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

Faithfully
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 2

Early November, 1984. Peekskill, New York. River Rock House.

"But you promised!" Natalie told Alec, outraged. "You promised! Grandma's on trial for her life! Her life, Alec!"

"D'you think I don't bloody know that?" Alec snapped. "D'you think I want to be anywhere else this morning than in that courtroom? But there's no damned way round it."

"What could be so important you can't bring us to see Gramma's trial?"

"It's a private matter. I'll explain it later. Listen," Alec glanced at his watch, "if you want me to run you to the train station –"

"To hell with the train station!" Tootie interrupted. "Alec, I can't believe how selfish you're being! You're totally going back on your word!"

"It's not my fault!"

Natalie threw her arms up in the air. "The same lame excuse is always playing on this channel!"

"Well it's not my fault," Alec said miserably. "I'll be there as soon as I can; I just can't bloody go this dead second."

"Well we have to leave this dead second," Natalie insisted. "And there's no time to take a train. If we wait for a train and then we have to take a taxi to the courthouse, we're going to miss the opening arguments!"

"You really screwed up this one, milord," said Tootie, glaring balefully at Alec.

"Here, then." He tossed something glittering to Tootie.

It was a completely unexpected gesture, but years on stage had given Tootie excellent reflexes – she could improvise in just about any situation. She caught the glittering object.

"These are your car keys," Tootie said.

"Well spotted, Mata Tootie," Alec said sarcastically.

"But why are you giving us your car keys?"

"So you can drive my coupe to the courthouse," said Alec.

"But –"

"Just take it!" he all but roared.

"But how will you get to the courthouse if we have your car?" Tootie asked reasonably.

"I don't know. Let's tackle one crisis at a time, fair dames. I don't even know if I'll be able to get away at all today."

"But if you can –"

"If I can, I'll take a train and a taxi. I don't need to hear the opening arguments. If I want to hear opening arguments, I'll watch a 'Perry Mason' rerun!"

"What a sorehead," Natalie complained.

"I'm a sorehead? Who was just bellowing and shouting and all but attacking me?"

"My grandmother's on trial for her life!"

"Yes, Natalie, dear, I grasped that the first twenty times you bellowed it. God's teeth; I think you punctured my eardrums!"

"Hey! I take exception to the word 'bellow'! Stop saying it!"

"But you are bellowing. You're still bellowing! If you two are in such a damned rush, why aren't you getting the devil out of here?"

"Don't worry – we are!" fumed Natalie. She grabbed Tootie's arm. "Come on, Ramsey – wheels up!"

"But I don't have a license. You don't have a license."

"I have a permit."

"Natalie, that's not –"

"On trial for her life!"

"Oh. True. Come on, Nat …"

Everything went fairly well on the country roads of Westchester County. The roads were narrow, and winding, but on a weekday morning there was little traffic to contend with.

Natalie almost drove them into a farm field a couple of times, and there was a near miss with a hedge growing along the edge of the road, but Tootie had to admit she was impressed with her best friend's driving and extremely relieved when the skyscrapers of Manhattan appeared in the near distance.

"We're home free!" Tootie exulted.

"For Pete's sake," Natalie exclaimed, "don't say that! You'll anger the Fates!"

"Oh, you and your Fates, Nat. You did it! We're almost there!"

"Tootie!"

The engine of Alec's little blue coupe suddenly sputtered. It sputtered, and made an odd spitting sound, like an angry cat.

"OK, what does that mean?" Natalie asked frantically. "What is that sound? What's happening?"

"How do I know?" asked Tootie. "I don't speak 'engine'."

"Well it doesn't sound good!"

"Maybe the engine is just turning over."

"'Turning over'? What does that mean?"

"I'm not sure. I heard Marshall say it one time. One of his friends was borrowing his car and Marshall told him to do something when the engine turned over."

The engine made more ghastly sputtering and spitting sounds. Then it was silent.

The car shuddered and then went still.

Natalie and Tootie glanced wide-eyed at each other.

"It died," said Natalie.

"Sounds like it," Tootie agreed.

The car was slowing dramatically. Other cars zapped past them at what now seemed like light speed.

"It died, Tootie!"

"Yes, Nat, I'm in the car with you."

"So what do we do?"

"How do I know? I don't even have a learner's permit!"

"You had to go and anger the Fates – didn't you?"

"Natalie, the blame game isn't going to help. I think, I think we have to get to the side of the highway."

"I don't know if we can make it. We're rolling on fumes here, Ramsey!"

"There." Tootie pointed. "If we can make it to that exit, we'll let gravity carry us down. We can try to park somewhere before we totally run out of momentum."

Natalie cut the wheel to the right. The tires squealed as the coupe drifted across several lanes of traffic.

"Nat!" shrieked Tootie, grabbing the dashboard.

"Hang on, Tootie!" yelled Natalie.

Somehow they coasted to the exit ramp without being T-boned by another car. The coupe rolled down the ramp, toward what appeared to be a residential neighborhood of aged brownstones.

As the car rolled, it picked up speed.

"Oh my God!" cried Natalie. "How are we going to stop?"

"The brakes are working," said Tootie. "It was only the engine that died."

"Oh. Yeah." Get a grip, Green! Natalie told herself severely.

She braked abruptly when they reached the bottom of the hill. Both girls flew forward, stopped painfully by their seatbelts.

"Be careful, Nat," said Tootie. "I'll never be a superstar if I break my nose!"

"Break your nose? We're lucky we're alive," said Natalie.

With its final gasp of momentum, the coupe glided along a narrow old street lined with brownstones and poplar trees. Natalie pulled up to the curb just as the car came to a final halt.

The girls sat in silence for a moment.

Natalie turned the key and pulled it out of the ignition. She unfastened her seat belt. Tootie unfastened hers.

"That," said Tootie, "was the scariest moment of my life. That was even scarier than when my brother drunk-drove us home from that party!"

Natalie reached over and grasped her best friend's hand. They squeezed each other's hands tightly.

"You're shaking," said Tootie. "Are you all right, Nat?"

"Tootie, if I looked in a mirror right now, and all my hair had turned white, I wouldn't be surprised!"

"Well you're still a chestnut brunette," Tootie reassured her.

"Are you sure? Because I kind of feel like I've got a Charleston Hesston, 'Ten Commandments' kind of thing happening with my hair right now!"

"Nope. It's just mildly windblown."

"Imagine that! I almost died, and my hair stood up to the pressure!"

"How about mine?" asked Tootie, anxiously patting her dark bob.

"You look beautiful, soul sister. Never better."

Tootie scooted along the seat, glancing at the top of her head in the rear view mirror. "Thank God!" she said. "Still ready for my close up."

Natalie opened the driver's side door and climbed out of the car. She stood on wobbly legs, leaning against the car door.

Tootie exited on the passenger side, walking around to stand next to her friend. She put a hand on Natalie's shoulder.

"You're still shaking," Tootie observed. "Maybe you should sit down again."

Natalie swallowed hard. "I'm not getting back into that death trap."

"But the engine's off now. I mean, as in permanently off."

But Natalie shook her head. "Can't. That was – wow. Your life really does flash in front of your eyes. And except for meeting you and Jo and Blair, I really haven't had much of a life yet!"

Tootie patted her friend's shoulder comfortingly. The young actress peered into the coupe. "I wonder if Alec has one of those fancy car-phones – you know, like Blair had in her limos?"

Natalie shook her head. "Alec's too broke to have a car phone. Or, he was too broke. He'll probably put one in now that he's a bazillionaire. But just our luck, he hasn't done it yet!"

"Well, that's OK," Tootie said cheerfully. "We'll just ring a doorbell and ask someone to call …" Tootie trailed off.

"Call a cab," Natalie agreed. She drew a deep breath. "OK. OK, I've only got a couple of bucks on me, but if we can get a cab, and explain the situation … OK, I think I'm feeling better."

"Hold onto that feeling," Tootie said.

"What do you mean?"

"Uh, not to alarm you, or anything –"

"What?" asked Natalie, instantly alarmed. She looked around. "What do you see?"

"We seem to have stalled in a very, er, interesting area," Tootie said.

"What do you mean?" Natalie glanced up and down the street. Charming old brownstones; shady little trees; what was Tootie talking about?

But then she noticed that the neighborhood was eerily hushed, except, faintly, from one of the buildings, pounding rock music. A lot of the brownstones' windows were broken. There was graffiti on the sidewalk, and on some of the buildings too – the buildings, that is, that hadn't been scarred by smoke and fire. Scraps of litter and trash blew along the curb. The entire street had the aura of a ghost town, a place inhabited now only by squatters … or criminals … or ghosts …

Natalie groaned. "We're a-goner," she said.

"Maybe not," Tootie said, with a lot of spirit if not a lot of hope.

"Please, Tootie – two rich girls break down in the northern wilds of the city. News at eleven!"

"Who's rich?" asked Tootie.

"Us!"

"We're not rich," Tootie objected.

"Toot, our parents have staff. You have staff in America – you're rich!" She folded her chunky arms. She looked nervously up and down the street. "Maybe we should just make a run for it. We can't be more than, I don't know, eighty blocks from the courthouse! Wow. This place is so … 'Escape From New York' – only without Kurt Russell!"

"Come on, Nat, don't be so dramatic," Tootie chided. "I'm the dramatic one, and I'm keeping it together."

"I'm not being dramatic; I'm being neurotic. And as far as I'm concerned, Tootie, you can be as dramatic as you want right now. Let it rip!"

Watching her best friend shiver and look wildly up and down the street, Tootie felt calmer than she'd ever felt in her life. One of us has to keep cool, Tootie thought …

"How about this," Tootie said reasonably. "Let's walk back that way."

"Which way?" Nat asked dubiously.

"Toward the exit ramp. Somebody else is bound to drive down it, and we can hitch a ride out of here with them."

Natalie shook her head. "Problem number one: Anyone driving down the ramp is trying to get into this neighborhood – not out of it!"

"Oh. True."

"Problem number two: Other than two idiotic Eastland girls, the only people driving into this neighborhood are probably on the run from the law!"

"Well, we can't just wander the streets," Tootie said reasonably. "We don't know the neighborhood and it does look pretty dicey."

"Pretty dicey? Pretty dicey? You heard my 'Escape From New York' reference, didn't you?"

Tootie sighed. "Nat … I think the exit ramp's our best move. Maybe some other nice law-abiding person will make a wrong turn too."

"Great. They can pick us up and then we'll all get deep-sixed together!"

"Nat."

"All right. All right. I'll try to think positively. Maybe, possibly, there's a slight chance we aren't dead women walking here."

It wasn't the kind of positive thinking that Tootie wanted to hear, but it was something. She'd take it …

To both their relief and their chagrin, no one drove down the exit ramp for the next quarter hour.

"What are we going to do when someone does drive down?" wondered Natalie. "Do we stick our thumbs out, like in the movies?"

"I suppose," said Tootie. "Or, I guess we could flash some ankle. You know – like in 'It Happened One Night'. Except, I don't know if my little bird legs are going to stop traffic. And you aren't exactly Betty Grable. And neither of us is Claudette Colbert."

Natalie mulled that over. For the first time since the engine died, she looked relatively calm. "You know, you might be onto something there, Tootie. If some cute, non-axe-murderer-looking guy drives down the ramp, we show a little leg."

"Except, like I said – we aren't exactly supermodels."

"Supermodel, schloopermodel," scoffed Natalie. "There are millions of guys in this city. You think some of them don't like bird legs – or happy magic markers like yours truly?"

"I guess," Tootie said skeptically.

"Maybe someone really dreamy will drive along," said Natalie. "Yeah. Stranger things have happened. Maybe some strong, virile Kurt Russell-type will drive up and sweep us into his chariot."

"You've got a little drool there," Tootie said drily. "Right there – corner of your mouth."

"Hey! I'm trying to be positive here. Is it my fault being positive always seems to involve thinking about boys?"

"True," Tootie conceded. "All right." It was better to pass the time daydreaming about what cute young man was going to save them, she decided, than worrying about what nut was going to murder them.

"He'll have a roguish smile," Natalie said dreamily. "Like Han Solo. And his eyes will twinkle."

"And he'll have that sort of roguish charm," said Tootie, getting into the spirit of the thing, "like Billy Dee Williams has."

"And he'll be strong – really strong. Like the Incredible Hulk."

They heard the roar of an engine then. They both looked up the ramp, where an eighteen-wheeler had turned off the highway. The timing was uncanny; it was almost as if they'd conjured it up with their daydreaming.

The truck was an enormous, gleaming juggernaut of a vehicle. They couldn't quite see the driver, except for an indistinct face high up in the cab, behind the wheel, with a Yankees cap and a big pair of sunglasses.

"Is he cute?" asked Tootie.

"I can't tell," said Nat. "He's all hat and sunglasses. And there's too much glare on the windshield."

Tootie was wearing a pretty purple-and-white dress. She lifted the hem an inch or so above her ankle and extended one leg toward the asphalt.

"For crying out loud," Nat said critically, "who's going to stop for that? Is this 1884 or 1984?"

Nat was wearing a pretty blue dress, one of her nicest. She wanted to look her best for the start of her grandmother's trial.

Nat lifted the hem of the dress so that it hovered around her knees. She extended one chunky leg toward the advancing truck, waving her leg back and forth and somehow not losing her balance.

There was a loud squealing of brakes. The truck glided to a halt next to them.

"Way to go, Nat!" Tootie said, impressed.

"Hold your applause," Natalie said, lowering her hem. "We don't know yet if he's a serial killer."

The eighteen-wheeler towered above them. "Robinson Trucking" was stenciled on the side in massive red and black lettering. "We're In It For The Long Haul" was stenciled below that in a slightly smaller font.

Above them – high, high above them – the passenger door swung open.

"Climb in," rumbled a deep voice.

"Uh … Can you throw down a helicopter?" called Natalie. "Or something else to help us up there?"

"Use the steps," called the deep, rumbly voice.

Warily, Nat eyed the steep metal rungs. "What are we," she called, "Electro Woman and Dyna Girl?"

There was a hearty laugh. "Hey … You're pretty funny."

"I'm very funny," Nat corrected. "But how do we get up there?"

A shaggy head and burly shoulders appeared above them, followed by a massively strong arm inked with military tattoos.

"Grab a hold," the young man said cheerfully. And he was a young man, Natalie noted. His voice was older than the rest of him. He couldn't have been more than twenty-one or twenty-two, but he sounded like he'd been smoking and slugging whiskey since he was ten.

Natalie hesitated.

