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

Glamorous Life
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

4:45pm, Friday, February 10, 1984. Peekskill, New York. The Langley College Campus Grill.

Jo Polniaczek, Langley honor student and field hockey star, presided over the grill in a grease-smeared blue-and-white apron, neatly flipping a row of burger patties.

The patties sizzled and gave off a delicious aroma that made Jo's stomach growl. She'd been grilling burgers for three hours but hadn't eaten a bite since her peanut butter sandwich at lunch, delivered to her by Blair Warner in full-on Ali-MacGraw mode.

Jo pressed the burgers flat with her metal spatula; they sizzled even louder, spitting grease. Jo eyed them critically, decided they were browned enough for the cheese. Dexterously, like an Atlantic City card sharp, she dealt a slice of American cheese onto each burger in the row …

"Order up!" she hollered a few minutes later, ringing the little metal bell at her pick-up window. "Burger with onions and ketchup, no fries! Two burgers with everything! Two burgers with pickles, mustard and mayo! One order of fries! Get 'em while they're hot!"

Hungry students and professors swarmed the pick-up window, grabbing their food.

Jo was already back at the grill, flipping more burgers, adding a grilled cheese sandwich to the row, dumping raw French fries into a basket and dropping it into a sizzling vat of hot oil. She never stopped moving, always doing something to keep the food cooking and the orders flowing.

Every half-minute or so a new slip was thrust through the order window. She'd skim it and grab the ingredients …

"Where's my order?" demanded an annoyed voice at the pick-up window. "What are you doing – baking the bread yourself?"

"Eh, keep your shirt on!" Jo called. "These orders'll be up in a minute."

"Who has a minute? At my age, I might not have more than a couple of seconds!"

"You keep ridin me, you might have less than that!" Jo shot back.

"Is that how you talk to your elders, young lady? Is that how you talk to your adopted grandmother?"

Jo finally looked up from the grill, peering through the heat and the smoke to see who was at the pickup window – the silvery cap of hair and the big brown eyes, just barely peeking over the sill.

Jo broke into one of her radiant, mega-watt grins. "Mona!" she cried delightedly. "Gramma Green! Why the heck didn't you say it was you?"

"When you get to be my age, young lady, you like to give everyone a hard time. You can't play sports any more, you can't afford to go shopping, your doctor won't let you eat anything that tastes good, but giving people a hard time – that you can still do! And it's free!"

"Whadja order, Mona?" Jo scanned the grill. "Which of these is yours? I'm bumpin you to the front of the line."

"Oh, please, Jo, don't bother. I don't like to be any trouble."

Jo's grin widened, remembering what Natalie had told them a couple of years ago about Mona … When the feisty little old lady said "don't bother," it meant you should bother – definitely bother!

"Trouble? You kiddin, Mona? No trouble at all. It's my pleasure."

"Well … If you say so, Jo. I'm the grilled cheese sandwich."

"Comin right up!"

Jo flipped the sandwich, pressed it against the grill to make sure it was golden brown on both sides, plated it, sliced it in half, and garnished it with dill pickles and potato chips.

"Here you go, Mona."

"Thank you, Jo."

"Listen, I'm outta this grease-trap in three minutes – why don't I join ya for a few minutes?"

"Jo, that's very sweet, but I'm sure you have a million better things to do than talk with an old relic like me!"

"No I don't. And you ain't an old relic, Mona."

"Suit yourself. I'll be sitting at one of the tables near the window. I like to watch the twilight."

"I'll find you," said Jo.

Delia, the girl due on duty at five p.m., was ten minutes late.

"Where the hell ya been?" complained Jo. "Whaddya think, think is some kinda hippie commune, you just come and go whenever?"

"I'm only a minute late," shrugged Delia, tying a clean blue-and-white apron around her waist.

"It's not a minute late, it's ten minutes late. Ten. I got people waitin on me. Show a little consideration!"

Delia yawned. "Don't be such a hothead, Jo. What does it matter, anyway?"

Unlike most of the grill workers, who were scholarship students like Jo, Delia was one of Langley's many trust-fund kids. As Delia had immediately informed her fellow grill employees, she was working there – working at all! – as a punishment for earning C's and D's the previous semester. Her father, a Congressman and Langley alum, had arranged it with Langley's Dean of Students.

Working at the Campus Grill was supposed to teach Delia values like hard work, responsibility and punctuality. As far as Jo had seen, Delia was instead learning to loaf, gripe and pass the buck.

"Eh, forget you," muttered Jo, tossing her grease-spattered apron into the laundry bin. "You got four cheeseburgers and a fried egg sandwich on deck. Good luck!"

One of the perks of working at the grill was that students could take home a couple of burgers or sandwiches when their shift ended. Jo grabbed a paper bag containing several double-cheeseburgers with onions, and another grilled cheese sandwich for Mona.

Mona was sitting at a table next to one of the Campus Grill's big windows overlooking the duck pond and the woods. Mona had already finished her sandwich; she gazed thoughtfully out the window, sipping tea from a Styrofoam cup.

"Your campus is so beautiful," Mona said as Jo sat down. "So peaceful. It reminds me of the little village where I grew up, the hills and the snow and even the ducks."

"Sucks you had to leave," Jo said sympathetically.

Mona shook her head. "Hatred. War. Why do people have to be so negative? Why can't everyone appreciate a little beauty, and live and let live?"

"Guess it just ain't the way of the world," Jo said philosophically. "Here. This'll put a little meat on your bones, Mona." Jo took the grilled cheese sandwich out of the paper bag and placed it on Mona's paper plate.

"My goodness, Jo, I can't take that. Or, I can, but what do I owe you? It's a dollar ten, right?" Mona started digging around in her little black patented leather coin purse.

"It's compliments of the Grill," Jo said firmly. "One of the perks of the job."

"Well thank you very much, Jo. You're a good girl."

"Eh … I try," Jo said a little bashfully.

"It makes me very glad that my Natalie has friends like you, Joanne Marie. Tell me – how is she doing?"

"Fine. I mean, Natalie's always fine."

"But, about this Belmont fellow. I understand he jilted her."

"Oh. Yeah." Jo shook her head darkly. "What a loser!"

"I agree, of course. Anyone that would jilt my little Natalie is a complete durak – a fool! But when a girl is jilted, she feels badly."

"Yeah, well, she ain't skippin around singin songs, I guess. But she ain't crumblin like shortbread, either. Nat's got a good head on her shoulders, Mona. She's throwin herself into her studies with a vengeance this semester."

"Of that, Jo, I have no doubt."

Mona took a bite of the grilled cheese. Jo dug into her burger. For a few moments they ate in companionable silence. Mona glanced frequently out the window, her expression far away … perhaps she was seeing the village she had fled so long ago in the pond and the ducks and the wintry woods …

"So, it's great to see you Mona," Jo said, wiping the burger grease off her chin with a paper napkin, "but what are you doin here at Langley?"

Mona sipped her tea. "I'm going to spend the weekend with Natalie," she said. "The weekend before Valentine's Day – you understand? Natalie has just been jilted. It's going to be a difficult weekend for her. Squabbling with her old grandmother will be the perfect distraction."

"This is Langley College, Mona," Jo said gently. "Natalie goes to Eastland."

Jeez … Who woulda thought Mona Green would start losing her faculties so soon? She had a mind like a steel trap …

Mona laughed. She shook her head with affectionate tolerance. "Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo. Do you think I'm starting to unravel?"

"Mona … 'unravel' … that's such a harsh word," Jo said kindly.

"Do you think I'm losing my marbles, then?" Mona stretched a wrinkled old hand across the table, covered one of Jo's youthful hands. "I know Natalie attends Eastland, my dear. But she's taking an advanced biology course at Langley, on Fridays, now that she's decided to study medicine."

"Oh yeah," said Jo. "I forgot."

"I know you did, dear. But I wouldn't worry about it. It doesn't mean you're going senile, or anything."

Jo grinned.

"Touché, Mona."

Mona squeezed her hand.

"I'm meeting Natalie here," Mona glanced at her delicate wristwatch, "any minute now. She and Tootie are taking me to hear the Langley Octet. It's chamber music, Mendelssohn or something – it sounds a little elderly to me, but I don't like to complain."

"Chamber music – I think I'd rather be shot!" laughed Jo.

"Yes, well, the Langley Octet is no Aquarium, but I'm sure it will be fine. As long as I'm with my Natalie and my Tootie, I'm a happy person!"

"So how's life on the Upper West Side, Mona?"

"Oh, you know," Mona lifted her hands. "I don't complain. I have my apartment, I have my family, my friends, my temple. To be alive is a blessing. If only people realized that. Now you," Mona squeezed Jo's hand again, "you understand that. So many young people don't."

"Hey, when you grow up in the Bronx, you appreciate just bein alive," Jo said with feeling.

"That's the secret," said Mona. "People don't get it. Everyone is running around today, what do they call it, these 'Me' people, this crazy generation, trying to feel good all the time. But you don't really appreciate life until you have suffered."

"You might be onta somethin there," said Jo. "Some of the spoiled debutantes around here, they look bored outta their gourd half the time. It's like they're sleep walkin through life."

"Exactly!" Mona patted Jo's cheek. "Blair's not like that, though – is she?"

"No. She ain't," said Jo. "Blair's got a real zest for life."

Jo's mind flashed back to noontime …

Walking out of Standish Hall after class … There was Blair, in a fetching outfit, jeans and a parka and her little fur Russian cap, her hair a bit windblown, her cheeks rosy in the cold air, her eyes dancing with joy at seeing Jo, even though she'd just kissed her goodbye a few hours before …

Blair had a big paper bag full of peanut butter sandwiches and Ritz crackers and bananas and a thermos of coffee. She and Jo sat on the cold stone wall outside Standish and drank coffee out of the thermos cap while Jo ate two sandwiches and a banana and Blair nibbled at the crackers.

They talked … about nothing, really … Jo's classes … How Mrs. Garrett was going to teach Blair how to prepare some new dish that afternoon … About nothing, really, but Blair's face was so alive and bright as they talked …

Mona smiled at Jo. She took another sip of her tea. "So … Are you and Blair doing anything special this weekend?"

Jo grinned. "Yeah, I got this whole thing planned for tomorrow. We're gonna –"

She broke off, blushing. Mona had caught her off guard. It often seemed like Mona had figured out her and Blair's relationship, but Jo wasn't a hundred-percent sure.

Mona erased all doubts. "You know," she said, "not only am I not going senile, Jo, but like many babushkas, I've got a sixth sense for spotting a pretty girl – or in this case, two pretty girls – in love."

Jo's blush deepened. She looked down at the tabletop. "I'm still, ah, I'm still gettin used to people knowin. We figured you knew, but – I mean, I'm glad you know, but –"

"Jo. Vnooshka. The last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable. But be assured that I wish you and Blair nothing but love. Deep and everlasting love. It's not waiting around every corner, my dear, that I promise you! When you find it, never let it go!"

"We ain't plannin to," Jo said quietly. She squeezed Mona's liver-spotted old hand. "You're a pretty great old broad – you know?"

"Of course!" Mona patted her silvery hair. "When you've got it – you've got it!"

"Well, you got it," Jo laughed.

"Gramma Green!" cried an excited voice.

A second later the little old lady was being smothered by one of Tootie's exuberant hugs.

"Hello, my dear," said Mona, voice muffled by Tootie's heavy parka and scarf.

"Hey, now, step back, Tootie Ramsey," said Natalie. "She's my grandma."

"Eh, she's everyone's gramma," Jo said fondly. "Mona's the grandmother of all grammas!"

"Is that good?" asked Mona.

"It's great," said Jo. She stood up. Time to get home to my girl …

Tootie stepped aside, allowing Natalie to embrace Mona.

"My vnooshka," Mona said affectionately to Natalie, squeezing the chunky girl tight. "My little Natasha. You're skin and bones – skin and bones!"

"I am not, Grandma," objected Natalie.

"You are! You're wasting away."

"Well, before she disappears before our eyes," Jo said wryly, handing the paper bag to Tootie, "here's a couple more burgers. You and Nat can eat 'em."

"Thanks, Jo. That's really nice of you." Tootie hugged her friend.

"All right, all right," said Jo, stepping out of the hug as quickly as civility allowed. "Mush" still made her uncomfortable, especially in public. "It's not like I gave you a kidney or somethin."

"We studied kidneys today," said Natalie, sitting down across the table from her grandmother. "Did you know that with all the blood our kidneys filter, less than one percent of it actually becomes urine? Less than one percent!"

"You don't say!" said Mona. "And I ask you – why does it always have to finish processing in the middle of the night?"

"That's my cue to hit the road," said Jo, "when everyone starts talkin about blood and urine!"

"Jo's very squeamish," Natalie told Mona.

"I ain't squeamish," objected Jo, "I just don't like talkin about stuff inside the human body. It's hidden away in there for a reason, you know. It doesn't exactly make the best dinner conversation!"

"Squeamish," Natalie repeated. Mona nodded sagely.

Jo shook her head.


After Jo pulled into the garage at River Rock, the massive Victorian manor where she and Blair rented a suite from Mrs. Garrett, she cut the engine of her Kawasaki and pulled off her helmet.

Although the garage was heated, they kept it cooler than the rest of the manor; Jo shivered as she headed toward the door that led into one of River Rock's winding, mazy corridors …

The first thing that hit her was the aroma – the enticing, rich aroma of something she couldn't quite place drifting from the kitchen. Jo had intended to go directly upstairs and wash up, but the delicious scent mesmerized her, drawing her toward the kitchen.

"What is that?" she asked when she crossed the threshold into River Rock's vast, timbered kitchen.

Mrs. Garrett sat at the massive butcher block table, a cup of coffee in one hand and a Julia Child cookbook in the other. Her reading glasses were slipping down her nose, but she was concentrating so hard on the book she didn't notice.

Blair, in a lavender apron, shining blonde hair curling in fetching tendrils around her beautiful face, stirred a pot of something fragrant on one of the kitchen's stoves.

Blair looked up from the stove, her face dimpling prettily as she smiled at her fiancée.

"What is what, darling?" Blair asked.

"What is that amazin smell?" asked Jo. "Or, to be a total goof, 'What's cookin, good lookin'?"

Blair giggled. "I'm making us a special pre-Valentine's dinner."

"Well whatever it is, it smells great!"

"It's lobster. And it's all thanks to Mrs. Garrett."

"I merely supervised," Mrs. Garrett said absently. She turned a page in her cookbook. "Where is it?" she murmured to herself. "I know it was this cook book …"

"I never had lobster," Jo said doubtfully. She looked at the little pot Blair was stirring. "How'd ya get 'em to fit in there?"

"This is the butter, darling. The lobsters that smells so divine are in there," she nodded toward a massive, lidded stockpot bubbling away on another burner.

"We eat in ten minutes," said Blair, "if that's all right, Jo?"

"Sure," Jo said. "Just let me wash my hands and face. I'll be right back."

"No," said Blair, cheeks dimpling again, "I'll bring our meal upstairs."

"To the suite?"

"Yes, Jo. To the suite."

Jo grinned.

A romantic meal in their suite? That sounded pretty damn good! Even though she was pretty sure she wasn't going to like lobster. Well, at least I had that burger a little while ago! It ain't like I'm gonna starve …

"Hey, Mrs. G," said Jo. "Didja have a good day?"

