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 3

Early November, 1984. Rose's Apartment – the Bronx.

Rose looked thoughtfully from her daughter to her daughter's lover - from Jo to Blair.

They looked well-rested and angelic.

Do I say anything? wondered Rose. Do I let them know that I know that they snuck up to the roof last night, to do God only knows what with each other?

Blair had made oatmeal – surprisingly good oatmeal, Rose thought, considering how Jo was always complaining about Blair's cooking – and Jo had burned some toast. Rose had scrambled a few eggs and made very strong, very hot coffee. All in all it was a good meal.

Jo dabbed her burnt toast in her eggs. She chomped on the eggy toast and drank her strong coffee, all the while darting dreamy looks at Blair.

Rose sighed.

What do I say? What can I say? They're grown women now. They're in love. It makes no sense … but there it is. And the night before, the girls had raised the intriguing possibility that somehow, someday, they might have a child. Meaning that Rose would be a grandmother.

And that, thought Rose, could be the saving grace of all of this …

Blair glanced at her slim silver wristwatch. "Darling," she said to Jo, "take your shower now or we'll be late."

Jo nodded. She leaned forward in her chair and pecked Blair on the cheek.

Rose cleared her throat and looked away.

Never going to get used to this …

Jo laughed. She beamed affectionately at her mother.

"Sorry, Ma – didn't mean to give you a coronary."

"No one's having any coronaries," Rose said with dignity. "Now go take your shower. Like Blair said."

Jo rolled her eyes. "For cryin out loud, there's lotsa time before we have to be there. Go take my shower, go take my shower. Is this one of those things where you both gang up on me?"

"Yes," said Rose.

"Better get used to it, darling," said Blair, sipping her coffee.

Jo liked the idea of her mother and her fiancée bossing her around for the rest of her life. The thought of those two getting along so well … Jo felt tears pricking her eyes.

But it wouldn't do, Jo thought, to let them see how happy they were making her. A girl had a rep to protect, after all! This was the Bronx, not Park Avenue.

"Eh, just what I need," Jo groused, "the both of you tag-teamin me left and right!" She pushed her chair back from the table, scowling.

Blair shot her lover a look, eyes sparkling with mischief. Darling, you don't fool me one teensy bit, said Blair's eyes, not one iota

The courtroom was packed. So many spectators were squeezed into the chamber this morning, it was a wonder people weren't sitting in each other's laps, thought Jo. And there was something wrong with the heat. The radiators hissed and clanked and clonked at the most inconvenient moments, drowning out the judge, the attorneys, the witnesses, and yet somehow the room was cold, and everyone shivered.

Blair and Jo sat rows apart again. Nat and Tootie sat with Blair. Jacqueline and Petal slipped in after the proceedings had started.

"How the hell d'ja get in after they closed the doors?" Jo whispered.

"Filthy lucre," whispered Jack. "Slipped one of the sentries a finn."

"They're not called 'sentries'," objected Jo.

"One of the guards, then."

Jo shook her head. "Imagine that," she said, "a New York City employee takin a bribe. What is the world comin to?"

"She's such a frightful smartass," Jack whispered to Petal. "How do we abide her?"

Petal shrugged, grinning tightly.

She looks terrible, Jo thought with a pang. Petal had continued to lose weight all autumn. The once aptly nicknamed "Moose" seemed to be shrinking in front of their eyes. Her once rosy, plump cheeks had fallen in, giving her a gaunt appearance. Her quietly elegant, unpretentious clothes – "the mark of true elegance," Blair had once explained to Jo – were now too large, hanging almost comically on Petal's lanky frame …

"We're goin to lunch together," Jo whispered abruptly.

"Who?" asked Jacqueline.

"You and me and Petal. The three of us. There's a hamburger joint around the corner. I'm treatin."

"Oh, I'll treat dear," said Jacqueline. "Filthy lucre – remember? My money's not merely for bribing corrupt city employees."

Jo lightly punched Jacqueline's shoulder. "You're a pal, Jack."

"It's the least I can do, Jo. You are still our captain, you know."

Jo looked away. Jacqueline meant it kindly, but it still was too fresh, it hurt too much to think about the Lions. Jo missed them like hell, all of them, and she missed the excitement of playing …

In the front of the courtroom the judge and his staff were finally wrapping up their paperwork and morning rituals. Mona was wearing blue dress today – powder blue, very becoming with her little cap of silvery hair. It was almost time for the prosecution to call its next witness …

"Pardon me," said a rumbly voice.

Something brushed past Jo … Two giant denim tree trunks. A denim-clad mountain settled itself on the seat next to her.

"What the hell," griped Jo.

"Sorry," rumbled the voice.

It was the Snake kid, Jo saw, the big tall Bronx guy who'd saved Nat and Tootie from all kinds of fates worth than death – and probably death too – when Alec's coupe conked out north of Manhattan.

"What are you doin here?" asked Jo.

"Trial of the decade – right?" he said casually. He was wearing denim, but nicely pressed denim that smelled suspiciously like it had been freshly washed with Tide. His shaggy hair was neatly brushed.

"Huhn." Jo glanced skeptically from the young man to where Nat was sitting with Blair and Tootie.

The young man followed Jo's gaze. A fine pink blush suffused his face.

Mentally Jo groaned. For cryin out loud; everythin we got goin on, now some coulda-been-a-Shamrock-Lord's got a crush on Nat? Just what we need!

Jo fixed Snake with a hard glare – one of her specials. Her dark brows knit over her fierce blue-green eyes. "Now you listen to me, bucko, Natalie's one of my best goddamn friends in the freakin world, and she's had her heart broken plenty. You mess with her, I'll put my motorcycle boot so far up your ass it'll tickle your effin tonsils. You got me?"

"I don't know," Snake rumbled, sounding amused. "I'm pretty fuckin tall. Don't think you could kick that high."

"Yeah? Try me, ace. Just freakin try me. I can kick the effin moon if I need to."

Snake grinned. "You know, I kinda think you prob'ly could."

"And it won't just be me kickin your ass," Jo assured him. "My best friend is as big as you. Well. Almost. And he ain't gonna let anyone mess with Nat any more than I will."

"Who's he run with?" Snake asked, sounding curious rather than anxious.

"Who's he run with? The musketeers and the Lions, that's who!"

"Huh. Never heard of 'em."

"Well you're gonna hear from 'em, you do anythin to hurt Nat," Jo promised.

Jacqueline leaned past Jo, extending a pale hand to the young trucker.

"Don't mind my violent friend," Jacqueline said briskly. "Jacqueline Messerschmitt – yes, those Messerschmitts. Gods of New York, ruined by BZ Becker, and so on and so forth. And any admirer of Natalie's is a friend of ours."

"For Pete's sake, Jack – he could be a damn serial killer," objected Jo.

"Terribly unlikely – don't you think?" asked Jacqueline. Snake was shaking her hand with surprising gentleness.

"Unlikely?" Jo demanded. "He looks like Grizzly Adams crossed with Herman Munster!"

"Ha!" Snake threw back his head and laughed a big belly laugh. "That's a good one, gotta say!"

Heads turned in his direction. The judge banged his gavel sharply.

"Order," called the judge. "Order!"

Snake patted Jo's head in a friendly – if patronizing – way. His palm seemed to be twice as big as her face. Jo squirmed away.

"Look," Snake rumbled amiably, "maybe I like this Natalie girl. What if I do? Free country, right? 'Live free or die' babe. It's the freakin American way."

"Yeah, well, you hurt her, I'll kick the shit out of you. That's the Polniaczek way."

"It's not the Messerschmitt way," Jacqueline interjected pleasantly. "If you hurt Natalie, I'll just hire someone to knock you about."

"Hey." Snake held up his massive hands. They were ingrained with streaks of motor oil that had so saturated his skin even Lava or Borax couldn't scrub it away.

Those could be my hands, thought Jo, if I were a dude …

"I'm tryin to be pleasant," Snake continued, "but you're startin to get my back up a little. You're jumpin to a lotta not-so-cool conclusions about me. Why don't you give a guy a chance, 'stead of judgin a book by its cover?"

Petal blushed. She looked away.

Jacqueline read her friend's thoughts.

"You're right," Jacqueline said quietly. "We're being beastly shallow."

"I ain't bein shallow," objected Jo. "I'm lookin out for my friend."

The judge banged his gavel again. He peered toward the back of the courtroom. "Order!" he said. "Will whomever is talking be silent, or will I need to clear this chamber?"

Blair turned and gazed back at Jo. The heiress gave her lover a hard look.

Darling, said the look, put a sock in it.

"To be continued," Jo told Snake darkly.

"Fine by me," he said …

The prosecution's first witness was Devon Abercrombie, as promised. Devon looked as slight and pale and arrogant as ever. He was snotty even with the prosecution, for whom he was, apparently, testifying voluntarily.

Stripped of Devon's supercilious, chilly comments, his testimony was simple: Dina was worried about Blair. She was worried about Blair's friendship with a juvenile delinquent Blair had met at Eastland.

"What, precisely, was Miss Becker worried about?" the prosecutor asked.

"Am I a psychic?" sneered Devon. "How should I know?"

The prosecutor bit his upper lip. He looked as if he were restraining himself, by great will power, from throttling the young man.

"Didn't Miss Becker indicate to you that she was afraid of Miss Polniaczek harming Miss Warner?"

Braithwaite was on that immediately. "Objection – leading the witness," he said.

"Sustained," said the judge.

"Withdrawn," said the prosecutor. He dabbed at his forehead, gave himself a few seconds to think. "Mr. Abercrombie, did Miss Becker tell you, specifically or generally, why she was worried about Miss Warner's friendship with Miss Polniaczek?"

Devon snorted.

"The witness will answer with a clear 'yes' or 'no'," the judge said severely.

Devon sighed. It all seemed such a bother, said his languid posture.

"Yes. Dina told me she thought the little Pollock was a bad influence on Blair."

"Objection," said Braithwaite, "witness is –"

"Sustained," said the judge.

"Did Miss Becker say anything else?" asked the prosecutor.

Devon shrugged. "Dina felt Blair had changed, that she wasn't herself anymore that she was in, in some sort of danger. I can't put it more clearly. I don't know exactly what she feared but, for heaven's sake, if you'd ever met the little Pollock you'd know no one in their right mind would want their friend spending time with her!"

The judge banged his gavel. His hawk-like face was colder than marble.

"The witness will refrain from making disparaging ethnic remarks," he said firmly.

Jo squinted … She could just barely read the judge's nameplate. It read "Kandowski".

Ha! thought Jo. Wonder if he started out in the Bronx, originally? Way to go, judge!

"She's a thug," Devon said, "irrespective of her ethnicity. She's a common or garden thug."

"By 'she' you mean Joanne Marie Polniaczek?" asked the prosecutor.

"Yes."

"When you say she's a thug, what does that mean? On what do you base that statement?"

"She threatened me, that's what!" said Devon with feeling. "Blair's father ruined my father, and my father killed himself – killed himself! And that Pol, that, that thug threatens me, tells me to stay away from Blair 'or else'. Or else? I ask you! It was like a bad film noir!"

Blair resisted the impulse to look over her shoulder at Jo.

Jo threatened Devon? Must have been after Halloween, after that hit man Devon's father hired tried to kill me … It was like Jo, Blair thought, to look out for her, and damn the cost and damn etiquette …

"My father wasn't cold in his grave yet," Devon said bitterly, "because of her father." He found Blair in the crowd, glared at her. "And Jo Polniaczek, some little nobody, is threatening me? Good God! That was the day the world stopped making sense to me …"

"I'll tell you what doesn't make sense to me," said Braithewaite when he began his cross-examination. "What doesn't make sense to me, Mr. Abercrombie, is that you seem to be telling two completely different stories. Was Miss Polniaczek a danger to Miss Warner? Or was Miss Polniaczek a very dear friend and protector to Miss Warner? Which was it? Can't have it both ways."

"And now I'm a psychologist, am I?" sneered Devon. "All I know is Polniaczek is a bully. She threatens violence constantly. And from what I gather, she's more than capable of making good on her threats."

Snake glanced at Jo.

"What are you lookin at?" she muttered.

Snake shrugged. Nothing, said his shrug. But his silence was eloquent.

"Damn right, you better shrug," Jo said defensively.

But she was thinking I am a bully. I am. Devon's twisting it, but … It ain't like he's totally wrong …

"Your honor," said Braithewaite, "would you please ask the witness to answer my question. Is he saying Miss Polniaczek was a danger to Miss Warner, or a protector?"

"Answer the question," the judge told Devon.

Devon scowled. "She was a protector, then – if that's how you want to characterize it."

Jo felt her stomach drop. "If that's how you want to characterize it." Turn the conversation, Braithewaite. Turn the conversation.

"How long have you known Miss Warner?" asked Braithewaite.

Devon looked startled by the sudden change of tack. "I … Since we were born, I suppose. At a distance, of course."

"Why of course?" Braithewaite pounced.

Devon pulled back against his chair, unnerved by Braithewaite's gleaming eyes. "What do you mean? 'Of course' because our families have always been rivals. Not our families so much as our businesses. Everyone knows that."

"No." Braithewaite shook his head. "Not everyone. Only people in Society."

Devon waved a pale hand, relegating the billions of people not in Society to the shores of oblivion. Damn anyone not in Society, said the gesture. We in Society are only dimly aware that they even exist.

"Would it be an exaggeration to say that the Abercrombies and the Warners hated each other?" asked Braithewaite.

"Objection," said the prosecutor. "Relevance?"

"Your honor," said Braithewaite, "these questions are important in demonstrating the state of mind and motivations of the witness."

"Overruled," said the judge. To Devon, "Please answer the question."

"The Abercrombies and Warners have always hated each other," said Devon. "We've always been rivals. The Warners have no ethics. David Warner is all but a Borgia."

"David Warner ruined your family?" asked Braithewaite.

Devon flushed. "Yes. And as I've said, because of that my father, my father killed himself."

Braithewaite nodded. "Yes. Yes, that's very tragic," he said sympathetically. "And you do have my condolences."

"Fuck your condolences," said Devon.

The judge banged his gavel. "The witness will refrain from profanity," the judge said severely, "or he will be held in contempt of court."

"Something happened, though," said Braithewaite, "before your father made that tragic decision. He attempted revenge on David Warner, did he not?"

Devon scowled.

"Please remember you're under oath," said Braithewaite.

"Yes," Devon said in a low voice.

"Yes, your father attempted revenge on David Warner?"

"Yes," growled Devon.

"And how did he do that? Remember, please, that I have access to Lake Peekskill police reports and eyewitness testimony … So if you can't recall what your father did, I can introduce plenty of evidence to help you remember."

Blair glanced back at Jo again. Their eyes met. Thank God you and Alec were there, said Blair's eyes. Thank God you were there that weekend at Petal's.

We'll always be there, said Jo's glance. No one's ever gonna hurt you, babe …

Devon was brick red now. He squirmed miserably on the witness chair. "My father hired someone," Devon said quietly.

"Hired whom?" asked Braithewaite.

"Someone who takes care of things," Devon said vaguely. "Someone who could show that goddamned David Warner that he couldn't control everything, and that he could lose things too."

"What kinds of things?" asked Braithewaite. "Please be specific."

"My father hired someone to, to take care of Miss Warner."

"Take care of her how? Take care of her like a governess? Like a servant?"

Devon's nostrils flared. He glared at Braithewaite, as if he would like nothing better than to leap down from the witness stand and strangle the defense attorney.

A ripple of whispered conversation moved through the chamber as the crowd took in Devon's murderous stare.

"Take care of her how?" pressed Braithewaite.

"He was … The man was supposed to kill Miss Warner," Devon admitted bitterly.

The crowd erupted into stunned gasps and exclamations.

The judge rapped his gavel loudly. "Order!" he said. "This can become a closed courtroom in an instant, I assure you. Order!"

The spectators fell silent, but there was an electric tension in the room now. Everyone seemed to be leaning forward on their seats.

Blair realized she was holding one of Natalie's hands, and one of Tootie's, squeezing her friends' hands so hard they were wincing.

Jo was gripping the back of the seat in front of her. Her knuckles were white.

"That sounds like pretty big news," Braithewaite said. "How come I didn't read about that in the newspapers? How come I didn't see anything about it on TV?"

