishop and I have our moments. She did, er, mention to you that you have to keep anything that you hear here confidential? Right?"

"Of course." Rory sounded slightly hurt. "I passed all of the background checks and I was cautioned most carefully at the agency about not repeating anything that I hear or see in this apartment."

"Good." Jo nodded. "That's real good. Because now that I'll be visiting more often, we'll be having some dinners, our friends'll be dropping by, and we have some, well, we're an eclectic group. Most of us are in the public eye. So it's important you don't –"

"I understand, Senator," said Rory. "Believe me. My lips are sealed."

"Good. Good."

"And now," said Rory, "if you're truly serious about eating more sensibly, how about some nice banana slices? Lot of lovely potassium. Very good for pre-menopausal lasses."

Jo made a face at the phrase 'pre-menopausal'. "Lasses" though … She could live with "lasses".

That's what we are, thought Jo, popping a slice of banana into her mouth. Blair and I, we're still a couple of lasses. Feels every day like we're just starting out, like it's all new ...

"Senator?" Rory said hesitantly.

"Mmn?" Jo asked around a mouthful of banana.

"If you don't mind my saying it …"

"What?" Jo swallowed the fruit. "What is it, Rory? You can't be shy around here. You just have to speak up and say what's on your mind."

"What your niece mentioned," Rory said apologetically. "About … Well … You really could do with a shower, perhaps."

Jo threw back her head and laughed.

"Oh, I could – could I?"

"Yes. If you'll pardon my saying it."

Blair appeared in the doorway, looking a little queasy.

"You OK?" Jo asked, concerned.

"Yes. I suppose. It's all part of the miracle of life."

"What's part of the miracle of life – peeing every five minutes?"

"Yes. But, as it turns out, I was morning sick, too."

"Babe," Jo said solicitously. She slid off of the kitchen stool, took Blair in her arms and kissed her cheek. "You know what you need?"

"Dramamine?"

"Nope."

"Depends Undergarments?"

"Nope. Hell, I hope not, anyway. Not yet." Jo kissed her wife's tip-tilted nose.

"Then I give up, darling. What do I need?"

"You," said Jo, grinning broadly, "need your back scrubbed by a beautiful brunette."

"A back rub would be nice," Blair agreed.

"Not back rub – back scrub," Jo corrected. "As in, let's conserve New York City water and take our morning shower together." She nuzzled Blair's throat.

"Jo!" said Blair, slightly scandalized. The things it did to her when Jo nuzzled her neck … But it simply wasn't proper to do those things in front of the staff …

"Well, I think my work here is done," Rory said, smiling benignly at the couple. She wiped her hands on a clean dishtowel, and untied her apron. "I think I'll freshen up myself before it's time to prepare lunch. Do you know how many you'll be for lunch?"

"Mmn … No," Blair said, completely distracted by Jo's mouth moving over the soft flesh above her collar bone.

"Right then," said Rory. "We'll sort it later." She vanished discretely into her little suite off the kitchen.

"Jo," said Blair, putting her arms around her wife's shoulders, "it's not that I don't – oh! – um … it isn't that I don't appreciate your affection, but it's so tacky to – ooh … oh, Jo …"

Jo had slid her hands inside of Blair's bathrobe, trailing her slender, strong fingers up Blair's rib cage, kneading Blair's full breasts through the thin silk membrane of her nightgown. Jo brushed her fingertips over Blair's large nipples, feeling them tighten and leap erect under the silk.

"Let me scrub your back," Jo whispered into Blair's ear. She lightly bit the blonde's earlobe. She gently pinched the blonde's nipples.

"Those … aren't … my back," murmured Blair. "Your anatomy is a tad bit confused, darling."

"Never took biology," Jo murmured. She kissed her way down Blair's throat, over her pale chest, and then took one of the nipples into her mouth through the thin fabric.

Blair hissed in pleasure.

"Let's take this into the shower," Jo mumbled. "You can give me an anatomy lesson. 'K?"

"OK," Blair agreed, her head swimming.


It had started when Blair was around thirty-five years old.

She had been raised, as many wealthy young people were raised, to be comfortable with and proud of her body. No middle-class or blue-collar prudery. She was healthy, she was lovely, and her body was never anything to be ashamed of.

When she and Jo first made love Jo had been as excited as Blair, but Blair had taken the lead. Blair was much more comfortable with nudity and sexuality. She had led the way, and Jo had gladly followed …

Over the years, in good times and bad, they had become thoroughly comfortable with each other's bodies. Long before they could legally marry they felt married in their hearts, and they enjoyed a vigorous romantic and sexual life. They had no embarrassment with each other, except Jo's increasingly rare, very occasional shyness, usually when she was thinking back to their early courtship.

Over time Blair even learned to accept the ugly scar above her navel, the place where Dina Becker had stabbed her. She never liked to look at it; it always reminded her, if only for a microsecond, of the horrible attack; but she knew that it didn't make her any less beautiful, any less precious in Jo's eyes …

It was with some surprise, then, that Blair realized one day not long after her thirty-fifth birthday, that she didn't want to undress in front of Jo.