"What? Oh, yes, Jo. A good day."

"What are you lookin for?"

"It's just … I know I saw it in this book."

"Saw what?"

"The recipe for Flaming Orange Butter Crepes Suzette."

"Flamin orange what?"

"Crepes Suzette. They're these tasty, delicate little pancakes."

"You gonna make 'em on your show?"

"I wasn't planning to, although –" she turned another page "that's not a bad idea. No, I'm planning a romantic dinner for Drake tomorrow night. He's already tasted so many of my best dishes. I want to do something spectacular."

"Mrs. G, everythin you cook is spectacular," Jo said sincerely.

Mrs. Garrett finally looked up from her cook book, beaming at Jo through her reading glasses.

"Why thank you, Jo," she said, sounding touched.

"It's just the truth," shrugged Jo …

In the cozy, wood-paneled suite that Jo and Blair shared, Jo decided against simply washing her hands and face. She stripped off her jeans, flannel shirt and thermal shirt, her underwear, socks and bra, dropping them here and there as she headed for the bathroom.

She turned on the hot and cold water taps in the narrow shower, waited until a warm steam wafted out, and then climbed inside.

The hot water felt good after riding her Kawasaki through wintery, rural Peekskill. Jo shampooed her hair, rinsing out the grease-and-coffee scent of the Campus Grill, and scrubbed herself from head-to-toe with Blair's violet-scented soap.

When Jo stepped out of the shower, squinting as water ran into her eyes, a warm towel was pressed into her hands.

"Here you are, darling," Blair said softly.

Blair sat on the edge of the tub, wearing her pretty lavender apron – and nothing else.

Jo's breath caught in her throat. Those long legs, those long arms, those beautiful breasts … would she ever stop being awed by Blair's beauty?

"Uh … hi," Jo said a little shyly. She dried her torso with the towel. "How'd ya know I was in here?"

"I just followed the bread crumbs," said Blair, nodding toward the socks and panties lying in little heaps near the door.

Jo dried her legs, and then her arms. Blair watched her, smiling.

"You're so cute," said Blair.

"True," Jo agreed. She dried her long dark hair.

"Jo?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Put the towel down."

"But I still got some –"

"Jo? Put the towel down and come here."

Jo dropped the towel.

Blair looked her fiancée up and down, from head to toe, with an appreciative quirk of one eyebrow.

Jo swallowed. Hard. It was really more of a gulp.

"Why do you look scared, darling?"

"Who says I'm scared?" Jo asked a little defensively.

But she was. Jo's heart started pounding in her chest.

It came over her sometimes, especially when Blair seduced her unexpectedly; it was a bashfulness, an inability to believe her good fortune. This amazing young woman, beautiful inside and out loved her, Jo Polniaczek from the Bronx …

It was too much to take in, sometimes. It was too much to understand. Blair had given up her family, her privileged life, had put her education on hold, all because she loved Jo …

Blair reached out and put her strong, beautiful hands on Jo's narrow hips.

"Come here," she said softly, pulling Jo toward her.

Blair pressed her face against Jo's flat stomach.

Jo's slipped her arms around Blair's shoulders. Her hands tangled in the blonde's abundant hair.

"Blair, I love you so much sometimes," Jo whispered.

"Only sometimes?" Blair teased. She kissed Jo's navel.

"Always. What I, what I mean to say is, I love you so much, sometimes I can't breathe."

Blair drew a deep breath. "Believe me, Jo … I know the feeling." She pressed her lips to Jo's stomach. "Sometimes I think I must be dreaming. I think … I'm going to wake up, and I'll be lying in some horrid little bed in some horrid room in the Gamma Gamma House."

"Are the rooms in Gamma Gamma house 'horrid'?" Jo asked curiously.

"No." Blair kissed Jo's left hip, and then her right. "The rooms are actually very pretty. But if I were there, I'd be all alone, instead of here, with people who love me … instead of being with you."

"Well, I'm here," Jo said firmly.

Blair's kisses were arousing Jo, melting away her bashfulness. Jo slipped her arms under Blair's, pulling the blonde, quite suddenly, to her feet.

"My goodness!" laughed Blair; now it was her turn to be caught by surprise.

Jo pressed her mouth against Blair's, tenderly at first, and then passionately. Jo slid her hands down Blair's arms, until she had gently pinioned the blonde's wrists.

"Take me," murmured Blair, tilting her head back, exposing her porcelain throat as if Jo were some sort of vampire.

Jo kissed Blair's throat hungrily, moving quickly to her collar bone, and then the blonde's full breasts. Jo nuzzled one dark nipple, began to take it into her mouth, but –

"Blair," she panted, "what about the lobsters?"

"Covered … serving … dishes," panted Blair.

God bless covered serving dishes! thought Jo.

She took the nipple into her mouth. Blair moaned …


I don't think I've ever been so damn clean in my life, thought Jo, as I've been this year.

That was the thing about having a hot, amorous fiancée. You were either bathing to prepare for sex … or during sex … or cleaning up after sex.

No wonder River Rock's water bill is so freakin high!

Jo was toweling herself dry after her second shower of the evening. Blair was already dry, brushing out her long blonde hair.

"Darling," said Blair, "wait here just another minute, will you? I want to be sure everything is perfect in our room."

"Whatever you say, babe."

"Hmm."

"'Hmm' what?" asked Jo, toweling her long dark hair.

"I was wondering if I could have that made up as a stamp – 'Whatever you say, babe'. It would save you time, since you're going to be saying that so often. For the rest of our lives."

"Har-har," said Jo, eyes dancing.

Yeah. We'll see how much I'm sayin that! Although, probably a lot, she had to admit. But a stamp?

Blair winked at Jo. She slipped out of the room on bare feet, a microscopic towel barely covering her from the top of her cleavage to the tops of her thighs.

Seeing Blair in that tiny towel gave Jo all sorts of wonderful ideas. But since they had just showered clean … and since even covered serving dishes wouldn't keep the lobsters warm forever … Jo decided to be good. She knotted her own towel around her torso, and waited patiently for the all clear.

"All right," Blair called a moment later. "Come in, Jo."

Jo pushed open the door to their bedroom. The first thing that caught her eye was the flickering candle light. Blair had set red candles in little glass holders all around the room. And they were scented. Not roses … something more exotic … rather spicy, and warm.

Blair had turned on the radio on the night table, tuned it to Langley College's classical station. Something pretty was playing. Jo's knowledge of classical music was extremely limited; Blair and Alec were educating her slowly, but she had a feeling it was never going to be one of her strong suits.

Jo did know what she liked, and she liked this piece. It sounded to her like fleecy clouds drifting across a warm blue summer sky.

There was a bucket filled with ice and a bottle of champagne on the night table.

There was a tray on the bed containing silverware and silver covered serving dishes; the most delicious aroma wafted from them.

But most importantly, Blair lay on the bed in a filmy lavender negligee and peignoir.

"Happy almost-Valentine's Day, Jo."

Jo smiled.

Was it only a couple of hours ago she'd been sweating over a hot grill at the campus center? And now, it was like being transported to freakin Fantasy Island. Or the Love Boat. Or the Love Boat docked at Fantasy Island!

Jo climbed onto the bed, sitting cross-legged next to Blair.

"Can I kiss you?" asked Jo.

"Darling … You can do whatever you want to do."

"Hmm," said Jo.

"'Hmm' what?" Blair asked curiously.

"I was just thinkin … We could maybe get that put on a stamp, on account of you're gonna be sayin it so much, our whole lives."

Blair flicked Jo playfully with a cloth serviette.

"Hey," protested Jo, "it's almost Valentine's Day. You don't wanna injure me before the big day."

"I think you'll live," said Blair.

Jo cupped her lover's face with one hand, leaned over and kissed her gently.

"Everything is beautiful, babe. I can't believe you did all this."

"It was easy," Blair said modestly, but her cheeks tinged pink with modest pride. It always moved her, how grateful Jo was, sometimes about the smallest things. Having grown up in a world where nothing was ever enough, it touched Blair to see how much Jo appreciated even simple things.

"Shall I open the champagne?" asked Jo.

"Like I said, darling … Whatever you like."

Jo lifted the heavy bottle from the bucket. Beads of icy water rolled down her hand.

She regarded the label suspiciously.

"Babe … this looks, real, real expensive."

"Oh, it is. But don't worry, Jo, we didn't spend a penny."

"Jeez, Blair – you shopliftin now?"

Blair rolled her eyes.

"Well then where did it come from?" Jo wondered.

"From mother's wine cellar."

"How does a penthouse have a wine cellar?"

"It's just an expression, Jo. From mother's vast collection of alcoholic beverages. I took it last November, when we first moved into River Rock. Before I cut myself off. So at that point in time it was legally mine … and now, darling, it's ours to enjoy."

"Sounds good to me," said Jo.

She opened the champagne. The cork ricocheted off the headboard, pegging her in the eye.

"Ow! How do I always do that?"

"I don't know, Jo. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, fine." Champagne was bubbling over the mouth of the bottle, running down Jo's hand. She hastily poured out two glasses, handed one to Blair, set the bottle back in its iced bucket.

Jo wrapped one arm around Blair's shoulders. She clinked glasses with her fiancée.

"To us, Blair. Now and forever."

"To us, Jo."

They sipped the champagne.

It was good, thought Jo. She licked her lips. It was very good … a little dry, a little sweet, plenty bubbly. She took another drink of the pale gold liquid.

"I knew you'd like it," said Blair. She nuzzled Jo's neck. "I'm getting to know your tastes, darling, little by little."

"You sure are," Jo said appreciatively. "So, speakin of taste … How 'bout we eat?"

Blair nodded.

One by one she uncovered the dishes. The scent was intoxicating.

Smells like freakin ambrosia! thought Jo. But it was hard for her to get past the look of the lobsters, one for Blair, one for her, lying on the china plates. They were a blazing scarlet, somehow beautiful, tragic and intimidating all at once.

The claws looked rather menacing; the claws were even bigger than the lobsters were! I feel kinda like I'm in a scene from "Alien" …

"Is anything wrong?" Blair asked a little anxiously.

"No. They smell amazin, Blair. So delicious. But, ah, how do you, you know, uh …" Jo made little motions with her hands, pantomiming using a knife and fork.

Oh my goodness … What an idiot I am! thought Blair. Of course Jo would never have eaten a lobster before. Too expensive for Rose or Charlie to have bought and prepared … and when would they have taken Jo to a restaurant that served lobster? And the Eastland Academy budget had never allowed Mrs. Garrett to cook and serve lobster to the students.

"It's actually pretty simple," Blair said encouragingly. "We start like this," she tied a large serviette around her neck, then one around Jo's neck.

Jo chuckled. "OK, well … there goes all the sexiness," she laughed.

Blair raised one eyebrow.

"By which I mean there goes my sexiness," Jo said hastily. "Cause you, even with the bib thing – totally freakin sexy! Blazin hot, babe."

Blair nodded her acceptance of this compliment as her mere due.

"Now," she said, "we twist off the claws."

Jo attentively watched how Blair performed this maneuver, then followed suit.

"Perfect, Jo. Now, we use these," Blair handed Jo one of two silver lobster picks, "to remove the claw meat … like so … and then we dip it in the butter … like so."

Blair took a bite, a rivulet of butter running down her chin and onto the serviette.

"Mmn," she said. "You try it, Jo."

Jo tried it.

She hesitated just before she placed the lobster meat onto her tongue, but then, Don't be a damn scaredy-cat, she thought. Down the hatch, and look out below!

"Mmn," Jo said. "Wow!" The flavor was even richer than she'd expected from the scent. "Son of a gun, Blair – this is incredible!"

Blair flushed prettily. "You really like it?"

"Oh, yeah. Wow. I wish we could afford this all the time. But I guess, let's make this one of our things, you know? For special occasions?"

"That's a lovely idea."

Blair showed Jo how to eat the rest of the lobster, how to twist off the tail and push out the tail meat; how to dip the legs in butter and suck out the meat.

When they were finished eating Jo lay back against the pillows, wiping her hands and face on the serviette. The lobster was so damn delicious … and the act of eating it was so sensual … almost barbaric … Who knew rich people ate with their hands sometimes, like the hoi polloi?

"Here, darling," Blair handed Jo a glass of freshly poured champagne. She clinked her own glass against Jo's. "To your health."

"Na zdrowie," said Jo. "To your health too, babe." She quaffed the champagne in one thirsty gulp. The bubbles tickled her nose; the champagne burned a warm path down her throat, into her chest. Jo set her glass down on the night table, closed her eyes.

Jo giggled.

"Jo – did you just giggle?" asked Blair.

"What?"

"I asked if you just giggled."

"Me? Come on. Get real," Jo said, without opening her eyes. She yawned contentedly.

"You did. Jo Polniaczek, I heard you giggle!"

"Then why'd ya ask?"

"Because I can hardly believe my ears. So. After three-and-a-half years, I finally know what tames the savage Jo-beast: champagne and lobster."

"Eh, you're champagne and lobster," Jo said with a sleepy grin. She reached out blindly, put her arms around Blair, pulled her close. "How come you burn the oatmeal, but you cook this amazin lobster?"

"I do not burn the oatmeal. Much. Any more."

Jo kissed Blair. "You ain't such a bad cook after all. Maybe I will marry you."

Blair flicked Jo with her serviette. Jo laughed.

"You'd better marry me," Blair said severely. "After all of the sexual favors I've given you! We're getting married as soon as it's legal somewhere."

"I have a feelin we'll be way past the sexual favor stage by then," Jo said a little glumly.

"Jo. Don't think that way."

"You're right, you're right. I'll think positive. Maybe we can get married next year. Or the year after."

"Make it the year after," said Blair. She hugged Jo fiercely. "We'll have the biggest wedding, darling. I'll have my fortune then. We'll invite everybody and to hell with whoever won't come."

"Whomever," Jo sleepily corrected her.

Blair flicked Jo with the serviette.

"Is this horrible abuse gonna continue?" asked Jo. "I mean, after we're married. Ain't there something about honor thy wife and don't knocketh her about the head and face with a dinner napkin?"

"I am unfamiliar with that portion of the marriage vows," said Blair. She flicked Jo again.

"Ow!"

"Don't be a baby, Jo. And wake up. It's still early."

"You said I could do anything I wanted, right? Well I wanna take a little nap. You should take one too. Gonna need our energy for tomorrow."

"Just tomorrow?"

"No." Jo grinned. She kissed Blair's forehead. "Not just tomorrow, Miss Smarty-Pants Warner."

"You're the smarty-pants, darling. I'm the dumb blonde." She kissed Jo's cheek in a sweet, appealing manner. "Jo?"

"Mmn?"

"What do you have planned for tomorrow?"

Jo snorted. "Well, you really are shameless – ain't ya?"

"Whatever do you mean?" Blair asked innocently.

"Tryin to worm it outta me when I'm half asleep with the food stupids. Ha!"

"I'm sure I have no idea what you're accusing me of."

"You'll find out tomorrow what I got planned for tomorrow," Jo said firmly. "And no cute little smiles are gonna get it outta me any sooner."

"Aw, crud," said Blair.

Jo laughed.


When Jo woke later, drowsy and sated, the candles were still flickering but they had burned down low.

Jo reached for Blair … and found nothing but an armful of pillows.

"Babe?" Jo lifted herself onto one elbow. She looked around the bedroom. Empty. "Babe? Where are you?" she called.

