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@gmail.com

Lost in the Masquerade
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

1983. Langley College in Peekskill, New York. Monday night, October 24 – almost Halloween.

In her suite, Blair Warner, unimaginably wealthy heiress and debutante, lay on her bed studying – or, rather, trying to study – an art history book.

Blair yawned. She tossed her book aside. She couldn't concentrate. The news was dismal today … the bombings in Beirut … it was all so senseless, and horrific.

She felt restless, disconnected. Jo had taken her for a ride on the Kawasaki after supper. The thrum of the bike, the delight of openly clinging to Jo's back as they tore along Peekskill's back roads … the ride had been an exhilarating distraction from reality.

But back in the quiet of her suite, Blair's thoughts returned to the unpredictability and fragility of life. The silence was intolerable. She snapped on her radio. George Benson sang the moodily beautiful song, "This Masquerade".

No matter how hard I try to understand the reasons that we carry on this way, we're lost in this masquerade …

Blair gazed intently at the beautiful brunette who lay enticingly close, but completely entranced by a botany book. Where Blair felt distracted, Jo channeled her emotions into a laser-like focus on her studies.

We're so different, thought Blair, what we feel … how we process it … I think I'm going to explode if we don't find a way to be open with someone else … I want to ask her tonight, but it's not the right time … Will it ever be the right time?

"Jo," said Blair.

"Hmm?"

Blair studied the plain silver band glinting on the third finger of her left hand. The ring Jo had given her last month. When Jo proposed. The ring Jo's grandfather gave her grandmother half a century ago, half a world away. Blair could only wear it when they were alone together. Wearing it in public would raise too many unanswerable questions.

"Jo, now that we're a stable, settled, engaged couple …" Blair trailed off. I can't ask her – not yet. Not the big question. Got to ask her something else.

"What?" Jo prompted. "If you're gonna bug me when I'm studying, you got to actually say somethin."

"I was going to say, now that we're a stable, settled, engaged couple, we have to do something for our friends. They need us."

Jo snorted. "Like a hole in the head," she said, not looking up from her book.

Both afraid to say we're just too far away, sang Benson. From being close together from the start. We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way …

"Jo," said Blair, "haven't you noticed that we're the only ones in our circle doing well right now?" It wasn't the big question, the one she really wanted to ask … but it would do for now.

"Mrs. Garrett still hasn't found a new job," Blair continued. "She's pining away in that dreary little motel room. Natalie dumped Norman – and let's face it, catches like Norman don't grow on trees. Tootie has stage-fright for the first time in her life. And Alec seems depressed."

Jo sighed. She dog-eared the page she was reading and set her book on the bedside table.

"First," she said, "we ain't a stable, settled couple, Blair. I mean, we're engaged, yeah, but, at the risk of soundin melodramatic, ours is a secret, forbidden love."

"That does sound melodramatic," Blair said disapprovingly. But accurate. Damned accurate.

"But true, babe. And you've never been less stable – which is sayin something! Not only are you engaged to a girl, you're financin a film about disco rap, of all things."

"The preferred term is break mixing. Or shiggy-shiggy. Or – "

"Whatever the hell you call it, when your father finds out, he's gonna have a heart attack – after he disinherits you. Get ready for life in a Bronx walk-up, babe."

"The world needs to learn about this music," Blair said passionately. "And my father's not going to find out about the film. I'm keeping a very low profile."

"Yeah. Right. Dancin until dawn at the Fever every Friday night. Very low profile. How long do you think it's gonna be before some Jimmy Olsen-type snaps your picture and you're splashed all over the Times? 'Heiress Blair Warner Slummin in the Bronx'! Your pop's gonna love that!"

"Journalists don't go the Bronx," scoffed Blair. "That's why we need to make the movie. This amazing musical revolution is happening in almost total obscurity."

"Second," Jo slipped an arm around Blair's waist, leaned comfortably against her, "Mrs. Garrett is not 'pinin away'. She's takin a well-deserved break after workin her ass off her whole life. She's just decidin on her next move. And the motel she's stayin at ain't that dreary. Jeez, babe, you think every place that isn't the Plaza is dreary."

"All right," said Blair. "I'll give you that."

"Third," Jo nestled closer to Blair, "Norman was a weenie. Natalie can do a lot better. A lot better. Fourth, Tootie will get over her stage fright. She was born to tread the boards."

"''Tread the boards'?" Blair lifted her eyebrows. "My, aren't we eloquent tonight?"

"Fifth, who cares if Alec is depressed? After messin with our heads the way he did! As far as I'm concerned, Alec can bite my ass!"

"Ah … And there she is. My vulgar girl is back," Blair said fondly. She stroked Jo's hair.

"Sixth, we haven't made love today, so to hell with everyone else."

"Jo, we can't make love every day," Blair said reasonably. "We've got classes and homework, and I have Chestnut, and the film, and you have field hockey and your job at the Grill, and – mnph!"

Blair was unceremoniously interrupted by Jo, who passionately grabbed Blair's shoulders, twisted on top of the blonde heiress and all but smothered her with a deep, longing kiss.

"Sixth, we haven't made love today," Jo repeated, her hair falling in a dark waterfall around Blair's perfect face. "And it was a depressin day. I need to make love with you, babe."

"Yes, ah, I see your point," Blair conceded, head swimming.


Lying in Blair's enormous claw-footed bathtub, Jo luxuriated in the warm, fragrant water, and luxuriated even more in the sensation of Blair lying against her, drowsy and content. Jo's arms and legs were wrapped around Blair, fingers laced over Blair's stomach.

"I'm going to fail art history," murmured Blair. Her eyes were closed, her lashes dark against her broad, perfect cheekbones.

"No way," said Jo, nuzzling the back of Blair's neck. "In five minutes, I'm kickin you outta the tub and you're gonna study some more."

Blair playfully trailed her fingers along Jo's thighs.

"In five minutes?" Blair asked innocently.

"Ah, in fifteen minutes," Jo amended, as Blair's gentle fingers stroked her inner thighs. "In twenty, ah, thirty minutes tops, I'm kickin you outta the tub."

"Jo?"

"Mmmn?" Jo had already lost the power of coherent speech. She closed her eyes.

"You can't kick me out of the tub," Blair said. "This is my tub – remember?"


An hour later, Jo was once again lying on Blair's bed, immersed in her botany book.

Blair struggled through several more pages about Picasso, and then tossed her book aside. It thudded on the floor; there was a cracking sound as if the spine of the book had snapped.

"Nice way to treat your text book," Jo said disapprovingly, not looking up from her own text.

Blair shrugged. She stretched. She sighed – her "slow leak" sigh, the one that still bugged the hell out of Jo.

"Study," Jo said severely.