"Look, you want a ride, you gotta climb up," said the young trucker. "Unless you wanna grab onto the grill and ride that way – but I wouldn't recommend it!"

Natalie laughed at the image. "Hey," she called up to the shaggy trucker. "You're pretty funny too."

"I'm a laugh-a-minute," he said happily. "Now give me your hand."

Natalie gave him her hand. She waited for a bone-crushing grip that would liquefy her hand into a kind of putty, but the massive fingers closed around hers with surprising gentleness. The young man helped her – rather than hauled her – up into the cab in a surprisingly gallant manner.

The world looked very different from the cab. It felt like she was so damn high up. A few moments before she'd felt terrified. Now she felt like she was on top of the world.

Natalie looked over at their rescuer.

He was massive – bigger than Alec, even, and about the same age as the young lord. He wore faded blue jeans and a denim vest and almost every square inch of his powerful arms was covered with tattoos – Marine emblems and mottos, apparently, and miscellaneous designs like skulls and hearts and Celtic knots and bands.

The young trucker had unruly, shaggy brown hair flowing well past his shoulders, and a couple of days of stubble along his square jaw. The Yankees cap was pushed down low over his forehead at a rather rakish angle. His big dark sunglasses hid his eyes.

I wonder what color his eyes are? thought Natalie.

As if he were reading her mind, the boy tilted his sunglasses slightly, as if he were getting a better look at Natalie. For a moment his eyes were visible – sparkling dark blue eyes full of warmth.

"Hey," Tootie called up from the curb. "Nat – give me a hand!"

"Better help your friend," the trucker said good-naturedly, pushing his sunglasses back into place, covering his eyes again.

"Uh, of course," said Natalie. She leaned out of the cab carefully, leery of falling out. Tootie was able to scale the rungs to a certain point, but then she needed Natalie to help pull her into the vehicle.

"Thanks, Nat," Tootie said warmly. She pulled the door closed.

"So," the young man said, "where we headed today?"

"The Manhattan Criminal Courts," said Natalie.

The man's heavy eyebrows shot up. He grinned. "No kidding? You kids on trial for something?"

"We're not 'kids'," Tootie said disdainfully. "We're students at Eastland. I'm a junior. Nat here's a senior."

"Oh, well, excuse me," the man laughed. "I guess you're not kids. Practically ready for the glue factory, huh?"

"We're really grateful you stopped to pick us up," said Natalie, "and I don't want to be rude, but we're in kind of a hurry here. My grandmother's trial starts in half an hour."

The heavy eyebrows shot up again. "Your grandmother? Is she the one – that 'Trial of the Decade' thing? She's the one that killed that rich girl at the Fever?"

"One and the same," Natalie said tensely. "My grandmother was saving our friend's life."

The trucker glanced at Tootie.

"No, another friend," Natalie said. "This is Dorothy Ramsey, my best friend."

"Pleased to meet you," said Tootie, extending a hand to the trucker. "I'm Dorothy Ramsey of the D.C. Ramseys, but since you're saving my life you might as well call me Tootie. All my friends do."

The young man shook Tootie's hand with enthusiasm but without crushing any of the fine bones.

"Pleased to meet you, Tootie," he said. "I'm Robinson – of Robinson Trucking."

"Aren't you a little young to own a trucking company?" Tootie asked.

"It's my gramp's company," he explained, releasing Tootie's hand. "And my pop's. I'm just the lowly third-generation. They run the company; my brothers and I haul the goods. And since I can call you Tootie, you can call me what my friends call me."

"And what's that?" asked Tootie.

"Snake."

Now Natalie's eyebrows shot up. "Snake?" she asked.

"Yup."

"Your name is Snake?"

"My nickname is Snake, yeah."

"Like 'Snake Plissken'? In 'Escape From New York'?"

"Yup. One of my fave movies of all time, by the way."

"Mine too," said Natalie. "We were just, Tootie and I were just talking about 'Escape From New York'."

Snake glanced out the windshield at the burnt-out, graffiti-etched brownstones and nodded. "I can see why!" he said.

"You're really called 'Snake'?"

"Yup. Now, ladies, if you want us to make it to the courthouse in time for the opening arguments, you'd better fasten your seat belts there. Because I'm going to have to haul some serious keister across town!"

Natalie and Tootie dutifully fastened their seat belts.

Snake maneuvered the truck through the narrow streets. He wasn't kidding about hauling keister. The dismal, decaying landscape flashed past the windows.

"It's so sad," said Natalie, glancing through the windows. "This is what it's like around the Fever. But you can tell it used to be safe here once. Nice, even."

"Neighborhoods rise and fall," Snake said philosophically.

"But it must be awful for the people that live here. The regular people, you know, that have to live here with all the crime and the trash. Somebody should do something."

"Nobody that could do anything ever drives through here," Snake said. "What are you ladies doing here, anyhow? Your skateboards break down?"

"Har-har," Natalie said a little coolly.

"Our car broke down," Tootie explained. "Well, not our car. We borrowed it. From a friend."

"Hope she's a real good, understanding friend," said Snake, "cause that car's gonna be stripped down to the rims and chassis before anyone can go pick it up."

"How awful!" said Tootie. "Oh my God! Alec will never forgive us!"

"Alec?" asked Snake.

"It's his car. He loaned it to us. Poor Alec!"

"Alec will be fine," Natalie said heartlessly. "He should have driven us to court, like he promised! He broke his word."

"So for that his car gets demolished?" asked Tootie. "Come on, Nat – that's pretty cold."

"He can buy another one. He can buy a hundred other ones if he wants."

"But we borrowed that one," said Tootie. "We were supposed to take care of it."

Snake didn't turn his head, but Natalie had the sensation that he had glanced at her.

"This Alec guy your boyfriend?" he asked Natalie.

"My boyfriend! Ha!" Natalie laughed so hard a few tears ran down her face.

Snake grabbed a CB handset off the dashboard, thumbed the button. Static crackled. "Breaker, breaker, amigos," he said into the device, "this is Snake. I got a bird with a broken wing on Mechanic and Mill. It's – What color is the car?" he asked the girls.

"Blue," said Tootie. "It's a blue coupe."

"It's a bluebird down," Snake said into the mic. "Baby bluebird. Birdhouse it before the bears or Boy Scouts eyeball it. I'll catch it on the backslide. All the best numbers, here's looking at you." He put the mic back in its cradle.

"Wow," breathed Tootie. "Real trucker lingo. That was neat!"

Snake grinned.

"My family all monitor my channel," he said. "One of my bros will garage your friend's car before someone strips it or the cops tow it in."

"Thank you," Tootie said sincerely. "That's so nice of you. All of this is so nice."

Snake shrugged.

Am I imagining it, wondered Natalie, or is he blushing a little bit?

"You must have a really tight family," Tootie continued, "if they'd drive all the way out here to tow our friend's car just because you ask them to."

Snake shrugged again. "It's not like they have to drive that far," he said. "This is our neighborhood …"


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

Once again, Jo tapped softly at the door of the master bathroom.

"Babe … Let me in," she pleaded through the door.

"Go away!" Blair's voice, though slightly muffled by the door, was strong, brooking no debate.

"Babe … I know I hurt your feelings. And I'm truly sorry. I'm an ass. I'm a dimwit. Whatever you think I am, that's what I am. I love spending more time with you. To hell with my career."

Alec strolled into the master bedroom, holding a little glass of something that looked suspiciously like port. He made a slight motion, as if he were cracking a whip, and made a little sound, like a whip cracking.

"I am not whipped," Jo said irritably. "Jackass!"

"What did you call me?" Blair called through the door.

"Not you – Alec," said Jo. "Alec's a jackass. Babe … Light of my life … My perfect, wonderful goddess … Please open the door. We need to talk."

Alec settled into a comfortable looking rocking chair. He made the little whip-cracking motion again.

"I swear to God, I'm going to thrash you within an inch of your life!" Jo roared at Alec.

He grinned at her.

"What are you going to do to me?" Blair demanded.

"Not you – Alec," Jo called through the door. "I'm going to thrash Alec. I want to hold you tenderly in my arms, babe. I want to hold you and talk to you. Please?"

Silence from the master bathroom.

"Blair? Babe? Aphrodite?"

Silence again.

Jo sighed.

Alec stirred uneasily in the rocking chair.

"I say … Is our goddess quite all right in their?"

"Of course she's not all right," said Jo. "I hurt her feelings and she's locked in the bathroom. Does that sound 'quite all right' to you?"

"But I mean, sometimes when women are with child, their hormones are, er, rather unsteady. They get moods and strange fancies."

"What kinds of strange fancies?" Jo asked.

"Strange fancies. You know."

"Well thanks for the clarification."

"Jo, dear, have you ever seen those American television programs where a woman is pregnant, and she exhibits strange behavior, and hijinx ensue?"

"Yeah, sure. You mean like where the pregnant woman craves crazy stuff like anchovies and peanut butter, and acts completely nutty and over-the-top?"

"Precisely."

"I know what you're going to say. I already know all that stuff on the TV is boloney. I've been reading real pregnancy manuals."

Alec shook his head. "Throw them away."

"What?"

"The pregnancy manuals. That is to say, not anything that your doctor has given you, but anything you purchased on your own. Throw it in the dustbin."

"Why?"

"Because they're all shite, Artemis. If you want to know what to expect from your wife for the next six months, watch every pregnancy sitcom you can find! 'I Love Lucy' and all that. Troll YouTube for classic episodes if you must."

"But it's … they're just stupid TV shows."

"But they're real, Jo. They show how women really, truly behave when they're carrying a little life around inside them. The over-the-top mood swings; the bizarre behavior; the constant need for positive reinforcement – it's all true!"

"Come on; you're exaggerating," scoffed Jo. "Yeah, Blair can still be a little bit of a diva from time-to-time, but she's an extremely intelligent, extremely loving, wise woman."

"No one's saying she isn't, Jo. But there are massive changes taking place in her entire being. World-shattering changes."

"I know that. Maybe I'm no biology whiz, but I know there are, you know, hormones and things."

"But I don't think you grasp the scope of these 'hormones and things' Artemis dear."

"What are you two talking about out there?" Blair called through the door. She sounded somewhat sulky. And more than a little suspicious.

"We're talking about how beautiful you are, babe," called Jo.

"Ha!"

"What are you doing in there, babe? Let me in, why don't you?" Jo coaxed.

"Don't you have something else to do? Something important?"

"Nothing is more important to me than you, Blair," Jo said earnestly. "Nothing's ever been as important to me as you!"

"So … Is that why you work so far away? That's why I hardly see you?"

"You're going to see me all the time now," said Jo. "Constantly. You'll even get sick of me."

"But you can't conduct your business if you're here," said Blair. It sounded like she was crying now. "You can't do anything if you're stuck here."

"Babe, that was incredibly insensitive of me to say, and I didn't mean it. I wasn't thinking. There is nowhere, but nowhere, that I want to be more than here. I'll make it work. I'll have some videoconference stuff installed in the study. Paramita's a genius at that stuff. We'll make it work."

"Well … At least you have Paramita on your side!" said Blair.

Jo groaned.

"Steady on," said Alec.

"She's not making any sense," complained Jo.

"She's making emotional sense," corrected Alec. "Her feelings are going to be all over the map until the baby is born."

"And then she snaps back to normal – right?"

"Perhaps. Or, perhaps she falls into a depthless dark well of post-partum depression."

"Keen," Jo grimaced.

"I just want you to be prepared, Jo. You have to do your bit. You have to be there for Aphrodite – no matter how she treats you."

Jo eyes softened. "I guess it must be, it must be kind of wild for her right now. Her body's just this insane whirlpool of hormones and chemicals."

"Now you're getting it, Artemis." Alec nodded approvingly.

"I'm a whirlpool of what?" Blair called through the door.

"You're a beautiful goddess," called Jo.

"Don't patronize me! I can hear at least half of what you're saying. Stop talking about me like I'm some science experiment – both of you!"

"But we love you," said Jo. "Come on, babe. Open the door."

Silence for a moment, and then a sniffling sob.

"I look awful," Blair said through the door.

"You look gorgeous," Jo called sincerely. "Babe, you're glowing. It's not just a myth. You're really glowing, just like they say in the old wives tales."

"That's exactly what I look like! Like an old, old, old wife! I look horrible!"

"You don't. Babe … I thought we worked out this whole appearance thing in the, ah, shower this morning."

Alec chuckled. Jo shot him a deadly glare.

"Why don't you let me in," Jo said, "and we can do that thing again, babe. You know that thing I mean, right? That was fun, wasn't it?"

"I did look beautiful in the shower this morning," sobbed Blair. "But I look awful now."

"No you don't, babe. You look amazing. How could you look beautiful this morning and awful now?"

"Because I … Because I …"

"Because you what, Blair? Just tell me whatever you're going through. I'm here."

There was the sound of a lock being unfastened, the sound of a bolt sliding back.

The door handle turned. The door was pulled open, slowly.

Jo gasped.

"God's teeth!" cried Alec.

Blair stood in the doorway, face damp with tears.

Blair had cut her hair.


Early November, 1984. Manhattan. The Criminal Courts Holding Cells.

A blue-suited guard stood at a discrete distance from Mona Green's cell.

Inside Mona sat on the narrow cot.

The tiny, elderly woman wore a pretty brown dress. It was simple in design. It had a single ruffle at the collar. It looked like something she would have worn in the 1930's. Eduardo had arranged to have it sent to Mona so that she could wear it when the trial opened. In the brown dress, Mona looked exactly like what she was – a nice, normal, law-abiding grandmother from the Upper East Side.

Mona's big dark eyes sparkled with plenty of spirit, but there were dark circles under them. Her cap of silvery hair had been recently trimmed, but it wasn't as well-groomed as it was on the outside world, where she could go to her favorite salon.

Despite her advanced age and her obvious fatigue, Mona looked otherwise as healthy and feisty as ever. There were no signs that she had suffered a stroke a mere three months before.

That's Mona, Blair thought fondly. Gramma Green is indestructible …

Eduardo sat on a metal folding chair to Mona's left. Blair, masquerading as Eduardo's legal assistant, sat on a metal folding chair to Mona's right.

It took every ounce of Blair's self-control not to throw her arms around the elderly woman and hug her tightly. Blair's heart ached. Her chest literally hurt. Blair had known Mona was confined while awaiting trial. And Blair had felt so helplessly sad for the woman. But now … actually seeing Mona behind bars …

She's in here because she protected me, Blair thought, holding back her tears. She's in here because she protected me!

