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 2

Saturday, February 11, 1984. The Plaza Hotel, New York City.

Jo and Blair dined early in the Palm Court, while it was still relatively empty.

Blair was resplendent in a white sheath dress, blonde hair loose and shining, eyes smoky with mascara.

Jo was equally dazzling in a blue sheath dress, pearls at her throat, her hair piled atop her head in a beautiful mass, a few dark tendrils curling enticingly around her face.

The fewer people Blair ran into, the better, Jo thought – the fewer awkward questions her lover would have to answer. Where have you been, Blair? We missed you at the Morgan Gala. So sorry to hear that you and Lord Nethridge won't be walking down the aisle together …

The rich, Jo had learned, typically dined at eight p.m. or later. It wasn't like the Bronx, where folks sat down to tuna fish sandwiches or meatloaf at five-thirty.

So at six o'clock the only other diners in the Palm Court were tourists and business people, largely from the Midwest, Blair thought, based on their accents, the cut of their clothing and their open, friendly faces. As the maître d' led Jo and Blair to a prime table, there was no extensive social gamut to run as there had been on the night of the Plaza's Charity Ball.

Blair recognized only one of the couples – Lars and Hildie Van Dussen from Chicago. Lars' great-grandfather, Blair knew, had gone west many years ago with a couple of dollars and a change of shirt; within a generation he had founded the Van Dussen Bank.

Blair paused at their table. She kissed both Lars and Hildie on the cheek – no mere air-kisses for them.

Lars had given Blair piggybacks when she was two or three. "I'm Old Paint," he'd say. "Where we gonna ride today, Blairy?" "We go Texas!" Blair would cry imperiously, delighted. "Go Old Paint! Giddyup!"

Hildie had earned Blair's eternal gratitude when Blair was six by retying her hair ribbon when it came loose at the Governor's Gala.

"I don't know what to do with her," Mona had said, shaking her head. "Such a little tomboy! How difficult is it to tie a ribbon, Blair? It isn't rocket science, dear."

"I'll help her," Hildie had said in her friendly voice. She didn't talk like anyone Blair had heard in New York, or Europe, or Bar Harbor, or even Texas. There was an interesting sing-song quality to the way Hildie spoke.

Hildie took Blair to the elegant powder room, where women were touching up their faces and spraying on scent in front of the long, bright mirror. Everybody was gleaming. Everybody rustled when they moved, the fabric of their elegant dresses whispering softly with every graceful gesture.

That was a moment that always stuck in Blair's mind for some reason. The six-year-old realized in that instant how beautiful her world was. She had always taken it for granted; this was the first time she was conscious of appreciating it. Everything looked and smelled and sounded so pretty. If only her mother were not so, so … but young Blair had pushed that painful thought away.

"Here," Hildie had said kindly, turning Blair so she faced the mirror. "Let me show you a little trick. I always had trouble tying my hair ribbons, until my gran showed me how to do it. You just pretend this end of the ribbon is the clever little rabbit. And this end of the ribbon is the mean little fox. And the fox chases the rabbit … like this …"

Blair had looked into the mirror, watching carefully as Hildie's fingers tied a perfect bow. What a nice lady, Blair had thought. Like Cinderella's Fairy Godmother …

Now Lars and Hildie beamed up at Blair. "Good Lord, you're beautiful!" said Lars. "So grown-up, Blairy. It's been much too long!"

"You're like a princess," Hildie said, smiling sweetly. She put a hand to Blair's face. "And you look very happy, dear. I'm so glad. We've been hearing some dreadful, silly talk – makes it sound like you're succumbing to some dark depression! And here you are looking radiant, thank goodness. Tell me, Blair – have you and your parents had a falling out?"

Blair laughed. "That's putting it mildly," she said.

"Your mother is telling people that you're sulking over some boy or other – but that doesn't sound like the Blair we remember."

"We knew it was a damn fool story," said Lars. "As if Blair Warner couldn't snap her fingers and get any fellow she wanted! Mona's slipping a little, if she can't cook up something better than that."

"Mother and Daddy and I are having … a disagreement," Blair said. "It's certainly not pleasant, but we'll mend it in time."

"Of course you will," Hildie said kindly.

"Want me to stop by your father's office?" asked Lars. "Give him a kick in the britches?"

Blair laughed again. "Not necessary," she said. "But I appreciate the offer."

"Old Paint's always on your side, Blairy. Remember that."

"I will." She pressed his hand gratefully.

I like this guy, thought Jo. Got a little Bronx in him somewhere!

"What brings you to New York?" Blair asked Lars and Hildie. "Business or pleasure this time?"

"Six of one, half a dozen of another," said Lars. "I'm closing a couple of deals – and then Hildie's going to spend all the money I make at Saks and Bloomies."

"Not all of it," said Hildie. "Just most of it."

"Hell, spend it all," he said. "Can't take it with us."

Hildie smiled at Jo.

"I'm sorry," said Blair, "where are my manners? Hilda Van Dussen, this is Jo Polniaczek, one of my dearest chums. We were at school at Eastland, and now we're both at Langley. Well – Jo is at Langley. I'm taking a semester off."

"Pleased to meet you," said Hildie, pressing Jo's hand. "Aren't you lovely?"

"They're like Rose Red and Snow White," said Lars.

"Lars Von Dussen, my friend Jo Polniaczek," said Blair.

"Very pleased to meet you, Miss Polniaczek." He squeezed Jo's hand. "Say – nice grip."

"Field hockey," said Jo, smiling shyly.

"Jo is the captain of the Langley Lions," said Blair. "She led the team to nationals this year."

Jo blushed. It was cute, if a little embarrassing, how proud Blair was of Jo's athletic prowess. Friends, strangers, the mailman – given half a chance, Blair found a way to work Jo's victories into conversations with anyone.

"Good for you, Miss Polniaczek," Lars said approvingly. "Nice to meet an Ivy League girl who can hold her own on the field. All these wilting East Coast debutantes – they don't grow them out here like we do in Chicago!"

"Lars, the whole world can't be Chicago," Hildie objected mildly.

"Don't see why not," he said. He reached up and pinched one of Blair's cheeks. "This one's never been a fainting violet. You're looking blooming, Blair."

"Thank you. I feel blooming."

"We'll be in town all week," said Hildie. "You must call me, Blair. Lunch at Bloomies – my treat."

"All right," Blair smiled. "I will …"

The maître d' had been waiting patiently. If Mademoiselle Warner, or any of the Plaza's A-list guests, chose to stop and chat at a table, that was their prerogative.

When Blair finally bade the Van Dussen's farewell, maître d' led Jo and Blair to an elegantly set table near the center of the opulent chamber. He pulled out their chairs and seated the young women. He thanked them for gracing the Palm Court with their presence …

The harpist played a series of romantic tunes. The scents of exquisitely prepared food wafted through the room.

"Jo – this is perfect," whispered Blair.

Jo smiled her mega-watt grin. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

When the waiter came, Jo ordered for both of them, a little self-consciously, but with a proud gleam in her eye. She had been doing her research.

"We'll, ah, both have the filet mignon with petits pois," Jo said. She had been practicing; her French accent was passable, decent enough that the waiter did not have to ask her to repeat the order.

When the sommelier asked them which wine they would like with their meal, Blair was silent, giving Jo a chance to speak. Jo didn't even glance at the wine list.

"We'll have a bottle of the Petrus Merlot," Jo said, as nonchalantly as if she ordered costly red wines every day of the week. "But champagne to start. We're celebrating a business coup. Your finest bottle of the Krug, I think."

"Very good, mademoiselle."

When the sommelier had bustled off, Blair beamed at Jo.

"Did my little Neanderthal just correctly order wine with dinner?"

Jo patted a yawn. "Is that so surprising?"

"No, darling. Nothing you do surprises me anymore. Jo Polniaczek – I think you can do anything."

Under the table, Blair had slipped her feet out of her high-heeled shoes. She ran her silk-stocking clad toes up and down one of Jo's legs.

"Holy cats," murmured Jo. "Babe – that's really, ah, nice, but someone's gonna see."

"Who's gonna see?" Blair asked mischievously.

And who was gonna see? wondered Jo. The Plaza's fine linen tablecloths fell all the way from the tabletops to the floor. Unless someone were wearing X-Ray specs, who could possibly see Blair's toes running up and down Jo's shin, over her calf, dropping down to stroke her instep …

"What is this business coup that we're celebrating?" asked Blair.

"Hmm? Oh. I just figured maybe I should say we were celebratin business, you know, instead of Valentine's Day. And we did kinda score a business coup, in a manner of speakin, findin out the Plaza will let you run a tab. Just think, babe – any time you get a cravin to charge somethin, you just come here. No more shoppin withdrawal!"

"You are the most considerate fiancée ever," Blair said dreamily.

"Eh – I got my good points," Jo grinned …

Dinner was beyond delicious. They savored every bite, every sip of champagne, every glass of Merlot. They both got a little tipsy, especially Jo, who had never been much of a drinker.

Jo ordered crème brûlée for dessert, remembering Blair's sweet tooth.

"Jo," whispered Blair, savoring the last spoonful of crème brûlée, "if we could go somewhere this evening, right this minute, and get married, would you do it?"

"Blair, I would you marry you anywhere, any time. That's why I proposed to you last fall. I would marry you in a car, on a star, with a goat, in a boat –"

"All right, Sam-I-Am – that's enough Merlot for you," Blair said firmly.

"In a train, in the rain." Jo sipped her café au lait. "In a box, cause you're such a fox. On the sea, in the air – I will wed you anywhere ..."

Back in their suite, in the lounge, Blair snapped on the hi-fi. She found a radio station that was playing love songs.

"That's nice," Jo said.

She sat on the divan, supremely relaxed, looking up at Blair with a crooked little grin. I feel so great, thought Jo. I feel as relaxed as a boneless freakin chicken. Blair's so pretty. Her eyes are so pretty.

"Darling?" said Blair.

"Yeah, babe?"

"I think you're a little blotto."

"Yeah, babe. I think I am."

"I'm glad we already ravished each other."

"Hey … I may be a little blotto, but I ain't dead." Jo wiggled her eyebrows. "There's more ravishin on the agenda!"

"Hmm. I'll believe that when I see it."

"Oh, you'll see it." Jo pulled Blair onto her lap, lazily stroked the blonde's hair. "Can we order coffee or somethin, though? I wanna, I got to clear my head before we go out."

Blair lifted her eyebrows in surprise. "We're going out?"

"Yeah, of course. You think I ain't gonna take my fiancée out on the town on our big romantic weekend?"

"Where are we going?"

Jo laughed. "You're still not clear on the concept of 'surprises' – are ya?"

Blair ordered a pot of coffee. It was delivered a few moments later by a white-gloved butler, who set the silver tray on the lounge coffee table and poured out two cups.

Jo was upstairs changing, safely out of the way lest, in her slightly inebriated state, she called Blair 'babe' or grab her butt in front of the butler.

"Do you require anything else, Miss Warner?"

"Not at the moment," said Blair. "Thank you, Damon." She pressed a crisp bill into his gloved hand.

"Thank you, ma'am."

When Jo came downstairs she wore her new Calvins and the green-blue silk blouse she'd found in the Plaza's sportswear shop. The color of the shirt matched her eyes, made them pop. Her hair was tied in a neat ponytail.

Blair wolf-whistled.

Jo grinned.

"I take it the coast is clear," Jo said, looking around.

"Yes."

"Good."

Jo gathered Blair in her arms, kissed the blonde thoroughly.

"OK, babe. Your turn to change."

Blair roused herself from a half-swoon. The things Jo's kisses did to her …

"What should I wear?" Blair asked dazedly.

"Like what I'm wearin. Nice, you know, but casual."

Jo sat on the divan. She took one of the coffee cups, downed the contents in one gulp. "Wow. Good stuff." She poured herself another cup. "Blair?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you gonna change?"

"Oh. Yes." Blair smiled at her lover. Still a little dazed, Blair padded up the narrow staircase in her stocking feet.

Jo shook her head good-naturedly. What should I wear? Blair Warner askin Jo Polniaczek what to wear! It was kind of crazy, Jo thought, how their worlds were blending, blurring together. Crazy and lovely …

When Blair returned in her new Calvins and her new lavender silk shirt, Jo wolf whistled.

"There she is – Miss Harvest Queen, three years runnin!"

Blair smiled, pleased, and twirled around a couple of times.

Jo had opened the curtains. Night had fallen across the city and Manhattan was blazing and sparkling with a million little lights.

"Darling – what do you have there?" asked Blair, noticing the red-labeled vinyl record in Jo's hand.

"A little mood music," said Jo. "Gerry Mulligan Quartet. It's the real deal, 1959. From my pop's collection."

"Have you spoken to him?" Blair asked eagerly.

Jo sighed. "Nah. Charlie's still – I left him another message last week."

"He'll come around Jo. He's going to come around before your mother – or either of my parents."

"Maybe."

Jo crossed to the hi-fi cabinet, lifted the lid. She placed the record on the turntable and adjusted a couple of switches.

"I lifted this from my pop's collection when he was in the joint. I mean, not like he needed it, right? And I never got around to givin it back to him."

"Jo Polniaczek, are you playing me stolen music?"

"Eh, it's borrowed music. I'm gonna give it back to him. Someday."