"In here. Do you want to join me, Jo?"

Jo swung her legs over the side of the bed, pulled on a blue silk robe. She didn't bother to tie it; the suite was toasty warm, and it wasn't as if she needed to cover up any part of her body from Blair.

In the sitting room, Jo found Blair standing in front of her easel; she'd set it up in the middle of the room. On it was a painting – or something roughly the size and shape of a painting – draped with a white cloth.

Blair, primly wrapped in her lavender silk robe, sat on the divan, eyes shining with excitement, biting her lip in some anxiety.

"Didja paint somethin?" asked Jo. "Neat! Can I see it, babe?"

Blair swallowed nervously. "Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"You remember how I was painting you as Artemis last autumn?"

"Yeah. Oh. Yeah. So this is it?" Jo asked excitedly. "I finally get to see it?"

"Yes. I want you to see it now because I submit it to the Langley Art Contest tomorrow."

Jo rubbed her hands together. "This is so cool, babe!" But then, her old reservations returning, "You're sure no one's gonna recognize me – right? I mean, I'm gettin all civilized and stuff, and that's OK, but I still got a rep in some circles."

"Trust me, Jo – no one will suspect Artemis is modeled on you. Well …"

"Well what?" Jo asked nervously. "What does that mean?"

"Mrs. Garrett might recognize you. And Tootie and Natalie. Maybe Alec, too. After all – they know how much time we spend together in, ah, various states of undress. And Alec's nickname for you is, literally, Artemis."

"Aw, jeez." Jo shifted from one foot to the other. Unconsciously, she closed her silk robe and secured the belt. "Well … I guess it is what it is. If the musketeers recognize me, that's not the end of the world. Is it? I mean, you made Artemis look cool – right? She ain't, like, skipping through the daisies or somethin goofy, is she? She looks pretty tough, right?"

"I'll let you be the judge, darling."

Blair twitched the drop cloth; it slid slowly off the canvas before falling to the floor.

Jo's mouth dropped open. She stared at the painting, mesmerized …

She knew Blair sketched. Blair had always sketched when they were at Eastland. And she knew Blair painted. Blair had painted scenery for Tootie's plays, and she'd won several Eastland art contests when they were enrolled there. But Jo had no idea that Blair could paint like this

It was beautiful … Artemis was beautiful … Perfectly nude, her back to the viewer … Or no, not quite nude; she was draped in a sheer gown as insubstantial as cloud, as gossamer. She was mythically graceful and feminine … And so damn strong!

The young goddess' lean, beautifully sculpted muscles were taut; she had been captured at that moment, that precise second when she had drawn her bowstring back to her perfect shell-shaped ear and was about to release it, letting her arrow fly …

Artemis dominated the foreground. She was almost life-sized. The level of detail was incredible … every strand of her auburn hair, piled in fetching curls atop her noble head, or falling in lovely tendrils down her neck, was clear and distinct. Every muscle, every shadow and hollow, every minute bead of perspiration on her clean flesh … It was like looking at the goddess come to life in one perfect moment.

She appeared to be in a grove … a glen … a glade … one of those perfect green oases where the ancient Greek gods and goddesses were supposed to hang around. There were shapes in the near distance like trees, a glint in the far distance like a body of clear water.

There was the gleam of a marble temple among the trees. There were indistinct figures in white robes in the background.

Blair was literally biting her nails. "Darling? What do you think?"

Jo sank onto one of the chairs, mouth still open, eyes still glued to the canvas.

"Babe … You're gonna win. It's beautiful."

Blair exhaled. She hadn't even realized she'd stopped breathing while Jo examined the painting.

"You really like it, Jo?"

"I adore it! Blair – do you have any idea how talented you are? Lookin at this paintin, it's like, it's like listenin to Alec play Rach 3 on the baby grand."

Blair stopped chewing on her thumbnail. "Really?" she asked. "You really – don't hate it?"

"Yeah. Blair, I never seen anythin like it, even at the Met. And I'm not worried about anyone figurin out she's me, cause she ain't, Blair. She's so perfect. She's a warrior."

"She's you," Blair insisted. "She's how I see you."

Jo took a deep breath. She was so moved she couldn't speak for a moment. "Well, babe," she said huskily, "I just hope you still love me when your rose-colored glasses fall off."

Blair covered her face with her hands. "You like it. You like it! Hallelujah!"

Jo laughed. "Babe, did you just make a religious exclamation?"

"You really like it? You don't mind that I'm entering it in the contest?"

"Blair, you should submit it to the freakin Louvre, not the Langley Art Contest."

"So, you do like it?"

Jo shook her head affectionately. "You know, babe, it's lucky for you I already knew how needy and insecure you were before I fell in love with you!"

That brought Blair back to earth. She smiled – and tossed a sofa cushion at Jo.

Jo dodged it easily. "And we now return to our regularly scheduled programmin," she laughed.

Blair stood, crossed the floor so that she was standing next to Jo. The blonde squinted critically as she regarded her painting.

"I don't want to sound vain," Blair said quietly, "but it's the best work I've ever done."

"How'd you get all that detail?"

"Hours and hours of painting," said Blair. "Painting and touching it up and painting again. And of course," her lips quirked in a mischievous smile, "hours and hours of studying your anatomy, Jo."

Jo flushed. "You really … She's really based on me?"

"Yes, darling."

Jo tilted her head, regarding the canvas thoughtfully.

"Blair … Is my butt really, uh –"

"Yes. It is."

"And my thighs, are they, uh –"

"Yes. They are."

"Well no wonder I drive you mad with freakin desire," laughed Jo.

Blair leaned her head against Jo's shoulder.

"Yes. You do." She kissed Jo's shoulder through the thin fabric of the silk robe. "Jo?"

"Mmn?" Jo was still enraptured by the painting.

"Did you have a good rest?"

"Yep."

"Do you know why I'm asking, darling?"

"Yep."

Jo swept Blair into her arms so suddenly that the blonde gasped.

"Fasten your seat belt, babe," said Jo. "I'm feelin pretty goddess-like right now."

Blair swooned a little as Jo carried her into the bedroom.


The phone in the sitting room rang … and rang … and rang …

"Arnchoonser?" mumbled Blair. She pulled the blankets up over her head so that she was completely covered.

"Wha?" muttered Jo, sitting up slowly.

The phone rang … and rang … and rang …

Jo snapped on the little lamp on her nightstand. She squinted against the suddenly bright light.

The clock on the night table read three-oh-five a.m.

"Who the hell's callin at this time of night?" Jo wondered irritably. And then, a cold finger of fear racing down her spine, "Who the hell is callin at this time of night?"

She tore back the blankets, swung her legs over the side of the bed. She felt sleepy, logy from too much good food and champagne and love making.

Christ … Lord in heaven, please don't let anyone be hurt.

As Jo dashed to the sitting room, bare feet slapping on the hard wood floor, she touched the little silver cross around her neck, the one that Blair had given her for Christmas.

Lord let everyone be safe.

Jo crossed the sitting room floor to the black Princess telephone hanging unobtrusively in a little nook. She took a second to steel herself, and then lifted the receiver.

"River Rock," she said quietly. "Jo speakin."

Silence.

"Hello? Is anyone there?"

There was a heavy breath, a drunken little chuckle, and then –

"Well, well, well," sneered a woman's voice. "You almost sound like a civilized human being."

Damn. Monica … a very drunk Monica.

Jo's first impulse was to hang up. She'd dealt with drunks before – not her parents, thank God, but some of her friends' parents, some of the people in her neighborhood, and, on occasion, her own Aunt Evelyn. Jo knew that when someone was drunk, and looking for a fight, you couldn't talk them out of it.

She moved to drop the receiver back in its cradle … But – Dammit! – she couldn't quite bring herself to hang up on her future mother-in-law.

"What do you want, Monica?" Jo asked neutrally.

"Monica? Monica? Oh, now it's Monica. I asked you a hundred times to call me Monica, but it was always Mrs. Warner, Mrs. Warner, so polite! And all the while you were deflowering my baby!"

Jo's stomach knotted. Monica's voice was thick with drink, and coarse, almost – but not quite – at that maudlin stage when a drunk begins to weep.

"Look, Monica, you're welcome here any time, but you can't call like this," Jo said firmly.

"Oh, I can't, can I?" Monica asked. "Now you listen to me, you little tart – I'll do whatever I damn well please where my daughter is concerned! Do you know what you're doing to her?"

"Loving her," Jo said simply.

Monica laughed, an ugly, grating sound. There was clink of ice cubes in the background, a gurgle of liquor being poured into a glass.

"I'm not ready to sleep yet," Monica slurred. "I'm wide awake, Jo. I can't seem to sleep anymore. Because when I sleep I have these terrible dreams. Everyone wants to know where Blair is, Jo! And I can't lie, can I? I can't say she's in Austria or London or Moscow or Buenos Aires or anywhere, can I? Because she's right up there in Peekskill, with all sorts of other Society children, so people know where she is … But they don't understand why she isn't where she should be!"

"Monica –"

"Blair missed the entire holiday season! From beginning to end! Do you understand how odd that looks? I keep telling everyone she's mourning her estrangement from Alec – and then I learn that two-faced bastard is still living with all of you! How does that look?"

"Monica –"

"How much do you want, Jo? Name a figure and we'll cut you a check. You can't name a figure too high. You can't conceive of how wealthy we are."

"You can't conceive of how much I love Blair."

Monica snorted. "Love. Love, love, love, love," she said in a sing-song voice. "Love!" With complete scorn. "You don't have any idea what you're playing at, do you? You are playing with dynasties, with fortunes, with the gods of New York! How do you think this is going to end?"

Jo couldn't listen to any more.

"Call us when you sober up," she said.

Jo hung up the phone, and then took the receiver off the hook.

The line would ring busy for anyone else calling – but people didn't call River Rock at three a.m. And if it was an emergency, they could call Mrs. Garrett's private line – a phone number that, Jo fervently hoped, Monica Warner did not have …

"Who was it?" murmured Blair, three-quarters asleep and still hidden under a mound of blankets.

Jo slipped into bed next to the heiress, put her arms around Blair's waist.

"Your mother," Jo said.

Blair groaned.

"What did she want?" Blair asked sleepily. "Do I want to know?"

"No."

"She wasn't calling to reconcile?"

"No."

"What did she say?"

Jo kissed Blair's neck. "She offered me a fortune to give you up."

"What did you say?"

"I got her up to ten million. She's drivin a Brinks truck up to Peekskill tomorrow."

Blair giggled sleepily.

"Why are you laughin?" asked Jo. "I think ten mil's pretty good. Shoulda held out for more, huh?"

"A lot more," mumbled Blair. She nudged Jo's leg with her big toe. "You are such a dork."

"I am, huh? I'm a dork? That's my thanks for givin up millions of smackeroos?"

"Exactly. Only a dork would give up millions of smackeroos. You should have asked for a hundred million."

"Wow. A hundred million," said Jo. "We coulda took the money and run away together. Tahiti. I like the thought of you in one of those little coconut-bra things, babe."

"Like in 'South Pacific'?"

"Yeah."

"You'd look cute in one of those too."

"Thanks."

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Did mother sound … Is she OK?"

"No."

"What did she sound like?"

"She was drunk, Blair."

"She was drinking?"

"She was drunk. I told her … I told her to call back when she sobered up."

"Was she rude to you?"

"Babe …"

"What did she say, Jo?"

"Don't really wanna talk about it."

Blair snuggled closer to her fiancée. She kissed Jo's mouth softly. "Thank you, Jo."

"You're welcome."

"Do you know what I'm thanking you for?"

"Um – my unbelievable sexual stamina?"

Blair giggled. She nudged Jo with her toe again. "I love you, Neanderthal."

"Love you too, Princess."


Saturday, February 11, 1984. Jo slept fitfully until 6 a.m., then pulled on a warm robe and her moccasins and padded down to the kitchen.

The kitchen was where everyone at River Rock, resident and guest, seemed to end up sooner or later. There was always hot pot of coffee on the stove.

The enticing fragrance of fresh coffee enveloped Jo as she stepped into the large, timbered room. Mrs. Garrett was poring over a stack of cook books. Mona Green was sitting at the butcher block table, sipping hot tea with lemon and humming an old Russian love song.

Jo made a grunting sound meant to indicate good morning.

"Good morning, Jo," Mrs. Garrett said absently.

"Good morning, vnooshka," said Mona. "You want I pour you a cup of tea? Or are you a coffee person?"

Jo made another grunt, poured herself a mug of coffee at the stove.

"You look troubled," Mona said shrewdly.

"Jo's just not much of a morning person," said Mrs. Garrett. She closed the cook book she'd been skimming, set it aside and opened the next one on the stack.

Mona squinted at Jo. "Something happened," Mona insisted.

Jo nodded. She sat between the two women, blowing on her coffee to cool it.

"Monica Warner," Jo muttered. "Callin at 3 a.m."

Mona shook her head.

"A very troubled woman," Mona said. "I saw that the first moment I met her last Thanksgivin. That one, she doesn't just borrow trouble; she goes looking for it! And no good ever came from that."

"Well, if she calls us that early again, she's gonna find some trouble," grumbled Jo. "It's mean to say, but the only good thing about them not approvin of me and Blair is that I don't hafta deal with them on a regular basis."

"Ah – but someday you will," said Mona. "And the tone you set now is the tone that will last!"

Jo sighed. "I know. That's why I'm all, I mean, they're so rude to us, but I'm bein respectful, even when I wanna spit nails."

Mona pinched Jo's cheeks. "You are a rare girl in this age, Jo Polniaczek, who knows how to treat her elders. Even when they are behaving very badly."

"Eh, it's no big deal."

"What's no big deal?" asked Blair breezing into the kitchen.

She was clearly planning to ride Chestnut; she wore riding breeches, riding boots, and a green-flecked tweed coat. Her shining hair was caught in a red velvet ribbon. There was the faintest touch of mascara on her eyelashes, the faintest touch of gloss on her lips. Her cheeks were pink not from rouge but a recent scrubbing with soap and water.

"How do you do that?" asked Jo, in both admiration and envy.

"How do I do what?" asked Blair, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

"You can't possibly've been up for more than a coupla minutes."

Blair nodded. "I got up right after you did. What about it?"

"How can you look like that? You're, it's like you're goin to the Polo Grounds."

Blair sipped her black coffee. "Since they were torn down about twenty years ago –"

"You know what I mean, Blair. How do you look so freakin gorgeous so quickly?"

Blair blushed prettily. "Why thank you, Jo."

"But how do you do it?"

"I don't know. I don't do anything. I just brush my teeth and go."

"Touché," Jo said admiringly. "Except, when I do that, I don't exactly look like you."

"And thank God," smiled Blair. "I don't want you to look like anyone but you, dah-, that is, you, ah, dagnab varmint, you!"

Jo laughed. She put a friendly arm around Mona's slight shoulders. "Blair – Mona's already seen through our carefully constructed façade."

"And you have my blessing," said Mona. "I remember when I was not much younger than you are now, there were two girls in the village. They were beauties. I remember, so clearly, how they walked to the well together every morning to draw water. Until the soldiers came … but that's not a story for Valentine's Day weekend."

"Oh, Mona – thank heavens you already figured it out," sighed Blair, putting a hand to her heart.

