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 4

Sunday, February 12, 1984. The Fever nightclub. The South Bronx.

Jo sat jammed against the passenger door of Blair's red Chevy truck, blindfolded with the blonde's lavender kerchief.

Blair pulled up in front of the Fever, stepping on the brakes.

"What is this place?" Rose asked, peering nervously out of the window.

She sat on Charlie's lap, crushed between Jo and Blair. Rose had lived her entire life in the Bronx, in poverty and privation, but she had never lived on streets as rough as the burnt-out, graffiti-scarred neighborhoods Blair had just driven through.

"It's the Fever," said Jo.

"Did you peek?" demanded Blair.

"Nah – I figured it out earlier, when Boots was talkin about 'slummin'. A public place, that we can afford, that Boots would consider slummin … ipso facto, the Fever."

"Well, then, it's anticlimactic, but – 'Surprise' darling! Happy Valentine's Day."

"Happy Valentine's Day, babe. Can I take this thing off now?"

"Of course."

Jo slipped the kerchief off her face in one quick movement, shoved the bandana into the pocket of her leather jacket.

"Can we get out now, or what?" asked Charlie. "I've lost all the feelin in my legs. And before you accuse me of makin a crack about your weight, Rosie, it ain't on account of your weight, which you're light as a feather, it's just that I'm too big and too old to wedge into a truck cab. I feel like a size ten foot in a size six shoe."

Jo opened the passenger door and dropped lightly onto the pavement.

Rose climbed out of the cab; Jo helped her mother reach the sidewalk safely. Charlie followed, knees and back audibly popping.

"God, I wish I was nineteen again!" he said.

The usual bouncers were on duty.

Rico strolled over, grinning at Jo. He and Jo had known each other years ago, in elementary school, and had rekindled their acquaintance since Blair had started frequenting the club.

"Hôla, chica," he said. "Where's the Kawasaki?"

"Up north. Didn't bring it this trip."

"Yeah, well," Rico eyed Blair's red truck with admiration, "this is a sweet ride too."

Blair had climbed out of the truck, leaving the driver's side door open.

She tossed the key to Rico. He caught them gracefully.

"Hey, Rico," Blair said. "How's your mother doing?"

"She's feelin better, mija," he said. "How's your bank account? When you gonna be able to pump some more ducats into the film?"

Blair grimaced. "How about 1985?"

Rico made a thumbs-down gesture. "Too late, mija. Everyone else gonna have a break-mixin film out by then. We wanna be first."

"Best I can do, Rico."

"Eh, well, it is what it is." He climbed into the cab, slipped the keys into the ignition and gunned the engine. "Yeah … Sweet ride. When you're rich again, you give me this truck, chica?"

"I'll sell you the truck," countered Blair.

"You richies are so cheap," complained Rico, grinning at her through the cab window.

"That's how we stay rich," laughed Blair.

Rico stepped on the gas. The Chevy raced forward; he cut the wheel suddenly, turning on a dime and driving the truck behind the club.

"When did the Fever get valet parkin?" asked Jo.

"It didn't," said Blair.

Jo laughed. "Leave it to you! Is there a freakin pocket of this city where you don't get special treatment?"

"I'll let you know when I find it," promised Blair.

Rose was standing very close to Charlie. He put an arm around her shoulders, unconsciously slipping back into the role of protective husband.

"What is this place?" asked Rose.

"It's a dance club," said Jo.

"The music is amazing," said Blair. "You've never heard anything like it."

"You … spend a lot of time here?" Rose asked curiously.

"As much as I can. I was investing in a movie about the club, but, circumstances being what they are …"

Rose was not prepossessed by the hole-in-the-wall entrance; the deep bass chords and drum beats pulsing into the foyer; or the weapons pat-down, for which there were no exceptions, even for beautiful heiresses and her friends.

Rose was not prepossessed by the gun-check counter, or the faint whiff of illicit substances wafting from back rooms and back corridors.

Jo and Blair took the gun-check guys aside and spoke quietly for a moment. Each of the men was roughly the size of one of the Rocky Mountains, with biceps bigger than Jo's head. They wore sunglasses, tight T-shirts, jeans, gold chains and custom sports shoes.

Jo and Blair happened to know that the men were sweet as hell, Frankie married with children, M'bo engaged to a preacher's daughter. The men were sweet as hell, but they didn't look it, and you did not, under any circumstances, want to mess with them.

Jo didn't mince any words.

"There's a frickin nut-job on our ass tonight," she told them. "About yay high. Dishwater blonde but maybe she's gonna disguise her appearance. How you're gonna know her is she's a richie and she sounds like a richie, real freakin arrogant. She's got a pal, skinny little white boy, real freakin arrogant too. You see either of them, you talk to them for about three seconds and you're gonna wanna break out in a rash, they're so annoyin."

M'bo looked at Blair. "We s'posed to keep 'em out, call the cops, or what?"

Blair shook her head. "We want to confront them. Just keep an eye on them once they arrive, and let us know where they are."

"We need eyes on 'em every second," Jo agreed. "And you wanna cover the exits. And the rest rooms. The girl's a firebug."

Frankie's eyebrows rose high on his shaved scalp.

"I hate firebugs," he said in his rumbling bass voice. "Damn cowards."

"We're hopin to get 'em to do somethin stupid in front of witnesses," said Jo. "We want 'em off the street, somethin that'll stick. So far the cops haven't been able to do diddly-squat."

Frankie and M'bo nodded, instantly understanding the situation. Richies always seemed to find a way to manage the cops. If you were poor and tan in the Bronx, law enforcement couldn't toss you in the bucket fast enough. But you had to nab white richies red-handed if you were gonna put 'em away for any length of time.

"We'll keep our eyes peeled," said M'bo …

When Jo and Blair and the Polniaczeks finally stepped into the club, they were struck and then enveloped by a rich, layered wall of musical sounds. Rose literally took a step back and looked faint. Charlie put a hand under her elbow and steadied her.

"It's just a nightclub," he told her, raising his voice over the music. "It's just what kids listen to now, Rosie."

Even this early the dance-floor was packed with young men and women of every race, color and creed. Clothing tended toward the flashy – plenty of bright hues and scintillating fabrics.

Multi-colored lights flashed. Strobe lights flickered, freeze-framing the dancers in wild poses. A mirrored ball spinning over the center of the dance floor threw a thousand pinpoints of light, like stars, over the faces and hands of the dancers, over the floor and the walls.

The music was loud, layered, textured, relentless. Rose and Charlie couldn't identify it, but Blair, smiling, had already begun singing along, her throaty, sexy mezzo-soprano all but lost in the din. It was "Bust A Move" blended smoothly with segments of Parliament's "Flashlight".

Blair's body swayed slightly, her shoulders, her hips, her derriere, her long legs; she felt the music coursing through her, and she wanted to dance.

"Come on," Jo said in her ear.

Blair shook her head. "We have to see if any of the gang is here yet."

"Already scoped it out. We're the first," said Jo. "C'mon. Let's go."

Charlie guided Rose to the bar while Jo and Blair hit the dance floor.

"Budweiser," Charlie told the bartender.

"What?"

"Budweiser!" Charlie shouted. It was so damn loud in the place; Charlie used the voice he used to be heard by his friends when they were watching the fights at Madison Square Garden. "And a gin and tonic for the lady!"

Jo led Blair to the heart of the dance floor. That was where Blair liked to be, Jo knew.

Jo didn't like dancing much at all. She remembered the first dance she attended at Eastland. Boys from Eastland's brother school, Bates Academy, attended, and there was a dance competition.

Funny to think that was more than three years ago, mused Jo. There was musketeer drama surrounding the dance – of course. When was there not musketeer drama?

Tootie was going to enter the contest with the same partner she'd danced with the year before, a kid named Carl. They'd won the year before, and they were on track to win again. But a guy named Fred was twisting Tootie's head into a knot, telling her it was wrong to dance with a white boy, wrong to be friends with whites.

That was a weird trip. When the dance finally rolled around, Tootie ended up dancing with Carl after all. And they won again. But that whole week before the dance, getting the cold shoulder from Tootie because she was white, had given Jo a weird window into what it was like to be discriminated against. Not that she hadn't gotten crap for bein poor in the past; and Catholic; and Polish.

And now me and Blair get to freakin experience it every day, for bein in love with each other … Or, we would experience it every day if we were open …

That first Eastland dance … Memory was a funny thing. Jo hadn't thought about that dance in years, and now as she stood in the heart of the Fever, swaying slightly back and forth while Blair danced spiritedly, sexily a few feet away, it all came back to Jo.

Boy after boy had approached Jo at the Eastland fete, wanting to dance. But Jo was loyal to Eddie. Eddie was a big strapping blue-eyed god. None of the little nerds who edged their way up to Jo could possibly compare. She turned down boy after boy – and none too gently! "What are you lookin at, nerd?" had been one of her more tactful remarks.

But eventually Jo had been pulled onto the dance floor. Not by any of the boys. By Blair. Jo's roommate had literally taken Jo by the hands, coaxing her, teasing her, into taking a few tentative steps on the dance floor.

Jo grinned at the memory. That little vixen! Because according to Blair, she was already having feelings for Jo at that time. She was tryin to seduce me!

"They look good together," Charlie said to Rose.

"What?"

"I said, 'They look good together'!" Charlie shouted in his Madison Square Garden voice.

"Oh. I know. But …"

"Yeah. But …" agreed Charlie. "Rosie?"

"Yes?"

"You don't mind, do you? About me and Carol?"

Rose shook her head. "No, Charlie. The only thing I mind is I haven't found anyone yet."

"You will. Rosie – you're a hell of a woman!" He clinked his bottle of Budweiser against her cocktail glass. "Happy Valentine's Day, kid. You got a lot of happiness comin your way!"

"From your lips to God's ear!" laughed Rose …

God, Blair's sexy, thought Jo, watching her lover dance. When Blair danced she just let her body flow with the music and the percussion. There was no self-consciousness, no inhibition.

I'm so glad we're livin in the 80's, thought Jo. Imagine if it was the 1700's, or the 1940's or somethin. Hell! Blair and I couldn't dance the minuet together, or the waltz, or the fox trot, or the jive. But nowadays, everyone just gets out on the floor and shakes their freakin tail feathers! No one knows what we're feelin. No one knows that in my head, I'm holdin her, and she's holdin me …

Jo was so mesmerized by her fiancée that it was a few moments before she noticed that a young man was watching them.

He was dancing a few couples over, a handsome African-American man of twenty-five, maybe, with close-cropped hair, a neatly pressed dress shirt, trousers with perfect creases and mirror-bright dress shoes. Somethin familiar about him, thought Jo.

The man seemed to feel the same way, because he kept glancing in Jo and Blair's direction.

He was grooving with a plump, pretty woman who had a habit of tossing her head back and forth, whipping her curtain of dark hair around so fast Jo expected her to get whiplash any second.

Lost in the dance, Blair was oblivious to the man's attention, conscious only of the beat, the music, and Jo's presence, Jo's scent …

The DJ segued into a blend of Prince's "Little Red Corvette" and Sembello's "Maniac". Blair swung her hips; her shining blonde hair flowed like a waterfall around her face as she moved.

The man said something to his dance partner; she nodded and disappeared into the throng of dancers; he approached Jo and Blair.

Who the hell is he? wondered Jo. So freakin familiar … But when we saw him, he was wearin some kinda uniform. He was … he was …

And then she had it.

He was the young doctor who patched her up at the Langley College infirmary a couple of weeks before Christmas, right after David Warner broke her nose.

Aw, for Pete's sake, thought Jo, remembering how taken the young doctor had been with Blair. Great. He's gonna make a pass at her. And I can't tell him to buzz off – not openly, anyhow!

Sure enough, the young man positioned himself roughly halfway between Blair and Jo, smiling pleasantly at both of them while he danced.

He danced well, Jo had to admit, not like a dork – and a hell of a lot better than me! Good thing Blair don't love me for my groove!

