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 3

Sunday, February 12, 1984. The Plaza Hotel, New York City.

After a fitful sleep, Rose woke at six a.m. A few minutes later she was neatly dressed and knocking lightly on the door of Jo and Blair's Plaza suite.

When there was no answer, she knocked a little louder. She didn't want to pound on the door. Rose disliked drawing attention to herself, making a scene.

Jo finally opened the door, yawning hugely.

"Mornin, Ma. C'mon in."

Rose followed Jo into the suite. The rooms were luxurious in an understated, old-money way – almost identical to the suite down the hall that Rose was sharing with Mona and Mrs. Garrett.

Pale morning light seeped through the lounge curtains. Jo sat on a comfortable antique chair, gestured for her mother to settle somewhere. Rose decided on the divan; as was her habit, she perched nervously on the very edge of the seat.

Jo dialed the white-and-gilt phone on the table. "Hello," she said, "this is Miss Warner's suite. We'd like three breakfasts – two continental, one American – a pot of coffee, pot of hot chocolate, a blueberry muffin. Yeah. Yes. Thank you." Jo hung up the phone. She yawned again.

Rose looked at Jo … really looked at her.

The young woman was beautiful in her white Plaza bathrobe, long hair hastily pulled into a ponytail, reclining comfortably, sleepily on her chair.

There were dark circles under Jo's eyes. She hadn't slept any better than Rose had.

"Joanne Marie, just how dangerous is this Dina Becker?" Rose asked bluntly.

Jo shrugged. She was too tired to sugar coat it. "I mean, pretty dangerous, Ma."

"Define 'pretty dangerous' for me."

"Dina tried to burn down our suite at Petal's with me and Blair in it. Dina had to plan it, think it through, get the gasoline and black powder together. Not exactly a spur of the moment thing. So our amateur diagnosis is she's a total flippin psycho. All we gotta do now is get the professionals on board!"

Jo stretched, cracking her neck and spine like little pops of machine gun fire. "Funny," she said, "comin from the Bronx I'd of thought maybe I'd be the one bringin danger to Blair. Instead, who knew? Turns out rich people are total homicidal maniacs! I've never been roughed up so much since I fell for her!"

Rose shivered. "It's not funny, Joanne Marie. This is not a funny situation."

"And that, Ma, is why it's imperative that we laugh. Did you ever get through to Pop?"

Rose nodded. "I told him one of Blair's friends is making threats, and that she might try to bother him."

"Ma, Dina isn't Blair's friend anymore. You try to torch somebody, it kinda sours the friendship. And she might try to do a lot worse than 'bother' Pop."

"Your father can take care of himself, Joanne Marie."

"Did he, ah, did he have any messages? For me, I mean?"

Rose shook her head.

"Well ain't that fatherly," muttered Jo.

"He's keeping his distance, Joanne Marie. I think he's afraid if gets even a little close to you or Blair, he's going to give in."

"So why doesn't he?" asked Jo. "Aw, forget it. Just forget it. He's gotta work it out in his own head." She yawned enormously.

Footsteps padded down the narrow stairs. Blair joined them. She was bundled in a Plaza bathrobe, her face bare of makeup, her hair mussed.

She dropped a kiss on Jo's head. "Morning, darling," she mumbled.

"Mornin, babe." Jo pressed her lover's hand, just for a second, released it as Blair shuffled toward the windows. The blonde drew opened one set of curtains, let the pale sunlight flow in.

"That's better," mumbled Blair. She settled herself on the divan next to Rose. "Good morning, Rose."

"Er … Good morning, Blair."

Rose couldn't help thinking that Blair was coming downstairs from a bed that she shared with Jo. It was too upsetting to contemplate … Rose pushed the thought away.

"Did you sleep at all?" Blair asked Jo.

"Little bit. Couple of hours."

Blair glanced at the phone. "Shall I –"

"Already did," Jo said, yawning.

Rose looked from Jo to Blair. The way they finished each other's sentences, understood each other without words sometimes … It was like her and Charlie when they'd been married for awhile.

Or, no. If Rose were honest with herself (which she was trying very hard to be), she and Charlie had never been as in tune with each other as Jo and Blair seemed to be. The level of understanding that Jo and Blair shared … I guess that's what happens when you fall in love with your best friend, thought Rose.

There was a knock at the suite door.

"That can't be room service already," Rose said, surprised.

"Why not?" asked Blair.

Jo left the lounge; they heard her moccasins padding across the cool marble of the foyer, heard the pause as she checked through the peek hole, and then the sound of chains and bolts being drawn. There was a hushed exchange.

A moment later Jo appeared, followed by a slender, white-gloved butler. Not Damon, the night butler, but the morning man. He pushed a dolly bearing covered serving dishes, silver pots, little jelly jars, linen napkins and fine china.

"Good morning," the butler said cheerfully. He organized all of the plates and utensils in a pleasing arrangement; he poured out cups of coffee and hot chocolate. "Will there be anything else?"

"Not at the moment, Ormond," said Blair.

How does she do that? marveled Jo. Blair remembered every doorman, waiter, concierge, maître d' and butler in Manhattan. Although it makes sense; they were all more like parents to her when she was growin up than her real parents were …

"If you'll please sign, Miss Blair." Ormond handed the heiress a pen and a leather portfolio, opened to show a white slip of paper. Blair signed her initials absently, with a little flourish. Ormond took the portfolio and nodded to each of the young women in turn. "Thank you, Miss Warner, Miss Polniaczek."

"Thank you, Ormond."

He showed himself out.

"Dig in, Ma," said Jo. "Got you a nice breakfast. Eggs, bacon, the works. Put some meat on your bones."

Rose shook her head. "I don't think I can eat a morsel, Jo."

"C'mon, Ma. Have a few bites, at least. It's gonna be a tense day, and it won't do any of us any good if you faint."

Rose hated the thought of being a burden. She lifted a fork, forced herself to taste the scrambled eggs. They were delicious. They had a rich flavor, plenty of pepper and butter, and had clearly been prepared with milk or cream rather than water.

How the other half lives! thought Rose.

Blair drank cocoa and nibbled at the blueberry muffin. Jo gnawed several pieces of toast.

"Why am I the only one eating a fancy breakfast?" asked Rose.

"Because you need it," said Jo. "I'm outta shape since I stopped trainin for field hockey, and Blair doesn't need any bacon, specially not with all the hot chocolate she's suckin down."

"I'm sorry," said Blair, lifting one eyebrow, "but would you mind repeating that? I don't think I could possibly have heard you correctly."

"Babe, I ain't tryin to be rude, but it's true. Since you started your sabbatical you're really startin to go a little, uh, marshmallowy."

Blair took a deep drink of her cocoa. She appeared to be mentally counting to ten.

"Jo Polniaczek," she said with dangerous quiet, "you told me that no matter how heavy I get –"

"It's not an aesthetic thing," Jo said hastily. "Blair – you're beautiful. I'm thinkin of your health."

"Charlie did that to me once," Rose said quietly. "Made a crack about my weight."

"Did he?" asked Blair, surprised. She took another lady-like bite of blueberry muffin.

Rose nodded. She ate another forkful of eggs.

"We'd been married about a year. I wasn't working then. Charlie was doing OK. That's back when we thought he was going to move up into – well … it doesn't matter. I stayed home and kept up our little place. And one evening when I was clearing the supper dishes, he swatted me on the behind and he asked something about did I get a permit for that extension I was building on my back porch."

"He didn't!" said Blair, outraged.

"He did," said Rose.

"Ma," complained Jo. "Come on. I don't wanna hear this, about Pop hittin your behind and talkin about back porches and whatever."

"What did you say to him?" Blair asked Rose, completely ignoring Jo.

"Nothing. I started crying. It really hurt my feelings. Charlie'd never said anything critical about my appearance before. I really thought that he thought I was perfect. That's how it is when you're first together. You only see the good things. Then you start to notice the flaws. That's when it's make or break time."

"But I can't imagine you being heavy, Rose," said Blair. "You're so petite."

Rose smiled. "It was Jo," she said. "I was pregnant with Jo, and just starting to show."

"Pop was crackin wise when you were gonna have me?" Jo asked indignantly.

"He didn't know yet. He thought maybe I was sitting around eating bonbons all day. He had no idea what it took to keep up a household – even a little place like ours."

Blair fixed Jo with a severe look. "Darling … Do you think I sit around eating bonbons all day?"

"Of course not! But I'll be glad when you're back in classes."

"Why aren't you taking classes now?" Rose asked Blair.

The blonde shrugged. "I'm still trying to decide what I want to study. Art, I think."

"Not much of a living in art," Rose said critically.

"But she loves it," said Jo. "And she's very talented. And I'm the one's gonna have a practical career."

"Law appeals to me too," Blair said thoughtfully. "And Harvard Law School is a Warner tradition."

"Study both," said Jo. "Study art, and law, and basket weavin and hopscotch and ancient Greek – whatever the hell you want. I'll just be glad when you're exercisin your mind again, you know – on a regular basis."

"It must be nice, Blair," Rose said, "picking and choosing what you want to do."

"We all make choices," said Jo. "We all make our beds and then we lie in them. Envyin someone else doesn't get us anywhere."

"Jo –"

"Never mind, Ma. I know what you meant. I know you. You're makin a crack, like Blair's some kinda dilettante or somethin."

"I said no such thing!"

"It's in your tone, Ma. Do you wanna know the real reason Blair ain't in school this semester?"

"Jo," Blair said warningly. "Don't."

"She's payin my tuition, Ma – the half that ain't covered by my scholarship. She's puttin my studies ahead of her own. Whaddya think of them apples?"

Rose darted a guilty look at Blair. "Blair," she said, "is that true?"

Blair waved one hand airily, making light of the matter. "It's no sacrifice. I see it as a wise investment. Jo's the scholar. So I'm a dilettante – so what? There are worse things to be."

"You were salutatorian at Eastland," Jo said irritably. "You're one of the most brilliant, most talented – Look, soon as we can afford it, you're goin back to classes, Ali MacGraw! And that's that!"

"Jo!" said Rose, appalled. "Is that how you talk to the woman who's supposed to be the love of your life?"

Blair laughed. "Don't worry Rose. I can take it."

"And it's not like she can't give it right back," said Jo. "Though I gotta admit … Babe, does it really hurt your feelins if I say stuff like about you're gettin a little marshmallowy?"

Blair nodded. She took another bite of the blueberry muffin.

"I'm sorry," Jo said sincerely.

"Apology accepted," said Blair.

Rose shook her head. She felt a little dazed. It was so bizarre listening to her daughter converse with her lover – her female lover. But one of the most bizarre things about it was that it wasn't really so bizarre!

Seeing Jo and Blair dancing and laughing together last night; seeing them here in their suite, drowsy and natural, their guard down … Rose had to admit to herself that the young women seemed to belong together, however weird that was. They just looked and sounded like they were meant to be …

Peggy's words from the night before flowed through Rose's mind. Let the Church judge them however it's going to judge them, but why don't you just do what you're heart is telling you Rosie? Just love them.

Rose sighed. It was what her heart was telling her to do. To love her Jo, her wonderful daughter. To love this frighteningly beautiful and strong woman that Jo seemed to love …

"Jo, chew with your mouth closed," Rose said absently.

"Has she always done that?" yawned Blair. "Eaten with her mouth open? I mean she doesn't do it all the time, but –"

"Whenever she's tired," said Rose. "Yes. She's always done that. Like Charlie."

"My manners are impeccable," protested Jo. She stifled a belch. "Pardon me."

Blair rolled her eyes. "Yes, darling. Emily Post telephoned; she wants to meet with you about your etiquette secrets."

Jo laughed. "She should be so lucky! I could tell that prissy Emily Post a coupla things."

"Of course. The question is, would she understand them?"

Jo laughed again. She pegged a cushion at Blair's head. Blair hurled it back, giggling; hand-eye coordination not being the blonde's strong suit, the cushion sailed high over Jo's head.

"My goodness," said Rose, "are you girls nineteen or nine? You're going to break something!"

"Eh, if we do, we'll put it on the tab," said Jo.

"Joanne Marie, what have I always told you about credit?"

"Don't worry – we're good for it," Jo said soothingly. "Ma – Blair's gonna own a big chunk of this place in a coupla years."

"What place? Do you mean … the Plaza?" Rose felt a little faint.

"Well, I meant Manhattan, but the Plaza, yeah."

Blair tossed another cushion at Jo; it glanced off the side of her head.

"Hey!"

"Don't brag about our assets," Blair said. "It's very tacky."

Rose rubbed one temple. She felt lightheaded. "But … I don't understand. Sometimes you two talk as if you're broke, but then you talk about owning Manhattan …"

"Not Manhattan, Ma," said Jo. "Not all of it. Just most of it. And not for a coupla years. Right now Blair is pretty much a pauper. And every cent she's got she's puttin into her horse and my education."

"Not necessarily in that order," Blair said drily.

"Are you kiddin?" laughed Jo. "Langley treats those horses like flippin royalty! I wish someone pampered me the way Chestnut gets pampered."

Blair lifted one eyebrow.

"Ah, that is, not that I'm not pampered," Jo said hastily. "Because I am. Very pampered."

Blair turned to Rose. "I bring her lunch every day. Hand-crafted peanut butter sandwiches. And those crackers she likes. And bananas."

"You bring Jo lunch every day – like in 'Love Story'?" asked Rose.

"Precisely."

"That's one of my favorite movies," said Rose.

"Mine too!" said Blair.

"Charlie brought me to see it. We couldn't always afford to see a movie, so it was kind of a big deal. My sister Evelyn watched Jo."

"I think I remember that," said Jo, squinting. "Didn't Aunt Evelyn get tanked up and go out to McCarney's? Yeah, I remember. She told me I was a big girl and she was gonna let me babysit myself."

"That's why she never babysat you again," Rose said grimly. "So, Joanne Marie, Blair is bringing you your lunch every day, it doesn't sound to me like you have anything to complain about."

"Who's complainin? I got it good, and I know it. But I, ah, gotta say," Jo's voice caught a little, "Ma, it's … I can't tell ya how nice it is to be, to get to talk to ya like this. Like old times."

Rose felt tears pricking her eyes. She blinked them away.

Blair slipped an arm around the older woman's shoulders. Rose was so slight, and so tense. It felt like a good strong wind would either blow her away or snap her like a twig. Blair tightened her grip protectively.

"Rose. We know this isn't easy for you, but it means a lot that you're even trying."

Rose sniffed. She pulled a plain handkerchief from her pocket, blew her nose.

"What am I supposed to do?" Rose asked. "Some lunatic is trying to kill you! Am I supposed to just ignore that, just walk away? Of course I'm going to be here. But that doesn't mean … I still can't get my mind around this."

Jo leaned forward in her chair. She squeezed her mother's hands gratefully.

"Ma, we're just happy you're tryin. You have no idea, you …" Jo cleared her throat. Her eyes shone with unshed tears. "You have no idea how much, you know. You know, right?"

"I know, Joanne Marie."

Jo and Rose smiled at each other, eyes bright.

The tender moment was interrupted by loud, insistent pounding on the suite door.