"As if we'd let it appear in the media," Devon said contemptuously. "Naturally we kept it dark."

"But your father hired someone to kill Miss Warner? You know this of your own personal knowledge?"

"Yes. That damned pompous son-of-a-bitch David Warner, destroying a business it took us centuries to build! Who the hell did he think he was?"

"Never mind that," Braithewaite said mildly. "My focus is on Miss Warner. Your father hated her father enough to hire someone to kill her?"

"Yes," spat Devon.

"So there has already been one serious threat against Miss Warner's life?"

"Yes."

"And who protected Miss Warner?"

Devon scowled.

"Who?" pressed Braithewaite.

"Lord Nethridge."

"And who else? Who?"

"Jo Polniaczek," muttered Devon.

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear you. Can you please repeat that for the record? Who assisted in protecting Miss Warner from a murderous attack?"

"Jo Polniaczek."

"Thank you. And are you sitting there now, under oath, telling this court that you think Jo Polniaczek was a threat to Blair Warner? That Jo Polniaczek could have stabbed Blair Warner at that nightclub? Do you honestly believe that?"

"It's what Dina told me," muttered Devon.

Braithewaite slapped his palm on the defense table. There was a crack like a gunshot. Everyone jumped.

"Do you honestly believe Jo Polniaczek stabbed Blair Warner, and that Dina was trying to help Blair?"

"No!" shouted Devon. "No! Dina fucking hated Blair! She couldn't stand her!"

Another round of gasps in the courtroom. The judge tapped his gavel.

The prosecution team was whispering hurriedly, anxiously among themselves.

"Thank you," said Braithewaite. "Thank you very much, Mr. Abercrombie. No further questions."

Braithewaite returned to the defense table and sat down next to Mona. The little old lady beamed at him and pinched his cheek.

"Blair Warner is a smug bitch," shouted Devon. "If someone does kill her, it's no more than she deserves. Dina knew! Dina was, she, Dina knew what had to be done! Thanks to her father the other families finally have a chance!"

The judge bashed his gavel so hard Jo was surprised it didn't split in half.

"That's enough out of you," the judge said grimly, cold eyes boring piercingly into the agitated young man. "You may step down. Bailiff, help Mr. Abercrombie out of the courtroom."

"We're on top now," said Devon, as the burly bailiff all but dragged him out of the chamber. The bailiff was pulling Devon so hard the young man was practically standing on tiptoes to keep up.

Devon searched the crowd as he stumbled along, found Blair, fixed her with a hateful look that could've melted steel. "You're nothing now!" crowed Devon, with a sort of hysterical little chuckle. "We had the last laugh, Warner!"

Jo started to spring out of her seat. It was pure instinct. She had to be at Blair's side to protect her, just in case Devon broke away from the bailiff.

But a tattooed hand closed on Jo's wrist like a vise.

"Be cool," Snake rumbled. "You don't wanna give anything away – right?"

Jo glared up at him, but the young man's eyes were so kind …

He knows, thought Jo. Great. He met us yesterday and he figured it out about me and Blair. Are we that obvious, that we're lovers? Is this gonna help the case against Mona?

"To hell with you, Warner!" shouted Devon as the bailiff pulled him through the doorway. The courtroom's big double doors swung shut.

There was a moment of intense silence in the courtroom.

"This is not a circus," the judge finally said, "and we will not conduct it like a circus." His frosty eyes drilled into the prosecutor. "You are to control your witnesses – Do you understand?"

"Of course," said the prosecutor. His face was shiny with perspiration. "Of course, your honor …"

The next witness was a surprise.

"The prosecution calls Dr. Paul Adams to the stand."

Paul? That pinhead? What the hell? wondered Jo. She felt like they were all trapped in an episode of "Perry Mason". You just don't know what the hell's gonna happen next …

Natalie's ex-boyfriend looked just as Jo remembered – handsome as hell, smooth, privileged, with that clueless arrogance that most of the privileged seemed to exude. The doctor worked at the Langley Infirmary. Paul had examined Jo's nose after Blair's father broke it last December – David Warner's version of a "Merry Christmas" to the former Young Diablo.

Natalie had met the doctor that night they were all at the Fever … The night Dina stabbed Blair. Paul had kept Blair from bleeding out. For that Jo would always be grateful. But she didn't like the guy. And she didn't like how he'd been pressing Natalie for sex.

Paul looked comfortable and calm on the witness stand. He was wearing his white lab coat.

Make sure we all know you're a doctor, Jo thought wryly.

She saw Tootie and Natalie whispering excitedly until Blair shushed both of them.

They're wondering why he's here too, thought Jo. Guess he's gonna talk about that night. But why would the prosecution want him? He may be an ass, but he knows the truth.

Jo felt the gentle nudge of an elbow. Mrs. Garrett smiled at her. The redhead had quietly sat down between Snake and Jo.

Jo smiled. She felt tears welling. Mrs. G – Christ, it's always so good to see Mrs. G. Nothin can really be wrong long as she's around.

"We filmed today's show in record time," Mrs. Garrett whispered. "I just had an instinct I needed to be here this morning. What did I Miss Jo?"

"Oh, Mrs. G – this whole thing is freakin awful," Jo said quietly. She hugged her surrogate mother. A single tear slid down Jo's cheek.

"Shh. It's all right," Mrs. Garrett whispered encouragingly. She glanced toward the front of the courtroom, saw Blair sitting with Tootie and Natalie, saw Mona, so slight but strong at the defense table, and her vital, brilliant attorney. Then Mrs. Garrett saw Paul on the witness stand.

"Is the defense presenting already?" she asked, surprised.

"Prosecution called him," Jo said tensely. "Whaddya think that means?"

Mrs. Garrett pursed her lips. "Hmm. Nothing good …"

In answer to the prosecutor's questions, Paul gave his name and profession, provided his sterling credentials.

Yeah, you're a damn golden boy, Jo thought sourly.

"Were you present at the Fever nightclub in the Bronx the night that Miss Becker was murdered?"

Paul hesitated.

It's the word, thought Jo. "Murdered". Loaded word.

"Objection," said Braithewaite, not liking the word any more than Paul or Jo.

"Sustained," said the judge. "The prosecution will rephrase or withdraw the question."

"Certainly," said the prosecutor. "Doctor Adams, were you present at the Fever the night that Miss Becker was struck in the head with a large bottle and subsequently died?"

"Yes," said Paul.

"And in your expert opinion as a doctor, did Miss Becker die instantly?"

"Yes."

"And you saw Mrs. Mona Green strike Miss Becker with a bottle?"

"No. But we all know why she did it. Mrs. Green was trying –"

"'No' is sufficient," said the prosecutor. "Did you see Miss Polniaczek stab Miss Warner?"

"No. Of course not."

"Did you see Miss Becker stab Miss Warner?"

Paul hesitated. He bit his lower lip. "No," he said quietly.

"You did not see Miss Becker stab Miss Warner?"

"No," said Paul. "I was dancing, and I wasn't paying attention to –"

"'No' is sufficient," said the prosecutor.

Dammit, thought Jo. Dammit all to hell! He didn't see it? He didn't see the stabbing? But of course he didn't, she reflected. Everyone had been dancing or sitting at the bar. It had just been Blair and Jo, all alone, with nutso Dina. Until Mona and Boots saved the day …

"What did you see?" asked the prosecutor. "You were dancing and then – what? Something attracted your attention?"

"Miss Boots St. Clair," said Paul. "She ran to me on the dance floor and told me that Miss Becker had stabbed Miss Warner, and that my medical assistance was needed. And then the music stopped and the house lights went on and a crowd gathered near the rest rooms."

"I suppose all of that that would attract someone's attention," said the prosecutor. "And what did you do?"

"I went to see if I could help. We all did."

"All who?"

"Blair and Jo's friends."

"The whole entourage?" There was something ugly about the word, the way the prosecutor said it.

"We all went over," said Paul. "I had met Miss Warner before; I didn't like the thought of her being hurt. As a doctor I wanted to do whatever I could to help her."

"And had she been stabbed?"

Paul nodded. "Yes."

"What did you see?"

Paul considered the question. He called up the image that he would never forget. "Miss Warner had been stabbed in the stomach. She was bleeding out. She was lying on the floor. She had fallen on top of her friend, on Miss Polniaczek, who was in shock. Mrs. Green," he nodded toward the defense table, "was crouched down next to them. She was holding Miss Polniaczek's hand. She was brushing a strand of hair out of Miss Warner's eyes."

"Did Mrs. Green look angry?"

"No."

"Agitated?"

"No?"

"Tearful?"

"No."

"Yet she had just killed a woman! Do you mean to say she was calm and cool as a cucumber?" The prosecutor sounded rather outraged.

Paul bit back a smile. "I should imagine," he said, "that Mrs. Green is generally cool as a cucumber. She's a very capable woman."

"Where was Dina Becker?"

"She was lying prone. Her knees were bent and her head was pressed to the floor. There was a great deal of blood. And wine. From the bottle, you understand. Her eyes were open."

"She was dead?"

"She was dead."

"Did you try to revive her?"

"No. I check for a pulse. There was none. I closed her eyes and someone put a tablecloth over her."

"That's all you did? You didn't try to revive Miss Becker? Treat her wound? Give her CPR?"

"CPR can't cure a fatal head wound," Paul said. There was the faintest edge of condescension to his voice. Normally Jo couldn't stand that tone. But hearing Paul direct it at the prosecutor, Atta boy! thought Jo. You tell that dork!

"What you're telling me," said the prosecutor, "is that you spent a few seconds deciding that Miss Becker was beyond help and then turned your full attention on the lovely Miss Warner?"

"Objection," said Braithewaite.

"Sustained," said the judge. "Miss Warner's 'loveliness' is irrelevant and the prosecution will refrain from making childish jabs."

"You essentially ignored Miss Becker and devoted your attention to Miss Warner," said the prosecutor.

"I assisted the victim that was still alive, and could still be saved," said Paul. "I put my jacket over her stomach and tried to staunch the blood. The ambulance came surprisingly fast."

"Not fast enough for Miss Becker," the prosecutor said coolly.

"Objection," said Braithewaite.

"Withdrawn," said the prosecutor. "Withdrawn. Doctor Adams, when did you first meet Miss Polniaczek?"

"Objection," said Braithewaite. "Relevance?"

"Your honor," said the prosecutor, "I'm contending that it was Miss Polniaczek, not Miss Becker, who stabbed Miss Warner. Miss Polniaczek's character and perceptions thereof couldn't be more relevant."

"Objection overruled," the judge said – reluctantly, thought Jo.

"Doctor Adams, when did you first meet Jo Polniaczek?" the prosecutor repeated.

"December 1983," said Paul.

"You work at the Langley College Infirmary?"

"Yes."

"And that's where you met Miss Polniaczek?"

"Yes."

"She was a patient?"

"Yes."

"And for what did you treat Miss Polniaczek?"

"A broken nose."

"A broken nose?"

"A broken nose."

"In your experience, do Langley's female students suffer from a lot of broken noses?"

"No. But Miss Polniaczek is an athlete – an athlete of national stature. They play to win. Injuries are not uncommon at that level."

"Then this was a sports-related injury?" The prosecutor's tone made it clear that he was skeptical. "It wasn't an injury incurred in, say, a fist-fight? Or from someone perhaps protecting themselves from Miss Polniaczek?"

Paul hesitated. He had suspected at the time that someone had hit Jo. But she had said she was injured playing field hockey.

"Miss Polniaczek said so," said Paul. "Said it was sports-related, I mean."

"She said so," mused the prosecutor. "Did it look like a sports injury to you?"

Paul shrugged. "There's no single, typical type of sports injury," he said. "Miss Polniaczek said she was hurt playing field hockey. It could easily have been the case."

"Ah, but was it? Did it look like a sports injury to you?"

"I couldn't say. It could have been."

"But it could have been something else? The result of a fight, perhaps? A domestic dispute?"

"Or a mugging," said Paul. "Or walking into a door. Or all sorts of things."

"But it could have been from a fight?"

"Objection," Braithewaite interjected. "Asked and answered."

"Move on," the judged told the prosecutor.

The prosecutor nodded.

"Doctor Adams, you heard Devon Abercrombie tell this court that Jo Polniaczek once threatened him?"

"Yes. We all heard that," Paul said a little impatiently.

"Did it surprise you to hear that?"

"Objection," said Braithewaite. "Relevance?"

"Overruled," said the judge. "The witness knows the young woman in question and I am granting some latitude in terms of establishing character. Answer the question," he told Paul.

Paul shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I don't know," he said.

"You don't know? You don't know if you were surprised or not?" the prosecutor asked incredulously.

"Surprised by what? I've forgotten the question."

"Were you surprised to hear Mr. Abercrombie say that Jo had once threatened him?"

"I don't know. I don't know that I felt anything in particular when he said that."

"Do you consider Miss Polniaczek a threatening person?"

Again Paul shifted.

Great, thought Jo. Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. She remembered busting into Paul's little office at the infirmary. It was just before the Italy trip. Paul had been pressing Natalie to go further physically – pressuring a seventeen-year-old. Jo had been disgusted.

"Miss Polniaczek is a very … passionate and loyal person," Paul said carefully. "She is very defensive of her friends' well-being."

"Meaning what? That she can be violent if their well-being is threatened?"

"We already know that," Paul said impatiently. "She protected Blair from that hit man. And she protected – She's very protective of her friends. That's how I know she would never harm her – would never harm Blair."

"Oh, you know that do you?"

"Yes, I know that," Paul said testily. "Jo Polniaczek would never stab Blair Warner – not in a million years. The psychology's all wrong."

Mrs. Garrett squeezed Jo's hand reassuringly.

"Ah," said the prosecutor, nodding sagely. "So you're a psychiatrist?"

"No," said Paul.

"A psychologist, then?"

"No."

"Then you're a counselor of some kind. MFT? MSW?"

"No," said Paul, mouth pursed angrily. "I'm a medical doctor. A general practitioner."

"So then you can't actually testify to Jo Polniaczek's psychological profile – can you?"

"Objection," said Braithewaite. He sighed wearily. "Your honor, it seems to me my esteemed colleague is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to ask questions about Jo Polniaczek's character. Very well. Now, when the witness is saying nice things about Miss Polniaczek, suddenly the witness isn't qualified to speak?"

"Sustained," the judge said grimly. "I think it's time to wrap up this line of questioning."

"But –" said the prosecutor.

"Move along," snapped the judge.

The prosecutor drew a deep breath.

"Doctor Adams," he said tightly, "has Jo Polniaczek ever attacked you?"

"No," Paul said firmly.

"Has she ever threatened to attack you?"

Shit! thought Jo. Me and my stupid big Bronx mouth!

Paul sat frozen for a few seconds. Then … "Yes," he said slowly. "But only because she thought that I –"

"'Yes' is sufficient," the prosecutor said triumphantly. "'Yes' is more than sufficient. Miss Polniaczek threatened you?"

"Yes, but –"

"Thank you. And where were you when she threatened you?"

"In my office," said Paul, "but –"

"Thank you. Miss Polniaczek threatened you with bodily harm in your office?"

"Yes," Paul said miserably. "But what you're not letting me explain is –"

"Miss Polniaczek went to your office and threatened to harm you?"

"Objection," said Braithewaite. "Your honor, this is truly outrageous. Asked and answered. Asked and answered! How many times is the prosecutor going to ask the witness the same question?"

"Objection sustained," said the judge.

"Thank you, your honor," said the prosecutor, as if the judge had just ruled in his favor, instead of against him. "I don't think I have any more questions for this witness …"

Braithewaite stood up slowly. He cracked his big knuckles. There was something so damn down-to-earth about the guy, thought Jo. You just had to like him, and he just sounded so sensible.

"Doctor Adams," said Braithewaite, "do you believe Jo Polniaczek would ever actually strike you?"

Paul hesitated. "Yes," he said, "but only if I hurt someone she loved."

"Why did she threaten you?"

"I was dating one of her friends," said Paul.

"Which friend?"

"Miss Natalie Green."

"And how old was Miss Green."

Paul winced. "Seventeen."

"And you were how old at the time."

"Twenty-six." And then, knowing what was coming, "I know it's a big age gap, but Miss Green is very mature for her age."