Blair was too caught up in her groove to notice the man at first. Blair's eyes were closed, her hair swinging, her hips swinging. When she did open her eyes, they were fastened squarely on Jo.

That's my girl! thought Jo, heart skipping a beat when Blair's warm chocolate eyes, glinting in the strobe lights, looked squarely into her own blue-green eyes.

The doctor finally boogied closer to Jo, not, she was sure, because of her poor-to-mediocre dancing, but because unlike Blair, she had noticed him.

Oldest trick in the book, Jo thought cynically. Get close to the goddess by butterin up the friend.

"Hi," the doctor said, leaning close to Jo's ear. "Glad to see your nose healed!"

"Yeah," said Jo. She hated people getting into her personal space. Only Blair, Mrs. Garrett, her parents and sometimes Tootie and Nat were allowed within that bubble. "Thanks for patchin me up, doc." Now, buzz off, you creep!

What the hell was his name? He had given Jo his card, but she'd shoved it into the pocket of her jacket or her jeans; it was long gone.

The doctor danced toward Blair, then back toward Jo, then back toward Blair again.

He was a good-looking guy, Jo had to admit. And he'd been nice when he treated her at the infirmary, even trying to get to the bottom of who'd slugged her. He'd been too smart to buy her story about getting smacked in the face by a field hockey ball – twice! – although she thought maybe she'd convinced him by the end of the exam.

Jo actually felt a little bad for him, that he was attracted to a woman ten-million miles out of his league, and a woman who would never be attracted to him, or any man. Jo felt a little bad for the doctor – but mostly she felt annoyed that he had to fall for Blair.

The song shifted again, a soft slow burn of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing". It was easier to be heard now. The doctor lightly tapped Blair's arm to catch her attention.

"Hello," he said. "Do you remember me?"

Blair smiled pleasantly. "Of course. You treated Jo at the infirmary."

"That's right."

"Hasn't her nose healed beautifully?" asked Blair.

"Uh, yes. It has." Jo was clearly the last person on his mind. He smiled winningly at Blair.

"I'm sorry," said Blair, "but I don't recall your name, doctor."

"Paul," he said. "Dr. Paul Adams."

"Well, it's lovely to see you again, doctor, and under far more pleasant circumstances."

His smile faltered a little.

He's no dummy, thought Jo. Even filtered through the music and the murmur of multiple conversations, Blair's tone was crystal clear – friendly, but not interested.

"You dance very well," said Paul.

"Thank you, Doctor Adams."

"Please. When the stethoscope comes off, I'm just Paul." He danced a little closer to her. "I don't believe I ever got your name," said Paul.

"I'm Blair Warner. You may call me Blair, if you like."

His smile faltered a little more. He could call Blair by her first name, but her tone made it clear that she was granting a favor, and that he shouldn't expect anything based upon it.

Damn, she's good, thought Jo.

But of course, Blair would have had years of practice, Jo mused. What must it be like, being so beautiful, always the object of attention by boys and men, and never feeling attracted to them?

"Are you a junior?" Paul asked Blair.

She shook her head. "Freshman," she said.

"You're kidding." He was clearly surprised. "I would have said junior, if not senior."

"Freshman," she repeated. "I just graduated from Eastland last year."

Nice! thought Jo. Remind him how damn young you are! Make him feel too old for you!

He danced a little closer to Blair. She danced away, moving closer to Jo.

"Can I buy you girls a drink?" he asked. "That is – you're over eighteen, aren't you?"

"Yes," said Blair, "we are. But we're not drinking yet. We're expecting friends, you see, quite a few friends. It's a sort of party."

"Really?" He was disappointed as hell, but, Jo had to give him credit, he hid it well and he rallied. "What are you celebrating?"

"Love," said Blair. "Family. Friendship. Love in all of its manifestations."

"What a beautiful idea," Paul said earnestly. "Most of the people I know, when Valentine's Day rolls around they just go out and get drunk and try to get, well, try to, ah –"

"I understand," said Blair.

"We live in a cynical world," said Paul. "And it seems to grow more material every day. It's refreshing to hear about young people celebrating love."

"Oh, we're eccentric," Blair said lightly. "We're throw-backs. Positively Pre-Raphaelite."

"You're sure I can't buy you a drink, Blair?"

She shook her head. "Thank you all the same," she said.

Most of the dancers had paired into couples. It was a slow song, a love song. It was awkward, the three of them dancing near each other, Paul not holding Blair or holding Jo.

Jo ached to slip her arms around Blair's full waist, to pull the blonde tight against her …

The doctor was looking thoughtfully at Blair. She was giving him polite, subtly discouraging signs, but he wasn't easily put off when he liked a girl.

"Can I ask you a frank question?" Paul asked Blair.

"Certainly. If you can handle a frank answer."

"If I ask you to dinner sometime, will you accept?"

He smiled winningly at the heiress.

Jeez, buddy, thought Jo, what – does she gotta draw ya a freakin picture?

When it came down to it Jo decided, her own "Keep walkin, nerd!" brush-off was better than Blair's let-'em-down-easy approach. With Jo, a guy knew right away where he stood. With Blair, the let-down was softer but it could take a hell of a lot longer to sink in.

Blair returned the doctor's winning smile.

"That's flattering," she said, "but I'm in a relationship."

Paul made a big show of looking around the dance floor.

"Where is he?"

Right here, jackass, thought Jo. Give it up!

As if the DJ was in synch with Jo, the sultry "Sexual Healing" suddenly phased into a lively, hard-driving dance mix of the Clash's "Rock The Casbah" and Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry".

Blair pointed to one ear and shook her head. Sorry, she telegraphed to Paul, I can't hear you over the music.

Paul's grin faltered.

Startin to get it, pal? thought Jo. She's outta your league! And what you're peddlin ain't on her shoppin list!

Without warning, someone, two someones, flew at Jo, pinning her in enthusiastic hugs.

"What the hell?" Jo demanded, but her exclamation was drowned by the music.

Natalie and Tootie were hugging her.

"Oh my God!" Tootie yelled in Jo's ear, "Jo Polniaczek is dancing!"

"I'm calling the New York Times," shouted Natalie. "Stop the presses!"

Jo scowled, disentangling herself from her two friends, and none too gently.

Tootie and Natalie descended on Blair next, hugging her tightly. Blair returned their hugs with gusto.

"How was the museum?" Blair shouted over the din.

Natalie and Tootie made thumbs-up signs.

"How was the show?" Blair shouted.

Natalie and Tootie made thumbs-up signs again.

Jo glanced over at the bar. Mona, who had to be shorter than five feet tall, was sitting on a bar stool, which put her at face level with Jo's parents. Mona was talking animatedly with Charlie and Rose. Charlie threw his head back and laughed at some anecdote or other.

Paul had danced a few steps away when Nat and Tootie descended, but once the greetings were concluded, and Natalie and Tootie started dancing, creating a loose dance circle with Blair and Jo, Paul danced back to the edge of the circle. He smiled in a friendly way at the Eastland girls.

Tootie grinned at the good-looking stranger. Her thoughts were plain on her face: Hello, handsome!

Natalie lifted her eyebrows and looked to Blair. Hubba, hubba! said Nat's expression. And who is this prime hunka-hunka?

"Natalie, Tootie – this is Dr. Paul Adams," Blair said, raising her voice to be heard above the music. "Doctor Adams – this is Natalie Green and this is Dorothy Ramsey."

Paul smiled politely at the girls as he danced, incorporating a friendly bow into his dance steps.

Tootie circled Paul from the left; Natalie circled him from the right. Within a minute the two friends had the doctor boxed in as they danced around him with sparkly-eyed admiration.

Jo and Blair's eyes met. They both laughed.

That's one way to get rid of an unwanted admirer, thought Jo. Send Tootie Ramsey and 'Boy Crazy' Natalie Green his way!

The expression on Paul's face was priceless. It was warm; it was polite; but he kept looking yearningly in Blair's direction, his eyes wistful …

The next time Jo glanced at the bar, Mrs. Garrett and Drake had arrived. They sat next to her parents and Mona. Not long after, Alec and Boots arrived. After conversing with the older generation for a few moments, Alec led Boots onto the dance floor.

The music was funk laced with a scorching hot Latin beat. Alec was a magnificent dancer, masculine and fluid. He twirled Boots around a few times, then grabbed Blair and danced a few bars with her, and then Jo found herself in his arms, whirling around the floor.

"Alec – what the hell?" she laughed.

"Artemis, you are a goddess," he shouted as he steered her around their dance circle. "But you have to loosen up. What happened to those moves I taught you?"

"I used 'em last night," Jo shouted in his ear. "At the bar. With Blair. But that was different. This is all public, and I can't touch her, and, it's just different."

"Well you can still relax a tad bit more, our Jo. This is like dancing with a robot."

"Eh, bite my robotic ass," shouted Jo.

A moment later Alec spun Jo back toward Blair, then grabbed Tootie and danced off with her.

Tootie was an amazing dancer; the young woman could match Alec step-for-step. Other dancers paused to watch the couple, stepping back to make room for them; there was even a smattering of applause.

While Tootie and Alec tripped the light fantastic, Natalie danced closer to Paul, smiling brightly at him. Nat was no slouch on the dance floor herself. When Paul made a move, Natalie mirrored it. The doctor seemed both amused and impressed, executing ever more complicated steps to see if Nat could keep up with him.

Boots danced closer and closer to Jo, wriggling and gyrating in a sort of anxious hoochie coochie dance.

Blair resisted the urge to hip-check the bony debutante into the next borough.

Boots and I need to talk again about her little crush on Jo …

When Petal and Portia arrived they recognized Mrs. Garrett and Drake and made a beeline for the bar. Jacqueline arrived moments later and did the same. The three friends waved to the musketeers on the dance floor.

Alec's face fell when he saw Jacqueline. The Hepburnesque viscountess looked lovely as ever, with her straight, perfectly groomed, shoulder-length red hair, and her trademark red lipstick. She wore a dark, mannish pantsuit that paradoxically emphasized her femininity. Her slender form trembled with her usual nervous energy.

"Ignore her," Tootie told Alec encouragingly.

"Easy to say," Alec said bitterly.

"Alec … Girls don't like guys who mope. Project confidence! Here." Tootie put Alec's hands on her waist, slipped her arms around his neck. He towered over her, so she practically had to stand on her tip-toes. "You can rhumba – right, Alec?"

"Can I rhumba? Are you jesting? Are there coals at Newcastle?"

"Uh – yes?" Tootie guessed. "I've never been to Newcastle. Alec, can you rhumba or not?"

"I'll let you judge, my young friend."

His feet flashed as they glided around the floor.

"OK," Tootie said a little breathlessly, "you can rhumba!"

At some point, by mutual agreement, that telepathy that friends share, they all made their way to the bar, where the older generation was chatting and nursing their drinks.

Paul hesitated, but "C'mon," Natalie said with an open, friendly smile, taking his hand. He followed her.

Blair ordered a club soda since she was driving. Jo ordered a Bud. Natalie and Tootie ordered Cokes.

The musketeers and their friends traded embraces.

"So," said Petal, a handsome, towering woman, one of the heirs of the unimaginably vast Von Schuylkill fortune, "someone's trying to maim or kill us. Again. Feels like old times."

"What's our plan of attack?" asked Portia, a lithe blonde whose dreamy demeanor concealed a razor-sharp intellect. "If we see Dina, does Jacqueline pummel her, or what do we do?"

"Don't do anythin," Jo said firmly. "Me and Blair and Alec are gonna goad her a little bit, and then when she loses it the bouncers are gonna swarm." Jo looked from Portia to Petal to Jacqueline. "Did you guys warn your folks? About BZ Becker takin down the big families like yours?"

Petal nodded. "I spoke to my father. He said that Becker was acting a little odd at some dinner party, recently, but that as far as he can tell there's nothing untoward in their business transactions."

"Ditto my father and mother," said Portia. "Daddy told me to stick to my medical studies."