"I don't like Picasso's work," Blair complained. "I have never liked Picasso's work."

"You don't have to like it, Blair. You just have to be able to discuss it intelligently."

Blair propped herself on one elbow, draped her other arm across Jo's stomach.

"Don't even think about it," Jo warned her.

"What?" Blair asked innocently.

"I couldn't do it right now, even I didn't have to study for my quiz. I gotta recharge before we go again."

"Who said anything about going again?" Blair dragged her fingers lightly across Jo's stomach, heading north to the brunette's pert breasts. "Why, Jo; you make me sound like some kind of sex fiend."

"Imagine that," Jo said drily. Without taking her eyes off the page, she brushed Blair's hand away.

"I can't believe you prefer that stupid botany book to me," Blair pouted.

"Botany is a very fascinatin subject," Jo said seriously.

"Really? How so?"

Jo turned the page, kept reading while she answered. "Plants are amazin. They're so damn resourceful. They send their seeds off into the world, and wherever they land, they gotta make it work."

"Why Jo," Blair said, surprised, "you're positively poetic on the subject."

"Eh, I just really like plants. Remember when I grew that bok choy at Eastland? And the broccoli?"

"Of course I remember. You took my blanket to keep those stupid broccoli warm."

"They needed that blanket more than you did, Princess." Jo turned a page. "There's just somethin about how a seed has, like, a whole world in it. All you do is bury it for awhile, give it some water and heat and then, pow! Life!"

Blair studied Jo thoughtfully. She's so brilliant. I can't believe we met. Thank God her mother got her out of that gang. Thanks God Rose sent her to Eastland.

Blair leaned over and kissed Jo's cheek.

"I told you, I'm not ready to go again," said Jo.

"I know, Jo. That wasn't meant to be seductive. Just … I love you."

"Love you too, Blair." Jo turned another page.

"You really are a nerd," Blair said affectionately.

"Yeah – look who's talkin! Pot, say 'yo' to kettle!"

"Well … that's one of many reasons we're a perfect match."

Blair watched Jo read for the next several minutes. Having known Jo for more than three years, Blair knew Jo's every gesture, her every facial expression.

But since they'd been dating, officially dating, for almost two months, Blair was continually surprised by how much more there was to learn about her girlfriend, who Jo was inside, her dreams, the way she saw the world.

Blair loved simply watching Jo as the brunette read, the different expressions that chased across Jo's face, the different thoughts playing out in her green-blue eyes.

Jo finally yawned, dog-eared the page she was on and closed the book. She set it on the bedside table.

"Are you staying tonight?" Blair asked hopefully.

Leave it to Jo to find a way to get their room and dorm keys copied! Blair still didn't know how Jo had done it, and she didn't care to know, but she was very, very glad it had been done.

The two could come and go from each other's dorms and suites at will, without signing in with their porters. In such ways did they avoid attracting attention to their relationship.

"Yeah," said Jo. She yawned again. "I'd like to stay. If that's OK?"

"Of course," said Blair. She folded Jo into her arms, cradled Jo's head on her breast.

"'Cause if it's ever, ya know, not convenient or whatever, just tell me."

She's still spooked, thought Blair. She still doesn't understand exactly how much I love her. So many people have let her down, so many times. She's waiting for the next rug to be pulled out from under her.

Blair stroked Jo's back. "Honestly, Jo, I wish we could just room together. I would love you to be here every night."

"Really?"

"Really. I wish you could stay here every night or that I could stay with you every night."

"Stupid Langley housing policy," muttered Jo. She yawned a third time, catlike, and burrowed against Blair's not insubstantial bosom.

"In fact … Jo, what would you think about …" Blair trailed off.

No. Not now, when Jo's half asleep. It's not fair to ask her now.

Blair never minded a little strategic manipulation when it came to relatively unimportant matters – like convincing Jo to accompany her on shopping trips or dull social events. But when it mattered, for the big things, Blair wanted Jo's head clear.

"What would I think about what?" mumbled Jo.

Blair picked a more frivolous topic than she'd originally planned to broach.

"What would you think about going to a house party at Lake Peekskill?"

Jo didn't open her eyes, but she raised one eyebrow suspiciously.

"Whose house? What party?" she asked.

"Petal's cottage on the lake. She's hosting a Halloween weekend. We'd drive up after classes on the 28th and drive back on the 31st."

"So that's, like, what are the days?"

"Friday evening to Monday afternoon."

"We got classes Monday," Jo objected.

"Technically. But it's a long-standing Langley tradition to skip classes on Halloween."

"Hmm, well, it's a long-standing Jo Polniaczek tradition not to do anythin to lose my scholarships!"

"Don't be a stick-in-the-mud! The professors don't even show up on Halloween."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"Well, let me think about the stayin-through-Monday part, but, yeah, let's go. Why is Moose askin you anyway? I'm her teammate."

"Yes, darling, but Petal – or, as you all insist on calling her, Moose – and I go way back. We were at Dalton for Kindergarten, and Groton for a year. We're always bumping into each other at events. The Von Schuylkill family is even older and more exclusive than the Warners."

"Funny to think Moose is a society dame," mused Jo. "She's so down-to-earth, I keep forgettin."

"Petal always has been a sweetheart," said Blair. "But she's no pushover, either."

"You're tellin me! Last match, a player fouled Jackrabbit and Moose went chargin after her like the whole damn Light Brigade!"

"After Jackrabbit?"

"No, no, after the Smith witch that fouled Jackrabbit. Moose didn't hurt her, of course, but she scared the spit out of her!"

"Well, good for Moose."

"She's so loyal. She's one of the most loyal people I ever met."

"Jo, you are so cute," teased Blair.

"Why? I mean, yes I am, but why are you sayin it like that?"

"You've got a little crush on Petal."

"Eh, you're crazy."

"You do. I think it's sweet."

"Look, I just recognize that Moose is really great, that's all. Why is that a crush? And how come she's asking you if we're gonna go to her house party? She doesn't, you don't think she suspects that we, that we're, that we, you know –"

"No, Jo, she doesn't suspect that we, that we're, that we, you know, are madly, deeply in love."

"So why is she asking you to arrange our social calendar for the weekend?"

"Because she understands, as anyone with half a brain understands, that I am your social mentor."

"My what now?"

"Social mentor. Everyone knows we're best friends and everyone knows that I'm grooming you for great things."

"Hah!" Jo opened her eyes. They danced with laughter.

"I don't see why that's so funny," Blair said a trifle coolly.

"Oh, now, don't get all miffed, babe. It's just funny, because, yeah, I'll admit you're rubbin off on me, but does anyone have a clue how much I'm rubbin off on you?"