Jo shook her head darkly.

"The Snoop Sisters strike again! 'The destruction of this touchin moment was brought to you by Tootie Ramsey and Natalie Green'."

"We can't be sure it's them," said Blair.

The pounding grew louder and more insistent.

Blair sighed. "It's them." She stood up. "I'll let them in."

"Now hold on there, babe." Jo stood up and headed for the foyer. "On the off-chance that it's wacko Dina, instead of our wacko friends, I'm the one answerin the door around here."

"Jo Polniaczek, you don't have to treat me like some helpless damsel in distress," complained Blair. She put her hands on her hips. "I can take care of myself. In fact, according to the cracks you've been making, I could probably subdue Dina by sitting on her with my fatso figure."

Jo scowled. "I never said 'fatso'. I never make cracks like that."

"The words were different; the spirit of the remarks was the same."

"I already apologized," Jo called over her shoulder. "Not gonna do it again, Blair."

Blair sighed. She sat down.

"Don't take it personally," said Rose, putting a hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's Charlie. He's got to be in charge, and Jo's always watched him, and it seems like she's kind of the same way."

Blair smiled at Rose, eyes twinkling mischievously.

"Jo likes to think she's in charge," Blair said. "That doesn't necessarily mean she is."

Rose laughed. Well I'll be a monkey's uncle, she thought. Blair's a smarter cookie than I've given her credit for.

"I'll bet Charlie wasn't quite as in charge as he thought, either," said Blair.

Rose nodded. "That's a strong possibility," she said.

There was a sudden crescendo of cheerful voices and footsteps in the foyer.

Jo was practically thrust back into the lounge on a tidal wave of friends. Mrs. Garrett, Drake, Mona, Natalie, Tootie and Alec surrounded Jo, all more or less talking at once. Everyone settled onto a chair of divan, talking and gesturing animatedly.

After about thirty seconds of this, Jo put two fingers in her mouth and vented the shrillest, loudest whistle that Blair had ever heard. Blair pressed her hands over her ears. Everyone fell silent.

"First of all," said Jo, "good mornin, everybody. And second of all, everybody shut the hell up!"

"Jo!" chided Rose.

"No, no – Jo's right," said Mona. "We need to speak one at a time if we're going to get anywhere."

"We need a plan," said Natalie. "What's our next step?"

"Our plan," said Jo, "is not to get bumped off by Dina before we get her locked up again."

"That's a goal, not a plan," objected Natalie. "What are we going to do? What's our course of action?"

Jo scowled. "We don't need some big plan. We just have to stick together in groups until we can draw Dina into a showdown."

"Jo –" Blair began.

"It's the only way," Jo said, turning to Blair. "I ain't gonna live my life lookin over my shoulder every second, and neither should any of us."

Jo looked around the room. "Dina's got the ball in her court right now. We don't know where the hell she is or what her next move's gonna be. That work for you? Cause it sure don't work for me."

"Hear, hear!" said Alec. "Bloody right, Artemis. We need to force her hand, take control of the situation."

"Exactly," said Jo. "That's what I'm sayin. We gotta get Dina someplace where someone beside us can see she's totally freakin cuckoo-for-Coco-Puffs."

"Then it has to be somewhere public," said Natalie.

"And we'll have to goad Dina," said Tootie. "We'll have to egg her into doing something nutty in front of everybody. She's a pretty cool customer, so we're going to have to get her really mad."

"I'll handle that," Jo said.

"Of course." Blair took Jo's hand, squeezed it lightly. "You're outstanding at getting people really mad."

"I was thinkin more I want it to be me with the bullseye on her forehead, but, yeah, babe, you got a point too. If anyone can egg Dina into showin her true colors, it's yours truly. She's never liked me."

"That alone proves she's meshugga!" said Mona, pinching one of Jo's cheeks.

Jo blushed. "Aw, for Pete's sake, Mona," she mumbled bashfully.

"But I ask you! Look at this face! Who could not like Jo Polniaczek?"

"Jo's face aside," said Natalie, "Dina is pretty fixated on Jo."

"Exactly," said Jo. "I'm the perfect target. So we get me somewhere real public, with lotsa witnesses around, you guys are standin by so I don't actually get killed, and I get Dina to drop her mask. Ipso facto, we got a plan."

"That's not really a plan," said Natalie. "It's still a goal. We need steps, we need methodology –"

Jo waved her hands impatiently. "I leave that to you guys. Just tell me where to be and when."

Natalie, Tootie, Mrs. Garrett, Drake and Alec all looked at each other, and then at Blair.

"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" Natalie asked Blair.

Blair nodded. "I think so."

"Well I'm in the dark," complained Rose, "and this is my daughter's safety we're talking about."

"Eh, I'll be fine, Ma," said Jo.

"Sure, just shrug it off Joanne Marie. It's only your life!"

"Ma –"

"No, don't mind me. I only gave birth to you." Rose folded her slender arms across her chest.

Jo groaned.

Blair squeezed Jo's hand again. "Darling? I had a little surprise in store for you tonight –"

"Little?" interrupted Natalie.

Blair shot her a look.

"Sorry," said Nat. "But, it's just – little?"

"I had a surprise in store for you tonight," Blair told Jo, "and it involves a public venue. I suggest we continue with the surprise. If Dina makes an appearance, we have our showdown. If she doesn't, well, we just have fun tonight and we draw Dina out somewhere else tomorrow."

Jo smiled gently at Blair. She kissed Blair's hand.

Rose coughed uncomfortably and looked away.

"You planned some big surprise wingding for me?" Jo asked softly. "And you invited the gang?"

Blair nodded.

"Babe, that's so sweet."

"It's Valentine's weekend," Blair said, shrugging modestly. But her eyes were bright. She loved making Jo happy; she loved it when the brunette was genuinely touched by something she said or did.

The two young lovers gazed tenderly into each other's eyes …

"Earth to Jo and Blair," Natalie said irritably. "Come in, lovebirds. Mortal danger – remember?"

"Yeah, yeah – gimme a break!" Jo said, annoyed by the interruption.

"So it's settled," said Blair. "We'll all meet at, at the place tonight at eight o'clock, as planned."

Something was nagging at Jo.

"The one thing I don't like," she said thoughtfully, "is we're hopin Dina shows up. I don't like leavin it to chance that way. I wanna be sure she's there. Let's get this over with tonight."

"Well we can't exactly invite her to the party," Tootie said. "Dina's crazy – not stupid. She'd know it's a trap."

"We've got to tell her in a way that seems accidental," mused Natalie.

Alec snapped his fingers. "Boots!" he said excitedly.

Everyone gave him an odd look.

"What do boots have to do with anything?" asked Mona.

"Not boots, Mrs. Green – Boots St. Clair," explained Alec.

"Of course," said Blair, face lighting up. "That's a perfect idea."

"Well explain it to me," said Jo, "cause it's clear as mud. How's Boots s'posed to help us?"

"Who is Boots St. Clair?" asked Rose.

"You met her at Thanksgiving," said Jo. "Skinny girl, touch of lockjaw."

"You mean Beets?"

"It's Boots, Ma. But I don't understand how she's gonna be any help. You know who we need to call is the Lions. Petal could bench press Dina, and Portia can patch us up if we get knocked around, and Jackrabbit's a black belt. And Becker's goin after their fortunes too, seems like. They got a vested interest in takin Dina down."

"Agreed," said Alec – although he grimaced at the painful thought of seeing Jacqueline. "But Boots is the key to drawing out Dina."

"I think what Alec has in mind," said Blair "is Boots calling Dina and saying something along the lines of 'Can you believe that loser Blair Warner is hosting a party at such-and-such, and she's inviting those loser friends,' and so on."

"Spot on," said Alec. "Dina doesn't know there's a truce between Boots and Blair."

"A truce? Who knew there was a war?" asked Natalie. "I mean, I know there was a little bad blood when Boots got her crush on Jo –"

"It's a hell of a lot more than that," Alec said. "Boots was saying snide things about Blair all autumn because Blair wouldn't join Gamma Gamma."

"Oh. Wow," said Nat, "that sorority crowd can be very touchy! Note to self: don't rush Gamma Gamma."

"They wouldn't have you anyway," Blair said darkly.

"You mean …"

"That's one reason I won't pledge them," said Blair.

"But that's got to be illegal!" Natalie said, outraged. "A restricted sorority?"

"Nat, don't take it personally," Blair said soothingly.

"It couldn't be more personal!" Her plump cheeks were flushed, her hands balled into fists.

"They don't take anyone, Nat," Blair explained. "Unless you're a rich WASP, you mysteriously don't get asked to pledge."

"No wonder you kept turning those jerks down!"

"At first it was just because, well, because I wanted to be able to spend time with Jo. Then when I realized they were restricted, it became a moot point."

"Well Boots is quitting Gamma Gamma," Natalie said forcefully, "or she is not hanging with the musketeers. Restricted sorority! I mean, I ask you!"

Mona hugged her granddaughter. "Natalie, my dear, I know it's not a pleasant thing. But you have to be prepared. Most of the world is a restricted sorority."

"Not on my watch!"

"I'll, er, telephone Boots from my suite," said Alec. Highly charged political or religious discussions always made him nervous. He left the room with haste.

"I don't know," said Jo. "Boots is, I mean, she seems to have her heart in the right place these days, but she ain't exactly gonna win any Oscars. You think she can pull this off without makin Dina suspicious?"

"Are you asking if Boots can convincingly say insulting things about me? Because I assure you – she can," said Blair. "Our truce is very new. And she's still jealous that you're mine."

Rose put a hand to her head. She was getting that lightheaded feeling again. "Are you saying … is that Boots girl, uh, interested in my Jo?"

"Yes, and Boots is very sensitive about it," said Blair. "I am too, for that matter. I have to admit it bothers me that she's so attracted to Jo. So please don't bring it up when you see Boots."

"Oh, count on it," Rose said hastily. Girls falling for girls left and right … the world is turning topsy-turvy!

"Restricted!" Natalie muttered. "I ask you!" Tootie put a comforting hand on her best friend's arm.

"Let it go, Nat."

"Let it go?"

"I don't mean forever. I mean we'll fight that battle tomorrow. Today we have to concentrate on staying alive."

"You don't understand," said Natalie.

"Oh, I don't understand?" Tootie asked indignantly. "I don't understand restricted sororities, and schools, and clubs?"

"Oh yeah. Sorry, Tootie." Natalie hugged her best friend.

"Telling me I don't understand," Tootie muttered indignantly.

"Jeez Louise," said Jo. "How 'bout if for the time bein, we all accept that none of us are WASPs – Blair excepted – and that the world ain't exactly a big welcomin bed of roses for any of us. All right? Now I'm gonna call Petal and Portia and Jackrabbit. Or, scratch that, Blair's gonna call 'em, cause I don't know where to tell 'em to meet us tonight. Everybody else – clear off."

"What a crab," complained Tootie.

"Yeah? That's how it goes. I get real crabby when someone wants to kill me and my friends!"

"Be nice, Jo," said Rose. "They're just trying to help. You're lucky to have such devoted friends."

"Thank you, Mrs. Polniaczek," said Tootie. She looked significantly at Jo. "It's refreshing to be appreciated."

Jo scowled.

"Look, we'll 'clear off' as you so charmingly put it," said Natalie, "but what's our plan of action for today?"

"Holy cats, you and your plans," griped Jo. "How many plans do we need?"

"Dina could be lurking out there," said Tootie. "Anywhere."

"Yeah. Anywhere," agreed Natalie.

"What are we supposed to do all day," asked Tootie, "until the party tonight?"

"Do whatever you want," said Jo. "Just keep on your toes and stay in groups."

"We should set a time to check in with each other," suggested Blair. "We can use the Plaza front desk as a communications hub, leave messages for each other."

Natalie lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "I don't know, Blair. I'm trying to picture you and Jo calling in when you say you will. You don't exactly have the best track record in that department."

"For cryin out loud," said Jo. "I ain't apologizin for that again. It was one night –"

"Two nights!"

"Two nights, fine. And we said we were sorry for not callin. It's time to let it go! Everybody don't live sittin on top of the phone."

"It's called communication," said Natalie. "Simple communication."

"Well I want to go to the MoMA," Mona said decisively. "There's a new exhibit there I've been dying to see. Natalie, Tootie – you'll be my bodyguards."

"Sounds great," said Tootie.

"And safe," added Nat. "I don't picture Dina being stupid enough to try to hurt us at the MoMA. It's wall-to-wall cameras and security guards."

"And if she does attack us, there's plenty of stuff to hit her with," said Tootie. "All those sculptures – Dina will be down for the count!"

"And we'll see a show after that," Mona said excitedly. "My treat! I insist."

"No need to insist," said Natalie.

Mona rubbed her papery old hands together, eyes shining. "This is so wonderful," she said. "I mean, not the part about being in deadly peril. But to be able to spend the day with my little Natalie and her very best friend – it's a gift from God!"

"Drake and I are going to the studio," said Mrs. Garrett. "We have some retakes to shoot."

"We should be safe enough at the studio," said Drake. "You have to present a badge and a photo ID to be admitted. And then, after the retakes," he beamed at Mrs. Garrett, "how about a leisurely lunch at Tavern on the Green?"

"That sounds heavenly," Mrs. Garrett said, gazing lovingly into his eyes.

Natalie shook her head. "Spending time with this crowd is like being on an episode of 'The Love Boat,'" she said. "It's like being on 'The Love Boat' without a date and without a special guest star to fall in love with."

Tootie patted her friend's arm sympathetically. "Think positively, Nat. It's Valentine's Day weekend. You're young, smart, pretty and spending the day in New York City."

"That's the spirit," said Mona. "Natalie, you never know when Cupid's arrow is going to strike. Maybe you'll meet a nice young man at the MoMA. Or the show!"

"Or on the subway," Tootie said dreamily. "That would make a great play. I can see it now – 'Love at the 53rd Street Stop'!"

"Eh, don't be tryin to find your soul-mate on the subway," said Jo. "Don't even make eye contact with anyone on the subway. Next thing you know, instead of weddin bells you'll be hearin police sirens."

"You're so paranoid about the subway, darling," Blair said affectionately.

"I ain't paranoid, I'm realistic. You still don't appreciate how dangerous this city can be, babe. How do you think all the perps and thugs and crazies travel? You think they're zippin around the city in their limos? Payin for taxis? They're on the subway, babe."

"Everyone I've ever met on the subway seemed perfectly normal," said Blair. "Except that man last night – the one who wanted my hair for his collection."

"Blair, babe, you see what you wanna see. Memba that time we came into the city coupla years ago? In fact, that was the weekend you were meetin freakin nut-job Dina. You kept oglin that guy on the train, the guy with the blue eyes? He coulda been a serial killer. He coulda been a hit man."

"He coulda been a contendah," Tootie said in her best Marlon Brando.

Everybody laughed appreciatively, except for Jo.

"Well I hope you're all laughin when Blair gets shanked on the D Train!"

"Jo … Darling …" Blair slipped an arm through Jo's. "We're just teasing you."