"I told my trustee," said Jacqueline. "The New York branch of the family has withered to a twig; we're all in Britain, so a trustee manages our American interests."

"And?" asked Jo.

Jacqueline smiled wryly. "He essentially patted me on the head and told me to go crochet a slip cover. Not in those exact words, you understand, but that was the spirit."

"Did you karate chop him?" Jo asked hopefully.

"Wanted to. Didn't, of course. There are times when I wish I were a plucky American girl from the Bronx. Lovely lot of freedom in that, one imagines."

"Eh, it's got its advantages," Jo agreed. "So, what you're all sayin is, you warned your folks about BZ Becker and they told ya to go play with your dolls?"

"That's about it," said Petal.

"Then I guess we gotta just hope like hell me and Blair are wrong about Becker's big scheme – we gotta hope there ain't a big scheme – and just focus on getting kooky Dina and Devon out of our hair."

"And until they make an appearance, if they make an appearance," said Blair, "let's just enjoy ourselves."

"Of course," Petal said cheerfully. "No one dances their way through dire, dangerous straits with as much aplomb as our crowd!

"I can hardly remember my life before meeting the musketeers," said Jacqueline. "It must have been ponderously dull."

"We are live wires," Natalie agreed. With a mixture of pride and shyness, she held up Paul's hand, which she hadn't released. "Everybody – this is Paul Adams," Nat said. "Doctor Paul Adams."

"Pleased to meet you," Mona told him, leaning forward on her barstool to shake his hand. "My son is a doctor. And Natalie is going to be a doctor. Maybe you can give her some advice?"

"Being a doctor is a noble profession," said Paul. "Nothing is more rewarding than healing people."

"He patched up my beezer," said Jo, touching her nose.

"He did a wonderful job," Boots said dreamily.

Blair put her hand on Jo's shoulder. "Jo – can I borrow you for a minute?" she asked sweetly.

"For a minute, for an hour," laughed Jo. "I'm yours to command."

Blair led her lover to the end of the bar.

"What's up?" asked Jo. "Did you see Dina?"

"No. I just wanted to get you away from that little hussy for a moment."

Jo laughed. "Blair – 'little hussy'? What, are we in the 1800's here?"

"It's not funny," Blair protested.

"C'mon. It is … a little bit," Jo said. "And a little bit sad, too, Boots bein all into me. Cause there's only one girl for me, and you know very well it's you, Blair Warner."

Jo leaned in close, spoke softly in her fiancée's ear.

"Blair, I hope you know that even though I can't hold you right now, I'm holdin you in my mind. Picture my hands on your hips, Blair. I'm kissin your throat, real soft; and my hands are moving up your sides; and I'm cuppin your breasts, babe, your beautiful breasts …"

Blair sighed, picturing every sensual thing Jo whispered to her. The blonde felt a jolt of pleasure and heat between her legs. I want to make love to Jo, thought Blair. Right here, right now …

At the other end of the bar, Boots pouted, darting veiled scowls in Blair's direction. Boots didn't know what Jo was whispering to Blair, but Boots distinctly disliked the little smile hovering on Blair's lips, the faint flush in Blair's cheeks …

"So," Jacqueline said to Alec, giving him a hearty slap on the back, "long time, no see, as our American chums are wont to say."

"I'm not hiding," Alec said a little waspishly. "If you want to speak with me, you know where to find me."

"Why are you such a child, Alec?"

"And why are you so cold?" he countered.

"You're being positively infantile, my lord."

"Am I, my lady?"

"You behave as if I jilted you. It's ridiculous. Alec – I'm for you. As far as I'm concerned, we're together. But I will not agree to an engagement until we've been together for a substantial length of time."

Alec sipped his champagne. "That's not good enough," he said at length. "I am not a piece of furniture that you're leasing on approval with an option to purchase. If you care for me, then you care for me, and you should go all in. And if you won't … if you can't …"

Jacqueline shook her head. "You know I can't abide ultimata, Alec. Never have done."

"It's not an ultimatum. It's how I feel."

"Then stop mooning over me," Jacqueline said brusquely. "If you don't like my terms, chuck them. Chuck me. Find someone else, some girl silly enough to go all in with a cad like you! I wish you luck finding anyone to take that leap!"

"Now see here, Jack, that's not fair! I've been more than patient with –"

"Stop it!" said Tootie, wedging herself between the two. "You're both such brats. Alec – can't you see that Jacqueline's just scared of having her heart broken? And Jacqueline – can't you see how much Alec loves you? Stop beating each other up."

Alec and Jacqueline looked thoroughly annoyed, but as they scowled at the earnest young Eastlander their faces softened little by little, until Jacqueline actually smiled.

"Out of the mouths of babes," she quoted, shaking her head. "I suppose we are being asses."

"Speak for yourself," Alec said. But he smiled too.

"Who are you calling a baby?" Tootie demanded.

"Merely a figure of speech," said Jacqueline. "Truth be told, Tootie, you're wise beyond your years."

"Damn straight," said Tootie. "If you'd all listen to me more often, we wouldn't get into half these messes!"

Alec took Jacqueline's hand, rubbed his thumb over her palm. "Do you want to rewind our conversation? We can imagine that instead of being petulant, I said something charming to you."

"Like what?"

"Like … 'Hullo, Jack'." Alec's clear, sapphire-blue eyes gazed intently into hers. He gently pushed a strand of red hair behind her ear ...

" … and then I pull your panties down, real slow-like," Jo was whispering to Blair, "and I kiss your delicate little brown curls –"

"Dark blonde," Blair whispered.

"Huh?"

"They're dark blonde, darling. My delicate little curls."

"Uh, OK. If you say so. I kiss your delicate little dark blonde curls …"

Further down the bar, Mrs. Garrett was pressing a hand to her forehead.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I try to be as hip as the next person, but this music is just too loud for me. Give me a good boogie-woogie or some swing music any day!"

"I'm with you," Rose said with feeling. "This music, these lights – I feel like I'm having some kind of fit!"

Charlie laughed. "Well, it ain't like the Daisy Room, that's for sure. I remember we danced a few nights away there, Rosie."

"We sure did! But that was music, Charlie," said Rose. "That was real music."

"Every generation prefers its own music," Drake said philosophically. "Lucky for Edna and me that we're the same generation. If you're interested, Charlie, there's a place in midtown that's like the Daisy Room. Big band, swing, the old ballads."

"Really? Thanks for the tip, Drake. Maybe I'll take my fiancée there."

Drake glanced at Rose.

"Oh, not me," Rose said hastily. "Charlie's marrying a different woman. He met her in a coffee shop."

"Jeez, Rosie, could you make that sound more tacky?"

"What's tacky?" asked Rose. "You met her in a coffee shop, didn't you?"

"Carol's the manager," Charlie told Drake. "She manages the mornin shift at the coffee shop."

"Who said she didn't?" asked Rose.

"It's not what you said, Rosie, it's the way you said it."

"I work in a coffee shop," Rose said, her color rising. "Am I tacky?"

"Now, Rosie, you know what I mean."

"Do I?"

Charlie rolled his eyes. Just don't say anythin, he told himself. You're only gonna dig yourself in deeper. Next thing you know, a thirty-foot ladder won't get ya outta the hole you dig …

Blair had never been so wet before – and Jo wasn't even touching her. The things Jo was saying to her, whispering in her ear. Blair leaned back against the bar, lightheaded.

"… And then I press my tongue a little deeper," Jo whispered, "but real gentle-like. And then –"

"Hi, Blair," said a friendly voice not more than a yard away.

Jo jumped like she'd been goosed. What the hell? I was just gettin to the really hot part …

The Fever's manager, Mr. A, stood a little way down the bar, smiling at Blair in a friendly manner.

He had wavy hair, a little long and wild, the way guys were wearing their hair these days. As always he was dressed stylishly.

Mr. A was too far away to have heard what Jo was whispering to Blair – or so I sincerely freakin hope! – but he could tell that the young women had been discussing something confidential.

"Looks like you're conferin," Mr. A said.

"Yes, ah, we're conferring," Blair agreed.

"Frankie and M'bo filled me in on your situation," said Mr. A. "Blair, you know I adore you, angel, but did you have to invite a firebug to my place? I'm kinda attached to it, you know. I'm not gonna be too happy if some nut burns it down."

"She won't," Blair said confidently. "She can't bring anything dangerous in here – not with Frankie and M'bo doing pat-downs."

Mr. A drummed his fingers on the bar.

"Angel, you met many firebugs?"

"Not exactly."

"How many have you met?"

"Counting Dina? One."

"Well I run into a few in my travels, angel. And they don't need any fancy stuff to torch a place. Book of matches and some paper, and they're off to the races."

"Can't Frankie and M'bo confiscate people's matches and lighters?"

Mr. A gestured toward the crowd; more than half of the patrons were smoking cigarettes.

"Oh," said Blair. "I see your point."

"What's the dame's beef with you?" asked Mr. A.

Blair considered how to answer that. "Dina's not stable," Blair said slowly. "She was always high-strung, even as a child. We were friends, but over the years she became jealous of me. You see, her family and my family haven't always been on the friendliest terms. And apparently at some point, Dina crossed some psychological line, and –"

"She's a freakin fruitcake," Jo said bluntly.

Mr. A nodded at Jo. Here's a girl can cut to the chase, he thought. Angel's too sweet, always tryin to see the good in everybody.

"This Dina, she really capable of torchin this whole place?" he asked Jo.

"If she gets the chance, sure," said Jo. "But we wanna draw her out before it comes to that."

"Well, I appreciate that," Mr. A said drily.

Blair put a hand on Mr. A's arm. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "We were so wrapped up in our plan that we never thought to consult you. It was thoughtless."

Mr. A smiled at Blair. He chucked her under the chin. "Well, it ain't like you make a habit of bein thoughtless. I think I can find it in my elephant-hide heart to forgive you."

"You're a dear," said Blair, kissing his cheek.

"Sure I am," he agreed. "But don't let it get around ..."

It was half past eight and then nine o'clock, and there was still no sign of Dina. The musketeers and their friends chatted and danced and nursed their drinks and their sodas, not wanting to get too buzzed to handle Dina when and if she showed.

Natalie and Tootie dragged Mrs. Garrett out onto the dance floor at one point; she taught the musketeers how to boogie-woogie.

Alec danced with Jacqueline and later tangoed with Tootie.

"Thanks for the pep talk," he told her. "I think you might've actually brought Jack and I back together."

"For a few minutes, anyway," said Tootie. "You two are like toddlers! Now – dip me."

He dipped her.

Boots kept maneuvering to dance next to Jo, but Blair continually intercepted her.

The doctor kept maneuvering to dance next to Blair, but Jo intercepted him on one side and Nat intercepted him on the other.

"Nat," said Tootie, when they were touching up their makeup in the overheated, smoky ladies room, "doesn't it bother you that that doctor is obviously into Blair?"

"Of course not," Nat said cheerfully, brushing a mascara wand lightly over her lashes. "Tootie, Blair is like the light in a bug-zapper."

"Excuse me?"

"Blair is the light in the bug-zapper. What attracts the insects? The dazzling light. That's Blair. Let's face it – the girl is gorgeous. So that brings the guys over. And then – zap!"

"Zap?"

"Zap! As soon as the guys are in range, we can go after them."

"Hmm." Tootie considered that, nodded. "OK. I'll buy that."

"Paul – that is, Doctor Adams – only thinks he's into Blair. Because he has eyes. But if I stick close to him, showing off my patented Natalie Green dance moves, and my patented Natalie Green wit, the next thing you know –"

"Zap?"

"Zap!" Natalie agreed.

"He's a lot older than you," Tootie mused. "He must be twenty-five, twenty-six?"

"Pshaw. A lot of husbands are older than their wives!"

"Husband?"

"Tootie, I'll be a senior next year," said Natalie, "and then it's off to Langley. I've got to start planning for the future. Pre-med! Biology! Burning the midnight oil poring over 'Gray's Anatomy'. And someday Paul – that is, Doctor Adams – and I will practice medicine together. After we're properly married, of course." Nat sighed dreamily.