Jo referred to the record label, counted, dropped the needle into one of the record's grooves …

"My Funny Valentine," began to play … Not the lush orchestral version Blair had heard a million times over the years … This was a spare, haunting arrangement … Saxophone … Trumpet … Trombone … Full of longing … Wistfully beautiful …

Jo held out one hand. Blair took it.

"Dance with me," Jo said. Blair nodded. She slid her arms around Jo's shoulders, laid her face against Jo's shoulder. Jo put her hands on Blair's hips.

They danced slowly, holding each other tight.

Chet Baker's trumpet sang all the things they were feeling … all the love, and the longing, and the need.

Blair kissed Jo's neck.

"I love you Jo," she murmured. "I will always love you, 'till I draw my last breath."

Jo pulled her closer. "Don't talk about your last breath, babe. It's bad luck."

"But I will, Jo. I'll love you until the day I die."

"Shh." Jo kissed Blair's cheek. She pulled the blonde even closer. She couldn't imagine caring for anyone else like this, ever. "I love you, Blair Polniaczek."

"Blair Warner-Polniaczek," Blair corrected her gently. "I'm going to be a hyphenate."

Jo chuckled. "All right … Blair Warner-Polniaczek."

They danced.


Peekskill, New York. Eastland Academy for Girls.

"Wow," said Tootie. She looked around the Eastland gymnasium, which was draped with pink-and-white crepe paper and pink-and-white balloons. Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" played loudly over the speaker system. "The gym feels so … small."

"It does," agreed Natalie. "Why is that?"

"Because we've been spending so much time at Langley," Tootie said thoughtfully. "And River Rock. And the city. So Eastland suddenly feels, well – smaller."

"It's already happening, Toot," sighed Natalie. "We're growing up. Yesterday we were minnows. Today we're guppies. And tomorrow – what's a big fish?" she asked her grandmother.

"Carp," suggested Mona.

"Gramma – I mean an important fish."

"And carp isn't important? It fed my family for a good many years, I can tell you that."

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Gramma, I'm glad you came along, but please try not to cramp my style."

"Cramp your style? First I have to order you to come to this dance, then you drag me along with you, and now I'm told not to cramp your style? I didn't even know you had a style, vnooshka!"

"Natalie doesn't realize she's being contradictory and insensitive," Alec told Mona. "Remember – she's a mere guppy."

Natalie glared at Alec. "And I don't need you cramping my style either, milord. You're Tootie's phony date – not mine. You stay on this side of the gym, and I'll stay on that side. Got it?"

"With charm like that, my dear," laughed Alec, "I predict a very long, lonely evening."

Tootie slipped her arm through Alec's. "I just spotted a stone-cold fox at three o'clock," she said. "Prepare to act dazzled by my beauty, Alec."

"I am dazzled," Alec said, kissing her hand. "Tootie – you're an enchantress."

"Hmm." Tootie tilted her head, eyeing Alec critically. "I think you're going to be the strong silent type, Lord Nethridge. The less said the better."

"I say, that's incredibly unfair. I'm doing you a favor –"

"Shh." Tootie put a finger to her mouth. "Remember, Alec – strong and silent."

"Well I'm old and talkative," said Mona. She looked around the crowded gym. "I'm going to go find where they've stashed the old relics like me."

"Come on, milord," said Tootie, pulling Alec's arm, "get ready to make that stone-cold fox see green!"

"Wait!" said Natalie. "Before we all split up – what's our plan if one of us sees Dina?"

"One wishes one could put her in a chokehold," Alec said feelingly. "But as Dina isn't, technically, a fugitive, I suppose that would merely land me in the local lock-up."

"Don't you have diplomatic immunity or something?" asked Tootie.

"You're thinking of ambassadors," said Alec. "I am merely an impoverished Duke-in-waiting."

"Nobody is putting anybody in any chokeholds," Mona said firmly. "No violence!"

"Do we really think Dina is going to make an appearance?" Natalie asked skeptically. "At a high school dance? I mean, she only went here one year. Why would she come back?"

"Because she is, in Jo's parlance, a 'freakin wacko'," Alec said grimly. "And she knows Jo and Blair used to attend Eastland, and that you and Tootie still do. If she visits River Rock tonight and doesn't find anyone there …"

"She'll assume we're all here," said Natalie. "OK. I get it."

"So what do we do?" asked Tootie. "If one of us sees her?"

"We need a signal," Natalie said logically. "If one of us spots Dina, we give the signal."

The four of them studied the crowded gym. With the Eastland girls and Bates boys gyrating, the music blaring, the occasional, improperly secured balloon drifting down, it was difficult to imagine a signal that could attract the attention of anyone on the other side of the room …

Tootie snapped her fingers.

"Got it!" she said. "Whoever sees Dina goes to the DJ." She nodded toward the gangly Bates boy who was manning the record player and speaker system. "Tell him you have an urgent request – 'Maniac'."

Mona put a hand over one ear. "Tootie, dear, I don't think I heard you correctly. Tell the DJ he's a maniac?"

"No – the song, Gramma Green. If one of us sees Dina we'll ask the DJ to play the song 'Maniac'. Tell him to play it right away – that it's a matter of the heart."

"What kind of signal is that?" demanded Natalie. "The DJ is probably gonna play it sometime tonight anyway."

"No. 'Maniac' is yesterday's news. The DJ, Karl Lachman – he only spins current hits."

Natalie, Alec and Mona looked dubiously from Tootie to the DJ.

"Come on, people," said Tootie. "Am I the only one that keeps up with Billboard's Hot 100?"

"I certainly don't," said Alec.

"Well, Karl does," Tootie said confidently. "Whoever sees Dina asks him to play 'Maniac', and if the rest of us hear that song, we all gather – where? Where should we gather?"

"Next to the bloody DJ table," said Alec. "Dina won't hurt us if we're front and center. She appears to be playing a cat-and-mouse game. No public attacks."

"Which means none of us should go anywhere alone," said Natalie. "Or leave the premises. Agreed?"

"Agreed," said Alec.

"Agreed," said Mona.

Tootie sighed. "He's gone," she said, looking across the gym longingly. "Mr. Stone-Cold Fox is dancing with Miss Can't Find the Beat. I missed my window."

"Don't despair, Tootie," said Alec. "Come on, my dear. We'll park next to them on the dance floor. I'll pretend to dance horribly, while you dazzle your stone-cold fox with your impeccable footwork."

Tootie brightened. "Really? You'll make an idiot of yourself for me?"

"Certainly," said Alec.

"Hey, he does it all the time anyway," cracked Natalie. "Might as well serve a higher purpose."

"You are a very sarcastic young person," said Alec. "If you'd like a bit of brotherly advice –"

"Nope! Now if you'll all excuse me, I just spotted a stone-cold fox of my own." Natalie darted off, waving animatedly to a handsome young blond boy. "Skip! It's Natalie! Remember me – Young Journalist's Club?"

Mona found an enclave of teachers and chaperones who were sipping punch, chatting, and now-and-again casting a bored eye in the direction of the students.

There was not much to chaperone. The young people were well behaved. These were the "good" boys and girls – the ones who followed the rules. They danced with each other. They flirted with each other. The punch had a slightly astringent taste … Mona suspected someone of spiking it with a mild dose of cheap gin. It was the only infraction she could detect.

The rebels, the delinquents, the free thinkers – they were all out somewhere else, Mona suspected, in someone's dorm room, in a night club, under the bleachers somewhere.

Mona shook her head. Such a good girl, Natalie. A little too good sometimes. Look at that boy she was dancing with – that blond block of wood. Dull. Dull, dull, dull!

She needs a boy with spirit, thought Mona. A spirit to match her own. Maybe I was wrong to convince her to come here. The boy she needs … He wouldn't be caught dead at a dance like this!

Watching Tootie and Alec dance was fun. Tootie danced very well, and it was amusing how she kept dancing into the eye line of her Stone-Cold Fox. Miss Can't Find the Beat didn't care for that at all! Miss Can't Find the Beat kept moving further away, pulling the Stone-Cold Fox with her. But Alec and Tootie followed, casually, as if they, too, just happened to be migrating to that corner of the dance floor …

Mona didn't know half the songs the Bates DJ played. Hell –if she was honest with herself, she didn't know three-quarters of them! Something called "Jump" – that was nice and peppy. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was a little whiny for her taste. So, the singer had a lonely heart – get over it, already! Life isn't a hay ride …

"I understand you're Mona Green," said a pleasant, middle-aged woman with frowzy orange hair.

"Yes, I am. Natalie's grandmother."

"I know." The woman extended one hand. "I'm Bev Frinkle – Natalie's journalism teacher."

"Ah, yes." Mona shook the woman's hand heartily. "I've heard a lot of nice things about you, Miss Frinkle."

"And I about you," said Frinkle.

"You're kidding me? Natalie said nice things about her grandmother? Voluntarily?"

Frinkle laughed. "Natalie said she got her sense of humor from you."

"I don't know. I think my jokes are a little less corny than hers are."

"I must admit," said Frinkle, "I was disappointed when Natalie told me she plans to study medicine instead of journalism. She's my brightest student. She has a real passion for running down the truth."

"It took us all by surprise," said Mona. "From the time she was a little girl, no taller than my knee, she was a little Nelly Bly. Always wanting to understand everything. Always the nose for news."

"This change to medicine – it was very sudden."

"The bombings," said Mona. "Last December."

"Ah."

"Natalie decided she'd rather heal than report."

"Well … maybe someday she can do both," said Frinkle.

"Natalie can do anything she sets her mind to," Mona said proudly.

"It's wonderful that girls have a choice nowadays. They can become lawyers, doctors, journalists – whatever they want. It's still not easy, but it's a hell of a lot easier than it was in my day – or yours, I would imagine."

"In my day, everything was hard," said Mona. "Putting bread on the table was hard! College? Forget about it! It was the greatest moment in my life when my son graduated from medical school. And my next great moment is going to be watching Natalie cross that stage, no matter what she studies."

"She's lucky to have such a supportive family. Not everyone does. Some of our students … well, let's just say it's very refreshing to meet someone like you, Mrs. Green."

"Likewise. It's not every teacher that takes such an interest in their students."

"Not at all," Frinkle said modestly. "When a pupil like Natalie comes along, she catches your eye. Natalie's not just intelligent – she has a passion to learn. A lot of the Eastland students are coasting through. They don't invest any passion in their studies."

"My Natalie is a ball of fire," said Mona. "Of course the other students are going to seem dull by comparison!"

"Ah. There's a perfect example of what I'm talking about," said Frinkle, nodding discretely toward a haughty-looking young blonde woman in a dark dress and pearls. "Former student of mine. Memory like an elephant. She learned the material and faithfully regurgitated it. I had to give her an A. But she has no critical thinking skills. No imagination. She was completely literal."

Mona regarded the haughty blonde with some curiosity.

A pretty thing, but her eyes were icy. Mona had seen eyes that cold only once before … the eyes of the soldier that tried to kill her father.

A little shiver ran down Mona's spine.

She followed the blonde girl's line of sight. The perfectly coiffed young woman was gazing coldly, appraisingly at Alec.

Mona swallowed hard.

"Miss Frinkle, that young lady wouldn't happen to be Dina Becker – would she?"

Please say no, thought Mona. Please say no.

"Why yes," said Frinkle, surprised. "How did you know? I didn't think she and Natalie ran in the same circles. Dina was only at Eastland one year, and she didn't mix much with the other girls. Her parents decided to enroll her in a private school in Manhattan, closer to home."

Mona nodded. "I see," she said. "Would you, er, excuse me? There's a song I want to hear."

"Certainly," said Frinkle, a little surprised. "It was lovely to meet you, Mrs. Green."

"Likewise, likewise."

Mona hurried to the DJ's table, her sharp little elbows jabbing a path through the dancers.

"Ow!" said a skinny Bates boy, rubbing his side. "Who the hell was that?"

"That crazy midget medium from 'Poltergeist'," said his girlfriend.

The DJ was queuing up his next 45 when Mona grabbed his wrist in a vise-like grip.

"Ow!" he said. "What gives, lady?"

"What gives, young man, is I need you to play 'Maniac'. Right now!"

The boy scowled. "Ma'am – that song is totally played out."

"Not until you play it!"

"What I mean, ma'am, is that no one wants to hear that song any more. Everyone's sick of it."

"Not me," said Mona.

"Listen, I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I'm playing 'Holiday' next. That's what everybody wants to hear."

"'Holiday'? What's that? No one wants to hear that."

"It's Madonna. I wouldn't expect you to understand –"

"Why not? Is that a crack about my age, young man? Are you calling me old?"

"No, of course not."

Beads of sweat sprang out on his forehead. Who was this old bat, anyhow? Was she someone important? She certainly acted like she was important.

The boy's father was putting together a campaign team; he was going to run for Congress. "I don't care what you do at that school," his father had told him, "but never offend anyone important ..."

"Ma'am, with all due respect, Madonna is the next big thing. Everyone wants to hear 'Holiday'."

"Not me," Mona said firmly. "What – you don't play the record this second, her career will be over? You can't play it maybe five minutes from now?"

The boy sighed. "You really want to hear 'Maniac'?"

"I do. I need to hear it right now. It's a matter of life and death."

He sighed again. "All right," he said ungraciously.

She seemed like a crazy old bat … but better safe than sorry. For all he knew she was Tip O'Neill's mother!

The boy dug around in one of his milk crates, near the back, where he stored the played-out vinyl in case a pretty girl ever asked to hear an older song ...