"You must not behave, in any way, as if you are close to Mona," Eduardo had warned Blair before they entered the holding area. "It is safest if you do not speak. Take notes, miha. I will conduct the conversation …"

In her dark business suit, with her leather attaché case balanced on her lap, and her no-nonsense, dark-framed glasses, Blair sat very straight on the folding chair and pretended to take notes. Pretended, because there were prescription lenses in the glasses, and Blair didn't need prescription lenses. Everything looked blurry. She couldn't really discern what she was scribbling on the yellow legal pad.

"Whatever happens in the courtroom," Eduardo was telling Mona quietly, "you must never say a word. You must remain perfectly composed, dear lady. Braithewaite will speak. There is no call for you to speak. He will conduct your case like a symphony. It must be clear to every man, to every woman, to every child in that courtroom that you are a sweet old abuelita. That you would on no account injure any living creature, let alone kill them, without the most grave and terrible necessity."

"I'll be a perfect lamb," Mona assured him. "I know I can be, well, a little feisty. But I've had a lot of time to think, in prison. I've had a lot of time to think things through. I think I've learned a little patience, the last couple of months."

Blair blinked back tears. She was glad she wasn't facing the guard.

Blair wanted to speak very badly. She wanted to say "Thank you for saving my life!" to Mona.

Eduardo sensed Blair's distress. "Miss Derringer," he said gruffly, "did you record my last statement?"

Blair nodded. Keep calm, he was really telling her, she knew. You can do this, niña. You must remain calm.

"Very good," Eduardo said approvingly. He turned to Mona again. "Señora Green, I have every confidence in a positive outcome. You only did what any caring, sensible, law-abiding citizen would do. You remember the British motto in the second World War, yes?"

Mona smiled. "'Keep calm and carry on,'" she said quietly.

"That is my last advice to you, dear lady. No matter how Becker and the prosecutors in his pocket try to besmirch you – and they will try to besmirch you, my dear – keep calm and carry on."

Mona nodded. "I will, Señor Ramirez. That I can do."

"I will not be at the table with Braithewaite," said Eduardo, "but I will be in the room. Everyone who loves you –" Eduardo glanced significantly at Blair, "will be in the room, even if you cannot see us. We will be there somewhere. I hope that thought will hearten you."

"It does," Mona said sincerely. She shot a look at Blair – a glance full of such tenderness, that Blair might have been her granddaughter by blood.

Hold it together; hold it together; hold it together …. The mantra ran over-and-over through Blair's mind.

"It is very important, to all of us," Eduardo glanced significantly in Blair's direction again, "that you know how much we all believe in you, Señora Green. How … grateful we all are at the sacrifices you have made to protect a certain young lady."

"I'd do it again," said Mona. "In a heartbeat. I had to do it. I have no regrets." She glanced briefly at the blonde, glanced away again. "No regrets at all." The words were said to Eduardo … But they were meant for his "assistant".

Eduardo lifted a finger to his lips. "Very good," he said. "But no more. From this moment forward ... Braithewaite is your voice."

Mona nodded. "Of course. Of course ..."

The guard approached the cell door.

"Time," he said. "The trial will be starting soon."

"Of course," said Eduardo. "Thank you for your courtesy."

"De nada," said the guard. Privately he liked the old lady. She seemed like a good sort. The girl she'd cracked over the head with the wine bottle probably had it coming, and he hoped the old dame would be acquitted. But his opinions, the guard knew, didn't matter. In less than an hour the trial would begin. It would be in the judge and jury's hands then. And in the hands of the press …

As Eduardo and Blair left Mona's cell, Blair slipped her legal pad into her attaché case with a cool, detached air. But her eyes met Mona's one final time. Mona winked at her. Blair winked back …

Blair lost it for a few minutes in the ladies' room.

She leaned against the cool metal wall in one of the ugly, lime-green stalls. She removed her dark business blazer and buried her face in it and cried, and cried, muffling her sobs, praying that no one could hear her. The room had seemed deserted, and she prayed that it was …

After a few moments she felt better. She dried her eyes on the blazer. The garment was ruined, smudgy with foundation and mascara and rouge. But that didn't matter. The blazer had served its purpose.

The door of the rest room creaked open. Soft, rather tentative footsteps. Someone wearing tennis shoes. Blair smiled.

Right on schedule, Blair thought.

She stood up. She opened the stall door and peered out.

Sure enough, Jo stood there, carrying a gargantuan purse – a purse such as Jo Polniaczek had never before – nor after – carried in her life.

"Here," Blair called softly.

Jo saw her fiancée, and smiled in relief.

Crammed together in the stall, Blair stuffed the ruined blazer into the capacious purse, first retrieving a stylish navy blue dress. She slipped out of the dark trousers and pink blouse, shoving them into the purse, along with her black heels. She pulled on the navy blue dress. She turned so that Jo could zip it up. She slipped into a pair of stylish navy heels, also retrieved from the big bag.

She teased her blonde hair. Nikita Derringer, legal assistant, had had rather severe hair. Blair Warner, heiress, had a slightly romantic wave to her flowing locks.

Jo held up a small mirror while Blair fixed her makeup, repairing the foundation and rouge and mascara, retouching her lipstick.

"There," said Blair. "How do I look?"

"Beautiful," Jo said sincerely. "Worth killin for."

"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.

"I'm sorry. You know I make stupid cracks when I'm nervous. "

"Yes. I know."

"Dammit," Jo swore quietly. "It shoulda been me. I shoulda killed that nut – not Mona. I should be on trial here."

Blair put her arms around Jo's shoulders.

"I know it's selfish," Blair whispered, "but I'm glad you're not. Jo … I think I'd die if you were on trial. With your record … My God … Becker would have you put away forever. It was like fate that you were pinned under me. It was like fate you couldn't do anything. Mona has a chance. She's a model citizen. She's a sweet old lady. Eduardo and Braithewaite will find a way to exonerate her."

"They've got to," Jo said intently. She gazed deep into Blair's dark eyes. "God, I wanna kiss you so bad, babe."

"Lipstick," Blair said regretfully.

"I know. I know."

Jo settled for pressing her cheek, briefly, against Blair's, careful not to smudge their makeup. Jo was unusually made up today. She wanted to look as feminine, as lovely as possible.

"I wish we could sit together," murmured Jo.

"We can't," Blair said miserably. "Jo, we've already –"

"I know. I know. Becker might try to play the lezzie card, and we can't do anythin that even slightly looks like we're together."

"We have to assume Dina might have told her father about us before she died. Or that Devon Abercrombie said something to him."

"If it comes up, the prosecutors could find out easy," said Jo. "Dean Pratt could tell 'em – he'd probably love to tell 'em, for Chrissake. Prejudiced bastard! He loved kickin us out of Langley."

"Shh."

"Well he did!"

"I know, darling. But don't pitch a fit in the ladies room. That's not exactly low-profile behavior."

Jo sighed. She hugged Blair to her, tight. She could feel Blair's heart beating hard in her chest.

"I won't be sittin with you," Jo whispered, "but I'll be with you. 'K?"

"OK," Blair said. She nuzzled Jo's ear. "And you look lovely, by the way."

Jo wore her white silk pants suit under her dark pea coat. It wasn't done to wear white after Labor Day but Blair didn't have the heart to reprimand her lover. Jo looked damn striking in white, fashion faux pas be damned.

"I'll save seats for Natalie and Tootie," said Blair, "just like we planned."

"And I'm saving a seat for Alec," said Jo, "and Jack, and Petal if she can get here."

"Good," said Blair, nodding. "Good. Good."

But of course, it was far from good, Jo reflected – which was why Blair felt compelled to keep saying that it was. Everything was very, very un-good …

The courtroom was smaller than Jo had expected, and even though it was cold outside the chamber was crowded and very hot. Jo skinned out of her pea coat as soon as she found a seat. She folded the coat and set it next to her, saving room for Alec and Jacqueline.

Jo saw Blair sitting down several rows ahead of her. Blair was carrying the giant purse now. She set it on the seats next to her, saving them for Natalie and Tootie.

Mona's son Syd and his wife Evie were already there, sitting right behind the defendant's table, right behind where Mona and her lawyer Braithewaite would be.

From time-to-time Syd looked behind him, looked at the sea of faces. The doctor looked dazed. How the hell could this be happening? said his face. How can my elderly mother be on trial for murder? The woman survived war and an attempted rape and emigrating to the United States and poverty in old New York. She survived all that and thrived … For what? For this?

Syd didn't seem to register any individual faces, until he saw Blair. Blair smiled sympathetically at him. He smiled slightly at her. He looked … He looked like he was wincing.

Natalie's father had met Blair on a number of occasions over the years. Like most people, he was charmed by the young woman; he had a soft spot for her. But it had been Blair that Mona was protecting when the elderly woman killed Dina Becker. It was because of Blair, somehow, that all of this was happening …

Jo saw the thoughts chase across Doctor Green's face before he turned back to the front of the courtroom. Jo saw Blair's shoulders slump slightly; Blair had read the doctor's expression too.

Jo wanted to rush to her fiancée's side, to take Blair in her arms and tell her everything was OK.

Instead Jo curled one hand into a fist so tight that her fingernails dug into her palm …

Time seemed to speed up. The courtroom got hotter and hotter. Jo felt beads of sweat spring out on her forehead. She dragged the back of her hand over her forehead, careful not to smudge her makeup.

It's almost time for this effing circus to start! Where's Alec and Jack? Where's Nat and Tootie?

Jacqueline appeared a few moments before the trial began. The slender, redheaded Viscountess of Angledun wore a beautiful grey-blue tweed ensemble and a dark trench coat. She sat next to Jo.

"Cuttin it a little damn fine, as Alec would say," whispered Jo.

"It's like Ringling Brothers Circus out there," Jack said in her low, well-bred, staccato voice. "Shouldn't wonder they'll be selling popcorn and souvenirs tomorrow! People are so beastly about tragedy, don't you find?"

People were beastly about tragedy; Jo had known that since she was a kid in the Bronx. She looked past Jacqueline. "Where's Alec?"

"Can't come," Jacqueline said tersely. "Family issues."

"This is a family issue," whispered Jo. "What the hell? Mona's like his grandmother, too."

"Couldn't be avoided. All shall be explained, but it's Alec's story to tell, not mine."

"What the hell could keep him from being here?" wondered Jo. "And how are Nat and Tootie supposed to get here?"

"He lent them his coupe."

"But who's driving it?"

"Natalie."

"Natalie? But she's only got a freakin learner's permit."

"And yet. Jo, dear, please don't be tiresome about this. Alec's all torn up. He truly will explain later." Jacqueline shifted on the hard seat, craning her neck toward the front of the courtroom. "Ah. There are Doctor and Mrs. Green. They must be at their wits' end."

"You think? With Mona on trial? Of course they're at their friggin wits' end!"

Jacqueline tentatively put a comforting hand on Jo's shoulder. The Lion's former team captain was so damned independent and wary, Jack half-expected Jo to slug her one. But Jo let the hand remain on her shoulder for a full thirty seconds before shrugging it away.

"All right, all right, it ain't like I'm gonna lose it or somethin," grumbled Jo. "I'm just sayin, you know, things are pretty damn bleak."

"All will be well, Jo," Jacqueline said kindly.

"Well if it ain't," said Jo, feeling tears pricking her eyes, "I'm gonna break Mona outta the bucket! I don't care what it takes. I'll get the Bronx Barbarians on the case. I'll get the Fiducci twins on the case!"

"No one has to break anyone out of any buckets or enlist the aid of any hoodlums. Justice will prevail."

Jo snorted. "I think you and me have had some pretty freakin different experiences with the justice system!"

"No doubt," Jacqueline agreed soothingly. "Oliver Twist has nothing on you, dear. But I refuse to believe that such a miscarriage of justice could occur. In the ludicrous chance that Mona should be convicted, we'll appeal. We'll appeal all the way up to your Supreme Court, needs must."

Jo shot a smile at her friend. "See? That's why I told coach to make you Captain. You got that determination that just won't flippin quit."

"Well … I'm certainly no 'Jo-ster'. But we're doing our best to carry on."

Jo nodded stiffly. It still hurt like hell, being kicked off the team. Jack was doing great, Jo had no doubt, but Jo missed it like hell, missed being one of the Lions …

"So," Jo said softly, "what's the scuttlebutt on campus? 'Bout me and Blair, I mean?"

Jacqueline grimaced. "You don't' want to know, mon capitan."

"Jack."

"No. Jo, dear – you really don't want to know. I'm squashing it wherever I can – we all are. But you know gossip. It's like a seven-headed hydra. It takes on a life of its own. You cut off this head, and three more grow in its place!"

"So students are talkin about … about … about …"

"Yes," Jacqueline said kindly, "about you and Blair. And I'm sorry to say that the verdict isn't positive. For all of its academic smarts, Langley is a rather backwoods, inbred place when it comes to social consciousness. It might be 1066!"

Jo sighed ...

When Mona was led in, she looked so small, Jo thought, like a silver-haired elf. Small – but not frail. Mona held her head high – well, as high as she could hold it, considering her diminutive stature.

Jo had never been much for fashion but she had learned enough from her fiancée to appreciate the brilliance of Mona wearing that particular brown dress. It was old-fashioned. It was pretty without being glamorous. And it was brown – a nice stable, modest, unpretentious color. Here is an average little old lady, said the dress. This woman could be your grandmother …

Jo examined the courtroom's dramatis personae with interest. Braithewaite, Mona's attorney and Eduardo's old Harvard classmate, was a big, handsome, red-faced man with a thatch of thick white hair. His suit was nicely cut, but not bespoke. Jo suspected that Braithewaite probably dressed a lot fancier, usually … But today he was just down-to-earth, hard-working citizen, like his client …

The prosecutor was a movie-star handsome man – dimpled chin, dark hair combed like Superman's, intense grey eyes. The Judge was a hawk – sweeping, hawk-like eyebrows, hawk-like nose, bright, cold, bird-like eyes.

Christ! thought Jo. Hope the judge ain't as much of an a-hole as he looks! Hope he ain't in Becker's pocket, like the prosecutor and some of the cops …

Silently, Jo prayed. Please give Mona a fair trial, God …

Jo looked around the courtroom. It was almost time for the prosecutor's opening statement. The crowd was shifting restlessly, anxious for the spectacle to begin.

Where the hell are Natalie and Toot? For cryin out loud! I hope they didn't freakin crash Alec's coupe! How the hell'd he go and let Nat drive? What's wrong with him?

The prosecutor started fiddling with his silk tie, smoothing his lapels. He was going to speak any moment now.