"Are you still going to call him 'Doctor Adams' after you're married?" teased Tootie.

"Only if he calls me 'Doctor Green'. I'm going to keep my last name," Natalie said firmly. "Just because I'll be married doesn't mean I'm giving up my feminist principles."

"I don't know," Tootie said, still skeptical. "I wouldn't buy that wedding dress just yet. He seems really into Blair."

"Bug light, Tootie. Bug light."

"If you say so …"

Jo was finally loosening up a little bit on the dance floor, mirroring some of Blair's dance steps, when she felt a hand fall on her shoulder.

Jo whirled around, fists clenching, ready to punch Dina Becker in the nose.

"Jesus, Polniaczek, you expectin the freakin Norman Conquest or somethin?" demanded Jesse.

The short, tough-as-nails brunette stood in front of her old friend, laughing, arms cocked and ready to defend herself should it prove necessary. Just behind her towered a tall, dark-haired young man with soulful dark eyes – Jo's cousin Pauly Largo.

"Jess! Pauly!" Jo said, delighted. "What the hell are ya doin here?"

"Eh, Farrah invited us," said Jesse. "Said you were all havin some wingding on our turf, and the more the merrier."

"Hey, cuz," said Pauly. He glanced toward the bar where Charlie and Rose were laughing together. "Glad to see you worked out whatever the hell it was with your folks."

"Eh, we're still workin on it," said Jo, embracing her cousin. "But at least we're talkin again." She gripped his upper arms. "Hey, what, you started liftin weights, Pauly? What happened to those pipe cleaners?"

Pauly blushed. He was bashful at the best of times.

"Hey, lay off him," said Jesse. "So he's pumpin a little iron – so what?"

"What are you – his bodyguard?" asked Jo. "Lighten up, for cryin out loud. And what's up with you makin references to the Norman Conquest?"

Jesse buffed her fingernails on her denim jacket. "It's possible that I'm takin a history course at BCC. And it's possible that so far I got a solid B-minus average."

Jo clapped her on the shoulder. "Way to go, Jess! Really! Way to go!"

"Hey, it's no big deal, or whatever. It ain't like I'm a Rhode Island scholar or somethin."

"Rhodes Scholar," said Blair. "It's Rhodes Scholar."

"Eh, you're a Rhodes Scholar," sniped Jesse.

"That's not an insult," said Blair.

"Eh, you're an insult, Farrah."

Blair shook her head. She'd done the right thing. She'd invited Jo's best childhood friend to the gathering. But she and Jesse always seemed to rub each other the wrong way.

Blair embraced Pauly and gave him a peck on the cheek.

"Hi, Blair," he mumbled shyly.

"So glad you could make it," said Blair. She'd had a soft spot for the young man since he'd helped her scour the Bronx, secretly looking for Jo's Kawasaki so Blair could buy it back for the Jo.

"Hey, keep your hands off," said Jesse, getting up in Blair's face.

"I beg your pardon," said Blair, annoyed. She accepted that Jesse was rough around the edges, but really!

"Never mind about beggin my pardon," said Jesse, "just keep your hands to yourself!"

Jo hooted. "You gotta be kiddin! Jess – you and Pauly? Pauly, is this freakin true?"

Pauly blushed to the roots of his hair, but he put an arm around Jesse's shoulder. Jesse leaned contentedly against him, all but preening.

"When the hell did this happen?" asked Jo, delighted.

"We kinda bonded over Christmas," Jesse said. "Drivin up to River Rock in his piece-of-shit van. And then drivin back to the Bronx in his piece-of-shit van. The heater kept dyin, and the engine kept dyin, and we got back into the city on a wing and a prayer. And then when he dropped me off at my buildin, it hit me I was gonna kinda miss yellin at him and complainin about everythin."

Jo punched Jess lightly in the arm. "Well I think it's freakin terrific. Mazel tov!"

"Eh, you know, let's not go nuts," Jesse said. "It ain't even been a coupla months yet. I keep waitin for somethin to frig it up."

"That's the spirit," said Blair. "Don't enjoy love – wait for it to fall apart."

"Get bent, Farrah. No one's talkin to you."

"Hey, Jess," said Jo, "don't talk to her that way. Blair's my best friend. All right? You got it?"

"So tell her to butt out, and we don't got any problem."

"Jess."

Jesse scowled. "Look, maybe I'm a little, you know, on edge knowin how guys look at Farrah. Just tell Blondie to keep away from my guy."

"Believe me," Blair told Jesse, "my interest in Pauly is purely friendly."

"Yeah, well, there's friendly and there's friendly. Just be sure you know the difference."

"Are you threatening me?" Blair demanded. She took a step toward Jesse. Jesse, remembering the steel she'd seen in Blair's eyes after David Warner slugged Jo, took a big step back, practically stepping on Pauly's feet.

"I ain't threatenin ya," said Jess. "But just, you know, don't be kissin on Pauly and makin smart remarks."

"Babe," Jo whispered in Blair's ear, "imagine if Boots came up and kissed me the way you kissed Pauly. I mean, I know it's innocent, but how would you feel?"

Blair sighed. "You're right," she murmured. She turned to the tough little brunette. "Jesse, you're right."

Jesse's eyebrows lifted in surprise. She darted a glance at Jo. "I'm right? What the hell didja say to Farrrah, Jo?"

"You know me – I'm a freakin diplomat," Jo said, grinning.

"Looks like. Huh. All right. If Farrah can be big about it, so can I." Jesse stuck out her hand. "Shake, Farrah."

Blair took the brunette's hand. It was a strong, calloused little hand; Blair shook it firmly.

"Ow," said Jesse, surprised by Blair's powerful grip, which had been developed by more than a decade of controlling Chestnut's reins, of rowing, of skiing.

"Sorry," said Blair. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"For cryin out loud," said Jo. "Can't you two even make peace without fightin?"

As time wore on, there was still no sign of Dina.

At ten p.m. the DJ relinquished the spotlight to a slender, attractive woman with a mane of dark hair and radiant mocha skin. She stood behind an elaborate drum kit.

"Say," Jo said excitedly, "that's that drummer girl. The one that played that time, you remember, Blair, when we were here before Christmas. She's really good."

"I think I remember," Blair said casually. "You liked her music, didn't you?"

"Yeah. She's really good. You don't see a lotta girl drummers."

"Good evening to the Fever!" the drummer said enthusiastically into her mic.

The crowd cheered and clapped.

"It is my very special pleasure to be here tonight," the woman said. "Mr. A told me he had a special request for me to play tonight. Is there a Jo here? Is there someone named Jo Polniaczek?" The woman shaded her eyes with one hand, and looked over the crowd.

Jo blushed. "Aw … Jeez," she said.

"Over here!" Nat and Tootie shouted together, pointing wildly at Jo.

"Cut it out, guys," Jo mumbled, but it was too late. A white-hot spotlight played over the crowd, pausing on Jo. The bright light felt like it was burning her retinas.

"Well, hi there, Jo Polniaczek," said the drummer.

Everyone applauded and whistled.

Jo heard her mother clearly, in the background, telling people, "That's my daughter! That's my Jo!"

How come nobody freakin understands how much I hate the limelight? wondered Jo.

"Jo Polniaczek," said the drummer when the applause died down, "somebody must love you a lot. You've got a secret admirer, Jo."

"Oooh!" said the crowd. Somebody whistled shrilly.

Jo darted a glance at Blair. I'm gonna kill ya, babe, said the glance.

Blair shrugged innocently.

"Jo, your secret admirer must know you're a fan of my music," said the drummer. More whistles and cat-calls. "So, me and the band, we've gotta jet out of here pretty quickly tonight, we've got another gig, but we're gonna play a set, and it's dedicated to you, from your secret admirer."

The drummer turned to her band, had a hushed conversation. The bass player ran through a few chords.

"OK," the drummer said into her mic, "we're gonna start off with something brand new, we're not even recording it 'till next month. Prince wrote it, people. So get ready to dance, Bronx! Welcome to the glamorous life!"

The performer clapped her drumsticks together several times, counting down to the start of the song. The crowd went wild. The band roared into a scorching Latin tune, heavy on percussion, the drummer pounding out rapid beats like a beautiful mad woman. She sang –

"She wears a long fur coat of mink, even in the summer time. Everybody knows from the coy little wink, the girl's got a lot on her mind …"

The Fever went wild, arms and legs thrashing, booties shaking. The musketeer crew was right in the middle of the floor, everyone dancing except for Jo.

Blair nudged Jo with one foot. The blonde smiled at her lover. Darling … dance with me, said her smile.

Jo couldn't dance with Blair, but she could dance next to her. So she did. The driving beat and rhythms were infectious, electrifying …

"Weeeehoooo!" cried Natalie, busting a move.

The drummer sang on in a smooth, beautiful voice ...

"She wants to lead the Glamorous Life; she don't need a man's touch. She wants to lead the Glamorous Life – without love, it ain't much!"

… When the song finally ended, and the band prepared for their next tune, Jo fled the dance floor. Her heart was pounding, her face flushed.

"Is Polniaczek OK?" asked Jesse, concerned. "She looked like she was gonna have a stroke."

"I think she, ah, might've had something that disagreed with her," said Blair.

"Yeah. Like that surprise!" laughed Jess. "Jo freakin hates surprises! Wonder who her secret admirer is? Nobody who knows her too well, that's for sure. Maybe some rich bozo here or somethin." Jesse looked around the room curiously.

Rich bozo? thought Blair. I guess that would be me …

"Well, for cryin out loud, go after her," said Jesse. "You're s'posed t be her best freakin friend, right?"

"You don't have to tell me to go after her," said Blair. "I know to go after her."

"Eh, dry up, Farrah. I'm just freakin tryin ta help."

"She actually is," Pauly said quietly …

In the ladies room, Jo was splashing water on her face. She was alone; everyone else was out on the floor.

Blair locked the door behind her. She went to Jo, stood behind the brunette, put her chin on Jo's shoulder. Blair regarded both their reflections in the blurry mirror.

"I'm sorry, Jo. It was supposed to be fun."

"It was, babe, it was … amazin. I can't even believe you did that for me. I just … see, the way I'm wired, babe …"

Blair put her arms around Jo's waist and pulled the brunette close against her.

"I'm still getting used to it," Blair said, "loving someone who doesn't love attention. To me, wanting attention is, well –"

"As natural as breathin," suggested Jo.

"Yes," Blair admitted. "I love attention."

"You're kiddin? I better make a note of that."

"Be nice, darling," Blair chided gently. "I know I like attention. And I didn't always receive it when I was a child. I can't … it's very hard for me to imagine what it feels like not to want it."

"I don't mind a little attention," said Jo, "if I'm doin somethin. You know what I mean? Like if I'm runnin up and down the hockey field, or I'm racin my bike, if I know people are watchin me, it gives me a kinda kick. But if I'm just standin there, like a freakin nerd, and everyone's starin at me outta the blue –"

"I'm sorry, Jo. I think I really get it this time. This time it's really going to sink in."

"I hope so. But, ah," Jo grinned at their reflections in the mirror, "I ain't gonna hold my breath. You can kinda be a slow learner sometimes."

"Is that so?" laughed Blair. "I'm sorry to hear you say that. Because I was going to try a special move that I read about in 'Cosmo'." She tugged gently at Jo's shirt, pulling it free from her slacks …

"Hey!" someone bellowed outside the ladies room. Someone pounded violently on the door. "Hey, I gotta go! Lemme in! Why the hell's this door locked?"

Jo sighed. "To be continued," she said, tucking her shirt back in.

"Oh, let her knock," coaxed Blair.

"No way, babe. That dame sounds like friggin King Kong! We keep her locked out there, guess who has to fight her when we finally come out?"

"Darling," said Blair, nuzzling Jo's neck, "when everything's over, when Dina's in custody, let's stay up all night."

"If Dina ever freakin gets here, sure."