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

"You're in the South Bronx every time I turn around these days. You think I don't know how much time you spend there? You been at the Fever every Friday night with me, yeah, but some school nights too, when I'm workin. And you've been puttin away pounds of cannoli at Madonia Brothers Bakery."

"Jo Polniaczek, are you spying on me?" Blair demanded.

"I don't have to. It's like you with Moose and all your society pals. Me and the Bronx, we go way back. People mention stuff."

"Well, whoever your sources are, they need to check their facts. I may have taken a few production meetings at the bakery, but I am not 'puttin away pounds of cannoli'. That is a gross exaggeration."

"You sure?" Jo bracketed Blair's generous hips with her hands, squeezed them. "I think there's a teeny bit more of you to love lately."

Blair blushed. She threw an arm across her face. "All right! All right, damn it, I admit it! But it's not my fault! What do they put in those cannoli? They're irresistible!"

"I know, Blair, I grew up on 'em."

Jo leaned down, kissed Blair's left hip, and then her right.

"Don't," Blair said dramatically. "I'm monstrous! I'm getting cannoli hips!"

"I love your cannoli hips," laughed Jo. "Eat all the cannoli you want, for cryin out loud."

"Jo, would you … if I became, if I ever grew really … Rubenesque … would you still find me attractive?"

"Blair, where I come from, which is to say, from planet earth, people have all sorts of shapes and sizes. Love is about who someone is, not what they look like or how much loot they got in the bank."

"So, even if I became, ah –"

"Gargantuan?"

"Jo!"

"Why do you always gotta tap-dance around things? Blair, you are beautiful. You are a goddess. But I mean, you're a goddess inside, too, where it really counts. I love you now when you're hot as hell. I will love you when you're all huge and doddering, with a beautiful soul."

"Doddering? Who said anything about doddering? And why is it a foregone conclusion that I'm going to be huge?"

"Merely figures of speech."

"Extremely unfortunate figures of speech!"

"Duly noted. Figures of speech withdrawn. All I'm sayin is, I love how you're loosenin up and livin life, tryin some new things. Just keep on with it, babe. You got my complete and absolute support."

"Thanks … I think."

Jo drew closer to Blair, breathed in her scent. "God you smell so good. You always smell so good. That's one of the first things I noticed about you when we met."

"Really?"

"Uh-huh. I noticed you were beautiful and that you smelled like an angel."

"And that I annoyed the hell out of you."

"Yes, that too," Jo admitted. "And the rest is history."

Jo closed her eyes, folded herself comfortably around the blonde heiress.

I'm so damn tired, Jo thought. Just wanna go to sleep. But if I don't get this settled now, will I get the nerve up again? And I promised Ma I'd at least ask …

"Blair?" she asked quietly, without opening her eyes.

"Yes?"

"I got somethin to ask you, but I'm kinda … scared."

Blair held Jo close, kissed her dark hair. My God! Jo Polniaczek admitting she's scared to ask something? This must be serious. "Jo, darling, you can ask me anything."

"My, uh, my Ma called me today."

"That's nice." It didn't seem like an explosive revelation. "How is Rose?"

"Good, good. Workin too many jobs, too many hours – same as always."

"Did you tell her about your A in English?"

"Sure. She was really proud."

"As well she should be." Blair lightly dragged her finger along Jo's jaw-line.

At the mention of her mother, Jo's muscles had stiffened; her shoulders hunched, her chin tucked down. She's really worried about something, Blair thought.

"Is Rose in good health?" Blair asked, fishing.

"Ma? Oh, like a horse."

"Is Rose having …" Blair hesitated. "Is she having any financial challenges?" she asked delicately.

Jo laughed. "Financial challenges? Financial challenges? Christ, Blair, her whole life has been a financial challenge!"

"But, I mean, more than usual. She's not going to be evicted or anything, is she? Because I know how proud you are, and I respect that, but if Rose ever needs something –"

Without opening her eyes, Jo fumbled for Blair's hands, squeezed them gratefully.

"Understood," Jo said quietly. "And appreciated. But Ma doesn't need money."

"Is there anything we can do for her?"

"Well, funny you should mention that." Jo cleared her throat. Why is this so hard to deal with? "See, Ma really wants me home for Thanksgivin next month. She's gonna cook a big turkey, she's gonna invite Pop, her sister Evelyn, Uncle Sal, Terry, Pauly and Bud, Mr. Balducci, all the neighbors – it's gonna be this whole big wingding."

"Sounds like a lot of fun," Blair said encouragingly. Why does she sound so nervous?

"Yeah, it's gonna be great," said Jo. "But, ah, it's just that …" She trailed off. I can't do this.

Blair began gently to massage Jo's shoulders, working the tension out of them.

"What is it, Jo? I know we'll miss each other, but we'll find time together. And we should organize some sort of holiday meet-up with Tootie and Nat and Mrs. Garrett. It' won't be Thanksgiving without seeing them."

"Yeah, that, ah …" Jo shook her head. She had trusted her gut her whole life. Her gut instinct had gotten her out of a lot of scrapes. And her instinct told her that her mother's idea was a very bad idea.

"Jo," Blair said seriously, "you're really starting to alarm me. What is it?"

"My mother wants me to, ah, jeez!"

"Wants you to what, Jo?"

"I'm supposed to invite ya to Thanksgivin!" Jo pounded her own thigh in frustration with one tightly clenched fist. "I know, I know, it's a horrible idea! But I didn't know how to, you know, decline without hurtin her feelins. Or makin her suspicious."

"Why would you decline?" asked Blair, mystified. She worked her fingers deeper into Jo's shoulder muscles. "It's a lovely idea and I accept. So just relax, darling."

"Lovely idea? Blair –" Jo sighed, "do you have any idea how small Ma's apartment is? And she doesn't just want you to drop in for Thanksgivin dinner; she wants you to stay for the holiday break."

"And? What's the problem? I'm flattered Rose invited me – especially after our words at Ma Maison."

"But the apartment, Blair, it's really, really small."

"So you keep saying. Jo, we shared a storeroom with two other girls for three years. We shared a bathroom with two other girls and Mrs. Garrett. Finding space at the sink every morning was like storming a beach! I think I can rough it in a small apartment for a few days, especially if it means I get to spend the holiday with you."

"Jesus, Blair, that's so sweet. You are just, the best damn girlfriend –"

"Fiancée."

"Best damn fiancée ever. But you're not thinkin this through."

"So enlighten me."

Jo groaned. "I'm not explainin this right."

Blair massaged Jo's back, just below her shoulder blades. "Jo, you're not worried I'm going to embarrass you, are you? Say something thoughtless or snobby? Because when your cousin Pauly was helping me search for your motorcycle, he seemed to like me. He didn't seem to think I was a nuisance."

Jo laughed. "Blair, you're a total goddess. Of course Pauly loved spendin time with you. Anyone would, especially guys. Balducci would probably have a stroke just layin eyes on ya!"