Blair couldn't resist glancing behind her, trying to glimpse Jo. Blair did it casually; she let her gaze sweep slowly over the crowd, as if she were merely observing the attendees, not looking for anyone in particular.

Jo met Blair's eyes for a fraction of a second. Jo ducked her head, grinning. And the Oscar does not go to Blair Warner! she thought. Blair was a terrible, terrible actress. And Jo loved her for it.

The judge spoke briefly. The prosecutor stood up. Everything was moving so fast. Jo felt slightly lightheaded …

The courtroom doors boomed open. There were heavy, booted footsteps and some sort of commotion; people seemed to be moving out of someone's way.

Suddenly there was a big tall bohunk towering over Jo. Jeans, denim vest, shaggy hair, several days' worth of stubble on his chin, military and Celtic tats sleeving his arms. He glanced down at Jo, dark sunglasses shading his eyes.

What the hell? wondered Jo, fists clenching instinctively. The Shamrock Lords sendin someone after me? I thought we cleared all that up years ago …

"Phew! I thought we were going to miss it! We haven't missed it, have we? The opening statement?" Natalie chattered away nervously as she pushed past the hulking bohunk and dropped down next to Jo.

"Uh … no," Jo said slowly, eyes still fixed on the man-mountain. "It's just startin now."

"Thank goodness," said Tootie, squeezing past the giant and sitting down next to Nat. "You would not believe what we went through to get here!"

"Try me," said Jo. "I know you hadda drive Alec's car. It break down or somethin?"

"It broke down all right!" said Tootie.

Jo swore under her breath. "I told Alec to let me take a look at it! I told him the engine was soundin wheezy."

"It was more than wheezy," said Tootie. "It was freezy – as in it froze up, seized up on us! I'm telling you – life-flashing-before-our-eyes. Life. Flashing. Before. Our. Eyes." Tootie shook her head.

"Well – long as you ain't gonna dramatize it," Jo said.

"Who's dramatizing?" asked Nat, putting a hand to her heart. "Tootie's actually being restrained. We almost shuffled off this mortal coil!"

"No lie," Tootie agreed.

At the front of the chamber, the judge banged his gavel sharply, twice.

The tall, tattooed man dropped onto the end of the bench, next to Tootie.

"I will have order in the courtroom," the judge said severely. "Order and silence!"

"Wow," breathed Tootie. "Just like on 'Perry Mason'."

"Shh," hissed Jo. "You wanna get us in contempt of court or somethin?"

"What's that?" Tootie asked curiously.

"It's put a sock in it, that's what it is!" muttered Jo.

The big tattooed palooka put a surprisingly gentle paw on Tootie's shoulder. "Why don't you pipe down, kid?" he told Tootie kindly.

Natalie shot a look at Jo, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

"Who the hell's Godzilla?" Jo whispered to Nat.

"He's like the guy version of Jo Polniaczek," whispered Nat. "Except he has manners."

Jo scowled.

"Get bent," Jo whispered.

"Like I said." Nat chuckled quietly.

The big guy leaned across Tootie and Nat and extended a massive hand to Jo. Jo just looked at it.

"Snake Robinson," the young man said softly. "Trucker and adventurer."

"Well if you want an adventure," Jacqueline said drily, "you've fallen in with the proper crowd."

"You with the Shamrock Lords?" Jo asked Snake.

He shook his head. "Never jumped in. Pop said if I joined a gang he'd kick my ass up into my Adam's apple. Pop's scarier than the Shamrock Lords."

"Sounds like," Jo agreed. Warily, she shook his hand.

"Snake rescued us," Natalie whispered. "We broke down in the eight circle of Dante's inferno, and when all seemed lost, Snake appeared. He's sort of the white knight of truckers."

Snake grinned at Natalie. "You talk a lot," he said quietly, "but you do kinda say some cool things."

"Why thank you," said Natalie, pleased.

"I'm Jacqueline Messerschmitt," Jack told Snake. She leaned across Jo, briefly pressing Snake's enormous, tanned-and-tattooed hand with both of her pale hands.

"Pleased to meet ya," Snake whispered cheerfully. He looked from Jack to Jo to Nat to Tootie. "You guys are an interestin crew. If you don't mind my sayin."

"We don't mind," said Nat. "It's like I say sometimes: We're a Benetton ad come to life."

Jo lifted an eyebrow. "When have you ever said that?"

"Sometimes."

"What times?"

"I don't know – who keeps track? I know I've said it sometime. Or I've thought it, anyway. It's one of my bons mots."

"One of your what, now?"

At the front of the courtroom, the judge banged his gavel again.

"The court will now hear opening arguments," he said briskly.

The prosecutor popped up out of his seat like a handsome jack-in-the-box. He cleared his throat.

Natalie grabbed one of Tootie's hands and one of Jo's.

"This is it," Natalie whispered in a shaky voice.

"It's going to be OK, Nat," Tootie whispered earnestly.

"Yeah," whispered Jo. "And if it ain't, I'm gonna bust Mona outta prison." Jo glanced thoughtfully at Snake. "You'd be a big help if we hadda do that."

Snake looked toward the defense table. Even sitting down he was a head higher than anyone else in the crowd. He could easily see tiny Mona in her pretty brown dress.

"She looks like a cool old dame," he whispered to Natalie in his rumbling voice. "You gotta bust her out of some place – count me in."

"Thanks," Nat whispered …

The prosecutor, Jo had to admit, was good. He spoke in a confident, compelling voice. He modulated his tone and gestures and facial expressions as if he were, in fact, an award-winning actor.

He was so good that at certain points during his opening statement, Jo wanted to leap up and throttle him.

But Nat and Jack, knowing Jo as they did, kept putting restraining hands on Jo's shoulders …

Dina Becker, the prosecutor said, had been a young woman who loved animals. She was planning to be a veterinary doctor. She was pursuing biology and pre-med studies at Smith.

Because the Beckers were among the wealthiest families in the world, Dina didn't have to take up any profession – the prosecutor emphasized that point. Dina could have traveled the globe like a spoiled celebutante. But she had wanted to heal animals. "She was a healer," he said. "That was her nature."

Christ-on-a-crutch! thought Jo. A freakin healer? The bullshit's really flyin!

Dina's childhood friend and childhood idol, the prosecutor said, was Blair Warner. Dina had adored Blair. The deceased had looked up to Blair and would never, in a thousand years, have tried to harm Blair.

"What happened that night – that awful, awful night – was very different than the defense will try to paint it," the prosecutor said, shaking his head sadly at the lamentable machinations of the defense, which had yet to present a single word. "What happened that awful, awful night was that Dina tried desperately to save her idol Blair Warner."

I think I'm gonna toss my cookies, thought Jo. With severe self-discipline she managed not to throw up …

When it was Braithewaite's turn to speak, he stood up slowly. He ambled over to the jury box. There was something so warm, so engaging about him … Jo could see it in the eyes of some of the jury members. The prosecutor was handsome and well-spoken, but was somehow removed from the jurors. Braithewaite was connecting with them in an easy manner.

"Dina Becker," Braithewaite said simply, "stabbed Blair Warner in the stomach."

The jury, and the crowd, gave a little, collective gasp. Braithewaite put it so baldly, so simply. He had cut right to the heart of why they were all assembled there.

"Witnesses saw Miss Becker stab Miss Warner," Braithewaite continued. "And witnesses saw Miss Warner collapse on her best friend, who was therefore unable to come to her aid. Only one person," he turned to Mona, "had the courage and presence of mind to do what had to be done. Only one person prevented Miss Warner from being brutally murdered. In cold blood. Mrs. Green did what she had to do to save Miss Warner. Mrs. Green had no wish to harm anyone. She swung a bottle. No one contests that. Mrs. Green swung a bottle to distract Miss Becker, or to knock her unconscious. But notwithstanding her murderous spirit, Miss Becker did not have a strong constitution. Miss Becker died. It's tragic. The whole thing is tragic. That Miss Becker should stab her childhood friend. That Miss Warner can never bear children. That in defending Miss Warner, Mrs. Green should have, without wanting to, taken Miss Becker's life. It's all a tragedy. But perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that having saved Miss Warner's life, Mrs. Green, who is still recovering from a severe stroke, should be subjected to this indignity. Thank you."

Braithewaite returned to his seat.

There was a beat of dead silence in the courtroom as everyone absorbed the defense's brief, pithy opening statement. Then there were the usual little coughs and throat clearings and restless shiftings that follow any communal silence.

Good for you, old geezer, Jo thought admiringly. Old Braithwit or whatever the hell your crazy WASP name is. Good for you! Stick to the freakin facts. Easy peasy ...

Perhaps sensing that first blood went to his opponent, the prosecutor was only too eager to question his first witness, a rather tremulous, motherly, apple-cheeked old German woman who had been Dina Becker's first nanny.

The prosecutor was smooth, but he spoke too quickly for the woman; English was clearly her second or third language. She looked flustered. Her answers were somewhat incoherent.

He grew impatient with her – and it showed.

"Pets," he repeated for the third time, sounding annoyed. "Pets. Do you remember Dina having any pets?"

The old woman looked as if she were on the verge of tears.

"Please," she said, "I do not … What is 'petz'?"

"Animals," the prosecutor said briskly. "Dogs. Cats."

"Ah. Nein. Dina had no, ah, petz."

The prosecutor looked surprised. The witness had somehow wandered off-script.

"Dina didn't have a dog?" he pressed. "And a cat?"

"Objection – leading," Braithewaite said calmly.

"Sustained," agreed the ferociously hawk-like judge.

"Dina didn't have any animals?" the prosecutor asked his witness. The man was turning rather pink from embarrassment and frustration.

"Ah … Animals," said the old nanny. "Puppy. Ein, one puppy. Und kitten. Ein kitten."

The prosecutor tried very hard not to scowl at his own witness, but he was pissed at her; the jury saw it, and most of the spectators.

"Exactly," the prosecutor said. "Dina had a puppy and a kitten. And she loved them?"

"Ja. Dina lub her puppy und kitten." The old woman nodded fervently.

"Thank you," said the prosecutor. He looked visibly relieved. His point had been made. From an early age, soft-hearted, warm Dina Becker had loved cute little animals.

But there seemed to be an ill star hanging over this witness – from the prosecution's perspective. Having finally given the prosecutor the answer he wanted, the elderly nanny decided to be even more helpful.

"Dina vas sad – very sad," volunteered the aged woman. "Ven puppy und kitty vas kilt. Dina vas sad, long-time sad."

"No further questions," the prosecutor said hastily. He sat down, and began flipping through the notes on his long yellow legal pad.

Braithewaite ambled toward the witness stand in his laid-back way. He smiled kindly at the nanny.

"Good morning," he said to her. "Guten morgan, Frau Bagans."

At the defense attorney's impeccable, pleasant German accent, the nanny visibly brightened.

The prosecutor was up like a jack-in-the-box. "Objection," he said crisply. "As your honor doubtless knows, court proceedings are to be in English, except when a non-native speaker requires a translator. Does my colleague require a translator?" he asked a little sneeringly, "or can he proceed in English?"

"I don't require a translator," Braithewaite said imperturbably, addressing the judge, not the prosecutor, per protocol. "Although it is good of my colleague to inquire. I wonder, however, if Frau Bagans might not be more comfortable if she had recourse to a translator. We want to be sure we understand her and she understands us – don't we?"

The judge rapped his gavel smartly. He addressed his subordinates. "Get a translator up here," he snapped. "Let's make sure this witness knows what's transpiring."

A muted ripple ran through the crowd. It was approval. Braithewaite seemed to give a damn about the witness, even though she was the opposition's witness. And Braithewaite seemed to give a damn about actually hearing what the woman had to say.

Second blood to the defense …

Blair pressed her fingers to her belly, feeling, even through the fabric of her dress, the scar tissue from where Dina had stabbed her last February.

The whole thing is tragic, Braithewaite had said. That Miss Becker should stab her childhood friend. That Miss Warner can never bear children ...

Never have children … Never have children … Blair didn't necessarily want children … But to have that choice taken away … And Jo did want children – Blair knew that. And if Jo wanted children, Blair wanted to be the one to give them to her …

Braithewaite's cross-questioning of Frau Bagans, through the translator, was a marvel to behold. It was masterly. Dina had had a puppy and a kitten, and she had loved them, but they had died – first the puppy, and then the kitten.

The puppy had drowned. It was very sad and very mysterious, Frau Bagans said. She had found the puppy in the bathtub. How it had climbed up so that it could fall into the tub was puzzling. The bathtub was an old Victorian claw-footed tub. Its sides were smooth. It was free-standing. There didn't seem to be any way for the small puppy to climb up to the rounded edges and topple in …

"Objection," the prosecutor complained. "Relevance? Is my colleague investigating the murder of Dina Becker or the death of her puppy?"

"Your honor," Braithewaite said calmly, "I'm merely clarifying statements that the witness made in response to my colleague's questions. My colleague went to a certain amount of trouble to ascertain that the deceased had a puppy and kitten. Therefore the puppy and kitten are alleged to be of some import, and I, for one, want to know what happened to them."

"Overruled," the judge told the prosecutor. He looked keenly at the Frau Bagans. The judge seemed as interested as Braithewaite and the spectators to hear more about the mysterious deaths of Dina's pets.

"What about the kitten?" Braithewaite asked Frau Bagans through the translator. "How did the kitten die?"

The kitten fell on a pair of scissors, the nanny explained. It was very gruesome. She had found the kitten and had one of the gardeners dispose of it before Dina could see it. But she had told Dina that her kitten had gone up to God, and Dina had been very sad, for a long time, as she had been about her beloved puppy.

"And how did the kitten fall on a pair of scissors?" Braithewaite asked. "What kind of scissors were these, and where would they be that the kitten could fall on them?"

They were Dina's scissors, the nanny explained. Dina used them to cut shapes out of paper. Dina must have dropped them. The scissors lay at a certain angle, leaning against the leg of Dina's art table. Somehow the kitten must have been on the table, or the chair, and somehow it had slipped.

"Where was the kitten impaled?" asked Braithewaite.

In Dina's playroom, said Frau Bagans, near her art table.

"But what part of its body?" Braithewaite clarified kindly.

Frau Bagans shuddered. The poor little kitten, it had been pierced through its stomach.

A few – a very few – of the spectators were starting to get a sense of what Braithewaite was driving at. They shivered.

The prosecutor seemed annoyed by the line of questioning, but clueless about its implications.

"Objection, relevance," he said again. "Has my esteemed colleague learned enough about the mysterious deaths of these long-ago pets?"