It was unprecedented. Normally Blair was the first to tear off both their clothes and set the love-making in motion. But on this particular afternoon, Jo had come home unexpectedly after a colleague had cancelled a lunch meeting.

"Guess who's got time for a nooner?" Jo had asked, with her crooked, adorable grin.

Jo had surprised Blair. Blair was in their bedroom, brushing her hair. She'd been up late with an ill parishioner; she had only just got out of bed, hadn't showered or washed her face or even brushed her teeth yet.

Jo was already peeling off her dark blazer, unbuttoning her crisp white shirt, moving toward Blair with that adorable, sexy, crooked little grin …

"Wait!" Blair had blurted. She scooted back on the bench in front of her vanity, sounding actually panicked.

Jo had chuckled.

"What's the matter, babe?"

"Jo, I'm …"

I'm what? Blair had asked herself. Why am I feeling nervous? Why is my heart pounding in my chest?

"You're beautiful, is what you are," Jo had said dreamily, dropping her shirt on the floor. Jo began wriggling out of her silky bra. In a few seconds, Jo was standing half-nude in front of Blair, pert, pink-nippled breasts literally in Blair's face.

Blair had scooted further back on the bench. She felt herself pulling her bathrobe belt tight.

Jo was slipping out of her dark trousers, and then her silk panties. Jo was standing in front of Blair completely nude and glorious and wet and smelling headily of arousal …

"Jo … I'm … I'm not …"

It had finally dawned on Jo that Blair wasn't stripping off her bathrobe and leaping at Jo like the frankly horny goddess of love that Blair was.

"Babe," Jo had said, concerned, "are you feeling OK? Are you sick?"

Blair had shook her head. "No. No, I'm not ill, I just …"

I'm what? What's wrong with me?

Jo had knelt next to her lover, taking Blair's hands solicitously. The way Jo was crouching, the musky-sweet scent of her sex drifted plainly to Blair's nostrils. Blair inhaled delicately. As always she felt instantly aroused. She felt a heat between her legs, she felt herself growing instantly wet.

Jo put the back of one hand on Blair's forehead. "You feel a little hot," Jo said, sounding worried. "I think you might have a fever."

"I don't think so," Blair had demurred. "But … Jo …"

"What is it? What can I do, Blair?"

What can she do? Blair wondered. What can I do? What the hell is my problem?

"How about a cool bath?" Jo had suggested. It was a concerned, not sexual, suggestion.

She takes such good care of me, thought Blair. She's so wonderful.

"Come on," Jo said, tugging lightly at the lapels of Blair's bathrobe. "Let's get you into the tub."

"Jo …"

"Yes, babe?"

"I'm … I'm …"

Jo tilted her head, looking deeply concerned. "What is it, Blair? Tell me. What do you need?"

"Jo …"

"Yes?"

"Jo – I'm thirty-five," Blair had blurted. And then she'd burst into tears.

Jo had been mystified, but, instinctively, she took her lover in her arms and held her and murmured soothing things.

When Blair recovered her composure she buried her face against Jo's hair.

"I'm thirty-five," she murmured miserably.

"Um, yes," Jo agreed. "I was at the party, babe – remember? I was the striking brunette who hosted it."

"I'm thirty-five, Jo. And I haven't taken a shower yet, and I haven't brushed my teeth, and –"

"Babe, we've known each other, like, twenty years. You don't have to get all gussied up for me," Jo said kindly.

"My ass is getting fat," moaned Blair. "And I have a bunion. A bunion! On my foot."

"I think it's those crazy heels you were wearing the other day," said Jo. "If you would wear more sensible shoes, like yours truly –"

"My ass. Fat! I'm getting huge, Jo! It's like you said when we were young – I'm getting all huge! Before long I'll be, I'll be doddering too!"

"Whoa. Whoa. Let's put the brakes on, Blair." Jo ran a hand through the blonde's beautiful long locks. "Your ass is beautiful. I can vouch for that. All of you is beautiful. You're not huge. You're, you're –" Jo searched for the perfect word to describe how luxurious she found Blair's body – "you're comfortable."

Blair had groaned. "Comfortable?"

"Babe," Jo had said, pulling Blair close, "are you seriously worried about how you look? I've never heard you like this before. You're gorgeous. You've always been gorgeous. You're always going to be gorgeous. You'll be Harvest Queen of our nursing home, for crying out loud!"

Blair had made a funny little sound, like she was laughing and sobbing at the same time.

It was becoming clearer to Blair, now, what was worrying her.

"We … When we have sex now," Blair had said quietly, "I know we're going to be intimate. Our schedules are so hectic we don't see each other that often and we know in advance when we'll have a chance to make love. So I, I have a chance to, to, you know … prepare."

"Prepare? Blair, you don't have to prepare anything for me. Come as you are, Blondie! Let your beautiful freak flag fly!"