Snake sat up straighter. He looked from the back of Natalie's head to the smooth, handsome doctor on the witness stand. Snake's eyes narrowed.

"Miss Green's maturity is immaterial," Braithewaite said coolly. "It was a big age gap, and Miss Polniaczek was perhaps concerned for her young friend's welfare. Would that be a fair statement?"

"Yes," Paul said quietly.

"What precisely did Miss Polniaczek tell you?"

"She told me … She said that if I pressured Miss Green for sex, then she, Miss Polniaczek, that is, would rearrange my anatomy."

Snake glanced over at Jo. He nodded approvingly at her. Jo shrugged. Nat's my friend, said the shrug. Yeah, it was dumb – but what the hell else would I do?

"Doctor Adams, you were a part of the circle of friends of which Miss Warner and Miss Polniaczek seem to be the core. What is your assessment of the prosecution's contention? Would Miss Polniaczek ever stab Miss Warner?"

"Never," Paul said firmly. "Not in a thousand years."

"Thank you. I think that's all …"

When Paul left the witness stand he sort of slunk out of the courtroom, clearly downcast. He didn't look in Jo's direction. He cast one miserable glance toward Natalie …

"This is totally freakin out of control," Jo said, her mouth full of hamburger and onions.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Blair chided absently.

They were all at the burger joint around the corner – Jo, Blair, Natalie, Tootie, Mrs. Garrett, Jacqueline and Petal. Alec was still MIA on his mysterious "family" mission. Drake was at the studio working on some post-production for "Edna's Edibles".

"I told you they were gonna try to pin this on me," Jo told Blair. "I told you. And me with my stupid violent past! Great! Just great! Mona's gonna go away forever and it's my fault!"

"Stop being so dramatic!" complained Natalie. "And don't say things like grandma's gonna go away forever! I can't hear that right now! I'm trying to keep from hyperventilating as it is."

"No one's going to go away forever," Mrs. Garrett said with spirit. "We'll sort this out. That Mr. Braithewaite seems to be a very competent attorney."

"I can't believe I dated that putz," mused Natalie. "Paul, I mean. Jo, I'm not saying you should run around threatening people, but … thanks."

"Eh, whatever," said Jo. As usual when someone thanked her or praised her, she blushed and wriggled uncomfortably. "Least the good doctor had the decency to look ashamed of himself up there. I don't think he'll be datin anymore seventeen-year-olds again!"

"Well, thank God for that anyhow," said Nat.

"It's really my fault," said Tootie. "Remember, Jo? I'm the one that asked you to threaten Doctor Adams."

"So what?" asked Jo. "You think that's your fault? You saw he was bein a creep to Nat and you told me what was goin on. All that means is you're a good friend, Stretch."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. A good, solid, snoopy, interferin pal."

"Thanks, Jo." Tootie sounded genuinely touched.

"Look, to hell with who feels guilty about what," said Nat. "How are we going to save my grandmother? How do we prove wacko Dina stabbed Blair and Mona had to kill her?"

"Eduardo and Braithewaite have that in line," Blair said quietly. "I have every faith in them."

"Well, since it's my grandma's life, pardon me if I'm not so blasé," said Nat.

"Natalie," scolded Mrs. Garrett.

"But Mrs. Garrett!"

"'Mrs. Garrett' nothing," said the feisty redhead. "This is a time for all of us to pull together. Blair is not being blasé. She's known Mr. Ramirez her whole life, and she knows what a fine lawyer he is. She's trying to put your mind at ease, Natalie."

"I really am," said Blair.

"Oh. Well … thank you," said Natalie. She put a plump hand on Blair's arm. "I mean it. All the same – you all know how I am. I'm a Snoop Sister! I can't just sit here hoping everything will be fine, no matter how good grandma's lawyers are!"

"That makes two of us," Tootie said stoutly.

"But what can you do?" asked Petal. She looked tired, and haggard. She had hardly touched her hamburger. "What can any of us do but hope?"

Jacqueline touched her friend's shoulder. "Petal, dear, this will all come right. Did you sleep at all last night? I thought I heard you puttering in the laundry room in the wee hours."

"It soothes me," said Petal. "Laundry."

"Terrific," said Nat. "I'll have a whole basketful for you when this is wrapped up and I go back to River Rock!"

It was a jest, but it fell flat. Because,

"Of course," Petal said seriously. "I'll be happy to."

"For cryin out loud," said Jo, "Petal, Moose, you ain't doin anyone's laundry. And don't forget, soon as we get Mona outta the slammer, we're goin after Becker and get everybody's freakin fortune's back. This ain't the time to despair."

"Who's despairing?" Petal asked softly. "I only said laundry calms me. We all have something, don't we? Something that steadies our nerves."

"Speaking of which," said Jacqueline, digging a crumpled pack of Benson & Hedges from her purse. "Haven't had one of these bloody coffin nails in hours. That's why I'm feeling so bitchy."

"You're not bein bitchy," objected Jo.

"No, dear, I know. I'm not being bitchy – but I'm feeling like Alexis bloody Carrington winding up for a hell of a catfight." Jacqueline lit a cigarette, took a deep drag. "Ah – there they are, those lovely carcinogens." She held the cigarette toward Blair. "Drag, dear? Soothe the nerves?"

Blair shook her head. "That won't be enough to soothe my nerves right now. Jack – I thought you quit?"

Jacqueline nodded, taking another deep drag. "Did. I pretend-quit. For Alec, you see, because of poor, lovely, wonderful Viv popping off like that. He's very torn about smoking right now. Sometimes the scent makes him sick, and sometimes he craves them. Right now, he loathes them. So I'm being a good girlfriend; whenever he's around me, I pretend I've quit."

"That's very deceptive," Mrs. Garrett said disapprovingly.

"Absolutely," Jack agreed. "But terrifically supportive."

"Hmm."

"You should teach situational ethics," Nat told Jacqueline. "You'd really liven up the class."

"Me?" Jacqueline sounded startled. "Teach ethics at a girls' school? I think that would be one of the signs of the apocalypse."

"I think it'd be the sign," said Jo. "I mean, hey, Jack, I love you like a sister, but – ethics?"

"Too right!" Jacqueline agreed.

"You couldn't be worse than Mr. Gruff," said Natalie. "Listening to him is worse than watching paint dry. I mean, how can anyone make ethics boring?"

"It's a mystery," Tootie said ironically.

"No – really," said Natalie. "Ethics – it's a totally juicy topic. But Mr. Gruff makes it so dull."

"I can't believe you're gettin your panties in a twist about some stupid ethics course at a time like this," grumbled Jo. "To hell with classes."

"I can't believe you have a teacher named 'Mr. Gruff'," said Blair. "Mr. Gruff. That's just … awful."

"Way to be shallow, babe," said Jo.

"I'm not being shallow. It's a terrible name." Blair looked around the table. "Honestly, if your name were 'Mr. Gruff' wouldn't you change it?"

There was a general nodding of heads.

"Sure," said Tootie. "Especially since I'm a woman."

"Look, complaining about teachers is a valid way to take my mind of the trial," Natalie told Jo. "Like Jacqueline said – we all have ways of soothing our nerves. Me – it's wisecracks or complaining. Or both. Today, I think it's got to be both! And it's healthier than tobacco."

"I need something sweet," said Blair. "That's what soothes my nerves. Chocolate. Sugar. Do they serve milkshakes here?" she asked hopefully.

Jo snorted. "Do they serve milkshakes here? Babe – we're sittin in the original greasy freakin spoon. They're probably still servin up milkshakes from 1932."

"Wonderful." Blair dexterously removed three quarters from her leather coin purse. She handed them to Jo. "One chocolate milkshake, please, darling. With whipped cream. And a cherry. And some of those little slivered nuts. And perhaps some chocolate shavings."

Jo took the coins ungraciously. She was only halfway through her burger, and still hungry as hell. "How 'bout some gold dust on it, Princess? And some sequins? And some freakin drizzle of crème brulée? I mean for cryin out loud, this is a cheesy little burger joint, Blair. You think they got little slivered nuts and chocolate shavins? You'll be lucky there ain't a cockroach in it."

Blair shivered. "Good grief! That reminds me of that awful little coffee shop at Grand Central, the one you took me to when ..."

She trailed off. The coffee shop Jo had taken her to when they went into the city that weekend – it seemed like years and years and years ago – the weekend Jo had visited Jesse and Blair had visited Dina. The weekend Blair had realized she was growing up, while Dina was still the same vapid, childish, spoiled shrew she'd always been …

"I'll get the shake," Jo said quietly. Blair realized that Jo was remembering that weekend too. Jo went to the narrow order counter, behind which flames and greasy smoke filled a tiny kitchen where a sweating grill cook plied his spatula …

"We used to play dolls," Blair said quietly. "Doll tea party."

No one asked her who she meant. They all knew. Dina Becker.

"I guess she was always a little troubled," Blair said. "But who knew she'd turn out to be … so hateful? And that weekend when we started to grow apart … That's what brought us to this day."

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Blair, no dramatics. No should of, could of, would ofs. The past is the past. All we can focus on is helping grandma now."

"I'm not trying to be dramatic," Blair said. "It's just … When we were small, we were almost like you and Tootie."

"Bite your tongue!" said Natalie.

"No. We were," said Blair. "We were that close. Or I thought we were. Who knew she'd grow up so … that somehow she'd grow in such a dark direction?"

"It's always the ones that play doll tea party," Jacqueline said lightly. "Those are the ones to watch!"

"The ones that kill their pets, too," Tootie chimed in, trying to help lighten the mood.

"Precisely," said Jacqueline. "Murdering pets – never the sign of a future Eleanor Roosevelt. Always the sign of a future psychopath."

"But if someone had only realized," mused Blair. "If someone had encouraged her to seek help."

"Blair, I don't know if there is help for that kind of crazy," said Tootie.

"What the hell are all these mopey faces?" Jo demanded, returning with a plastic glass full of chocolate milkshake. She placed the shake in front of her fiancée and sat down.

"Newsflash," said Natalie, "this isn't a party, Jo."

"Yeah? Well it ain't a wake, either. Although, an Irish wake, I could actually go for that right about now. Come on, everybody, lighten up. Like Mrs. G said – we're gonna get through this."

Blair looked suspiciously at Jo. "Darling – did you just slug a big glass of liquor?"

"Nope. I just refuse to be a downer. And I refuse to let anyone else be a downer. We gotta keep our courage up. Come on! How does it help Mona to be all depressed?"

Jo dug into the rest of her hamburger with gusto. A few fragments of diced onions tumbled down her chin as she ate.

Blair frowned at the onion fragments. "Jo … You are brushing your teeth before court reconvenes – aren't you?"

"Whadda you care, beautiful? It ain't like we're sittin together." Jo waggled her eyebrows. "Unless you're thinkin of later. But don't worry – I got some Binaca in my pocket."

"Ew," complained Natalie. "How can you make salacious jokes when my grandmother is –"

"On trial for her life," everyone at the table said together. Everyone sighed.

"We know, Nat, we know," Jo told Natalie. "We get it. Trial for her life. We care too. Give it a rest – huh?"

"Give it a rest? Did you just say 'give it a rest'?" Nat demanded.

"Yeah. Would ya? Please?"

"Well!" Natalie folded her chunky arms across her chest. "I'm sorry if my concern is bothering everybody."

Tootie patted Natalie's shoulder. "Not bothering," Tootie said kindly. "Let's say, driving us absolutely insane. We care, Nat. We care. But dwelling on it won't help."

A tear spilled from one of Nat's blue eyes. She wiped at it impatiently with her paper napkin.

"Can't someone just pinch me? Can't I just wake up from this nightmare?"

"Wish we could," Jo said. "Look. We just gotta ride this out. OK?"

Natalie nodded. She leaned her head on Tootie's shoulder.

"Er, uh, pardon me," said a deep, rumbling voice.

Natalie looked up, sniffling. And then she looked up some more. And up even higher. And there was the face of the young trucker who'd rescued her and Tootie yesterday.

"Hi," said Nat, surprised. "It's, you're Snake – right?"

"Yeah."

Snake was wearing his dark sunglasses. His face looked oddly smooth – he had obviously shaved that morning.

"I, ah, happened to be grabbin a burger here," he said.

Yeah – right! thought Jo. Tell it to the judge, pal! Huh. I wonder if I look that goofy around Blair? Probably. Well … not that goofy …

"I saw you sitting with my friends this morning," said Natalie. "It's nice of you to take an interest."

Snake scuffed one of his massive boots. He looked like an overgrown nervous school boy. In denim.

"Hey – 'Trial of the Decade' – right? Wouldn't miss it. Not, ah, I'm sorry; that sounds like I'm some kinda, you know, ghoul or somethin. It's not like that. Your grandma kinda impressed me when I saw her yesterday. Got a lot of sand. That's –"

"I know what sand is," Natalie said, smiling. She glanced at Jo. "That's one of the benefits of having an eclectic circle of friends. It really expands your vocabulary!"

"Heh." Snake chuckled. "Guess it would." He rocked back and forth on his massive boots.

Jo rolled her eyes. Holy cow! Could they be more lame?

Blair gently kicked Jo under the table.

Jo glanced at Blair. What?

Leave them alone, darling. Be nice …

No one was surprised when, during the afternoon session, Snake sat next to Natalie instead of next to Mrs. Garrett and Jo.

The afternoon was relatively uneventful – compared to the morning, anyway. The prosecutor called a succession of people who had been at the Fever on that fateful night. No one had seen Dina stab Blair.

"The prosecutor's an idiot," Jo whispered to Mrs. Garrett after the fifth witness had said the same thing.

"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"He thinks he's makin the point that no one saw Dina stab Blair. But it cuts both ways. No one saw Dina do it – but no one saw me do it either. What it's gonna come down to is who woulda wanted to hurt Blair. And that's gonna be Dina – every time …"

Just when it seemed like court would adjourn quietly for the afternoon, the prosecutor called his final witness of the day.

It was Boots St. Clair.

"Christ!" hissed Jo as the slender, lovely, slightly daffy-looking debutante took the stand. She wore an elegantly simple black-and-white dress, and a single perfect strand of pearls. Boots' dark hair was brushed pin-straight, her dark eyebrows perfectly plucked, so artfully that they looked natural.

Boots looked perfectly poised and calm. For one instant her dark eyes flickered across the crowd; she saw Jo, and she swallowed. But it was such a fleeting moment. Jo doubted anyone else saw it. Anyone other than her, and Blair.

"Why is the prosecution calling Boots?" wondered Mrs. Garrett. "I know you girls had a falling out, but she would never do anything that could really hurt you or Blair – let alone Mona!"

"I know," said Jo. It was crazy – the whole damn thing. Like Nat had said – it was like being in a nightmare. "They must've, like, subpoenaed her or somethin. But that don't mean she'll play their game."

Jo looked around the crowded courtroom. Wherever Boots was, Mizu wouldn't be far away. The two had been holed up at the Fireside Inn for months. Mizu tended bar in the lounge. How the two could afford to live there on Mizu's meager wages and tips was a mystery. Boots had been impoverished when BZ Becker ruined the St. Clairs. Mizu had been disowned by her tycoon father after attacking a fellow Oxonian.

And there she is, thought Jo, catching sight of Mizu sitting near the back of the courtroom. Mizu was a tall, slender drink of water, like Boots, but far more beautiful.

Boots was pretty. She had lovely porcelain skin and big dark eyes and had clearly been well nourished and well groomed every day of her privileged life.

But Mizu was super-model gorgeous. Her beauty was almost unearthly; looking at her was always a little disconcerting, as if a movie icon had stepped off the screen. And there was something so feral, so untamed and smoldering about her, a tamped down anger and ferocity that seemed liable to explode at any moment …

Mizu wore her usual ensemble of dead black leggings and dead black tunic and black combat boots, under a dead black trench coat. In deference to the November cold she wore a black scarf and black fedora. Her eyes were smoky with mascara.

Without warning she shot a look of pure disdain at Jo. Jo didn't flinch. On the outside, anyway. Having grown up in the Bronx, Jo had learned from a young age to maintain a poker face. But inside, Jo winced.