The judge raised an eyebrow and looked at Braithewaite.

"I have only one more question for this witness," Braithewaite told the judge.

"Very well," said the judge. "Ask it."

"Frau Bagans," said Braithewaite, "after the puppy and the kitten died, what was Dina's next pet?"

But Frau Bagans did not know. She shrugged helplessly. It wasn't long after the kitten's death, she explained, that the Beckers replaced her with a different nanny. "They vant somevun not so ald. Und somevun speak more English …"

The prosecutor's next witness was Dina's next nanny. Miss Gillings was substantially younger than Frau Bagans and, being an Oxford graduate, did indeed speak impeccable English.

"Being a nanny was a way to earn a living," she said, "to keep body and soul together while I searched for an investment position."

"And you found an investment position?" the prosecutor asked her.

"Oh, yes – within a year. Did rather well. VP of Investments at SB James now. But caring for Dina was my first job in the United States."

"And did you enjoy caring for Dina?"

Miss Gillings hesitated. The prosecutor saw it. Everyone saw it. The prosecutor's confident smile remained glued to his face, but in his eyes it was clear – he was wishing he had called in sick today.

"I'll rephrase," the prosecutor said smoothly. "Obviously watching Miss Becker was your job, your paid job, and whether or not you enjoyed it is really immaterial. The question I want to ask is, from your observation over the course of a year, was Dina a nice, normal child?"

"Certainly," said Miss Gillings.

"You never observed her to be anything other than a nice little girl who liked her pets?"

Again a slight, a very slight hesitation.

"Who liked her pets and all the typical activities that young girls enjoy," said the prosecutor, padding the questions, trying to cover his witness' hesitation.

"Dina was just a little girl," said Miss Gillings. "She cut shapes out of paper and she talked to her dolls and had tea parties and she had pets."

"And she liked her pets?"

"She seemed very attached to them. That's what made it … It was very sad when –"

"Please try to stay within the scope of my questions," the prosecutor said firmly. "There's no need to go off on tangents."

"Of course," said Miss Gillings. "As you like."

When Braithewaite conducted the cross, his first question was "What was very sad, Miss Gillings?"

"About the pets," she said.

"What about the pets?"

"They died. It was … She was an unlucky little girl when it came to her pets."

"What were her pets? That is, what type of animals did she have?"

"Oh, that's reaching back a few years. But, yes, let me see, there was a rabbit. I know it sounds odd, a child keeping a rabbit in a penthouse, but there was a rather large roof garden and she had a hutch. And the rabbit, the latch must have been loose, and the rabbit fell off."

"The rabbit fell off the hutch?"

"The roof."

"And did it survive?"

"The penthouse was on the fifty-fifth floor," Miss Gillings said drily. "The rabbit did not survive. Rather a long way down."

"Dina was distraught?"

"Yes. But she had, still, her pigeons. She had some idea about training carrier pigeons, you see. She read it in some sort of book, Valerie Vickers, Pigeon Girl, some rot like that. I'm sorry. That sounds rude. But, really, some of the mad things children read in these books! And then, of course, they want to do the same things as the heroine. And these things never pan out in life as they do in the books, do they?"

"Dina enjoyed keeping pigeons?"

"They seemed to fascinate her. But then the coop burnt."

"The coop burned down?"

"Yes."

"And how did that happen?"

"Objection," said the prosecutor. "The witness isn't a fire fighter or arson expert."

"But the witness was on the spot," said the judge. "She can answer in so far as she observed the cause of the fire and its aftermath."

"Miss Gillings," said Braithewaite, "in so far as you observed, what caused the fire?"

"We never knew for certain," said Miss Gillings. "The coop was on the roof, in the garden. It burnt to ash, really, and the pigeons trapped inside were immolated."

Blair drew a deep breath. Immolated … What Dina had tried to do to her and Jo at Petal's place on New Year's Eve …

Jo was clenching her fists tightly; her fingernails drew little crescents of blood from her palms …

"But the cause was not determined? In so far as you know?" Braitewaite asked Miss Gillings.

"Well, it was an unfortunate incident, but the Beckers didn't commission a full-scale investigation. I mean to say, at the end of the day, just a lot of filthy pigeons – what? But Dina had a magnifying glass that she used to observe insects, and it was found charred and cracked among the ashes. It always seemed to me the child must have forgotten it out there, on the roof of the coop, and it was a sunny day, and – well, you know. Bright sunlight and a magnifying glass and a flimsy wood-and-tar-paper coop. Result: conflagration."

"But that is only a theory?"

"Yes. Only a theory."

"And then the Beckers asked you to leave?"

"No. Then I was offered the position at SB James. Entry-level, of course, but in investments and that was my field."

Braithewaite nodded. "SB James is one of the premier investment firms in the world, I believe."

"It is." Miss Gillings was clearly proud of her association with the famous investment house.

"Did you know that BZ Becker owns SB James?"

Miss Gillings eyebrows rose. "I did not."

"Did you know that it was through Mr. Becker's intervention that you were offered that foot-in-the-door, all those years ago?"

"I did not," she said coldly. "For that matter, I don't believe he did intervene. Why should he? I was only his daughter's nanny."

"Why should he intervene?" Braithewaite repeated. "Yes. Why indeed?"

After Miss Gillings stepped down, the judge directed the prosecutor to call his next witness.

The prosecutor was scribbling on a legal pad and conferring softly with his junior associates. He stood and addressed the bench.

"Your honor, the next witnesses that we had planned to call were all nannies and governesses for Miss Becker. They will all say substantially the same things as Frau Bagans and Miss Gillings. I, ah, my associates and I have decided not to waste the court's time by calling those witnesses."

"Very well." The judge's eyes narrowed as he looked further down the witness list. "I believe then, your next witness will be Devon Abercrombie."

Blair felt her heart beat slow. Devon Abercrombie. A pale, supercilious nincompoop. He'd always been rude to Blair, from the time they were children. Their fathers were long-time business rivals. Then, last year, David Warner had completely ruined the Abercrombies.

It had all gone downhill from there. Mr. Abercrombie had sent a hit man after Blair, and then walked off a rooftop when the plan failed. Devon, smarting after his family's ruin and his father's death, had thrown in his lot with Dina. It had been Devon who delivered the taunting, romantic picnic basket to Jo and Blair's suite at the Plaza …

How much does Devon know? wondered Blair.

Is this it? wondered Jo. Is Devon going to tell the world me and Blair are lovers?

"Mr. Abercrombie is not available this afternoon," the prosecutor told the judge. "We expected to call him tomorrow. If it please the court, we would like to request –"

The judge banged his gavel. "Court is recessed until 9 am tomorrow," he said. "And the prosecution will be well advised to have all of their witnesses available."

"Of course, your honor," said the prosecutor …

When Mona was led away, Natalie stood up. She didn't want to call out to Mona; she didn't want to make a scene, to do anything that could in any way be detrimental to the case. But Natalie fluttered a little plain white handkerchief. It was one Mona had given to her years ago, a birthday gift.

Mona saw the movement. She had been looking over her shoulder, trying to spot Natalie and the musketeers and Lions.

Mona smiled at Natalie. The elderly woman nodded her head once, slightly. I'm all right, vnooshka, said the nod. I'm going to be all right.

"She's so brave," Tootie said admiringly. She put an arm around Natalie's shoulders.

"Always," Natalie said, one tear slipping down her plump cheek. "She's always been brave."


The Bronx. Rose Polniaczek's apartment.

"You're sure you got room for us?" Jo asked for the tenth time.

Rose sighed.

"OK. OK. I just, you know, I don't want us to impose," Jo said.

"Joanne Marie, I raised you in this apartment. It's your home. You're always welcome."

"But, I mean … You know. With Blair bein here too, I just wanna be sure you're, you know …" Jo wasn't quite sure how to finish the sentence.

Rose pushed a hand through her dark brown hair, one of her nervous gestures. Her face was pink.

"Jo, you know I … You know I love Blair like a daughter. And I wish you loved her like a sister. But since … Since you both have this … thing between you, I'm trying …" She trailed off. Now she was the one that didn't know how to finish the sentence.

"We won't be any trouble," Jo promised. "We'll be on our best behavior."

"For heaven's sake, your, your girlfriend is a Park Avenue girl. I don't expect Blair will be drinking out of the faucet or peeing off the fire escape."

"Ma!"

Rose shook her head. She pushed her hand through her hair again. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm saying, Jo. I'm all turned around."

"I just wanna be sure you know we're gonna be good guests. We appreciate you lettin us stay here while the trial's goin. It's too far and too expensive comin down from Peekskill every day."

"Is Tootie staying with Natalie and her parents?"

Jo nodded. "And Drake and Mrs. Garrett are staying at his old bachelor pad so they can come to the trial in the afternoon, after they finish filmin 'Edna's Edibles' every day."

"Well." Rose smoothed one of the sofa cushions. "Mona certainly seems to have everyone rallying around her. That's important. It can't be good for her at her age, in her health, being locked up, being on trial for murder."

"Eh, she's a tough old bird," Jo said. But she felt tears threatening. She turned away, began fussing with the afghan throw on the back of the sofa. "Well. Uh … About the, uh, sleepin arrangements."

Rose's jaw set. "That's already taken care of," she said firmly.

"We can take the sofa bed," Jo said helpfully. "Out here. We don't want to put you out of the bedroom. And, you know, it's your apartment, your rules. We promise not to, you know … There won't be any funny business."

"I know there won't," said Rose, "because you and I are sharing the sofa pullout. Blair can have the room."

Jo scowled. "Whaddya mean, Blair can have the room? Who is she – Princes Di?"

"She's our guest," said Rose, in a tone that brooked no argument. "She gets the room and the nice bed. You and I get the sofa pullout."

"But Ma … See … Like I've explained –"

Rose lifted one slender hand. "I know. I don't like that I know. I honestly don't want to know, but I know. You and Blair are, you're, you're lovers." Her mouth pinched when she said the word, as if she'd just bitten into a very sour lemon. "You sleep together. You, you have sex."

"For cryin out loud, Ma, you don't have to shout."

"So who's shouting?" shouted Rose. "Oh. Sorry."

"Look, we won't, ah, have relations," Jo said awkwardly, "while you're in the apartment. That would be tacky and disrespectful. But I need to sleep with Blair, as in, sleep in the same bed. For companionship. You remember, from bein married to Pop. Right? When you love someone, you just want them there next to you, you wanna hear their heart beat, you want to hear their breathin, you wannna feel that warmth …" Jo trailed off dreamily.

Rose sat down on the sofa.

I give up, she thought. Crazy or not, sinful or not, it's real. My daughter is in love. Head-over-heels, deeply in love. With a woman …

"It won't hurt you, Jo, to spend a few nights apart from Blair," Rose said, trying to sound reasonable. "You'll both appreciate each other even more when you sleep in the same bed again."

"But –"

"No. I think I'm getting better about this whole thing, Jo, but I'm not ready for you and Blair to sleep in the same bed in my home."

"OK." Jo nodded. "I don't like it, but … We can live with it."

"Good. Now, I need your help before she gets here. What types of things does Blair eat? I thought we'd go to that grocery, you know, the kind of fancy one a couple of blocks over. They won't have caviar or anything, but –"

Jo smiled at her mother. Jo's blue-green eyes welled up with tears.

"What's wrong?" Rose asked.

"Nothin. I'm just, you're blowin me away, Ma. You really care about her – don't you?"

"Of course I do! What part of 'I love her like a daughter' was confusing?"

"She's pretty fond of you too," said Jo. "And you don't have to buy her anything special. Yeah, she likes fancy grub when she can get it, but what do you think we were eatin at Eastland – you think we were eatin filet mignon and pate de foie gras?"

"With what they charged for board, it should have been," said Rose.

Jo laughed. "Heh. Touché, Ma. But it wasn't. It was just plain old healthy food. Probably a lot of the stuff Mrs. G ate when she was growin up on her folks' farm in Wisconsin."

"And Blair's OK eating that food?" Rose asked doubtfully.

"She's really not the princess everyone thinks she is. Well. Kind of-sort of not. You know, when she was a little kid her parents used to dump her off places. She spent a lot of time in Texas with Eduardo, and he fed her franks and beans."

"Franks and beans?"

"And Sloppy Joes. So, whatever you feed her, Blair's gonna be fine."

"I suppose." Rose looked around her small apartment. It was really three rooms. The main room was a living room and kitchenette, dominated by the sofa and the small table. There was a bathroom off of a tiny hallway and the small bedroom that had been Jo's room when she was growing up.

Rose shook her head. "It looks so … shabby."

"Ma, it looks great. You been cleanin all day, I can tell."

"It's not the Plaza."

"What is?"

Rose looked curiously at her daughter. "What about you, Jo?"

"What about me?"

"All those places you've been now, riding in limos, staying at the Plaza, going to Italy … What is it like now, coming home to visit me?"

Jo grinned. She gave her mother a bear hug.

"Ooph," said Rose, as half of the air was squeezed out of her lungs.

"Home is home, Ma," said Jo. "I love comin home. I'm always gonna love comin home here. Although, it's up to you, but if Blair's inheritance comes through next year, we'll move you anywhere you wanna go. Your choice."

"I'm pretty comfortable here," Rose said, looking around the room. "A lot of nice memories of you, here, Jo. Of course … When the sirens are blaring half the night … "

"Just think about it," said Jo. "Anyhow, Blair's inheritance might not come through for awhile – if ever. Eduardo's put that on hold to help Mona. Priorities, you know. Blair'd rather walk around the street in rags than see any harm come to Mona."

There was a rapping at the door.

"Who is it?" Rose called.

"Pauly," said a deep voice. "Got a special delivery package for you."

Jo grinned. She went to the front door, unlocked it and drew back all the bolts and chains.

Blair and Jo's cousin Pauly stood in the doorway.

"Come on in, come on in," Jo said happily.

Pauly politely gestured for Blair to proceed him. He was carrying two large Gucci suitcases and a garment bag.

"You're such a gentleman," Blair told Pauly sweetly.

Pauly blushed. He was in love with Jesse, but he would always find Blair Warner an enchanting goddess.

Blair went directly to the sofa and took Rose's hands. She kissed Rose's cheek.

"Lovely to see you, Rose," Blair said. "Thank you for taking us in while Mona's on trial. You have no idea how honored I am to be staying in the home where Jo grew up."

"Aw, for Pete's sake," said Jo, blushing red.

Pauly laughed. "Yeah," he teased, "the famous Jo Polniaczek, Young Diablo."

Jo whirled on him and playfully put him in a headlock.