"Jo, I just woke up. I'm tired and I need a shower and, and my ass is so big now. And it's daylight. I haven't had, I can't arrange the, you know, the lighting …"

Jo had shaken her head, utterly bewildered. "Blair, are you telling me … It's like, are you art-directing our love-making now? Babe, this isn't a movie. It's just us. Day, night, chunky, thin, bunions and all – it's just us."

Blair had lifted her head. She'd looked directly into Jo's eyes … and seen total devotion and admiration.

"You … You still think I'm beautiful?" Blair had asked hopefully.

"For crying out – Blair, you are beautiful! You're more beautiful than ever! You're like, what did Citizen Kane always say in those commercials? 'They sell no wine before its time?' Well you're like this amazing wine, and you just get more and more amazing every year, and you're not even close to hitting your peak yet!"

"Oh, Jo!" Blair had cried, deeply moved. She had fallen on her lover, kissing Jo passionately, and the next thing she knew, they were tangled together on the carpet, never even reaching bed, making wild love, as if they were still teenagers …

But for the next few years, Blair's shyness had remained. It overtook her periodically. On the whole she preferred making love in carefully controlled situations, after she'd bathed, and applied a little makeup, and when she had control of the lighting – candlelight was best.

Jo knew what Blair was doing of course – at thirty-five they were long past being able to fool each other over something so obvious. And Blair knew that Jo knew. But Jo went with the flow. At some point, Jo figured, Blair would relax and accept the fact that her beautiful body was changing, evolving as the clock ticked …

And then, after forty, Blair had mellowed. She was rather heavy, adding a few pound every year … But she finally seemed to make peace with it.

It helped, Blair found, that Jo, her athletic, indomitable jock, was finally showing some signs of wear and tear around age forty. Jo's abs weren't quite so tight. She didn't have quite as much energy. Her knees creaked a little when she got in and out of bed …

But now, in 2011, in the master bathroom of Blair's penthouse, Blair suddenly felt her shyness return. Because now she was pregnant, and her belly had never been so big …

Jo was buck naked, standing under a stream of warm water in the shower, holding out her hand to her wife.

Blair stood next to the shower, frozen in the act of slipping out of her nightgown.

"Come on, beautiful," said Jo. "TLC right here. No waiting."

Blair slowly let the straps of her nightgown slide down over her shoulders. She slowly tugged the garment down, revealing her increasingly large, beautiful pale breasts, and then her expanding pale belly, with the dark scar above the belly button.

Jo wolf whistled.

"Don't," Blair said quietly … So quietly that Jo couldn't hear her over the plash of the water.

"You OK, babe?" Jo asked kindly. "If you require any assistance, believe me when I say that I am ready, willing and able to help you undress."

Blair smiled. "I'm not doubting that," she said. She folded her arms across her breasts.

Jo frowned. She turned off the water, stepped out of the tub.

"Blair … Babe … Are you feeling, like, self-conscious or something?"

"Well …"

"OK. OK. You don't have anything to be self-conscious about, but I can, you know, understand."

Jo didn't try to unfold her wife's arms. She did, however, slide her arms around Blair's waist and kiss her wife's hair.

"What does it feel like?" Jo asked curiously. "I mean, besides craving bacon? Your body must be feeling sort of different these days."

"More than sort of," said Blair. "It's … it's so amazing, but at the same time …"

Jo kissed her hair again.

"How about this," said Jo. "I'm going to shower, because, got to agree with the general consensus, I need it. If you decide you want to join me, hop in anytime. And if you don't, that's up to you."

Blair hugged her wife tightly. "You know you're the best – right, Jo?"

"Well, when you're right, you're right," Jo grinned.

Blair nuzzled Jo's neck. With her arms around her wife, Blair realized that their naked torsos were pressed together … And somehow that was suddenly all right.

"I'll hop in with you," said Blair.

"I think that's a sound decision," Jo said approvingly.

"Darling?"

"Yes?"

"You really … Even with the extra weight, you still find me … you find me …"

"Yes," said Jo. "Very much so, babe."

Jo kissed her wife. It was a very tender kiss, and slowly it deepened. Blair pulled Jo closer as they deepened the kiss even more.

Eventually they paused to breathe. They gazed into each other's eyes, smiling.

"Let's take that shower," said Blair.

"Babe; I thought you'd never ask …"


Jo was in Blair's study, catching up on e-mail messages. Jo wanted a Scotch, badly … But a promise was a promise.

Blair dozed in the comfortable arm chair. Jo loved hearing her wife's nose whistle while she slept. It was one of the most soothing sounds in the world; and tearing through her e-mail, most of it from Paramita, Jo's chief-of-staff, most of it disappointing as hell, Jo needed to be soothed.

Jo typed response after response. Paramita would follow Jo's instructions to the letter, Jo knew, as well as putting a more diplomatic twist on Jo's blunt words. But it wasn't the same.

It's not like being in D.C., on the spot. How the hell am I going to do this? How am I going to spend more time in Manhattan? I want to start easing out … Powering down … I want to focus on Blair and our baby … But I can't let the constituents down, either … I still have commitments to them …

Jo responded to Paramita's final e-mail, then turned off the computer. If she left the computer on she'd be too tempted to keep checking her messages.