Christ, Mizu ain't my biggest fan, that's for sure! thought Jo. She remembered how miserable Mizu had looked that evening Jo had peeked in the window of the lounge at the Fireside Inn. Mizu had been behind the bar in her geeky colonial uniform, gazing at Boots, knowing she didn't have Boots' heart, not really; that Boots was hung up on Jo … Mizu wanted Boots. Boots wanted Jo. The two debutantes were therefore miserable …

The heart wants what it wants, Jo thought darkly. Hell … I'm so lucky me and Blair's hearts want the same thing. No matter what shit we gotta contend with … Least we got each other to go home to at the end of the day …

The prosecutor asked Boots her name and her general history.

"… And your family was one of the great New York families ruined by BZ Becker?" the prosecutor asked finally.

"Gravy, yes," agreed Boots. "He left us with nothing. And it was very sneaky of him, because he did it right after he invited mother and father to dinner. They never saw it coming."

Jo had a feeling, based on her own observations of Boots, and Alec's tales about the St. Clair family, that Boots' parents probably never saw much of anything coming. Life seemed to be a perpetual surprise for the St. Clair clan …

"You were at the Fever the night that Dina Becker was murdered, excuse me, the night that she died?" asked the prosecutor.

"Yes," said Boots.

"You were, in fact, the person that alerted Doctor Adams that Miss Warner had been stabbed."

"Yes."

"And you actually saw Mrs. Green hit Miss Becker with a bottle?"

"Yes. It was a bottle of red wine. Not the best year, I don't think."

A muted giggle ran through the crowd.

Good old Boots, Jo thought affectionately. Always good for some laughs to break the tension.

"Never mind the year," the prosecutor said grimly. "A young woman is dead, Miss St. Clair."

"Of course." Boots nodded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to sound humorous. I was simply stating a fact. I saw the label, you see, when Mona swung the bottle, and for some reason it stuck in my mind. Perhaps because it was such a traumatic moment."

"If you simply stick to the facts about which I inquire, Miss St. Clair, that will be best."

Boots nodded dutifully.

"You saw Mrs. Green swing the bottle and hit Miss Becker. And you saw Miss Becker fall?"

"Yes. Dina was dead before she touched the floor."

"Miss St. Clair, are you a physician?"

"Gravy, me? No, sir, Mr. District Attorney."

"Then you cannot possibly know whether Dina was dead or alive when she fell."

Boots tilted her head. "I'm sorry," she said politely, "but you don't know. If you'd been there … She was dead," Boots said quietly. "It was sad."

A murmur swept the courtroom. It was, Jo thought, the first real expression of pity for Dina that she had heard in the past couple of days. Boots had managed to make Dina's death real for the crowd … and tragic.

The prosecutor cleared his throat.

"Yes, well …" Boots had thrown him off his stride. One never knew what the debutante was going to say next, although, having subpoenaed her and questioned her, he had thought he would know.

"You saw Mrs. Green strike Miss Becker," the prosecutor continued, "but did you see who stabbed Miss Warner?"

Boots nodded. "Oh, yes," she said. "I did. I was on my way to the powder room, you see, because I thought I had lipstick on my teeth, and that's when I saw it."

"It?"

"The stabbing."

Collectively the courtroom seemed to hold its breath. No one spoke, or moved.

The prosecutor milked the moment. He rubbed his jaw, looking thoughtful.

"Well," he said finally. "You say you actually saw the stabbing?"

"Yes."

"And who was it, then, who stabbed Miss Blair Warner?"

Boots leaned forward conspiratorially.

For an elderly woman in the back row, the tension was too much. She gasped, put a hand to her bosom.

"It was her," Boots said, nodding.

The prosecutor leaned toward the witness box. "Her who?" he asked. He didn't sound impatient. He sounded triumphant.

He think she's gonna say it was me, Jo realized, startled. He thinks she's gonna finger me for it.

"It was her," said Boots, sounding puzzled. "Goodness, you've done nothing but talk about her for hours."

"But we need the name," the prosecutor said patiently. A smile hovered around his handsome mouth; he couldn't quite conceal it. "We need the name for the record. The person you saw stab Blair Warner was …"

"Dina Becker," Boots said brightly. "Dina Becker – of course."

The courtroom erupted into excited chatter. The judge banged his gavel.

"Aha!" the prosecutor said victoriously, a grin spreading across his handsome face. "So it was – Wait. Wait." The grin evaporated. His eyes narrowed. He took a deep breath. "You say … Miss St. Clair, you say you saw, that you saw …"

"Dina," said Boots. Her dark eyes were wide and innocent. "Dina stabbed Blair."

"But … That, ah. Don't you think you might be mistaken, Miss St. Clair?"

"No. Not in the least," Boots said. "Dina stabbed Blair. I saw the whole thing. I ran and got Mona because she was the closest person I knew, and Mona always seems like someone who knows what to do in any situation – don't you think?"

"You … But when we spoke … Miss St. Clair, perjury is a very serious charge."

"Oh, I know," Boots said, nodding. "That's why I refuse to say anything on this witness stand that isn't the absolute complete and utter truth."

"Yes, but … When we … Are you certain that …" The prosecutor looked completely at sea, and not a little sick to his stomach.

"Your honor, does my colleague have a question to ask?" Braithewaite inquired of the bench. "Because as far as I can tell, the original question has been asked and answered more than once."

"Your honor, the witness and I seem to be having a miscommunication," the prosecutor said in a strangled voice.

"I think the witness is communicating perfectly," said Braithewaite.

"Why thank you," said Boots, beaming at him.

"Your honor, I believe the witness is perjuring herself," said the prosecutor.

"Why?" demanded the judge. "Because she isn't saying what you want her to say?"

"Your honor!"

The judge smacked his gavel, hard, several times. Everyone in the chamber fell silent.

"I've had enough of this nonsense," said Judge Kandowski. He raked the room with his icy eyes, until they came to rest on the completely flustered prosecutor. "Nothing I've yet heard indicates anything other than what common sense and the evidence dictated from the beginning. Miss Becker was a troubled young woman. She and her father had an unhealthy fixation on New York's first families – particularly the Warners. We all know that Mr. Becker was successful in toppling those families. We also know that his daughter's personal vendetta ended less successfully. This courageous woman," he nudged his sharp chin in Mona's direction, "acted to protect her granddaughter's friends from mortal danger. And you," his gaze flicked toward Boots, "are to be commended in refusing to speak less than the truth." He bashed his gavel again. "Case dismissed! Everyone get the hell out of my courtroom!"

"Oh my God!" cried Syd. He was sitting just behind the defense table. He reached forward and took his elderly mother's hands. Mona squeezed his hands, with tears in her eyes.

Natalie swayed in her seat. It was so sudden. Mona was exonerated. Mona would be free.

"Is that … Was that … Did that just happen?" Nat dazedly asked Tootie.

"Yes," Tootie said, taking one of Nat's arms. "She's free, Nat. Gramma Green is free!"

Blair smiled at her friend. "Congratulations, Natalie," she said.

"Thanks. Thanks, Blair. Tootie." Nat shook her head. "I have to let this sink in …"

Several rows back, Jo was wolf whistling and stomping her feet. "Three freakin cheers for Mona!" she shouted. She whistled again.

The judge pounded his gavel. "Young woman in the third from last row," he called, "do you want to be taken into custody?"

It was on Jo's rebellious lips to say "Kiss my ass!" – she would never be a fan of authority – but Blair's training had begun to take hold.

"No, your honor," she called. "But one Pole to another, I gotta say – love how you run your court, sir!"

"What's your name?" the judge demanded.

"Polniaczek, your honor, sir."

"So you're the infamous Joanne Polniaczek?"

"Yeah. Sir," she added hastily.

Jacqueline slipped an arm through Jo's. "Steady on, Captain," she said quietly. "Get ready to make a break for it if he sentences you for contempt."

"Well from one Pole to another," the judge called to Jo, "from everything I've heard in the last two days, I admire the way you look out for your friends."

Jo grinned. The old hawk was kinda cool, she thought. For a judge …

Mona was a free woman by nightfall. Syd and Evie invited everyone to Lutece to celebrate. Mrs. Garrett called Drake at the studio so he could join them.

"Finally, my son takes me to Lutece," beamed Mona. "All it took was almost going to the electric chair!"

Syd laughed heartily. He crushed little Mona in a bear hug. He wasn't so big himself, but Mona, so slight, disappeared in his arms.

"Everybody order whatever," Syd said merrily. "We only live once, right? Steak, lamb chops, lobster – sky's the limit! Order a couple of dishes. Hell – order everything off the menu!"

They did. Wine flowed and cocktails and strong coffee and dish after dish of great food. The party got a little loud at one point, everyone was so happy.

A grim-faced maître d' advanced upon the table.

Blair slipped out of her chair, elegantly intercepting the maître d' before he could say anything. She smiled at him. She spoke in a low voice.

Jo leaned back in her chair, a little buzzed on good wine, and watched her lover work her magic.

She's so poised, Jo thought admiringly. Christ! She's so glamorous. And she's my girl …

"What did you say to him?" asked Jo when Blair sat down again.

Blair shrugged.

"Really," said Jo, "what did you say to make him leave us alone? I know you didn't bribe him since we're just about broke."

"You can't bribe Lutece maître d's," Blair said disapprovingly. "I merely explained to him that we were a tad bit rambunctious and tipsy because we thought our grandmother was going to have to leave us and then, this evening, we found out that she won't."

"That's all?"

"It was enough," said Blair. "The maître d' has a grandmother. He told me just now when we were speaking. She's been ill. Everyone has a grandmother. People understand things, Jo, if you talk with them. It doesn't have to be about bribing people. Or threatening them," Blair said pointedly.

"Ouch!"

"Darling," Blair said quietly, leaning closer to Jo, though not close enough to draw unwanted attention, "I know you love all of us and that you'd protect us with your life. But if there's one thing we can learn from the trial –"

Jo held up one lovely hand. "I know," she said earnestly. "I know. I've gotta stop threatenin people."

"You truly do, darling. Unless, of course, they're actually, physically attacking us – like that hit man. Or Dina. But people like Doctor Adams. Even that odious Devon –"

"I get it," Jo said sincerely. "Loud and clear. It was … It was kinda a revelation, hearin my sins bein read back in a court of law. I don't like that I sound like such a thug. I'm kinda … I seem to be movin into a different stage of how I see things. Of how … of how I mix with the world. You know? Since we been together, it's like … maybe I'm changin it a little bit. Does that makes sense? How I ain't quite such a tough anymore?"

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"It makes perfect sense. And, Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"I want to kiss you so badly right now. I'm kissing you, in my mind. Can you feel that?"

"Yeah." Jo grinned. She had slipped her feet out of her shoes. Under the table she gently ran one her bare feet along Blair's ankle, up her leg, stroking her calf. "You feel that, beautiful?"

"You're incorrigible," said Blair, smiling.

"Yup. You can bank on that …"

Eduardo was a quiet man by nature, but he unbent when he talked shop. "What really scuttled the prosecution," he said softly, "was that BZ Becker tried to bribe Judge Kandowski."

"He didn't!" said Natalie, scandalized.

"Perro, si, Natalia – he did," said Eduardo. "Señor Becker did everything except to back up a big truck of money to his honor's house. What Señor Becker cannot understand is that not all people are motivated by money. He misjudged Kandowski … As he misjudged Señoritas St. Clair and Tokama."

"What?" asked Tootie. "How did he misjudge them?"

"I wondered," Jo said quietly, "how they could afford the Fireside Inn."

Eduardo nodded. "Becker, he had one of his … creatures approach Señorita St. Clair and Señorita Tokama. He offered them a great deal of money to help ruin Señora Green. Boots was to say that Jo stabbed Blair. As if," Eduardo put a fatherly hand on Jo's shoulder, "as if such a thing could ever be possible."

"But how do you know this?" Tootie asked curiously.

"Little Boots, she came to me. She felt badly about giving those photographs to the Dean."

"So it was Boots," Blair said bitterly. "I thought so. I thought it was her, and not Mizu."

Jo sighed. "Blair … Boots was so hurt …"

"Hurt about what?" asked Syd, confused.

"Uh, nothin," Jo said hastily. "You know us crazy kids, always gettin on each other's nerves."

"What photos?" asked Evie.

"Crazy kid stuff," said Jo. She turned to Eduardo. "So Becker wanted Boots to sell me out at the trial – me and Mona?"

Eduardo nodded. "From the beginning, Boots was going to, to double-cross Señor Becker. Her plan was from the commencement to lead Becker along, to lull him, you see? It was perfect, was it not? She and Mizu had a place to live; Mizu had a job; Señor Becker believes that he has a star witness when Mona goes to trial."

"Boots never ceases to amaze me," Jo said, shaking her head.

"Me too," Blair said drily.

"Come on," said Jo. "She really pulled our fat outta the fire. Mona's too."

"I owe that Boots my life!" Mona said fervently. "What a little actress. She played that part to perfection – absolute perfection!"

"She knew what she was doing," said Eduardo, "and Mizu knew. But as the trial drew closer, Boots decided to confide in me. She didn't want me to worry, you see."

"Well, all due respect, Eduardo, why the hell dincha tell us?" Jo asked. "We been pretty damn worried too!"

Eduardo shook his head. "I wanted to. Very badly. But we could not chance it. Becker has ears everywhere. How do you think he knew in the first place that you had all had a falling out with Señoritas Boots and Mizu?"

"When Mrs. Garrett yelled at us the whole neighborhood heard," said Tootie. "Not that, well, not that maybe we didn't deserve it."

"Our only advantage was the element of surprise," said Eduardo. "We couldn't risk any possibility that Becker should discover that Boots would tell the truth – that Dina stabbed Blair. I did not even tell my old friend Braithewaite. For him I have the greatest respect and a great affection. But I had not seen him in some years. Much can happen in several years. For all I knew, he could be in debt. He could be in some situation that would give to Becker a leverage."

Jo shook her head. "Christ. Boots saved our, er, saved us again."

"From the outside, it looked perfect," said Eduardo. "You are all mad at Boots and Mizu. You never visit them. They never visit you. The two young women pine away miserably at the Inn. What could they possibly want more, it would seem, then to bring all of you pain?"

"I never doubted it for a moment!" Natalie was saying. She was drinking something that was supposed to be cranberry juice, but Nat's eyes were so bright and her cheeks so red that Jo suspected it of being spiked. "I knew everything would turn out fine, somehow! What is that thing in theater, Tootie? Where everything turns out perfectly."

"Deus ex machina."

"Right – deus ex machina. I knew we'd get one of those!" Natalie said happily.

"Ha!" laughed Tootie. "You knew thing would turn out fine? I've never seen you so worried about anything!"

"Well, maybe I was a little worried," Natalie admitted. She looked at her grandmother, eyes welling up. "But that's how it is when someone's important to you. You worry."

"Ah, vnooshka." Mona leaned forward and patted Natalie's cheek. "Does this mean you're going to be respectful now? Does this mean you'll listen to my advice, and stop being such a wisenheimer?"

"Are you kidding?" asked Natalie. "Of course not! You're off the hook for murder. Everything can go back to normal now!"

"Thank God!" laughed Mona. "Because a respectful, boring granddaughter – I don't know what I would do with one of those!"

Jacqueline clanked her glass with a spoon. The table fell silent. "As Alec isn't here to make one of his well-intentioned yet asinine toasts, that duty falls to me," said Jacqueline. "If Alec were here he'd say something rather silly but poignant. I don't have his sense of the sentimental, but I will say this: Mona Green … Here's mud in your eye, dear."

Mona raised her glass to Jacqueline. Her eyes twinkled. "The same to you, young lady," she said. "The same to you. Now eat something. You're skin and bones, Jacqueline – skin and bones! Look at that steak! Tootie can't finish all that by herself."

"The heck I can't," said Tootie, spearing a piece of steak. "This one's all mine."

"I'm quite full, Grandma Green," said Jacqueline. "But thank you for your concern."

"Quite full she says!" said Mona, shaking her head. "Quite full – and she's skin and bones!"

"My only regret tonight," Jacqueline said rather wistfully, "is that the old ball-and-chain can't be here."

"Look," said Natalie, "the Snoop Sisters have been more than patient about Alec's mysterious absence. Enough is enough. Where is he?"

"I can't tell you," said Jacqueline. "It's Alec's story."

"Story? Now there's a story?" Nat demanded.