"Hey!" laughed Pauly. He somehow managed to slip out of the headlock without dropping the luggage. "Where do these go?" he asked Blair.

Blair looked to Rose.

"Put them in Jo's room," Rose told Pauly. He nodded.

"'K, Aunt Rose." He disappeared down the tiny hallway.

"You're letting us stay in Jo's old room?" Blair asked Rose, sounding touched. "That's so lovely."

"Uh, well, we want you to be comfortable," Rose told Blair. "Jo and I will be fine on the sofa pullout."

A disappointed expression flashed over Blair's face, but she had been trained almost from the cradle to be impeccably polite. "Wonderful," she said. "That's very good of both of you."

"Actually, it freakin sucks," said Jo. "I know, I know," she told her mother, "I'm gonna be big about it, but I sure am gonna miss Blair."

"I'll miss you too, darling," Blair told her, "but please don't say things like 'it freakin sucks'. We're adults now. It's very good of Rose to let us stay here."

Mentally, Rose sighed. As always she was torn. Part of Rose loved to hear Blair tutor her rough-and-tumble daughter in the ways of polite society. Jo could definitely benefit from a little polish. But part of Rose resented it; Blair had moved surely into Rose's territory; Blair, as the love of Jo's life, was now the guiding force, the center, the be-all and end-all of Jo's world …

I suppose all mothers-in-law feel this way, thought Rose. And there I go again! Admitting it to myself. 'Mother-in-law'. I am a mother-in-law. And to one of the most famous young debutantes in the world …

Blair was sitting on the sofa next to Rose. Blair looked around the room.

"It's warm," Blair said approvingly. "I love the colors. And your knick-knacks. I want to know all the stories. Where they're from. I want to know all about Jo growing up."

Jo rolled her eyes. "For cryin out loud. I was a kid, I went to school, I was a little juvenile freakin delinquent, then I went to Eastland. End of story."

Blair shook her head. "Darling, I won't be asking you for the stories. I'll be going to the source." Blair smiled at Rose.

Pauly emerged from the bedroom. "OK, dropped off your bags. If you don't mind I wanna head out. Jesse and me gotta study."

Jo grinned at him. "You two are turnin into a real coupla nerds. What happened to badass Pauly and badass Jesse?"

"We're still badass," said Pauly. "We're just not such total dumbasses anymore."

He clapped Jo on the shoulder. "Keep loose, cuz."

"Right back at ya."

Shyly he touched Blair's cheek. "If you need anythin, just let us know – 'K?"

"Of course," said Blair. "Thank you, Pauly."

"Don't mention it." He leaned down and kissed his aunt's cheek. "See ya later, Aunt Rose."

"Bye, Pauly," said Rose. "Say 'hi' to Sal and Bud and Terry and Tony."

"And tell Jess 'Yo' from me," added Jo.

"Yeah, will do."

He left, closing the front door softly behind him.

"OK," said Jo, going to the door. "Lesson Number One about livin in the Bronx, babe: Always lock your door five thousand times. You cannot be too freakin locked in." She turned the lock, shot bolts home, fastened chains.

"Duly noted," said Blair. "For the record, darling, it's the same on Park Avenue. You cannot be too 'locked in there', either."

"But on Park Avenue you got the doormen," said Jo. "And here we got Marvin the Wino on the stoop. And, hard to believe, maybe, but ol Marvin ain't quite as reliable as a real doorman."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Blair.

"Lemme show you my room," said Jo. "I'll give you the tour."

Rose gave Jo a hard look.

"For Pete's sake, Ma, I can't even show Blair the room? Do we need a chaperone?"

"You might think I was born yesterday, Joanne Marie, but I know code when I hear it."

"What code?"

"You're going to give Blair the tour?"

Jo groaned. "Ma … If I was suggesting an illicit liaison, don't ya think I'd come up with somethin better than 'give you the tour'."

"Her double entendres are much more sophisticated than that," Blair added.

Rose shrugged. "Fine, I mean, you're adults, you're grown up now, but just please remember that this is my home."

Blair squeezed Rose's hands. "Of course, Rose. I'll see that Jo behaves."

"Ha! You'll see that I behave?" Jo demanded. "You're the one that's always –"

Blair gave Jo a hard look.

"I'm the one that's always what, darling?" Blair asked with dangerous sweetness.

"Uh … You're the one that's always a beautiful goddess," Jo said lamely.

"Why thank you, Jo. That's very sweet."

"Yeah. Well, that's me. Sweet …"

Blair was fascinated by Jo's old bedroom. Rose slept here now, but she had kept the room largely unchanged from the days when it belonged to her daughter.

Blair sat on the edge of the bed. She took in the posters on the wall – "Saturday Night Fever," Evel Knievel, a poster of "the Fonz". She took in the Donny & Marie Osmond dolls and – of course! – the "Star Wars" action figures. The bed and the bedside table and the little lamp on it were so homey. The green-and-white afghan at the foot of the bed looked like it had been hand-crocheted.

"So," said Blair, smiling at her fiancée, "this is where you grew up. This is where you did your homework, and fell asleep and dreamed about what you were going to be. Which, judging from the posters, was either a motorcycle stunt woman, or a disco dancer, or the Fonz."

"Aaaay!" joked Jo, doing a terribly Fonz impression.

Blair reached for her lover. Jo took her hands. Blair tugged gently and Jo sat down next to her on the bed.

Blair ran a hand over the afghan. "Tell me about this," said Blair.

"How do you know there's anythin to tell?"

"Because it's handmade," said Blair. "And it's beautiful. Whoever made it put a lot of love into it."

"You can tell that by lookin at it?" Jo asked curiously.

"Yes."

"How?"

Blair shrugged. "I think it's like … a sixth sense. You know how you can listen to an engine, darling, and you can tell all about it? It's similar to that – but for me it's art and fabrics and fashion."

Jo touched the afghan lightly. "My Gramma Rose made this," she said quietly. "Ma's Ma. It was the last thing she made for me before she died."

"It's beautiful."

"She was real good at stuff like this. I think it's partly from her, you know, that I'm good with my hands."

Blair lifted Jo's hand to her lips and kissed it tenderly.

"Did I ever tell you that I love you?" asked Blair.

"Tell me again," Jo said softly.

"I love you, Jo."

They held each other close, comfortable and warm. Jo drew her fingers lightly up and down Blair's back.

"What did you dream about in here?" Blair asked quietly.

"Speed," said Jo. "Fast cars, fast motorcycles." She kissed Blair's neck. "Sorry babe; you've fallen in love with a lunk-head jock. I really am part Neanderthal."

"Well," Blair kissed Jo's hair, "there's still that Cro-Magnon part – the one that gets a 4.0 GPA."

Jo sighed.

Blair pulled her closer.

"We'll get you back into classes," Blair said. "I don't know where, darling. We might be at BCC with Pauly and Jesse. And what's wrong with that? An education is an education."

"I know," Jo whispered. Her voice was husky with emotion. "But, Blair … Langley was really startin to feel like home. And all our friends there. And the Lions. And Coach Anderson. And my professors. It's … I made it my home, and then … It's another door slammed in my face, babe. It's another reminder I just don't belong."

"Now you listen to me, Jo Polniaczek," Blair said intently, tightening her grip around Jo's shoulders, "you are better than anyone there. No one can touch you, darling. You're the most wonderful woman in the world. You belong anywhere you want to belong."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. When I think of that oily Dean Pratt –"

"Let it go, babe."

"He was so damn smug. So full of spite."

"Well, I hate to say it babe, but we gotta get used to it. If Devon Abercrombie starts flappin his gums on that witness stand tomorrow, that's how lots of people are gonna be lookin at us. We just gotta, see, we gotta hold onto all the people that love us. All the people who accept us just how we are."

"I know." Blair pressed her lips against Jo's. It was a gentle kiss, full of longing, bittersweet; Blair wanted so badly to make love to Jo, but they couldn't; they had promised Rose.

Jo turned her thoughts to the trial. "I like where Braithewaite's goin – about Dina's pets."

"Maybe that's what made her, well, what warped her mind," Blair said thoughtfully. "Losing all those pets, and in such horrible ways."

"Babe," Jo said, "Dina didn't lose those pets. Dina freakin killed those pets."

Blair looked horrified. "What are you saying?"

"It ain't a nice thing to think about, and it won't cross most people's nice, unsuspectin minds. That's why Braithewaite's teasin it out so slow. But I think Dina killed 'em, Blair. She's always been cracked. And her Pop kept switchin out her nannies every year, before they could get wise."

Blair looked dazed and not a little sick as she absorbed that theory. "So it wasn't … It wasn't something about me that drove her over the edge," Blair murmured, almost to herself.

"Christ," said Jo, gazing into Blair's eyes, "is that what you been thinkin?"

Blair nodded. "Dina and I … we were so close once. We didn't start to drift apart until after that weekend in New York, you remember, when I saw how superficial she was, and how awful she was to her cook. It was like my eyes were opened. I thought … I thought maybe, when I drifted away from Dina after that, maybe it drove her over some edge."

"Babe, you don't gotta feel responsible for anythin," Jo said firmly. "People don't just go totally freakin psycho overnight. Sounds like Dina's always had a screw loose. She drove off that edge, balls-to-the-wall, all by her loony little lonesome. And instead of gettin her help, her nutso father practically encouraged her! You just had the bad luck to be one of Dina's obsessions. Well … you and me both."

"She always was … different," Blair said. "My God. Those poor animals!"

"Braithewaite's smart to draw that out," mused Jo, "but I'm worried about what freakin Guy Smiley said."

"Guy Smiley?"

"The prosecutor. About how he's gonna show Dina was defendin you."

"He's just talking through his hat, darling."

"I don't know. Sounds to me like he's gonna try to build some scenario where Dina was protectin you from me."

"What?"

"Dina was holdin the knife. Her prints were on it. She was dressed like a freakin Fever waitress. They gotta explain all that some way that'll make it sound like she wasn't tryin to kill you. She was tryin to protect you."

"Protect me?"

"See, picture we're lovers but you break it off with me. Right?"

"I can't even imagine that scenario," said Blair.

"No, course not, but I mean, for the sake of argument. You break it off with me. But I'm hasslin you. And dear old Dina's been worried about you. So she's, you know, she's lurkin around to be sure you're OK."

"Ha!"

"I ain't sayin it's even faintly connected to reality, I'm just tryin to figure what the prosecutor might be cookin up."

Blair regarded Jo thoughtfully. "Do you know, darling, you have a very legal mind."

Jo chuckled. "Yeah. Comes from being hauled into court on more than a few occasions!"

"All right. I'll play along with your scenario. You think the prosecution will say Dina was trying to keep a concerned eye on me. But then what? What are they going to say happened? If she's so concerned about me, why does she stab me?"

"I tried to stab you, that's what they're gonna say. And Dina wrestled the knife away, but not before you got stabbed." Jo gently ran her fingers over Blair's belly, feeling the scar tissue through the thin fabric. "Either they'll say I stabbed you and then Dina got the knife away from me, or you got stabbed in the melee, or you ran into the blade after Dina grabbed it from me … Whatever happened, Dina was only tryin to help – see?"

Blair shivered. She laid her blonde head on Jo's shoulder. "You make it sound … so plausible."

"That's what the prosecutors will try to do."

"So Dina's a martyr. She was trying to help me. But even though you went after me with a knife – what? I'm so deluded I forgive you and want to hush it up?"

"Yeah. Along those lines. And Mona cracked Dina with the bottle to help us hush everything up."

Jo stroked Blair's back, her sides. Blair was trembling.

"We can't let anything happen to Mona," Blair said softly. "Even if we have to tell the whole world about us."

"Agreed," Jo said without hesitation. "Although I think the prosecution's gonna do that for us …"

"It's like a nightmare," said Blair. "And we can't wake up …"

"But we can wake up," said Jo. "And we will. Just think of me, babe. When it seems all insane. Just think of me. And I'll be thinkin of you."

Blair could feel Jo's heart beating steadily in her chest. Jo was so calm … so sure.

"It's nice of Rose to let me sleep in here," Blair said. She wanted to change the subject. She could only think about the trial for a few moments at a time. It gave her a sensation like vertigo.

"It'd be nicer if I could sleep here with you," said Jo.

"I know. But I think Rose is right. If we were lying here together … You know we couldn't resist temptation."

"Well … I am really, really hot," Jo observed. "And you're not exactly Quasi Modo yourself."

"Thanks," Blair said drily.

"Eh, don't mention it, babe. All part of the charm that is me."

Blair kissed Jo again, softly but what with a sort of smoldering passion, as if Blair wanted to do a lot more than kiss her lover, but was exerting incredible control.

Jo deepened the kiss. She groaned.

"Blair … I'm so wet right now," Jo whispered. "I'm achin between my legs."

"I recommend a nice cool shower," whispered Blair.

"In November?"

"In November."

"I'll catch double-freakin pneumonia!"

"But you'll be honoring thy mother. That's one of your commandments, isn't it? 'Honor thy father and mother'?"

"They're not just 'my' commandments," objected Jo. "Moses brought 'em down from the mountain and gave 'em to his people, and then the Christians ran with 'em. It's this whole thing. The rules got passed to you snooty WASP-types too, by the way."

"Well, I'm not too concerned about honoring my mother these days." Blair tried to say it lightly, but there was a bitterness underneath.

Shit! thought Jo. How do I always manage to bring up this painful stuff?

"Don't worry about your mother," Jo said kindly. "Anyone who'd run out on you is a total –"

"I know. I know. But it still hurts. And I still haven't heard a damn word from her."

"Too busy on the ski slopes and suckin down hot toddies," Jo said darkly.

"No doubt." Blair pressed her face against Jo's. "I still remember that first summer, when I was five, and Daddy and mother sent me to the Texas ranch. They never paid much attention to me when I was around … But that was the first time I was really sent away. I was so hurt. But I met Eduardo. I met that wonderful man who's been more of a father to me than Daddy. And then, of course, as soon as I was settled into the ranch, mother telegrammed for me to come to Paris."

"So, she missed you," Jo said encouragingly.

"Yes. And no. It was more that she and Daddy had had a big blow-out. She didn't want to see him for awhile, but she hated the thought of being alone." Blair sighed. "It was so hard to say goodbye to Eduardo. I didn't think I'd ever see him again. And then when I got to Paris mother hardly paid attention to me. Nanny Foster toted me all over Paris, seeing the sights and buying my new fall wardrobe."

"That's when you got your whirlwind tour of the Louvre," said Jo, remembering one of Blair's stories.

Blair nodded. "It made me dizzy. But it did start my fascination with art."