Jo turned in the swivel chair. She smiled at her sleeping wife. Blair was so adorable when she slept. Always had been.

Jo remembered watching Blair sleep, sometimes, when they were seniors at Eastland Academy. That was the year Jo really started to get confused about how she felt about her beautiful, privileged roommate.

Sometimes Nat and Tootie would be out of the room, off at their activities; Tootie would be rehearsing a play, Nat would be at the Eastland Gazette. Jo had been so tempted sometimes, when it was just her and Blair in the room, to climb onto Blair's bed, to snuggle against the blonde. To snuggle against her and maybe touch her pretty hair, and maybe, maybe – it always made Jo's heart beat faster to think about it – maybe kiss her lovely mouth …

Jo stood up. She went to the easy chair, sat on the edge of it. She put an arm around the love of her life. She lay her dark head against the blonde head. She put her other arm gently, protectively, on Blair's belly.

Blair stirred.

"Mmphtlhmkptf," she mumbled faintly.

"Whatever you say, babe," murmured Jo.

RIIIIIIING! RIIIIIIINNNNNG! RIIIIIIING!! pealed the doorbell.

Jo sighed. What … the … hell?

Blair's place seemed to be a miniature version of Grand Central Station. Any old anyone seemed to drop by without warning.

Blair sat up, yawning, blinking.

"That must be Natalie," she said. "She usually drops by on Saturdays."

"How'd she just breeze up here?" Jo asked a little crabbily. "How come Lex and Nat are on the 'Do not hassle' list while meanwhile your wife gets asked twenty questions by the toddler manning lobby reception?"

"You're on the 'Do not hassle' list, too," Blair said, "which, by the way, is called the 'Approved Guest List'. But the staff just isn't … well," she yawned again, "they see Lexi and Natalie all the time."

"Well they're going to start seeing me all the time too," Jo said stoutly. "And Lex and Nat a little less, if I have my way."

"Darling."

"You're just a softie," said Jo. "Anyone can drop in without warning and get your wisdom and your counsel. It's like, it's like –"

"Like I'm a woman of the cloth?"

"Har-har."

Blair kissed Jo's cheek. "Be nice, darling. It's my work. You have your work. You just spent, what?" She glanced at her delicate wristwatch. "You just spent forty-five minutes firing off e-mails. It's part of your profession. It goes with the turf. Well, I have my turf. I do a lot of listening. And talking. And just being there."

"Leave it to you to find a job where you get to listen and talk all day," laughed Jo. "Listening and talking – two of your best subjects!"

Blair lifted one eyebrow coolly.

"Come on," laughed Jo. She lightly shook Blair's shoulders. "You know I'm just teasing. Everyone's always come to you. You just have, there's something about you. Remember before we graduated Eastland? Remember all the girls flocking around you for advice?"

"That was about hair and makeup and shoes," Blair objected. "I hope I'm giving slightly more important advice these days."

"Eh, hair, makeup, the state of one's eternal soul … You've got it all covered, babe."

"Thank you, darling."

They heard the doorbell ring discretely, two crisp peals, one long, the "all clear" signal from Jo's security team.

Jo sighed again.

"So. I guess we have to let Nat or whoever it is in."

"Jo."

"Kidding. Totally kidding. Mostly …"

When Jo opened the door and nodded at Hans and Dagmar, they permitted Natalie to enter the apartment.

"Wow," said Natalie when Jo had closed the front door, "if I weren't a mostly happily married woman, I could really go for that Hans! Ha-cha-cha!"

"For crying out loud," complained Jo, leading Natalie into the kitchen, "he's, like, fifteen years younger than you. At least."

"Well, you know what they say about women and men and their sexual peaks."

"Nope. Not a clue."

"Women reach their peaks later," explained Nat. "And men reach their peak sooner. So, twenty-year-old guy, thirty-year-old woman … Thirty-year-old guy, forty-year-old woman … You catch my drift?"

"Yeah, they taught math at Eastland – remember?" Jo went to the massive stainless steel refrigerator. "What's your poison, doctor? Apple juice, carrot juice, grape juice, grapefruit juice, orange juice –"

"Hmm. I'm sensing a theme here," said Natalie.

"We're all about health in this home," said Jo. "One wife pregnant, one wife kicking the booze and lowering her blood pressure. Ah. V8 juice. You want some V8 juice?"

"Grapefruit juice is fine," said Natalie. "What I really need is you and Blair, both of you. I have something to ask you two."

"Well here I am," said Blair, entering the room, stretching sleepily. She hugged Natalie. "What is it? Anything we can do for you, we'll be happy to do."

"Hey, let's not be too hasty there," objected Jo. "We don't know what she's going to ask."

"Ignore the Senator," Blair told Nat. "She's the skeptical type."

"One of us has to be," said Jo, pouring out of big glass of grapefruit juice for Natalie.

"I need you to help me place a couple of orphans," said Nat.

Blair put a hand to her bosom. "Orphans?" she asked sympathetically.

"You've hooked her now," Jo told Natalie. "Nice opening."