"What do you know," said Tootie. "And we would've settled for a simple explanation."

"It's Alec's tale to tell," Jacqueline said firmly. "If he even wants to tell it. It has to do with a very painful, ongoing chapter of his life."

"Do tell," said Natalie.

"I can't," said Jack. "I couldn't possibly."

"Then stop throwing out tantalizing tidbits," Natalie complained.

"Yeah," said Tootie. "Don't say things like 'painful chapter of his life'. Don't you know how that gets a Snoop Sister's wheels turning?"

"What she said," Natalie agreed.

"Hey," said Tootie, "have you told Alec yet?"

"Told him what, dear?" asked Jacqueline.

"Have you told him about his car breaking down in that godforsaken heckhole? And how that Snake guy has it in his garage?"

"Oh. That." Jacqueline waved airily. "That's the least of Alec's concerns right now."

"The whereabouts and condition of Alec's one and only car isn't important? Wow!" said Nat.

"Of course, Alec's a kazillionaire now," said Tootie. "He could go buy fifty little blue coupes if he wanted."

"Gotta say, that was nice of that Snake character to garage the coupe," said Jo. "He's not such a bad guy, I guess. Still think he ran with the Shamrocks, though."

Natalie smiled a funny little smile.

"Penny for your thoughts," said Tootie, nudging her best friend's elbow.

"I was just … thinking," said Nat. "He's sort of an odd kind of guy – isn't he? I mean, he looks like, you know –"

"A serial killer?" suggested Syd.

"Dad. Come on. He probably saved me and Tootie's lives."

"Granted, granted," said Syd. "But the kid looks like, come on, he looks like he's been trapping animals for pelts or something. What is that book, you know?" He looked to Evie. "That famous, you know, early American – "

"'Last of the Mohicans'," said Evie.

"Exactly!" Syd turned back to Natalie. "Kid looks like some Pilgrim who went native."

"Dad!" Natalie rolled her eyes. "That sounds mean. And kind of racist even."

"Hey – Let's watch what we say, Natalie. Don't say something you don't mean." Syd sounded hurt.

"Well don't say things like 'going native'. You can't say things like that, Dad. It's not 1954. Native Americans are a proud people. There's nothing wrong with going native."

"So OK – don't shoot me, all right? I'm not an old dog – I can learn new ways. I don't want to hurt anyone or insult anyone."

"Snake is a really nice guy who saved our lives," said Natalie. "So, OK, his name is Snake. So maybe he could use a haircut. And a shave. Although he did shave today," she said thoughtfully.

"Who's called 'Snake' though?" wondered Evie. "How do you get a nickname like that?"

"I knew a boy called Wild Boar," Mona said. "In my village."

"'Wild Boar'?" asked Jo. "What, did he hunt boars or somethin?"

"Or something," said Mona. "Let's leave it at that, Joanne Marie. And let's all agree that this Snake boy, who saved Natalie and Tootie and got them into the courtroom in time for opening statements yesterday, is obviously a mensch of the first order."

"Hear, hear," said Natalie.

Blair kicked Jo under the table. Jo kicked Blair. Their eyes met, sparkling mischievously.

Nat likes him, Blair telegraphed.

Duh, telegraphed Jo.

But she doesn't know it yet.

Double-duh, Blondie …

Later, at the bar, Eduardo was waiting for a Budweiser and Jo was waiting for a Macallan. Eduardo tilted his head toward Jo.

"Listen to me," he said quietly. "You must be, always, on your guard. We have triumphed over BZ Becker on this day. He will not like that. We have shown that his daughter was indeed unstable, that she was murderous. We have shamed him."

"Bastard brought it on himself," muttered Jo. "Accusin Mona of murder! Bribin people – trying to bribe a freakin judge!"

"He is a man of obsessions," said Eduardo. "Unfortunately, you and Blair are on that list. You and all the people that you love. Until we bring him down, once for all … We must all be on our guard."

Jo nodded. She clapped Eduardo on the back. "Thanks for the heads-up," she said. "I can't … Look, I don't like bein all sentimental and all that gush, you know, but … Thank you for everythin."

He nodded simply. "Igualmente, Jo." Which, she knew from her Bronx Spanglish, meant "Right back at ya …"

Rose was working an all-night shift at the coffee shop. The note taped to the refrigerator said as much.

"Working all night," said the note, "Coffee Spot – 555-1274 – Boloney in the fridge – Be good – Love, Rose."

"Well, isn't that an interesting turn of events," drawled Jo. She put an arm around Blair's waist.

"What? That there's bologna in the fridge?" asked Blair. "I couldn't eat another bite. And you don't need any bologna before bedtime."

"Not the stupid boloney," laughed Jo. "That Ma's gone all night." She pulled Blair closer. She nuzzled her neck. "Mmn. You smell good."

"It's the last of my Chanel. Enjoy it, darling. Between Chestnut's board and the taxes on the Amsterdam Avenue property, I'm just about down to soap and water."

"You always smell great," murmured Jo. She kissed the hollow of Blair's throat. "Like … a cupcake."

Blair laughed. "You're a strange one, Jo Polniaczek."

"I'm strange? Hey … I ain't the one smells like cupcakes." Jo kissed Blair's collarbone. She unbuttoned Blair's top button. "Must be all, you know, the sweet stuff you eat," Jo mumbled. "Makes you taste so good, babe." She slid her other arm around Blair's waist. She kissed Blair's breasts through silk, nuzzling them, breath starting to grow a little ragged. "Babe … Babe, I think we oughta take this to the bed."

Blair closed her eyes. The feeling of Jo's mouth through the silk, the heat of her breath … Blair felt swoony. "Carry me, Jo."

"Course. My pleasure." Jo swept Blair up into her arms …

Afterward, they lay tangled together, dozing.

This was my room, Jo thought hazily. It was dark except for the faint glow of the night light. I lay here makin a million plans about bein the world's greatest damn motor-cross rider, the greatest race car driver … Don't know what I'm gonna be … But whatever it is, if I'm with my Princess … Gonna be spectacular …

The dawn light woke Blair.

She yawned. She stretched. Jo's old bed was so comfortable. Blair leaned down and kissed her sleeping lover. Her fingertips gently traced the curve of Jo's cheek. Blair could tell from the tone and pace of Jo's breathing that she was still deeply asleep.

Blair climbed out of bed, stretching again, and pulled on Jo's old flannel pajamas and her own fluffy pink bathrobe. She tied the belt and pushed her feet into her slippers. She glanced into the mirror over the little vanity, dragged a brush through her hair, just a few strokes, enough to look presentable.

When Rose came home the dawn light was brightening and the little apartment smelt of strong coffee and good oatmeal.

Blair was bustling around the kitchenette in her pink robe.

"You must be ravenous," said Blair, "serving other people all night. Here. Sit. Let me serve you, Rose."

Rose dropped her purse on the sofa. She glanced from the sofa to Blair with an accusing glance.

"Yes," said Blair, "no one made up the pull out bed. Jo and I slept together, Rose. Like we do every night."

Rose sighed. She sat at the narrow kitchen counter.

"I asked you both to be good," said Rose. "It was right in the note."

Oh … Jo was good, Blair thought. She managed to bite back a wicked little grin.

"Rose, I want to respect your rules," Blair said sincerely. She handed Rose a cup of coffee. Rose sipped it.

"This is pretty good," Rose said reluctantly.

"Thank you. But about your rules. As long as Jo and I are here, we don't want to disrespect you, but at the same time we need you to respect the reality of our relationship."

Blair set a bowl of golden, creamy-looking oatmeal in front of Rose. Rose tried a tentative spoonful.

"Wow," said Rose. She took another bite. "Wow. This is even better than yesterday."

"Why, thank you Rose." Blair sat across the counter from the older woman. Blair blew on her own cup of coffee, took a sip. "But about the rules. We need to have a frank, mature discussion."

Rose sighed. "Just what a mother wants when she gets home from a night serving tables full of drunks – a frank, mature discussion with her daughter's girlfriend."

Blair laughed. "Touché."

Rose ate more oatmeal. Blair drank coffee. It was a companionable silence.

"You're not mad – are you?" Blair asked finally.

"No," sighed Rose. "I should be. I know I should be. But I don't feel it. I feel … I'm glad you're both here." Something finally hit her. "Blair … You've got to bear with me, cause I'm dead on my feet, but did you say 'As long as Jo and I are here'?"

Blair nodded.

"So … You're planning on staying here for a while?"

Blair nodded again.

Rose felt tears pricking her eyes. Jo in the apartment again, even if it was for only for a brief time. And Blair … Blair wasn't so absolutely horrible after all …

"But the trial's over," said Rose, puzzled. "It was all over the late news. Mona's free. And thank God. How anyone could ever think Mona would hurt anyone unless she absolutely had to …"

"We celebrated at Lutece," said Blair. "Jo called you, but you were already gone."

"Ha, that's my luck," Rose said ruefully. "Somehow when it's time to grab the brass ring, I don't get the call. I'm sorry. That sounds so self-pitying. I've got a good life. I've always had a good life."

"It's only going to get better," said Blair. "But it might get worse first. Jo's very sad, Rose. It's very hard for her, being expelled from Langley. She loved it. The classes, the people, the team – even her job at the Grill. She loved everything about it."

"I know. I know. I don't think," Rose turned the cup of coffee in her petite hands, "I don't even think Jo realizes how sad she is."

"Agreed," said Blair. "And now, without the trial to focus on, I only think she's going to feel worse. I don't …" Blair blinked back tears. She composed herself. "I don't want Jo near Langley right now. Our friends are at River Rock and there's a lot of love there, but it's too close to Langley. Alec and Jacqueline are always talking about classes and activities – they don't mean anything by it, but it upsets Jo. I can see it does. And when Nat and Tootie talk about Eastland, it reminds Jo of the good old days. Do you," Blair blinked back more tears. I will not lose it in front of Rose! "Do you know what I mean?"

Rose covered one of Blair's hands with one of her own. "You think it will help Jo to be in the Bronx again?"

"For awhile," said Blair. "I don't know how long. We'll pay part of the rent of course, and our share of the groceries and telephone. We pay our way." She smiled. "Jo taught me that."

Rose swallowed. "Of course," she said huskily. "She's … You're both welcome here. As long as you need."

"Good." Blair nodded. "And we'll be needing jobs. We can't just sit around eating bonbons all day."

Rose laughed.

"What?" asked Blair.

"Nothing. It's just … That's how I always pictured rich people. You know? They'd come into the bar, they'd come into the coffee shops, always looking so, so perfect and smelling so nice. I'd think, wouldn't it be something, not to have to worry about money? To sit around eating bonbons all day?"

"I think it would be pretty damn dull," said Blair.

"So do I," agreed Rose. "That's what I meant, when I said I've had a good life. Charlie and me … That was good for awhile. Long enough. And he'll always be my friend. He and Carol have finally set a date."

"Have they?"

"Yeah. You and Jo will be getting an invite. Not the Rainbow Room. But it'll be nice."

"And you're all right with it?" Blair asked.

Rose nodded. "Like I told Jo … I just wish I'd found someone first. Or maybe not first. Too, I guess. I wish I could've found someone too, by now."

"Do you like her?" Blair sipped her coffee.

"Carol? She's OK. That boy of hers is a handful! I don't think Charlie totally realizes what he's getting into with that kid. But they'll make it work. Charlie's really got back to who he is. He was never a crumbum. He was always a king. He took some wrong turns, worrying about money. He let us down bad. But he's back to the king he always should've been. He's doing great at his job. Never gonna be a big tycoon, but who needs to be? He'll put food on their table."

Blair nodded. She pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.

"Rose?"

"Yes?"

"I know you think I'm a dilettante. And you're right."

"I know," said Rose.

Blair laughed. "Well – don't be afraid to be candid, Rose."

"I won't. Blair," Rose said seriously, "I always knew I'd lose Jo someday. It's life –right? Kids grow up, they fall in love. I thought I'd lose her to a man, of course. I always hoped he wouldn't be a bum. If he could just not be a bum, I thought I'd be happy with whoever she fell for once she was old enough. And when she got into Eastland, and then Langley, I thought, OK; she'll find someone with a future. With a purpose."

"My future is with Jo," said Blair. "But I don't have a purpose yet. Other than my art."

Rose waved a hand. "Look, I'm all for the arts, but do they put food in the fridge? Do they pay the electric bill? If you're Picasso, sure – but are you Picasso?"

"Jo would say 'Yes'," said Blair. "Hell … Jo would say I'm better than Picasso. But I'm not. I know that. Oh, I'm talented. And it's … It will always be something I love to do. It will always be something I need to do. But it's not my vocation."

Rose stretched. It felt so good to stretch after hours on her feet.

"Until I know what I want to do," said Blair, "I just want to be useful. I just want to pull my weight. And the primary thing is for Jo to get back into classes, anywhere we can afford. Because she's a great woman, Rose. You know that. Jo has a purpose. She's going to change the world someday. I don't know exactly how … But she will."

Rose sniffed. She brushed at her eyes with the pink polyester sleeve of her uniform.

"I've always felt it," Rose said. "I mean … A mother always feels that, right? To every mother, their kid is special. Their kid is the next president!"

"But Jo really is special," said Blair. "And I'm damned if I'm going to sit on my ass while all her talent, all her, all her curiosity and all her fire just, just languishes."

"We won't let that happen," said Rose. She handed her empty cup to Blair. "Any coffee left?"

"Of course." Blair reached to the compact stove, took the battered coffee pot and poured out the last of the coffee into Rose's cup.

"Thank you," said Rose. She took a deep drink. "Jesse and Pauly are loving BCC," she said thoughtfully. "That's Bronx Community College. Maybe they could get Jo an application."

"Sounds like a start," said Blair. "And I need a job."

"What kind of job?" Rose asked doubtfully. What kind of jobs were there in the Bronx that a billionaire's daughter could do?

"The only thing I really know how to do," said Blair, "is what I learned in Mrs. Garrett's kitchen in Eastland. I can cook a little. And I can wash dishes and clear tables like nobody's business."

Rose lifted her eyebrows.

"You're not serious?"

"As a heart attack." Blair clinked her coffee cup against Rose's. "So. Any shifts open at that coffee shop?"

"You're really serious?"

"Well I can't be a maid," said Blair. "I never could make a bed. I let Jo handle that. But I know my way around kitchens."

"I suppose," said Rose. She took another bite of the oatmeal. "I guess I could talk to Lou. But listen, Blair … You're very down-to-earth around me, and I appreciate that, but if you work at the Coffee Spot, you can't, you know, they won't understand any airs and graces."

"No airs," Blair promised, "and no graces." She raised one hand and extended her pinky finger. "Debutante's honor."

Rose smiled. "Well all right then. We might have you in pink polyester by nightfall!"

Blair grimaced. Pink polyester. Jo Polniaczek … You'd better be very grateful!

"Blair," said Rose, "I don't mean to pry, but what exactly is your financial situation right now?"

Blair sighed. "No one seems to know. Eduardo's trying to untangle it, but it's this Byzantine labyrinth of accounts and shells. I have a small – well, relatively small – allowance from my grandparents, but that evaporates every month caring for my horse, paying rent to Mrs. Garrett and taking care of the Amsterdam Avenue property. That property seems to eat more cash than it pays out."

Rose shrugged. "Sell it."

Blair shook her head. "My sister gave it to me. And even though she seems convinced that she's going to be a nun forever … Well, I'd like to be able to give it back to her if she ever needed it. She was a child there, before her parents chopped it into apartments."

"Well that's plenty sentimental," said Rose, "but sentiment doesn't pay the baker."

"I'm almost twenty-one," Blair said, almost to herself. "I was supposed to come into my inheritance then. And I still might … If Eduardo can find it. It's not the money itself, Rose. It's what we could do with it. I was going to give Eastland a new kitchen. And Langley a new art center. And Rose," Blair gazed steadily at the older woman, "no more night shifts at the Coffee Stop."

"The Coffee Spot."

"The Coffee Spot. No more night shifts or any shifts at all unless you wanted to."

Rose sighed. "That sounds nice."

"It's like Charlie said at our anniversary party," mused Blair. "Daddy hid money in all sorts of accounts and deeds and shell companies. If Eduardo can just unlock the key … We'll all be set for life."