Jo kissed the top of her fiancée's blonde head. "Even when stuff sucks, great stuff can come out of it. We're livin proof of that – right? It hurt to get sent to the ranch – but you met Eduardo. It hurt bein ignored by Monica – but you got to see all that beautiful loot at the Louvre. This whole thing we're goin through, babe, gettin bounced outta Langley, poor little Mona bein on trial – we're gonna come outta this stronger, Blair. It's gonna be OK somehow."

"I want to believe that. Do you really think so, darling?"

"I really, a thousand-billion-percent do, babe. And you know what else I think?"

"What?"

"I still think you're one of the most ticklish people I ever met."

Jo grinned devilishly, fingers suddenly running up and down Blair's sides, tickling the debutante.

"Jo, that's – hahahahahahaha! Jo!! Stop that, I – hahahahaha!"

Blair giggled and laughed and tears ran down her cheeks as Jo tickled her. Blair struggled weakly, but she didn't really seem to want to pull away from her lover.

Footsteps thudly softly toward the room.

"What on earth is going on in there?" Rose demanded from the doorway. She didn't look into the room; she was afraid she would see something she didn't want to see.

"Your – hahahaha – daughter is – hahahaha – tickling me!" laughed Blair.

"Tickling you? Is that code?" Rose demanded anxiously.

"Nah, I'm just plain old ticklin her," Jo called. "Don't be so stuffy, Ma; come on in."

Rose stepped tentatively into the room. Jo was tickling Blair's sides and Blair was laughing, beautiful head thrown back.

"For heaven's sake, Jo, leave Blair alone," said Rose. "Sometimes I don't think you're ever going to grow up, Joanne Marie."

"Eh, I'm just keepin things light. Kinda going through some tense times, ya know?"

"Well that's no excuse to behave like you're seven."

"Come on, Ma – it's the perfect excuse."

Jo looked at her mother, grinning that adorable crooked grin that Rose had known from the time Jo was a toddler.

Rose couldn't help laughing. "What's a mother to do?" she asked lifting her hands in a gesture of surrender.

Blair finally pulled away from Jo, wiping away tears of laughter.

"I give," Blair told Jo. "I give! What is the correct phrase? I say 'uncle'?"

"That is indeed the correct phrase, babe, so you're off the hook. For now. I make no promises about when the mad tickler might strike again."

"The mad tickler better not strike again in this apartment," Rose said firmly.

"Ma – for Pete's sake! What could be more innocent than a little tickling?"

"Tickling can lead to … other things," said Rose.

"But –"

"That's final, Jo."

Jo sighed.

Blair lifted Jo's hand and kissed it. "Rose is right," said Blair. "Tickling can lead to all sorts of things. Things we'll discuss when we're back at River Rock."

"Promise?" asked Jo, eyes sparkling.

"Promise."

Rose shook her head. They're so adorable together. And yet … Phrased like "eternal damnation" flashed through Rose's mind.

"Who wants to help me start supper?" Rose asked briskly.

"I'll help," Blair said, standing up.

Jo clutched her stomach. "Ma – You still keep Pepto Bismol in the medicine cabinet? I feel some gastric distress comin on."

"I'll have you know my cooking is improving every day," Blair told Jo a little coolly.

"Sure," said Jo. "And someday, it'll even be edible."

"Ignore your daughter," Blair told Rose. "Mrs. Garrett has been tutoring me. I'm actually getting pretty good."

"Well, it doesn't take Julia Childs to make boloney sandwiches," Rose said cheerfully.

"I've made many a bologna sandwich at Eastland," said Blair. "I can handle it."

"Good." Rose looked at Jo. "You can set the table, Joanne Marie."

"Set the – Cripes, Ma, I'm not ten anymore."

"Set the table, darling," said Blair.

"But can't we just, you know, I thought we'd all eat on paper plates. In front of the TV. What's with all the formality?"

"It's our first night visiting your mother," Blair said patiently. "She's our hostess. This is our welcome dinner. Obviously, we're going to eat at table."

"Welcome dinner? It's boloney sandwiches!"

"The cuisine doesn't matter. It's the principle. Darling – you're not really going to try to argue etiquette with me – are you?"

Jo sighed. "Nah. I'm stupid – not crazy ..."

Blair and Rose enjoyed the supper immensely. Not because of the bologna sandwiches, but because of the conversation. Rose told many, many Jo stories. Jo as a toddler, as a tomboy, as a juvenile delinquent headed for disaster.

"Which is when, of course, I sent her to Eastland," said Rose.

"You totally tricked me about Eastland," said Jo, who was not enjoying the prolonged trip down memory lane. Jo liked sharing selected childhood stories with Blair, but at times of her own choosing, when she and Blair were lying in bed, deep in the night, sharing their hopes and dreams. Jo felt distinctly uncomfortable as her mother told story after story over supper.

"It was the best thing I ever did for you," Rose said firmly.

"I thought it was an aptitude test – not an application."

"It got you into Eastland, didn't it? Think of all the wonderful things that followed."

"Yeah, but you tricked me. You know my whole trust thing, Ma."

"I know. And, all right, I guess after all this time, I can apologize for pulling the wool over your eyes, Jo. But you have to admit it was in a good cause."

"Yeah. Yeah, I know." Jo pressed her mother's hand.

"I, for one, am eternally in your debt," Blair told Rose. "From the moment this grungy grease monkey roared into my life, it's been, it's been …" Blair couldn't find the words. She turned and gazed lovingly at her Jo. Jo gazed back at her. It was one of their "Tony and Maria" moments; the world slid away and it was only the two of them, in love, lost in each other's eyes …

Rose cleared her throat. "Well. You're, ah, welcome, Blair."

Jo grinned mischievously at Blair. "You were so snotty to me that first day."

"It was purely defensive. Deep down I knew, the moment I laid eyes on you, that I loved you."

"Well, I just knew you were gonna be a pain in my keister," Jo laughed.

"Jo," Rose said reproachfully.

"Hey, I said 'keister'. That's not a cuss word."

"It's not polite supper conversation either," said Rose.

"Eh, Blair's used to me," Jo said breezily.

"It's true," Blair told Rose. "After more than four years, nothing Jo says shocks me. However," Blair looked at Jo, "your mother's principle is correct. Any vulgar expression is inappropriate at table."

Jo scowled. "I'm tired of all this etiquette."

"Then you're marrying the wrong girl," Blair said serenely. "I've learned to accept your colorful vocabulary. It won't kill you to keep working on your manners."

"Good for you," Rose told Blair.

"Hey," Jo said to Rose, "you're my mother. You're supposed to take my side on this junk."

Rose looked to Blair. Rose lifted an interrogative eyebrow.

Blair shook her head. "Jo still doesn't understand the dynamic," Blair told Rose.

"What freakin dynamic?" Jo demanded.

"The mother-in-law daughter-in-law dynamic," said Blair.

"Now there's a dynamic?"

"There's always been a dynamic," Blair said patiently. "It seems to be some kind of biological imperative."

"Biology." Jo said it like a curse word.

"To some degree, Rose and I will always be rivals for your affection," said Blair. She glanced at Rose. "Fair enough?"

Rose nodded. Might as well be honest about it, she thought.

"But we'll also support each other on many things," Blair continued. "Particularly where you're concerned."

Jo groaned. "So, like, what does that mean? I'm gonna have both of you tellin me to mind my P's and Q's?"

"In a nutshell – yes."

Jo groaned again.

"Oh, poor baby," teased Blair. "Two women who love you so much and want the best for you. However will you survive?"

"Jo's always been a little bit of a baby," Rose said, with an affectionate glance at her daughter.

"Am not," Jo said sulkily.

"There was this time," Rose told Blair, "when we were potty-training Jo, and she –"

"Hey! Hey! No potty-training stories," Jo said, sounding scandalized. "What the heck, Ma?"

Blair patted Rose's hand. "You can save those stories," Blair told Jo's mother, "for if Jo and I have children."

Unconsciously, Blair's hand drifted down toward her belly. It came now, as it sometimes did – that phantom pain. Blair grimaced. There was no reason for the scar to hurt, for her healed wound to hurt – but it sometimes did. It was in her head, she knew. She had healed physically, but the wound to her psyche was still there …

Rose was looking slightly startled.

"Children?" she asked Blair.

"Yes." The pain vanished, as quickly as it had come. "Children," Blair said. "Jo wants them. I'm not sure. It's something we'll think about over the years."

"Children," Rose said thoughtfully. "So … Even though … Even with your relationship being … the way it is … I might have –"

"A grandchild," said Jo. "Yeah, Ma. You might get a grandkid."

Rose smiled …

Perhaps because she was musing about the prospect of a grandchild, Rose fell easily into a peaceful sleep that night, even with her restless daughter tossing and turning next to her on the sofa pullout bed.

Rose slept, and dreamed happily – and then something woke her. A soft creaking of the bed, a shifting movement …

Rose opened her eyes. The living room was dark, but not pitch black; there was a small amber nightlight next to the kitchenette's sink, casting a feeble light so that someone going to the kitchen in the middle of the night wouldn't trip over something and break their leg.

Rose saw a slender, dark figure creeping toward the hall that led to the bathroom and the bedroom.

Joanne Marie, you'd better be going to the bathroom, Rose thought sleepily. You promised. You promised no hanky-panky with Blair …

There was silence for a few moments. Rose almost drifted back to sleep, but she kept forcing her eyes open. She was a mother. A mother had to be ever vigilant. Sometimes you had to protect your kids from themselves …

Suddenly she heard it. The faint, stealthy sound of a window being pushed open.

Balducci, the building superintendent, was a cheerful guy but cheap as well as mechanically incompetent. So the windows were framed with warped wood. They got stuck. They were hard to push open or pull closed.

So the stealthy sound of a window being pushed open could only be so stealthy. Rose could hear, every few seconds, how the window was sticking. She could hear, every few seconds, Jo's faint curses.

Rose shook her head. Jo and Blair were honoring their promise to her. They weren't going to do anything sinful in the bedroom. But they were going up to the roof.

In November! thought Rose. They'll catch their death of cold!

She considered going into the bedroom, confronting the girls. The women, really. They were young women now. Blair was almost twenty-one, and Jo would be twenty-one soon after Blair. They were young women in love.

Rose sighed.

She turned on her side, pulled the covers up over her head. She yawned. If Jo and Blair were in it for the long run, as they seemed to be, Rose was going to have to pick her battles. And just now, burrowed under the warm blankets, this wasn't a battle she cared to fight.

Rose soon tumbled into a happy sleep, dreaming of a little granddaughter with fluffy dark hair …


"Son of a goddamned freakin so-and-so," muttered Jo, struggling to pull the window shut behind her.

She and Blair stood on the fire escape, which was rimed with frost and icicles. It was dark except for the feeble light of a street lamp far below.

Blair was wrapped in two blankets; nonetheless, she was shivering madly. Her long blonde hair was mussed, sticking up in crazy patches where it peeked over the top of the blankets. She regarded Jo with baleful eyes.

"Aha!" Jo whispered triumphantly as she finally closed the window. "There we go. Don't want Ma turnin into a popsicle while she's sleepin."

"How thoughtful of you," Blair said through chattering teeth. "We wouldn't want your mother to freeze."

Jo finally seemed to notice her lover's distress.

"Aw, jeez, babe – you OK? You look kinda cold."

"Do I?" Blair blew out little puffs of breath; they formed shimmering clouds in the faint light. "My goodness – is it cold out? I hadn't noticed."

"Oops," said Jo. "Sorry, babe. I forget how you're not such a big fan of the cold."

"I'm a fan of the cold," Blair objected. "If I'm properly attired, and riding Chestnut, or on a pair of skis on the Swiss slopes. But no, darling, I don't like standing in the cold in my nightgown and slippers. What are we doing?"

Jo waggled her eyebrows roguishly.

Blair looked scandalized. "You've got to be kidding."

"I could not possibly be more serious, babe. Get ready for some Bronx lovin!"

"Here?" Blair glanced around the narrow fire escape. "In this cold? If you think I'm exposing my delicate flesh to this deep freeze –"

"Hey. Hey, calm down babe." Jo took Blair in her arms, holding the blonde tightly and kissing her. Jo laughed. "Heh. Your nose is cold."

"All of me is cold," chattered Blair. "Please, darling, let's go back inside. We promised your mother we wouldn't do this."

"We promised her we wouldn't get freaky in the bedroom. We didn't say anything about the roof."

"You really should be a lawyer, Jo," said Blair. "I don't think I've ever met anyone quite so shameless about exploiting loopholes."

"Guilty as charged," Jo said cheerfully. She kissed Blair again. "So … Come on, babe. Bliss awaits."

Blair looked upward. The fire escape stretched up two more floors before it reached the roof.

"Let me get this straight," Blair chattered. "Not only do you expect me to make love in sub-zero temperatures, but I also have to climb up a fire escape that looks like it was last inspected in 1934?"

"Yup." Jo waggled her eyebrows again. "It'll be worth it, babe. I promise."

"Is there at least some short of shelter up there, Nanook?"

"There's a whole little room," Jo said reassuringly.

"And is this little room heated?"

"It will be."

Blair burrowed against Jo. "All right," she said, voice muffled by her blankets. "Take me to my doom …"

The metal, frost-rimed fire escape was slippery, so Jo sent Blair first. "If you slip, I'll catch you," Jo explained chivalrously.

"This just gets better and better," Blair muttered.

She made her way tentatively up the slippery steps. The metal railings looked so cold and icy she didn't even touch them, relying on her excellent balance to keep her from falling.

Jo kept looking up. She hated heights. They scared the hell out of her. But if she just kept looking up …

They made it to the roof without mishap. There was a light glaze of ice on everything. Jo put a solicitous arm around Blair as they picked their way carefully toward a small, enclosed room at the other side of the roof.

The view, Blair noted, was pretty damn incredible. A sea of other old brownstones, most windows dark, a few lit, here and there, with warm yellow light. In the far distance, the skyscrapers of Manhattan. And above them, cold sparks of stars, dozens of them …

"See that, babe?" asked Jo, pointing toward a hulking shape not far away. "That's Yankee Stadium."

"W-w-w-onder-f-f-ul," stammered Blair. She felt so cold now that her lips were numb. She couldn't seem to stop trembling, even with the blankets and Jo's encircling arm.

When they reached the small chamber, Blair suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. She pointed to warm yellow-orange light spilling from the little building's single window.

"S-s-s-s-omeone's ins-s-s-ide," Blair chattered.

"Sure," said Jo. "Us, in about three seconds."