"Where are they from?" asked Blair.

"They're actually native New Yorkers," said Natalie.

"From an unfortunate neighborhood?" Blair asked.

"Anything outside of Central Park West is an unfortunate neighborhood to you, babe," teased Jo.

Blair swatted Jo lightly. "Nat – where are the children from?"

"It so happens they were born in the Bronx," said Natalie.

"No kidding?" asked Jo. "Huhn. Well … Kids from the Bronx. We should try to help them. Babe, you have lists of families willing to take kids in, or something?"

"Of course," said Blair. "The Episcopal Center places foster children, orphans, children who need legal guardians –"

"That's all well and good, but this is sort of a … special situation," Natalie said vaguely.

"Special how?" asked Jo, her wariness returning.

"Special as in I want you two to take in the orphans," said Nat.

"Us?" Jo asked incredulously, just as

"Us?" Blair asked, touched.

"Forget it," said Jo just as "We'd love to," said Blair.

"No way," said Jo. "Babe, look, I'm only here on weekends, you're all pregnant, plus you're still working a full schedule. I'm trying to run a little something called the United States of America, and you're trying to save people's souls. How the hell can we throw orphans into the mix?"

"How can we not help?" asked Blair. "Natalie wouldn't ask us if they didn't really need us. And pretty soon we'll be looking after our own little baby. You're going to find time for our baby, I presume?"

"Of course! But that'll be our baby." Jo scowled at Natalie. "Tell us more about these orphans, Nat," she said severely. "What's their story? Why are we supposed to get saddled with the little monsters?"

"First of all, they're not that little," said Natalie. "The boy is ten and the girl is almost seventeen."

"Seventeen? For the love of Mike, why doesn't the seventeen-year-old just look after the boy?"

"The almost-seventeen-year-old has a sort of … a kind of … difficult disposition," said Natalie. "She tends to get into … situations. And she has trouble with authority."

"Wow, Nat … You're really not selling this," said Jo.

"The little boy is an angel," Natalie said hastily. "A saint, even. Sweetest little boy you ever met."

Jo's eyes narrowed. "Juvenile delinquent girl, sweet little boy – Nat, why do these alleged 'orphans' sound like your kids?"

"Because they are," said Natalie, grinning from ear-to-ear. She threw her arms wide. "Aunt Blair; Aunt Jo; get ready to babysit your precious niece and nephew!"

Jo groaned.

"Brenda and Syd are always welcome here," said Blair.

Jo groaned again.

"But Nat," Blair said, puzzled, "why do you need us to watch them? And why do you keep calling them 'orphans'? You're not … Are you …"

"I'm fine," Natalie reassured Blair. "Clean bill of health."

"Not for long," Jo said darkly.

"You know how I applied to become a 'Doctor Without Borders'?" Natalie asked Blair.

"I remember," said Blair.

"Who the hell can keep track of all your do-gooding, Nat?" griped Jo.

"Well I applied for Doctors Without Borders and my application's finally been accepted. And they need me now. As in yesterday. I thought I'd have more time to prepare, but after that flood in the Tsizer region, and then the unrest in the countryside –"

"Of course," Blair said. She hugged Natalie. "Of course! You have to go, you have to help."

"But why do we have to take the kids?" Jo complained. "Can't Brenda watch Syd? She's not a kid anymore. By the time I was Brenda's age I'd already eloped. I'd already been arrested a bunch of times. I could rebuild a Kawasaki engine with my eyes closed. Kids are so damn sheltered these days."

Natalie sighed. "Jo … I know you're pissing and moaning, but you're hitting pretty close to the mark. Brenda seems to be following in the delinquent footsteps of the legendary Jo Polniaczek. There's no way I can leave Brenda in charge of the apartment, let alone her brother. I would probably come home to a pile of rubble and an Amber alert!"

"You can't leave Brenda in charge of anything – but you can saddle us with her?" Jo demanded.

"Jo!" said Blair, aghast.

But Jo refused to back down. "Hey, you can be as bleeding heart as you want, babe, but I'm looking out for both our interests. Is this the time for us to have a teen hoodlum running around the apartment? Do we want our place reduced to a pile of rubble?"

Natalie sighed. "You're right," she told Jo. "You're right, you're right. I can't believe I'm trying to foist my kids on you, when you already have so much on your plates."

"Jo is not right," Blair said with spirit. "Brenda and Syd are our niece and nephew and they're welcome here anytime. Period. End of discussion."

"Babe –"

"End. Of. Discussion," Blair said firmly.

"But you're not being logical," Jo objected. "I've got logic on my side!"

Blair glanced upward. "I've got Him on my side."

"Ha! I thought we agreed you wouldn't do that! Just because you're a Bishop, that doesn't mean you're always right."

"Archbishop," said Blair. "Archbishop. And I'm always right because I'm always right, darling. His support is just icing on the cake."

Jo shook her head. Point to Blair … But Jo refused to give in without more of a fight.

"What about Snake?" Jo asked Natalie. "You know – big tall guy. Your husband? Ringing any bells? Why can't he watch the kids? Since, you know, they're actually his."