"That guy coulda been a serial killer," Jo insisted. "If I hadn't been there, you probably woulda gone for coffee with him, and then you woulda been found floatin in the East River."

Blair made a tisking sound. "I'm a Warner, dear. I wouldn't have been found in the piddly little East River. It would have been the Hudson."

"Well I'm glad your safety is such a yuk-fest!"

"You have to admit," Blair said gently, "you are a little over-sensitive when it comes to my safety. But I love you for it." She kissed Jo's cheek.

Mona and Mrs. Garrett beamed at the young couple. Rose shaded her eyes with her hand.

I just can't get used to this. It's … so normal and … so bizarre …

"Get a room," groused Nat.

Thank you Natalie, thought Rose. At least I'm not the only one not over the moon about this relationship.

Jo suddenly narrowed her eyes. "Blair?"

"Yes, darling?"

"You don't like guys."

"Yes, darling. As Natalie would say, 'Thanks for that breaking news.'"

"I don't say that," objected Natalie. She looked at Tootie and Mona. "When do I say that?"

"So since you don't like guys," Jo said to Blair, "you weren't really diggin that blue-eyed creep on the train."

"No, Jo. I wasn't."

"But you kept lookin at him. And smilin at him."

"Yes, Jo."

"You were tryin to make me jealous!"

"Yes, Jo."

"Well of all the sneaky, underhanded –"

"It worked, didn't it?"

"What are you talkin about? I didn't make a move on ya for, I mean, until you finally did."

"But you were jealous," Blair said a little smugly. "Of the blue-eyed 'creep'."

"I was not. I was worried about your safety!"

"You were jealous, Jo. You just didn't know you were jealous."

"That makes absolutely no sense."

"The man was perfectly normal, Jo. You just didn't like the fact that I seemed interested in him."

"Blair, I swear to you, none of that was goin through my head."

"Not consciously, no. It was 'goin through' your subconscious. That's partly why you let that little, ah, why you let Jesse be so rude to me. And why you were so sweet and chivalrous when we took the train back to Peekskill. Remember how you carried my bag?"

"Eh, I just didn't wanna miss the train. You had five million suitcases, and all those Bloomies and Saks bags – and you showed up late. No way we coulda made the train unless I helped ya a little."

"And on that note," said Natalie, "we are off to the MoMA."

"I thought you liked their Bickersons smack-downs," Tootie said, surprised.

"I do," agreed Nat. "I love their Bickersons smack-downs. It takes me back to a simpler time, Tootie – our carefree Eastland days, before people were trying to kill us, before these two crazy kids fell in love. But it doesn't work for me when they fight about being in love. Puts a damper on the whole thing."

"Got it."

"I'll bet you weren't even late gettin to the coffee shop," Jo was accusing Blair.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Blair said with dignity.

"Ah-hah! You weren't! You weren't late! You made me sit there and get all freakin worried –"

"Ah-hah! So you were worried! I knew it!" Blair beamed.

"Eh, I was not."

"You just said you were worried."

"Never mind what I said. You got me all turned around. I can't believe you were such a, such a –"

"Young woman in love?" Blair asked, batting her eyelashes fetchingly at Jo.

"Yeah – we're out of here," Natalie said decisively. She linked one arm with Tootie and one arm with Mona. "We're all meeting at eight," she said loudly, "you-know-where. And we're all calling in to the front desk every couple of hours to see if there are any urgent messages. Agreed?"

"Agreed," said Mrs. Garrett. "And I think we'll be leaving now too." She took Drake's hand.

"Everyone have a fun day," Mona called over her shoulder as Natalie hustled her and Tootie out of the suite. "Do something romantic. Remember – you're only young once. Trust me – I know!"

"Rose," Mrs. Garrett said to Jo's mother, "would you like to accompany Drake and I to the studio? See how a real-life phony studio kitchen works?"

Rose smiled gratefully at the feisty redhead. Rose was feeling distinctly uncomfortable witnessing Jo and Blair's playful battle, and she had a feeling Mrs. Garrett could sense the discomfort.

"You're very kind to ask me," Rose said, "and I'm tempted to accept. But it's Valentine's weekend; you and Mr. Dante need to be alone for awhile."

"It's Drake," Drake told her firmly, "not Mr. Dante. And you don't have to worry about being a third wheel. Edna and I are mature adults. We're not starry-eyed teens."

"Speak for yourself," Mrs. Garrett said, giving him a hopelessly romantic smile. He smiled back at her. They seemed to fade into their own private world. Holding hands, they drifted out of the suite …

Rose took a last sip of coffee. "Well," she said, "I guess I'll be leaving too. You two need your privacy, and –"

"You're staying with us," Blair told Rose. "I'm afraid we are starry-eyed teens, and I know you're not completely comfortable with that, but you need to be close at hand where Jo and I can protect you."

"Protect me?"

"You're Jo's mother," Blair said quietly. "She adores you. Dina wants to get at Jo, and unfortunately hurting you would be an excellent way to do that."

"Dina doesn't even know who I am," objected Rose.

"Maybe she doesn't, Rose, but maybe she does. She might have hired someone to find out things about us – our friends, our family, places we tend to frequent. She might have someone watching the Plaza right now. We just don't know."

Rose shivered.

"For cryin out loud, you're scarin her," Jo said angrily. "Ma, everythin's gonna be fine. We'll get this fruit loop locked up tonight, where she belongs, and then you can go back to your normal life. Easy-peasy. No harms, no fouls."

"Don't yell at Blair," said Rose. "And don't patronize me. I'm not a child, Jo. Whether it's scary or not I need to know what's happening."

"All that's happenin is we're gonna take care of Dina. And that's gonna be that." Jo looked hard at Blair.

"I'm going to take my shower," said Blair. She pressed Rose's hand briefly. "Jo's right. It really will be fine, in the end. But we need to stick together today."

Wonderful, thought Rose, with something close to panic. Spend the day with my daughter and her girlfriend. Her girlfriend!

"Are you, uh, planning on going back to that bar today?" Rose asked anxiously.

Blair laughed. It was a musical, affectionate laugh. "Rose, you're a treasure," she said.

"I don't think it's such a funny question," Rose bristled.

Whoops – I forget how sensitive she is, how insecure, thought Blair.

"Rose, I'm not laughing at you," she said reassuringly. "I'm laughing at the thought of Jo and I gallivanting off to gay bars. That was actually our first-ever visit to a gay bar."

"Really?"

"Well – my first visit, anyway."

"Jeez, thanks," said Jo. "You make it sound like I been there fifty billion times. I just went there a coupla times, once when Peggy took me and Alec, once to kinda scope out if it'd be a nice place for a date."

"Hmm, I know what you were 'scopin out,'" Blair teased.

"Blair!"

"Kidding, darling. Kidding." I should just quit while I'm ahead, thought Blair. The entire Polniaczek clan seems to be in a sensitive mood this morning!

Blair dropped a kiss on Jo's forehead. "I'll call Petal and Portia and Jack, and then I'll clean up. I won't be long. Don't pine away."

"Don't worry, Toots, I ain't plannin on it," Jo assured her.

"And when I'm finished, you can get ready."

"Ready for what?" Jo asked curiously.

"For church."

"For church?" Jo and Rose asked together.

"For church," Blair said unflappably. "It's Sunday. Rose, you go to church on Sundays, don't you?"

"Uh, yes," said Rose. "I go to Mass most days, but always on Sunday."

"That's what I thought," said Blair. "So we're going to church."

"Blair –" Jo began.

"Yes. Darling?" Blair asked with dangerous sweetness.

"Uh … Nothin. Church sounds great."

"I knew you'd think so, darling. And now if you'll both excuse me …"

Rose watched the young heiress as she almost regally ascended the narrow staircase.

That, thought Rose, with grudging admiration, is a woman who's more than a match for my Jo …


Blair disliked showering alone. Now that she knew what the alternative was, now that she knew what it was like to bathe and shower with the lithe, beautiful, tireless Jo Polniaczek, showering alone fell flat.

Of course, Blair reflected, smoothing a healthy dollop of Vidal Sassoon shampoo through her thick hair, I can't exactly complain. She and Jo had made love more times during the last forty-eight hours than they had during the last two weeks.

Blair worked the lather through her hair, smiling a rather naughty little smile as she reminisced about one particular encounter in that very shower … Jo never saw that coming! she thought with satisfaction.

And if they were still alive tonight, once they were alone in bed, Blair had another little surprise in store for her gallant barbarian …


Jo had never felt so uncomfortable with her mother, not even during Thanksgiving break, when Rose thought some boy had de-flowered her daughter.

After the musketeers had left, and the assorted friends and relatives, an almost eerie quiet had fallen like a pall over the lounge.

Jo couldn't think of a single damn thing to say. What could she say? Small talk seemed inane, considering the dangerous situation they were all in.

And what was really on Jo's mind – Blair's beautiful, lush, nude body, gleaming with soap bubbles – was one-thousand percent off-limits as a conversational ice breaker!

Jo fiddled with a loose thread on the hem of her bathrobe.

Rose sat on the very edge of the divan, like she was ready to leap up at a moment's notice, nervously sipping her coffee.

"Go figure," Jo said, twisting the loose thread between her fingers. "Whaddya figure these robes must cost? A lot, right? And look at this shoddy freakin craftsmanship."

"Jo."

"Yeah, Ma?" Jo kept twisting the thread. It was something to focus on, something to occupy her attention so she didn't have to look directly at her mother.

"If I weren't here right now, Jo, what would you be doing?"

Jo blushed from her throat all the way to her forehead and the tips of her ears.

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

"Ma … You make it sound …"

"Jo, it's not right. I don't want to fight about it, and I'm trying – I'm really trying here. But it's not right and I think part of you knows that."

Jo finally worked the loose thread free. She set it carefully on the coffee table. She pulled at another loose thread, started twisting it. Her blush receded. And somehow, she knew, she would never blush like that in front of her mother again.

"Jo?"

"Ma … I'm not gonna get into this today."

"I like Blair, Jo. She's a nice person. She's a wonderful person. I admit it. Heck," Rose threw her hands up in surrender, "I could love the girl. As your best friend, Jo. As the sister we never gave you. But … this other … thing ..."

Jo found yet another loose thread. Christ … What's the friggin state of the world comin to when a Plaza robe's unravelin in your freakin hands …

"Can't you just be like sisters, Jo?"

"No, Ma."

"But why not?"

"Because we love each other. We love each other the way men and women love each other. Society don't like it, everyone's freakin hand is against us, but we love each other. And that's how it is."

"That's how it is?"

"That's how it is."

"Just like that."

"Yup."

"Joanne Marie, this ain't, this isn't easy, but here I am ready to talk with you, ready to listen. Here I am Jo. Talk with me."

"Well that's nice," Jo said, "you wantin to talk now. Me and Blair have been wantin to talk for months, but we couldn't get anyone to talk with us." Jo pulled one of the threads out of her robe, kept twisting the other one. "You wouldn't talk to us. Pop wouldn't return my calls. He met Blair in a coffee shop for two damn minutes one morning, and walked out on her, which is about as rude as it gets."

"Jo –"

"Blair's Ma calls us sometimes when she's tanked up. That ain't much of a conversation. Lotsa cryin and yellin, most of it friggin incomprehensible. Blair's Pop calls us sometimes to make threats. That's always a barrel of laughs."

"Jo –"

"With all due respect, Ma – cause I do respect ya, and I love the hell outta ya – Blair and me have had to get by without our parents for a few months now. It hurt a lot. But guess what? We're OK. So if you want to be my Ma again – our Ma – be our guest. But I'm not gettin drawn into any debates or arguments or justifications or what-not. Blair and I are together. Period."

Rose didn't say anything for a moment. She didn't know what to say.

She's so different now. She's still my Jo, but … she's grown up somehow.

It wasn't just the confidence … or the calm … Rose had seen those traits at Thanksgiving.

It was more than that. Rose sensed that Jo had crossed over some invisible line, one of those borders that, once crossed, is forever left behind …

She doesn't need me anymore, Rose realized. She loves me; she wants me in her life; but she doesn't need me. And now she knows it.

Rose sternly suppressed the tears that sprang to her eyes. Jo will think I'm trying to make her feel guilty. And that won't do any good. On the contrary …

"Jo," Rose said gently, when she trusted herself to speak, "Blair was, she was teasing you a few minutes ago, about trying to make you jealous about some boy."

Jo was silent.

"Don't you think it's possible that Blair cares so much for you, in this, in this unusual way, and you're such a good friend to her, you've been through so much with her, that you've let yourself maybe become a little confused about what you feel? I'm not saying that's what happened," Rose said hastily, "but I'm asking you to just consider that possibility. I mean, I remember Eddie. I remember how crazy you were over Eddie. This whole thing, with girls … It isn't you, Joanne Marie."

Jo was silent. She calmly poured herself another cup of cocoa.

"So," Rose's voice broke a little, "it's the silent treatment, huh?"

"No, Ma." Jo shook her head. She took a sip of cocoa. "We can talk about lots of things."

"But not Blair?"

"We can talk about Blair."

"But not your relationship with her?"

"Correct."

Rose's hands curled into fists. She pressed them against her thighs, feeling helpless and strangely old.

"Honey, I'm … I don't want to fight, and if this is how it is, I guess I'm gonna have to learn how to accept it. I just can't help feeling you're confused, that on some level this isn't really what you want."

Jo drew a deep breath. "Ma, I'm going to say this one time, and then it's a dead issue. I am not confused about Blair. When I'm with her, my heart is … full. It's like I'm a whole person. And I ache for her. I ache to be with her, to talk with her, just to see her. I ache to put my hands on her –"

"Joanne Marie –"

"No. You keep raisin the issue, so I'm settin you straight. I ache to put my hands on her. So I do put my hands on her, everywhere, and they fit. It's like God took a jigsaw and he carved us out so we fit together, body, mind and soul. She's mine. I'm hers. Forever."

Rose sank back against the divan. She covered her face with one hand. "Well. You don't sound confused."

"I'm not."

"You're marching straight to hell with your eyes wide open."

"If you say so." There was no rancor in the statement; it was simply a refusal to engage, to argue any more about the subject.

Jo's nose twitched … She scented Blair's Chanel No. 5 just before she heard the rustle of Blair's dress as the blonde descended the stairs.

Jo looked up … smiled that megawatt smile as her fiancée tripped lightly down the steps.

Blair wore the white sheath dress she'd bought in the Plaza shop yesterday, but she'd made it presentable for church by adding her pearls, muted makeup, and a lavender silk scarf draped over her shoulders like a fetching little shawl. Her hair was swept into an elegant updo.

When Blair reached the bottom landing, she made a little twirl, laughing.

"What do you think? Am I ready for church?"

"The question," Jo said admiringly, "is whether church is ready for you."

"Now stop that," said Blair, but her eyes shone; she was clearly more than pleased with Jo's reaction.

Blair turned to Rose. "What do you think? Presentable enough?"

"You look beautiful," Rose said dully.

Blair glanced at Jo. What's wrong? her eyes asked.

Tell you later, Jo telegraphed.

Like me and Charlie, thought Rose, like me and Charlie used to be – talking without words …

Jo stood up, embraced Blair briefly. "You get through to the gang?"