Tootie's head snapped up as she heard the driving percussion that opened Sembello's "Maniac".

"The signal!" she shouted over the music. She grabbed Alec's hand.

He looked around. "Where's Natalie?" he asked.

"What?" Tootie couldn't hear him over the music.

"Where's Natalie?" he shouted.

"Probably heading to the DJ – like we're supposed to be! Come on!" Tootie yanked on Alec's arm.

"Well you don't need to pull it out of the socket," Alec complained, following Tootie as she wove nimbly through the crowd …

Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night, looking for the fight of her life; in the real-time world no one sees her at all – they all think she's crazy …

Crazy as a loon, thought the DJ, observing Mona. She was shifting nervously from foot to foot in front of his table, anxiously scanning the crowd as if she were waiting for someone. Prince Charming? Was "Maniac" the old bat's favorite love song, or something?

Tootie and Alec burst out of the crowd so suddenly the young man took a step back behind his turntable. They each took one of the old lady's hands. They looked as anxious as the old bat was.

"Where is she?" Tootie asked tensely.

Mona tilted her head to the right. Tootie and Alec looked in that direction. Dina stood by the refreshment table, a paper cup of punch in one pale hand.

Dina was still glaring at Alec, eyes cool as chips of obsidian. When she saw that he was looking at her, she smiled tightly and nodded.

"Bleeding Christ," muttered Alec.

"She looks … her eyes look … dead," said Tootie, shivering.

"Where's Natalie?" asked Mona. "Where's my granddaughter?"

"I'm right here, Gramma," said Natalie, a little out of breath as she joined them. "Where's Dina?"

"Over there," said Alec.

"Hello, psychopath," muttered Natalie, taking in Dina's frozen little smile and frozen eyes. "Who springs a girl from Bellevue when she looks like that?"

Tootie drew closer to Alec, put a protective hand on his arm. "I don't like how she's looking at you, Alec."

"That makes two of us!" he said fervently.

"Well, it makes sense you're on her hit parade," Natalie told him. "You did help Jo and Blair take her down."

"So did you," Alec said, "you and Tootie."

"But Dina probably doesn't know that," said Natalie. "She probably doesn't know we imitated Jo and Blair. But you she saw paw through her purse; you found the gasoline, and the black powder, and you held onto her while the cops swarmed in. Face it, Alec – you were instrumental in bringing Dina to justice."

"You were a hero," said Tootie admiringly.

"I don't want to be a bloody hero," Alec complained.

"Too late," Natalie said wryly. "You know, guys, maybe we're overreacting a tad bit. I mean, Dina's one person. What can she actually do to us?"

On the ice blue line of insanity, in a place most never see, it's a hard-won place of mystery – touch it but can't hold it …

"Oh my God – she's coming over here," said Natalie, clutching frantically at Tootie's arm.

"I thought you said we shouldn't overreact," said Alec.

"Are you kidding? When did you start listening to me? The woman's a psycho!"

"What do you think she wants?" Tootie asked nervously, shrinking closer to Nat.

"Uh – to kill us?" said Natalie. "Or, at least to kill Alec."

"Nobody's killing anybody," Mona said. The little old lady stepped in front of Natalie. "Stay behind me, vnooshka. I've already lived a long life."

"Gramma!"

"All of you stand behind me," said Alec. "It's me Dina wants. Go on. Take cover."

He tried to block Natalie, Tootie and Mona from Dina's view.

Mona tried several times to step in front of him, but Natalie and Tootie grabbed her and held her shoulders.

"Let me help," objected Mona. "Let me stand with him. That crazy girl is going to try to hurt him – this noble young man!"

"He's not that noble," said Nat. "Trust me. Better him than you!"

"Thanks awfully, Nat," Alec said drily.

"Hey – I just tell it like it is."

She's a maniac, maniac on the floor …

"Well, well – feels like old times," Dina said in her haughty voice.

Her flinty eyes flickered from Alec to Natalie to Tootie to Mona.

"Look here," said Alec, "we don't want any trouble, Dina."

She lifted her perfectly plucked eyebrows. "Trouble? What trouble?"

"Dina … I can understand it if you're angry at me."

"Angry? Why should I be angry?"

Wow. I would not want to be Alec right now, thought Natalie, observing Dina's icy smirk.

"Never mind the baloney," Tootie said, peering around Alec. "We know why you're here."

Dina's dead, shark-like eyes darted toward Tootie.

"I'm just visiting one of my old alma maters," Dina said.

"You hated Eastland," snorted Natalie. "Do you think we don't remember? You were rude to everyone."

"I did hate Eastland," said Dina. "You were so snotty – all the Eastland girls. The arrogant debutantes like Warner. And the upstart scholarship students. Everyone, all those nobodies, looking down their noses at me – at me! Well … everyone's going to be laughing out of the other side of their faces soon enough! And where are Warner and her little thug friend, anyway? I want to give them a big hug. I missed them so much when I was away. I thought about them all the time."

"Now you listen to me," Alec said, leaning forward menacingly. His voice was quiet, but there was a dangerous edge to it. "Nobody wants any difficulties with you, but if you leave us no choice, we will make things very unpleasant. I don't imagine you enjoyed your little sojourn at Bellevue. Not in a hurry to return, are you?"

Dina's eyes narrowed. She held her hands at her side but her fingers flexed, catlike, as if what she wanted to do, more than anything, was claw at Alec's face.

Unconsciously he touched his cheek; the scars from Dina's New Year's attack were faint now, very faint, but they were there, three pale lines.

"That was nothing," Dina said. "You just wait, Lord Nethridge."

"Wait for what?" he asked. "Was that a threat? How long do you think the authorities will let you roam around Scot-free if you're making threats?"

"As long as I want," smiled Dina. "You're just a title. You don't understand the power of wealth." She nodded at each of them in turn. "Anviston. Ramsey. Green. Anonymous old lady. I'll be seeing you again very soon, when I'm done catching up with Blair and that thug."

"You'll have to find them first," taunted Tootie.

"That shouldn't be difficult," Dina said.

"What are you going to do – search all of Manhattan?" taunted Tootie. "I mean –" Damn! I can't believe I just told her where Jo and Blair are, thought Tootie.

"Thank you," said Dina, clearly amused. "So they're in Manhattan, are they? That's very helpful, Ramsey. You always were a little gossip – weren't you?"

Alec couldn't restrain himself any longer. He gripped Dina tightly by the shoulders.

"Let go of me," she hissed.

"But I'm merely embracing you," he said through gritted teeth. "I'm merely embracing you – dear, dear Dina. And I'm giving you a friendly little warning. If anything happens to Jo, or Blair, or any of these young women, the police won't be able to find you to arrest you. No one will ever find you, where I'll send you."

"Let go of me," Dina repeated, calmly this time. Her lip curled in contempt. "As if you could do anything, ever, Lord Nobody, that could possibly hurt me."

After "Maniac" ended, the DJ played "Holiday". The bouncy dance tune and Madonna's upbeat lyrics made a strange counterpoint to the scene unfolding in front of the DJ table.

Everybody spread the word … We're gonna have a celebration …

The DJ could only hear every other word the motley crew was saying, but their tension was palpable in their facial expressions and body language. The tall handsome guy and the chilly little blonde looked like they were going to start throttling each other any second.

"Are you guys practicing for a play?" the DJ asked Mona, shouting over the music.

"Sure," Mona shouted back. "That sounds good. Let's go with that!"

"Well can you take it somewhere else?" the DJ shouted. Usually when he DJ'd pretty girls were coming up to his table every few minutes, requesting songs. Right now, with this weird acting troupe blocking the table, he wasn't getting any action at all!

"What is it with you?" Mona asked him. "You always have some complaint. Relax a little bit. Don't give yourself a conniption."

Alec and Dina continued to glare at each other until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she winked at him.

Alec shivered. He would say for the rest of his life that Dina's wink was one of the most chilling things he ever saw in his life.

"I knew in that moment," he always said, "that she wanted me dead – really dead – and in some terrifically painful manner."

Dina turned and melted into the crowd ...

"We've got to call Jo and Blair!" Natalie said decisively.

"Right," said Alec. "Where's the nearest payphone?"

"Near the locker rooms," said Tootie.

"Well – bloody come on! Who has coins?"

"Not me," said Tootie.

"Not me," said Nat. "I'm cleaned out until my allowance comes Monday. Don't you have any change?"

"I never carry coins," said Alec. "They pull one's pockets out of shape. And they clink. It's just tacky."

"Well I've got a million coins," said Mona, shaking her purse. It jingled like it was filled with sleigh bells. "I don't care how tacky it is! So where are these phones?"

"Come on – I'll show you," said Tootie.

From his great height, Alec surveyed the gymnasium as they followed Tootie toward a door at the other end of the room. The music blared; lights strobed; thrashing dancers collided.

Alec bit his lip. He didn't know how the hell Dina had made her way out of the room so quickly … but as far as he could see, she was gone.


Jo and Blair rode the subway to Greenwich Village. It wasn't a long ride, but it lasted long enough for an odd little man with broken spectacles to become fascinated by Blair's hair.

He kept scooting closer to the blonde, peering appreciatively at her hair through his cracked lenses, until Jo finally gave him one of her looks.

It was one of her severe, death-ray glares – the kind Jo had made all the time when she first started Eastland, usually directing them at Blair.

It had been quite a while, Blair realized, since she had seen a genuine Jo Polniaczek death glare.

"I only want to look at it," the little man told Jo meekly. "The lady's hair is so pretty. It would look so nice in my collection."

"Get lost!" said Jo. She glared even harder at the little man, not blinking.

He gave Jo a final pleading look; her eyes narrowed.

The little man scurried away to the other end of the car, where he rubbed his hands together in a rodent-like manner. He continued to glance stealthily at Blair's shining locks …

"What do you think he meant?" Blair asked later as she and Jo emerged from the underground subway station. The air of Greenwich Village was wintery, cold and clear. Blair hugged herself. "About his collection, I mean. What was that all about?"

"I don't think we want to know, babe," Jo said firmly. "It sure as hell ain't the kinda collection they got at the Met! And let me take this freakin opportunity to reiterate what I've told you a thousand times, that I do not ever want you ridin the subway alone."

"That's so sweet, Jo. And so controlling. And insulting. Not to mention absolutely Victorian. I am not some sheltered 19th-century tulip. I actually can take care of myself if I have to."

"But you don't have to, babe. You got me – your trusty Bronx Neanderthal."

"And I find that inexpressibly comforting. But you don't have to protect me, Jo."

"Ha!" Jo touched Blair's elbow gently, guiding her down West 13th Street. "You need plenty of lookin after, Blondie. And it's not like I say to myself, 'Jo – protect Blair'. It's just this instinct that kicks in. You remember the first day we met? When we all landed in the bucket that night? When that flippin gorilla tried to steal your watch, and I told her to back off – you think I wanted to do that?"

"So – you wanted her to steal my watch?"

"No. I just … It wasn't like I planned to protect you," Jo said, her breath painting misty clouds in the cold air. "One second the big ape is givin you a hard time, and the next thing I know I'm standin between the two of you, all up in her face."

Blair smiled. "Jo, you have no idea how that made my heart skip a beat. It was so sexy, the way you rushed to my defense."

"Yeah, well my heart skipped a beat too. Only not in the romantic sense! That chick was a freakin Godzilla! She coulda maybe snapped me in half like a Kit Kat bar!"

"You didn't look scared, darling."

"I'm not sayin I was scared. Wary, maybe. Yeah. Wary."

"Well, you made her back down. And you saved my watch – and my beautiful face."

"It's all in how you present yourself," said Jo. "Half of fightin is how much you can convince the other person that you can kick the crap out of 'em."

"Well, you certainly convinced that girl."

"It's all in the confidence. You've gotta sound like you're the best street fighter around. Like you're amazin at duckin punches – which, actually, I am. And like you know just where to pop somebody to knock 'em down – which, actually, I do. Come to think of it, I don't know why I was so wary of that palooka."

"I do."

"Yeah?"

"You weren't scared for yourself. You were scared for me."

Jo chewed on that. "You know what, babe? You're right." She touched Blair's elbow gently again. "Here we go, Blair; we cross right here."

"When you came to Eastland, you thought you were in love with Eddie," Blair said thoughtfully.

She wanted to slip her arm through Jo's as they strolled along West 13th, but she couldn't, not right out here, on the sidewalk.

It didn't matter that it was night – there seemed to be quite a few pedestrians out and about. And if the wrong people saw them walking arm and arm, it wouldn't matter how tough Jo was; she'd never be tough enough to protect them from a mob …

"I didn't think I was in love with Eddie," Jo objected. "I loved him. I mean, part of me will always love him a little bit. But you're my love, Blair. You're the love of my life."

Blair stirred uneasily. She didn't like thinking about Eddie, about any of Jo's relationships before she and Blair finally admitted their feelings for each other.

"Be that as it may," said Blair, "when you came to Eastland the last thing you expected was to fall for a girl. Even a stunning, brilliant, perfect girl like me. But in the same way that I felt something for you the first minute I saw you, I think that, deep down, you felt something for me."

"Yeah," said Jo. She smiled softly at Blair. "I think so too. Took me an awful long time to figure it out, but … yeah."

"So when that creature in the Peekskill jail began threatening me, you leaped into action. You couldn't stand the thought of anyone hurting me."

"OK, now you're soundin melodramatic, Princess. But no … I couldn't stand the thought of anyone hurtin ya. I was ready to punch that creep six ways from Sunday if she didn't lay off!"