"Right – my husband," said Nat. "The long-haul trucker. Who just left on a two-month run up to the Arctic Circle. I suppose I could FedEx Brenda and Syd to the North Pole. They could wait for Snake at Santa's workshop. Snake could pick them up on his way back to New York."

"Well there's no need to be all sarcastic," groused Jo. "Just asking. It's not insane to ask why your husband can't watch his own kids, is it? And what the hell is he hauling up to the Arctic, anyway? They run out of snow up there? The penguins need new tuxedos?"

"Penguins live at the South Pole," said Natalie. "Crack an atlas, sometime, why don't you?"

"What is Snake delivering to the Arctic?" Blair asked curiously.

"Equipment," said Natalie. "Drilling equipment and tools."

Jo shook her head. "You couldn't just marry a nice Jewish doctor? You had to marry the Tarzan of the open road?"

"I didn't have to marry a nice Jewish doctor," Natalie said indignantly. "I am a nice Jewish doctor!" She turned to Blair. "Is it my imagination, or is Jo becoming more and more Neanderthal these days?"

"Well …"

"Way to defend me!" Jo said to Blair.

"We're taking the children," Blair said firmly. "And that's that. Think of it as practice for our own children, darling."

"Children? Now there's children? We don't even have the first kid yet!"

Blair didn't dignify that comment with a response.

"Send Brenda and Syd over any time," Blair told Natalie. "They can stay in the guest room."

"Thank you Blair. Blair, who's my friend, and who really cares about me." Natalie said this with a cold look at Jo.

"Eh, get bent," Jo scowled.

Natalie leaned on the counter. Her eyes softened; they held a dreamy, far-away look. "Doctors Without Borders. I'm really going. This is like a dream come true."

"I'm so happy for you," said Blair, pressing her friend's arm. "Do you have someone lined up to run the clinic while you're away?"

"Of course," Natalie said. "Remember me – organized Natalie Green?"

"Is that the same Natalie Green who almost flunked Spanish because she was daydreaming and writing crappy songs and poetry?" asked Jo.

"It wasn't … 'crappy'," Blair said kindly.

"Well it wasn't Longfellow," Natalie admitted. "Wow. You guys aren't ever going to let me live that down – are you?"

"Probably not," said Blair.

"Well I'm happy to report that I'm a billion times more organized these days. And I haven't written crappy songs and poetry in twenty years."

RIIIIING! RIIIIIING!! RIIIIIIIIIING! went the doorbell.

"Son of a bitch," muttered Jo. "This place is busier than Grand Central Station."

"Your wife is very popular," said Natalie. "Probably on account of her not being a total –"

"Darling, why don't you see who's at the door?" Blair suggested to Jo. "Since Hans and Dagmar will have them in custody."

"Hans and Dagmar don't take people into custody," said Jo. "Well – unless they're actually a threat. Hans and Dagmar just screen people."

"Whatever it is that they do, if you could please see that our visitor is all right?"

Jo left the kitchen, muttering something under her breath. To Blair it sounded like something about being a glorified butler. Blair smiled fondly at her wife as Jo disappeared into the next room.

"So; is she driving you insane yet?" asked Natalie, helping herself to one of the fresh-baked cranberry muffins Rory had left on a plate in the center of the kitchen counter.

"What do you mean?" asked Blair.

"Having Jo around more often. Is she driving you up the wall yet?"

"Of course not."

"Come on. I go through the same thing with Snake being gone half the time. They're away – you miss 'em like hell. They're back – they drive you nuts." Natalie took a bit bite of the cranberry muffin. "We get into this routine," she said around a mouthful of food, "you know what I mean. Work and friends and our favorite prime-time guilty pleasures. We've got it all down to this nice flow. And then here comes the hubby, barging around, screwing up our schedule like a bull in a china shop!"

"Jo's not my 'hubby'," Blair objected. "Although she does tend to barge around."

"In a bull-like fashion," said Natalie, nodding. "Come on. It has to be driving you a little kooky. You can't possibly be as serene and saintly as you seem."

"I don't know about saintly," said Blair, "but I do feel very serene. I love having Jo around – no matter how crabby she is. Jo is just … Jo. I never feel complete without her. I never did … from the moment we met."

Natalie shook her head. She took another bite of cranberry muffin. "I don't know about you two. It's not natural."

"Natalie!"

"Not the lesbian thing," Nat said hastily. "I mean, the way you two dote on each other. It's so … It's so … square!"

"Square?"

"It's so sweet. And wholesome."

"And that's a bad thing?" Blair asked, baffled.

"Well it's not very modern. It's not very Manhattan circa 2011."

"I'll have you know that Jo and I just had a very un-square encounter in the shower," Blair said. "We did things we haven't done in years."

"And … Changing the subject," said Natalie, cheeks tingeing pink. "How about those Catholics? How's the season shaping up? Do the Episcopals have the grit to go the distance this year?"

Blair smiled. "And you call me square," she teased.

"I just happen to think that people's private, personal sex lives are private and personal."