Blair nodded. "Petal and Portia are already in Manhattan for a wedding. Jacqueline's at Langley but she'll drive down tonight. None of them has heard anything negative about the family finances, so if BZ Becker is planning to ruin them, he hasn't struck yet."

"Thank heaven for small freakin mercies!" said Jo.

It was good news. And Blair looked so damn beautiful … Jo wanted to kiss her.

And why shouldn't I? Jo thought. I'm tired of sparin Ma's feelins. She freezes us out for freakin months … Ma's gotta get used to it if she's gonna try to make peace.

Jo took Blair's hands and tenderly kissed the blonde's cheek.

There. That's pretty freakin chaste and respectable, thought Jo. Nothin for Ma to have a coronary about, specially since she got an eyeful already spyin on us at the bar last night!

"I'm gonna get cleaned up," Jo told Blair. "Back in a few, babe."

"Take your time, darling."

While Jo sprang up the stairs, Blair settled next to Rose again. Rose shot her a look. Blair couldn't quite decode it. It wasn't hostile, but it wasn't warm, either.

No … This isn't awkward at all, Blair thought wryly.

Now that Blair was fully awake she was more self-conscious in Rose's presence; it had been easier to be around her earlier, when Blair was still half-asleep, and when the whole loud gang was gathered together. Sitting next to Rose in the silence Blair could hear her own heart beating, pounding in nervous little thuds.

The blonde lifted the coffee pot, felt that it was empty. She reached for the white-and-gilt phone.

"Good morning," Blair said into the receiver, "this is Miss Warner. I would like another pot of coffee, another pot of hot chocolate and a plate of blueberry muffins. Yes. Very good." She covered the receiver with one hand, looked at Rose. "Would you like anything?" she asked. "To eat? Or to drink?"

Rose shook her head in the negative.

"That will be fine," Blair said into the phone. "Yes. Very well."

Rose looked around the luxurious room. It was a quiet opulence, solid, understated.

Could I ask for anything more for Jo? Rose wondered. Someone to love, someone to love her. Security. The resources to be whoever, and whatever, she wants to be.

But with a woman … Why a woman?

Rose shook her head, impatient with herself.

Why can't I get past this?

"Are you all right?" Blair asked solicitously.

"Yes. No."

Blair smiled wryly. "I know the feeling."

"Jo told me," Rose said slowly, "about your parents. I guess they aren't taking this any better than Charlie and me."

"Ha! Rose, compared to my parents you and Charlie are dancing in the streets. Mother's on one bender after another, Daddy broke Jo's nose –"

"He what?"

"So she didn't share that little detail?" Blair shook her head. "That's Jo – loyal even to the people that hurt her most."

"When did this happen?"

"Before Christmas."

"Why didn't somebody …" Rose trailed off. Why didn't somebody call me? But they tried. And I froze them out … My God! Jo could've been seriously hurt, an accident on her bike. She could've died! Anything could've happened, and I wouldn't have known …

"Jo's fine now," Blair said reassuringly. "Mrs. Garrett and I finally put our feet down and made Jo ice her nose and take care of it. And Daddy won't hit her again. If he does, she's going to hit him back! But he seems to be content with insulting phone calls for now."

Rose covered Blair's hand with her own. She didn't want to like this girl. But somehow, as much as Rose didn't want to, she found her heart going out Blair.

"I'm sorry," said Rose, "that you … I'm sorry that you girls seem to have these feelings that make the rest of us feel so … uncomfortable." My God! That sounded ridiculous! What kind of comfort is that? But it was the best she could manage.

Blair grimaced. "At least you're trying," she said. "And at least you're worried about Jo. With my mother … well, it's always been the Monica Warner show."

Rose felt tears pricking her eyes again. Her mother's heart ached. There was so much love in Blair … She was so lovable … and yet there was something sad about her … something wistful … that told you that she had not been, for most of her young life, very well loved … Admired … Petted … Envied … Spoiled … But not loved.

Something caught Rose's attention, a fragment of color. It was a the cover of an album leaning against the base of the hi-fi cabinet.

For a second Rose couldn't breathe. She recognized that album cover. One of Charlie's favorite albums by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. They'd danced to it plenty of times.

Blair followed Rose's gaze. She smiled.

"Jo's going to return it," Blair said reassuringly. "Whenever she and Charlie make peace."

"Jo used to watch us dance to it. In the living room. She was so small," said Rose.

Blair leaned back into the divan. "What was Jo like when she was young?"

Rose laughed. "Skinny. Pretty. Tough as nails, you know, always, but so vulnerable underneath. Always into something, going a hundred miles an hour, leaping before she ever thought to look! Plenty of trips to the Emergency Room. Stitches, casts."

"So … nothing's really changed," said Blair.

Rose laughed again. "I have some old Kodak snaps," she said. "I'll … sometime I'll show you."

Blair's heart skipped a beat. Rose was offering to show her Jo's childhood snapshots. My God!

"Thank you, Rose," said Blair. "I would like that very much."

Rose looked at the jazz album jacket again. She could hear that song in her head, "My Funny Valentine," the wistful, yearning notes. She could feel Charlie's strong hands on her hips ...

And then the image shifted in her mind, and she saw Jo and Blair dancing together, Jo's hands on Blair's waist, Blair's head on Jo's shoulder, eyes closed as the moved slowly to the music.

"I hate that you love my daughter," Rose blurted.

Blair nodded. "I know."

"It's not Christian of me," said Rose. "I'm supposed to be charitable and turn the other cheek, hate the sin and not the sinner, but part of me wants to, wants to …"

"Rose, you're in good company," said Blair. "I think only Mona and Mrs. Garrett are actually happy that Jo and I are together. And Tootie. And, I suppose, Alec, because he saw the hell his aunt went through. Everyone else is just being very nice about it. They're being loyal friends to Jo and me, but they don't really understand it."

And who can blame them? thought Rose. She didn't know what to say. Blair was being so candid, so mature, and Rose liked the girl tremendously, but, there it was – she hated that the blonde was with Jo.

Rose was saved from having to say anything by a light tapping at the suite door.

"Is that the coffee?" Rose asked, surprised and glad for an excuse to turn the subject. "I can't get over how fast the service is."

Blair shrugged. "It's the Plaza," she said simply. "Excuse me a moment."

Rose put a hand on her arm.

"Blair – Jo said she doesn't want us opening the door."

Blair smiled. "Contrary to what Jo seems to think sometimes, she is not the boss of me."

"But … be careful," Rose said …

Rose waited tensely for Blair to return. She heard Blair make what sounded like a happy exclamation. The chain was drawn, the deadbolt unlocked. There was a whispered, excited conversation.

Who can it be? wondered Rose. Not room service; there was no clatter of dishes and trays. From the muted excitement of Blair's voice, it sounded like Blair knew the visitor.

More quiet conversation. A man's voice, low and serious in tone.

Alec must be back, thought Rose. Or … could it be Blair's father?

Footsteps on the foyer's marble floor, a whisper of fabric, and Blair returned to the lounge with the visitor.

"Hi, Rose," Charlie said, with his crooked, charming grin.

He stood in the doorway, big as life, her handsome ex. Rose's breath caught in her throat as it always did when she saw Charlie unexpectedly, even now, years after their divorce. He had dark circles under his eyes – those seemed to be the accessories of the morning – but he looked as handsome as always in his rough-hewn way.

His short-cropped hair was unruly, as if he'd just dragged a brush through it, and his dark blue Sears suit was rumpled, the tie askew, as if he'd dressed in haste. But he still looked like a million dollars. It was his smile, and his eyes, and the casually confident way he carried himself.

Blair was smiling angelically at Charlie, her arm linked through his, clearly pleased that he had come. She had always liked the man, had connected instantly with him the first time he visited Jo at Eastland. So many of the qualities she loved in Jo had originated in this man. Blair was disappointed when Charlie brushed her off when she tried to mend fences before Christmas, but –

The important thing, Blair thought warmly, is that he's here now! Jo will be so pleased …

"Mornin, Rose," Charlie said.

"Charlie. What are you doing here?"

"Nice to see you too," said Charlie.

"It's me, Charlie. Don't just stand there with that Cheshire Cat smile. Why are you here?"

Charlie shook his head. Same old Rose.

"Look, I hear Jo might be in danger, I hear you're with her – where else am I gonna be?"

"Well, the last I heard," Rose said tartly, "you weren't going to be here."

Charlie scowled. "A guy can change his mind, can't he? Sometimes a guy's first reaction, it's not the right reaction. OK? I can admit when I'm wrong. You wanna bust my chops some more?"

"No one is going to bust your chops," Blair said cheerfully. "You're very welcome here."

"I was his wife," said Rose, turning on Blair, "and I'll bust his chops all I want."

Blair sighed. "I think I'll see how Jo's coming along," she said. With a soft whisper of fabric she went up the narrow staircase.

With masculine appreciation, Charlie watched the blonde ascend the stairs. Charlie didn't leer – he had too much natural class to leer – but he was as smitten with Blair as he had been with Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak. There was an iconic bombshell quality about Blair – sweet, classy, vulnerable – that fascinated him.

Rose cleared her throat.

"If you're done ogling," she said, "do you need me to bring you up to speed, or do you already know what's going on?"

Charlie sighed. "Gimme a break," he said. "I'm not oglin."

"Oh, of course not. But you might want to put your eyes back in your head when Jo's around. She might not appreciate you not ogling her girlfriend."

Charlie sighed again. God in heaven give me strength.

"Look, I know you're in this fancy place, safe as houses, and probably nothin's wrong 'cept in Jo and Blair's imagination, but I got to thinkin, what if somethin is wrong? I'd never forgive myself if anythin happened to Jo or Blair – or even to you, for that matter."

"Gee, thanks! Don't go to any trouble or anything."

Charlie settled himself easily on a chair. He snagged a cold piece of toast, chewed it thoughtfully.

"Never gonna forgive me, are ya, Rose?"

She was surprised and showed it.

"Forgive you for what?"

"For not bein good enough."

"Charlie!"

"No." He held up one hand to forestall her objections. He took another big bite of toast. "I ain't good enough for you. I get that. I got that when I married ya. I just hoped somehow it'd work itself out. So, OK, it didn't. Time to move on, Rosie. I ain't gonna change. You ain't gonna change. Time to move ahead, for both of us."

Rose didn't know what the hell to say to that. She fiddled with the empty coffee pot, the half-empty cups, straightening them, rearranging them, smoothing a crumpled linen napkin.

"Charlie," she said, "it's not that you're not good enough. We just don't … we've never worked together. Apart, we're great. Together …"

"Not so much," he finished for her.

"Yeah."

"Rosie, that might be one of the nicest things you ever said."

"Ha, ha."

"No. I mean it." He flashed her one of his charming Charlie Polniaczek grins, helped himself to another cold slice of toast. "So, since you're in such a reasonable mood –"

"Don't push it, Charlie."

"But, since you do seem to be in such a reasonable, an unusually reasonable mood this mornin, Rosie, I've got somethin I've been wantin to tell you. I don't know how you're gonna take it, but it's time you knew. See, there's – Hey."

He leaned forward, noticing the Gerry Mulligan Quartet album jacket leaning against the base of the hi-fi.

"Hey, that's my album!" he said. "I've been lookin for that forever."

"Jo borrowed it."

"For cryin out loud. My favorite album!"

"Hers too, I guess."

"But why does she have it here? Oh." His cheeks flushed a dull red. A suite at the Plaza with Blair. Right before Valentine's Day. Chet Baker's sultry, wistful trumpet. OK, I get it. Kinda wish I didn't, but I get it.

"So what's your news?" Rose asked, not wanting to dwell on the thought of Jo and Blair dancing to "My Funny Valentine" any more than Charlie did.

"What?"

"I asked, 'What is your news'?" Rose said, enunciating each word slowly.

"Oh. Yeah. See, Rose, we've been apart for quite a few years now. And, you know, neither one of us is gettin any younger."

Rose bristled.

"Although, of course," Charlie said hastily, "you look beautiful. More beautiful than ever."

"Never mind the phony compliments, Charlie – what's your news?"

He leaned back comfortably in the chair, lacing his fingers over his stomach. "Well, Rosie, it all started at this little coffee shop …"


"Blair – what the hell are you doin?" Jo demanded, startled and delighted when a completely naked Blair slipped into the shower with her.

"I was concerned," Blair said seriously. "I started worrying that you might, you know, miss a spot when you washed."

"I see."

Blair took the bar of fragrant soap from Jo, lightly running it over Jo's shoulders. Blair furrowed her lovely dark brows critically.

"Hmm. You seem to be doing a good job, but I'm concerned about this area." She lightly drew the soap across Jo's taut stomach. "And this area." She drew the soap down along one of Jo's thighs.

Jo felt an instant warm jolt between her legs. Without thinking about it, she placed her hands on Blair's generous derriere, pulling the blonde close.

"Where else?" Jo asked huskily.

"Well, there's this area." Blair gently nudged Jo's legs apart, dragged the soap along Jo's inner thigh. "And, of course, this area."

Jo gasped in pleasure. She closed her eyes. But something nagged at the back of her mind. There were proprieties to be observed.

"Babe … Before we … I mean … we got … company downstairs."

"Don't worry about our company."

"But –"

"Shh. Darling, our company is fully occupied."

And a moment later, so was Jo – much too occupied to think.


It never failed to amaze Jo how quickly Blair could make herself beautiful.

Within a few moments of climbing out of the shower, Blair was back in her white dress and pearls and conservative makeup, her damp hair swept into an attractive updo.

Blair zipped up the back of Jo's blue sheath dress, hands lingering.

"Uh, careful there," said Jo, reluctantly stepping away from her fiancée. "Or we're gonna end up on the bed instead of downstairs."

"That would be terrible," Blair deadpanned.

Jo laughed. "You really do got a lot of sand, babe. More than me, maybe. But we really oughta get back downstairs. I can't even freakin imagine what my Ma's thinkin."

"She's not 'thinkin' at all, darling. She's talking to Charlie."

"Pop? Pop's here?" Jo asked excitedly, her face lighting up.

Blair smiled. She smoothed back a tendril of Jo's dark hair.

"I don't think Charlie understands how dangerous Dina is. Your father seems to think we have overactive imaginations. But he's here."

"Jesus, that's just … Thank you, babe." Jo embraced Blair fiercely.

"What did I do?" Blair asked, surprised.

"You've been tryin to get him to make peace with us. I know you've been tryin."

"I can't take any credit for this," said Blair. "Your father is here because he wants to be. He's like you, Jo; no one can make him do a thing."

"Yeah, but we can be, you know, influenced. By beautiful, civilized influences like you."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah. It is." Jo kissed Blair gently, careful not to smear her lover's lipstick or her own.


It was difficult to say in retrospect who was more pleasantly surprised when Blair and Jo tripped lightly down the stairs, Charlie and Rose to see their daughter looking so beautiful, so poised, in her blue dress, or Jo and Blair to find the older couple dancing to "My Funny Valentine."

"Hey, what's this?" laughed Jo, smiling radiantly. "You two gonna tie the knot again?"