"My hero," Blair said dreamily. "My little juvenile delinquent hero."

"And on that note," said Jo, pausing in front of what appeared to be a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, "here we are."

"Here we are where?" Blair asked dubiously.

"Here we are at the place where I'm takin ya tonight."

Blair did not find the rather neglected-looking old brownstone prepossessing.

She looked for a sign or name plate, but didn't find one.

She tried to peer through the big front window, but it was covered over with red-and-white checked curtains, the type she often saw in little Italian restaurants.

In the doorway stood a heavily muscled man nattily dressed in dark trousers and a dark blazer. He sported an old-fashioned handlebar mustache and a single hoop earring. He looked handsome; he looked friendly, even, but there was something about him, some air of the exotic, and of danger.

"Evening, Jo," said the man. "Party of two?"

"Party of two," agreed Jo. "Nice to see you again, Bert."

He pushed the door open, stepping aside so that the two young women could enter the premises.

Bert, thought Blair. Huh. It wasn't exactly a name that screamed exoticism or danger.

Blair followed Jo into a dim foyer. It was so difficult to see in the low light that Blair pressed against Jo to keep from stumbling over anything.

"I think somebody forgot to pay the light bill," said Blair.

Jo chuckled. She put a hand under Blair's elbow to steady her.

From a half-open door at the end of the hall floated the buzz of murmured conversations, the lively strains of "Karma Chameleon" – the song that had, for better and for worse, become absolutely unavoidable lately – and the intermingled aromas of beer and black coffee, French fries and floor wax.

"Jo," said Blair, putting a hand on her fiancée's arm, "where are you taking me?"

"Somewhere we can be ourselves," said Jo. "You trust me, babe?"

"Always."

"Then come on."

Jo slipped an arm around Blair's waist.

"Jo – everyone will see."

"It's OK, Blair."

"It's not OK!"

"Blair? It's OK. Honest." Jo pulled Blair close. "Tonight we're fiancées, babe, and we don't have to hide a thing."

Jo pushed open the door, and a little bell affixed to it rang cheerfully.


"Well?" demanded Natalie.

Alec hung up the payphone. He sighed.

"They can't do anything," he said.

"What?" demanded Mona, outraged.

"They can't do anything?" demanded Nat. "I ask you – what do we pay our taxes for?"

"Natalie – we don't pay taxes," said Tootie.

"But someday we will. The police can't do anything, Alec?"

"She didn't strike us," said Alec, "or physically harm us in any way."

"But she threatened us!"

"No witnesses," Alec said grimly. "It would be our bloody word against hers."

"So let me get this straight – Dina can pop up wherever she wants –"

"As long as it's in public."

" – whenever she wants, and threaten us –"

"As long as no one else hears what she's bloody saying."

" – and the police can't do anything until she actually attacks one of us?"

"As always, Natalie, you have a gift for expressing the essentials of complex situations."

"But that's crazy!"

"Dina actually spoke to the constable at River Rock," said Alec.

"What?"

"Dina told the constable she wanted to speak to Jo and Blair. The constable told her that River Rock was empty, and that all the inhabitants were at the Eastland dance."

Natalie threw her hands up in the air in complete disgust.

"Did the constable give Dina a police escort to the dance?"

"Natalie –"

"Look, I don't expect expect 'Columbo' caliber sleuthing, but if the cops could maybe not send a psycho directly to her victims –"

"Apparently the constable is new," said Alec.

"They put a rookie on guard at River Rock?"

Alec glanced at Tootie. "Is there, perhaps, some sort of 'off button'?"

Tootie shook her head. "Natalie's indignation has to burn itself out."

"Standing right here, Tootie," said Natalie.

"Yes, Nat. We know."

"All right. All right, all right." Natalie took a deep breath. "I'm going to let all that go. What about Jo and Blair, did you get through to them?"

Alec shook his head. "Still no answer. They're already out for the night. Jo was planning to take Blair to a little place in Greenwich Village. Artemis was all excited about it."

"Well, what are we waiting for?" asked Natalie. "Let's saddle up! Greenwich Village, here we come!"

"Wow," said Tootie, eyes bright, "Greenwich Village!"

"Now just a bloody moment," said Alec. "This, er, isn't the type of place you girls should be visiting. Any of you girls," he said, with a hard look at Mona. "Why don't you the three of you stay with Natalie's parents for the weekend? You'll be safe there; Mrs. Garrett is with Drake, and I'll go warn the lovebirds. It's me, Jo and Blair that Dina is after anyway. You'll be safer if you're not around the three of us."

"Forget it!" said Natalie. "That's the worst plan I ever heard! Don't you ever watch horror movies? That's the first thing everybody does – split up! Everyone runs higgledy-piggledy in all different directions and then they get picked off one-by-one!"

Tootie lifted one eyebrow. "Higgledy-piggledy?"

"Yes, Tootie – higgledy-piggledy! And then the next thing you know –" Nat drew a finger across her throat and made a choking sound.

"Natalie, dear, don't be so dramatic," said Mona.

"Listen to your grandmother," said Alec.

"Of course it's an idiotic idea to split up," Mona continued, "but let's keep our heads. Lord Nethridge, that is to say, Alec, Jo would never take Blair anywhere that wasn't nice. I say we call Mrs. Garrett, and we all meet up with Jo and Blair wherever they are, and we decide on our next move together. We've all been threatened now, Alec – and there's strength in numbers."

Alec sighed. "It's not that Jo and Blair aren't at a nice place, Mrs. Green –"

"Mona. Call me Mona. 'Mrs. Green' is my daughter-in-law."

"It's not that it's not a nice place, Mona; it's actually quite civilized. But, er, the clientele, you see –"

"Can we assume this is a nightclub where young women court young women?" Mona asked gently.

"Yes, although – the way you put it, you make it sound so wholesome and old-fashioned."

"But it's not? This is some kind of Sodom-and-Gomorrah place?"

"No, not at all. It's just doesn't seem to me that it's an appropriate place for Natalie and little Tootie."

"Again with the 'little Tootie'!" complained Tootie.

"Alec, unless this is a strip club, I don't see what the problem is," said Natalie. "This place can't be any more inappropriate than River Rock, between you running around without a shirt and Blair running around without pants!"

"Without pants?" asked Mona. "But Blair is such a nice girl."

"Natalie's exaggerating," said Tootie. "She's just being dramatic."

"I see," said Mona.

"What do you mean, you see?" demanded Natalie. "And who are you calling dramatic, Tootie? I'm not dramatic! I just call it like I see it!"

Alec rubbed his forehead. "If I say I'll take you all to Greenwich Village, will everyone belt up?"

"Of course," said Tootie. "But you have to stop calling me 'little' Tootie."

"Done. Mona – might I have some more coins? I'll call Mrs. Garrett now."

Mona dug into her capacious purse. "Of course, Alec. Imagine … never thought I'd see the day I was lending nickels and dimes to royalty."

"I'm not royal, Mona. I'm noble."

"Royal, noble, it's all the same to me," said Mona. "Here." She pressed several coins into his hand. "I know you're good for it."

"Don't be so sure," Natalie said darkly.

"And what is that supposed to mean?" asked Alec.

"It means you still owe me. For that bet we had. Two dollars, milord."

"Oh. Right."

"Natalie Green, are you gambling?" demanded Mona. "You know how your parents and I feel about gambling. It ruined your uncle!"

"It was just a little bet," said Natalie. "No big deal."

Alec grimaced. "Natalie bet me I wouldn't pass my biology quiz. And I didn't."

"I was trying to help you," Natalie told Alec. "You were supposed to study, so you could pass the stupid quiz and win my stupid two dollars! But no! You had to crash and burn!"

"Natalie … You were really trying to motivate me?"

"Of course!"

"I'm actually rather touched."

"You need to drop out of pre-med," Tootie told Alec bluntly. "It's just not you. Switch to music. You'll ace all your classes."

"I asked the mater," Alec said. He made a thumbs-down gesture. "The Duchess made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I have to obtain a degree that will let me earn some sort of living – as unpalatable as that prospect might be."

"You can be a jazz pianist," Tootie told Alec. "Some smoky little dive in the city. You can be my accompanist. You can play jazz – right?"

Alec laughed. "Tootie, I play jazz a treat! And if life could be that simple, I would be a happy man."

"Of course it can be that simple. You just have to make it that simple, milord."

"Excuse me," said Mona, "but is anyone going to call Mrs. Garrett? That Dina character could be halfway back to Manhattan by now!"

"Oh. Right. Ta, Mona."

Alec fed a handful of coins into the payphone.


The place was nice, Blair had to admit, as far as small, neighborhood bars went. Cozy. Friendly.

Varnished oak, red leather seats and booths, strands of twinkling lights hung around the room. A jukebox in the corner. A pool table.

It wasn't exactly the Top of the Mark lounge, but it wasn't a dive, either.

Blair's heart was beating hard in her chest, walking into the place with Jo's arm wrapped firmly around her waist. What would people think? What was Jo playing at?

But she understood immediately.

There were several dozen couples in the place, almost all boy-boy and girl-girl.

Blair felt a warm flush spread over her chest and face. Right out in the open! Couples holding hands. Touching each other's faces. Wrapping their arms around each other. Dancing together on the small dance floor.

There was nothing overtly sexual about the contact she saw, it was just … nice. Romantic.

"Hiya, Jo," called the burly bartender. "Budweiser?"

"Sure," said Jo. "Thanks, Stan."

Jo led Blair to a somewhat secluded booth at the back of the bar. Blair started to slide onto the bench seat across from Jo but Jo held fast to her waist.

"Sit next to me," said Jo. "Please? Right next to me. It's OK here."

Blair nodded. It was heaven, to feel Jo's arm around her waist, and not have to worry about anyone saying anything, or trying to hurt them.

Blair leaned her head against Jo's shoulder. She slid her arm around Jo's narrow hips.

"This feels really good," Blair whispered. "Better than good."

"Doesn't it?"

"My God. This is … this is really …"

"It's a gay bar," Jo said nonchalantly.

Blair shook her head, trying to make a cognitive readjustment. "So, I've known about my feelings for women pretty much my whole life. And you just found out five months ago –"

"Almost six," Jo corrected her cheerfully.

"But I've never been to a gay bar in my life, whereas you look completely at home here."

"Well, I've been here a coupla times," said Jo. "Everybody's real friendly here."

A pretty young waitress drifted past their booth, carrying a tray of cocktails to a table in the far corner.

The waitress had large breasts, bright red lipstick, and a tattoo of a bikini-clad woman on her upper arm. A nametag above one impressive breast read "Skye".

"Hiya, Jo," Skye said, grinning at Jo as she breezed past. "Be with you in a sec. You're the Budweiser, right?"

"Yep. I'm the Bud."

Blair watched Skye's retreating backside.

The waitress had a little bit of a sway to her walk, a sexy, hula kind of rhythm. Whether it was because Skye was balancing a heavy tray, or because Skye just liked to put a little swing in her hips, Blair couldn't say for sure; but Blair had her suspicions.

"So," said Blair, looking meaningfully at Skye's retreating backside, "everybody's real friendly here, eh?"

Jo laughed. "Blair. Babe. Come on."

"Nobody seems to be very friendly to me," Blair observed. "Nobody has asked what I want to drink."

"She'll take your order in a minute, when she brings me my drink. They just, you know, they already know me here. They know my drink. It's not a slight to you."

"So you say. Jo Polniaczek, what else haven't you told me? Are you leading some sort of double life?"

"Jeez, babe, double life? I can hardly handle the life I got."

Blair tilted her head. "And what does that mean, Jo?"

"Nothin bad," Jo said hastily. "Just, I mean, you know, classes, and work and you, it's just, it's a very full schedule. Plenty on my plate. No time for double lives."

"Here you go," said Skye, smiling cheerfully as she set a bottle of Budweiser in front of Jo. The bottle was beaded with perspiration, the cap already opened. "And here," said Skye, setting a frosted glass mug in front of Jo, "I just took this out of the freezer. I know you like it nice and cold."

It might have been Blair's imagination … But did the waitress dart a glance at Blair when she said that last phrase?

Damn – I believe she did! fumed Blair.

"Thanks!" Jo said to Skye, flashing one of her million-watt smiles.

Blair tightened her grip around Jo's waist. Jo felt Blair's nails digging into her flesh.

"Darling," Blair said to Jo, "aren't you going to order for me?"

"Of course, babe. Ah, Skye, my girlfriend –""

"Fiancée," Blair corrected her.

"– My fiancée will have a white wine spritzer. With a twist."

"With a twist," said Skye. "Of course. Got it."

"Don't you need to write that down?" asked Blair.

"I never write anything down," said Skye. "It's all up here." She tapped her head.

"It's not all up there," Blair murmured under her breath. Jo kicked Blair's shin under the table.

"Is there anything else you want, Jo?" asked Skye, eyes wide and doe-like.

"Uh, no," Jo said hastily. "Absolutely not."

"One white wine spritzer, then."

"With a twist," said Blair.

"Of course. With a twist. Coming right up."

Skye headed toward the bar, putting an extra little swing – or so it seemed to Blair – in her hips.

"How dare you kick me," Blair hissed at Jo.

"Well how dare you make a crack about Skye's figure? She mighta heard ya. You could hurt her feelins!"

"Her feelings? That dime-store floozy doesn't have any feelings – just appetites."