"If she hadn't, your 'dagnab varmint' woulda given the show away anyhow," snorted Jo.

"I thought I recovered rather nicely," Blair objected.

"Babe – 'dagnab varmint'? When would you ever say 'dagnab varmint'?"

"Bugs Bunny says it."

"Nah – it's Yosemite Sam. And either way – I rest my case!"

Blair stuck out her tongue at Jo. "I can quote cartoons if I choose. You make me sound like some out-of-touch debutante."

"Oh, I almost forgot," Mrs. Garrett said, putting aside the cookbooks for a moment and digging through a stack of mail on the table. "This –" she handed a glossy magazine to Blair, "is for you."

"Thank you," said Blair, taking the magazine.

Mrs. Garrett turned her attention to the cookbooks again.

"What's that?" Jo asked, eyes dancing with merriment as she tried to read the title of Blair's magazine.

"It appears to be some sort of publication," Blair said nonchalantly, sipping her coffee.

"Yeah, but which one? That the 'Bugs Bunny Bugle'?"

"Har-har."

"The 'Yosemite Sam Sentinel'?"

"You're getting as bad as Natalie."

"Hey – I studied a little journalism too." Jo tilted her head, trying to read the magazine title. Blair rolled up the magazine so Jo couldn't read the title. "What are you hidin, Blair? That some kinda outta-touch debutante type of magazine?"

"Well, I'm off now," Blair said hastily.

Jo laughed. "I'll take that as a 'yes'. Say 'yo' to Chestnut for me."

"I will."

"You ain't gonna be too long, are you?" Jo asked a little anxiously. "I want us to get to the city pretty early. Got a lot of stuff planned today." Jo waggled her eyebrows.

"I won't be too long, darling. Just a brief ride, and then I'll drop off my painting at the Langley Art Center."

"Need any help loadin it in the truck?"

"No. I can handle it. It's only a canvas, Jo – it isn't framed yet."

"Well pardon me for offerin to help," griped Jo.

Blair smiled at her. "I do appreciate the offer, Jo. But I'm not a completely helpless debutante – some opinions to the contrary. Although, if you could, perhaps, wash this …" She set her empty coffee cup on the table in front of her lover. "Ta, darling." She patted Jo's cheek; she crossed to the doorway, and blew Jo a kiss.

"Don't fall off Chestnut!" Jo called sarcastically as the slap of Blair's boots receded down the long hallway.

"Young love," said Mona, shaking her head. "I remember one time my husband got me so mad, I cracked him across the head with a skillet." She sighed wistfully.

Jo laughed. Cracked over the head with a skillet – is that something Blair would ever do to her? Perhaps. If provoked enough. But it wouldn't be too hard of a crack – or so she fervently hoped!

"I wish my little Natalie would find love – real love!" said Mona. "It doesn't even have to last – she's still so young, I know. But love with some boy that's worth more than that silly Belmont Keane. A boy with some substance. I don't think that' so terribly much to ask."

"It ain't," said Jo. "And Nat'll find a guy like that. Don't worry, Mona."

"Worried? Who's worried? I'm impatient – there's a difference."

"Gramma, stop worrying about me," said Natalie, ambling into the kitchen in her bathrobe, her hair as tangled as a rat's nest. Tootie, yawning, followed in her best friend's wake.

"Stop worrying about you?" Mona demanded. "Do you want me to stop breathing, maybe, too?"

"Thought you said you weren't worried," grinned Jo.

"Of course I'm worried! I'm her grandmother! So sue me."

Jo laughed.

Natalie rolled her eyes. "I told you last night, Gramma, I'm too busy with school to date any boys right now. And I'm so busy with the Eastland Gazette. Just because I'm going to study medicine doesn't mean I'm going to stop keeping up with current events. I've got so much research to do, so many editorials to write! I have to watch the Winter Olympics, and the Space Shuttle is landing today, and who knows what the Kremlin is up to!"

"Yeah – you gotta watch them every minute," Jo deadpanned.

"No pretty girl should ever be too busy to date," Mona said firmly.

"With the losers I seem to pick," said Natalie, "believe me, it's better if I don't date!"

Tootie hugged Mona. "Grandma Green, if you find any boys that Natalie doesn't want, just send them my way! I'm never too busy to date; I just haven't fallen in love yet."

"Oh, but you will, vnooshka," said Mona, fondly pinching Tootie's face. "And more than once, I suspect. Great actresses have great loves!"

"Great loves," Tootie breathed dreamily.

"Well before you get caught up in those great loves, how 'bout whippin up some great cocoa?" asked Jo.

"I can do that," Tootie said cheerfully.

"I'll make the oatmeal," said Natalie, "before Blair comes down and volunteers."

"No worries," chuckled Jo. "She's already out of the house."

"So early?" Nat rummaged in a cupboard, pulled out a big metal pot.

"Yeah. She's got stuff to do before we head into the city."

"So where are you taking her?" asked Mona, eyes twinkling. "I'll bet you have something really romantic planned."

"Gramma!" said Natalie, almost dropping the pot. "What are you talking about?" She looked hard at Jo. "What is Gramma talking about, Jo?"

"Eh, keep your wig on," Jo said. "Mona's all up to speed on me and Blair's situation."

"And what situation would that be?" Natalie asked menacingly.

"For heaven's sake," Mona said to Natalie, "do you think I just fell off the borscht wagon? The way these two look at each other, so tenderly, or, sometimes, so angrily – Do you think I can't see the way the wind is blowing?"

Tootie hugged Mona. "Sharp eye, Mrs. Green! Sometimes I think you and I are soul sisters even more than me and Nat!"

"But Gramma – aren't you shocked?" demanded Natalie.

"Of course not," Mona said with spirit. "Natalie, you treat me like I've spent my life wrapped in cellophane. I've been through famine, war, pestilence, the Great Depression. Nothing shocks me. Now your generation – everything shocks you. One of the many reasons I worry about you girls."

"You don't gotta worry about me, Mona," said Jo. "You grow up in the Bronx, you see pretty much everythin at some point."

Mona patted her hand. "My neighbor, Mrs. Krejmer, is from the Bronx. The stories she tells …"

"Hey, no big deal. It's just home-sweet-home."

Natalie poured oats and milk into the metal pot. She rummaged through a couple of drawers until she found a big wooden spoon.

"No offense to anybody, but this Valentine's Day is the worst ever," Natalie groused. "Only Jo and Blair are in any kind of relationship."

"It ain't a 'kind of relationship', it's a relationship," Jo said irritably.

"Well pardon me," said Natalie, vigorously stirring the oatmeal.

"And Jo and Blair don't have the market cornered on romance," said Mrs. Garrett, closing one cookbook and picking up another. "Drake and I are getting, well, pretty darn serious."

Jo beamed at her surrogate mother. "That's wonderful, Mrs. G. He's a lucky guy."

"So I keep telling him." Mrs. Garrett patted her bun of red hair while she flipped through the pages of the book. "Crepes Suzette," she murmured. "Crepes Suzette ..."

"I'm seeing a very nice gentleman," Mona said with a smile.

"Gramma! When did this happen? Who?" Natalie demanded.

"His name is Sol Silverberg. We met at temple. He's new to Manhattan. I'm showing him the sights."

"Now that's one hot Gramma!" Tootie said approvingly. She gave Mona a high-five, which Mona returned with surprising strength, given her diminutive stature.

"Fantastic!" Natalie said, grimacing. "The lesbians have romance. The over-fifties have romance. Even the over-seventies have romance! I give up!"

"That's the wrong attitude," Mona said critically. "Finding love can be a little bit of work sometimes, but it's worth it."

"Forget it. Valentine's Day sucks – that's my motto this week and I'm sticking to it!"

"Hear, hear," said Alec, ambling into the kitchen, bare-foot, bare-chested, his robe belted casually over his pajama pants. His dark curls corkscrewed wildly around his sublimely handsome, perfectly chiseled face. He stretched, yawned, cracked his neck.

"Alec, when are you going to start dressing appropriately in the morning?" Natalie demanded, stirring the oatmeal so hard some of it flew out of the pot and spattered the counter.

"I'm wearing pants – and a robe," Alec said reasonably in his plummy British accent. "I'm perfectly decent."

"That's a matter of debate," said Nat.

"Alec, you're supposed to wear a pajama top in the kitchen," Mrs. Garrett said. "We've been over this several times."

Alec sat down on a kitchen stool, leaned his sleepy head on his hands. "What does it matter?" he asked miserably. "It's not as if I'm driving the women of the household wild with desire. It's not as if I'm driving anyone wild with desire."

"Jeez, Louise, you sound as bad as Portia these days," complained Jo. "Show a little backbone, for cryin out loud! It's not like Jacqueline totally dumped you. She just, er, is makin you wait years and years before she'll agree to marry you." Damn – that is pretty awful! Poor Alec.

"Easy for you to cast stones," Alec said dully. "You've got your beautiful inamorata. Whereas I have … nothing but a broken heart."

"Exactly!" Natalie said. "For those of us with broken hearts, all this Valentine's gush is hard to take!"

"Hear, hear," Alec agreed. "A pox upon Valentine's Day, and all the self-satisfied gloaters who celebrate it and rub it in our heartbroken faces!"

"Well pardon me for bein lovable," said Jo. "I ain't gonna go around mopin because you two can't snap out of it. Alec, you should be sittin outside Jacqueline's window, serenadin her or somethin. And Nat, you should be goin to the Eastland singles dance tonight. Never know who you might meet."

Natalie raised her eyebrows. "Excuse me? Is Jo Polniaczek lecturing me about romance?"

"Well somebody's gotta! And you ain't listenin to your Gramma."

"Natalie, you didn't tell me there's a singles dance at Eastland tonight," said Mona.

"Of course I didn't! I knew you'd make me go."

"Of course I'll make you go. Natalie, vnooshka, finding a new love is the best way to cure losing an old love. Listen to me – I know!"

"Well I'm going," said Tootie, stirring the pan of hot chocolate. "Hearts – get ready to break!"

"I have tons of biology homework," Natalie said. "And math homework. And they're showing 'Rebecca' on TV tonight. Who has time for a stupid singles dance?"

"You do," Mona said firmly. "My goodness. How does a girl give up on love at sixteen – going on seventeen? I'd like to give that Belmont Keane a good crack with my skillet!"

"Stand in line," muttered Natalie.

"If only you had a beau," Mona mused, brain racing. "Not a real beau, but someone to make other boys jealous. Nothing attracts a man's interest like a dashing rival."

"Gramma! This isn't Plotzberg circa 1932!"

"Too bad it isn't!" Mona shot back. "People knew how to talk to their elders back then!"

Natalie sighed. "I'm sorry, Gramma. It's just, I've finally resigned myself to a painful, loveless existence. Why can't you accept that?"

"Natalie Green, stop being so defeatist. There are millions of fishes in the sea. You just have to bait the hook properly. If only you had some handsome friend, some boy that would be willing to stand in as your escort tonight. He'd have to be … hmmm." She glanced speculatively at Alec.

"Oh no!" Natalie said, catching Mona's drift instantly. "Forget it! I am not going to the Eastland singles dance with Lord Nethridge as my phony date."

"Why not?" Alec asked, looking a little hurt.

"Please. Go with you?"

"Jeez, Nat, why doncha just kick him in the head?" Jo demanded. "Talk about insultin!"

"I don't mean it in an insulting way," Natalie said. "It's just – I mean, he's Alec. It would be weird."

"No … Not insulting at all," Alec murmured.

"You're like our brother," Natalie clarified. "I'm sorry – that did sound mean. But I just couldn't do it."

"It's not like you gotta make out with him," said Jo. "Just show up with him. That'll make those Bates morons sit up and take notice."

"Exactly," said Mona. "A handsome fellow like Lord Nethridge, that'll have all the boys looking at you like you're the belle of the ball!"

"I am available," Alec said. "I'm game if you are, Natalie. I make a smashing pretend boyfriend – just ask Blair."

"That's a very sweet offer," Mrs. Garrett told him approvingly.

Natalie shook her head. She gave the oatmeal a final stir, then started spooning it into bowls.

"Forget it," she said. "Maybe when – and if – I ever start playing the field again. But right now, I'm still nursing a broken heart. Alec – you of all people understand that."

He nodded glumly. He rested his chin on his hands.

"Indeed I do," he said. "Fellow can't seem to give a title away these days. Rejected by Blair … by Jo … by Jacqueline … and now by the fair Natalie. Perhaps I'm meant to join a monastery."

"Maybe I should join Meg at the convent," mused Natalie. She went around the butcher block table, placing bowls of oatmeal in front of everyone. "Gramma – if I became Catholic would you disown me?"

"I can't believe what I'm hearing!" said Tootie, putting cups of hot chocolate in front of everyone. "No wonder you two are alone! Could you be more depressing?"

"In answer to your question," Mona said to Natalie, "of course I wouldn't disown you, if you really felt called to serve the Lord God as a woman of the cloth. But I think that's a little bit drastic at this juncture."

"Go to the dance," Tootie coaxed Natalie. "Go with me. We'll stag it – and I'll bet we both find someone before the night is over!"

"Just make sure you're home by midnight," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "I'll be in the city with Drake this weekend, but I'm putting both of you girls on your honor."

"And I'll be waiting up," said Mona. "To be sure you're both in by midnight – and to hear all the juicy details!"

"Gramma!"

"Natalie Green, you are going to that dance! End of discussion!"

Natalie sighed. She sat on the kitchen stool next to her grandmother, began stabbing irritably at her oatmeal with an R2D2 spoon – one of Jo's many contributions to their mismatched silverware.

Tootie looked speculatively at Alec. She sat on the kitchen stool across the table from him, thoughtfully sipping her cocoa.

"Alec," she said.

"Hmm?"

"Does your offer still stand?"

"What offer?"

"To play pretend boyfriend tonight?"

"Tootie, let it go," Natalie said warningly. "I won't do it."

"I'm not talking about you," Tootie told Natalie. "You had your chance and you threw it away with both hands. I want Alec to be my phony beau tonight."

Alec grinned. "At last! Someone willing to be seen in public with me. Even if it's little Tootie."

Tootie lifted her eyebrows. "'Little Tootie'?" she demanded.

"You know what I mean. No offense intended."

"I'm fifteen going on sixteen, milord."

"Yes, of course," he said hastily. "I wasn't insulting your, er, womanhood, my dear."

"You'd better not! And if you're going to be my pretend beau, you'd better not to call me 'Little Tootie' tonight!"

"Of course not. I'll be on my most lordly, most attentive behavior." He made an elegant little half-bow.

"There," Mona said approvingly. "Tootie knows how to play the field! Natalie, Natalie, Natalie." She shook her head in a depressed fashion.

"I know how to play the field," Natalie said defensively. "I was dating a Hollywood star, you know."

"More of a bit player," Jo corrected around a mouthful of oatmeal.

"Hollywood star," Natalie said firmly. "And I can land just as many boys as Tootie can, with or without Alec's help."

"Now you're talkin!" said Jo. "See – that's the kinda chutzpah's gonna land you another guy. And maybe this time he won't even be a loser!"

"So Jo," said Tootie, eyes bright with curiosity, "what do you have planned for Blair this weekend?"

"Oh, no," said Jo. "You couldn't drag that outta me with wild horses!"

"Come on. It's not like I'll tell Blair."

"Eh, she's got ways of makin people talk. You don't even realize she's doin it. She's almost as good as you, Stretch!"