"Let's stay up all night making love and watching the sun rise, Jo. You don't have class until tomorrow afternoon." She bit Jo's earlobe. Jo shivered with pleasure.

Damn Dina! She better get here soon …

Jo opened the door. The woman who'd been pounding on it was a blonde bombshell roughly half the size of the Empire State Building. She glared at Jo and Blair. "What the hell was that about?" the woman demanded, blue eyes flashing belligerently.

"I thought you hadda go," scowled Jo. "You gotta go, freakin go! Stop standin there flappin your gums!"

"Eh, bite me," said the woman, shoving past Jo and Blair and pulling the door closed behind her.

"I thought you didn't want to fight her," said Blair, baffled.

"I don't."

"Then why did you insult her like that?"

"So I wouldn't have to fight her."

Blair shook her head. Many nuances of the Bronx still eluded her. "Jo – that doesn't make any sense."

"Sure it does. See, if I insulted her too much, she'd hafta pop me one. But if insult her just the right amount, she knows I got some sand, so she doesn't wanna fight me unless she has to."

Blair stared at her.

Jo laughed. "I'll explain it later. Since we're gonna be stayin up all night and everythin. Come on, babe. I like this song …"


It was fun to toss back a few drinks, and dance, and gab with her parents, and Mrs. G, and the musketeers, and new friends like Petal, and old friends like Jess; it was fun, but by eleven o'clock, Jo's nerves were strained.

"Where the hell is she?" Jo whispered to Blair.

"I don't know," Blair said helplessly.

Jo scanned the crowd.

As the night wore on, more and more patrons had arrived, until the dance floor was a writhing, pulsing mass of humanity. The pretty drummer and her band had left after one set, and a new DJ was creatively mixing song after song, phasing one into the other while the Bronx danced its collective ass off.

So crowded now, thought Jo. Dina or Devon or both could be hidin in the crowd. If they got past Frankie and M'bo. Some disguise, maybe. Least we know they won't have a gun. A knife; maybe they'll have a knife. There were plenty of ways to pack a knife, Jo knew, so a pat-down would miss it …

"You know I ain't a wimp," Jo said to Blair, "but I can't take this much more."

"I know. Look." Blair held her right hand out in front of her. It trembled. "Adrenalin," she said.

Jo smiled. Adrenalin! She remembered her own adrenalin, when she and Blair had first kissed. Jo had been shaking like a leaf in a spring breeze …

"At least the kids are havin a good time," said Jo. Tootie was teaching a group of dancers how to do the "Flashlight" routine she'd choreographed at Petal's Halloween party. Natalie was sitting at the bar, sipping a Coke and listening raptly to something Doctor Adams was telling her.

"He's too old for her," said Blair, knitting her pretty dark brows.

"He sure is!" Jo agreed. "We gotta nip that in the bud, presto-pronto."

"But not tonight. Tonight is all about love."

"Yeah, sure," said Jo. "Love, and homicidal freakin maniacs."

"Hey, Polniaczek," said Jesse, wedging herself between Jo and Blair, "you got a sec? I wanna talk to you real quick."

"Course. Shoot."

Jesse darted a glance at Blair. "I wanna talk to you," Jesse told Jo. "It's kinda private."

Blair rolled her eyes.

"OK," Jo told Jesse. "Just, ah, let's step into my office," she said, heading for an alcove near the rest rooms.

"Aaaaayyyy," said Jesse, doing her best "Fonz" impression.

Jo laughed.

When they were standing in the alcove, away from anyone else, Jesse stuffed her hands in the pockets of her denim jacket, rocking back and forth on her feet.

"So shoot," said Jo.

"Look … Jo … You remember what I told ya at Christmas?"

"Jess, we talked for freakin hours over Christmas," laughed Jo. "We talked about everythin but the kitchen sink. You gotta be a little more specific."

"You remember. That thing."

"What. That, ah, that thing growin on your aunt's elbow? Did she get it checked out?"

"No, Jo – the thing. About Farrah."

Ah! When Jess warned me that she thought Blair might be 'warm for my form'.

Jo felt her cheeks flush.

"Yeah, I see you remember," said Jess. "Well I been watchin Farrah real close all night."

"Jess –"

"Look, you don't gotta thank me. What are friends for, right?"

"Jess –"

"So, I'm tellin ya, Polniaczek, whenever Blair thinks no one's lookin at her, she looks at you all, all kinda, dopey," said Jess. "I swear to God, I really dig Pauly, but I don't even look at him half as dopey as Farrah looks at you. At least I frickin hope I don't!"

"Jess –"

"That's how it goes with these richies sometimes. They get all wound up, with all their freakin money and their, ya know, just the whole la-di-da lifestyle. They get a little twisted."

"Blair ain't twisted, Jess."

"Damn, I wish I had one of them Polaroid cameras," said Jesse. "If you could just see the expression on her face, you'd know what I'm talkin about. And that whole thing about a secret admirer, dedicatin that song to ya? I was watchin her face, after, and I swear to God it was her!"

"Jess …" How do I tell her? Do I tell her? I guess if I'm gonna … The best thing is just, say it straight out … "Jess, I'm gonna tell you somethin," said Jo, "but you gotta take it to the grave."

"I knew it," said Jess. "She is warm for your form!"

"Jess. What I tell you – you gotta swear you'll take it to the grave. Pinky swear."

"Of course." The two childhood friends crooked their pinkies, linked them together. "So come on," said Jess. "Spill. Whaddya gonna do about it?"

"Jess, if what I tell you gets around the neighborhood, I'll freakin kill you. I'm not playin."

"Of course! I pinky-swore, didn't I?"

Jo nodded. "See … It's like this, Jess. Farrah, I mean Blair, is warm for my form."

"I knew it! I freakin knew it!" crowed Jesse.

"But it don't bother me."

"Come on," scoffed Jesse. "Nobody's that good a friend – not even you, Polniaczek. It's gotta creep you out a little bit."

Jo shook her head. "No. Not at all."

"For cryin out loud. What are they doin, brainwashin ya at that school? You memba those teachers, when we were kids, the ones that used to make goo-goo eyes at each other? And we found out they lived near the school, and we put those burnin bags of dog crap on their porch?"

"Jess, we're not eight anymore," Jo said gently. "Long past."

"But, I mean, how can ya just accept somethin like that? There's bein a friend and there's bein a saint. Does she know you know?"

"Yeah. She does. See … it's like … it's like …"

So much for just sayin it straight out, Jo thought wryly. She took a deep breath.

"I feel the same way," said Jo.

"The same way as what?" asked Jess, confused.

"The same way Farrah, I mean Blair, feels."

Jesse bit her lip.

She glanced across the room at Blair, then back at Jo, then back at Blair, then back at Jo again.

"Jo … You gotta be kiddin."

Jo shrugged. "I know it don't make any sense –"

"It's freakin crazy, Jo!"

"But there it is. Jess … I freakin love her."

Jesse shook her head, like one time when they were at the YMCA pool when they were little, and Jess got water in her ear and she was trying to shake it out.

"No," said Jesse. "No freakin way. You've been brainwashed by a richie lesbo in snobbo city. We gotta, like, de-program you or somethin. There was this movie on the late show the other night, me and Pauly watched it, and there was this shrink guy they hired after this kid was in a cult –"

"Jo don't need to be de-programmed," Pauly said quietly.

He stood behind Jesse, placing his strong hands on her shoulders. He kneaded her shoulders in a comforting gesture. "I wasn't meanin to eavesdrop," said Pauly, "just wanted to see if you guys were OK. So that's what got Aunt Rose all crazy, huh, Jo? You and Blair?"

"Yeah," said Jo.

Pauly nodded. "I think I kinda knew," he said.

"How could you know?" Jesse demanded. "Who the hell could figure that? Farrah? And Jo?"

"I ain't exactly a rocket scientist," said Pauly, "bein the Largo screw-up, and all, but when you're off to the side a lot you get pretty good at watchin people. So, your parents are here, Jo. That mean they're tryin to make peace with this?"

"Yeah. They're tryin," Jo said.

Pauly nodded again. "You and Blair got this special bond, Jo. I've seen it. And Blair's so, so damn special. For what it's worth, you got my vote."

"Now just a freakin minute," said Jesse, looking over her shoulder at Pauly. He was so much taller than she was; she had to strain her neck to look up at him. "Whaddya mean, they got your vote? You and me are a package deal now. You can't be givin people your vote on stuff without talkin with me!"

"Jo's my cousin," Pauly said steadfastly. "And Blair's my friend. And they got my vote."

"Well who says they don't got my vote too? I'm just sayin we need to coordinate this shit, Pauly."

Pauly sighed. He looked at Jo. "Blair bust your chops?" Pauly asked his cousin.

"Only every other minute," said Jo. "Get ready to be coordinated, Pauly. A lot. There's lots of coordinatin. Plans, and clothes, and friends … pretty much everythin."

"Sounds exicitin," said Pauly.

"It ain't dull," Jo agreed.

Jesse shook her head from side to side, like she was still trying to get that pool water out of it. "It just don't make sense, Jo. You ain't like that. You never were like that. I mean – Eddie. Christ! What would Eddie think about this?"

"Dunno," Jo said. "He stopped writin to me a while ago. Last I heard he was stationed around Italy. He sounded happy. I think Eddie … we loved each other, ya know? He'd want me to be happy."

"And Farrah makes you happy?"

"Yeah."

"Well that is the most un-frickin-believable part of this freak show! I can see Farrah makin somebody crazy, or pissed off, or constipated – but happy?"

"Jess, look, you're my best friend from the neighborhood, so you got some latitude. But you need to stop insultin my girl."

"Your girl! Well heaven flippin help us! Your girl. I dunno, I just …" She trailed off.

"C'mon, babe," Pauly told Jesse, "how 'bout we go sit down for awhile? Take a load off."

"Yeah," Jess said. "That's a good idea … Feel like I'm either gonna faint or puke …"

Jo leaned against the alcove, rubbing her forehead, just above her right eye. She was getting a tension headache.

"You told them," Blair said softly.

Jo looked up; Blair was standing in front of her, looking concerned.

"Yeah," said Jo.

"And they took it … OK?"

"Pauly's great with it," said Jo.

"I had a feeling he might suspect," Blair mused. "Still waters run deep, and he doesn't miss much. You think I'm just being polite when I say I never could have found your bike without his help, but it's true. So … How did Tatum O'Neal take it?"

"Blair –"

"I'm sorry. I'm nervous. You know how catty I can be when I'm nervous."

"Yeah, I know the drill, babe. Jesse took it like I kinda figured she would if I ever told her. She didn't believe it, and then she thought you brainwashed me, and then she started really tryin to wrap her mind around it."

"All that in a few minutes?"

"Jess is a little friggin mercurial – in case you never noticed."

"I suppose she's really going to hate me now."

"Blair, Jess doesn't hate you. She doesn't know you well enough to hate you."

"Har-har."

"What I mean is, you're just this very different person that she doesn't understand, she's got no frame of reference for you, and now throw into the mix that we're boinkin each other."

Blair lifted one eyebrow.

"I mean, that we're makin love with each other," Jo said hastily. "And, forget the sex, just that we're in love, that we have those tender kinda feelins for each other, that's pretty tough for her to take. But she doesn't hate you, babe."

"I'll believe that when I see it," Blair said skeptically.

"Well I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for her to send you a freakin Hallmark card," said Jo, "but I think she's gonna come around."

"I hope so." Blair sighed. "I hate to admit it, Jo, but I actually kind of admire the little delinquent. And even if I didn't, she's important to you. So I want her to like me."

"Plus, you just want everyone to like you."

"There's that too," Blair admitted.

"Well, babe, for what it's worth, I kinda like you." Jo smiled her sweet, crooked smile.

Blair's heart skipped a beat.

Across the dance floor, the DJ phased into a sultry love ballad, Patti Austin and James Ingram singing "Baby Come To Me".