"For cryin out loud, Blair, that's a terrible thing to say. Skye's a real nice girl."

"So I see."

"She's a nice person, Blair. Why are you bein all snotty about her?"

"Because she has a crush on you, Jo Polniaczek."

"A crush? Come on."

"She did everything but give you a lap dance!"

"Well, that costs extra," Jo deadpanned, "and I think she knows I'm kinda broke."

Blair rolled her eyes.

Jo pulled Blair close, kissed her gently. "Babe, I had no idea seein another woman lookin at me would bring out the savage beast in you."

"Ah! So you admit she was looking at you?"

"I mean, in a friendly way. I don't know if she's got a crush or whatever."

"Trust me, Jo – she has a crush or whatever. I know that look. It's the expression I used to get when I looked at you."

"Used to, huh? You already bored of me, babe?" teased Jo. She kissed Blair again.

Being kissed by Jo always made Blair a little lightheaded, even when she was angry. And now, being kissed right out in the open, in a public place … Blair sighed.

"Why can't I stay mad at you?" she asked.

"On account of I'm so adorable," said Jo.

"Don't push it, Polniaczek."

"I can't believe you're jealous," said Jo. "I never seen this side of you before. It's kinda scary, but kinda cute too."

"My pain and humiliation are not cute," objected Blair. "Jo … I've never seen another woman look at you that way. Men, yes, but that never worried me."

"Hmm." Jo turned that over in her mind. She ran her fingertips gently, sensually over Blair's face, looked deep into Blair's warm milk-chocolate eyes. "If we're gonna come to places like this sometimes – which I hope you wanna, because I like being out in public with you – then this is like a new chapter in our relationship. We gotta, you know, we need to come up with some ground rules."

Blair nodded. She loved the feeling of Jo's fingers on her face. She loved gazing into Jo's clear green-blue eyes. "Fair enough," Blair said quietly. "What should they be?"

Jo grinned. "Ground rule number one: we're both really hot."

"That's an observation, Jo, not a rule."

"You gotta let me finish. We're both really hot, so other girls are gonna notice us, and we can't be gettin our panties in a twist every five seconds. So ground rule number one is no jealous fits of temper."

"Well … agreed," Blair said reluctantly. "But here's ground rule number two: If anyone puts a hand on you, she loses the hand."

"And you call me a Neanderthal," laughed Jo. She gently pushed her fingers through Blair's thick hair. "You're like a really sexy, really possessive cave woman, babe. You gonna brand me? Right across my ass: 'Property of Blair Warner'."

"Don't tempt me," Blair said. "I'm pretty handy with a branding iron."

Damn. That's right, thought Jo. All those summers she spent at the Texas ranch …

"Where is my wine?" asked Blair, looking over at the bar. "Is that creature stomping the grapes herself?"

"Babe," Jo said reproachfully. "Rule number one."

"OK. OK, I'll be good."

In a moment, the burly bartender approached their booth, carrying a small tray.

"Your white wine spritzer," he said to Blair, setting a glass in front of her, "with a twist."

"Thanks, Stan," said Jo. "What, uh, what happened to Skye?"

Stan grinned. "She said the temperature was a little bit chilly over here. I told her to watch the bar for a coupla minutes. Don't want her to catch a cold."

"Stan, this is my girl," said Jo. "Blair, this is Stan."

Blair held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Stan. And I'm not Jo's girl; I'm her fiancée. Feel free to spread that around."

Stan shook Blair's hand, admiring the slim silver band on her third finger. "Congratulations," he said. "That your engagement ring?"

"Yes." Blair fluttered her fingers, so that the ring caught the light and shimmered. "Isn't it lovely?"

"It is," Stan agreed. He looked at Jo. "You're right," he said. "She is smokin hot. Real class, too."

"Yeah," Jo said, a little smugly. "I'm real lucky – and I know it."

"Blair, you almost make me wanna start datin girls," said Stan, giving Blair a little bow. "And now, if you'll excuse me, there's a dishwasher full of glasses callin my name."

After Stan left the table, Jo sipped her beer contentedly. A Budweiser in front of her; her girl next to her; having her arm around her fiancée, right out in the open … Life was pretty damn sweet …

"Jo," Blair said thoughtfully, "do you describe me to people as 'smokin hot'?"

"Of course. I mean, not everyone I talk to. Only people, you know, that know about us."

"Did you tell Skye that I'm 'smokin hot'?"

Jo sighed.

"Well," Blair prompted, "did you?"

"I do not recall," Jo said blankly. "I'm takin the 5th on that one."

"Very well. Ground rule number three," said Blair, "I am not going to brand you across the ass – yet – but I am going to get you a ring. You will wear it at all times in establishments of this sort, and make sure that it's clearly visible to any and all wanton creatures that ogle you."

"Blair –"

"Jo Polniaczek, did you or did you not flirt with Skye the last time you were here?"

"I … Not on purpose," Jo said.

"But you did flirt with her?"

"Not flirt, babe." Jo shifted uncomfortably on the bench. This date was not turning out the way she'd expected it to. "It's … When you come into a place like this, where everybody's bein so open, and when someone smiles at ya, all friendly, and seems, you know, kinda impressed by you, then it's only natural maybe you'd be a little friendly back."

"Ground rule number four," said Blair, "in establishments of this sort, you are only allowed to be friendly with moi."

"Blair, look – you can't tell me who I can be friendly with. I'm just a naturally friendly person."

"Since when?"

"Since you civilized me and stuff. Look, you're the one who knocked that big Bronx chip off my shoulder. You're the one made me all sweet and sunny. You created the monster, babe, and now you gotta deal with it."

Blair sighed. "Jo … I love how you're letting yourself be more vulnerable and cheerful, but when it comes to flirting –"

"I did not flirt with that girl."

"There's a fine line between flirting and being friendly … and I think Miss Tattoo got the wrong idea."

"Her name is Skye," Jo said, an edge to her voice, "and I can't control what ideas other people get in their heads. I ain't the great Kreskin. And if you wanna have a serious discussion about flirtin, how about all the flirtin you do with guys? Tossin your hair, and smilin, and laughin at stupid jokes. That ain't exactly a picnic for me to hafta watch!"

"That's to throw people off," Blair said dismissively. "It's cover, Jo. It doesn't mean anything."

"Oh, come off it, Warner. You love flirtin almost as much as you love shoppin!"

"So what if I do? What's wrong with enjoying being appreciated?"

"Nothin! And that's what I'm sayin about Skye. So she thinks I'm cute. So I was friendly to her. So what?"

"But I'm not attracted to boys," said Blair. "It's safe for me to flirt with them. Whereas when you flirt with someone like Skye –"

"But I'm not attracted to girls," Jo interrupted. "The only girl gets my motor revved up is you – for some strange, bizarre, very-hard-to-understand reason. So, by your logic, it's safe for me to flirt with girls."

Blair shook her head. "This is a ridiculous argument."

"You can say that again!"

"What does that mean?"

"Whaddya think it means? I'm tryin to give ya a romantic evenin, Blair. Why doncha just relax and enjoy it?"

"Oh, enjoy it? Enjoy watching you flirt with the tattooed women of Greenwich Village?"

"Blair, I'm gettin real tired of these wild accusations."

"And I'm getting tired of this entire conversation." Blair pulled away from Jo, grabbed her purse, started sliding out of the booth.

"Hold on there, hotfoot," said Jo, grabbing for Blair and missing her sleeve by millimeters. "Where do ya think you're rushin off to?"

"I don't know." Blair glared down her perfect nose at Jo. "Out of here, anyway!"

"Blair, you can't. Dina's out there somewhere."

Blair laughed harshly. "What do you think she's doing – lurking at the subway station? Believe me, I know her – she wouldn't be caught dead in this neighborhood. She has too much taste."

"And what does that mean? You think you're too good for this neighborhood, Blair? Is that what you're sayin?"

Jo looked hurt – really hurt. And more than a little pissed off.

I should take that back, thought Blair. But she started it!

Jo saw it flash across Blair's face – regret.

She wishes she didn't say that – not that she'll take it back anytime soon!

Jo scooted across the bench seat, closer to Blair, and gently took her hand.

Blair didn't hold Jo's hand – but she didn't pull away, either.

"Look, Blair, we're pissin each other off pretty good here," Jo said quietly. "But you can't storm off alone. It just ain't safe. I don't care how much of a fuckin snob Dina is, if she's after our scalps, she'll go anywhere to get at us."

"How would she even know we're here?" asked Blair.

"For Chrissake, it's Dina. She's a Becker. She probably hired a freakin battalion of private eyes to follow our asses wherever we go."

"I never thought of that," Blair said. It was terrible to contemplate. She sank down on the seat next to Jo, allowed Jo to put an arm around her waist. "But that means … For all we know she could have been following us all week."

"Could be," Jo said glumly.

"But that's awful!"

"Kinda why I never mentioned it before," said Jo. "We can't live lookin over one shoulder every minute. At some point we just gotta let go and live. But we gotta stick together. I hafta be able to protect you, Blondie. And vice-versa." Jo gently stroked Blair's hair.

Blair leaned her head on Jo's shoulder. Suddenly their argument seemed so ridiculous. The girl that had tried to kill them was out there somewhere, with millions of dollars in resources at her disposal.

"Jo," Blair whispered, "no matter how much of an insensitive blockhead you can be, I can't imagine anyone hurting you. I can't lose you."

"Right back at ya," whispered Jo. "No matter how paranoid, and selfish, and vain, and unreasonable, and –"

"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.

"No matter what your many, many faults are," Jo continued, "I love you, Blair. I will never let anyone hurt you."

Blair tilted her head, pressed her lips against Jo's. They kissed softly for a long moment.

Stan the bartender was standing next to their table when they came up for air.

"Everythin OK over here?" asked Stan.

"We're fine," Blair said.

"Yeah?" He eyed them doubtfully. "Cause it looked like you guys were gonna start throwin the furniture at each other."

"Eh … We always look that way," said Jo. "Don't worry; we got it all patched up."

"Good. Cause this is a civilized joint. You seem like nice girls, but we got a very firm policy against breakin bottles and breakin heads."

"We ain't plannin on breakin either," Jo assured him.

He glanced at their half-empty drinks. "'Nother round?"

"Sure."

As Stan headed back to the bar, Jo took Blair's hands. "This is totally not goin the way I wanted it to go, babe. This is supposed to be, you know, one of our perfect dates."

"It's certainly a memorable one!" said Blair.

"Yeah. But I want it, you know, to be really romantic." Jo spoke quietly. Her blue-green eyes shone. "I want us to look back on this when we're old and grey, Blair, and it'll still knock us on our ass how romantic it was."

Blair touched Jo's face. "Jo, this is wonderful."

"But it could be better." Jo looked at the jukebox. She fumbled through the pockets of her aviator jacket, pulling out dimes and nickels. "Great!" she grinned. "Be right back, babe."

"You're going to play our song?" asked Blair, smiling.

"Yeah – all of 'em ..."

Jo ran the gauntlet of couples on the bar's small dance floor. They were boogieing to – "Karma Chameleon" – again.

If I hear that freakin song one more freakin time …

Jo dropped coin after coin into the jukebox. Must be what it feels like to play the slots in Atlantic City. She flipped the metal tabs of the menu, searching for the tunes that meant something to her and Blair. Why ain't that one here? It's gotta be – oh, there it is. She punched the corresponding numbers and letters …

The little bell over the door jangled cheerfully as a new couple walked into the bar.

Jo glanced over. She grinned and waved.

"Hey, Peggy!" she called. "Didn't know if I'd see ya here!"

The lanky woman looked surprised as hell to see Jo there, but pleased too. She returned Jo's grin and ambled over to the young woman.

Peggy Winkle O'Meara was tall, in her mid-forties, no raving beauty but with soft brown hair and an open, friendly Irish-American face. Her blue eyes twinkled.

Her companion was the very opposite of Peggy. Where everything about Peggy was sunny and open, her friend was wearing a dark trench coat, sunglasses – sunglasses! On a bitter cold February night! – and a man's fedora pulled down low on her head, completely covering her hair and forehead.

As soon as Peggy strolled toward Jo, her companion darted toward an empty booth at the back of the bar – the booth, it so happened directly behind Jo and Blair's. The woman slid onto the bench seat, grabbed a menu from behind the napkin dispenser, and held it open in front of her face.

Jo and Peggy shook hands heartily.

"How's things at the center?" asked Jo.

"Coming along, coming along," Peggy said. "You should drop by sometime. The more the merrier."

Jo shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not really a sociable, more-the-merrier kinda person."

"You don't have to be," said Peggy. "I'm looking for able-bodied citizens to wield a wrench or a paint brush! There's still so much work to do, and no money to pay for it. Come on by sometime and help us. You can be as antisocial as you like!"

"Your pal seems pretty antisocial," observed Jo, nodding her chin toward the woman in the sunglasses and fedora, now firmly barricaded behind her menu.

"Yes, well … She's not used to places like this."

"She what ya call a 'closet-case'?"

"Not exactly. She's straight, as a matter of fact, but she's trying to learn more about lesbian life. She just found out someone close to her is gay."

"Gotcha. Wow. Must be pretty tough."

"It can be."

"And speakin of findin out someone ya love is gay, you seen my Ma lately?"

Peggy nodded. "We've met a few times since Christmas."

"And, she's, is she doin OK? I don't mean about me," Jo said hastily, "I know it's gonna take her a long time to be OK about me. I mean, is she eatin, is she healthy?"