"Sex is a natural, beautiful thing," said Blair. "It's one of God's greatest gifts to us."

"Who's saying it's not?" asked Nat. "I like a little bawdy conversation as much as the next person – when it's general. I just don't want to hear actual, sexual details from my friends! I never have!"

Jo tore into the kitchen, looking thoroughly pissed off.

"Who was it?" asked Blair.

"The Bickersons," Jo said darkly.

"I say," said Alec, following Jo into the kitchen, "you certainly know how to make a fellow feel unwanted."

"You are unwanted," said Jo. "You're all unwanted – except Blair."

"Well maybe you should have thought of that," said Tootie, breezing in just behind Alec, "before you invited my baby to run away from home!"

Jo scowled.

"And not only do you take in my runaway baby," Tootie continued, eyes flashing, "but you call Alec instead of me!"

"Nobody called Alec," said Jo.

"Well, somebody did call me," Alec corrected gently. "Lexi called me, in point of fact. She left me a voicemail saying she was holed up here because of some terrific row with her mother."

"It wasn't a 'terrific row'," Tootie said, exasperated. "It was just a stupid argument. The kind Lexi and I have always had. There was no need for her to run over here!"

"Well she's not here anymore," said Jo. "Lexi and I had our own little row, and she stormed out. Hours ago." She glared at Alec. "You should check your voicemail more frequently, milord. And what the hell are you doing in New York, anyway?"

"Embassy Ball," he said, grimacing. "Tonight. Don't fancy it, but duty calls."

"Did Jack come with you?"

"No, she had a bit of a head. She's resting at home."

"So you're stagging it to the Embassy Ball," said Jo. "That sucks."

Alec shrugged. "I'll survive," he said manfully. "The dreadful old hags who always seem to populate these dos can flirt with me tonight to their hearts' content without incurring Jack's wrath."

"Excuse me," said Tootie, "but can anyone tell me where my daughter is? Am I to understand that she's roaming the streets of New York alone, upset, God knows where?"

"For crying out loud," said Jo, "wherever she is, she's fine. She's twenty-two, Tootie. Twenty-two. It's time to cut the apron strings – with a blowtorch, maybe."

"Hear, hear!" Alec said.

Tootie glared at her ex-husband with laser-like intensity.

"Er, by which I mean to say," said Alec, "that I'm certain Lexi is quite all right. She's a woman now, old thing. We can't keep her in our pocket."

"She could be riding that damn bike," said Tootie, transferring her glare to Jo. "Since someone had it rebuilt. She could be riding that damn bike around Manhattan at five-hundred miles an hour!"

"It can't go five-hundred miles an hour," said Jo.

"You know what I mean! She could crash again. She's upset about something. She's, she's wrestling with some problem, and she won't tell me what it is!"

"Because you're effing smothering her," said Jo. "Let the kid breathe."

"I'm her mother," said Tootie, leaning toward Jo, almost going nose-to-nose, toe-to-toe with the Senator. "You don't know what that means yet, but you will. When my baby has a problem, I have a problem."

"She doesn't have any problems," said Jo. "Not real problems. For Pete's sake! She's an international pop star! Me, I actually have problems. The rat bastards in committee are trying to kill the Children's Health Bill, and I can't do anything from, uh –"

Jo broke off abruptly. She went to the refrigerator, opened it, started rummaging around inside.

"You can't do anything from where?" Blair asked her wife.

"Never mind," Jo said indistinctly, head in the fridge. "Who wants a V8 juice? Nat, you need more grapefruit juice? Alec, you want a snort of something healthy for a change?"

"You were going to say 'here'," said Blair in a wounded voice. "You were going to say you can't do anything about the bill because you're stuck here. With me."

"That's not what I meant," said Jo. "Alec, how about a glass of grape juice? You can pretend it's port."

"God blind me," said Alec, "if I ever mistake grape juice for port, please commit me!"

"Excuse me, everyone," Blair said quietly.

She slipped out of the room.

"Wow," said Natalie. "You are a Neanderthal, Jo."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You can climb out of the fridge," said Nat. "Blair's gone."

Jo closed the refrigerator door. She looked warily at Nat. "Did she … Did she look hurt? Really hurt?"

"Why would she look hurt?" Natalie deadpanned. "Just because you said you'd rather be in some committee meeting instead of here with your wife and your unborn child?"

"That's not what I said," sighed Jo. "It's just … Dammit."

"It really kind of is what you said," said Natalie. "And, more to the point, it's what Blair heard."

"When did everything get so complicated?" murmured Jo. She pressed a hand to her forehead. "My God. My God. I must've really hurt her."

"She'll live," Tootie said briskly. "Now what about my baby?"

"Your baby is fine," said Jo. "Lexi's just, she seems like she's got something on her mind. Probably some crush or something. She'll work through it. And she knows you love her. So give your daughter some goddamn space, Tootie."

"Well!" Tootie literally quivered with indignation.

"Jo's right," said Nat. "At least, she's right in this case. Boundaries, Tootie. They're called boundaries."