"Not exactly," grinned Charlie. Rose stepped out of his arms so he could go to Jo and hug his daughter.

Jo hugged him tightly. She hadn't seen Charlie in months, and had spoken to him only briefly, curt phone conversations during which his disapproval of her relationship with Blair was abundantly clear.

His blue suit jacket smelled of cigarette smoke – Camels – and Old Spice cologne. He smelled like Charlie, like he always smelled. Jo gave him a final fierce embrace and then stepped back.

"Look at you," Charlie said, tears of pride standing in his eyes. "You're a knockout, kid."

Jo ducked her head a little bashfully.

"Eh, you ain't chopped liver yourself, Pop," she said. "Movin up in the world, huh?"

"Funny you should say that," said Charlie. He grinned, a proud but endearingly self-conscious smile. "Pitch and Lowe is givin me a promotion."

"No kiddin! Pop – that's great!"

"I'm still a runner, but they made me a senior runner. I get to train the new guys, and, you know, it's a supervisory kinda thing."

"They must have a lotta confidence in you."

"Seems like."

"Congratulations," said Blair.

"Thanks, duchess." Charlie put an arm around Jo and an arm around Blair. "So. Tell me about this girl that's givin you two a hard time."

"Hey, first you tell us about this," said Jo, nudging her chin toward the hi-fi. "You and Ma gettin back together?"

Rose laughed. "Jo! What a thought."

Jo's face fell a little.

Charlie chuckled. "I'm sorry, kid. This ain't a 'hello' dance. It's more of a 'goodbye' dance. Like, sayin 'see ya later' to the end of an era."

"What era?"

"The era of me and your Ma. We had the good times, and we had the bad times – boy, did we have the bad times – and now it's on to the new times. But separate."

"That's how we seem to work best," agreed Rose.

"See, I, ah, met someone," Charlie said. He looked at Blair. "Memba that little coffee shop where we met before Christmas? Well I went back there a coupla days later and I met this really great lady."

Jo's eyes narrowed. "What great lady?" she asked skeptically.

"Jo, it's all right," Rose said. "I'm very happy for your father."

"What great lady?" Jo insisted.

Charlie sighed. "You're gonna bust my chops, aren't ya?"

"Depends. What great lady?"

"Her name is Carol, she's the mornin manager at the coffee shop, and she's got two great kids. Well, one great kid, the girl, and one juvenile delinquent. But I think I can help her get him back on track."

"Well, sure," Jo said sarcastically. "Who better than an ex-con to get a delinquent on track?"

"Joanne Marie," Rose said warningly.

"It's OK," Charlie told Rose. "I knew Jo wasn't gonna like this. And she especially won't like that Carol and I are gettin married."

"You're what?" Jo asked, floored.

"You heard me, kid. I asked Carol to marry me, and she said 'yes'."

Jo was outraged. "Some strange lady you just practically met?"

"Carol isn't strange."

"Eh, you know what I mean. She's practically a stranger. And she's got kids – that don't ring any alarm bells, Pop?"

"She's not like that."

"Not like what? Single mom, managin a coffee shop, she ain't gonna be on the prowl for a husband?"

Charlie bit his lower lip. He looked like he was counting to ten.

"Jo," he said quietly, "I want you to meet her."

"Oh, that'll be great," Jo snarked. "Do I get to meet her before or after this whirlwind weddin?"

"Before – I hope. You're gonna like her, Jo. She's a good sort. I know it's sudden, but when you know, you know."

"Gimme a break!"

Blair put a gentle hand on Jo's arm.

"Jo," she said quietly, "your father has a point. When you know, you know."

Blair turned her hand so that the morning light caught the slim silver band on her third finger, the ring that Jo had given her when she proposed more than four months before.

Jo sighed.

"You really are gonna like her," said Charlie. "And you're gonna like her kids, too. Just think, Jo – you're finally gonna have a brother and sister."

"And they sound just great," muttered Jo. "Especially the little crook."

"Hey, not so long ago you were runnin with the Young Diablos," said Charlie. "A delinquent's just a kid needs someone to set 'em straight, like your Ma sendin you to Eastland."

"Jo," Blair said quietly, "if your father's willing to give us a chance, how can you not extend him the same courtesy?"

Jo looked to her mother. "You're really OK with this? Pop tyin the knot with some coffee shop dame?"

"Her name is Carol," Charlie said a little tightly.

Rose smiled. "Jo, I know you've always wanted Charlie and I to get back together, but that's never going to happen. We just don't work together. So if this lady's gonna make Charlie happy, then that makes me happy. My only regret," she shook her head, "is that I'm still looking. It's not like men are lining up around the block for tired forty-something waitresses."

"Hey," Charlie said severely, "you are a catch, Rose. You are a ravin damn beauty. Just because I wasn't the right guy – there's a right guy out there."

"Don't patronize me, Charlie."

"Rose –"

"Don't argue with me, Charlie. You always have to argue. I hope this Carol knows what she's getting into! And you, Jo – after the bombshell you dropped on me and Charlie, after what you're trying to get us to accept, don't you dare cold-shoulder your father about his fiancée. Give her a chance."

Jo scowled.

"Do you hear me, Joanne Marie?" Rose insisted.

"Yeah, Ma, I hear you," Jo said petulantly.

"And don't make faces."

"I ain't makin a face."

"You are a little bit, darling," said Blair.

"And exactly whose side are you on?" Jo demanded, turning on her lover.

"I'm on Cupid's side," said Blair, impervious to Jo's fit of temper.

"Joanne Marie, I want my album back," said Charlie. "I wanna play 'Funny Valentine' for Carol."

"So take it," said Jo. "It's yours."

Blair rolled her eyes. It never failed to amaze her how quickly Jo could revert to a toddler-like peevishness under the right – or wrong – circumstances. Of course, I can be a tad bit brat-like myself, Blair mused, but only when justified.

"Well, I will take it," said Charlie, sounding rather toddler-like himself. "I'll take it right now."

And he suited his actions to his words, removing the album from the turntable and slipping it into the record jacket.

"If the tantrum is over," Blair began.

"Tantrum?" Jo and Charlie demanded together.

"Yes. The tantrum. If it's over, perhaps we could go to church now?"

Charlie looked at Blair like she'd grown an extra head.

"We're going to church?"

"It's Sunday morning," Blair said primly. "Of course we're going to church."

"It has to be a Catholic church," said Rose. "Not a, not, ah, what is your faith, Blair?" she asked curiously.

"The Warners are Anglicans," said Blair, "and Lutherans. But, yes, since I'm accompanying three Catholics, I did have a Roman Catholic church in mind."

Rose bit anxiously at one fingernail.

"Father Kowalski is going to be worried," she said. "He's going to wonder why I'm not at Mass this morning."

"He'll probably be glad," Charlie said. "What I hear, you been practically livin at St. Adalbert's, Rosie. It ain't healthy."

"There's nothing wrong with being faithful," said Rose. "You might try it sometime, Charlie."

"There's nothin wrong with bein faithful," he agreed, "but you can't hide out from the world in a church. Now get your finger outta your face, Rose and stop bitin that nail. Father Kowalski ain't gonna call out the SWAT teams if you miss one damn –"

"Charlie!"

"One darn Mass at St. Adalbert's."

"If you're concerned," Blair said to Rose, "why don't you call the father?" She gestured to the white-and-gilt phone on the table.

"That's sweet, Blair," said Charlie, "but he could probably use a break from Saint Rose."

Rose put her petit hands on her bony hips. Her eyes flashed as she glared at her ex-husband. "Well isn't that a fine how-do-you-do? After I stand up for you getting hitched again –"

"All right, all right," Charlie nodded. "You're right. And when you're right, you're right. I'm bein a jerk. Call Father Kowalski. I'm sure he's sittin by the phone, nothin else to do. Not like he's preparin his sermons, listenin to confessions, ministerin to the poor –"

"You're impossible!" said Rose.

Jo darted a glance at Blair. Wow. The Polniaczek Gripe Show. If this doesn't scare off Blair, nothin will.

But Blair seemed completely unperturbed.

The blonde glanced at her wristwatch. "We really should leave now," she said pleasantly, "if we're going to be on time for the next Mass."

Jo regarded her lover thoughtfully.

"How do you happen to know Mass schedules?"

"The Warners might not be Catholic, but we have ties to the city's Catholic charities."

"That so?"

"Yes, darling, that's so."

Charlie bit his lower lip again.

Darling.

Hearing Blair Warner calling his daughter 'darling' was going to take a lot of damn getting used to!

Still, it wasn't like it was going to last forever, he thought. The girls had crushes … the crushes would burn themselves out … In a few years, Jo would marry some nice boy, and the Polniaczeks would be guests at Blair's wedding to some fancy-pants prince. Blair was destined to marry royalty – Charlie had always known that …

Ties to Catholic charities, thought Rose. Well … that wasn't the same as being Catholic – not by a long-shot – but it was something.

There was a discreet rapping at the suite door, followed almost immediately by a loud knocking.

"That must be room service," said Blair.

"More hot chocolate?" Jo asked disapprovingly.

"Yes, more hot chocolate," said Blair, blushing faintly but lifting a defiant chin. "Though it doesn't matter, since we won't have time to drink it now."

"Maybe they can throw some Sterno under it," said Jo, heading into the foyer …

She returned a moment later with Alec. He pushed a dolly full of silver pots and china cups and a large platter of warm, fragrant blueberry muffins.

"Check it out," said Jo, eyes dancing, "milord's finally got himself a respectable job."

"I crossed paths with the room service chappie outside your door," said Alec. "And while he didn't appear to be a hit man in the pay of demented Dina, I decided to deliver the meal myself. Can't be too careful in this situation."

"Hit man?" Charlie asked skeptically, raising his eyebrows. These kids really know how to dramatize.

Relinquishing the cart to Blair, Alec turned to Charlie. The young lord's clear sapphire eyes scanned Charlie's features. Like all successful confidence artists, Alec had a knack for recognizing facial features, traits and body language.

Alec grinned radiantly. He extended one large hand.

"You must be Papa Polniaczek," said Alec. "Extraordinarily pleased to meet you!"

Charlie warily shook Alec's hand. Charlie instantly and instinctively distrusted towering young men with perfectly chiseled features, fetching dark curls and plummy British accents. Alec's engaging smile made Charlie less inclined, rather than more, to trust the young man.

"I'm Charlie Polniaczek," Charlie said warily. "And who the hell might you be?"

Alec laughed. He glanced at Jo. "Apple doesn't tumble far from the tree, eh, Artemis?"

"Turn blue," teased Jo, cuffing Alec under the chin. She turned to her father. "Pop, this is Alec Anviston. He's one of our housemates up in Peekskill."

Charlie's face darkened. "Housemate? Joanne Marie, I don't know how I feel about you livin in some house with a bunch of guys."

"I'm the only chap in the house," Alec said reassuringly. "I'm a sort of watchdog, brother and beast of burden."

"Well you eat like a beast of burden," Jo agreed.

"And you need have no fear," Alec told Charlie, ignoring Jo. "Your daughter is, alas, perfectly immune to my many and varied charms."

"Oh. Right." Charlie's glance flicked from Jo to Blair. "Look, uh, Alec, is it? Nice to meet you, and any friend of my daughter's is a friend of mine. But if you lay a finger on any of those girls, I'm gonna kick your ass back to London."

"Pop!" said Jo, mortified.

But Alec threw back his head and laughed. "God blind me, I really like you, sir," he said. He glanced at Jo again. "Apple," he said, "and tree. I always wondered where our Jo got her talent for plain speaking."

Jo mock-cuffed him again.

Blair had poured herself a cup of hot chocolate and was sipping it while the others spoke. Taking advantage of the lull in the conversation, she set down her cup and moved toward the foyer.

"If we don't leave now we won't make it," she said.

"Make what?" asked Alec.

"We're going to church, Apollo. Do you want to accompany us?"

"Me? Accompany the ravishing Blair Warner and the glorious Jo Polniaczek to church?"

"Eh, not if you're gonna be a dork," said Jo.

"Then I shall be on my least dorkish behavior." He put one arm through Jo's and one arm through Blair's. "My dear young ladies – shall we?"

Charlie scowled. I wouldn't trust that one as far as I could friggin throw him, he thought darkly. He noticed that Rose was beaming a little bashfully at the young man. For cryin out loud – why do dames always fall for that phony crap?

Charlie took Rose's arm. "C'mon," he said brusquely, leading Rose along in the young people's wake.

"For crying out loud, Charlie, you're pulling my arm out of the socket," complained Rose.

"Well, we can't all be Little Lord Fauntleroy," said Charlie.

"You could learn something from Lord Nethridge," said Rose.

"From who?"

"Lord Nethridge. Alec. The boy you just met."

"He's a lord?"

"Yes, Charlie."

"Like, an honest-to-goodness, 'Upstairs, Downstairs' kinda lord?"

"Yes, Charlie."

Charlie shook his head in disbelief. An honest-to-God English lord, clearly attracted to Blair and Jo, and the girls were shacking up with each other instead?

Christ … Maybe this Jo and Blair thing is more serious than I thought …

But no. It was a phase. It had to be.

Jo and Blair were going to come to their senses, feel damn sheepish about the whole interlude, and then probably Blair would marry this guy.

I always thought that girl would marry a prince … and a lord is close enough …

His arm linked through Rose's, Charlie followed the young people out of the suite.


Sunday morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral was an impressive and moving event.

Hundreds of candles flickered, casting an unearthly roseate light through the vast, soaring chambers.

The organ and choir were loud, massive, melodic, intimidating, a veritable army of sound.

Mass at St. Patrick's, thought Charlie. Blair is certainly full of surprises!

He and Rose sat next to each other at the end of the pew. Jo sat next to Charlie, Blair next to Jo, and Alec next to Blair.

As Anglicans, Blair and Alec got through the elaborate service in a hit-or-miss fashion, discretely glancing at and mirroring the surrounding parishioners.

This is more exhausting than the Jane Fonda workout, thought Blair, kneeling for what seemed like the twentieth time, and almost immediately standing up again. Catholics must be very thin.

She was inordinately proud, however, of her ability to make sign of the cross. That she had mastered. She had practiced the gesture since her last visit to St. Patrick's.

Because religion was so important to Jo, Blair had decided to convert to Catholicism in time. But faith being a touchy subject for both of them – the profundity of Jo's faith, and the doubts that plagued Blair – the heiress hadn't yet shared this plan with her lover …

Charlie and Rose went to the altar to receive communion. Jo, who hadn't been to confession in months, remained in the pew with Blair and Alec.

"The organist is bloody miserable," Alec whispered to Blair. "And the organ needs to be tuned."

"Shh," hissed Jo, with a hard glare at the young lord. "That is an organist of almighty God," she whispered, "so show a little freakin respect!"

"Is it the custom, one wonders," Alec deadpanned to Blair, "to threaten one's companions during the service?"

"It is if one's companion a knucklehead," said Jo.

Alec pantomimed being stabbed; Blair nudged him in the ribs.

"Alec – act your age."

"Yes, milady."