"Rose never did eat much," said Peggy, "and she seems to immediately burn off whatever she eats. Never been one of my problems," she laughed, patting her stomach. "But Rose isn't wasting away, or anything, Jo. She seems to be healthy enough."

"She sleepin?"

"I don't know. She looks tired; but with all the jobs she works –"

"Yeah, true. I just, you know, I worry about her. Every week I still call her, just once, I don't wanna drive her nuts. But she still hasn't called me back."

Jo felt tears pricking her eyes, forced them back. Not gonna cry. Not here, not now.

"Give her time," Peggy said kindly.

"Oh, of course. I mean – she's my Ma. If it takes forever, I ain't gonna give up."

"You're a good daughter, Jo. A wonderful daughter."

"Nah. I just love my Ma. Who couldn't love Rose –right?"

"I agree," said Peggy. "She still has that same heart of gold."

The final notes of "Karma Chameleon" faded away. The opening chords of Journey's "Faithfully" flowed from the jukebox speakers.

In their booth at the back of the bar, Blair smiled radiantly. She stood, made her way toward Jo.

Some of the couples vacated the tiny dance floor – the ones, Jo figured, who had just started dating, or maybe who were on rocky ground; the couples who, for whatever reason, weren't in the right place for the rapturous, eternal-love vibe of "Faithfully."

Other couples, who were in the right place, wrapped their arms around each other, began to slow dance together …

Blair slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders, kissed Jo's cheek.

"Can I have this dance?" she asked.

Jo nodded, eyes so full of love that Peggy cleared her throat and looked away. It was like voyeurism, looking into those eyes.

"Blair, this is my Ma's old friend, Peggy O'Meara."

Blair glanced at Peggy, instantly registered as a non-threat, and flashed her a polite smile. "Lovely to meet you," she said.

But inside Blair didn't give a damn. She barely registered Peggy's presence. She tightened her grip around Jo's shoulders, pressed her cheek to Jo's.

"Uh, if you could kinda excuse me for a little bit," Jo said to Peggy. Jo put her hands on Blair's hips. "Gonna dance with my fiancée ..."

Peggy nodded. They were so beautiful together … and so in love … Christ! She'd love to snap a photo of them dancing together, and slap it on the Gay and Lesbian Center's posters! If ever there was an image of the beauty of a woman loving a woman, it was Blair Warner and Jo Polniaczek swaying cheek-to-cheek on the dance floor.

Peggy had been nineteen and in love before. She could, in fact, remember tripping the light fantastic on this very dance floor with a pretty redhead. Peggy smiled benevolently at all the couples, and headed to the back booth where her companion was still hiding behind the menu, surreptitiously peeking over the top of it every few seconds.

"Being apart ain't easy on this love affair," Blair sang in a low, throaty voice, right in Jo's ear. "Two strangers learn to fall in love again. I get the joy of rediscovering you. Oh girl, you stand by me. I'm forever yours – faithfully."

It was astonishing, Blair thought, to be doing this. To be dancing with the woman she loved in public, instead of in their rooms. It was so liberating, she felt a little drunk with the excitement of it.

I am yours, Jo Polniaczek, she thought. Forever. Faithfully …

When the final chords of "Faithfully" faded, the Olivia Newton-John – Cliff Richards song "Suddenly" began. Blair kissed Jo softly.

Our song … from the first night we made love … and from the Plaza Ball … only I had to dance with Alec. I couldn't dance with Jo, not in the Plaza ballroom, in front of God and Society. But now, here …

They danced.

"Suddenly" gave way to the Bee Gee's "How Deep Is Your Love".

Jo tightened her grip of Blair's hips, pulled the blonde closer, so that their hips were pressed firmly together. Blair sang in Jo's ear …

"… How deep is your love? How deep is your love? I really mean to learn, cause we're livin in a world of fools, breakin us down, when they all should let us be; we belong to you and me …"

It dawned on Blair, through her romantic haze, that Jo was dancing, really dancing, not exactly Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but doing more than stoically swaying back and forth.

Jo was athletic more than balletic, but at the moment she seemed to be keeping time with the beat, really moving in synch with the tempo.

She's been paying attention when we dance together, listening when I tell her things; she's been watching what I do …

"I believe in you," Blair sang huskily. "You know me down to my very soul. You're the light in my deepest, darkest hour; you're my savior when I fall …"

Jo suddenly swept Blair into her arms and whirled her around a couple of times. Blair threw back her head and laughed, surprised and delighted.

Jo gently set Blair down. The other couples clapped …

"Wow," Peggy said to her companion. "Now that's love! Jo doesn't strike me as the dancing type, and that must have taken a lot of practice!"

"If Jo puts her mind to something, nothing stops her," said Rose. She pulled the brim of the fedora lower over her forehead. "You don't think she recognized me?"

"Not a chance!" said Peggy. "Noticed, you, though."

"She did?"

"Of course she did. Rose – you're dressed like a character in a bad spy movie!"

"At least I'm here. I'm trying, Peggy. I'm being as open-minded as I can be, within the dictates of my conscience, but if anybody recognizes me …"

"Rose, if you see anyone you know in here, you've got just as much right to ask them what they're doing here as they have to ask you!"

Rose sighed. She leaned her narrow chin on one petite hand, watching her daughter dance with Blair.

"You knew Jo was going to be here," Rose accused.

Peggy shook her head. "No. That's just a happy accident. Look at her, Rose. Can something so beautiful be wrong?"

"Yes. I don't know. The Church says it's wrong. That's what I can't get past, Peggy."

"The Church changes its mind over the centuries," said Peggy. "The Church is a human institution, after all, as well as a divine one. As time passes, the Church fathers interpret things a little differently, sometimes a lot differently."

"Fine. As soon as the Vatican announced that it's OK to be, to be like Jo and Blair, that's the day I gave them my blessing."

Peggy sighed. "Why wait? You're her mother, Rose – not a Cardinal or a nun. Let the Church judge them however it's going to judge them, but why don't you do what you're heart is telling you Rosie? Just love them."

Rose slouched even further down in her seat. "It's not up to me to go against Catholic teachings. That' not something I have a right to do. You don't understand."

"Hey, now – don't you try to out-Catholic me, Rosie. I know my catechism and my Bible and my doctrine just as well as you do."

"Better, probably," Rose said dully. "Being a fancy Ph.D. and all."

"Rose, I'm not trying to –"

"I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to help. And I appreciate it. But at the end of the day, Peggy, this is between me and the Lord. You can't debate me into accepting Jo, and you can't guilt me into it either. It's … I've got to feel my way through this. And keep praying."

She leaned her sharp little chin on her hands; from behind her dark glasses she watched her daughter dance with Blair Warner. They were beautiful together. Like two angels.

Where did Jo learn to dance like that? Rose wondered. It had only been a few months since Rose had seen Jo, but already her daughter looked older, more confident, more graceful. She's growing up so fast. She's becoming a woman … and I'm missing out on it.

"How Deep Is Your Love" gave way to Dusty Springfield singing "The Look Of Love".

Jo and Blair danced, hips swaying gently to the Latin rhythm.

I remember that song! thought Rose. Jo had been so tiny; Evelyn had babysat her; Charlie took Rose to see "Casino Royale" and they heard the song for the first time. It had become, instantly, one of Rose and Charlie's favorite tunes.

Charlie wasn't one for mush, but something about the song really spoke to him. He'd found it on vinyl; he and Rose danced to it in the apartment sometimes, after supper, after Jo had fallen asleep. That was back when Charlie and Rose were still so in love, when it looked like they had a future together, before he threw everything away …

Blair pulled back slightly from Jo as they danced.

"Darling – this isn't one of our songs," Blair said, puzzled.

"It is now," said Jo.

Blair felt Jo's hips moving subtly against hers, matching the tempo. "Jo … You're dancing a Bossa Nova!"

"Yup."

"But I never –"

"Alec showed me a coupla steps," Jo said a little bashfully. "I threatened him with a drawn-out, painful death if he told ya. Here." Jo gently moved Blair's hands from the brunette's shoulders to her hips. "Now we kinda, we've got our hands on each other's hips, and we mirror each other, see …"

Blair kissed Jo again, softly, thoroughly. Jo's mouth tasted slightly bitter from the beer. Blair's mouth tasted sweet from the white wine, with a little citrus zing. There's the twist! thought Jo …

They danced, gazing intently into each other's eyes.

In a few moments, the final notes of "The Look Of Love" faded, immediately overtaken by the exuberant blare of Culture Club's "Church of the Poison Mind".

Jo scowled. "For cryin out loud – who the hell is playin this? This is one of the most unromantic damn songs –"

"Shh. It's romantic to them," Blair said, nodding toward two young men in dark business suits, grinning radiantly at each other while they danced together.

"Romance really is dead," Jo said, shaking her head. "'Moon River' was s'posed to be next. You remember? When you were teachin me to waltz last year, at the Plaza? Now that's a freakin totally romantic song. How come the stupid jukebox played this crap instead of 'Moon River'?"

"Maybe it's a, what do you call those things, darling? A crossed wire?"

"Crossed wire? Maybe, yeah. I should get Stan to let me check it out."

"But not right now, Jo," Blair said firmly. "Right now we are dancing together."

"But it'll just take a –"

"No Jo. You are not fixing the jukebox during our date."

"Aw, for cryin out loud."

Jo danced to "Church Of The Poison Mind". She didn't like it – but she did it.

Jo had to admit, the two guys who apparently selected the tune were pretty cute together. They looked early twenties, a few years older than her and Blair.

They looked like they'd just graduated business school, maybe, and started their first real jobs. Their hair was cut short and one of them had a neatly trimmed little mustache.

Imagine, thought Jo, at work they're probably all serious and proper and whatever, but underneath they're lovin each other like crazy. Least here they can just be who they are.

"Peggy's friend is staring at us," Blair said a few moments later.

"Who can blame her?" asked Jo. "You're freakin mesmerizin, babe – even dancin to this garbage."

"I happen to like this song."

"Jeez. I don't know, Blair … I think the engagement is off."

"Jo Polniaczek!" laughed Blair.

Jo smiled at her. "I ain't kiddin. I just don't think it's gonna work, babe. If you're gonna be listenin to bullshit music like this, I ain't gonna be able to handle it."

"Language, Jo," teased Blair.

"Music is very important to me, babe. I can't be married to a musical ignoramus."

"I see."

"But, then again, maybe I can kinda educate you. Little by little. Play you some good music every day, till you start to get the hang of it. I can be patient."

"That's very big of you, Jo."

"I know. That's just how I am. Real kindly and understandin and stuff."

Jo grinned her crooked little grin – the one Blair loved so much, one of the first things about Jo that had captured her heart.

Blair pulled her fiancée close. She put her head on Jo's shoulder.

"This ain't a slow-dance song, babe, but, ah, that feels real nice."

"I love you, Jo."

At that moment "Church Of The Poison Mind" wrapped; the lush strains of "Moon River" began.

"Now this is more like it!" said Jo.

At the booth in the back, Rose sighed.

Charlie and me's wedding song … She watched Jo and Blair waltz to the beautiful Mercer-Mancini tune … Strange, how so many of these songs are making me think of and Charlie and me; the good days – though maybe not so strange, since Jo grew up listening to them …

"Promise you'll never leave me," murmured Blair.

"I'll never leave you," Jo whispered fervently. Even the thought of being without Blair made her stomach turn over. She pulled Blair closer.

"I love this," said Blair. "Dancing with you, right out in the open. Promise we'll come back sometime."

"Of course. Whenever you want …"

Rose reached under the lenses of her enormous dark glasses, wiped the tears that were starting to spill down her face. She sniffled. She couldn't hear what Jo and Blair were saying, but they looked so happy together, so much in love.

"Here," Peggy said, handing Rose a plain white handkerchief.

"What's that for," Rose asked defensively.

"Rosie, it's OK to be moved by them. And not just them; all these couples. That's why I invited you here tonight. I wanted you to see, well, this." She gestured with one pale freckled hand. "It's just a bar. It's just people in love."

Rose blew her nose in the handkerchief. "I shouldn't have come here," she said.

"But I'm glad you did," said Peggy. "At least you opened your mind a little bit."

"I'm very open-minded!" Rose said defensively. She blew her nose again.

"I don't know about that. You're still the same old Rose – everything's black-and-white. But at least you came here and looked around. At least now you know these kids aren't devil worshippers or something!"

"You make me sound … so intolerant," Rose complained.

"Aren't you? A little bit?"

Rose shook her head. "You come on too strong, Peggy. You always did. Let me feel my way through this. Right now, it's overwhelming."

Peggy held up her palms in a sign of surrender. "All right. I'll back off."

"I'd appreciate it."

On the dance floor, Blair opened her eyes as Jo spun her around.

"Darling?"

"Mmn?"

"Peggy's friend is still staring at us."

"Probably thinks you're Jessica Lange or somethin," said Jo.

"Flattery will get you everywhere," Blair said.

"Hot dog!"

"But honestly, she's starting to weird me out a little bit. Peggy's friend. She looks … there's something rather familiar about her."

"How can you tell? She's bundled up like the freakin Invisible Man!" chuckled Jo.

"It's something about the shape of her jaw. You, being unobservant, wouldn't have noticed."

"I ain't unobservant," Jo objected. "I just observe different things. Like, I notice good-lookin bikes and cars, tailfins and hubcaps and stuff, whereas you notice makeup and clothes and people's faces."