Jo looked around. Everybody was at the bar or on the dance floor. No one seemed to be looking at them. Jo hooked her fingers through Blair's belt loops, pulled the blonde as close to her as she dared.

"I love you so much, Blair," Jo said.

"I love you too, Jo."

"I wanna kiss you right now. I wanna kiss you so bad. But we can't."

"I know."

Blair reached down, twined her fingers through Jo's. Blair's body blocked their hands from the view of anyone at the bar or on the dance floor.

Blair sang to Jo in her husky, beautiful voice.

"Baby, come to me; let me put my arms around you. This was meant to be, and I'm oh so glad I found you, need you every day, got to have your love around me …"

Jo felt tears pricking her eyes. Not because she was sad. On the contrary.

My whole life, thought Jo, I'll never have a bigger blessin than Blair, my girl, my love …

Blair's eyes were damp too, and shining with an inner light as she sang.

"Can I get you anythin?" asked a loud, annoying female voice just behind Blair.

Jo glanced past Blair. A skinny waitress in a white shirt, dark skirt and stiletto heels, gold hoop earrings, long hair piled in a frowsy 'do on top of her head. She balanced a tray on one hand.

Enough with the freakin interruptions! thought Jo. First Godzilla poundin on the bathroom door, now a freakin refugee from Mel's Diner! Typical neighborhood waitress, offerin you crap when you don't want anythin, nowhere to be freakin found when you do!

"We're good," said Jo tersely. "All set here."

The lucky thing, Jo reflected, was that where the waitress was standing, directly behind Blair, she couldn't see that Jo and Blair's fingers were interlaced ...

"Are you sure?" the waitress asked in her loud, annoying voice.

"Yeah. We're sure."

"We've got a special on tuna salad," the waitress insisted, stepping closer to Blair.

For cryin out loud! Tuna salad? What kinda freakin nightclub is this?

Later, Jo would blame Peekskill, and Eastland, and Langley, and Manhattan for dulling her street senses and her instinct for danger.

"Instead of sensing something was seriously wrong, I was clueless. And annoyed. I was annoyed with 'the help', like a damn snotty debutante."

Jo would blame Peekskill and Eastland and Langley and Manhattan … but mostly she blamed herself …

Two things happened at the same time: Blair turned to face the waitress, and the waitress stepped toward Blair.

"Thank you, but we don't –" said Blair, and then she fell silent. She swayed a little bit.

Jo put her hands on Blair's shoulders to steady her.

"Don't fall over, Blondie," Jo joked. Blair musta had more to drink than I thought!

To the waitress, finishing Blair's thought (but without the "thank you"), Jo said "We don't need any tuna salad. Or anythin. We're good here." Now buzz off!

Blair leaned back heavily against Jo.

"Hey, Blair, steady on, old girl," joked Jo. She kept one hand on Blair's shoulder, slid the other down to the small of Blair's back.

How much did she drink? Though, come to think of it, she's been drinkin club soda, on account of she's drivin.

"You sick, babe?" Jo whispered in Blair's ear. She couldn't see Blair's face, supporting her from behind this way.

"My stomach … feels funny," Blair said in a strangely distant voice.

The waitress was standing right in front of Blair.

"Hey, dingy, make yourself freakin useful," Jo said edgily. "My friend is sick. Go get that older woman, the redhead at the bar. She's a nurse."

The waitress didn't move. She was staring at Blair.

Blair slumped to the floor, gradually, a slow-motion collapse. Jo got her arms under Blair's armpits, tried to hold her vertical, but Blair was dead weight. She slumped on the ground, half pinning Jo under her.

Now Jo felt it, an icy finger on her spine.

Because the waitress was still standing there, staring down at them, not making any move to get help.

With the light behind her, the waitress' face was in shadow. There was nothing distinct about her. She was a silhouette, a caricature. The hoop earrings; the blouse and skirt; the stiletto heels; the big hair piled on her head.

Typical neighborhood waitress, thought Jo. Perfect disguise for a neighborhood place.

Jo laced her fingers across Blair's stomach, tried to help Blair sit up.

"Jo … I feel so strange," Blair said distantly.

"I know. Just relax, babe."

The fabric of Blair's dress was warm and damp where it stretched across her stomach. Jo could smell the blood now, coppery and strong. Jo's fingers were sticky with Blair's blood.

"Dina," Jo said, looking up at the 'waitress,' wanting to claw the bitch's eyes out, but knowing that would do nothing to help Blair, "get the redhead at the bar. Get her over here and then take off. I won't follow you. Please."

It took all of Jo's strength to keep her voice steady and reasonable. For Blair, she thought. For Blair …

Dina tilted her head. It was unsettling, the dark, shadowed oval of her face and the light behind her. Jo couldn't get a read on her, couldn't see what affect, if any, her words had had. Jo could see the knife now, a thin, ugly blade in Dina's right hand. It gleamed wet with blood.

"Please get the redhead," said Jo.

"Blair tried to teach me how to make tuna salad one time," said Dina.

Blair stirred against Jo. She tried to look up, couldn't lift her head. "Dina," she mumbled.

"That was very mean," said Dina, "what you and Blair did to me at Petal's. You tried to make a fool of me."

"We were bitches," Jo said evenly. "You have every right to be pissed, and you made your point. But please get the nurse."

"Daddy is fixing everybody tomorrow," said Dina. "And I'm fixing Blair. And you. That boy … Alec … I don't care about him. He's not anybody."

Blair's head fell back heavily against Jo's chest. Blair's eyes closed.

Christ, she's bleeding so much, Jo thought frantically, feeling the blood flow faster through Blair's dress, through Jo's fingers.

"Hang on, Blair," Jo said loudly. "Stay with me, huh? It's gonna be OK."

"They always say that on TV," Dina said, "but it never is."

Come on, Alec, thought Jo, wonder where we are. Wonder where we are and come lookin for us!

But she could see Alec across the floor, dancing close with Jacqueline, his handsome cheek pressed to hers. Jo and Blair were the last people on his mind right now.

Natalie was dancing with the doctor, Jess was dancing with Pauly, and Tootie and Portia and Petal were dancing in a group. Mrs. Garrett and Drake were making goo-goo eyes at each other at the bar. Charlie and Rose were talking amiably at the bar, about old times, maybe.

It was all so fucking pleasant. And Blair was bleeding out in Jo's arms.

"Get the redhead," said Jo. "Or the man dancing with Natalie. He's a doctor. Please, Dina. And then you can go. We never saw you here. We'll never look for you."

"I don't want to go," Dina said.

"What do you want? Whatever it is, we'll get it for you."

"I want to watch it happen," said Dina.

"Watch what happen?"

"I want to see her die," Dina said.

A cold wave of fury swept over Jo. She looked away, so that Dina couldn't read her expression.

If Jo could have moved Blair off of her safely, somehow, if she could have got to her feet, got her hands on Dina Becker, Jo would have killed Dina right then, right there …

"Tomorrow my father kills the gods of New York," Dina said conversationally, "and tonight I kill Blair Warner. In my own small way, I'm contributing to the Becker legacy."

"Hang in there," Jo whispered in Blair's ear. "You're gonna be OK. Hang on." She pressed her lips to Blair's temple.

Blair's lips moved. She said something; the words were so faint Jo couldn't hear them.

Jo leaned closer to Blair's mouth. "What is it, babe?"

"Cold," whispered Blair.

Christ – that's not a good sign! thought Jo. She swallowed her fear.

"I know. I'm sorry, Blair, but we're gonna get you warm real soon," Jo promised with a confidence she didn't feel.

She laced her fingers tighter over Blair's stomach, pressed harder, trying futilely to staunch the blood.

"You don't even belong in this world," said Dina.

Jo looked around the room. If only she could signal her friends somehow, but with the music, the conversations, the pulsing lights, what could she do that anyone would notice?

"I was born in the Bronx," said Jo. "This is my world."

Dina shook her head. "I don't mean here. I mean with Blair, and her other friends. Society. And now, thanks to Daddy, it isn't their world either. Not anymore."

Jo decided to try another tack.

If I can get Dina to come closer, maybe I can grab the knife from her …

"Stab me too," Jo said bluntly.

"What?" Finally, something Jo said penetrated Dina's psychotic fog, caught her interest.

"Stab me," Jo repeated. "Blair's everything to me. I don't want to live without her."

"That's pathetic," Dina said haughtily.

"I know. We're pathetic. I'm pathetic. So stab me. Put me out of your misery."

"You're not worth killing. You're nobody."

"I meant something to Blair."

"No," Dina said. "Since you want me to do it – no. I won't give you the satisfaction."

"But I saw you hurt Blair," said Jo, changing tack rapidly, trying not to sound as desperate as she felt. "Dina – I can tell the police. I can testify against you. Even your Daddy's money can't help if there's an eyewitness. You know. You've seen that on TV."

Dina was silent, mulling that over.

"You don't want to go back to Bellevue," said Jo.

Dina shivered. Jo knew she was finally on the right track, finally touching the right pressure points.

"They'll send you to Bellevue if you don't kill me," said Jo. "You'll never get out of there. You have to shut me up – and quick."

Dina stepped closer. Jo still couldn't see Dina's face, but from the young woman's movements Jo could tell that she was wary. Dina crouched down slowly, knife held out in front of her but close to her body.

C'mon, just a little closer, thought Jo. Just a little closer, you bitch.

Jo was coiled, ready to grab for the knife …

"No," said Dina, pulling back. "I see it in your face. You're going to hurt me."

Dammit!

"How can I hurt you?" asked Jo. "I'm holding Blair. And I don't want to hurt you. I just want to die."

"No," Dina said again. "You want to live. I see it in your eyes."

Damn, damn, damn!

Dina stood up straight, and took a full step back.

I'll never reach her, Jo thought desperately. What can I do? What can I do? Blair's blood was flowing faster through her fingers. Blair was unconscious now, dead weight in Jo's arms …

"I think she's almost dead," Dina said clinically.

There was a movement to the left, a blur of dark fabric.

"Pardon me," Boots said cheerfully, trying to step past Dina. "I need to use the WC."

Dina was startled, but too full of adrenalin to falter. She moved lightning fast, pinning the skinny debutante's arms to her side, holding the bloody blade to Boots' pale throat.

"Gravy!" said Boots. She looked down at Jo and Blair, glanced over at Dina. "Dina – I didn't know you worked here."

Jo laughed a little hysterically.

You couldn't tell with Boots, sometimes, whether she was out-to-lunch or whether she was being snide. Either way, it was a good line. Dina – I didn't know you worked here …

"Should I scream for help, Jo?" asked Boots. "I feel like I should scream for help."

"No one will hear you," said Jo. "And Dina will probably cut your throat if you try."

"I wouldn't like that," said Boots.

C'mon, Boots, thought Jo, stomp on Dina's foot, elbow her gut, do somethin red-blooded and get away from her and raise the alarm!

But Boots stood frozen in Dina's grip, as cool and still and useless as a popsicle.

"Let Boots go," said Jo. "She won't cause any trouble. I'm the one could cause you trouble, Dina. Let Boots go and finish what you started with me."

"Don't you touch Jo!" Boots said with spirit. She wriggled in Dina's arms.

Great! thought Jo. Now she plays hero!

Dina kept her grip on Boots with difficulty. Boots was bony but surprisingly strong and flexible as a snake. Dina kept hold of Boots but the knife slipped out of her fingers.

"A-ha!" shouted Mona, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, a bottle of wine in her hand.

Startled, Dina finally lost her grip on Boots, who wriggled away and crouched down next to Jo and Blair.

Dina turned on the old lady, but Mona had wound up and now she swung the bottle of wine like a baseball bat.

The heavy bottle caught Dina square on the left side of her head with a loud CRACK!

Dina staggered back.

The bottle shattered, and the air was suddenly pungent with the fragrance of expensive red wine.

Blood and wine rolled down the left side of Dina's face. She sank to her knees, eyes impossibly large. She fell forward, slowly. Her head thudded on the floor.