"Please, Jo?" Tootie gave Jo her most endearing puppy eyes. "Just one thing?"

"Aw, for cryin out … all right, I'll tell you this much – Blondie's gonna dance her beautiful, er –' Jo glanced at Mona, "she's gonna dance a lot," Jo finished a little lamely.

"So – you're taking her to the Fever," guessed Tootie.

"No, Miss 'Mata Tootie', as a matter of fact I ain't takin her to the Fever," Jo said a little smugly. "I'm takin her someplace new, someplace she ain't ever been to, and we're gonna be able to be ourselves there."

"Intriguing," said Tootie.

"I think I know where you mean," Alec said, nodding. "Excellent idea, Jo."

"Blair's gonna be real surprised," Jo said, beaming. "I love surprisin her. And that's not even the tip of the iceberg!"

"Well," Tootie grinned, "you might want to fasten your own seat belt, Jo. Blair might have a few surprises in store for you."

"Tootie," Natalie said warningly. "Ixnay on the urprisesay."

Jo looked from Tootie to Natalie and back again. "Hey – what gives? Blair got somethin up her sleeve for this weekend?"

"Ours is not to reason why," said Natalie, "or to do or die, or to open our big fat mouths."

"What she said," said Tootie.

"We don't know anything about your big weekend," added Mrs. Garrett.

Jo gave her surrogate mother a shrewd look. "Mrs. G – you in on this too?"

"I'm not in on anything," Mrs. Garrett said distractedly, opening another cookbook, "except the quest for great Crepes Suzette!"

"Ah! Crepes Suzette!" said Mona feelingly. "One of my favorites."

Mrs. Garrett looked at Mona over the top of her cookbook. "You don't happen to have a recipe for Crepes Suzette … do you?" she asked hopefully.

"Do I ever!" said Mona. "It has a kind of unusual twist on it, though."

"But, that's perfect!" trilled Mrs. Garrett. "I'm trying to find something unusual to impress Drake tonight. I'm cooking for him, you see, and I've already cooked him all of my best recipes."

Mona rubbed her hands together enthusiastically. "Edna, I can promise you, your beau has never tasted anything like these Crepes Suzette! First, you need a lot of butter."

"Wait, wait!" Mrs. Garrett hurried to the phone pad on the wall, wrenching it down. She pulled a pencil stub from behind her ear. "Now, go slowly, Mona. I don't want to miss anything."

Jo laughed good-naturedly at her mentor.

"Jeez, Mrs. G, you're actin like you and Drake's whole future is ridin on some Crepes Suzette."

"You never know, Jo. Sometimes it's the little things."

Jo laughed again. She'd never seen Mrs. G so nervous about a guy … Must really be love!

The moss-green Princess phone on the wall rang.

"I'll get it," said Tootie. She slipped down off her kitchen stool, crossed to the phone and lifted the receiver. "River Rock," she said cheerfully, "Tootie Ramsey speaking."

Tootie listened for a moment. She frowned. Her brows knit.

"She isn't here at the moment," Tootie said coolly.

Jo looked over at Tootie, struck by the tone. Usually sunny Tootie looked as icily regal at the moment as her mother, Justice Ramsey, always looked.

"No," Tootie said frostily. "No … I'm not certain. Let me check." Tootie covered the mouthpiece with her hand and looked at Jo. "It's Blair's father."

Shit! thought Jo.

"Are you in?" Tootie asked. "Because if you're not, I have no problem telling him to go –"

"Nah, I'm here, I'm here," Jo said hastily, cutting Tootie off before she could say something uncharacteristically vulgar. Jo slipped down off her stool and went to the phone. "Thanks, Stretch," she said kindly, taking the receiver from Tootie. "I'll handle it from here."

"Hello? Hello?" David Warner was saying impatiently into the phone.

Jo could picture him; handsome, still trim but going a little bit to flab, wearing a perfectly tailored dark suit, fresh white shirt, heavy gold cufflinks, shoes shined to a mirror gloss. Jo pictured his dark hair flecked with silver and impeccably trimmed every morning. Blair had inherited the slightly exotic shape of her eyes from her mother, but their warm, milk chocolate color from David …

"Good morning, sir," Jo said neutrally.

"Is it a good morning there?" David asked bluntly. "Because it isn't here."

"What's wrong?" asked Jo.

"I was hoping you or Blair could tell me," he said tersely. "Why did I receive several hysterical, incoherent call from my ex-wife at 4 a.m.?"

Because she's a narcissistic bitch on a bender, Jo thought, but did not say.

David would probably agree with her, but Jo doubted he could ever admit that to the girl he perceived to be corrupting his little princess.

"Monica was drunk," Jo said simply. "Something must have set her off – but we don't know what."

"Well I do not appreciate her calling me at all hours crying and babbling about the two of you."

Jo bit back a vulgar reply. "David," she said tightly, "Monica is your ex-wife. We have no control over her behavior. Now, if Blair calls you babblin in the middle of the night, you let me know. That I could look into. That I would wanna know about."

"You smug, self-righteous little bitch," David said. His diction was perfect – razor-sharp. It was, almost literally, cutting.

Jo sighed. "David – what do you really want? You know we can't do anythin about Monica. So why are you callin? You just wanna take some shots at me? Go ahead. Have a ball. At least you can't slap me over the phone."

She heard David swallow. "I believe I have already said, but I will say again, that I do regret having physically struck you."

"Twice," Jo said. "Having physically struck me twice."

"Do I have you to thank for the anonymous note I received last month?"

"What anonymous note?"

She could hear paper crinkle at his end of the line. Ah. Now we're getting down to it. This is about the Beckers …

"It's on plain, cheap paper – which made me think of you immediately, of course."

Ouch! What an a-hole! thought Jo.

"'Dear Mr. Warner'," David read aloud, "'I thought you might like to know that BZ Becker is planning to ruin you and the other old New Amsterdam families. Watch your back.' Does that ring a bell?"

"Nope, no bells," Jo lied easily.

David laughed. It was an ugly sound.

"Do you know what the 'BZ' in 'BZ Becker' stands for, Jo?"

"Not a clue," said Jo.

"Barnabas Zechariah."

"Huhn. Well … guess I'd go with 'BZ' too."

"Barnabas Zechariah is one of the most religious businessmen – no, strike that. Barnabas Zechariah is the most religious businessman I've ever encountered. He is absolutely a straight arrow."

"Great," Jo said amiably. "And we know that religious-types never, oh, I don't know, go off the deep end and decimate anybody."

"The idea of BZ Becker trying to ruin any of the great New York families is ludicrous. We're his best clients – and, not incidentally, his entrée to a more gilded future for his own family."

"Great," Jo said again. "So you got nothin to worry about."

"He had us to dinner the other night," said David. "The Warners, the Von Schuylkills, the Messerschmitts, the Hargroves, the Wilkes, the Barclays, the St. Clairs."

He's worried, Jo thought. Ain't gonna admit it, but he's worried. Otherwise why ramble on like this?

"Sounds like it was a swank wingding," said Jo. "Good old BZ happen to apologize to you for his nutso daughter Dina tryin to immolate me and Blair?"

There was silence at the other end of the line.

Jo glanced over her shoulder; Mrs. Garrett, Mona, Nat, Tootie and Alec were leaning forward on their seats, glued to Jo's end of the conversation.

David cleared his throat.

"That's preposterous," he said. "Dina is one of Blair's closest childhood friends."

"Yeah. Not so much anymore. Blair's funny about not wantin to get torched."

"If Dina had tried to hurt Blair, she'd be incarcerated somewhere," said David.

"Funny you should say that. Dina is incarcerated. Peekskill P.D. picked her up New Year's Eve. Last we heard they sent her to Bellevue for observation and treatment."

David was silent again.

Chew on that, you bastard. Little late to be worryin about Blair now!

"I can only imagine," David said finally, "that in your twisted mind you are being funny, or that you are trying to make me concerned about Blair – more than I am already. I cannot otherwise comprehend this odd vendetta against the Becker family."

"It's the truth," Jo said calmly. "Dina tried to incinerate us. Check with the Peekskill P.D."

"I don't need to," David said. "I spoke to Dina myself at the Becker's dinner party."

Jo's mouth went dry. And at the same moment, her palms were suddenly damp with sweat.

"Cat got your tongue?" asked David a little smugly.

"Dina was eatin dinner? At her parents' party? When?" asked Jo.

"Tuesday evening," said David.

"And she seemed … normal?"

"She was a tad bit depressed about her first semester at Smith; grades not up to par. She'll be taking a semester off. But other than that, she seemed pleasant enough. Certainly not homicidal!"

Now it was Jo's turn to swallow, but her mouth was so damn dry …

"What … is … he … saying?" mouthed Tootie.

Jo shook her head in a 'not now' gesture.

"David, I need you to listen to me very carefully," said Jo. "I don't know how they did it – well, that ain't exactly true. Apparently the Beckers are richer than God, and money talks. But even though Dina is out attendin swanky dinner parties, she should be locked up in a loony bin where they don't allow sharp objects. Or matches. And near as we can figure, her pop is gonna try to take you down – you and your whole company."

"Ludicrous," David said briskly. "Utter nonsense."

That's what you wanna believe, thought Jo. But if you do believe I'm wrong, how come you haven't hung up on me by now?

"Have it your way," Jo said. "We warned you. That's all we can do. Thanks for the tip about Dina bein at large. We'll keep our powder dry."

"You don't know when to give up, do you?"

"I never give up," Jo said simply. "Hasta la vista, pop-in-law."

She hung up the receiver.

"Did you say Dina Becker is at large?" Natalie asked.

"Yup."

"But that's crazy," said Tootie.

"Sure is," said Jo. "Just like dear old Dina." She looked at Alec. "I wanna see Blair. Now. Make sure she's OK. Wanna come with me?"

"Wouldn't miss it," he said.

"Jo – I don't like the sound of this," Mrs. Garrett said decisively. "From what you all told me, Dina is in a very unbalanced state of mind."

"I couldn't agree more, Mrs. G. Would you be willin to call the Peekskill P.D., let 'em know Dina's been sprung from Bellevue?"

"Certainly," said Mrs. Garrett. "And I'll ask if they can spare an officer to keep an eye on River Rock. I know you and Blair and I will be in the city this weekend, but –"

"But Demented Dina might not know that," Jo said, finishing her surrogate mother's thought. "And we don't want her pullin anything crazy here!"

"I'll see that she doesn't," Alec said grimly. "I'll be here this weekend. Consider me watchdog and protector."

Jo put a hand on his arm. "Thanks, milord."

"Not at all. Jo, let me throw on some clothing. I'll be with you in a tic."

She nodded.

"This Dina Becker," said Mona, looking intently at Jo, "she really tried to incinerate you and Blair?"

"Yeah."

"That's not a little prank," said Mona. "That is a seriously disturbed young woman."

Jo stirred uneasily.

"Maybe we should all go into the city today," Jo said. "Mona, you could go home; Nat, you could let Tootie stay with you for the weekend."

"Forget it," Mona said sternly. "No one is changing any plans."

"Gramma's coming to the dance with us," Natalie said firmly. "She can be a chaperone or something."

"Natalie –"

"Gramma, this isn't up for debate! You haven't met Dina. She's beyond seriously disturbed. I'm not leaving you here alone tonight in this big old house."

Mona's eyes shone. She patted Natalie's cheek. "You're very fresh, Natalie. You've always been fresh. But I thank you."

Natalie smiled at her grandmother. "Don't mention it."

"I'm gonna throw on some clothes," Jo said. "Will ya let Alec know I'll be right back?"

"Of course," said Tootie.

Jo dashed out of the room.

She hadn't been gone more than a few minutes when the phone began ringing.

Mrs. Garrett answered it. "River Rock," she said. "Mrs. Garrett speaking … Yes … I see … We had already heard … Can you have an officer – oh … Very well."

"Let me guess," Natalie said drily after Mrs. Garrett hung up, "the Peekskill Police wanted to let us know that Dina was let out days ago!"

"They're going to put an officer on property," said Mrs. Garrett. "He's coming by soon. I'll give him a key, since we'll all be out tonight."

"What kind of society do we live in?" Natalie demanded. "Dangerous psychopaths roaming the streets?"

"Natalie, don't dramatize," chided Mona. "What this girl probably needs is counseling and a stern, guiding hand."

"With all due respect, Gramma, what Dina Becker needs is a padded cell. When I think about what she could have done to Jo and Blair …" Natalie shuddered.

"Nat's right," said Tootie. "Thank goodness Alec threw his manners out the window and searched her purse!"

"There was something quite squirrely about her," Alec said, breezing back into the kitchen. He had pulled on dark trousers, a white shirt and grey cable knit sweater. He'd pushed his hands through his hair but it was still a little wild.

He looked around. "Where's our Jo?"

"Getting dressed," said Mrs. Garrett.

"Oh. Of course. Anyone spoken to the authorities?"

"They're assigning an officer. He'll be over soon." Mrs. Garrett pushed aside her stack of cookbooks. They seemed so unimportant, suddenly. "Maybe I should invite Drake here tonight," she said.

"Nonsense!" said Alec at the same time Tootie said "Forget it!"

"We are not going to live our lives in fear," said Tootie. "Mrs. Garrett, you should have your romantic weekend in the city. And so should Jo and Blair. We'll be fine here. We've got Alec."

"One of the first time's anyone's found that reassuring," Alec laughed.

"And it's not like we're some fainting Victorian women," Natalie said. "Tootie and I can handle Dina Becker."

"And I've been known to wield a pretty mean skillet," Mona said with spirit.

"Well then … I guess I'll go," said Mrs. Garrett. "But I'll leave you numbers where you can reach me. And tomorrow night –"

"We'll all see each other as planned tomorrow night," Tootie said reassuringly.

"What about tomorrow night?" asked Jo, jogging into the kitchen.

She'd jumped into jeans, T-shirt and flannel shirt, sneakers and her aviator jacket, the beautiful butter-soft garment Blair had given her that weekend at the Plaza – the weekend Jo proposed. Tendrils of hair escaped from Jo's sloppy ponytail.

"What about tomorrow night?" Jo repeated.

"Nothing," said Natalie. "Which is to say, we hope Dina will be behind bars again tomorrow night."

"Huh! Fat chance, all the loot she's got!" said Jo. She looked at Alec. "We ready to roll, pal?"

"Ready," he said.

"So let's go already."


Blair's in danger. Blair's in danger!

That thought crowded out all other thoughts in Jo's head as Alec drove them to the Langley stables.

Blair's in danger …

Sure, Dina didn't have any love for Jo Polniaczek. But Blair and the Warner family seemed to be the focus of Dina's obsession, an unhealthy fixation fed by years of hearing her father rant about the city's old-money families. Families like the Warners and Von Schuylkills, with golden pedigrees that BZ Becker apparently envied.

And it hadn't helped that Jo and Blair had made a bit of a fool out of Dina at Petal's Halloween party!

Note to self, thought Jo, don't make fools out of anybody – even if they're askin for it!

Reality intruded on Jo's thoughts … Alec's sporty blue coupe was stuck behind a slow-moving tractor.

"For cryin out freakin loud!" said Jo. "Go around it, Alec – go around!"

"I can't see around it," Alec said tensely.

"It's Peekskill," said Jo. "Saturday mornin Peekskill. This flippin tractor is the only other vehicle on the friggin road."