"I promise, Jo, I take this very seriously. Us. Our engagement – even though it's a secret. Your mother inviting me to Thanksgiving. I'll be on my best, non-airbrained behavior."

"That ain't what I'm worried about. It makes me feel like a creep that I've even got you worryin about me worryin about how you're gonna behave."

Blair shook her head.

"You're losing me. And you say I tap dance around things! What are you afraid of? Just say it, Jo, straight out."

Jo covered her face with her hands. "I'm afraid Ma's gonna figure out that we're in love."

"Oh." Blair moved her hands to Jo's lower back, began to massage the tense muscles along the spine. "I see. Well … you might have a point. Rose is very bright, and we are very much in love."

"It's just, it's too close of quarters in the apartment," Jo said miserably. "It's the livin room and the kitchen, they're really one room, and the tiny bathroom and then this tiny little bedroom where I sleep. When I'm home Ma sleeps on the couch, it pulls out into a bed. We'll be livin in each others' pockets. Yeah, we can go out and see a movie, see Tootie and Nat, go do stuff, but that's still a lot of time with just Ma around. And at some point –"

"At some point I'll call you 'darling'," said Blair. "Or you'll call me 'babe'. Or we'll just look at each other, some glance, and Rose will see it in our faces, that we love each other."

"And then we're sunk," Jo said, pressing her palms tightly over her eyes.

"Jo," Blair said thoughtfully, "what if she did figure it out? I mean, she adores you. You're her pride and joy. Maybe if we –"

"No," Jo said firmly. "No, no, no, no."

"But if we explained how much we –"

"No! That's not even up for discussion, Blair. My Ma can't know. It would kill her."

"Isn't that a little dramatic? You might be selling her short. All she wants is for you to be happy. Think of all the sacrifices she's made so that you can have the best education."

"Yeah, sure, Blair, but that's academics. Love – and love with a girl, for Pete's sake – that's a whole different kettle of fish! The Rose Polniaczek I'm worried about, that's the Rose Polniaczek that shipped me off to Eastland because I got serious about Eddie. When it comes to romance, she ain't so worried about my happiness!"

"Jo, you were fifteen, and you and Eddie were much too serious. You were ready to throw your education away to become a Navy wife. Frankly, I applaud your mother for sending you to Eastland."

"Yeah, me too, cause that's how you and I ended up meetin, and that's all well and good but now it's a different scenario, Princess. Now you're Eddie. Get it? Now Ma will want to pull me out of Langley to get me away from you. She already feels like you have some weird kinda hold over me just as a friend. She's already jealous."

"I thought she was getting past that." Blair managed to keep the hurt out of her voice. It was very important to Blair – she had never let Jo see quite how important – that Rose become comfortable with her.

"She's tryin, Blair, but she ain't there yet. It's in her voice, you know, whenever she mentions you."

"Then why is she inviting me to stay during Thanksgiving break?"

"Because she's so nice! She really, truly is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. And she doesn't like feelin jealous of you and she's tryin to get past it, and havin you over, she probably thinks that'll help her get closer to you, understand our friendship better."

"Jo, if we told her we're in love, she'd realize there's no point in feeling jealous. I'm not trying to replace her as a mother figure – I want to be your wife."

"Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Jo buried her head in the pillow. "Ma could never understand that, Blair. She's a really devoted Catholic. Not a Catholic like, 'Hey, the Pope, he's kinda nifty'. She's a Catholic like, 'Do even a little sin, and you burn in hell forever'. Girls wantin to marry girls – big, big sin!"

"Yeah, see, this is where religion pisses me the hell off," said Blair, nostrils flaring.

"Easy, Princess."

"No, really. We love each other. We love each other. For that we're going to burn in hell? Do you believe that?"

"Technically," said Jo, voice muffled by the pillow, "you're already gonna burn in hell because you're not Catholic."

"So I'm doubly damned," Blair said drily. "Lovely."

"Ow!" said Jo as Blair's fingers dug deeply into the muscles of her lower back.

"Sorry. I was distracted," Blair apologized. "I just get so damn mad sometimes. If only we could tell someone. If only someone could understand …"

"We need to tell Nat and Tootie," said Jo. "And Mrs. Garrett. I'm sick of pullin the wool over their eyes. Maybe this Halloween party, maybe that would be a good time. I really think they'll accept this if we give 'em a chance. And if they don't … at least we'll know now."

"Maybe," Blair said noncommittally. "But back to your mother –"

"I'll tell her you have prior engagements," Jo said. "You've got to spend Thanksgivin at Balmoral Castle or the White House or somethin."

"Your mother loves you, Jo. Are you going to hide this from her forever? I mean, if we're really planning to spend the rest of our lives with each other –""

"If?"

"Since. I should say 'since we're planning to spend the rest of our lives with each other' at some point we probably should explain it to your mother!"

"At some point, maybe, but that point ain't a big Thanksgivin wingding with the whole Bronx lookin on!"

"Jo, your mother loves you. The sooner you let her into this part of your life – "

"The sooner she can reject me," Jo said miserably.

"Jo!" Blair folded her arms around her lover, hugged her tight. "You really believe that? You think Rose would cast you out?"

Jo nodded wordlessly. Jo was, Blair realized, silently crying.

"Shh." Blair pressed her face against Jo's. "It wouldn't be forever," Blair said soothingly. "Even if she froze you out for a while, it wouldn't last. She can't live without you, Jo. You're her life."

"I just … I can't take that chance," Jo said hoarsely. "She's my Ma."

"OK. OK, darling, I understand. Tell her I appreciate the invitation, but I send my regrets."

"It's for the best, Blair."

"Of course. It's not like we have to tell her about us tomorrow. There are years to think about telling her. We'll wait until you're ready, Jo – even if we're headed to the Peekskill Rest Home by the time you're ready."

"Thanks." Jo dried her eyes on the pillowcase. "I really appreciate how understandin you are."

"Well, it's not like I don't understand mother issues," Blair said bitterly.

"Blair?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think you'll ever tell your mother? About us, I mean."

Blair laughed.

"Honestly, Jo, when we first started dating, I couldn't imagine telling her. But now, I can't wait until I can tell her, especially after that stunt she pulled with Alec! On my 21st birthday, when I'm completely, officially, one-hundred percent a legal adult, and I come into my own fortune, and sign all the papers, I'm going to go to my mother, look her straight in the eye and say, 'Mother, I am a lesbian, and Jo Polniaczek is the love of my life. You can like it, or you can turn blue!'"

"Holy shit!" breathed Jo.