"Were there boundaries when I carried Lexi in my womb for nine months? Were there boundaries when I got up in the middle of the night and sang to her when she was crying?"

"That was me, old thing," Alec said faintly reproachfully. "I sang to Alexis when she woke up crying. You never seemed to wake up."

"I sang to her sometimes. Well … when she was older, anyway."

"Ha!"

"Now listen up, your graces," said Jo, "this is not going down in my kitchen. No more fights, no more drama. Everyone effing behave like grown-ups. Is that too much to ask?"

"Drama? Who's being dramatic?" Tootie demanded in her best scenery-chewing mode.

The door to Rory's suite slid open, and the young cook tentatively stepped into the room.

"Gracious," she said in her soft country voice, "I never knew there'd be so much commotion cooking for an Archbishop."

"Your editorial comments aren't required," Jo told her waspishly.

"What a frightful snob you sound," said Alec. "Who can blame the poor young woman for being put out, with all our nonsense unfolding outside her door?"

"I'm not put out," Rory said sincerely. "I'm just surprised. I expected a lot of praying. And, when there wasn't praying, a lot of meditative quiet."

Everyone laughed.

"Quiet!" said Alec. "God's teeth!"

"As if!" said Natalie. "Quiet – with this crew!"

Jo gave Rory a crooked smile. "Listen, kid – I'm sorry. I can be a little bit of a hothead, if you haven't noticed."

"She can be a lot of a hothead," Tootie corrected. "Fasten your seat belt, new cook."

"My seat belt has been fastened, and I'm just enjoying the ride," Rory smiled.

Alec put a brotherly hand on Jo's shoulder. "So, my dear Artemis … About time you followed your inamorata and apologized – wouldn't you say?"

Jo sighed. "I suppose," she said. "I just wish … I'm not sure what to say."

"Try 'I'm sorry'," suggested Natalie. "'I'm sorry I'm a thoughtless, self-centered Neanderthal.'"

"Easy on the Neanderthal cracks," Jo said. "You know, I've got feelings like the next person."

"Just talk it through," said Alec. "It's understandable that she's hurt, but it's equally clear that you had no intention of hurting her."

Jo grimaced. "You make it sound so simple, ambassador. But it's not." She punched his shoulder. "How about you come with, your Excellency? Help a poor, tongue-tied Neanderthal make peace with her lady-love? Be the Cyrano to my Bergerac?"

"Cyrano de Bergerac was one person," said Tootie.

Jo glared at her.

"I'm just saying," said Tootie. "What you said doesn't make any sense, Jo."

"And yet, as always, I understand what my dear Artemis means," said Alec.

"So you'll go with me?" Jo asked hopefully.

"Not a chance in hell," said Alec. "You and Aphrodite need to work this out together. Alone. A mediator would only get in the way."

"Sure it's not the end of the world," Rory said kindly. "You just need time to get used to each other again, and learn how to balance your work with your personal time."

Alec nodded approvingly. "What she said."

"I suppose," Jo grumbled. "But I have to say, pal – you're really letting me down. I can't remember you ever letting me down like this."

"I say, Jo – that's not fair."

"Or accurate," said Tootie. "Alec has an unblemished track record of letting people down."

"And that's not fair either," Alec said to his ex-wife. "When, for instance, have I ever let you down?"

"Ha!" Tootie perched on a kitchen stool. "How long do you have? I could spend hours reciting the erratic, completely unreliable history of Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge."

"Easy to say," said Alec. "But I'm not hearing any examples."

"You weren't there when Lexi was born."

"I didn't even know about her!" Alec said, sounding stung. "Because you kept it from me! How dare you keep my own baby secret and then throw it in my face decades later!"

"Low blow," Natalie agreed.

"And whose side are you on?" Tootie asked her best friend.

"Like all ex-journalists, Nat's on the side of truth, justice and the American way," said Jo.

"I think that's Superman," Rory said doubtfully.

"Exactly," Jo agreed. "Clark Kent was a journalist, right?"

Tootie rolled her eyes.

"Jo, stop clouding the issue with your geek-isms. Alec is unreliable, and that's just how it is."

"Aside from the secret birth of my child, over which I had no control, what other examples can you produce?" Alec demanded.

"Actually, I've got one," said Natalie.

Alec gave her a sorrowful look. "Et tu, Natalie?"

"To be fair, Alec, it's the only time, well, the only important time, I ever remember you letting us down," said Natalie. "But I can't be too upset, since that's what led to my meeting Snake."

"Ah. Yes. The infamous 'Trial of the Decade'. So … that incident's never to die, is it?"

"You should know by now we never let anything die," said Natalie. "And you really did leave us in the lurch."

"But that wasn't my fault," Alec objected.

"Oh, nothing's ever your fault, apparently," said Tootie.

"But it wasn't," Alec insisted. "Don't you remember? It was the Georges. Or, I suppose I should say, 'They were the Georges'. No. That still doesn't sound right."

"Whatever the reason was, you left us high and dry," said Natalie. "But it all turned out all right, in the end …"

Part 2

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