"Get the doctor!" Jo shouted at Boots. "He's dancing with Natalie! Get him and Mrs. G. Now!"

Boots ran onto the dance floor, toward Natalie and Doctor Adams.

Mona crouched next to Jo and Blair.

She took one of Jo's hands, smoothed Blair's hair out of her eyes.

"it will be all right, my dear," said Mona. "Everything will be all right."

Jo laughed, and the laugh became a sob. She tightened her grip on Blair.

"They always say that on TV," said Jo, "but it never is."

"Shh." Mona squeezed Jo's hand. "I promise you, Jo – everything will be all right."

The music stopped suddenly. You could have heard a pin drop in the big space. The strobe lights fell still and then the bright house lights flashed on, so intense that Jo squinted her eyes against them.

"Over there!" someone shouted.

"Someone call the cops!" yelled someone else.

Footsteps pounded toward them, so many that Jo felt the floor vibrate under her.

"I'm a doctor. Let me through!" That was Paul. At last …

Jo must have blacked out for a minute. When she came to again, Paul was holding Blair, his own jacket folded and pressed against her stomach, soaking through with blood.

Very faintly, filtering from the streets through the outer doors and the foyer, came the wail of sirens.

"I'm riding in the ambulance," Jo told Paul. "If she needs blood, take mine."

"Be quiet," he said. "You're in shock."

"I'm in shock? Christ." She tried to sit up. A million dots swam in front of her eyes, and she fell back into someone's arms.

"Jo!" cried a frightened young voice.

That sounds like Tootie …

Jo looked around the room, at all the faces ringing them, some concerned, some scared, some frankly curious. So many strangers. But there were Nat and Tootie and Charlie and Rose and Alec and Jesse and Pauly. And there were Petal and Portia and Jacqueline and Boots. Jo tried to smile reassuringly at all of them. She tried to make a thumbs-up sign.

"Just lie back," Mrs. Garrett said comfortingly, close to her left ear. Mrs. Garrett was crouched next to Jo, holding her.

"Everything will be fine," said Mona.

Mrs. Garrett and Mona; between them they were supporting Jo, had kept her from banging her head on the floor.

Jo's glance flicked to Blair again. The blonde's face was so white, like paper. It was as if she had no blood left in her.

Jo tried to lift her arm, to reach out for the girl, but Mrs. Garrett and Mona held her back.

"Blair needs medical attention," said Mrs. Garrett. "You want what's best for Blair, I know."

"I do," said Jo. "I do."

She looked away from Blair, to where Dina was sprawled balanced on her knees, her bloody head pressed against the floor at an impossible angle. Someone had thrown a white tablecloth over Dina and it was soaking through with blood.

"Mona," whispered Jo. "You … I think maybe you …"

"I know," said Mona. "I did. And I would do it again."


Monday, February 13, 1984. Manhattan Memorial Hospital.

Jo and Alec sat on either side of Blair's bed in the heiress' private hospital room. The pale winter afternoon light seeped through the curtains.

Jo was mussed, with dark circles under her eyes. Alec was uncharacteristically unkempt, face unshaven, chin and jaw dark with stubble, his dark curls corkscrewing wildly in different directions.

Blair had been sleeping fitfully since her surgery that morning. She was unconscious at the moment, connected by wires and tubes to a variety of machines and IVs. Blair was as pale as snow. Her face was like a carven marble mask on a princess' sarcophagus.

"You're all right, Artemis – aren't you?" Alec asked Jo.

Jo nodded. "Clean bill of health."

"Jo … You don't have to be brave with me."

"Eh, who's bein brave? So they say I got a little shock, big deal. Nothin compared to what happened to Blair."

Alec nodded.

Jo ran a hand through her mussed hair, making it even wilder.

"We shoulda figured on a waitress," said Jo. "It's freakin classic, right? Of course Dina wasn't gonna try to come in as a guest. It's like Chesterton wrote – no one pays attention to people in uniform."

"Don't blame yourself," Alec said quietly. "Dina was a very sick girl, with a sick obsession. There was no way for us to predict exactly what she'd do. And now … she won't bother you or Blair any longer."

Jo shifted nervously in her chair.

"Mona's gonna be OK – right? I mean, she was protectin us. Hell, she was savin us!"

"The police have all of the facts," said Alec. "One hopes they'll make the proper conclusions."

Jo snorted. "Alec – I think you and me have had some very different experiences with the cops. Yeah, most of 'em are cool, but there's some rotten apples in the bunch; in the DA's office, too. Who knows what they're gonna conclude, specially if BZ Becker starts throwin his money around! We gotta have a lawyer standin by for Mona, just in case she needs one." She pushed her hands through her hair again. "Do we got any lawyers in our crowd?"

"I took the liberty … When it looked at first, as if Aphrodite wouldn't, ah, pull through," Alec cleared his throat, brushed impatiently at his eyes, "I telephoned Eduardo. Tootie gave me his number. He's flying up today. To be with Blair, obviously, because he loves her like his own child. And to defend Mona, should that prove necessary."

Jo nodded. "That's perfect," she said. "Has, ah, has anyone called Blair's folks? Cause if not I should prob'ly –"

"It's taken care of," Alec assured her. "Your parents called them, as a matter of fact."

Jo's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

"My Ma and Pop? Tried to call Monica and David Warner?"

"They thought Blair's parents would want to know directly that Blair was wounded. But they couldn't locate David. I left messages for him at the Dakota and his office. It appears he's literally in the air, en route to Tokyo. Your mother spoke to Monica, but Rose said … Rose said Monica was so drunk she was incoherent."

"That sounds about right," Jo said bleakly. "So … Once Monica sobers up, we can expect her around here, chewing the scenery and making it all about her."

"Doubtless," said Alec, "the bloody harridan! Drunk or sober she's sure to make a scene. How someone as wonderful as Blair came from parents like that …"

"I think she was a changelin," said Jo. She touched Blair's pale cheek. "Alec, I know Monica's a bitch on wheels, but she is Blair's Ma. When Monica gets here could she, I mean …"

Alec followed Jo's train of thought. "You're not going anywhere, Jo. If Blair were a minor Monica could call the shots, but Blair's nineteen. And as Blair's fake fiancée, I shall insist that you remain at Blair's bedside with me."

Jo nodded gratefully. She stroked Blair's hair. "What did the doctors say – exactly? How bad is it?"

"Blair lost a lot of blood, but none of her vital organs were damaged, thank God."

"Ain't they all pretty vital?"

"Some more than others, Jo. Blair's stomach was damaged but she'll heal. The concern now is infection but they'll keep her under observation. Jo, Blair will be back home before we know it."

Back home … Christ, that sounds good, thought Jo. Back home, at River Rock. And if I never see Manhattan or the Bronx again, it'll be too soon!

"What about the papers?" Jo asked. "The news?"

Alec shook his head, baffled. "Nobody's picked up the story. It's as if it never happened. The world's wealthiest heiress, murderously attacked by another debutante in a Bronx nightclub – I'd have thought it would be all over the news by now."

"Becker killed it," Jo said confidently. "His daughter – you know? He's not gonna let that cat outta the bag. It's so fuckin tragic. I mean, she was a creep, but, to get that unhinged – ya know? And for it to end like that …"

"But the amount of money Becker must have spent to kill the story, Jo! It staggers the mind. It's not in any of the papers, nor on the radio or television. Not yet, anyway."

"Whatever the cost, he'd spend it," said Jo. "To protect Dina's name. And his own!"

Alec shook his head darkly. "There's no word yet about the nefarious business deals he's supposed to be transacting, taking on the Warners and the Von Schuylkills and so forth. Maybe that was all smoke."

"Maybe. We can hope."

Jo stretched; her back was stiff from spending so many hours in the chair. "Look, Alec, I know I bust your chops a lot, but, thanks, you know, for takin the lead while I was out."

"Artemis … There's no need to thank me. At any rate," Alec strove valiantly for a light tone, "I need to keep in practice when it comes to my little ruses. We confidence men can't afford to become rusty. Nothing like the old 'phony fiancée' routine. And I'm not ashamed to say I played the nobility card."

"Ha! Good for you," said Jo. "Least your title's worth somethin."

"It is tremendously useful sometimes, being a lord," mused Alec. "Especially here. Americans are wild about titles, especially the ones that say titles are crap. When I told the doctor chappies that I was Lord Nethridge, Blair's fiancée, and that her father was out of the country, they couldn't give me enough details about Blair's condition and the whole damn incident."

He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. "Jo … There's one thing …" He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

"Yeah?" Jo prompted.

"When Dina stabbed Blair, there was internal damage. Blair's stomach, but also ..."

Jo leaned forward in her chair, galvanized. "What is it? What's wrong? Did it, did Dina hit one of Blair's kidneys, or somethin? Cause Blair can have my kidney! Whatever she needs."

Alec shook his head in the negative. "Blair's kidneys are fine. But her reproductive organs were wounded. I don't know if it will matter to Blair, given your situation, but she won't be able to carry children."

Jo took a deep breath.

"Do you know how she felt?" Alec asked delicately. "About carrying children?"

Jo nodded. "She didn't like the idea of being pregnant. I liked the idea of her carryin a kid, but she wasn't so into it. I don't think this'll upset her too much."

"But you wanted children," Alec said.

Jo shrugged.

Alec reached across the sleeping girl and clasped Jo's hand.

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely.

"Eh, we can always adopt if she wants. Blair don't seem to be much of a kid person anyhow."

"She's nineteen," said Alec. "That might change."

"It will or it won't. Who cares? What matters is she's gonna be OK. Last night, for awhile I really thought I was gonna lose her."

"I thought we were going to lose both of you," Alec said quietly.

"I don't know what I'd do if I lost her," Jo said huskily. "I can't imagine bein without her. She told me this poem once, it's a Dickinson poem. 'We grow accustomed to the dark, when light is put away …' Blair said I was like her light, you know? And she could never get accustomed if she didn't have me around. And that's how I feel about her. If anythin took her away from me, it'd be like all the light went outta the world."

Alec pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, blew his nose. "Bloody lot of dust in here, for a hospital room," he said irritably.

"Sure is," Jo agreed, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "We oughta complain, huh?"

"Too right!"

Alec manfully stifled a yawn. He stood up, stretching, finally feeling the effects of sitting on a hospital chair for hours on end. "Artemis, dear, I'm going to purchase some of the lighter fluid that they sell downstairs in the guise of coffee. Shall I bring you one too?"

"Yeah. Thanks. I could use a cuppa really crummy coffee right about now."

Alec hesitated in the doorway.

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"If Jacqueline ever consents to marry me –"

"Alec – for cryin out loud! You guys just got back together last night. Give the girl a little breathin room or you'll scare her away again!"

"I know, Artemis, I know. But if she and I ever marry, I wonder if you'd be so good, that is, if you would do me the honor –"

"Spit it out, pal. What is it?"

"Would you be my best man, Jo?"

"What?"

"I asked, would you be my best man, or, I suppose, my best woman? The Duchess will have two fits, but I don't care. You're my best friend, Jo Polniaczek."

"For cryin out loud! What kinda mush is that? Blair's lyin here all wounded, you know how freakin vulnerable I am right now."

Alec grinned. "I suppose," he said, "that's why I'm asking now. Before you're back to your usual prickly self. Will you do it, Jo?"

"For Pete's sake!"

"Well, will you?"

"Yeah. Fine. I'll be your best woman or whatever. Big deal."

"Thank you, Jo."

"But I ain't wearin a monkey suit. Now where the hell's my coffee, Nethridge? Get the lead outta your keister!"

"Immediately, Artemis."

Jo pegged him in the shoulder with the Kleenex box as he left the room.


February 14, 1984. Valentine's Day. Manhattan Memorial Hospital.

Blair lay in state against several pillows, her blonde hair pulled back in a red velvet ribbon.

Jo had brushed her lover's hair until it crackled and shone.

Jo being relatively hopeless with makeup, she'd asked Tootie to apply mascara to Blair's eyelashes, a touch of rouge to her cheeks, and lipstick to her generous mouth.