A green bus with "Peekskill Baptist Choir" painted on the side whizzed past them in the other lane, heading in the opposite direction. Jo bit her lip.

"You were saying?" Alec demanded, his color high.

"All right, all right, keep your shirt on," muttered Jo.

"That bus could have demolished us."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it." She pounded on the dashboard with one fist. "Stupid damn tractor. What the hell is it doin on the road? It's friggin February. What kook is plowin a field this morning?"

Alec wisely read that as a rhetorical question and said nothing.

A mile down the road, the tractor finally turned off onto a dirt lane running between two snowy fields.

"Eh, andare all'inferno!" Jo shouted, shaking her fist as they passed the slowly retreating tractor. "IdŸ do diabla! Go to hell, you freakin dimwit!"

"You become positively cosmopolitan when you're enraged," Alec observed.

"Mordalo, Alec."

He laughed.

Alec stepped on the accelerator. They were at the Langley stables within several minutes – but according to an elderly stable hand, Blair had already left.

"Art Center," Jo said. "Let's go, let's go!"

"Have you ever considered a career in the military?" Alec asked her as he sped through the back lanes of Langley College. "Or, possibly, as the dictator of a small nation?"

"Blair's in danger, milord. Dina tried to kill her. How is that not registerin with you?"

"It's registering, Artemis, but our wrapping ourselves around a tree, or running someone down, isn't going to protect Blair. Quite the reverse. We need to be in one piece to protect her."

Jo scowled. He was right … But she wasn't in the mood to be gracious …

Alec pulled up in front of the Langley Art Center, a massive Dutch Gothic building of red and grey stone near the center of campus. There were several cars in front of the building, including Blair's red Chevy truck.

Alec parked at a crazy angle across two spaces, not bothering with the niceties of parking.

He and Jo threw open their car doors and raced up the granite steps of the Art Center as if they had wings on their heels.

"Langley College Annual Art Gala" read a banner above the door. "February 14, 1984."

Jo pulled open the heavy glass-fronted wooden door and ran into the building, Alec right on her heels.

Their sneaker soles squeaked on the freshly waxed floor.

Jo stopped short, looking around. "Where they settin up the show?" she asked.

"The gallery, most likely," said Alec.

"So where is it?" Jo asked impatiently.

"Dead ahead and up those stairs."

Jo dashed down the long hallway.

"You've never been to the gallery?" Alec panted as they jogged up the steps.

"Blair's the arty one," Jo said.

"But you've never –"

"Look, I'm a philistine – OK? Who cares!"

"But you're not a philistine," Alec panted. "That's why I'm surprised."

"Which door?" asked Jo as they hit the top landing.

Alec pointed. Jo wrenched open the door.

The Langley gallery was a large oval chamber at the top of the building, lit by windows set high in the rotunda. The room had a musty smell, and notwithstanding the high windows, it was dim.

Blair's right, mused Jo, wrinkling her nose. We gotta donate a new art center. This place smells like old Mrs. Balducci's freakin apartment!

On the walls hung enormous framed paintings, no doubt part of Langley College's permanent art collection, on display to inspire students.

At the center of the large room were pedestals with glass cases containing bits of antique pottery, jewelry and statuary.

Around the outer aisle stood easels. Each easel held a canvas covered by a white cloth – These must be the contest paintins, thought Jo.

She glanced impatiently around the room.

"Where is she?" Jo muttered.

"Must be on the far side," said Alec. "Behind the displays. Come on, Artemis."

They rapidly made their way around the perimeter of the room.

Blair was on the opposite side of the gallery. She stood in front of her painting, finger on her chin, contemplating her work.

Christ – she always takes my breath away, thought Jo. It was almost overwhelming to see Blair standing there safe, unconscious of any danger, a vision in her riding breeches and boots and lovely old tweed jacket.

"Babe!" Jo cried, wrapping her arms around Blair from behind. She kissed Blair's cheek.

"Where did you come from?" laughed Blair.

Jo pulled the heiress tight against her, buried her face in the shining blonde hair.

"Uh, not that this isn't wonderful, Jo," said Blair, "but someone could come in here any second."

"Oh. Yeah," said Jo. She kissed Blair's cheek again, and then released her.

Blair turned to face her lover. "This is a nice surprise." Her eyebrows lifted as she noticed Alec.

He was gazing at her painting of Artemis with rapt admiration.

"Blair," he said quietly, "you're a very fine painter. I had no idea. I thought – well, never mind what I thought."

"You thought I played around with my paints, daubed silly little pictures, the way so many debs do."

"Well … yes," he admitted. "But this is very powerful work."

"Thank you, milord."

He inclined his head. He smiled playfully at Blair, but something in his eyes, and Jo's eyes, gave Blair an uneasy feeling.

"What happened?" asked Blair. "Why are you two here? Is someone hurt? Mrs. Garrett? Mona?"

"They're fine," Alec said reassuringly.

"Babe," Jo said quietly, "Dina Becker got sprung from Bellevue."

Blair gasped. Her hand instinctively sought Jo's, squeezed it tightly.

"When?" asked Blair.

"While ago. Your pop saw her at some dinner party the Becker's held Tuesday night."

"What?"

"Your pop saw her –"

"I heard you, darling, I'm just having a hard time understanding it. Why didn't the police contact us?"

"They did – this mornin! I don't got it all sorted out yet, but seems like there was a big gap between when Dina got out and when the Peekskill P.D. got looped in."

"Well, Becker money certainly talks," Blair said bitterly. "No doubt someone, several someones, were handsomely paid to sit on the paperwork."

"Seems like," Jo agreed.

"So my father saw Dina at a dinner party? How did she seem?"

"Her folks' dinner party. And he thought she seemed fine, just a little down cause she's takin a semester off school," Jo said sarcastically. "Seems her grades at Smith ain't what they should be."

"So that's the cover story," mused Blair. "They had her released from Bellevue and she must be free on a hefty bail, but she'll still have to be on a fairly tight leash. House arrest, most likely. But the Beckers are spreading the word that she's taking time off from school."

"Sure," said Jo. "You'd rather have your friends thinkin your kid's a dope than a homicidal freakin maniac."

Blair shivered. "It's very upsetting to know that she's not locked up anywhere. After what she tried to do to us …"

"I know," Jo said quietly.

"Still … If she's under house arrest –"

"Babe, I don't' wanna alarm you, but bein we know Dina's a total fruit loop, let's not assume she's gonna stay under house arrest."

"Agreed."

"Mrs. G's gonna spend the weekend in the city with Drake, as planned," said Jo. "And we'll do the same. Just gotta watch our backs, that's all. And the places I got on our itinerary, I don't think they're on Dina's radar anyway."

"Mona and I are chaperoning the girls at the Eastland dance tonight," said Alec. "So they'll be safe."

"Take care of them – all of them," Blair said intently.

"Of course. And Peekskill's finest are sending a constable to River Rock."

Jo shook her head. "One cop – guardin the whole property, the whole freakin house?"

"We'll be quite all right," Alec said firmly. "And tomorrow night – well, never mind about that."

"What about tomorrow night?" Jo asked curiously.

"Nothing. I misspoke."

"Tootie was sayin somethin about tomorrow night," said Jo. She fixed Alec with a shrewd eye. "You guys aren't plannin some surprise for me and Blair, are ya? 'Cause we're stayin in the city till Monday mornin. Wouldn't want you guys, you know, to be plannin some wingding at River Rock and we ain't even gonna be there."

"Don't worry, Jo," said Alec. "We know you're going to be in the city. We're not planning any River Rock 'wingdings'."

"Jo, maybe we should cancel our plans," said Blair.

"No. No freakin way! That psycho is not gonna ruin our Valentine's Day weekend. And we'll be perfectly safe. I promise, babe. I ain't gonna tell you what we're up to, 'cause it's a surprise." She waggled her eyebrows. "But Alec and Mrs. G will have our itinerary."

Blair turned to Alec. "You'll call us if you hear anything about Dina?"

"Naturally," he said reassuringly. "And vice-versa, I hope?"

"Of course," said Blair.

"Although let's hope we don't hear anything," said Alec. "Let's hope she's a good girl and stays under lock and key at her parent's palatial apartment."

Jo snorted. "I wouldn't count on her parents keepin her locked up! Her pop sounds like a gold-plated wacko in his own right – holding a dinner party for the people he's plannin to ruin! The fruit loop sure doesn't fall far from the fruit loop tree!"

Alec frowned thoughtfully. "Does Dina know, do you think? About you and Aphrodite being … together?"

"Maybe," Jo said. "Maybe, maybe not. She already hates us, but that'd be one more thing to put her panties in a twist."

"To hell with Dina!" Blair said, lifting her chin with sudden resolve. "She's not going to ruin our plans."

"Brava," said Alec. He put a fraternal arm around Blair and Jo's shoulders. "All will be well. Wait and see if it isn't."

Jo looked meaningfully at the arm around her shoulder.

Alec removed it hastily. Jo had warmed to him over the past months, but she still wasn't someone that people could embrace all willy-nilly.

"That's better," Jo said.

Blair, on the contrary, burrowed into Alec. "It helps, knowing you'll be watching the girls tonight," she said.

"For Pete's sake," said Jo, "it ain't like they're some kinda delicate flowers. Mona could probably karate chop Dina into oblivion all on her own!"

"Even so," said Blair.

Alec was gazing intently at Blair's painting again.

"Is that … could that be …"

He glanced sideways at Jo.

Blair laughed. "You've got to be kidding! Are you asking if that's Jo? Please!"

Jo flushed faintly.

"Well, it ain't that crazy of a thought," Jo objected. "I mean, I don't want you spreadin it around I was your model, Blair, but you don't gotta say it ain't me like I'm some kinda friggin hideous beast or somethin!"

"So – that is you," Alec said to Jo, eyes sparkling.

"Look, I ain't sayin it is, and I ain't sayin it isn't. But it's not the craziest idea that it could be me."

"No," Alec said soothingly, "it's not a crazy idea at all."

"And don't patronize me!" flared Jo.

"Duly noted."


The snowy fields and woods of Westchester County streamed past the windows of Blair's red Chevy truck.

Blair drove. Jo lounged, half-dozing, on the other side of the bench seat.

They were dressed attractively but casually – jeans, silk shirts, leather jackets. Relatively nondescript outfits that gave Blair no clue where they were going to end up.

"So," Blair said finally. "Where am I going?"

"Manhattan," Jo said around a yawn.

"Yes, darling. But where in Manhattan?"

"I'll guide you when we get closer." Jo grinned. "You know how I love surprisin ya, babe. I ain't tellin ya anythin until I absolutely hafta!"

Blair smiled. Jo liked surprising her; well, it was mutual. Blair loved to be surprised.

"What should I pack?" Blair had asked Jo the day before, not just so that she'd know what to pack, but also seeking clues to Jo's plans for their weekend.

"Nothin," Jo had said.

"So … Casual clothes?" Blair had hazarded.

"Nothin, Blondie. Not one single freakin thing!"

Blair had smiled a little saucily. "Jo – is this going to be a naked Valentine's Day?"

"Of course," Jo had answered, waggling her eyebrows. "In part, anyway. I mean, there'll be wearin clothes and stuff, at some points, but I got that all covered."

"But how, Jo?"

They were both broke. All Jo's money was being funneled into her education. And Blair's allowance was divided between half of Jo's tuition, Chestnut's board at the Langley stables, and the rent they paid monthly to Mrs. Garrett.

How could Jo afford to treat us to a weekend in the city? wondered Blair. But then again, Jo was nothing if not resourceful, and a lifetime of poverty had taught her how to be creative with the few means at her disposal …

"Never mind how I'm doin any of this, Princess," Jo had said. "You just enjoy it!"

"Jo, we're not … we aren't going to be sleeping in Central Park or something – are we?" Blair had asked hesitantly.

Jo had howled, literally slapping one knee.

"Is that a 'no' darling?"

"Babe … Light of my life … You think I'm gonna have you sleepin in some ditch in Central Park?"

"Are there ditches in Central Park? I thought it was landscaped rather nicely."

"Metaphorically speakin, babe, I am not makin you sleep in a ditch, or any other topographical feature, in Central Park. And we ain't sleepin in an alley, either."

"On a fire escape?"

Jo howled again. "Blair," she said when she recovered herself, "you are more precious to me than the freakin Mona Lisa is to the Louvre. Do you understand? You are gonna be pampered and treated like a fairy tale princess all weekend. Well … most of it, anyhow."

"But what do I pack?" Blair had asked insistently, intrigued.

"If you gotta pack somethin – which, bein Blair Warner, I guess you hafta – pack a toothbrush," Jo had said. "And some extra tighty whities, maybe."

"And?"

"And nothin. That's all you're gonna need ..."

Now, en route to the city, with Jo drowsing next to her, Blair was intrigued anew. Where could Jo possibly be taking her?

As the miles whisked past, the landscape grew less and less rural, more and more urban. Trees and fields gave way to residential lots. Buildings grew taller, and they were made of brick and brownstone, not wood. The buildings were packed closer together. Greenery disappeared. Traffic got heavier. Skyscrapers gleamed in the near distance.

"I love New York," Blair said impulsively.

"Me too," mumbled Jo. She sat up straight, rubbing the sleep crud out of her eyes. She blinked, peering through the windshield. "OK, babe – stay on this street for a ways ..."

Traffic slowed to a crawl the deeper they drove into Manhattan.

At one point a cab driver cut across several lanes of traffic, darting in front of Blair so suddenly she had to slam on the brakes. Jo flew forward but her seat-belt stopped her, hard, digging into her chest and rib cage.

"What the hell's-a-matter with you, you douche bag!" Jo shouted, leaning out of the passenger window and shaking her fist at the back of the taxi cab. "Learn how to fuckin drive!"

"Darling," Blair said mildly.

"Yeah?"

"Language, Jo."

"Oh. Yeah. Sorry. It's the city."

"I know, darling."

Jo leaned back into the truck. She grinned sheepishly at her fiancée.

"So – you still think I should go into politics someday?"

"I do. But you really, really will need a charming campaign manager; a little sugar to balance out your considerable salt, Jo."

"You like my salt, though – right?"

"I love your salt, Jo." Blair darted a glance at her fiancée, so tender, so full of love that Jo's breath caught in her throat for a moment …

"Turn right," said Jo. "No, sorry, that's a left. OK ... Now left … Left again … And turn right here … And now, babe – just pull up."

Blair turned to Jo, mystified.

They were in front of the beautiful, world-famous, legendary Plaza Hotel – the site of the annual Plaza Charity Ball, the place where Monica Warner had instigated an outrageous scene, the place where Mrs. Garrett had danced with Walter Cronkite, and where Jo had proposed to Blair …

"Happy Valentine's Day," Jo said softly.

"Jo. We're … But … How?"

"Close your mouth; you'll catch flies," Jo said, eyes dancing.

"We can't afford this, Jo."

"Yeah, we can. Not our 1984 selves, no. But I enlisted a little help from 1985."

Blair looked at Jo like she'd flipped her lid. "Darling, I am banning all science fiction, movies and television and comic books, effective immediately."

Jo laughed.

"I mean it," said Blair. "What are you trying to tell me – that we're going forward in time or something?"

"In a manner of speakin," chuckled Jo. "Blair, I haven't cracked my coconut. I promise. Trust me."