After Mass concluded most of the celebrants streamed out of St. Patrick's, but Rose and Charlie strolled around the cathedral's vast interior, gawking like happy tourists.

They were rarely in this neighborhood and could count on a couple of fingers the numbers of times they'd attended services here. Rose seemed fascinated by everything; Charlie seemed more to be enjoying his time with Rose than particularly interested in the place.

Jo, Blair and Alec stood contemplatively at a nexus of soaring columns. They stared up at the flickering light that played across the curved ceiling high above.

"Am I really going to hell?" Alec suddenly asked Jo.

"Yeah," she said without hesitation.

"Truly? Just because I'm not Catholic?"

"Not just," she said.

Alec laughed. "You're in rather a dark mood, Artemis."

"Sorry, pal. Guess I am. Somethin about a wacko tryin to hurt the people I love – it doesn't exactly put me in the sunniest mood."

"Duly noted."

Blair couldn't slip a loving arm around Jo's waist – not in the heart of St. Patrick's Cathedral – but she pressed Jo's arm sympathetically.

"We will settle this tonight, Jo."

"We'd better. Cause we are not livin lookin over our shoulders every second of the day."

An elderly gentleman in the ornate vestments and regalia of an Archbishop tottered slowly, creakily down the aisle nearest them.

He peered through his thick spectacles. His face broke into a radiant smile.

"Blair. Little Blair! I thought that was you!"

Blair beamed.

"Your Excellency!"

He took her hands and kissed her cheek, looking as pleased as if he had just run into Mother Teresa in the aisle of his cathedral.

"How are you, my dear? I was so sorry to hear of that unfortunate incident. The young man is clearly an ass."

"Which incident?"

"I don't wish to open recently healed wounds, my dear, but I refer to the unfortunate incident with Lord Nethridge. Your mother told us in November that you would be joining her on the inter-faith 'Food for the Indigent' committee; when you did not join her, she told us – discretely of course – that Lord Nethridge jilted you and that you were withdrawing from society and charitable functions for a time."

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

"She did indeed. And our hearts went out to you, my dear. After all, who could jilt you? It isn't Christian to say, but that young man wants a boot in the bum!"

"Your Excellency!" Blair was both startled and amused by the elderly Archbishop's attitude.

Jo managed, somehow, to stifle an enormous belly laugh. It helped that Alec stepped on her foot.

"As I admitted, my dear," the Archbishop told Blair, "perhaps it is not Christian of me to say that. It is true, nonetheless."

Alec stepped on Jo's foot again.

"Your Excellency," said Blair, "please be assured that I am quite well. Never better, in fact. And please assign me to any committee on which you think I could be of assistance. Any committee, that is, on which my mother does not serve." She smiled winningly. "Now that I'm truly entering society, I want to make a mark apart from my mother. I hope that doesn't seem like vanity."

"My dear, any small vanities you might display are fully justified. Do you still paint, my dear?"

"Yes. It occupies a great deal of my time, these days."

"Then I suggest we enlist you on the 'Art for the Children' committee."

"That sounds perfect," said Blair, covering his withered hands with her own.

The Archbishop peered past her nearsightedly, noticing Jo and Alec for the first time.

"Are these schoolmates of yours, my dear?"

"Yes your Excellency, and very dear friends. This is Jo Polniaczek."

Jo nodded at the Archbishop and made an awkward little half-bow.

It had been funny, for a moment, hearing about how Alec needed a kick in the bum, but when the humor faded she realized that she was a couple of feet away from one of the high holy rollers of the Catholic Church. Her heart pounded in her chest.

"Polniaczek, Polniaczek," the Archbishop said thoughtfully. "Surnames are a hobby of mine. Polniaczek. Polish and Slavonic, if I'm not mistaken."

"Uh, Polish for sure," Jo murmured bashfully.

"Well, it is a delight to meet any friend of Miss Blair Warner."

Holy cats! thought Jo. Betcha wouldn't say that if you knew exactly what kinda friends me and Miss Blair Warner actually are!

"Jo and her family attend St. Adalbert's," said Blair.

"Ah! Lovely old church. And in a community that truly needs the grace of God."

"Yeah. The more the better," Jo agreed.

"Jo has been sharing her faith with me," said Blair. "She's half convinced me to convert."

Jo was glad she wasn't drinking anything at the moment, because at that startling pronouncement she would've spit it all over Blair and his Excellency.

Does she mean that? wondered Jo. Or is that somethin nice to tell the Archbishop?

The Archbishop seemed to be wondering the same thing. He shook his forefinger at Blair and smiled indulgently.

"Now Blair," he said, as to a somewhat spoiled and much beloved child, "don't mock your elders. I know your parents would allow you join a cult before they would allow you to convert to Roman Catholicism! It is unfortunate that two people possessed of such charitable hearts should have been born outside the true faith. But we appreciate their efforts –"

"And their checks!" Alec whispered to Jo.

"– nonetheless," the Archbishop concluded. He peered at Alec. "My, you look the very picture of the old ideal of 'the muscular Christian'."

"Alas," said Alec, with a charming little bow, "I am but a lapsed Anglican. And if I tried to convert to the church of Rome, the Duchess would give me a boot in the bum."

The Archbishop raised his pale silvery eyebrows.

Now it was Jo's turn to step on Alec's foot.

"Your Excellency," said Blair, darting a swift Cut it out! look at Alec, "allow me to present Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge, one of my dearest friends."

The Archbishop's eyebrows climbed up under the brim of his tall miter.

"Truly, Blair?"

"Truly. As you can see, your Excellency, my mother was under a misapprehension about my relationship with Lord Nethridge. We are, and always have been, the very best of friends – and no more."

"Extraordinary!" said the Archbishop. "Simply extraordinary. Monica was convinced that this, ah, young gentleman had broken your heart in pieces."

"My heart has never been in better shape," Blair smiled.

"Well it's a pity," said the Archbishop, shaking his silvery head from side-to-side. "What lovely children you would have had! With your dimples, and his curls, and – well, that's neither here nor there."

"It certainly isn't," Jo said to herself, under her breath. People always seemed to gush about that – what beautiful kids Blair and Alec would have.

If me and Blair could have kids, thought Jo, now there would be some cute little rug-rats!

"My dear," said the Archbishop, "it has been a treat to see you again, and I will have my office contact you regarding 'Art for the Children'. You are at Langley College, your mother said?"

"It's best, at present, if your office contacts me at River Rock," said Blair. "River Rock House, in Peekskill."

"River Rock. Why, that sounds quite Biblical," the Archbishop said approvingly.

"In a Sodom and Gomorrah-ish way," Alec whispered to Jo. She stepped on his foot again.

"God bless you my child," said the Archbishop. Blair made a little curtsey, and, although it wasn't the proper thing to do, Blair touched the Archbishop's wan, withered cheek and kissed his forehead …

"Was that …" asked Rose, as she and Charlie rejoined the younger people. Rose looked down the aisle where the Archbishop was still tottering gamely toward a door that led to St. Patrick's labyrinth of private corridors, strictly off-limits to the humble tourist or parishioner.

"Yes," said Blair.

"You know him," said Rose.

"Yes."

Rose shook her head. She felt dazed. She had felt dazed since last night, when she sat in a Greenwich Village gay bar and watched her daughter and her daughter-in-law dance.

My daughter-in-law! God forgive me that the phrase even crossed my mind in a house of God.

"I'm hungry," said Rose, wanting for the first time in her life to just get the hell out of a church.

"I am too," said Blair. She slipped one arm through Alec's and one through Charlie's. "Come on. We'll brunch at the Plaza."

"Not to be all hoity-toity," said Jo, before her mother could object. "It's a practical thing. The Plaza's the only place our credit is any good."

"Go figure," said Charlie. "Broke at the Plaza! That could be, what, that could be a title for a play?"

"Or a novel," said Alec.

"An autobiography," said Blair. "Mine."

"Hey, if we gotta be broke, the Plaza's an OK place to mooch around," said Jo. "It kinda grows on a girl."

Rose sniffed.

Charlie rolled his eyes. "For cryin out loud, Rose, can you enjoy yourself for once? Can you play Cinderella for a few hours and enjoy how the other half lives?"

"I'm just finding this whole weekend very odd, Charlie. And it's my business how I feel about things."

"Can we not have a Polniaczek blow-out at St. Patrick's?" asked Jo.

"I rather like these Polniaczek blow-outs," said Alec, grinning engagingly at Rose and Charlie. "Reminds one of the mater and pater. Sweeps me back to my childhood and the drafty chambers of the Anviston manse. 'With blackest moss the flower-pots were thickly crusted, one and all; the rusted nails fell from the knots that held the pear to the gable-wall.'"

"Sounds like the place needs a little work," said Charlie.

"It's falling down around mater and pater's ears," agreed Alec.

"Stop quoting Tennyson," groused Jo. "It's so … so –"

"Undergraduate," suggested Blair.

"Well – I am an undergraduate," Alec said reasonably. "And mummy does live in the moated grange."

"I thought she spent most of her time in Monte Carlo?" asked Blair.

"She did. But, in the vernacular, the hoteliers got wise to her being stony. Or, more accurately, they knew she was stony, but they finally got wise to the fact that she was never going to pay."

"Well we're going to pay the Plaza. Someday," said Blair. "So everyone should order whatever they want, as much as they want …"

Of course, when they were seated at a central table in the Palm Court, attended by solicitous wait staff, Rose gnawed at a fingernail and couldn't decide what to order.

She knew what the tiny numerals discretely placed after each menu item meant – there were no dollar signs, nothing so gauche as that! – but those were the prices.

Unbelievable, Rose thought. They want that much for an omelet? And they want that much for a burger? And who ever heard of a hamburger topped with bleu cheese?

Charlie had noticed the bleu cheese burger too, but was curious rather than appalled, and ordered it. Alec ordered an omelet, Blair the eggs Benedict.

Jo was feeling more and more annoyed with her mother. How much nicer and more patient and more welcoming could we friggin be? she wondered. Yet Rose continued to agonize over Jo and Blair's relationship, and play country mouse at the Plaza.

Why can't she just freakin relax a little bit? wondered Jo. Why does she hafta rain on everyone else's parade?

Jo had originally planned to order a burger or eggs, something simple and not too different – albeit much more expensive – than you could get in the Bronx. She wanted to reassure her mother that she was still the same old Jo.

But as Rose continued to bite at her fingernail and quietly agonize over the menu –

To hell with it! thought Jo. She ordered lobster and caviar.

Rose gave a little gasp.

"Jo! That seems very reckless. You're going to have to pay for it someday."

"But not today," said Jo. "Today I've got a nut-job after me, so I'm gonna kick up my heels and enjoy myself the best I can."

The waiter, pretending, as all excellent waiters do, to be blind, deaf and oblivious to the conversation at table, smiled politely at Rose.

"And for Madame?"

Rose sniffed nervously. "I, ah," she trailed her slender finger up and down the menu, "I suppose I'll, ah, have the chicken club."

"Excellent, Madame." The waiter collected their menus. The sommelier arrived a moment later, to consult about wines …

Maybe it was the Palm Court's soothing harp music; maybe it was a glass of very good wine; maybe it was a funny story Charlie told about his job; whatever it was, by the time the entrees were served, Rose had relaxed somewhat, and dug into her chicken club with gusto.

Lars and Hildie Van Dussen arrived midway through the meal. They stopped at Blair and Jo's table, beaming at the heiress. Lars kissed Blair's hand. Hildie and Blair bussed cheeks.

"Blairy, you look more beautiful every time we turn around," said Lars. "Doesn't she look beautiful, hon? They both do – Rose Red and Snow White."

"They're lovely," Hildie agreed. "Blair, you're going to take me up on lunch at Bloomies, I hope."

"I will," Blair promised. "My program is rather full just now, but perhaps toward the end of the week?"

"Lovely."

"Lars and Hildie Van Dussen, allow me to present Charles and Rose Polniaczek, Jo's parents, and Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge."

"Lovely to meet you," Hildie said to the Polniaczeks.

"Ah!" said Lars, grinning at Alec. "So you're the so-called cad that allegedly broke Blairy's heart."

Alec remained seated but made a charming little bow. "The very same. I am that much-maligned fellow. Thanks to Monica Warner, my name seems to be mud all over Manhattan. And it's utterly unfair, because it was the beautiful Miss Warner who broke my heart."

"Well, you clearly ain't half good enough for her," Lars said in his warm, somewhat nasal Midwestern voice. "So we'll forgive her for that."

"Touché," laughed Alec.

"Lord Nethridge is plenty good enough – more than good enough," said Blair, smiling at Alec. "But he's like a brother to me."

"What you need," Lars told Blair, "is some red-blooded, ambitious young fellow of humble pedigree."

Rose choked a little on her club sandwich. Except for the 'fellow' part, that description fit Jo neatly.

"Warners always have been too damn exclusive," said Van Dussen.

"Lars," Hildie chided mildly.

"What? It's true. Blood's getting thin. Present company excepted of course." Lars ruffled Blair's hair as if she were still six years old. "My father found my mother behind the counter in a coffee shop. And where do you think I get most of my get-up-and-go from? Dear old mom."

"Nothin wrong with a girl behind a coffee shop counter," grinned Charlie. "I'm engaged to one, matter of fact."

"Good for you, old man." Lars clapped Charlie on the shoulder. "You'll never be happier."

Hildie furrowed her pretty eyebrows, looking from Charlie to Rose. "But I thought that, ah …" How to put it delicately?

Charlie caught her drift. "Happily divorced," Charlie told her.

Hildie's face cleared. "Lovely."

"It's like I always say," said Lars, "if you can't be happily married, at least be happily divorced."

"When do you say that?" asked Hildie.

"I've said it." He sized Charlie up, liked what he saw. "And what do you do, old man?"

"Wall Street," Charlie said. "Just a runner –"

"Lead runner," Rose put in.

"– but I'm workin my way up."

"Well best of luck to you, Charles Polniaczek," said Lars.

"It's Charlie. And thanks." The two men shook hands.

"You ever find yourself in Chicago," Lars told Charlie, "you look us up. Lars and Hildie Van Dussen. We'll tear up the town a little with you and your coffee-shop gal."

Charlie grinned. "I don't know when I'd be in Chicago, but if I ever am, I'll take ya up on that."

"Good. Good." Lars turned to Blair. "Now, I don't want to be telling tales out of school, Blairy, but you might want to put a bee in your father's bonnet. One of the meetings I was at this morning, seemed like some kind of storm is brewing. Tell him to keep an eye on BZ Becker – and to keep his powder dry!"

Blair leaned forward, sitting almost on the edge of her chair. "What do you mean?" she asked. "What did you hear?"

"Now don't fret," said Lars. "I'm sure it isn't all that serious. But Becker was putting out some feelers that made me think he's interested in taking a bit of a swipe at Warner Industries – knock your father down a peg or two."

More than a peg or two, thought Blair, if what we suspect is true.

"Would you do me a favor?" Blair asked earnestly.

"Why, anything. You know that. Old Paint is here to serve."