Skye drifted past carrying a tray of drinks. She gave Blair a distinctly cool look.

"The colossal nerve!" said Blair, tossing her hair.

"Maybe," laughed Jo, "but I did notice you lookin at her hubcaps."

"Pardon?"

"Her hubcaps, you know – her frontal anatomy."

"I was not!" Blair protested, scandalized.

"Babe. You were. Don't worry; I think it's kinda cute."

"I was not looking at anybody's, er, hubcaps, especially not hers."

"I ain't jealous, Blair. I know you're with me."

Blair buried her face in Jo's hair. "Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh – I think I was looking at her hubcaps."

"Well, they're kinda hard to avoid."

"I'm the worst girlfriend ever!"

"Fiancée."

"The worst fiancée!"

"No, babe, not even. Look, I know you like girls. You've been crystal clear about that." She cupped Blair's face. "So maybe from time to time you're gonna notice some, uh, hubcaps or, you know, some tailfins. But you're my girl. I'm real secure about that."

"That's so sweet Jo." Blair turned her face into Jo's hand, kissed Jo's palm.

It was an intimate gesture that instantly set Jo's heart thudding. "Well," she swallowed, "you know how sweet and understandin I am."

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"You really don't notice women's hubcaps and tailfins?"

"Just yours, babe." Jo's hands dropped below Blair's waist, mischievously squeezed her posterior.

"Jo!"

At the back booth, Rose started to stand up, put Peggy put a firm hand on her shoulder.

"Did you see that?" Rose demanded.

"Yes, Rosie."

"That's not appropriate behavior! Jo knows better than to do something like that in public!"

"You and Charlie never got a little frisky when you were out dancing?"

"That's different!"

"Is it?"

Rose fumed – but she had no retort.

"Oh my God, Jo – that woman almost came over here!" said Blair.

"What woman?"

"Peggy's friend."

"I'm tellin ya – she thinks you're Jessica Lange. She wants your autograph!"

"She looks so familiar – even with that crazy hat and the sunglasses. This is driving me crazy."

"You're startin to drive me crazy with it too. Come on, babe – no way is anybody we know in this bar."

"Girls!" trilled a high, fluting voice. "Oh, thank goodness you're all right! I was so worried!"

"Mrs. Garrett?" asked Jo, dazed.

Jo turned in the direction of the voice. The feisty redhead was rushing toward the young lovers, arms flung wide open for a hug. In a second she was embracing them, crushing them to her bosom.

"Now – there's nothing to worry about, girls! Everything is going to be fine!"

"Um … OK," said Jo, baffled. "And that's news because …?"

"I won't leave your sides, not for a minute!" Mrs. Garrett said stoutly.

"Mrs. G, all due respect, I love you like a second mother, but I really don't need you taggin along on our romantic weekend."

"Where's Drake?" Blair asked curiously. "What happened to the quest for perfect Crepes Suzette?"

"Drake and I had a lovely dinner, and the Crepes Suzette turned out perfectly thanks to Mona's recipe."

"That's great, Mrs. G," said Jo as politely as her impatience would allow. "Now, why don't you go back to Drake's? He must be missin ya."

"You and Drake didn't have a fight, did you?" Blair asked, concerned.

"If they did, they'll patch it up," Jo said firmly. "They don't need us interferin!"

"Drake is finding a parking space," said Mrs. Garrett. "We had to circle the block three times before I spotted the bar, and there doesn't seem to be any parking nearby."

"Yes, but why?" asked Jo. "Why did you find us? I know I left you the address in case of emergency – Oh. Shit!"

"Language, Jo," said Mrs. Garrett, shaking her forefinger. "But yes, it is an emergency. Dina went to River Rock tonight, and then to the Eastland Dance."

"To the dance?" Jo gripped her surrogate mother by the shoulders. "Is everyone OK? Dina didn't pull a Carrie or somethin, did she?"

"I don't know what a 'Carrie' is, but everyone is all right. For now. The gang is headed here to regroup."

"What did Dina say? What did she do?" Blair asked breathlessly.

"Oof!" said Jo as an enthusiastic dancer jabbed her in the ribs with an elbow. "Watch it, pal!"

Jo slipped one arm through Mrs. Garrett's and one arm through Blair's. "Why don't we sit down?"

"Good idea," Mrs. Garrett agreed. "Drake might be a while."

They led Mrs. Garrett to their booth, right next to Peggy's.

"Everything OK?" asked Peggy as they sat down.

"Yeah. Sorta," said Jo. "It's kinda complicated, Peggy, but we're OK."

Blair rolled her eyes affectionately. Jo's grasp of the social niceties was still pretty bare-bones. Jo rarely thought to make introductions.

"Edna Garrett," said Blair, "this is Peggy O'Meara. She's a childhood friend of Jo's mother."

"Pleased to meet you," Peggy said heartily, shaking Mrs. Garrett's hand over the oak panel that separated the booths. "I'm on the board of the new Gay and Lesbian Center down the block."

"Well that must be very rewarding work," said Mrs. Garrett. "I used to be the school dietician at Eastland, when Blair and Jo attended."

"And now you're Edna of 'Edna's Edibles'," said Peggy. "I've seen your show. It's a lot of fun."

"Oh, well, thank you," said Mrs. Garrett, clearly pleased but still a little bashful about her nascent celebrity. She patted her red bun of hair with more self-consciousness than vanity.

"I tried to make that double-fudge cake, but it didn't turn out as nice as yours did," said Peggy.

"Did you follow the recipe?"

"Yes, except I substituted oleo for butter."

"Oh, but you can't do that," said Mrs. Garrett. "The cake calls for real butter and real sugar. Real milk too. Otherwise you'll taste the difference."

"I did!"

"Yeah, this is all lots of fun, ladies," Jo said impatiently, "but if we could get back to that emergency?"

"Emergency?" asked Peggy.

"Just an expression," said Jo. "But we kinda gotta discuss this, uh, thing. Like, right now."

"Of course," said Peggy. "Well, if you need anything, my friend and I will be here for awhile." Peggy disappeared behind the oak panel that separated their booths.

"That was unbelievably rude, darling, even for you," chastised Blair.

"So sue me," said Jo, "my manners kinda go out the window when my loved ones are bein stalked by a homicidal freakin maniac!"

"Not your loved ones," Mrs. Garrett said quietly. "Jo … It's you and Blair she's after. And Alec."

"What did she say?" asked Blair.

"Yeah. What did she say – exactly?" Jo asked.

"I wasn't there. But she apparently went to River Rock, found out no one was there, went to the Eastland dance and essentially told the girls and Alec that she planned to get even with both of you."

"Anybody call the cops yet?"

"Alec called them before he phoned me at Drake's."

"And let me guess," Jo said bitterly, "the cops can't do a frickin thing about it!"

"Not unless Dina makes her threats in front of witnesses," Mrs. Garrett agreed.

"Well how many people were at the damn dance?"

"Language, Jo," Mrs. Garrett chided gently. "And apparently there were a lot of people at the dance. Tootie said it was a wonderful turnout. But the music was playing and everyone was having a good time; no one else heard Dina's threats."

Jo pushed her hands through her hair. "So where does that leave us?"

"With Dina looking for both of you," Mrs. Garrett said grimly.

"And she don't exactly wanna give us a big kiss," Jo said bitterly.

"We don't know if she's looking for you on her own, or if she's hired P.I.'s, or, frankly, what she's going to do," said Mrs. Garrett. "I don't think you should cancel your weekend, but I'm afraid you're going to have us along for the ride. There's safety in numbers. And as unpredictable as Dina seems to be, I don't want any of us alone and vulnerable until she's in custody again."

Blair reached across the table and covered Mrs. Garrett's hands with her own.

"Thank you," Blair said.

"So what's the plan?" Jo asked edgily. "I hate feelin like a sittin duck. I say we draw her out."

"Jo – that sounds very dangerous," Mrs. Garrett said disapprovingly.

"What sounds dangerous?" asked Drake. A handsome older man with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair slid onto the bench seat next to Mrs. Garrett. He put a protective arm around her shoulders.

"Did you find a parking garage?" Mrs. Garrett asked him.

Drake nodded. "But I hope you have subway fare, Edna; I don't know if the car is going to be in one piece when we get back!"

"Who drives in New York?" crabbed Jo. "How are ya supposed to be protectin Mrs. G if you're off parkin your precious freakin car?"

"Jo!" said Mrs. Garrett. "Don't talk to Mr. Dante that way."

"Eh … horseradish," muttered Jo.

"It's quite all right," smiled Drake. "Jo's just worried about you, Edna. I don't blame her."

"Well I'm gonna blame you if anythin happens to her," Jo told him. "Parkin your car! In Greenwich Village!"

"Mr. Dante is from Los Angeles," said Mrs. Garrett. "Everyone drives everywhere there."

"Well this ain't L.A. You gotta be quick on your feet in this city."

"Duly noted," smiled Drake.

"And stop smilin all the time," complained Jo. She scowled. "You go around smilin, you might as well be carryin a sign: 'Hey, I'm from outta town! Mug me!'"

"Drake can take care of himself," Mrs. Garrett said firmly.

"Huh! If you say so!"

Blair watched in surprise as a fedora and then a pair of large dark sunglasses appeared over the top of the panel that separated them from Peggy's booth.

"Can I help you?" Blair asked the strange woman, who instantly disappeared behind the panel. Blair turned to Jo. "I'm telling you, darling, I know that oddball from somewhere."

"You got any friends comin outta the closet? Cause that's some woman who just found out her daughter likes girls. Peggy's givin her the nickel tour of the Village, showin her it ain't all debauchery and depravity."

"She does look oddly familiar," mused Mrs. Garrett.

"That's what I keep saying," said Blair.

"Look, are we gonna figure out how to handle Dina? We gotta get organized," said Jo.

"We shouldn't decide anything until we're all here," said Mrs. Garrett.

"All who? Who else is comin?" demanded Jo.

"Blair! Jo!"

Tootie all but hurled herself into the booth, throwing her arms around her friends.

"Thank God you're still all right! At least for now."

"Way to be optimistic," snorted Jo, disentangling herself from Tootie's embrace. "For cryin out loud. Can't a girl take her girl to the Village without bein swarmed by –"

"Jo! Blair!" cried Natalie. She slid into the booth behind Tootie, crushed all three of her friends in a massive bear hug. "Thank God you're still alive!"

"Leggo, leggo!" said Jo, crushed between Tootie and Blair. "People tryin to breathe here!"

"Sorry," said Nat, releasing her friends. "We've just been so worried. Dina has totally lost it! You know how they say people aren't playing with a full deck of cards? Well Dina isn't even playing with a deck! It's been thrown off a cliff somewhere. It's long gone!"

"How did she look when you saw her?" Blair asked curiously.

"OK – you know that scene in 'Rebecca', right before Mrs. Danvers loses her last shred of sanity and burns Manderley to the ground?"

"That about sums it up," agreed Tootie.

"What did we miss?" asked Mona, squeezing in next to Drake, Alec right behind her. "Did we miss anything?"

"What the hell kept ya?" Jo asked Alec.

"Lovely to see you too, Artemis. I had to park the coupe, did I not? And Mona was sweet enough to serve as my bodyguard."

"Where did you park?" Drake asked Alec.

"Garage two blocks south."

"Two blocks? I parked three blocks east."

"Sorry to hear that, old chap. Although the garage we found looks a bit dicey, if that's any consolation. Won't be surprised if the fenders are missing when I pick up the old coupe!"

"Our garage is dicey too," said Drake. "I won't be surprised if my entire car is gone."

"It's Greenwich Village, for Pete's sake – not the South Bronx!" said Jo. "Your cars are gonna be fine. And I ask again – who the hell drives in New York? Can we get off your freakin cars now and talk about somethin important?"

"Yes, Artemis, we're fine," said Alec. "And thank you for asking."

"I know you're fine. Jeez. I can see you're fine. But how are we gonna make sure we all stay fine?"

"Dina wants the three of us," said Blair, gesturing from herself to Jo to Alec. "I suggest the rest of you continue with your weekends. Alec will go back to the Plaza with Jo and me, where we can keep an eye on each other."

"He ain't shackin up in our suite," Jo said decisively. "He's gettin his own room!"

"Forget it!" said Natalie. "Dina's not just after you three at this point. Jo – she came to Eastland! To a dance at Eastland! She's not above hurting your friends or family to get at you three."

"Natalie's right," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "We all stay together until we can convince the authorities that Dina is a danger. Blair, I know it's a terrible imposition, but …"

"Not at all," Blair said, smiling fondly at her surrogate mother. "We'll arrange rooms for everyone."

"Yeah, the more the merrier," grumbled Jo. "Ain't like this was s'posed to be a romantic weekend or anythin!"

"Darling." Blair took Jo's hand. "This isn't an ordinary situation."

"Well when are we gonna have an ordinary situation? Can't a girl take her girl for a romantic weekend without people crashin the party and wackos tryin to kill 'em?"

"Apparently not," said Natalie. "So." She rubbed her hands together enthusiastically. "The Plaza! I guess being in jeopardy does have its upsides!"

"I'm ordering room service," Tootie said excitedly. "Shrimp cocktail!"

"A hot fudge sundae for me!" said Nat.

"Hey, this ain't some vacation," said Jo. "We're supposedly in deadly peril."