The resplendently dressed, braid-encrusted doorman advanced on the vehicle. He stepped aside while a subordinate opened Jo's door.

Another subordinate opened the driver's side door for Blair. Blair, somewhat dazed, did what she had been trained to do since she was a toddler; when a servant opened a door, you stepped through it.

"Welcome back to the Plaza, Miss Warner," the doorman said warmly. He tipped his cap to her. "Always a pleasure to see you."

"Lovely to see you, Mr. Johnson," said Blair. "I, ah … it's been too long."

But not as long as I expected it would be! she thought. How the hell is Jo paying for this? 1985? What does that mean? Are we going to run out on the bill? We'd be in prison until 1985 – at least!

Jo pressed Mr. Johnson's gloved hand.

"Thanks for your help," she said. "Good to see ya, good to see ya."

Mr. Johnson tipped his cap to Jo.

"Do you have any luggage?" asked Mr. Johnson.

"Not this trip," Jo said smoothly. "We'll be doing a bit of shopping later."

"Very good."

Shopping! Jo said 'shopping'. Number one, how could we possibly afford to shop, and number two, since when can Jo pronounce 'shopping' properly? ...

In the Plaza's magnificent main lobby of marble, crystal and gold, Blair looked around nervously. She'd been visiting the Plaza since she was a tiny tot, but at this moment she had never felt so out-of-place anywhere in her life.

"Miss Warner and guest are checking in," Jo told the concierge.

"Ah, yes. Delighted, as always, Miss Warner. And guest." He nodded in a friendly manner at Jo, who grinned at him. "Let me see … Your usual accommodations, Miss Warner, a city-view suite with private terrace on the 20th and 21st floor. That meets with your approval?"

"Uh … sure," Blair said dazedly.

"Very good. Just sign the register, if you would be so good …"

Blair signed the register in a kind of fog. She shouldn't sign it, she knew, because there was no way they could pay for a Plaza broom closet right now, let alone a city-view suite! But Jo was smiling at her so encouragingly, so mischievously … And Blair hated to make a scene …

The concierge handed one key to Blair and one key to Jo.

"I hope you will enjoy your visit," he told the young women. "If you require anything simply summon your butler. You are our very special guest, as always, Miss Warner, and we are here to serve you."

"Thank you," she said sincerely. She felt tears pricking her eyes, turned away before the concierge could notice.

This was so sweet of Jo, in one way, and yet, on the other hand, so cruel. It was a reminder of everything she had given up recently, of everything she wanted to give Jo, but couldn't …

"C'mon," Jo said quietly. Blair followed her to the bank of gleaming elevators.

When the shining doors had slid shut and they were gliding up to the 20th floor, Blair turned to Jo, eyes damp. "Darling … what is going on?"

Jo's eyes widened in concern. She slipped her arms around Blair's waist, pulled her close.

"Babe, what is it? Aren't you happy? This is … I mean, it's Valentine's weekend. And this is where I proposed to you."

"I know, but … How can we possibly afford this?" A few tears streamed down her cheeks.

"Shh." Jo caught the tears on her fingers. She tilted Blair's face toward hers and kissed her gently. "I'm so sorry, Princess. I wanted to surprise you, not upset you. Everything is paid for. Don't worry."

"But how?"

"I came by here one day when you thought I had a shift at the Grill. I was on my best behavior, see, talkin real English and everythin. I told the concierge about how you weren't doin so good at school, and your Dad cut off your allowance on account of it."

"Jo –"

"Well, I mean, it wasn't a total lie, right? I couldn't exactly tell him we're engaged! But you did do crummy at school last semester. And your father did cut off your funds. I just, you know, implied it was cause and effect. That's all. And I asked the concierge, since you're gonna own a big chunk of this old pile in a coupla years, would it be OK if you stayed here sometimes? And he said of course. You can stay here anytime. And you can charge whatever you want at the stores. He's gonna put it on a tab."

"He's going to what?"

"He's puttin it on your tab. You've got an unlimited tab here, babe, on account of you're gonna own twenty-percent of the place in '85. You can settle the bills then."

"You mean I can … I can go into the shops and, and select things that I like, and, and then …"

Jo laughed. "Yeah, babe – charge 'em. I believe you are familiar with the concept of chargin stuff?"

Blair threw her arms around Jo's shoulders, buried her face in Jo's neck.

"I did good, right?" Jo asked nervously. "You're OK with this?"

"Jo … Forget politics," Blair laughed into the fleecy collar of Jo's aviator jacket, "you should go to Harvard business school!"

"Well, it just makes sense, doesn't it?" Jo asked modestly. "How're they gonna turn away the woman who's gonna own everybody's butt in a coupla years? But I'll tell you somethin, babe," Jo kissed Blair's forehead, "it ain't just about that. Everybody here seems to friggin love ya. Mr. Johnson, he was tellin me how you used to run around the lobby when you were two years old. Regular little Eloise!"

The elevator bell dinged; they'd reached the 20th floor.

The doors slid open.

They found the room quickly … It was the same room they'd had the last time they were at the Plaza.

Jo unlocked the door, pushed it open, and then glanced up and down the luxurious hallway. No one was around.

Jo lifted Blair into her arms and carried her over the threshold of the suite.

Blair laughed. She laid her head against Jo's shoulder. My Neanderthal … My Jo …

Jo staggered a little bit under Blair's weight; Jo was strong, but Blair was not insubstantial. Jo kicked the suite door closed. She shifted Blair a little bit so that she could turn the dead bolt and slide the chain fast.

"Darling, you can put me down," Blair said. "I know I'm not a bag of feathers."

"No … I'm, uh," Jo grunted a little bit, shifted Blair again, "I'm gonna carry you upstairs."

And she did, lowering Blair onto the massive bed and then curling up next to her, panting.

"Better than trainin," Jo said, huffing and puffing as she caught her breath. "That's a lotta damn stairs!"

"You don't have to blame the stairs," Blair said, stroking Jo's arm. "I know I've put on a little weight since we were last here."

"Don't know what you're talkin about," Jo said chivalrously. "I'm just outta shape; ain't played field hockey in months."

"You should rest," Blair said solicitously, stroking Jo's leg. "You should just relax, and lie there, and I'll give you some physical therapy."

Jo quirked an eyebrow.

"Physical therapy?"

"Yes, Jo. Physical therapy."

Jo grinned. She turned over onto her other side, so that she lay face-to-face with the beautiful heiress. Blair slid her hands up and down Jo's slender arms.

"You need to get out of this jacket," Blair said disapprovingly. "I can't administer any physical therapy while you're wearing this bulky thing."

"I see. Is that your medical opinion, Miss Warner?"

"Decidedly."

Jo let Blair help her out of the jacket. Blair hurled the beautiful garment into a corner of the room.

"Why, Blair Warner," said Jo, "is that any way to handle expensive couture?"

"No," said Blair. "This is the way to handle expensive couture."

She gripped the lapels of Jo's white silk shirt, ripping the shirt open. There were tearing and popping sounds as threads snapped and buttons flew off in every direction.

"Blair! What the hell?" Jo asked, laughing delightedly.

Blair tore the shirt clean off of Jo. She leaned down and pressed her mouth to the hollow between Jo's breasts, between the white silk cups of Jo's bra.

"I want you," Blair murmured.

"So take me – take me, babe!" Jo said enthusiastically. "Do with me what you will!"

Blair kissed her way down Jo's flat stomach, impatiently unbuttoned her lover's jeans. Jo eagerly wriggled out of them as Blair slid them down her legs.

The blonde pressed her mouth to the front panel of Jo's white silk panties, kissed her way down between the brunette's legs. Jo was giving off a tremendous heat through the silk, and a sweet scent.

Blair slid her fingers under the side panels and pulled – the panties tore away. Blair kissed the soft dark hair between Jo's legs, the damp leaves of her sex.

Jo hissed at the sudden, exciting touch of Blair's lips. She reached down blindly, catching Blair's wrists, pulling them up toward her chest. Blair cupped Jo's pert breasts, stroking them, teasing the small pink nipples as her mouth worked hungrily at Jo's wet center …

"Oh … God," Jo whimpered. "Blair … You … Oh!"

Blair was incredibly gentle yet incredibly playful, nipping lightly, driving deeper, and then holding back, drawing Jo on crest after crest, wave after wave of pleasure. Finally, with a loud cry and a wild bucking of her hips, Jo was swept over the edge into a powerful orgasm …

Jo lay panting on the luxurious bed, only semi-conscious. Her head was swimming, buzzing … She felt drunk. She turned her head to one side, eyes closed.

Blair slowly kissed her way up Jo's body. Her hands cupped Jo's face, and then tangled in her lover's long dark hair.

Who knew, Jo thought hazily, who knew making love with anyone could be this wonderful, this mind-blowing

Blair drew a hand across her damp face. She loved how Jo tasted. They were both sweaty; Blair's jeans were damp between her legs; her shirt was damp at the collar, under her arms, along her spine.

"I need a bath," murmured Blair, kissing Jo's throat. "Come take a bath with me, darling."

"Sure, just … give me a sec," mumbled Jo. Her whole body was tingling. Her head was hazy. "Blair, that was … wow."

Blair kissed her throat again. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"Enjoyed it?" Jo laughed shakily. "Christ, Blair – you enjoy a movie. That was like … some kind of altered freakin state …"

"As long as you don't actually turn into some kind of wolf or something," Blair laughed.

"I don't know babe … Kinda tastin colors here …" Jo rubbed her face. "Blair," she said through her hands, "you are an amazin lover. Amazin."

"Why thank you, darling." Blair blushed prettily, genuinely pleased. "It's all about practice. And I think I'm going to get even better if we keep practicing."

"Well … What the hell are we waitin for?" Jo grinned.

She slid her arms around Blair's waist, kissed the blonde long and deep. Jo could taste herself on Blair's lips and tongue. It was the strangest thing, she often thought, how similar they tasted, although Jo was somewhat sweeter, not quite as musky as Blair.

Jo pulled Blair closer; her hands trailed down, cupping the blonde's generous derriere. Jo deepened the kiss, tongue tangling with Blair's gently at first, and then passionately.

She rolled on top of her fiancée, one leg dropping neatly between Blair's legs. Jo started a slow, sensual rocking motion.

"Somebody's got too many clothes on," Jo panted. "And it ain't me, cause you ripped mine off."

"So what are you gonna do about it?" Blair challenged, breathing hard.

Jo answered with actions, rather than words. She tore open Blair's shirt with a sudden ferocity that made Blair's attack on her own shirt seem like a polite undressing.

Jo crumpled the shreds of silk into one ball of material and threw it into the corner. She tore off Blair's delicate bra as if it were made of tissue paper, and hurled those scraps after the destroyed shirt.

"Jo … darling ..." cried Blair as Jo took one of the dark nipples into her mouth.

With a little growl, Jo turned her attention to the other breast. Her hands tore at the buttons and zipper of the blonde's jeans. Blair lifted her behind, making it easier for Jo to yank the jeans off of her.

"Much better," breathed Jo. She slipped her fingers under Blair's panties.

I could do this blindfolded, Jo thought. Blair responded instantly, thrusting forward, moaning.

Jo worked her fingers slowly, letting Blair set the pace; as Blair's movements grew faster, Jo matched her tempo ...

"Darling, I … I'm almost … Oh, Jo!" Blair cried, thrashing wildly. Jo held her lover tight as her movements slowed, and then stilled. Blair lay panting in Jo's arms.

"Jo. Oh, Jo..." Blair murmured her fiancée's name over and over, eyes closed, a transcendent smile on her lips.

Jo kissed Blair's nose. She loved that perfectly chiseled, slightly tip-tilted nose. She kissed Blair's closed eyelids.

"Happy Valentine's Day," Jo whispered.

"Happy Valentine's Day indeed," whispered Blair.

"Wasn't there somethin, I thought I heard someone sayin somethin about a bath," said Jo. She kissed Blair's damp forehead. "Was that you, babe? Wanna take a bath with one of Langley's finest?"

"Uh-huhn."

"Whaddya think? If I carry you …"

"Yes, Jo. Carry me. Or, wait … You already carried me up the steps. Don't throw your back out, Jo."

"I ain't gonna – oof!" Jo grunted as she lifted her lover into her arms. "I ain't gonna throw my back out, babe. You still don't realize how friggin strong I am."

"I have some idea," Blair said dreamily …

While they were running the bath in the opulent master bathroom, Blair sat on the edge of the tub, Jo sitting on her lap.

They made out as they had made out so many times together in the last five months – long deep kisses, hands roaming over each other's bodies, half-swooning with pleasure.

"Will it always be like this?" Blair whispered to Jo. "You won't get tired of me?"

"Never," Jo said passionately. "Not in a billion years."

"I won't always be this beautiful," whispered Blair. "This perfect."

Jo chuckled. "How 'bout this modest?" she teased.

Blair pinched her shoulder.

"Ow! Hey. That ain't very nice," Jo objected.

"Then don't imply that I'm vain, darling."

"Well you gotta admit, you are a little bit vain. You know?"

"I am a lot vain," said Blair, biting Jo's collar bone. "But you don't mind do you? You couldn't love me this much if you really minded."

"I don't mind at all," Jo said honestly. "I'm so used to it now I hardly notice when you're bein vain. It's actually kinda cute. Truth is, babe, you got a lot to be vain about. Inside and out. So be as vain as you friggin want …"

There was another moment of abandoned kissing. But Blair wasn't ready to let the matter drop. It was something that seemed to be on her mind more and more as the winter wore on.

"But someday," Blair said, breaking off a particularly passionate kiss, "someday I might be, to use one of your less fortunate phrases, 'all huge and dodderin'."

Jo laughed. "Ha! Yeah. That's one of my best ones, huh?"

"Not exactly," Blair said drily.

"Come on, babe. Lighten up, will ya?" Jo nipped playfully at the soft skin of Blair's shoulder. "I told you a million times, but I'll tell you a million more if you need to hear it – what I love about you ain't gonna change. I love the Blair Warner in here –"

Jo kissed the swell of Blair's breasts above her heart. "I love the Blair Warner that remembered to send Christmas cards to Mr. Johnson and the concierge, even though she was cut off from her family. I love the Blair Warner that sent Mr. Johnson and the concierge their usual Christmas bonuses, even though she was flat broke."

"They told you that?" Blair asked quietly.

"Yep."

"Well why should they suffer because I've had a set-back?" Blair said reasonably.

"Blair … Christ." Jo shook her head in a kind of dazed amazement. "I think maybe the most astonishin thing about you is you don't even realize how astonishin you are."

Blair blushed. It meant so much to her, genuine praise from Jo.

"Jo, to hear that from you … There aren't any words." Blair's warm milk-chocolate eyes looked shyly up at Jo from beneath half-closed lids.

"No need for words." Jo kissed Blair again. "Words are totally overrated."

The tub was almost full. The water was steaming and fragrant. Jo turned off the taps.

She lowered Blair into the water, and then lowered herself in, twining her long legs with Blair's long legs, holding her lover's full hips and pulling her close.

"Jo," Blair murmured after a moment, "we just destroyed each other's clothes."

"Uh-huh."

"We tore them to shreds."

"Yeah."

"So … after this, we should probably do some shopping downstairs."

Jo grinned. "You know what, babe? When you're right, you're right."