"My father won't pay any heed to a warning from me," said Blair. "He doesn't seem to have much respect for my head for business. But if you were to warn him …"

Lars nodded. "Consider it done. I can't do it straight out – might ruffle some feathers. But I'll see word reaches him."

"And the sooner the better," said Blair.

Hildie took her husband's arm, shaking her head with affectionate exasperation. "Business, business, business. It's enough to give me indigestion before I even have a bite. Let's eat, dear."

"Of course, Hildie. Blairy – we'll talk soon."

"Lunch at Bloomies," Hildie told Blair firmly.

"Of course."

"Well," said Charlie, when the Van Dussens were seated at a distant table, "that's maybe the nicest couple I ever me. Nothin stuffed shirt about 'em. What does he do, anyway?"

"Mints money," said Alec.

"No. Really," said Charlie. "What does he really do? He seems like the kinda guy, he runs a nice department store or somethin."

"He has a bank," said Blair.

"You mean the bank," Alec corrected. "West of the Mississippi, Van Dussen Bank is the bank."

"They're just Lars and Hildie," Blair said dismissively. "Just two of the nicest people ever."

Under cover of the tablecloth, Jo gently nudged Blair's leg with her foot. It was a loving rather than seductive, gesture. Jo could sense how much the Van Dussens meant to Blair. In a largely lonely childhood, they had clearly been loving figures in young Blair's life …

They were all drinking very good coffee, and Blair was savoring a second crème brûlée – under Jo's reproachful gaze – when the exclamation "Whammo!" shattered the tranquility of the harp music.

Boots dropped into a chair between Jo and Blair.

"What the hell?" said Jo, startled.

"Good afternoon, lovely people," Boots said cheerfully. Ever the socialite preppy, she wore a green-and-blue pleated kilt, white blouse, and pale pink-and-green argyle sweater. Her long dark hair was almost painfully straight and glossy, bangs clipped to one side with a pink-and-green gemmed barrette.

Boots put a hand on Blair's chair, and casually draped one bony arm along the back of Jo's chair. Blair immediately removed Boots' arm from Jo's chair-back.

"How are you, Boots, dear?" asked Alec. "Mission accomplished?"

"It is a fait accompli, as they say in Paris," said Boots. "And Dina never suspected a thing! Nancy Drew has nothing on me, if I do say so myself."

"You sure Dina didn't suspect anythin?" Jo asked skeptically. Boots wasn't exactly known for her stealth, or her acting ability, or her brains.

"Of course she didn't suspect anything, silly." Boots smiled shyly at Jo.

Good grief! thought Blair. She was trying to wean Boots off her crush on Jo – With a total lack of success, apparently, Blair thought. I have to find Boots a girlfriend – and soon!

"I was very heated," Boots told Jo. "I told Dina that the fete will start at eight o'clock, and I sounded absolutely outraged that you and Blair hadn't invited Dina or me, and that you're going slumming at –"

"Never mind," Blair said hastily, "it's still a surprise."

"Oh, gravy! I'm sorry, Warnsie – I almost let the cat out of the bag. All forgiven?"

"All forgiven, Boots," Blair sighed.

Blair glanced at Jo; the brunette's eyes were dancing.

Slummin, eh? asked Jo's eyes. Hmm. I think I know where you're takin me tonight, babe.

Don't be so sure you know everything, Jo Polniaczek, Blair telegraphed.

"Stop that," Boots told Blair. "It's very rude to talk without speaking."

"Hear, hear," said Alec.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Blair said coolly.

"Of course not, Aphrodite. You and Artemis only do it constantly."

"It makes the rest of us feel very left out," complained Boots. She lifted a clean fork, dug into Blair's crème brûlée. "You might not realize how rude it is," Boots said, around a mouthful of dessert.

A fine vein started pulsing in Blair's temple. Jo laughed.

"What's so amusing?" Blair asked, gazing coolly across Boots at Jo. "Something?"

"Nah. I just don't think Boots realizes she might lose arm there if she takes another bite of your precious crème brûlée."

Boots raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Warnsie? Is that true? Do you mind sharing?"

"Of course not," Blair said through gritted teeth. "Jo is just trying to be funny."

"Good." Boots dipper her fork into the dessert dish once again. Blair made a faint strangling sound.

"You OK, there?" Jo asked Blair solicitously. "Anythin wrong?"

"Certainly not," Blair managed in a strained voice.

Boots leaned back comfortably in her chair, surveying the table as she savored the dessert.

"So," she said cheerfully, "I think I know everyone. Except you," she said to Charlie. "You're very ruggedly handsome, n'est-ce pas? Are you a bodyguard?"

Charlie laughed, flattered. This kid is one strange duck, he thought. But she seems harmless enough.

"I'm, Charlie – Jo's father," he said, extending one hand across the table. Boots shook it limply. She studied Charlie thoughtfully.

"You account for Jo's stunning looks," said Boots. "And her strength. And you," Boots turned suddenly to Rose, "account for Jo's je-ne-sais-quoi."

Rose looked to Alec, who seemed to be on the friendliest terms with the odd young woman.

"You give Jo her indefinable specialness," Alec translated for Rose.

"Oh. Er … thanks," Rose said to Boots.

"No, Mrs. Polniaczek – thank you," Boots said earnestly.

Rose shifted uneasily in her seat. Boots, not Beets, she thought. This is the girl who has a crush on Jo. Weird. She doesn't look like one of those people. Of course, neither does Blair … or Peggy … or my Jo …

"Well, what's our plan of action?" Boots asked cheerfully, looking around the table. "I mean, until the brouhaha tonight. Shall we take in a show?"

Alec sighed. He had invited Boots into the plan; it was up to him, he decided, to entertain her.

"Boots, dear, haven't a sou or ruble or drachma to my name. Would you be divine and treat me to a matinee? 'The Glass Menagerie' is on at the O'Neill. I always find tragedies so cheering, don't you?"

"I do," Boots agreed. "One's problems are never as terrible as the characters' – are they?"

"Now hold on just a freakin minute," Jo said, looking hard at Alec. "You and Boots ain't traipsin off to some play –"

"But it isn't just 'some play'," Boots interrupted. "It's 'The Glass Menagerie', Jo. It's top-drawer. It's about this vulnerable, shattered young woman and it's probably the best play Williams ever wrote."

"Thanks for the review," Jo said drily. "But I ain't concerned about the quality of the production, Boots; I'm worried about you two wanderin around Broadway like a coupla sittin ducks. We don't know who Dina's watchin or who she's gonna go after, but Alec is pretty high on her Hit Parade!"

"Pish-posh," said Boots. "I told you, she fell for my ruse. We won't see her until tonight."

"Or so she led ya to believe," said Jo.

"My dear Artemis," said Alec, "if Dina emerges from stage left brandishing a dagger, I will peg her with my shoe. Or one of Boots' very dangerous-looking heels would be more effective. At any rate, I will subdue Dina. Need I remind you that I'm the one that captured Miss Becker the first time she tried to harm you and Blair?"

"She was off-guard then, Alec. You had the upper hand."

"Well it's ripping to know that you think Tootie and Natalie and Gramma Green can protect themselves, whereas I am an incompetent."

"Tootie and Nat got eyes in the back of their heads!" said Jo. "They're the Snoop Sisters, for cryin out loud. And Mona's knocked out Cossacks. You ever knocked out a Cossack?"

"I've never stumbled across any Cossacks, oddly enough."

"Alec," Jo said quietly, "I ain't sayin you're a wimp or somethin, cause I know you ain't. But still, just the two of you, Boots and you, with your heads up your, ah, with your minds all distracted by the play – who knows what could happen? Dina might not even go after you herself. She mighta hired someone, like the Abercrombies did when Warner ruined 'em."

Alec chewed on that for a moment.

Charlie shifted in his chair. Christ – this is soundin more serious by the minute. Maybe the kids really are in some danger … Charlie hadn't been at Pitch and Lowe that long, but he was already learning how nutty a lot of rich people could be about their wealth, and anything that threatened it …

"You should come with us," Boots said to Jo. She tilted her head appealingly. "No one would dare to attack us if you were there."

"Wow, Boots, that's really sweet," said Jo. Poor, kooky kid. She's still all hung up on me.

"It's sweet, but totally out of the question," Blair said firmly. "I agree with Alec. He can protect Boots, and Dina isn't going to do anything until the party tonight. That's Dina's modus operandi. She's a coward. She won't do anything without a crowd to slip away into."

"Au contraire," said Jo, "Dina is a coward and a sneak, but she doesn't need a crowd around. She was tryin to torch our rooms when no one was around – remember? If Tootie hadn't come along bein all snoopy at the right moment –"

"Mata Tootie," Alec said admiringly.

"'Zactly," said Jo. "If Tootie hadn't been snoopin around, we'd a been toast."

"Dina won't be within twenty miles of a Tennessee Williams play," said Blair. "She's scientific, not artsy. She's a cultural philistine."

"Cripes, Blair, I ain't sayin she's gonna be goin there to enjoy the show, I'm sayin she or some hired goons with Alec's picture might be waitin outside to follow 'em and wreak some freakin havoc."

"It's too bad Jacqueline isn't here," mused Blair. "She could protect Alec and Boots."

"That is the single most emasculating thing you've ever said to me," complained Alec.

"Oh. Sorry," Blair said sincerely. "I just meant, with Jack being a black belt –"

"And it's tremendously insensitive of you," added Alec, "to mention her name when she and I are all but broken up. And during Valentine's weekend."

"Deal with it," Jo said brusquely. "We don't have the luxury of bein all sensitive right now."

"Why do we always have these endless arguments, anyhow?" Alec asked. "Things were much simpler when I was a lone wolf. I decided what I wanted to do – and I did it. Why must we always debate everything and send it through committee?"

"Because this is a democracy, milord. Now pipe the hell down and do what I say."

Alec turned to Blair. "Can you explain to Jo what democracy is?"

Blair held up her hands. "Not when she's in this mood."

"And what does that mean?" Jo asked, leaning across Boots to glare at Blair.

"It means you're being very bossy," Boots said helpfully. "Some women are threatened by strong personalities. Not me, by the way."

"Thanks, Boots, but I can speak for myself," Blair said drily.

"I just don't want anyone endin up hurt," said Jo. "That don't exactly make me Attila the Hun."

"No one called you Attila the Hun," Blair said. "But I don't think you're really listening to Alec."

"I'm not listenin?"

Charlie looked affectionately at Rose. "Kinda takes ya back, huh?"

"It sure does!" Rose said feelingly. It reminded her of one of her arguments with Charlie, back when Jo was a little girl.

"Joanne Marie," Rose said, "I know you're just trying to protect your friends, but they're adults as much as you are. It's up to Alec and, ah, Boots if they want to go to a show."

"Ma –"

"That's final, Jo."

"But, Ma –"

"Listen to your mother," said Charlie. "She's right. You want us to treat you like a grown-up all of a sudden, when you don't even give the same courtesy to your friends."

"Thank you, Mr. Polniaczek," said Alec.

Charlie scowled. "Eh, gimme a break. It's not like we're best friends now or somethin."

"Charlie!" said Rose, surprised. "Is that any way to talk to Lord Nethridge?"

"It's Alec, dear lady," said Alec. "And your ex-husband is being a lamb compared to the way Jo spoke to me when we first met."

"Eh, I was nicer than you deserved," groused Jo.

"Jo!" said Blair.

"Fine," said Jo. "Go see your stupid play," Jo told Alec.

"Oh, it isn't stupid," Boots told Jo. "It's one of the most –"

"I know, I know," Jo sighed. "It's one of the most brilliant plays ever written. Boots – do you gotta always be so literal?"

"Yes," Boots said. "I find it makes it easier for me to follow conversations if I respond to exactly what people say."

"Well Boots and I are going to the matinee," said Alec. "And then she's taking me to dinner. Someplace outrageously expensive, with a very deep wine cellar. And you can take that literally, Boots."

Boots looked questioningly at Jo.

"Just go," said Jo. "What do I care? It's only your lives."

"Wonderful," said Alec. "And I was afraid you were going to dramatize." He pushed back his chair and dropped his serviette on his dessert plate. "Come on, Boots – before Attila changes her mind!"


With Garrett and Mrs. Drake out, Natalie, Tootie and Mona out, and Alec and Boots out, that left Jo and Blair alone with Jo's parents.

"So," said Jo. "I guess we can all go back up to the suite." Should be a barrel of laughs! she thought wryly.

"Charlie and I will go to my suite," said Rose. "I mean, the one I'm sharing with Mona and Mrs. Garrett. We'll give you kids some, ah, alone time." Not that I want to dwell on that! thought Rose.

Jo felt her heart leap. More time alone with Blair …

"Well … If you think that's best," Jo said casually, trying to mask her enthusiasm.

"You don't have to do that," Blair told Rose. "We'd love to have you. We can play the hi-fi and we can talk. We do have a lot to talk about."

Crud, thought Jo. Why does Blair have to be so damn polite and well-bred?

"That's, ah, not necessary," said Charlie. Christ – like I want to sit there like a bump on a log all afternoon thinkin about how Jo and Blair are a couple!

"That's very nice of you, Blair," said Rose, "but Charlie and I have things we need to talk about. With his engagement, and his wedding coming up soon –"

"How soon?" asked Jo.

"Soon," said Charlie. "Don't worry about it. We'll give you plenty of notice."

"Oh, plenty of notice, huh? Like all the notice you gave me that you were seein some coffee shop dame?"

"Her name is Carol," said Charlie. "Don't call your step-mother a dame."

"My step-mother?"

"Yeah – she's gonna be your step-mother. I'm getting re-married – you're gonna have a step-mother and step-siblins. That's how it works, for cryin out loud."

"I think we could all use a little, uh, space this afternoon," Rose said tactfully.

"What an excellent idea," said Blair. "Come on, Jo."

"I can't leave my Ma and Pop unguarded," Jo protested. I just got them back in my life. I can't let 'em be in danger …

"We'll go right up to my suite," Rose promised her daughter. "We'll lock ourselves in."

"They'll be perfectly safe," Blair said reassuringly.

"But you can't open the door," Jo told her parents. "And you gotta be careful."

"We'll be careful," said Rose. "Go on now. We'll be by around supper time."

"You gotta look out that peek hole," said Jo, "and don't let any strangers in, and call security if you see anythin strange."

"We'll be fine, Jo," said Rose. Some things never change. Our daughter – always looking out for us instead of us looking out for her, half the time …

… Alone in their suite, Blair went to the hi-fi, snapped it on, lifted the needle, found the right groove, and played "My Funny Valentine".

"I'm sorry babe," said Jo, pacing restlessly around the lounge. The longing notes of the song rolled through the room. "I ain't exactly in the mood for dancin."

"Neither am I," said Blair. She sat on the loveseat, patted the cushion next to her. "Why don't you take a load off, darling?"

Jo laughed.

"Take a load off?"

"Did I not say that correctly?" asked Blair.

"No, you did. That's what's so cute."

Jo passed Blair, intending to sit next to her, but Blair was too quick, catching Jo around her slim waist and pulling the brunette onto her lap.