"Jo, there's no 'supposedly' about it." Nat shivered, suddenly serious. "If you'd seen Dina's face …"

"We gotta draw Dina out," Jo insisted. "Holin up at the Plaza's only a temporary solution. Ask me, it ain't a solution at all! We gotta get Dina to show her true colors, in front of witnesses, before she actually hurts somebody."

"As one of those somebodies, I'm not disagreeing," Nat said. "What did you have in mind?"

"Dunno … I'm workin on it."

Blair leaned her head on Jo's shoulder. "Darling, you don't think … If Dina can't find us, you don't think she'd try to hurt my parents?"

"Babe … I wish I could say 'no', but she's already said her pop's plannin to ruin them."

"Financially. BZ Becker is planning to ruin them financially. But what I'm asking is, do you think Dina might try to actually, physically hurt them?"

Natalie nodded. "I hate to say it, Blair, but if Dina can get at them, I don't think she'd have any issue with hurting them."

"I'm going to call them," said Blair.

"They ain't gonna listen to ya, babe. And they're safe; they got security at their buildings."

"I've got to try, Jo. Dina puts on a good act. She could probably talk her way upstairs. And then ..."

Jo sighed. And then – "Shit!" Jo said suddenly. "What about my parents? They're a million times easier to get to than your folks! I gotta call 'em!"

Alec slid out of the booth and helped Mona to scoot out. Blair and Jo pushed past them, headed for the payphones near the rest rooms.

"This is a nightmare," said Tootie.

"Yes, it is," said Nat. "Which is why I keep hanging onto the idea of a hot fudge sundae. With lots of hot fudge. And mountains of whipped cream."

"And don't forget those little slivered almonds," said Mona. "Hmm. I think I'll order a sundae too."

"Jo is being such a crab," complained Tootie.

"She's worried about Blair," said Mrs. Garrett. "And her parents, and all of us."

"Well she could show it by being a little nicer!"

"It's a lot of pressure," said Mrs. Garrett, "when you feel responsible for everyone. That's why Jo's being well –"

"Mean?"

"Maybe you could cut her a little slack, Tootie."

Tootie considered that. "Feeling responsible for everyone, huh? I guess I never thought of it that way."

"Jo is very protective," said Alec. "She loves you, all of you – even though our Jo would never express it in such a 'mushy' way."

"She loves you too, Alec," said Mrs. Garrett.

"I don't' know about that," he shrugged. "But she no longer seems to feel the need to kill me. That's some progress ..."

Jo slammed the payphone down in frustration. "Ma's not answerin!"

"She's probably working a late shift," Blair said soothingly. "Try the coffee shop."

"I already did, babe. They said she took the weekend off – which totally ain't like Ma. Takin the weekend off?"

"Do you think, I mean, are you thinking that …" Blair trailed off, not sure how to express the worry that had popped into her head.

"I don't freakin know what to think," Jo said miserably.

"Try your father," said Blair, rubbing Jo's back. "Call Charlie. And then we'll call my folks."

Jo nodded. She dropped more coins into the slot, dialed her father's number. As the phone rang something dawned on her. She turned to Blair. "Babe – did you just say 'folks'?"

"Did I? I didn't notice."

Jo grinned. "Warner, you sound more like a real person every day."

"I supposed I'll take that as a compliment," Blair said, rolling her eyes.

"You should." Jo kissed the tip of her nose. "Cause it is …"

"I don't like it!" Mrs. Garrett was saying. They all had their heads close together in the booth, leaning over the table. "It sounds very risky, Alec."

"It is," he admitted. "And it needs fine-tuning, but I think it will work."

"So it's a little risky – so what," Mona said philosophically. "Anything worthwhile is a little risky. Say, Natalie," Mona nodded toward a handsome young man who had just entered the bar. "He's a prime hunka-hunka, yes? We're here, you might as well ask him to dance."

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Gramma, I don't think he's interested in me."

"Why would you say that? Where's all that confidence we heard earlier tonight?"

"Gramma, if I ask him to dance, I think his boyfriend might object."

"Oh. Right." The handsome young man had been joined by an even more handsome man. They sat at the bar. "I keep forgetting where we are," said Mona.

"So … What's everybody having?" asked Stan the bartender, standing at the end of their booth. Weird group, he thought. The two kids are definitely underage; sodas for them! The redhead and the old guy are straight, or I'll eat my hat. And I don't even wanna know what's up with 'Harold and Maude' …

"I'll have a sherry," said Mona.

"Heineken," said Drake, "and Edna will have a glass of chardonnay."

"Guinness Stout," said Alec. "Unless a pint of cider is to be had in this establishment?" Stan stared blankly at him. "Right. I'll have the Guinness, then."

"I'll have a white wine spritzer. With a twist," Tootie said, in her most sophisticated, Norma Shearer voice.

"I'll have the same," Natalie said with dignity.

"Sure – two Cokes it is," said Stan.

"Good eye," Mrs. Garrett complimented him.

"Years of practice," Stan said modestly. "Be right back."

He turned to leave, hesitated, turned back to the booth. "You, ah, you all know this is a gay bar. Right?"

"It is?" asked Mona. "Good gracious. We thought this was the Jewish Home for the Elderly." She looked around the table. "Sorry, kids. You can't put me away just yet!"

Stan rolled his eyes. Everybody's a comedian these days … He blamed the movies …

"Charlie ain't answerin either," said Jo, slamming the receiver down.

"Jo, I'm sure he's fine. Isn't he working two jobs?"

"Three, last I knew."

"Then he's at work. Do you have a number? Can you call him there?"

"No. Damn. Here you go, babe –" Jo lifted the receiver and handed it to Blair. "Call your folks."

Monica answered on the second ring. "Monica Warner," she slurred into the phone.

She was drinking, thought Blair. No … she was drunk.

"Hello, mother."

"Blair! Darling. You're … you're calling me?"

Blair heard the clink of ice in a glass, the burble of alcohol being poured.

"Mother, I'm worried about you."

"Why?" Monica pounced. "What have you heard?"

Blair heard her mother take a long, sloppy gulp of whatever she was drinking.

How much do I tell her, when she's in this state? Blair couldn't remember her mother being this drunk since her second husband left her.

"Mother, Dina Becker has had a falling out with me. And Jo. And BZ Becker is very unhappy with Daddy."

"Everyone's unhappy with Daddy," laughed Monica. It was a hysterical laugh. Blair cringed. "Your father's been on a rampage this last year. Ruining the Abercrombies was the coup de grace." She took another loud drink. "Blair, sweetheart, you know that mother loves you? Mother loves you very much, no matter what unfortunate things you do."

"I know," Blair said quietly. She clenched the phone tightly.

Jo didn't know what the hell was happening between mother and daughter, but Blair looked so damn sad and tense. Jo put her arm around Blair's waist, squeezed her lover reassuringly.

"Mother, I don't want to alarm you," said Blair, "but I want you to promise me that you will not let anyone into the penthouse except me or Daddy. No one. Particularly not Dina or any of the Beckers. Or any strangers."

Monica laughed. The laugh devolved into a series of little sobs. "Blair. It's his fault, not mine. It's your father's fault."

"What's Daddy's fault?"

"The way you are, darling."

"Mother, don't worry about that right now. I'm trying to talk to you about your safety."

"You have to stop running, Blair. You have to face up to your problem and find a way, you have to find a way to make peace with the life you need to live to, ah, live your life. For your own sanity, darling."

"Mother," Bair said gently, "I can't follow you. But if you're saying what I think you are, let's save that for another conversation. Right now I just need you to promise you won't let anyone into the penthouse tonight."

Monica giggled. It was unnerving to Blair to hear her forty-something mother giggle drunkenly.

"No one's coming over," murmured Monica. "No one ever comes over. No one wants to come over."

"Mother … Take care of yourself."

Blair hung up the phone.

"What happened?" Jo asked. Blair shook her head.

"I don't want to talk about it," said Blair. Jo could hear that her lover was all choked up; she held Blair close. "Something is wrong with mother. I don't know what."

I know. She's a narcissistic, drunken witch, thought Jo. But she held her tongue.

"You warned her about Dina, babe. That's all you can do."

"I know, but there's something upsetting her … not about us, not about Dina."

Jo gently brushed a couple of strands of blonde hair out of Blair's eyes. "When all this with Dina blows over, let's invite Monica to lunch. At the Plaza? What do you say? Civilized lunch, I won't ride in on my bike or punch anybody, even."

Blair laughed. A single tear slid down her cheek; Jo kissed it away.

"Yeah? Sound like a plan?" asked Jo.

"You are so wonderful about her," Blair whispered.

"Hey, in the Bronx, nobody likes their in-laws neither. We're talkin breakin chairs and bottles on each other's heads, right? But family is family. You gotta stick together, whether you can stand each other or not."

Blair laughed again. What would I do without Jo? What would I do without her?

She lifted the payphone receiver out of its cradle, dialed a number. The phone rang. And rang. And rang some more. Daddy's probably out. Out of the country, for all I know …

There was a click, finally, as someone picked up, and a brief pause.

"David Warner here."

Daddy sounds tired, thought Blair. And sad.

"Daddy? It's me."

"Blair?"

"Yes."

"Princess, it's good of you to call. Are you … are you in good health?"

"Yes, Daddy. I'm fine. But I'm worried about you."

Silence at the other end. Then – "Blair … I hope you're not going to continue this nonsense about the Beckers."

"It's not nonsense," she said, a bit of an edge to her voice. "Promise me you'll be careful."

"I just saw the Beckers at –"

"I know. At a dinner party. For all the old New York-New Amsterdam families. Which in itself should be ringing an alarm bell –wouldn't you say?"

"Princess, you don't understand how business works," he said patiently. "We're the Beckers biggest clients. Without us, BZ Becker has nothing. I can hear that your little … friend has worked you into a state, but there's nothing to be concerned about."

"With all due respect, Daddy, it doesn't take an MBA to know the Beckers are up to something. But since you have a hundred top MBAs on staff, promise me you'll have them review your contracts, your loans – any business you have with the Beckers. And please be careful of your safety. And mother's."

"Your mother's safety is her own concern," David said coldly. "Not mine. But there isn't anything for you to worry about. It makes me very unhappy that your friend –"

"My fiancée, Daddy."

" – That your friend has concocted these elaborate fantasies that you find so upsetting. Either she is manipulating you, or she is a seriously disturbed young woman. Blair. I wish," his voice suddenly broke a little bit. "I wish you knew how sorry I am. If I were a stronger man, if I weren't so weak, none of this would be happening to you."

"You're not responsible for my being a lesbian," Blair said simply. Jo held her tight. "And I'm tired to death of that subject. Jo is in my life to stay – period. You're not listening to me about the Beckers. Dina made threats to my friends this evening."

"I see. To your friends. You didn't see or hear her make these alleged threats?"

"Don't be a lawyer, Daddy."

"Can't help it, Princess. I am what I am." He chuckled bitterly.

He doesn't sound drunk, thought Blair, but he's in as strange a mood as mother is. There's no talking to either of them tonight …

"All right. You think I'm imagining things or I'm being manipulated. But just humor me, Daddy. Promise me that even though it's silly little Blair asking you to do it, you'll go over your Becker contracts again. And you'll just, watch your back."

David laughed harshly. "Watch my back! Is that the language of the streets that you're picking up? Soon your tough little friend will have you joining a gang!"

"Daddy …" But there was, Blair reflected, no response to such an insulting and ignorant statement.

She hung up the phone.

"So … Sounds like that didn't go so well," said Jo.

"As always, darling, you have a gift for understatement."

"You did what you could do."

"I know." Blair pressed her face against Jo's. She closed her eyes. "You smell good," she said.

"Jeez, you just noticin? I been smellin great all night. I borrowed your perfume."

Blair laughed. "No wonder you smell like a million dollars."

"Eh, you know, there's this cute blonde I want to impress. She kinda means everythin to me."

"I wonder if she deserves you."

"Yeah. She does." Jo kissed Blair. "She and me, we're all star-crossed; it's like Montagues and Capulets all over the freakin place. But we're gonna get married someday."

"She's a very lucky girl."

Someone cleared her throat loudly, right next to them. Blair and Jo jumped.

"What the hell?" Jo exclaimed.

It was Peggy's friend, the odd woman in the trench coat and the fedora and the sunglasses. A few tendrils of auburn hair peeked out from under the brim.

It was hard to tell with that crazy get-up, but Blair was right, thought Jo – there was something a little familiar about the woman.

"Look, Toots, you been givin us the stink eye all night," said Jo. All her frustrations of the day boiled up, and she vented them at this woman. "I been cuttin ya some slack cause you know Peggy. But I'm at the end of my freakin patience. Got it? We're makin some private important-type calls back here. So whaddya want? We owe you money or somethin?"

"Jo." Blair gently put a hand on Jo's arm. "Be nice."

"Nice my ass! Who asked her to keep lookin at us, anyway? Huh? What's she playin at?"

"Jo. Darling." Blair touched Jo's face. "It's been a long day."

"It's been a long few months," the mysterious woman said quietly.

Jo's head snapped up. That voice was so damn familiar! It almost sounded like … No. That was crazy …

The woman slowly removed her fedora. Strands of long auburn hair that had been bunched up, hidden under the hat, flowed down to her shoulders.

"Ma?" Jo asked incredulously.

Rose removed the sunglasses. "Joanne Marie … We're going to have a long talk about your vocabulary."

Part 3

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