Jo reached for the door, pulled it open.

All sorts of horrible scenarios flashed through Blair's mind. This little room was probably the headquarters of the dreaded Bronx Barbarians. Even rough-and-tumble Jo couldn't protect Blair from an entire gang. They'd be pulverized – or tossed off the roof like Dina's poor rabbit.

Or perhaps it was a drug den. Yes. Someone was cooking up angel dust in there. Cooking it up or mixing it up, or whatever people did with angel dust. The person would be desperate, and probably armed with a huge gun …

But there wasn't anyone in the little room. It was deserted.

And it was warm. A space heater purred in one corner of the room, right next to a little electric lantern.

It was the lantern that was casting the warm yellow-orange light. It cast the light over two comfortable – if slightly dusty-looking – sleeping bags that were spread out on the floor. Next to a couple of pillows. And a boom box. And a little plate of cheese doodles. And a bottle of cheap wine …

Blair looked at Jo.

"Darling," she said, voice husky with emotion.

Jo was blushing, but she looked pleased.

"You like?" Jo asked her fiancée.

"I like," Blair said, kissing Jo's cheek. "You never stop surprising me. When did you do all this?"

"Before you got here. Ma doesn't know. I kind of creeped up, took a coupla trips. I figured she was gonna make us sleep apart."

"My beautiful evil genius," Blair said admiringly.

Jo pulled the door closed behind them, and wedged the rail of a battered old chair under the door handle. "So we won't be interrupted," she explained. Jo took a square of cardboard and a couple of strips of duct tape, and covered the window. "So we got a little privacy," she explained.

Blair stretched out on the sleeping bags. It was heavenly to feel warm again.

Jo crouched down next to the boom box. She turned it on. She had already set it to a pop station that played love songs all night. The reception wasn't so great, but the songs were perfectly audible through the pop and crackle of static.

It so happened at that moment that "Baby Come To Me" was playing. Blair smiled up at her lover, opening her arms.

"Come to me, darling," Blair whispered.

"Don't mind if I do," grinned Jo …

Their love life had been hit or miss the last few months. They were depressed about being expelled from Langley – Jo, the scholar, more than Blair. They were depressed about their dicey financial future. They were depressed about Mona's stroke, and her trial.

Sometimes they pushed through all the grey unhappiness that seemed to be cloaking their life, and they made passionate love. Sometimes they just weren't in the mood, and they held each other with a chaste passion.

They were in the mood now.

Jo stretched out next to Blair. They gazed at each other, the soft-but-frank gaze of women who had loved each other for awhile now, who knew each other well. There were no games for them. There were no fronts.

Jo slid one arm around Blair's shoulders, the other around her waist. Blair laced her fingers behind Jo's neck. They kissed, gently, slowly, taking their time, enjoying each other's soft mouths. Their tongues flicked against each other. The hand Jo had on Blair's waist slid down to the full posterior, cupping it.

"Feels real good to hold you," Jo said quietly.

"Feels very nice to be held," murmured Blair.

Jo kissed Blair's chin, her perfect jaw line, the softness of her neck. Jo gently opened the blankets that Blair had wrapped around herself.

She's a goddess, thought Jo, smiling admiringly at her lover. Blair was so beautiful, even in a fluffy pink bathrobe, even with her hair sticking up a little bit like a haystack in places because she'd been sleeping.

Jo reached down and slowly loosened the belt of Blair's bathrobe. Jo unfastened the belt, and then pushed open the heavy pink robe.

Jo's eyebrows lifted in surprise. She grinned. Underneath her pink robe, Blair was wearing a pair of Jo's old flannel pajamas.

"I didn't want to be too fancy," Blair explained. "I didn't want to glide around in silk. I know your mother can be …"

"Insane?"

"I was going to say 'sensitive'. About the money thing."

Jo dexterously began unbuttoning Blair's flannel pajama top. "The money thing? You mean, where you were raised as a bazillionairess and hobnobbed with Princess Grace? And we couldn't pay the electric bill half the time, and Pop got thrown in the clink and hobnobbed with dirtbags?"

"Yes," smiled Blair. "That money thing."

"It all seems so dumb now," mused Jo. She loosed the final button, pushed open Blair's pajama top. She trailed a gentle finger tip along Blair's side, under one arm, over the collar bone, down to circle Blair's heavy, pale, beautiful breasts.

"What seems dumb?" asked Blair, only half paying attention. She loved the feeling of Jo's finger on her.

"Money and fame and all that, all that bullshit," Jo said quietly. Her finger circled one of Blair's large dark nipples, gliding over the aureole. She teased the nipple; even in this warm little chamber, it was tightening and standing erect.

"Money's nice," Blair said, "well – what we can do with it is nice. But what you've taught me, darling –" she gasped as Jo gently pinched the nipple, "what, ah, you've taught me, darling is that it isn't necessary. As long as we have food and a roof over our heads, we, ah …"

Blair trailed off dreamily. Jo had lowered her head and was lapping tenderly at the nipple.

She's so gentle, thought Blair. She knows just how to touch me with her hands, her mouth …

Between her legs, Blair felt a wetness gathering, felt a heat building slowly, and an ache.

Jo, perfectly attuned to her lover, reached for the waistband of the Blair's flannel pajama bottoms. Continuing to lap at Blair's breast, Jo slid the pajama pants off her fiancée. Blair assisted, wriggling and shucking out of the soft garment. Blair spread her long legs.

Slender fingers brushed the fine brown ("dark blonde," Blair always said) hair that covered Blair's sex. Jo brushed the clitoris, the wet, swollen nether lips. She smelled the sweet musky scent of Blair in the throes of arousal.

"Inside," whispered Blair. She lay back against the pillows, eyes closing.

Jo knit her fingers and slipped them gently inside her fiancée.

Blair sighed. She knew Jo's touch now, so well, loved Jo's touch. Loved the sensation of Jo's fingers within her, moving up and down. Blair began to rock, almost imperceptibly at first, and then, as time passed, gathering momentum.

Jo's suckling grew more insistent, rougher. She bit lightly at the nipple.

"Mmm," Blair groaned approvingly.

Jo's free hand cupped the other breast, squeezed it roughly. Her motions between Blair's legs grew more insistent. Blair was so wet … Her nectar ran down Jo's hand and wrist. Jo loved the feeling of Blair's muscles trembling with pleasure, gripping and releasing her hand, gripping and releasing …

When Blair came, she cried out, head flung back. An angelic smile touched her mouth.

Jo gently released her lover's breasts, drew her damp fingers from Blair's sex. Jo snuggled against Blair, loving the feeling of the soft, lush body, the light sheen of sweat.

"Blair," whispered Jo.

"Mmn?" As usual, after coming Blair was sleepy, on the verge of falling into a blissful nap.

"Blair, I love everything about you."

"Mmn," Blair mumbled contentedly.

"I love how you look, and how you sound, and how you feel, and smell, and taste … I love how you think … I love what you do … I love who you are …"

"I am … pretty wonderful," Blair murmured drowsily.

Jo laughed. She kissed Blair's tousled blonde hair. "Most of all, I love how modest you are, babe."

"Uh-huhn." Blair was more than half asleep; she hadn't really heard what Jo said.

Jo stroked the wild blonde hair. "I mean it, babe. I love everythin about you. I always will. No matter what happens."

Blair snored softly.

Jo pressed her face against Blair's. She knew her lover. Blair would wake before long, hungry for another round, hungry for Jo's body, wanting to make her fiancée come.

All I want, thought Jo, is to be with her forever. You hear me up there, God? You give me that, to hell with everythin else. Well, except, please help Mona. Please get her off the hook for this bum rap.

Blair stirred in her sleep. She frowned; she made a sound like whimpering.

Jo held her closer.

"It's OK, babe," whispered Jo. "I'm here. I'm here, babe. And I ain't ever gonna let anythin hurt ya …"


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

"Holy, uh, that's, uh … wow," Jo said, completely flustered.

Blair stood in the doorway of the master bathroom, her long blonde locks shorn. There were strands of hair on her shoulders and sleeves. Her nose and eyes were red from sobbing.

Jo had never seen Blair with short hair. Blair Warner without a mane of golden hair … It was surreal …

But not bad, Jo decided. Not bad at all.

Jo knew Blair had started dyeing her hair around age forty. Well … dyeing it even more. Blair had been helping nature streak her dark blonde locks an even paler hue for decades – since before Jo had begun attending Eastland.

But by age forty, Blair had begun to have her hair dyed regularly. She and Jo were apart so much, but it dawned on Jo that sometimes Blair had a lot of silver flashing under the blonde. And then, the next time Jo visited, the silver would be gone … Blair had been to the hairdresser since they last saw each other.

Jo found the little flashes of silver intriguing, but she fully expected Blair to dye her hair golden blonde until their final days in the rest home.

But now …

Blair had chopped off most of her hair, leaving only a short, soft, silvery crop that hugged her beautiful head like a Joan-of-Arc 'do.

Joan of Arc. Yeah. That was it, Jo thought. Blair looked like a beautiful warrior, gorgeous but seasoned, sensuous but wise …

"I l-l-l-l-ook h-h-h-orrible," wailed Blair.

She dropped the scissors she'd been carrying. Jo stooped and picked them up quickly. Her senses seemed incredibly attuned these days to any potential safety hazard near Blair.

That's me, thought Jo, ninja wife!

"Babe," said Jo, "you look gorgeous."

"God's teeth, you do," Alec agreed fervently.

Blair continued to sob. Jo reached for her wife, but Blair took a step backward.

"No!" said Blair. "I'm h-h-hideous!"

Jo shook her head. "Not even, Blair. It brings out your face. Christ! Your beautiful face. You know how your bones are perfect?"

"Yes," Blair sniffled. "I know."

"Well, now we can really see them. They're right there, for all the world to see – your cheekbones and your jaw. Hell, Blair – I always knew you were beautiful, but who knew even your head is beautiful?"

"It … It is?" Blair asked, daring to hope a little bit.

"It is," Jo said firmly.

"It's uncanny," agreed Alec. "You're a vision. You're like an Aphrodite for a new age – the warrior priestess of love!"

Jo stepped forward again, warily, like a forest ranger trying to edge closer to a doe.

Blair let Jo brush the strands of cut hair off her shoulders and sleeves.

"Have to say," said Jo, "for an amateur job, you did really well."

Blair wiped her face and nose on her sleeve. "I'll, I'll have to go into the salon," she said. "Later today. Damon will have to touch it up."

"Not much, though," said Jo. "You're pretty good to go. Can I …" She made a gesture.

Blair hesitated, then nodded.

Jo gently ran her fingers through the short-cropped silver locks. The hair was so soft and fine.

"Wow," breathed Jo. "Wow."

"Is that a good 'wow'?" Blair asked anxiously.

"Oh, yeah, babe. A really good 'wow'." Jo kissed Blair's cheek.

"What made you think of it, dear?" Alec asked Blair.

Blair shrugged. "I just, I was so angry with this one –"

"Hey," objected Jo. "'This one'? Now I'm 'this one'?"

"Only when I'm angry," said Blair. "And I've been feeling a little restless and a little, well, hormonal, possibly. And my hair is so long, it's always been so long, and it takes so much effort now to keep it as perfect as it always is. And I thought, why not make a change? And why not make my routine a little easier. And so I just, I just …"

"We get it," Jo said soothingly. "Makes perfect damn sense. It's going to be a lot easier for you to get ready in the mornings. And you look more beautiful than ever."

"Hear, hear," Alec agreed.

"Really?" Blair asked them.

"Really," said Jo. "Heh. Let's hope all your hormonal flip-outs end this well!" She grinned fondly at her wife.

Blair gazed coolly at Jo. "Flip-outs? Hormonal flip-outs?"

Shit! thought Jo. Foot in mouth again – as usual, these days!

"I said I was feeling a tad hormonal," Blair continued. "How does that translate into a 'hormonal flip-out'?"

"Er … It doesn't," said Jo. "It's possible that I misspoke."

"That's the stuff, Artemis," Alec told Jo encouragingly. "Remember – the hormonal ticking time-bomb is always right."

Blair's cold gaze shifted to Alec.

"And you," she told him accusingly. "I heard what you were telling Jo just now. I am not like a sitcom wife. I am not like some silly character! I am not Lucy. And as for you," she turned on Jo, "I refuse to be married to Ricky Ricardo!"

Alec laughed. "Well, Blair, dear, you have to admit, our Jo is sometimes just as incomprehensible as Ricky ever was!"

"Hey," objected Jo. "And what side are you on, milord? You're my best friend. You've got to have my back!"

"Sorry, Jo. When my back is against the wall, I remain as cowardly as ever. You, I can possibly take. Blair – never."

"And you remember that," Blair said, with a firm nod. She ran a tentative hand through her short mane of silvery, soft hair. "It feels … It feels nice," she said.

"It looks beautiful," said Jo. She kissed her wife. "You're a vision. And you," she turned to Alec "can never take me. Never could, can't now, never will."

"Is that a challenge, Artemis?" His eyes danced.

"Take it how you will, Apollo."

"Now just a minute," said Blair. "Nobody is going to take anyone or challenge anyone in this household. This is a place of peace and serenity – not a roadhouse."

Blair moved haltingly toward the full-length mirror. She gazed at herself for a moment. Jo and Alec held their breaths.

Slowly, a smile spread over Blair's face. She beamed at her reflection.

"It does look beautiful," she said, pleased. "It does look like a warrior-priestess sort of 'do."

"Precisely," said Alec. "Your flock will be completely transfixed. You'll have them eating out of the palm of your hand."

"Like she doesn't already," chuckled Jo.

Blair glanced disapprovingly at them. "I do not have people eating out of the palm of my hand," objected Blair. "I uplift them. I inspire them."

"You charm the hell out of them," said Jo. "Like you've been doing your whole life. Because you," she went to Blair, stood behind her, slid her arms around Blair's expanding waistline, "you are love, babe. You are love."

Alec groaned. "If you're going to be such a swoony cornball, Jo, that's my cue to leave."

"Then hit the road, your Excellency, because I'm about to get corny as hell." Jo looked at their reflections in the long mirror – Blair, with her new hairdo, beautifully, glowingly pregnant; Jo, looking tired and stressed and too thin but so proud, so damned proud and in love with her wife …

"Snow White and Rose Red," mused Alec.

"Huh?" Jo asked absently. She and Blair met each other's eyes in the mirror.

I love you darling, said Blair's eyes.

Love you forever and back, said Jo's.

They gazed at each other. They never heard Alec slip out of the room …

Part 3

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