"We are set for life," Rose said. She squeezed Blair's hand. "We've both got Jo. And you've got a plan. Never mind fairy tales about lost fortunes. You're gonna work at the Coffee Spot. And we're gonna get Jo back into class. And then … Then we'll see what happens."

Blair nodded. "Rose, you are without a doubt one of the most sensible people I've ever met."

"Why thank you, Blair." Rose was touched. She closed her eyes for a moment. A night on her feet was catching up with her. "Blair?"

"Yes?"

"When you say … about having a purpose. What does Jo want to do?" Rose asked curiously.

"She loves plants," said Blair. "Her little garden is beautiful. And she loves ancient history."

Rose pursed her lips.

"I know," said Blair. "Gardening and ancient history don't sound like golden pathways to success, do they? I've always thought …"

"You've always thought," prompted Rose.

"I've always thought Jo would make a wonderful politician."

"Jo? Really?"

"She's so, well, opinionated," said Blair. "And passionate about things. And she cares about the little guy."

Rose nodded thoughtfully. "Politics. Huhn."

Jo emerged from the bedroom, hair a rat's nest.

"Mornin," she mumbled. "S'ere any coffee?"

"I'll brew some more," said Blair. "But enunciate, darling. Enunciate. 'Is there any coffee?'"

Jo scowled. She dropped onto the kitchen stool next to her mother's.

"What – we at Buckinham freakin palace or somethin?" Jo groused.

"Is that how you talk to your fiancée in the morning?" Rose demanded.

"Eh, she's used to it," said Jo.

"Sadly, I am," Blair told Rose. "I've witnessed Jo's morning tempers for more than four years now."

"Eh, you love it," said Jo. "Where's the coffee?"

"It's brewing," said Blair. "Keep your wig on, Polniaczek. Not everyone has beautiful blondes brewing their morning coffee. Count your blessings."

"Count your blessings," Rose echoed.

Something seemed to dawn on Jo. She looked from Blair to Rose and back to Blair. "Hey. What gives?"

Blair shook her head. "What gives? What gives? Good Lord; I'm engaged to one of the Dead End Kids!"

"No, really," said Jo. "What are you two up to?"

"Up to?" asked Rose. She sipped her coffee. "What would we be up to?"

"I don't know," said Jo, eyes narrowing. "That's why I'm askin."

"If you must know, darling, we're planning your future," said Blair.

"Yeah?" Jo asked warily. "This should be a pip!"

"Oh, it'll be a pip," Blair promised.

"So what exactly are you plannin?"

"Nothing definite yet," said Rose. "We're just batting around ideas."

"Oh you are, are you?"

"Yes," said Blair. "We are. Any objections?"

Blair lifted one dark brow and smiled her most fetching smile, the one that made her dimples so deep and lovely, the smile that Jo wanted to fall into forever.

Jo sighed. "I don't really got any choice, do I?"

"No, darling," Blair said serenely. "You don't got any choice. Or, as they say in the civilized world, you don't have any choice."

Jo groaned. "Why am I getting vocabulary lessons at four o'clock in the mornin?"

"It's seven," said Blair. "And they're grammar lessons."

"That's even worse!"

Rose yawned. "Listen, Jo, I want you to call Jesse this morning."

"You what?"

Rose had never wanted to Jo to call Jesse before – not under any circumstances.

Jo looked around the tiny kitchenette. "Is this like a prank or somethin? Are we on 'Candid Camera'?"

Rose slipped off of her kitchen stool. She ambled to the sofa, stretched out on it. "I'm going to catch a few winks," she said. "Why don't you two go back to bed for awhile."

Jo's jaw dropped.

"Why don't we what?"

"Close your mouth, darling," said Blair. "You'll catch flies."

"But Ma just said … She told us … She's tellin us to go to bed for awhile!"

"I know, Jo. My ears work perfectly."

"But she told us to go to bed!"

"To sleep," Rose mumbled, closing her eyes. "You don't look like you got a lot of rest last night, Joanne Marie."

Jo blushed from her chin to her forehead.

"Ma! For, for cryin out loud!"

"Call Jesse," mumbled Rose. "Blair … Make sure she calls."

"I will," said Blair. She patted Jo's cheek. "The coffee's almost ready, darling. We'll bring our coffee to our room."

"Our room? Our room?"

"I think you do need some more sleep," Blair said decisively. "You're a little slow this morning, Jo. Another hour. Maybe two."

"Where is he?" asked Jo, looking around the apartment wildly. "Where's Allen Funt? He hidin on the fire escape?"

"We're not on 'Candid Camera'," said Blair. She grasped one of Jo's lapels, pulled the startled brunette toward her. Rose was already snoring softly. Blair kissed Jo lightly on the mouth. "You brushed your teeth," Blair whispered.

"Course," Jo said quietly. "Didn't wanna give you mornin cooties."

"You're so considerate, Jo."

"Yeah. I'm a catch like that." Jo grinned. She returned the kiss, lightly, so as not to make a sound that might disturb her mother.

"Mmmn," said Blair.

"And good mornin to you too," smiled Jo. "But babe … All seriousness … What the hell is goin on today?"

"Your mother and I had a meeting of the minds."

"And?"

"And we're staying here for a while."

Jo's eyebrows lifted. "We are?"

"We are."

"Here? Like, here-here?"

Blair sighed. "You know, Jo, I was just saying the most complimentary things about your intelligence. Listen to me carefully: We … are … staying … here." Blair made broad gestures, acting out her words.

"Har-har," said Jo.

"But you understand now, don't you, Jo?"

"I understand what you're sayin, but why? Why are we stayin here? Not that I won't enjoy it – specially if we get to be shacked up."

Blair rolled her eyes. "We're going to cohabit here, darling – not shack up."

"What's the difference, babe?"

"I'll explain it in bed ..."


Thanksgiving, 1984.

Everyone was converging on River Rock for the holiday and the long weekend. Blair and Jo and Rose were driving up in Blair's truck. Charlie was supposed to come up with his fiancée Carol and her kids in tow, but he had to cancel at the last minute. Alec, who'd been MIA for weeks, was supposed to be returning. Syd and Evie were bringing Mona with them. Justice Ramsey, Tootie's mother was flying up from D.C. Even Portia and Gerald were flying up from Baltimore.

"Mrs. Garrett has outdone herself," Natalie told Jo on the phone. "It's been cook-cook-cook, bake-bake-bake from sunup to sundown."

"And that's different how?"

"I'm telling you, Jo, you have to see it to believe it! I know Mrs. Garret lives in the kitchen anyhow, but I think she's actually put a cot in there. We're all going to gain a bazillion pounds and love every second of it!"

Jo grinned. She was liking life back in the Bronx, but she was starting to miss her home in Peekskill. Well, it's like they freakin say … Absence makes the heart grow fonder …

"So how is life in the Bronx?" asked Natalie, as if she had read Jo's mind.

"It's good," said Jo. "It's funny, livin here again, bein a grown-up. Well. Almost a grown-up."

"Blair and Rose are getting along?"

"A little too well," Jo said wryly. "They got all sorts of plans for me, apparently, which maybe someday they'll actually share with me!"

"Has Blair quit the coffee shop yet?"

"Nope."

"She's still there?"

"Yup."

"Working in a coffee shop?"

"Yup."

"I just can't picture it."

"Picture the Eastland cafeteria," said Jo. "Only instead of a bunch of little school girls in uniforms, picture a buncha big slobs with five o'clock shadow. And instead of Mrs. Garrett, picture a big slobbo with a quadruple chin and a heart of gold. That's Lou. He's the boss."

"And Blair's still there?"

"Asked and answered, counselor. Move it along."

"But how can Blair stand it? It just doesn't seem like her gig."

"Are you kiddin?" Jo howled. "Everyone worshippin the ground she walks on? And the tips she gets – cripes!"

"OK," said Natalie, "now it's becoming clearer. Lots of adoration and lots of money. That does sound like a Blair gig."

"The only bad thing is the polyester. It chafes her skin. I used to think she was just a snobbo about it, but it turns out she really is allergic to the stuff. I have to rub this lotion all over her –"

"La-la-la-la-la," sang Natalie. "More information than I need!"

"Her back," said Jo. "Her back breaks out."

"Back, front, side, whatever. Still don't need to hear about it, Jo."

"What a prude."

"And proud of it!"

"So," Jo teased, "any interestin developments lately? Anything you'd care to share with the class?"

"Such as?" Nat asked warily.

"Such as, a certain shaggy-haired guy not unlike Conan the Barbarian asked yours truly for your phone number. Get any interestin calls lately?"

"So you gave Snake my number!"

"Yep. That mean he called you?"

"Yes. Jo … I know you mean well, but that was sort of cruel."

"What was cruel? Guy likes you. Just wanted to give him a chance to throw his hat in the ring."

"But why? It's not like, I mean … It's not like he has a shot."

"Why not? Gotta admit, I read him the riot act at first, but he's kinda OK."

"Jo … He's just … He's a trucker, Jo."

"And here it comes! Hello middle-class snobbery!"

"I am not a snob! I am the liberal child of liberal parents! You take that back, Jo Polniaczek!"

"No, I ain't gonna take it back. You just said it yourself. 'He's a trucker'! Christ. Kid works his ass off for a livin – look out! Don't get mixed up with him!"

"Says the woman who's shacked up with a filthy-rich debutante!"

"We ain't shacked up. We're cohabitin. And she's broke."

"For now. Not forever, Jo. And with or without money she's as glamorous as Grace Kelly. You can take her anywhere! You can take her to a Bronx coffee shop, you can take her to the White House – But where could I take Snake? I mean, come on. The hair! All that, all that long, luxurious hair. And those tattoos. Where do I take him? The Folsom County Prison barbecue?"

"Nope," laughed Jo. "You're not a snob at all."

"I'm trying to be practical. There are ideals, and then there's living in something called the real world, Jo."

"The real world, huh? Tell me, Nat –what's the real world? One of your parents' bridge parties? That where you're worried about takin Snake?"

"Among other places," Natalie admitted. "Look, I'm a wimp. I admit it. So sue me. I just don't see me and Conan going the distance. He doesn't belong at an Upper East Side bridge party. I don't belong at a rumble."

"Do you hear yourself right now, Nat? Are these the words of hard-charging Eastland Gazette editor Natalie Green?"

"These are the words of practical, life-is-what-it-is Natalie Green. And stop making me talk about myself in the third person. It's pretentious."

"I'll tell you what's pretentious, Princess."

"What did you call me?"

"You heard me. Do you remember the night we all went to the Fever to save Blair? The first time you ever went through the really shit parts of the Bronx? You remember how it hit you? And you were like, wonderin how come someone doesn't do somethin about it? Well that's where your boyfriend lives, Princess."

"He's not my boyfriend."

"Eh, but he could be. You talk a big game, Nat, but here's your chance to actually get to know a place that kinda touched you somehow."

"Jo, this isn't an afterschool special."

Jo scowled at the receiver. "Whatever, Nat. Just encouragin you to expand your horizons. But if you just wanna keep datin the same pinhead losers –"

"Hey. Hey. Let's not say things we can't take back."

"Who's gonna take it back? You know you pick losers. I thought you were tryin to break outta that box."

"By dating a boy named Snake? That's a little further out of the box than I'm comfortable with."

"Have it your way. Prob'ly there's some rich Bates geek named Biff Spazinton or somethin lookin for a Turkey Day date. Whyn't ya ask him?"

"Goodbye, Jo." Natalie hung up the phone with a crash.

"Do you think maybe I went too far?" Jo asked Blair that night as they lay together in their room. Jo was smoothing lotion on the constellation of little red bumps that polyester brought out on Blair's pale back.

"Too far," Blair mused, chin propped on one hand. "Too far. Hmm. Jo, darling, I want you to picture 'too far'. And then I want you to picture a point a thousand miles past too far."

"Shit," said Jo. "So I did screw it up – huh?"

"Yes, darling. But you can fix it at Thanks giving …"

The day before Thanksgiving Rose and Blair worked a double-shift so they could have the holiday and the day after off.

They left a half pot of coffee on the stove for Jo, and a plate of scrambled eggs warming in the oven.

Jo ate her breakfast. As she ate, her eyes kept straying to the phone. After she washed her plate and cup, she went to the phone and dialed information.

"Yeah, gimme the number for the Fireside Inn. Please," she added, remembering the manners Blair always seemed to be drilling into her these days …

Jo sat on a bench at Grand Central Station, munching on a hot dog with plenty of mustard and admiring the architecture. From time to time she glanced at the big clock. They'd be here any minute …

But when they arrived, it wasn't 'they'. It was just one of them.

Mizu, all in black, walked slowly toward Jo's bench. Jo scooted over, made room for Mizu to sit.

"So … She ain't comin," Jo said.

"Why should she?" asked Mizu. "Do you understand how much it hurts her to see you? She loves you. Execrable taste – but there it is."

"I understand," said Jo. "I wanted to tell her face-to-face, but you can tell her for me. I'm so damn thankful. We're so damn thankful. What you two did –"

"Let me be clear," Mizu said in her well-bred, British-inflected English. "Boots did it. It was all her. I'd as soon let you all twist in the wind."

"Bullshit," said Jo.

"You're such a fucking Girl Scout. Don't you understand? Not everyone in the world is looking for rainbows and lollipops and world peace. I love Boots. I want her. I take her as I find her. But I hate that she wants you."

Jo kept her poker face, but inside she stung. She hadn't met anyone like Mizu in a long time, not since she was a kid in the Bronx. Someone so broken and full of hate.

Someone really did a number on her, thought Jo. Someone screwed this kid up but good.

Mizu laughed harshly. "You're such a goddamn do-gooder. I can see your thoughts plain on your face. Yes, Jo, I had an unhappy childhood. But basically I'm just a bitch. And I'm fine with that."

Jo shook her head. "You coulda sold Boots out. You coulda told Becker what she was plannin to do. He woulda paid you real good."

"He paid us plenty already. And I would have done it for free. Making a rich capitalist parasite like Becker look like a fool? I'd do that for nothing."

"He's not gonna like that Boots crossed him," Jo said quietly. "You gotta keep an extra good eye on her."

"I always do. I'll never let anything hurt her."

"Maybe you should move outta Peekskill for awhile. Blair and me, we've got this place near Columbia. If a vacancy comes up –"

Mizu laughed. "Do you think we'd ever take your charity? We'll live on the streets first. It'd be honest, anyway."

"Honestly stupid," said Jo. "Look, I'm just tryin, I'm tryin to be helpful. And tryin to say thanks."

"We don't want your thanks. I went along with it to fuck with Becker and because it made Boots happy. Boots did it because she's Boots. She always does the right thing. That's all. No one needs your gratitude."

Jo felt a wave of nausea. The anger, the bitterness, that rolled off Mizu like a tide …

"You really want people to hate you – doncha?"

"Yes," said Mizu. She lifted one perfect eyebrow. "Is that all? Is this what I came down from Peekskill for?"

"I told you; I wanted to thank Boots face-to-face. I was really hopin she'd come too."

"You're so insensitive." Mizu stood up. "Stay away from her – since you don't seem to understand the effect you have on her."

"Listen," said Jo, standing up, "there's somethin I wanna ask you before you go. About Oxford."

Mizu's eyes hardened. A muscle jumped in her cheek.

"It's true," she said shortly.

"You crippled that guy?"

"Yes."

"But there had to be a reason."

"Yes."

Jo nodded. "The guys told me he was an instructor's son or somethin. Soon as I heard that I knew. Those guys are usually pricks. The ones everyone thinks are so wonderful. What did he do?"

"He wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. He was attacking my girlfriend."

"You warned him."

"Of course."

"But he kept attacking her."

"Yes."

"So you saw red."

"I almost killed him," Mizu said evenly. "But at the last moment …"

Jo nodded. "That's what I thought."

"We're not going to bond over this," Mizu said. "I don't give a damn that you know. It doesn't change anything. I don't like you."

"You ain't at the top of my Hit Parade either," said Jo. Mizu stared at her blankly. Hit Parade didn't mean anything to her, Jo realized. Not that it mattered.