"Don't get me wrong; I love mother – as much of an interfering fruitcake as she's been lately – but her whole life has been a mad pursuit of whatever she's wanted. I've always come in second – third, fourth, even fifth sometimes. Sent off to this boarding school, this summer camp, exiled to the Texas ranch – shuffled around to suit her needs. So am I going to live my life on my terms? Hell, yes!"

Jo made an excited war whoop. "That's my girl! Jesus, you've got guts. But, Blair, you're not, I mean, aren't you worried Monica might be – "

"Disgusted? Repulsed? Aghast?"

"Yeah."

Blair snorted. "Who cares? I mean it. Who is she to judge? I love you, Jo. What we feel for each other couldn't be more beautiful or pure."

"Amen to that." Jo pulled Blair toward her, kissed her enthusiastically. "Yeah, babe – you do got guts!"

"I don't know about that," Blair said with uncharacteristic modesty. "I just have a different relationship with my mother than you do. We grew a little closer when she had cancer, but as soon as she was better, she put me at arm's length again. So if she rejects me, it'll hurt, but I can take it. I know the drill." Blair shook her head. "I'd love to tell her now. Then we wouldn't have to go through all this nonsense with Alec pretending to date me."

"So … why don't you tell her now?" Jo asked curiously. Hell, it'd be a dream to get Lord Fancypants out of our weird little triangle!

"I'm still completely dependent on my parents, Jo. They could stop my tuition payments, they could throw me into the gutter if they wanted to. But once I have control of my fortune … well, no one will be able to tell me what to do or be, not ever again."

"OK, but what about, like you always say, 'playin the game', bein in society and all that?"

"I'm not going to tell all of society that we're in love. Not right away, anyhow. I'll attend the right events and do what's expected. Publicly. But once I'm financially independent, my private life will be my private life. Our private life."

"Boo-flippin-rah!" Jo cheered enthusiastically. "That's my girl!"

Blair blushed. Praise from Jo always meant so much. "I'm glad you approve," she said with dignity.


Long after Jo had fallen asleep, Blair lay awake in the dark, thinking.

She listened to Jo's soft snoring, watched Jo's silhouette under the sheet, the gentle rise and fall of her chest.

This is what I want for the rest of my life, Blair thought. To go to sleep with Jo, to wake up with Jo. This is perfect. This is all I need, forever.

Jo was right, Blair realized. In a contented haze of first love, Blair had been fooling herself. She and Jo weren't really a stable, settled couple. Within the bubble of their secrecy – yes. But they couldn't stay in that bubble forever. It would become claustrophobic. It would lead to lie after lie, distance them from the people they loved …

Talking to Jo tonight had crystallized for Blair how ready she was to tell her mother – and her father, too. But the money – the damn money! I wish I had Jo's self-sufficiency. But I don't.

Blair's parents would be aghast at the prospect of no grandchildren, no well-connected son-in-law, not to mention the potential public scandal. And, icing on the cake, Jo was a poor girl from the Bronx.

Monica and David Warner could never approve such a match. They would unquestionably stop paying for Blair's education, throw her onto the mercy of the cruel world, in an effort to blackmail Blair into falling in line.

They might even lock her up, whether at Monica's penthouse, or in an actual mental facility. Her parents had the clout and resources to do it. Blair shivered. It would be so terrible; her parents could have her buried in a mental hospital for years – and they would view it – would make sure, for the sake of their consciences, to view it – as being for Blair's own good!

It sounded melodramatic, but it was something that did happen in Blair's world. It was part of the ugly underbelly of wealth, the extreme measures some families took to cultivate and maintain their position.

Her step-sister Meg had been kept under house arrest in her family mansion for wanting to be a nun. A nun, for Christ's sake! So what wouldn't Blair's parents do when she announced she was a lesbian?

Blair leaned down and kissed Jo softly on the cheek. When I'm independent, Jo, nothing will stop us.


"A Halloween party at Moose's cottage on Lake Peekskill? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" Natalie said enthusiastically.

Blair held the phone away from her ear; Natalie's enthusiasm was very loud.

"I'm glad you like the idea," Blair said into the receiver.

"Like the idea? I love the idea! It's so boring around here since Mrs. Garrett resigned. Every day I write the same thing in my journal. 'Dear diary, today I woke up and went to class. The end.'"

"Sounds grim. But it's your own fault, Natalie. If you hadn't dumped Norman, you'd have all sorts of exciting things to write in your diary."

"Oh, it had to be done. Norman is so, so –"

"Sweet? Kind? Reliable?"

"Exactly. Norman is too blah for me. And he doesn't understand me. I was trying to explain about that night we visited the Bronx, about how nightmarish it was, but how amazing the new music is, about the poverty and the crime, but the families like Jo's. It's this secret world hidden right above Manhattan. It's disturbing, it's intriguing – do you know what I mean?"

"Yes. Of course."

"Well, Norman didn't. He's in this comfortable little ivory tower, and I think that's where he intends to stay for the rest of his life. I need a boyfriend who's three-dimensional. Is that too much to ask?"

"No, Natalie. I suppose a future Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will need a husband who can be adventurous and interested in real issues."

"That's it, exactly! I want to go everywhere, see everything! I want to eat the world with a spoon, like it's a big bowl of tutti frutti ice cream! And that isn't Norman! His idea of adventure is driving two miles over the speed limit. His idea of a real issue is whether the 1984 Jaguars will be available in cobalt!"

"I get it, Nat. Jo was right."

"About what?"

"Jo said Norman's a weenie – her word, not mine – and that you can do a lot better."

"Tell Jo she gets smarter every day!"

"Oh, don't worry – she knows! Listen, is Tootie there?"

"No, she's rehearsing."

"And how is that going?"

"Mmm, it's one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes Tootie's fine, sometimes she starts shaking and she draws a total blank on her lines. If she doesn't pull it together soon they're going to ask her to step down. Her understudy will take over."

"She'll be mortified!"

"I know. I've never seen Tootie so nervous. I mean, the girl lives to perform. She's always onstage even when she's offstage, if you catch my drift!"

"What's the problem, do you think?"

Blair could sense, although she couldn't see, Natalie's eloquent shrug.

"Beats me, Blair. I mean, OK, 'The Women' is a bear of a play, lots of dialog, lots of nuance, comedy, irony, heartache. And Tootie's in just about every scene. But, if you can do Shakespeare, 'Sound of Music', 'South Pacific', how do you choke on Clare Booth Luce?"

"Try to convince her to go to the party. It'll take her mind off things. And we can all encourage her."

"You mean meddle?"

"Of course I mean meddle. She'd do it for us. If we don't meddle in Tootie's life, who will?"

"Hey, you don't have to convince me, Blair! I'm already meddling! I've been putting these headphones on her, after she falls asleep, with a tape playing soothing ocean sounds. It's supposed to relax you subconsciously."