Blair wore a lovely pink peignoir; Mrs. Pip, known forever to Blair as 'Cook', had sent it over. Whether Cook had done it on her own responsibility or at Monica Warner's request was unclear. Monica had jetted off to Switzerland to ski, Mrs. Pip told Jo. "But she told me to tell you to send Blair all her love."

All her love! Jo thought bitterly. Blair almost frickin died, and Monica's skiiin and suckin down hot toddies on the freakin Matterhorn!

But it was better, Jo admitted to herself. It was ugly, and cowardly, Monica running away instead of rushing to her wounded daughter's bedside, but it was better for all concerned. Monica couldn't go anywhere without creating scenes and turmoil, and as much as she'd been drinking lately, they probably would've had to have her bounced out of the hospital with a police escort.

The Dakota and David Warner's battle-axe executive assistant confirmed that he was in Tokyo on business, his return date unknown. Like Monica, he sent Blair his love and best wishes for her recovery.

How damn touching! Jo fumed. Sorry to hear you almost got killed, kid. Best wishes ...

Blair was pale as marble, even with the touches of rouge on her cheeks, and she was still hooked to the IV, but she was smiling. Her hospital room was crowded with people that she loved.

It was against every possible regulation to allow so many people in a hospital room at one time. But Alec had flirted outrageously with the nurses, and Drake Dante, big noise in TV production, had tossed money around as if he were minting it his basement. Result: almost everyone Blair loved was jammed into the room, standing, sitting on the arms of chairs, on the window sills, on the edge of Blair's bed.

Mrs. Garrett and Drake were there. Mrs. Garrett had a brand new sparkling diamond ring on one finger.

"Mrs. Garrett," Blair whispered to her, "is that from Drake?"

"Yes, Blair," said Mrs. Garrett.

"Congratulations."

"Thank you, dear." Mrs. Garrett patted the pale cheek of the surrogate daughter she had almost lost. "Drake proposed to me on Sunday. When we had lunch at Tavern on the Green."

"Was it a beautiful proposal?"

"Yes, Blair. He did it very beautifully."

"Have you set a date?"

"Not yet. But there's plenty of time for us to discuss all that. I'm going to need your help, you see, if you're going to be my maid of honor."

"Mrs. Garrett!" Blair's eyes filled with happy tears. "Of course I will!"

"Wonderful! Now I know everything will be perfect …"

Petal and Portia were there. Alec was there, looking dreadfully unshaven and rumpled, with his arm around Jacqueline. Charlie and Rose were there, Charlie misty-eyed, Rose smoothing Blair's sheets and adjusting her pillows every few moments.

Tootie and Natalie were there, sitting on the edge of Blair's bed, Tootie holding Blair's hand in a sisterly fashion, Natalie interviewing Blair for the Eastland Gazette.

"Natalie," said Blair, "do you really think Eastland's going to let you run an article about a knifing at a Bronx nightclub?"

"Hey, I'm editor-in-chief," said Nat. "I make the call. And if the Eastland board doesn't like it, they can kiss my lox and bagels."

"Language, Natalie," chided Mrs. Garrett.

"Lox and bagels? What's wrong with lox and bagels, all of a sudden? Now come on, Blair, what was it like, staring death in the cold, beady eye?"

"You keep buggin Princess, I'll help ya find out," Jo told Natalie in a dangerous voice.

"Jo, this is an important story. One of Eastland's worst students ever stabs one of Eastland's legendary heroines, and then buys the farm! You can't make this stuff up – and the students have a right to know!"

"Well Blair has a right to her privacy! Now put that freakin notebook away before I put it away for ya."

"Jo," Mrs. Garrett said warningly.

"But Mrs. G, Nat's buggin Blair! Blair needs her rest!"

"I'm fine, darling," Blair said quietly. "And you know I never shun the spotlight."

"See, Jo? You can't gag the press," said Natalie. "So what was it like, Blair? Staring death in the face? Come on – chop-chop. Daylight's burning. As soon as I interview you I'm going to interview Paul."

Blair raised her eyebrows. "Paul? You mean Doctor Adams?"

"Doctor Hunka-Hunka Adams," Nat said dreamily, "the medical genius who saved your life."

"Tacky, Natalie, very tacky. Using my brush with death to pick up doctors."

"He doesn't seem to mind," Tootie said disapprovingly. "He's too old for you, Nat. I'm telling you … there's gonna be trouble …"

Jesse and Pauly were there, arms around each other's shoulders.

"You don't look so rotten, Farrah," Jesse said encouragingly. "I mean, not any more rotten than usual."

"Thanks," Blair said wryly.

"Eh, don't mention it."

"I'm glad you're all right," Pauly told Blair in his quiet, earnest voice. "You need anythin, Blair … anythin at all, you just tell us."

"Tell him," Jesse corrected. "I'm real busy these days. We don't all get to lie around in freakin bed all day, people waitin on us hand-and-foot ..."

Boots was there, in one of her plaid-and-argyle preppy ensembles, pearls at her throat, jeweled barrette pinning back her dark hair.

"St. Clair," she told Natalie. "S-T-period, C-L-A-I-R."

"And what did you do again?" Nat asked, confused. "Why are you in my article?"

"Good gravy, Natalie, I was the decoy! If it weren't for me, Mona couldn't have crept up on Dina."

"She's right," said Jo. "Boots helped save us."

"Whammo!" said Boots. "I couldn't let anyone hurt Jo, could I?"

"We can't thank you enough," Charlie told Boots. "You and Mona …"

"That's all well and good," Natalie said, fixing Boots with a glare sharp as a gimlet, "but what I really want to interview you about, Miss Boots St. Clair, is the scandal of restricted sororities. What do you have to say about that – huh? Miss Gamma Gamma president!"

Mona was conspicuously absent. She was closeted with Eduardo, working on a defense should it be necessary. The police had been very quiet since taking Mona's original statement, neither charging her nor exonerating her.

Alec, Blair and Jo had decided to shield Natalie, for the time being, from the very real possibility that her heroic grandmother might be arrested.

"My dear, you don't worry about me," Mona had told Blair by telephone, "I'm on wonderful hands with Eduardo. The man is Perry Mason! You rest. Do whatever the doctors tell you, vnooshka ..."

When evening fell, everyone left except Jo and Alec.

"Call me tonight," Rose had told Jo, hugging her daughter.

"I will, Ma."

"And be sure you eat something for supper."

"I will, Ma."

"And be sure Blair eats something."

"Ma –"

"All right, I'm going. I'm going! But be sure she eats something, or I'll know, Jo."

"Ma –"

"A mother knows, Joanne Marie!"

Rose was the last to leave.

"I think I'll get us something to eat," Alec told Jo and Blair. "I'm afraid we're on rather a limited budget, but there's a McDonald's down the street."

"Just a coupla burgers for me," said Jo. "The little cheap ones, ya know?"

"I want a chocolate shake," said Blair.

"Here." Jo pressed a couple of crinkled dollar bills into Alec's hand. "Put that in the pot, milord."

"Danke, Artemis …"

Jo locked the door behind Alec. She kicked off her sneakers and curled up on the bed next to Blair.

"Are you OK?" Jo asked solicitously. "You got enough room? I'm not squashin the IV or anythin, am I?"

"No, darling. You're not 'squashin' me or the IV."

Jo laid her head on Blair's chest. The blonde's heart was beating, a good strong rhythm.

Jo reached into her jacket, fumbled around, pulled out a slightly crushed pink rose. One of the petals was hanging by a thread. Jo laid the flower on Blair's prodigious chest.

"Why, Jo," said Blair, surprised and pleased. "With everything that's happening, where did you find a rose?"

"I stole it," said Jo. "From the cafeteria. It was in a vase on one of the tables."

"My little delinquent," Blair said fondly, stroking Jo's hair.

"Happy Valentine's Day, babe."

Blair shook her head. "Our first Valentine's Day together. How are we going to top this next year? It'll have to be pretty spectacular."

"We could maybe foil a buncha KGB agents," chuckled Jo. "Or blow up the Death Star."

"Jo, no 'Star Wars' references. You're going to set back my recovery by weeks."

Jo ran her fingers lightly over Blair's stomach. "How's it feel, babe?" she asked seriously. "It's gotta hurt like hell."

Blair grimaced. "The stitches itch. And it's like there's a handful of ground glass inside. It burns, Jo. But at least I'm alive."

"I'm so sorry, babe. About you not bein able to have, you know."

"It's all right, Jo."

"But, I mean –"

"Jo. Darling. It's all right."

Blair shifted, tilted her head so that it rested against Jo's.

"If my fever stays down I'll be able to go home in a few days," murmured Blair.

"I can't wait," said Jo. She took one of Blair's hands, kissed the fingertips. "I wanna get outta this city. I just wanna be home, with you, where it's freakin peaceful and safe."

"You should drive up tonight," said Blair. "You can't miss your classes, Jo."

"I called the professors. I told 'em I needed a few days off. We worked it out. There's some perks, ya know, to bein a freakin star student."

"Do tell." Blair kissed Jo's hair. "You're like the Arthur Miller to my Marilyn Monroe."

Jo scowled. "Arthur Miller? Blair, I seen a picture of him once – you're comparin me to Arthur Miller?"

"Only your brain, dear – only your brain."

They lay in each other's arms for a few moments, drowsy and contented.

When the phone rang on the bedside table Jo jumped.

"What the hell!"

"It's only the telephone," Blair said mildly. "Can you answer it, dear? It's difficult for me to reach for things."

"Of course, babe." Jo snatched up the phone. "Blair Warner's room," she said.

"Turn on the television!" shouted Natalie. "Channel 3! Channel 3!"

"Nat?"

"Channel 3!"

"All right, gimme a break! Keep your wig on! If this is about Elton John, we already know he got married today. There was a picture of him and that German chick in the evenin paper."

"It's not about Elton!" shouted Natalie. "Channel 3!"

Telephone receiver in one hand, Jo went to the battered hospital TV set and turned it on.

The hiss of static filled the room. Jo spun the tuner the channel 3.

"Who is it?" asked Blair. "What's happening?"

"Nat says watch Channel 3." Jo lifted the receiver again. "OK, so what's on Channel 3, Nat? All I'm seein is a bunch of buildins."

"You have to listen!" Nat said excitedly. "Turn up the sound!"

Jo twirled the volume button. She sat on the end of the bed and watched the TV set and listened.

A few seconds later she felt numb all over.

The receiver slipped from her fingers and thudded on the linoleum tiles.

"Jo!" Nat's voice sounded tinny, blaring from the receiver. "Jo! Are you there? Pick up!"

But Jo and Blair, staring raptly at the television, were oblivious to Nat's voice.

Because according to the Channel 3 newscast, BZ Becker had pulled off the coup of the 20th century, with the help of the Abercrombies and the Rutherfords and a half-dozen other prominent families that had grown tired of stagnating in the shadows of giants like the Warners.

Through a series of loans and mergers and shell companies and stock purchases that the news anchor didn't even attempt to explain, BZ Becker had ruined New York's most powerful families and their businesses.

He had ruined the Warners, the Von Schuylkills, the Barclays, the Messerschmitts, the Hargroves, the Wilkes and the St. Clairs. He had ruined the first families, the proud, unimaginably successful New Amsterdam crowd, and scorched the earth and salted it so that nothing could ever grow there again.

"Daddy," Blair whispered.

"I think he saw it comin," Jo said through numb lips. "That's why he's been drinkin. That's why he ran away to Tokyo."

"That's why mother's in Switzerland," whispered Blair.

Feeling frozen, Jo reached slowly for the television, twisted the tuner. The story was on every newscast on every channel.

BZ Becker and the minor families had dethroned Manhattan's elite. They had slain the gods of New York.

Blair and Jo reached for each other, clasped hands tightly.

"It's like Manderley," said Blair.

"Whaddya mean?"

"'And the ashes blew toward us with the salt wind from the sea …'"

The End

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