"Come to Thanksgiving at River Rock," Jo said impulsively. "You and Boots. Let's all patch things up. Whether you wanted to or not, you helped save our asses. All that bull that went down last September, let's just, you know –"

"Talk through it?" Mizu asked, lip curling disdainfully. She shook her head. "Some things get broken, Jo, they stay broken. It's a hard lesson, and you haven't learned it yet."

Mizu spun on her boot heel and headed back toward the trains.

"Hey! Hey, Mizu!" Jo called. But the young woman never slowed and never turned around …

"She's right," Blair told Jo as they packed the truck that night for the trip up north.

"Whaddya mean, she's right?"

"There are some things you can't fix," Blair said, "no matter how much you want to. And, Jo," Blair took a deep breath, "I don't want you to fix things with Boots. Mizu's right. It would be cruel of you to try to see her. It would be …"

"Leading her on," Jo said. She sighed. "All right. All right. I just wish …"

"I know," Blair said kindly. "But it is what it is. And who knows? In her own grim way, Mizu is very devoted to Boots. Maybe over time, Boots will fall in love with her."

"I suppose. I hope so. Babe, do you think, over time, you're ever gonna forgive Boots?"

"For climbing into your sleeping bag and copping a feel?"

"She didn't climb into the bag. And she didn't cop a feel. Well. Much of a feel."

Blair's jaw tightened. "Boots and I go way back. We were never close, but there's a kind of code in our world, and she … She crossed a line, Jo, that makes it impossible for us to ever be friends. I'm sorry."

"Nothin for you to be sorry about," said Jo. "I understand. And you're the one I back, babe. Always …"

"Forever and back?" Blair asked quietly.

"Yeah. Forever and back …"

It was the second Thanksgiving at River Rock. At this point everyone knew just about everyone else in the circle, and some of them had been to hell and back together.

After Tootie's triumphant portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Eastland's production of "The Lion in Winter" – during which her mother sat raptly in the front row – Mrs. Garrett served up a Thanksgiving feast that would never be forgotten.

"Where the hell is Alec?" Jo asked finally, when they were halfway through the meal. Mrs. Garrett had indeed outdone herself, and everyone was happily bloated by the halfway point.

"He'll be here," said Jacqueline. "He's bringing a couple of surprises."

Natalie gasped. "Is Alec … Does Alec … Does he have secret children?"

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. "Do not, repeat, do not alert the New York Times, dear – Alec does not have secret children."

"Are you sure?" pressed Nat. "I mean, if they were really, really secret, you wouldn't necessarily know."

"I'm sure," said Jacqueline. "Well … Reasonably sure."

"Then what's the surprise?"

"A surprise, Natalie. As in – surprise. I'd like to tell you, but –"

"It's Alec's tale to tell," everyone said in chorus.

"Well. It is," said Jacqueline. "My hands are tied."

It was during the dessert course that Alec appeared in the dining room doorway, looking tired but happy. He wore a three-piece suit and crisp white shirt and he had shorn his curls so that they lay flat and sleek against his beautiful head. He was brown as a nut, as if he'd been lazing in the sun for days.

"Alec, you wanderin son-of-a-gun!" shouted Jo, leaping up out of her chair. She threw herself into his arms and crushed him in a bear hug.

Natalie looked at Blair and lifted her eyebrows. "Should you be worried?" Nat teased Blair.

"Artemis, darling – I've missed you too," said Alec. He kissed Jo's cheek in a chaste, brotherly fashion.

"Hey, woah – let's not go nuts," said Jo. As her elation at seeing her best friend settled, she realized she had just behaved in a very un-Jo-like manner.

Alec looked around the packed table, pleased to see the faces of so many people he loved.

"Lovely to be home," he said with feeling. And to Mona, "Grandma Green, I understand you beat the murder charge. Here's to you, dearest – the first, and hopefully the last of us to be tried for a felony!"

"I should certainly hope so," said Tootie's mother, glaring grimly at Alec. Justice Ramsey remained wary of the young lord. Beautifully turned out, charming young ne'er-do-wells were low on her list of suitable friends for her youngest daughter.

"Er, yes," said Alec. Tootie's mother made him nervous. She was so damned intimidating in those dark-framed glasses and her perfect business suits. He always felt like she was on the bench and he was in the dock. "At any rate, without, er, further ado, I can now explain my mysterious absence. Unless Jack's already spilled the beans and ruined everything."

"Perish the thought," said Jacqueline. "I'm insulted, Alec. I truly am, dear."

"She hasn't told us anything," complained Tootie. "Just these tiny little remarks that have been driving us crazy. Where have you been?"

"Well, as you can deduce from my stunning tan, I have been in sunny climes."

"So, not Alaska then," Natalie said drily. "Wow. All has been revealed."

"Give a fellow a tick," said Alec. "You know I like to create a moment."

"The moment is now," said Tootie. "Spill, Alec!"

"All in good time, my fair lady. All in good time."

"What the hell is the hold-up?" demanded someone in the next room.

"Give me a mo," called Alec. "Just another tick." The young lord shook his head. "Everyone's so impatient today. It's bloody Thanksgiving. Can't we all just relax and –"

"Hello, Alec's friends," said a young man who stepped into the doorway next to Alec.

There was a collective gasp.

The young man looked so much like Alec it was uncanny. The dark unruly curls, the sapphire blue eyes, the handsome chiseled features. But where Alec was tall and strapping, this young man was slender and a head shorter than Alec. His voice was similarly gorgeous and mellifluous, but not as deep. He looked about sixteen years old.

"I say – that was fun," laughed the young man. "Fun and funny. They don't have a bastard clue who I am, do they?"

"Behave," said Alec. "You are here on sufferance. Company manners, and all that."

"Why?"

"Because these people are important to me," said Alec, "which makes them important to you."

The boy snorted, sounding amused.

"What's happening?" called a girl's voice, lovely and mellifluous. "I always miss everything!"

She appeared in the doorway, almost a carbon copy of the young man, same height, similarly slender, with Alec's dark curls flowing in a long waterfall around her perfect face and sapphire eyes.

The boy wore a dark suit like Alec's. The girl wore a dark dress.

"I say, shan't you introduce us?" she asked Alec. "It's rude to keep us standing here."

"You were supposed to wait," Alec said, sounding weary. "I asked you to do one thing. I asked you to wait. For two minutes."

"We did wait," said the boy. "You took too long."

"Yah," said the girl. "Much too long. That food smells heavenly. Mmm. Look at those lovely desserts."

Mrs. Garrett and Drake stood up.

"Please," Mrs. Garrett said warmly, "find a seat and help yourselves. Any, ah, friends or relatives of Alec's are welcome here."

"Alec?" laughed the girl. "You call him Alec? I say, brother, you're becoming an actual American, an't you? No standing on ceremony, eh?"

"Sit down, monsters," Alec said wearily. "Now you've blown the surprise sit down and stuff your little faces."

"'Rah!" said the boy and girl together. "Lovely!"

"Look at those biscuits," said the boy, sitting next to Blair.

"Look at those custards," said the girl, sitting next to Jo.

"Alec – who are they?" asked Natalie, unable to contain herself any longer.

Alec dropped into a chair next to Jacqueline. "Hullo, Jack," he said, kissing her. "Miss me much?"

"Perhaps," she said.

"You're so cruel to me," he laughed. He kissed her again.

"Ew!" complained the boy.

"Ew!" said the girl.

"Alec!" said Natalie.

"For heaven's sake, Natalie, give a fellow three seconds to reunite with his inamorata, can you? God's teeth! The little brats aren't going anywhere – not while they're stuffing their faces, any road."

"But who are they?"

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Alec, addressing the entire table, "it's rather anti-climactic now, but permit me to present the one and only Georges."

"The who now?" asked Natalie.

"The Georges. Otherwise known as George Sebastian Anviston and Georgiana Sybil Anviston. They're twins, in case you hadn't noticed. And they're my brother and sister."

"Half brother," the boy corrected.

"Half sister," said the girl.

"As you can see, they're crazy about me," Alec said drily. "They're loving, wonderful, obedient children."

"Children? I'm bloody sixteen," said the boy.

"We're both sixteen," said the girl.

"Loving, wonderful and obedient," Alec repeated. "I keep saying that over and over again, like a mantra. Or a spell. If I keep saying it and saying it, maybe someday it will be true."

"Shouldn't think so," said the boy.

"Highly unlikely," said the girl.

"Isn't it confusing," asked Tootie, "both of them being named George?"

"Yes," said Alec. "That's why we call him Sebastian. He's Sebastian; she's George. Like the Nancy Drew character."

George made a face. "I'm nothing like that stupid character. Stop saying that, Alec."

"Right. Well, on that note, I'm off to wash away the grime of travel."

"But where have you been?" asked Nat. "You haven't explained anything. You've only made everything more mysterious."

"Then my work here is truly done," laughed Alec.

"We lived in India," said Sebastian, around a mouthful of chocolate-chip cookie. "With our mum."

"We're bastards," George said helpfully.

Mrs. Garrett pursed her lips. "Children, we're very happy to welcome you here, but we don't have that type of talk at the table."

"Since when?" asked Natalie. And then "Ouch!" as Tootie stepped on her foot.

"Shh. Set a good example," Tootie whispered.

"They're sixteen," Natalie whispered. "They're your age, for Pete's sake."

"Yeah," said Tootie, "but they seem like a young sixteen."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Natalie shrugged.

"They're not cursing," Alec told Mrs. Garrett. "They are, quite literally, the bastard children of my father the Duke. When I was a charming little toddler, the pater and mater took a bit of a breather, and my father fell madly in lust with a diplomat in Delhi."

"Tada! Along came us," said Sebastian.

"We can't inherit or anything," said George. "But the pater has to take care of us. Only his wife hates us. So pater usually foists us off on stupid Alec."

"Stupid, stupid Alec," said Sebastian, shaking his head. He popped another chocolate-chip cookie into his mouth.

"They love me," Alec said. "They just hide it well. Very well."

"They need a good kick in the keister," Jo whispered to Blair.

Blair shook her head. "No," she said quietly. "They're just neglected. They're bratty in the way that I would have been bratty if Eduardo hadn't taken me in hand."

"I see," Jo deadpanned. "Bratty in the way that you would have been."

"Darling … Be nice," smiled Blair.

"Always …"

"And now," Alec was saying, "I really must wash thousands of miles of dusty road off of me. Georges – be good. Don't burn anything down."

The children laughed, a musical but slightly unnerving sound.

Don't burn anything down … Alec's kidding … I hope … thought Mrs. Garrett …

There was a moment of awkward silence after Alec left the room.

Sebastian swallowed cookies whole like a young python.

"Before you ask," George said, breaking the silence and regarding them all with her incandescent blue eyes, "we really do hate Alec. He inherits everything and we get nothing. It's rotten being a bastard. But, there we are."

"Our only revenge is hating him," said Sebastian. "And we don't want to be here. He dragged us here and he won't tell us why. That's the kind of bully he is."

"Alec ain't a bully," said Jo. "And don't talk about your older brother that way. You're lucky to have a brother."

"Says you," said Sebastian, sneering at her. "And who are you supposed to be? And he's Lord Nethridge, commoner – not Alec."

Jo laughed. "Defendin him pretty good for someone who's supposed to hate him," she observed.

Sebastian flushed. "Don't you laugh at me, commoner!"

"Wow," said Jo, leaning back in her chair and lacing her fingers over her stomach. "This is gonna be interestin …"

"You can't call everyone a commoner," Tootie told Sebastian.

"Why not? That's what you are. All of you."

"That's my point," Tootie said reasonably. "Everyone in America is a commoner. You can't keep calling everyone 'commoner' all day long. It'll get really old, really fast."

"It's already old," said Jo.

"Who is she?" Sebastian asked Tootie.

"Your brother's best friend."

"Ha! That figures."

Jo stood up. "I think I'm gonna go have a little chat with milord …"

"Go away," Alec said when she knocked on his door.

"Alec – Freakin let me in."

"No. I need a moment to myself – something I haven't had in several weeks."

His voice sounded congested, as if he'd suddenly got a cold.

"Alec, it's freakin me. Let me in."

She heard him sigh. A bolt was drawn back.

"Come in, then," he said ungraciously.

He wore his robe over his dark trousers. His eyes and nose were red.

"Bloody allergic to something in here," he complained, rubbing his eyes.

Alec's room was so plain it was almost Spartan. Jo sat on one of the simple wooden chairs. "So. Spill it," she said. "Why are you cryin?"

"Who's crying?" he demanded.

"Alec, what the hell's goin on? You disappear for weeks, you come back with a bratty brother and sister you never mentioned, you're actin all goofy, and now you're cryin."

"I'm perfectly fine," said Alec. "The children, they're going to visit me for few months. We're going to get to know each other."

Jo sighed.

"She's dead, isn't she? Their mother?"

Alec took a deep breath. He wiped his eyes again. He nodded.

"Jesus Christ," she said.

"She was a really awful woman," he said. "She was even colder than my mother. The pater really, he really," Alec laughed a little hysterically, "he really knows how to pick them."

"Come here, dork," said Jo, opening her arms. "Come on."

Alec allowed himself to be folded into Jo's arms.

"So, she was a cold fish," said Jo. "What's with the water works, then?"

"She was their mother," said Alec. "No matter how awful one's mother is … She's your mother."

Jo thought about Blair and Monica. "Yeah," said Jo, "OK. I get that."

"The kids are going to be so broken up."

"You haven't told them yet," Jo guessed.

"I haven't told them yet," he admitted. "They think I'm dragging them on some sort of insane family visit where we all get to know each other. I kept waiting for the proper moment to tell them about their mother. Only, slight problem – it never seemed to arrive."

There was a light tapping at the door. "It's me," Blair called softly.

"Come in," called Jo.

Blair entered, closing the door behind her, took in the scene of Jo cradling Alec in her arms.

"What happened?" asked Blair. "Alec? Apollo?" She knelt down, put her arms around Jo and Alec.

"Kids' mother croaked," Jo explained succinctly. "Someone's gotta tell the brats."

Alec laughed and sobbed at the same time. "Jo … Promise me you'll never be a grief counselor."

"Believe me – I promise," said Jo.

"Who's going to tell the children?" asked Blair.

"I have to," said Alec. "They're my blood – however much they dislike me. It's my duty."

"No." Blair shook her head. "You're too close to it. You're going through your own grief."

"I couldn't stand the bloody woman!"

"It's still … It's still loss, Alec. And you're grieving for the children's sake. Someone else should tell them. Someone but warm but not too close." She looked at Jo. "Mrs. Garrett?"

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Jo agreed.

"No." Alec shook his head. "No. I love Mrs. Garrett but she's not quite … You," he said to Blair. "You tell them."

"Me?"

"Yes. Will you, Aphrodite?"

Blair nodded slowly. "All right."

"Wait a sec," said Jo, "what the hell? Alec, Blair's goin through her own stuff right now. Babe, it's nice of you to offer but –"

"It's all right, darling," Blair said calmly. "I want to do it. I think … I think maybe I can help them."

"Help them what? Their mother just freakin died. That's, that's heavy."

"Shh. I'll be fine, Jo." Blair kissed Jo softly, then hugged Alec again. "I'll go now. The sooner the better."

Alec nodded.

As Blair left the room, Natalie and Tootie rushed in.

"Alec, what's with the – oh, my, God!" Natalie threw an arm over her eyes. "What the hell is going on in here?"

"Whaddya mean?" Jo asked defensively.

"I mean, why are you and Alec all over each other? And what was Blair doing in here?"

Tootie sighed. "Nat hasn't walked in on you three like I have," she told Alec and Jo.

"Walked in on them?" asked Natalie. "What do you mean you 'walked in on them'? Walked in on them doing what? No –wait. I don't want to know!"

"They're like sisters and brother, Nat," said Tootie. "They're really close. They're not hung up about physically demonstrating affection."

"I am," said Jo.

"Except Jo," said Tootie. "But she's getting over that."

"Huh," said Jo. "I kinda guess I am."

"Bottom line," said Tootie, "there's nothing scandalous about it. It's all in your head, Nat."

"You really are a prude," Jo told Natalie. "I keep comin back to that when I think of you bein a doctor."

"A neurologist," said Nat. "Or a cardiologist. All my patients –"

"Yeah, yeah, heard it before – all your patients are gonna keep their pants on. Well, we all got pants on here! And what are you bustin in for anyway?"