"And is it working?"

"Maybe. She doesn't seem to be getting any better, but at least she's not getting any worse."

Maybe I could get one of those tapes for Jo, thought Blair. She's so damn tense since she told Rose I won't be visiting at Thanksgiving.

Rose had been hurt that Blair wouldn't be attending 'a very special Polniaczek Thanksgiving', as Jo had termed it. Rose was insecure at the best of times, and to her Blair's refusal, however polite, was a snub.

"Why would she want to visit us for Thanksgiving?" Rose had said to Jo. "I was stupid to ask her. Who are we, anyhow?"

"Ma, will ya calm down? I told ya, she's goin to London for the holidays. She, like her family already promised the Queen and everythin. The royal family always celebrates Thanksgivin at Balmoral Castle."

"Jo, Blair's just trying to soften the blow," Rose had said with a brittle laugh. "The British don't even celebrate Thanksgiving. It's an American holiday. And Balmoral's in Scotland, not London."

"Oh. OK. How do you know all this royal stuff, anyhow, Ma?"

"They just ran that special on PBS."

"Jo," Blair had said when Jo had sheepishly relayed this conversation, "if you have to lie to your mother, can you please do your research more carefully? Can you try to come up with something vaguely credible?"

"Jeez, is it my fault the Brits aren't thankful?"

"No, darling, but it is your fault that your mother now thinks I'm a total bitch, as well as a snob and a completely inept liar."

"I'm just no good at this subterfuge stuff," Jo had admitted glumly. Her shoulders had tensed, her whole body had tensed.

They were in Jo's suite, between classes. Blair had commanded Jo to stretch out on the bed for a massage.

"I love that you can't lie," Blair had told Jo while she massaged the brunette's taut shoulders. "It's part of your beautifully honest nature."

"Yeah, well, my beautifully honest nature is a real effin inconvenience sometimes."

The massage had rapidly evolved into a passionate session of love making. They were both late for their next class.

But, mmm, it was worth it … Blair thought dreamily.

"Blair? Earth to Blair," Natalie was saying into the phone.

"Sorry, Nat. My mind's in a million places at once these day. What did you say?"

"I said I think you're right. A Halloween weekend could be just what the doctor ordered. Unless, of course, the doctor is my father."

"How is Doctor Green?" Blair was fond of her friends' fathers. They were all charmers in different ways. "How is his blood pressure?"

"Like Tootie's stage fright – no better, but no worse."

"You know, Nat, I think we could all use a little R & R this weekend. It must be a strain worrying about your father's health."

"Oh, the Greens know how to cope with strain," said Natalie. "We joke, we laugh, we kibbitz, we laugh some more."

"But underneath, you worry like hell."

"Yeah, there's that, too. So what do Tootie and I bring to this weekend? How are we getting there? Who else will be there? 'Enquiring minds want to know'!"

"Pack for several days. We'll leave Friday evening and we'll be back Monday night."

"Whoa, whoa, stop the presses. We're missing Monday classes?"

"You're as bad as Jo!"

"Jo and I seem to be the only ones in our little group that understand that school is for studying."

"What does that mean?"

"You remember finals last year. There were Jo and I – studying. And there was Tootie, chatting on and on, and singing, and there were you, reading aloud from that steamy novel."

"I seem to remember you were pretty interested in that steamy novel," Blair said drily.

"Oh. True." Nat laughed. "Remember when I asked Jo if she'd ever 'flushed hotly'? I thought she was going to deck me!" Natalie laughed again.

Blair laughed too, but if Natalie could've seen Blair, somehow, through the phone line, she would've seen that Blair was blushing to the roots of her 'bottle blonde' hair.

I finally flushed hotly, thought Blair. Thanks to Jo, I've flushed hotly many, many times. And I'd like to think I've made her flush hotly too …

"Anyhow," Natalie said, "let's leave Monday on the table. Maybe Tootie and I will hitch a ride with someone leaving Sunday. But what do we bring? And who else is going?"

"Petal is very informal. Just bring some nice outfits for meals and some sportswear in case you want to hike or row. And Halloween costumes, of course."

"Are we talking, 'rub some burnt cork on our faces and be hobos', or are we talking thousand-dollar gowns?"

"We're talking whatever you want. Honestly. Petal's crowd is very old money, which means nothing too shiny or new. Just be comfortable. Come as you are."

"Will Alec be attending?" Natalie asked. Blair could picture Natalie suggestively waggling her eyebrows.

"Er, probably," Blair said.

"What, you don't know? Is there trouble in paradise?" teased Nat.

Blair scowled – a habit she was picking up from Jo – not at Natalie but at the fabrication that she and Alec were dating. It was necessary, at least for the time being, but the more time passed the more she was growing to hate fooling her friends.

"Alec and I, we're … it's complicated," Blair finished lamely.

"I'm sorry," Nat said seriously, "I was just kidding. I didn't realize you were actually having problems."

"We're not. It's just … I haven't told my mother yet, but I don't think Alec's the one."

"Well, you know, he's six-foot-one, drop-dead gorgeous, an actual British lord, and he owns three castles. What's to like?"

"Natalie –"

"Sorry, sorry – I meant two castles and one palace."

"Nat –"

"Sorry. You know how I am, Blair. How would I get through any crisis if I couldn't joke about it? Kidding aside, though, Alec's never been one of my favorites. He seems to have dropped some of his chauvinist piggery, and become more of an actual human, but there's something secretive about him."

You don't know the half of it, Nat!

"I don't think you could ever trust him," Nat continued. "And honesty is the root of any real relationship, right? How can you love someone and lie to them?"

Blair felt tears pricking her eyes. She dashed them away.

"Yes, I know what you mean," she said thickly. She cleared her throat. "Sorry. I think I'm getting a cold."

"Well don't bring any germs to Lake Peekskill!" said Nat. "With midterms coming up I cannot, repeat, cannot afford to get sick."

"I'm sure I'll be fine."

"Well if you're not, dress as a mummy. The bandages should contain the worst of the germs."

Blair laughed. "I'll do that."

God, Nat's so funny. One of my best friends – one of our best friends. And we are totally bamboozling her … and Tootie …

"So since it's at Moose's place, what, she'll probably invite the field hockey team. So Jo's going, right?" asked Natalie.

"Of course. How could we have a musketeer outing without Jo?" asked Blair.

"How is she adjusting to life at Langley, anyway? I mean, besides being the sensational new star of the Langley Lions field hockey team. Does Jo like her classes? Does she feel like she's fitting in?"

Blair considered the question seriously. Did Jo feel like she was fitting in? When Jo wasn't in class, on the hockey field or working at the Campus Grill, she was generally locked in Blair's passionate embrace. Jo was so focused on Blair, on their perfect little bubble, that she was hardly mixing outside of it.