Friday, February 11, 2011. Intensive Care Ward, Peekskill Memorial Hospital.

Tootie and Jo entered the hospital room just in time to hear Blair conclude a story.

"And that," Blair told the beautiful, heavily bandaged, unconscious young woman lying in the hospital bed, "is the story of my first Valentine's Day at the Plaza with Aunt Jo."

"Blair," said Tootie, "it's very sweet of you to sit with Lexi, but do you have to tell my baby those dreadful soft-core stories?"

"They aren't 'soft-core' stories," Blair objected. "They're romantic. And sensual."

"And totally inappropriate, no doubt," said Jo. "I'm with Tootie on this one, Blair. Let's keep our youthful exploits tucked away in the mists of time."

"For heaven's sake – you make it sound like it was a hundred years ago," said Blair. "You just don't like me talking about your romantic side, Jo Polniaczek."

"You'd better believe it!" agreed Jo. She put a comforting hand on Tootie's shoulder. "So … How's Lexi doing?"

Tootie shook her head. "The doctors tell me she doing very well, all things considered. But I'm afraid to believe it. I don't want to get my hopes up, and then …"

Blair took one of Tootie's hands, squeezed it reassuringly.

"I just spoke to the neurosurgeon," Tootie said. "They're hopeful that Lexi will wake up soon. They're very hopeful, which you don't hear doctors say very often. But I don't know – are they really hopeful, or are they just trying to tell me what I want to hear?"

"That's one of the many disadvantages of being a celebrity," said Alec. He sat in a chair in the far corner, bespoke suit rumpled, handsome face unshaven. "Everyone tells you what they think you want to hear. Bloody circus of lies."

"I thought you were asleep," Blair said, blushing.

"I was. For the most part. Didn't hear a damned thing until the part of the story where you and Jo arrived at the Plaza. That's when I woke up. And it was such a lovely story, I didn't want to interrupt. What a machine our Jo was!"

"You're a cad, Alec!" flared Blair. "That was a personal, private story."

"I think Jo's irritability has seeped into your personality over the years," said Alec.

"Why don't you step over here and tell me more about my irritability," Blair said with dangerous sweetness.

"I'd advise against that," Jo told Alec. "She's caught me by surprise quite a few times that way."

"He was eavesdropping," Blair told Jo, "on a very personal story. About us! Why aren't you hitting him with something hard?"

"Blair … please. We're all a little bit tense these days."

"And why were you telling my baby such a personal story anyway?" Tootie asked Blair.

Blair shrugged. "I don't know. I guess it was just … on my mind."

"Well coma patients can hear everything people say to them," said Tootie. "So I'd appreciate it if you'd keep any future fairy tales G-rated!"

"Calm down," Jo said soothingly. "Blair didn't mean any harm. And it's not as if Lexi is five years old. She's a grown woman."

Tootie turned on Jo, eyes narrowing. "And who asked you to butt in, Jo Polniaczek?"

"Ah, that would be no one," said Jo.

"That's what I thought! Don't tell me to calm down! Calm down? How about it – do you have any other brilliant remarks to make?"

"Ah, that would be no," said Jo.

"Avoid eye contact," Alec advised Jo. "And avoid saying anything. Or breathing."

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Tootie demanded, whirling on Alec. "Are those meant to be amusing remarks? Lexi is lying there, she's, she's lying there, all bandaged and, and fragile, and –"

Tootie sank down into one of the ugly hospital chairs, tears streaming down her face.

"Steady on," Alec said gently. He took one of Tootie's hands. "Everyone's just trying to relieve the tension. The bloody awful tension."

"What she doesn't wake up?" Tootie sobbed. "What Lexi stays in the coma and, and …"

"We'll manage," said Alec.

"We will," said Blair.

"We'll what?" asked Natalie, breezing into the room. "What are we going to manage?"

Natalie wore a long white lab coat, a stethoscope coiled around her neck. She consulted a medical chart while she walked; years of practice allowed her to do so without stumbling over anything.

"We'll manage," said Jo, "if … if Lexi isn't one-hundred percent."

"Of course we will," said Natalie. "That goes without saying. Although according to her chart, things look promising. Very promising."

"I wish everyone would stop saying that," complained Tootie. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her Vera Wang jacket. She stood up, paced back and forth a few times. "Frankly, I'd feel more confident if I heard a little more cautious optimism. I'm not a child. Everyone doesn't have to keep feeding me big heaping spoonfuls of ecstatic hope."

"Tootie – can the drama," Natalie said bluntly.

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me, Tootie. Lexi is the patient here. And she needs her mother to be strong and optimistic –heroically strong and optimistic. You can break down later – after we know she's all right."

Tootie put her hands on her hips. She glared at Natalie over the top of her reading glasses – the glasses Tootie never, ever, on any account wore in public, where the paparazzi might snap her.

"If that's your bedside manner, Natalie, I'm surprised you haven't been disbarred!"

"Lawyers get disbarred," corrected Natalie. "Doctors get disciplined, sanctioned and sued."

"Well I'm surprised you haven't been disciplined, sanctioned and sued," Tootie said heatedly, "if that's how you talk to patients' family members!"

"That's how I talk to you," Natalie said unflappably, "since you're my best friend, and since Lexi is my goddaughter. I'm telling you everything is going to be all right, but only if you stay positive. Now sit your ass back down in that chair, Tootie, and pull it together."

Tootie glared at Natalie for another moment, and then sank slowly onto her chair.

"I'm going to remember this, doctor," Tootie said coolly.

"Excellent," said Natalie. "That'll save us all a lot of trouble." She glanced at Blair and Jo. "You two – clear out of here for a little while. Give them some space."

Blair nodded. "If that's best for Lexi," she said. She put a hand on Tootie's shoulder. "We'll be nearby if you need us – the cafeteria, probably."

"Speak for yourself," said Jo. "We eat there, we're going to end up in one of these beds."

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Really, Jo? Hospital cafeteria jokes?"

"Hey, I'm not the famous entertainer in this group. My jokes can suck," Jo said defensively.

"Well, they do. Come on, darling. Buy me a cup of terrible coffee."

Natalie followed Jo and Blair into the hall, where a coterie of solemn-faced, dark-suited young men and women were standing at attention.

As soon as the door to Lexi's room closed, Natalie put a hand to her forehead, shading her eyes.

"Nat – what's the matter?" asked Jo.

Natalie looked suddenly very wobbly on her legs. Instinctively Jo grabbed one of Nat's arms; Blair took the other.

"What's wrong?" asked Blair.

Natalie shook her head. A tear slipped down one plump cheek.

"Aw, Christ," muttered Jo. "Lexi's not going to make it – is she?"

"We don't think so," Natalie said in a ragged voice. "But there's still a chance – a slim one. Lexi's state of mind is going to be everything if she wakes up. She can't see any tears … no long faces."

Unconsciously Jo balled one of her hands into a fist. It was so damn unfair – a brilliant, talented, big-hearted young woman like Lexi, with the whole world in front of her. She couldn't die! Jo bit her lip so hard she drew blood.

One of the dark-suited women stepped forward, but Blair held up one perfectly manicured hand, waving the woman back.

"Your mouth, darling," Blair said to Jo. She whisked a clean white handkerchief from somewhere on her person and handed it to her wife.

"It's my fault," muttered Jo, holding the handkerchief to her bloody lip. "Why did I give Lexi that fucking bike?"

"So, you gave her the fucking bike," said Natalie. "You didn't drive it into the tree."

"I might as well have."

"No," said Natalie, eyes flashing. "I told you – No tears, no long faces and no guilt. It's self-indulgent and none of it does Lexi any good!"

"We understand," said Blair. "And I take it you don't want us to say anything to Tootie? About Lexi's real chances?"

"You'd better not." Natalie sighed. "It's ironic –Tootie's the performer, but this is the one role she could never pull off. She can't know how bad it is." She shook her head. "I think that was just the hardest thing I ever had to do."

"What? Yelling at Tootie? You've been doing that great for years," Jo said encouragingly. "Piece of cake."

"Well, yelling at her … that's true," said Natalie. "If I can keep angry at Tootie, maybe I can pull this off."

"You can explain it to her later – when Lexi's fully recovered," said Blair.

"God, I hope so. What the hell was Lexi thinking? Why was she driving so fast?"

"Because she's Lexi," Jo said wryly. "Because for some weird reason she's like me. If you feel it – do it. First leap – and then look."

Blair linked her arm through Jo's. She leaned her chin on Jo's shoulder.

"Darling? Lexi is a little bit like all of us, but mostly like her mother, which is to say emotional and dramatic, and like her father, which is to say hotheaded and impulsive. So stop beating yourself up, and buy me a damn coffee before I start having caffeine withdrawal. You know how ugly I get."

"Do I ever!" Jo said with feeling. "What about it, Nat? Cup of coffee? My treat?"

"Thanks," said Nat, "but I'm meeting with the neuro team again. We want to be sure we haven't missed anything."

"You can make time for a five-minute break," Blair said gently. "You're no good to Lexi or Tootie if you're dead on your feet. Or, I'm sorry … that wasn't the most fortunate choice of words."

"Don't worry about it. And I'm not saying you're wrong, Blair, but I don't want to keep the team waiting. Tell you what – I'll stop by the cafeteria after the neuro meeting."

"All right," said Blair. "We'll be there."

"I'll be the one puking up the cafeteria hamburger," said Jo.

Blair rolled her eyes.

Natalie laughed. "You're still a breath of fresh air," she told the brunette. "I guess some things never change …"

"Number one," said Blair, when she and Jo were in line in the hospital cafeteria, pushing their plastic trays along the uneven metal rails, "you are not getting a hamburger, or any red meat. Remember what Portia said."

"Aw, she's a quack," grumbled Jo.

"Jo Polniaczek – Portia is not a quack. She's been patching you up for the better part of, well, quite a few years."

"But – no red meat? It's insane. I've been eating red meat for forty-six years."

"And now it's time to scale back, darling. For your own good."

"What's the second thing?" asked Jo, changing the subject.

"What do you mean?"

"You said 'Number one, no red meat.' So what's the second thing? Or do I want to know?"

"Oh. Yes. Number two, we need to stop by the chapel after we eat."

"Yeah, of course. That's a given."

Jo looked longingly at a soggy little hamburger bun, and the grey patty and limp lettuce leaf sandwiched within it. The hamburger looked disgusting, but, still – it was a hamburger.

"Blair –" Jo began in a coaxing tone.

"No!" Blair said severely.

"Babe, I haven't had a burger in more than a month. A month."

"And I'm very proud of you. There. Look at that nice fresh salad."

"That thing?" Jo demanded. "Looks like it has ringworm or something."

Blair threw her hands up in the air. "Fine. I'm not your mother, Jo, or your keeper. Get the hamburger. Hell, there's a McDonald's down the road. Go get ten burgers! So what if your constituents are depending on you? So what if I'm depending on you? So what if our –"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, all right, all right! You aren't my mother but you sure can guilt like Rose!"

"It's possible I've observed her technique over the years," Blair said primly.

Jo took the plate of wilted-looking salad, plopped it onto her tray. "There. Happy?"

"Radiantly," smiled Blair.

"Getting older sucks," Jo said, scowling. "I don't feel any older – not inside. I feel like I'm still nineteen. Seems like just yesterday I took you to the city for our first Valentine's Day."

"Not our first," objected Blair. "Our first was at Eastland. But I know what you mean – the first Valentine's Day we were together." Blair put a brownie on her tray. Jo raised her eyebrows.

"I can eat brownies," Blair said defensively.

"Sure you can, babe. Did I say anything?"

"You didn't have to. You made a face."

"You know me," Jo said lightly. "Always have had a funny face."

"You said you would always love me, Jo," Blair said accusingly. "No matter how much I weigh."

"And I stand by that," said Jo. "I'm not worried about your weight. It's your glucose levels."

"Aha! Portia told you!" said Blair, eyes flashing. "Why, that little quack!"

"Portia was worried you might not follow the diet she suggested." Jo looked meaningfully at the brownie on Blair's tray. "Imagine that!"

"Fine." Blair put the brownie back among the dessert dishes. She took a bowl of red Jell-O instead, slapping it onto her tray. "There. Happy?"

"Radiantly," said Jo.

"Getting older sucks," muttered Blair.

"Exactly," Jo agreed. "But getting older together … kind of not so bad. Right?"

"I suppose," Blair said ungraciously.

Jo laughed. "This from the woman who was worried that I might get tired of her!"

"I still worry about that," said Blair. "You're a famous, powerful woman. What's keeping you from ditching me for some young hottie with excellent glucose levels?"

"What indeed?" Jo mused. "Portia could probably find one for me. Portia has all that information at her fingertips, you know – everybody's glucose levels."

Blair rolled her eyes.

"What made you think of it?" asked Jo, as they sat down at a table in the corner.

At two nearby tables, a small coterie of men and women in dark suits sat down. They had earpieces, and various discrete bulges on their person were attributable to walkie-talkies and SIG-Sauer P229s.

"What made me think of what?" asked Blair.

"Our Valentine's trip to the Plaza. Were you really telling Lexi all the raunchy details?"

"Of course not! It was a heavily edited version. And Lexi's in a coma. And I was trying to find something that I could just, you know, keep talking about. They say you're supposed to keep talking to people in comas. The talking is more important than what you say. And our Valentine's exploits were sensual – not raunchy."

"I don't know, babe. I remember some pretty raunchy moments. You didn't talk about," Jo hesitated, "you didn't talk about the violent stuff, did you?"

Blair shivered. "Of course not."

"I was just wondering, you know, Lexi being in the hospital, if it had reminded you …"

"No," said Blair. "I've put a lot of that out of my mind."

"So what made you think of it, then?" asked Jo. She took a bite of salad, made a face. "What made you think of our first Valentine's Day?"

"Well," Blair thought it over, "I suppose because it's almost Valentine's Day now? Or had you forgotten? Don't tell me you're going to start phoning it in after twenty-seven years, Polniaczek!"

"No. I thought I'd wait thirty years before I start phoning it in. This year, I'm going to have my chief-of-staff order you a nice floral arrangement from FTD. The fourth most expensive one. And if you play your cards right, I might even give you a kiss."

"You think you're very funny," said Blair, "don't you?"

"Oh, I know I'm funny, babe. I'm the funny one in this marriage. And the brains. And the brawn."

"And what am I?" asked Blair. "Chopped liver?"

"You are the beauty," Jo said softly. She cupped Blair's face with one hand. "And the heart. And the soul."

"And?"

"And … I guess you're pretty funny too."

"Damn straight," said Blair, nodding.

She prodded her red Jell-O with a plastic spoon. It quivered and wobbled. "Darling?"

"Yes?"

"After we talk to Natalie, and stop by the chapel, can we go to that McDonald's up the road? I want a chocolate shake."

"Oh you do, do you? Well tell me this: Can I get a double-cheeseburger?"

"Single cheeseburger," Blair said firmly. "The tiny one. Off the value menu."

"Then you can get one of those little apple pie things. You don't need a whole damn shake, Blair."

Blair considered the offer. "Deal," she said.

"Deal," said Jo. "See? The blogosphere is right; I really am a consensus-builder."

Jo dropped a paper napkin over her depressing, wilted salad. It made her feel queasy just looking at it. "Blair Polniaczek?" she said.

"Yes, darling?"

"Happy almost-Valentine's."

Part 2

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