"To get the scoop, of course," said Tootie. "Why are the kids here? How long are they staying?"

"C'mon, milord – spill!" said Nat.

"Guys," Jo said quietly, "their mom's dead."

"Oh my God!" said Natalie.

"That's so sad," said Tootie. "Alec – did you know her?"

He nodded.

"She was a freakin witch," Jo said matter-of-factly.

"Jo!" Nat looked shocked. "You can't say things like that about the recently deceased."

"Jo's only repeating what I told her," Alec said, brushing at his eyes again. "She was, in your tough-guy American parlance, 'a piece of work'. But she was their mother. The children will be broken up."

"Blair's gone to tell 'em," said Jo.

"I couldn't … It's been …" Alec trailed off.

Tootie crouched down and put an arm around his shoulder. "Of course," she said.

"Of course what?" asked Nat. "You understood what he just said?"

"Sure," said Tootie. "Didn't you?"

Natalie shook her head. "Sometimes I feel like you two speak another language."

Tootie shrugged. "Maybe it's all that time we spent together singing at the café last summer. At any rate," she ruffled Alec's shorn curls, "I can always tell when milord is unhappy."

"You are good to me, Tootie," Alec smiled.

"Hey!" Tootie said, suddenly brightening.

"Hey yourself," said Jo. "Ouch. Don't shout in my ear, Stretch."

"But I just realized," said Tootie, "I'm almost seventeen!"

"You just realized that?" asked Nat.

"No. What I just realized is that the twins are sixteen. I mean, a younger sixteen than I am."

"Oh … kaaaaay," Nat said slowly. "And that means … what?"

"It means I'm not the youngest one in our group anymore!" Tootie crowed.

Nat laughed. "Ha! What do you know?"

"Everyone's gonna stop calling me 'kid' and 'little Tootie'," Tootie said happily.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," said Alec. "The Georges aren't exactly in our group. They're orbiting the edges. And they honestly, truly cannot stand me. Once I can find someone responsible to serve as their guardian –"

"What?" asked Tootie. "We're not keeping them?"

"Of course we're bloody not keeping them. They aren't foundlings, Tootie dear. They weren't dropped on our doorstep in a wee basket. They're very challenging, unhappy, devious, practically grown people. They don't want to be with me and frankly I don't want them here."

"That's so … cold," Tootie said disapprovingly.

"But sensible," said Nat. "We just got rid of Boots and Mizu. We don't need any more instability in this house."

Jo frowned. "About Boots and Mizu," she said. "We all gotta have a little chat about them sometime soon. They really got a bum deal – you know? Specially after what they pulled off for Mona."

"Jo, it's not that I'm not grateful about that," said Natalie, "but you know what a mess it was when they lived here. No one knows better than you."

"I'm just sayin, we all gotta chat," Jo said stubbornly. "Gotta clear the air about a couple things."

"Well, we've got all weekend," said Tootie.

"Nah." Jo shook her head. "Me and Ma and Rose gotta head back tomorrow night. They've got a early shift Sunday."

"They've got what?" asked Alec.

"Early shift. At the Coffee Spot."

Alec blinked. "Artemis … Is our Aphrodite working at an establishment called the Coffee Spot?"

"Yeah. And what of it?" Jo challenged. "My Ma works there. Got a problem with that?"

"No, dearest," Alec said hastily. "But you know that if you and Blair ever, er, if you ever need any, ah …" He paused. Jo was so damned proud about money. Blair too, when it came down to it ...

"Everythin's fine," Jo said firmly.

"But if you should ever find yourself, ah, needing a little – "

"Everythin," said Jo, "is fine."

"If you say so," he sighed.

"Never mind Jo and Blair," said Tootie. "They can take care of themselves. What are you going to do with the twins?"

"I told you. I'll find a suitable guardian, in Britain, most likely, but nowhere near the pater and mater, or, failing that, I'll enroll them in a suitable boarding school."

"Try a military school," suggested Jo. "Straighten those kids right out."

Alec shuddered. "Artemis, we don't want to send those two anywhere that has weapons and ammunition."

"Oh. Yeah. Got it."

"Well I think that stinks," said Tootie. "It stinks on ice. They're your brother and sister, Alec. How can you just cast them off into the cold world?"

"Cast them off? Did you not hear what I said about suitable guardians and schools and what-not? I'll make sure they're properly settled."

"No one's 'properly settled' if they don't have family around," said Tootie.

Alec bit his lip as he mulled that over. "Tootie, dear, you're very irritating. Do you know that?"

"It's been said from time to time," Tootie said evenly. "And I know why I'm irritating you right now. Because you know I'm right."

"Yes. Because you're right. I know what it's like to be … I know what it's like not to have much in the way of family. And it is rather devastating."

"Well you've plenty of family now," said Jacqueline, standing in the doorway and smiling at her boyfriend.

"It's not what it looks like," Nat told her hastily. "Jo and Alec hugging each other like that. It's a brother-sister thing."

Jacqueline laughed. "I know. Calm down, Natalie. I never worry about Alec when Jo's watching over him."

"Hey," said Jo. "That's … Thanks, Jack."

"Not at all, Captain. Thank you. But just now," said Jacqueline, taking in Alec's red eyes and serious expression, "I think I'd like to be alone with milord for a little time. Welcome him home properly."

"Well, I'm out of here," Natalie said immediately. "There's another slice of pumpkin pie calling my name."

Tootie ruffled Alec's cropped curls again. "I like it," she said. "You almost look like a real grown-up."

"Almost," he laughed.

"He's all yours," Tootie told Jacqueline, following Nat into the hallway.

Jo stood up. "I'm gonna go see how Blair's doin," she said. "She'll be, well, after droppin a bombshell like that, she might need a little TLC herself."

As Jo closed the door behind her, she heard Jacqueline tell Alec "I've missed you, dear."

"It's lovely to be home," Alec said …

When Jo went to the dining room Blair and the twins were absent.

"She drove them to the stables," said Mrs. Garrett. "We couldn't think why, but Natalie and Tootie just told us. Those poor, poor children." Mrs. Garrett shook her head in a motherly fashion. Drake put a commiserating arm around her plump shoulders.

"Yes," said Tootie, "those poor children. Those children will be so upset."

The stables, thought Jo. Yeah. That's my girl. The stables are so damn soothin. Blair would introduce them to Chestnut, maybe even let them ride him around one of the paddocks. She'd get them in a calm state of mind. And then … She'd tell them.

Later in the day, when Alec and Jacqueline emerged from his room, smiling, they all gathered in the conservatory. Alec played the piano and Tootie sang. Natalie caught Jo up on all the little daily Peekskill dramas that she'd missed now that she living in the Bronx again.

When the doorbell rang, Tootie went to answer it. She came back positively beaming and, it appeared, biting back a smile.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "please allow me to present the young man who saved Natalie and I from certain doom!"

She stepped aside and Snake entered the room, looking strangely bashful, given his height and strapping width. He wore a simple black suit that was actually a little big on him – Probably borrowed his Dad's one suit, thought Jo. Christ, that's so sweet! His long brown hair was pulled back in a neat pony tail. His jaw was clean shaven and today he was sans sunglasses. He looked around the room until he saw Nat, and then smiled shyly at her.

Natalie stood up. "Snake," she said, sounding surprised and pleased and a little flustered.

"Hey, Natalie. I, uh, drove the coupe up. Figured, you know … Happy Thanksgiving," he finished a little lamely. He didn't seem to be fully connected to what he was saying.

"Well, my days as River Rocks' alpha-male are obviously over," laughed Alec, as he took in Snake's massive size.

"Your days as alpha-male never started," teased Jo.

Alec pantomimed being shot in the heart. Then he left the piano and went to Snake, extending his hand. Alec looked up at the young man. "Welcome to River Rock," said Alec. "Drop by a lot, there's a good lad. The more testosterone we can add to the mix, here, the better."

Syd and Evie and Mona were whispering together in an agitated fashion. Natalie sighed. She went to Snake and shook his hand.

"Thanks for bringing back Alec's car," she said sincerely. "And thanks … Just … thanks."

"Sure," said Snake. "No big." He tried to shrug casually. It was an endearing gesture. Nat smiled.

"Happy Thanksgiving," said Mrs. Garrett, going to Snake and embracing him. "Any friend of Natalie's is a friend of ours. Have you eaten?"

Snake shook his head.

"Natalie, bring, ah, Snake to the kitchen and fix him a plate," said Mrs. Garrett. "Go on now. Shoo."

"What was that about driving my car here?" Alec asked Jo. "Why was he driving my car?"

"Your car broke down in one of the most lawless freakin neighborhoods in the city," Jo told him. "While Nat and Tootie were drivin. Because I told you to lemme check the engine, and you freakin said 'Oh no, it'll be fine, la-di-da.'"

"Jo, I've never said 'la-di-da' in my life."

"Well, you know what I mean. Next time I tell you to let me look at your freakin engine, let me look at your freakin engine!"

"Certainly, certainly – keep your wig on!" Alec had the grace to look a little ashamed. "So the girls broke down in a dangerous area?"

"Yeah. But Snake drove up in his eighteen-wheeler and saved the girls, and got your car towed to his place, and fixed it, and now he's friggin driven it up here."

"I'm trying to picture him behind the wheel of my little coupe," Alec said thoughtfully. "Quite a magic trick for him, almost, getting in and out of it. Ow!" This as Tootie pegged him in the head with a cranberry muffin. "I say, now I know I'm home," he laughed, brushing the crumbs out of his curls.

"Don't make fun of Snake," Tootie said severely.

"No, of course not," said Alec. "Who would make fun of someone with the moniker 'Snake'? Certainly not I!"

"He saved our lives," said Tootie. "And, and I think Nat, kind of, maybe …"

"Yes," said Alec, eyes twinkling. "I think you're right ..."

When Blair entered the conservatory Alec was playing a lovely, intricate sonata. Everyone sat rapt. Blair slipped quietly to Jo's side. She didn't kiss Jo; Syd and Evie still didn't know about their relationship, and while Justice Ramsey seemed to suspect, they weren't entirely sure that she knew.

"How did it go?" whispered Jo.

Blair smiled sadly. "They're very brave children," she said.

"But they're ripped up?"

"Of course. I settled them in the empty bedroom and told them they don't have to come down until they're ready."

"So we do have a tenth bedroom. I thought so. Where is it?"

"I finally remembered – you know that little hallway off the attic staircase?"

"Yeah, that's right. That's, what, the Apricot Room?"

Blair nodded.

"It's close quarters," Blair said, "but I figured with their being twins they wouldn't mind. And they don't."

"So, they're pretty sweet kids, or what?" Jo asked curiously. "Alec keeps sayin they're holy terrors."

"Yes and no. They're very …" Blair trailed off, unable to find the right words.

"All I keep thinkin of is 'Village of the Damned'."

"Jo!" Blair remonstrated.

"Well I'm sorry, babe, but they've got those piercin eyes and they're twins and they have those British accents and, you know, I just keep waiting for them to do some kinda telepathy thing or blow somethin up with their minds."

Blair rolled her eyes. "No more old science fiction movies for you, darling."

"Well you gotta admit, they're kinda unusual kids."

"But I don't think they're going to start 'blowin things up with their minds'."

"I know that. I don't believe the stuff I watch, babe. I'm just sayin. They kinda freak me out a little bit."

"Well you don't want to know what they think about you," said Blair. "They've been raised to be horrible little snobs. I'm telling you … If Eduardo hadn't raised me, they could've been me. Or I could've been them. You know what I mean."

"I can't picture that," Jo said, wanting to stroke Blair's beautiful long hair, wishing, in that moment, that they were alone in their suite. "Yeah, you were kinda snotty when I first met you, but not that bad."

"Eduardo had already had years to shape me. Mrs. Garrett too. Picture me at five – raised by David and Monica Warner!"

"Yikes," chuckled Jo. "Wonder what you'd of thought of me if we met back then?"

Blair tilted her head thoughtfully. "I think … I think we would've been friends."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. And I think we would've gotten into a hell of a lot of trouble together."

"Damn straight!" Jo tilted her head appealingly. "Babe … Let's make this an early night. Let's get into a little trouble together tonight. It'll be fun bein in our old suite for a coupla days. We should, kinda, you know, rechristen it."

"I love how you think," Blair whispered …

They rechristened the suite several times that night, once in the sitting room, twice in the bedroom, and again the next morning when they took their shower.

As they dressed, the song "Faithfully" began playing on the little radio on the bedside table. Steve Perry sang in his husky, heartbreaking voice. It was their song. It would always be their song.

Blair was dabbing herself with a powder puff. She paused. She sat at the vanity in her mauve lace panties and mauve lace bra. She stood up and crossed to Jo, slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders. Jo slid her arms around Blair's waist. They danced.

"I get the joy of rediscovering you," Blair sang softly in Jo's ear. "Oh, girl, you stand by me … I'm forever yours … faithfully …"

Texas. The early 1970's.

Eduardo stood on the broad front porch of the Bar B Ranch. The day was already hot as fresh milk. He rubbed the back of his deeply bronzed neck with his kerchief. He watched a cloud of dust far down the road get bigger, and closer, until the dusty town car pulled up in front of the main house.

He had received the telegram early that morning. Blair had run away. David and Monica were at their wits' end. They had hired detectives. They had alerted the FBI.

"She was very upset when we said we didn't think she should spend the summer in Texas," David told Eduardo when he called early that morning. "She seems to have some fixation on the ranch. We didn't tell her she couldn't go, you understand, but we indicated that that might be the case. She was very insolent. And then at midnight Nanny Foster found her bed empty, and two of her suitcases missing. Two suitcases and a garment bag. So if she goes to the ranch –"

"I shall alert you," Eduardo promised …

The driver alighted from the dusty town car. He went to the back passenger door and opened it smartly. A little blonde girl of six years old raced out of the car, up the porch steps and into Eduardo's arms.

Eduardo hugged her. He ruffled her blonde hair. Then he pulled back and looked into her big dark eyes. She was crying and smiling – tears of joy.

"Happy summer, Eduardo," she said.

Eduardo shook his head severely. "No," he said, "it is not a happy summer, Señorita Blair. Your parents, they have extreme concern for your well-being."

"I don't care," she said. "They weren't going to let me come here, Eduardo. They were being ridiculous."

Eduardo bit back a smile. "That is not for you to decide," he said seriously. "They are your padre and madre. You must do as they say. And I think they would have let you come here, miha. You would have convinced them. Now, they are angry. They are frightened. Perhaps they will demand that I must send you with them to France."

"No!" cried Blair. She threw her arms around Eduardo and clung to him. He stood up and she still clung to him. It was like, he thought, when a burr stuck to your shirt, and you just couldn't brush it away. Not that he tried to brush her away. He patted her back reassuringly.

"I will speak with them," said Eduardo. "I will explain that you are very contrite, that you will never do such a thing again."

"But I'm not," Blair said, voice muffled by his flannel shirt. "And I would."

"No doubt. Yet I will not tell them that. It would not be prudent. Now we will get you some milk, and a nice raspberry ice. And you will ride one of the ponies."

Blair looked around. "Where is Miss Blanding?"

"Miss Blanding is no longer employed here. Miss Blanding is a sourpuss and not pleasant to speak with on a daily basis. There is a new housekeeper, Miss Azul. She can say funny voices. She can say like Mickey Mouse, and the robot, you know, Rosie, on 'The Jetsons'."

"She sounds nice," Blair said approvingly. She looked down at her ensemble – jeans and flannel shirt and kerchief and boots. "See, Eduardo – I remembered. No fancy city frills."

Eduardo nodded. "Yes, Señorita Blair. You are prepared, I see, for a proper Texas summer."

"I want a new hat," said Blair. "I want a bigger hat, like a real cowgirl."

"We shall see."

"Eduardo."

"We shall see," he said firmly.

He set her down on the porch. He took one of her tiny hands.

"How did you arrange for the car?" he asked curiously. "And the air flight?"

Blair smiled proudly. "I used the Telex – like I saw you do last summer. I arranged it by Telex. I pretended I was Daddy and he was making the arrangements for me."

Eduardo shook his head. "We must have a long talk," he said, "about ethics."

"What are those?" Blair asked curiously.

"I will tell you over raspberry ice."

The End

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