"I think this weekend will be good for her," Blair said thoughtfully. "People seem to like Jo but she's, ah, sort of a hermit this semester. It will be good for her to mix with her teammates in a relaxed social environment."

"Can Jo be relaxed at Petal Von Schuylkill's cottage on the lake? She won't feel out of her depth?"

"Jo can be relaxed anywhere," Blair said confidently. "Remember how beautiful she was at the Plaza?"

"Beautiful, yes – a regular Cinderella. But I remember you two were fighting most of the time, and she practically strangled Alec – not that he didn't ask for it, I admit. Do you see a lot of Jo this semester?"

She sounds like she's edging toward something, thought Blair. Does she suspect?

"I, ah, do see a lot of Jo. We are best friends." Jesus. I sound so defensive!

"Tootie thinks you two are getting too close."

What the hell? "Too close?" Blair chuckled nervously. "What does that mean?"

"She was watching you two at the Plaza. You know how she is."

"Nosy," said Blair.

"Concerned," countered Nat. "Tootie's not so good with boundaries, as we know, but she means well. Anyhow, she thinks you and Jo are getting really close to each other, almost clingy."

"Clingy?"

"Like socks in a dryer. She thinks it's because you're both nervous about your first year at college. Freshman jitters, right? So you're growing abnormally close as a sort of protective measure."

"Define 'abnormal'," Blair said with deadly sweetness.

"Look, Blair, Tootie's not trying to be insulting, she just feels you two might be, I don't know, kind of smothering each other. Like it wouldn't be a bad idea if you cultivated some different friends."

"We both know a ton of people," said Blair. "I already know half the campus, all of sorority row, and Jo has her teammates, and her coworkers at the Grill …" Jesus … now I really sound defensive!

"Sure, you know them," Nat agreed, "but do you spend time with them? It really sound like you and Jo are just sort of locked away in this, in a kind of –"

"Bubble?" Blair suggested.

"Exactly!"

"So you and Tootie are worried about us? You've actually discussed this together?"

"Of course. We love you guys. It's just like you and I discussing Tootie's stage fright. We care."

"I see." Blair took a deep breath. "Nat, Jo and I have grown very close. But it's nothing to be concerned about. It's a very healthy situation."

"Alls I'm saying, Blair, is the last thing I remember, you were going to join a sorority."

"I was."

"But you haven't."

"No."

"And pledging is over for this semester. So you missed the boat."

Blair laughed. "Missed the boat? Nat, every sorority wanted me! Well, not me, per se, but Blair Warner, famous heiress. The sorority sisters were following me around like baby ducklings. I could've joined any sorority I chose."

"And yet, interestingly enough, you didn't."

"I didn't find the right fit. I can join another semester. They're still courting me. And I'm a Gamma Gamma legacy. My mother and grandmother were Gamma Gammas. I can snap my fingers and join them any time I choose, no questions asked."

"Sure, I believe that, but, Blair – be honest. Are you really still thinking about joining a sorority?"

Blair didn't even have to think about it. "No. Not anymore," she said honestly.

"And why not?"

"I just … it doesn't interest me anymore." Which was honest … but only a fragment of the truth. If I were in a sorority, it would be wall-to-wall sorority sisters in my business all the time. I'd have to date boys every weekend … and Jo and I would never have a moment alone together …

"Tootie thinks you won't join a sorority because Jo won't join a sorority."

"Is that so?" Tootie's insights were really getting uncanny. Annoyingly uncanny. "How much time do you and Tootie spend psychoanalyzing us, anyway?"

"Oh, a lot," said Natalie. "I told you, since Norman and I broke up, it's been dullsville. Talking about you and Jo is ten times better than watching 'General Hospital'!"

"Well, I'm glad we're so entertaining."

"Blair, we really do care. When you and Jo argued at the Plaza it was so … intense. And then Jo went all mental when she figured out you went to that night club, and then when she found out you bought her bike back for her, you both just rode off like Butch and Sundance. You ditched us in the Bronx!"

"Jo said you had cabs waiting for you!"

"One of the cabs took off. Driver didn't like the neighborhood. Go figure!"

"Well, how was Jo supposed to know that?"

"She would have known, if she hadn't rushed into the club all higgledy piggledy like Charles Bronson to rescue you!"

"Higgledy piggledy?" It wasn't a phrase Blair would've associated with Jo – or Charles Bronson – in a million years.

"And then you both were gone all night," said Nat, "and then when we saw you the next morning, you were so manic, it was just, we're just worried about you two. That's all."

Blair was silent for a moment. Yes, we were manic, all right! Jo had just proposed … Damn. We have to tell them this weekend. They're our best friends and they're worried and they're right on the edge of figuring it out anyway.

"Nat?"

"Yes?"

"We have to talk this weekend. The four of us. Jo and I have something to explain to you two. This weekend will be the perfect opportunity."

"So, should we be worried?"

"No. Jo and I are one-hundred percent fine. Better than fine. But we need to, well, explain the context, so you won't worry." Or, possibly, will worry a thousand-percent more!

"Blair, I hope you know Tootie and I aren't just being nosy, like when we were younger. We're truly worried about you. Plus, OK, yes, we're still a little nosy."

"I get that. Jo will get that too. We all seem to be growing up these days – even the Snoop Sisters!"

"Who'd a thunk it? I guess it had to happen."

Blair laughed. "Sure. Eventually. All right, Nat, I've got to make a few more calls. You and Tootie should expect the car at, say, five o'clock this Friday."

"We'll be ready. But Blair, you still haven't answered my most important question."

"Which is?"

"Who's going to this party?"

"I told you, Petal's field hockey teammates, some family friends, her –"

"Blair. Blair, Blair, Blair. How many years have you known me now?"

"Five or six, I guess," said Blair.

"So when I ask who's going to be at the party, what I'm asking is …"

"Oh!" Blair laughed, light dawning. "Boys! Of course! Not to worry, Natalie. There will be many, many boys at this party. Rich boys, titled boys, impoverished gentry, boys with prospects, ne'er-do-wells – a whole universe of boys."

Natalie sighed. "Music to my ears."


Mrs. Garrett was the next call. She picked up after the first ring.

She must be practically sitting on the phone, thought Blair.

"Edna Garrett," Mrs. Garrett said in an artificially bright voice. "How might I help you?"

"You can help me by agreeing to attend a Halloween weekend on Lake Peekskill."

"Blair?"

"None other, Mrs. Garrett."

"It's lovely to hear your voice, Blair."

"Likewise. How are you doing?"

"Oh, fine, fine." Mrs. Garrett's voice sounded tense, her good spirits forced.

"Wonderful," said Blair. "So. How about it? Can we tear you away from the Off Ramp Motel for a few days for some fresh air and clean living by the lake?"