Jo laughed, surprised and delighted by her lover's sneak attack. Jo held Blair's face, leaned down and hungrily kissed the full lips …

They kissed until long after the record finished playing; they kissed until their mouths felt pleasantly bee-stung and weary. Blair pressed her head against Jo's breast.

"You're heart's beating fast," said Blair.

"Somethin's got me all revved up," teased Jo. "Wonder what it could be?"

Blair nuzzled Jo's neck. Jo's heart thudded faster.

"Could it be your beautiful fiancée?" asked Blair.

"Mmn. Seems like," Jo agreed, nestling comfortably against the blonde. "Babe?" Jo asked sleepily.

"Yes, darling?"

"You and Alec really would have beautiful kids."

Where did that come from? wondered Blair, surprised. Or – of course. What the Archbishop said.

"I suppose we would," Blair said.

"Do you ever … Have you thought about, what if we want kids?"

Blair pondered that. "No," she said finally. "I guess I haven't thought that far ahead." She toyed with a lock of Jo's hair. "Do you want children?"

"Yeah. I think so. Maybe we could adopt some kid, some kid who really needed someone to love it. Or we could have one of our own. I don't know about havin a kid myself, me carryin it, you know, but I kinda like the thought of you all glowin and pretty and plump and –"

"Bigger than Mount Everest," laughed Blair.

"You'd be beautiful," said Jo. "You'd be like a magnificent, pregnant goddess."

"Mmn, that's very sweet, darling, but I don't know if I want to be pregnant. There's morning sickness and maternity clothes and a lot of other icky things."

"Icky? Blair, babe – it's the beautiful freakin circle of life."

"I suppose we could adopt," Blair said thoughtfully. "We'd have to keep it very quiet – being in love, I mean. No one's going let a couple of Sapphics adopt. But I think we could find a way. We'll certainly have the money to work something out."

"Knowin us, of course we could find a way," said Jo. "With or without a lotta money. But Blair – what I'm getting at is, however we get 'em, would you want kids?"

Blair chewed on her upper lip.

Jo knew her lover's body language by now. When Blair started gnawing at her upper lip, that gave Jo the answer in a nutshell, but Jo waited; she wanted to hear what Blair said.

"To be honest, Jo," Blair said finally, "I don't like the thought of someone else taking your attention away from me. I know that's selfish, and vain, but that's just how I feel about it today. Maybe in time –"

"Sure," Jo said hastily. "Who knows how we'll feel in a few years? I mean, we got our whole lives to think about that stuff."

Blair pulled Jo closer, kissed her cheek.

"Say that again," Blair whispered.

"Which thing?"

"Say again about how we have our whole lives together."

Jo smiled. "We got our whole lives together," she said softly. "Our whole lives. Forever."

"That's the most beautiful thought," said Blair. "Jo – Do you know how much I love you?"

"As much as I love you – I hope. But I love you so much, Blair, I don't know sometime how anyone else could feel so strong as I do."

"Well I do." Blair tightened her grip on Jo's waist. "I'll never know what I did to get so lucky. Meeting you … and you feeling the same way …"

"It was my flared jeans," said Jo, eyes twinkling. "You couldn't resist 'em."

"Perish the thought," smiled Blair. "You're just lucky I could see past those raggedy old things, to the beautiful," kiss, "brilliant," kiss, "brave," kiss, "loving goddess who was wearing them."

"And you're lucky," said Jo, "that I could see past all that plaid and those knee socks and pearls and all that attitude –"

"Oh – attitude, eh?" asked Blair. "Do tell."

"To tell the truth," said Jo, "you were always really nice to me. In your snobby way. Lookin back, it shoulda been plain as the nose on my face that you liked me. You were always tryin to do nice things for me, and always huggin on me."

"And you were always so annoyed."

"I was. I really was. Cause I didn't get it. It just seemed like you were interferin, and tryin to control me, and put me in my place. But now, you know," Jo kissed Blair, "now you can interfere and put me in my place as much as you want."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," murmured Blair. "Because I do have a place I'd like to put you for the next hour or so."

"Would this place possibly happen to be the bedroom?" Jo asked hopefully.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that," said Blair. "You have to pick me up and carry me upstairs before I can divulge that information."

Jo all but leaped off of Blair's lap.

The brunette leaned down, eyes twinkling with mischief and excitement, ready to scoop Blair into her arms, when something bright caught her eye.

"Huh," Jo said thoughtfully.

"Ah, darling – I'm over here. Still waiting to be picked up," said Blair, flashing her most charming, dimpled smile at her lover.

Jo crossed to the table against the lounge windows. On the table stood a charming wicker basket. Jo opened it. Inside a red-and-white checked tablecloth was folded, protecting two wine glasses, a bottle of very expensive red wine, and little jars and containers of cheeses and mustards and potted meats.

"Blair, you are full of surprises," grinned Jo.

"True," Blair agreed. "Take me upstairs and let me show you how surprising I can be."

"A picnic," said Jo. "A picnic at the Plaza! I love it, babe. What made you think of it?"

"Darling – what are you talking about?"

"This." Jo held up the wine bottle in one hand, the two glasses in the other. "We can bring the picnic upstairs with us. Cheers, Blair Warner – best fiancée ever!"

For a moment, Blair couldn't breathe. She felt an icy finger trailing down her spine.

"Jo," said Blair, sitting up slowly and straightening her dress, "please put those back in the basket."

"Whaddya mean?"

"I didn't order any picnic, darling."

Now Jo felt an icy finger trailing down her spine. She placed the glasses and bottle back in the basket, and drew the red-and-white checked cloth over them. She gently closed the basket lid.

"Maybe it was Tootie and Natalie," said Jo. "Maybe they wanted to surprise us."

"Darling – how would Tootie and Nat be able to afford something like this?" Blair asked reasonably. "And Nat is always telling us to keep our clothes on. She's not going to buy us a romantic gift like that!"

"Drake? Mrs. Garrett? Mona?" Jo wanted very badly for it to have been one of them … But even as she said their names, she knew that it didn't make sense, that the picnic was not from any of them.

"And we know it's not from your parents," said Blair. "Or mine. Was there … Is there a card, Jo?"

Jo carefully examined the basket. She touched it gingerly – she didn't hear any ticking, but you never knew. That wasn't the way she wanted to say sayonara to the world – blown up by a booby-trapped picnic basket!

It took her only a moment to find the card, now that she was looking for it. The card was a thick square of expensive, cream-colored paper, jammed between two of the slats of the basket. There was no name or logo or distinctive marking on the card. Jo held it to the light – no watermark, either.

"For a couple who deserves everything they get," read the message. It was printed in dark ink, as if the sender had used a fountain pen.

"That's a threat if I ever heard one," said Blair. "Darling – please get away from the basket."

"Not yet. Gotta be sure …"

Jo carefully removed all of the basket's contents, looked them over carefully, holding them up to the light from the window, the light from the Tiffany lamps. She inspected the table cloth, and the empty interior of the basket.

"Nothing," Jo said finally. "Don't think anything's gonna blow up or catch fire."

"Still," said Blair, reaching for the white-and-gilt phone, "I want it out of here. Now. And I want to know how it got here."

"We can't just chuck it," objected Jo. "We gotta report it."

"Report it? To the police, who for whatever reason continue to believe that our issues with Dina are all in our heads? And what are we reporting? That someone sent us a mysterious romantic picnic basket with a note calling us a couple who deserves everything we get?"

"Oh. I see your point," Jo conceded. "Well at least one mystery's cleared up: we know for sure that Dina knows we're together!"

"Adding a whole new level to the nonsense she can pull," Blair said darkly. Then, into the phone, "Hello? Is this the Butler's Desk?" …

When Ormond arrived, the slender butler looked anxious.

"It did seem odd," he said immediately, "and I apologize if the gift was unwelcome. But the young man was very insistent."

"A young man?" asked Blair, puzzled. "Ormond – I'm not displeased and you are not in trouble, but I am very curious about the person or persons who sent this gift. There's, it's a wager," she said, inventing rapidly, off the top of her head. "It's a sort of reverse treasure hunt," she lied. "Instead of running all over Manhattan trying to find things, we're all delivering odd things to each other's hotels. It's mad, I know, but it keeps boredom at bay. And we'll win a prize if we're the first to discover who delivered our basket."

"I see," Ormond said politely. He looked relieved that he wasn't in any trouble.

"Just tell us," said Jo, "exactly where the basket came from. No detail is too small."

Ormond cleared his throat, and smoothed his pristine white gloves.

"You know that we – by which I mean the butlers and the security staff – make regular rounds to ensure that no undesirables or uninvited persons are prowling about. The caliber of the guests that we serve, particularly on the upper floors, is such that we must be constantly vigilant."

"No one's questionin your vigilance," Jo said impatiently.

"Jo," said Blair, "you did say no detail was too small."

"Oh. True. Go ahead, Ormond."

Ormond cleared his throat again.

"There aren't many details," he said. "When I made my rounds at noon, I saw a young man, very slender, in dark clothing, setting the basket outside the door of your room. When I approached him he said he was leaving a gift for Miss Warner and her best friend, and would I be sure that you received it? And I said that of course I would place it in your suite, but why didn't he leave it at the front desk, which is proper procedure? And he said – well, I won't repeat exactly what he said. He had an educated voice and he is a gentleman, no doubt, but what he said was ungentlemanly."

"How old was he?" asked Jo, trying to sound a hell of a lot more patient than she felt.

"Twenty, perhaps twenty-one. A young man. College age. Your age."

"What did he look like?" asked Blair. "Everything you can remember."

Ormond frowned, knitting his brows. "Very slender. 'Skinny' as they say. I think his hair was blonde, but he was wearing a dark cap, pulled down low, one of those captain's caps, you know, if one is going sailing or yachting. Dark shirt, dark blazer, dark trousers."

Christ, thought Jo, guy wearin all black, cap squashed down over his hair, leavin a basket outside a room – what could be more freakin suspicious? If someone tried that in her mother's buildin, in two seconds Balducci's sister would be crackin him on the head with a spatula and Mrs. Waldeman would be callin the cops. But the rich …You had to carry a neon sign that said "Crook" before they tipped that you were up to no good …

"What else?" Blair prompted.

"Well, as I said, he sounded educated. Very well educated. Impeccable diction. But a very unpleasant way about him. He had this little smile, very superior, as if he were somebody, as no doubt he is, and as if I were a clod of dirt under his shoe."

Blair and Jo looked at each other. "Devon!" they said together.

Of course, thought Jo, Devon Abercrombie! Blair's pop ruined the Abercrombies … old Abercrombie hired a hit man to off Blair … and when that went south, old Abercrombie stepped off a rooftop.

Devon was always an unpleasant little cuss, never a fan of Blair's or the Warner family, and now, in the tragic wake of his father's suicide ….

"They've teamed up," Blair said to Jo. "Dina and Devon."

"Yeah," Jo agreed. Damn!

"Did the young man say anything else?" Blair asked Ormond. "Other than asking you to put the basket in our room, and being so rude to you when you suggested he submit it at the front desk."

"Not really, Miss Blair. When I assured him that I would put the basket in your suite he said something like 'That's more like it, you –' well, never mind the precise word. It was extremely offensive."

"Yes," Blair said sympathetically, "Devon can be offensive. I'm sorry he insulted you."

"Have I been helpful?" Ormond asked hopefully. "Will you win the prize?"

"You've been of great assistance," Blair assured him.

And hopefully, thought Jo, we'll win the prize of stayin alive!

Blair pressed a crisp bill into Ormond's gloved hand before he left …

"Babe, how much are you tippin everybody?" asked Jo, settling Blair on her lap after Ormond left.

Blair gave her a look. "Darling – we can't expect the staff to wait until 1985 for their tips."

"OK, OK – question withdrawn," sighed Jo. "I just guess this weekend is gonna be a little more expensive than I calculated. But I can pick up a few more hours at the Grill."

"Not on your life!" said Blair. "You have to study."

"Blair –"

"It's not up for discussion. You're our best hope for ever being independent, darling." Blair gently traced the line of Jo's jaw. "Let's not talk about money any more. I'm sick of money, and what it does to people."

"Not just money," mused Jo. "Status. Power. Christ. Dina and Devon teamin up! That absolutely one-thousand percent cannot be good!"

"We'll have to be alert for either of them tonight," said Blair.

"Mitzy Rutherford, too," Jo said thoughtfully. "She can't stand you – or me. And the last coupla parties where we saw her last fall, she and Devon were lookin pretty friggin cozy."

Blair toyed with Jo's collar. "I wonder," she said.

"You wonder what?"

"I wonder if it's just the younger generation. I mean, Lars said BZ Becker was putting out feelers to him – or, rather, to the Van Dussen Bank."

"So maybe Becker's been reachin out to other companies and families that hate your father," said Jo.

"Precisely."

"That would definitely be the Abercrombies, and the Rutherfords. Who else?"

"From what Eduardo said at Christmas, Daddy's been utterly ruthless the last few years. What he did to the Abercrombies was the worst that I know of, but … we could be talking about a dozen of the minor families."

Jo felt that icy frisson along her spine again.

"Babe?"

"Yes?"

"What would happen if they got together – all of 'em, or almost all of 'em. The, uh, minor families that your pop screwed over?"

It was an ugly thought. Blair drew a deep breath. "Not much," she said. "I mean, they're angry because Daddy damaged them, in some cases ruined them. They don't have the money or resources to retaliate."

"Not individually," Jo agreed. "But what if they pooled the resources they had left. And what if they found a backer, somebody incredibly wealthy and obsessed with having been snubbed by the old New Amsterdam families?"

"A backer like BZ Becker," Blair said, lips numb as she contemplated that concept. "Jo – son of a bitch! They're not just going after Daddy – they're taking down the gods of New York!"

"The – the what, now?"

"The New Amsterdam dynasties. We were right – righter than we knew! They'll go after the Warners, the Von Schuylkills, the Messerschmitts, the Barclays, the St. Clairs –"

"Boots' family too?"

"Of course. And they're not just going to give us a bloody nose. They're going to try to ruin us and salt the earth."

"Babe … I feel really friggin creeped out," Jo confessed. "It's like my Aunt Evelyn's sayin, about someone walkin over my grave. I never got it, till just this second. It's like a premonition … It's like the grave ain't been dug yet, but it's gonna be dug soon."

Blair shuddered. "Darling … If you're trying to comfort me, could you please try a different approach?"

"I'm sorry." Jo pulled Blair closer. She kissed the tip of Blair's perfect, tip-tilted nose. "Look, I know you've been tryin, and you asked Van Dussen to try, but you gotta call your pop again. You've got to warn him."

Blair nodded. Jo leaned over, snagged the phone, gave it to her lover.

"He'll be at the office," said Blair.

"On Sunday afternoon?" Jo asked incredulously. "Doesn't he have any kinda life?"

"In case you hadn't noticed, darling, my father's business is his life." Blair dialed the phone. "Jo?" she said, while the phone rang at the other end.

"Yeah, babe?"

"I love you. However this all works out, I love you."

"I love you too, Blair." Jo kissed the blonde's fingers. "And it's gonna be OK."

Blair smiled at her fiancée.

The phone rang and rang, but David Warner did not pick up.

Part 4

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