"Is it a camping trip, Blair? Because my back has been giving me a few problems, lately, and I don't think I can sleep on the ground."

"Don't worry. It's Petal Von Schuylkill's cottage. Nothing but comfort – and a Halloween party to boot. You won't have to plan anything or cook anything – just pure recreation."

"That does sound tempting."

"Tootie, Nat and Jo will be there too."

"Well, that seals the deal. Count me in!"

"Perfect! Expect the car around four-thirty this Friday. Pack for hikes and nice dinners. Oh, and some sort of costume. Whatever you like."

"I think I have just the thing."

She sounds so excited. This will probably be the highlight of her month. Blair felt a rush of anger – not for Mrs. Garrett, who was practically her surrogate mother, but for Mr. Parker, the Eastland Academy headmaster whose stubbornness and penny-pinching had led to Mrs. Garrett's resignation.

"Have you, ah, found anything to occupy your time?" Blair asked delicately.

"No, Blair – no job yet. Peekskill is a fairly small community and just now, anything I'm qualified to do seems to already have someone in place to do it."

"Well, something will turn up."

"Of course it will," Mrs. Garrett said briskly. "I don't want you girls worrying about me."

"Well, we're always going to worry about you, Mrs. Garrett. We love you. But if you tell us everything is fine, then everything is fine."

"Everything is fine, Blair."

"Wonderful!"


"I'm telling you Jo, Mrs. Garrett is falling apart!"

Jo made a rude noise indicating disbelief.

"Charming," said Blair, "as always."

They were in Blair's suite, the door locked, bolted and chained, the curtains drawn.

Jo stood before the fainting couch, nude, her back to Blair. Jo held an archery bow. Her long dark hair was coiled atop her head in a Greek goddess-like hairdo, charming tendrils escaping here and there, trailing down the side of her face, along her neck.

Blair stood at her easel, painting an enormous canvas. The background had already been painted, a swirl of greens and golds, as of an infinite, fertile valley.

In the foreground of the painting stood Artemis, her feminine figure, with its lean muscles, turned away from the viewer. Artemis was nude – unselfconsciously naked, standing tall and confident. Like Jo, she held a bow, the string taut, milliseconds away from firing her arrow.

"So let me get this straight," said Jo. She started to turn around to face Blair.

"Hold your pose!" Blair said severely.

"So let me get this straight," Jo repeated, turning her back to Blair, "we're supposed to help Mrs. Garrett find a job, help Tootie get over her stage-fright, help Nat find a new boyfriend, and find out why Alec is depressed?"

"Correct." Blair dabbed a bit of violet paint in the hollow of Artemis' knee, creating a shadow.

"Plus," Jo continued, "since that apparently ain't enough on our plate, we're going to tell Mrs. G and Nat and Tootie that we're in love?"

"Yes."

"And this all seems like a good idea to you?"

Blair dabbed violet in the hollow of Artemis' other knee, then along her spine.

"Yes."

"I see."

"You see what?"

"I see that I've fallen in love with an insane person!"

"Har-har. Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Turn just a smidge to the left. No. Your other left. Perfect."

"Blair, babe, there's no way we can do all that stuff in one weekend."

"It's a long weekend."

"Even so. Plus, none of it is really our business, is it? Except the part about explainin how we're in love."

"You're the one that said we should tell them this weekend," Blair pointed out. "I'm agreeing with you."

"Yeah, but I didn't think we'd also be doing all this other happy crap, trying to fix everybody's lives. You've read 'Emma' right? Austen's masterpiece?"

Blair drew the brush along the length of Artemis' right leg. "Austen's masterpiece," she said, "was 'Sense and Sensibility'."

"Oh, for Pete's sake! 'Sense and Sensibility'? We're gonna have to agree to disagree about that one! Either that, or call off our engagement."

"'Mansfield Park' has its moments too," said Blair.

Jo groaned. "Look, never mind your crackpot literary observations. My point is, Emma is always tryin to help everyone else, right? But she just ends up screwin everythin up. And also, cause she's so focused on everyone around her, she doesn't even see her own problems, right under her own nose."

"Still waiting for your point."

"I think we need to let our friends, who are really smart and responsible – except for jackass Alec – solve their own friggin problems. We need to focus on how we're gonna break our news about bein in love."

Blair cleaned her brush, placed it carefully in a glass jelly jar, removed a clean brush, dipped it in a smear of pale apricot paint.

"Jo," she said thoughtfully, "sometimes you can be very selfish."

"Selfish?"

"It's not your fault. It probably comes from being an only child in a broken home."

"You're an only child too, babe! And your home is way more broken."

"True, but I had a step-sister," Blair said unflappably.

"Meg was only your sister for, like, one year," objected Jo.

"Still, I had other step-brothers and step-sisters. And they gave me a more generous perspective."

"I see. A generous perspective. Like, when Meg showed up at Eastland and told you she was going to be a nun, and you flipped out and were a total creep about it."

"Are you ever going to let that incident die?"

"Nope."

"Even though it ended with you slugging me in the jaw?"

"Hey, I apologized for that. Eventually."

"And I apologized for being a total creep to Meg. I have a very complicated relationship with religion."

"Yeah, I get that."

"Don't distract me, Jo. Back to my original point: you grew up with just your mother, sometimes your father, and it was all about you. I understand. But it won't kill you to expand your horizons a little bit. Our friends need us. We have to help them. It's what friends do."

"Yeah, sure, when it's needed, Blair, but we shouldn't just go bargin in on stuff that really ain't any of our concern. That ain't right and it doesn't help anyone."

"You're not holding your position," Blair complained. "You moved your shoulder. Now Artemis looks like Quasi Modo."

"Eh, you look like Quasi Modo."

Blair smiled. "So – you know I'm right. You only get childish when you know I'm right."

"Eh, you're childish."

Blair nodded with satisfaction. "Good. We're on the same page."

She drew the fine-tipped brush through the top of Artemis' left shoulder, erasing the unsightly little hump.

"How are we going to do it?" Jo asked nervously. "I mean, Mrs. G, and Nat and Tootie. Are you gonna tell 'em we're in love? Am I gonna tell 'em? We need some kinda plan."

"We should do it together," Blair said decisively. "Some place tranquil and beautiful. And where nobody can storm off. Maybe we'll all go out in one of the canoes."

"At this time of the year? We'll get friggin frostbite!"

"Not if we go at noon, and bundle up properly. It's not even November yet."

"Do you know how to, uh, drive a canoe?"

"Yes. And you don't drive a canoe, darling. You paddle it, and you steer it. You propel it, even. But you don't drive it."

"Well, pardon me, Davy Crockett!"

"Jo … Have you ever been in a canoe?"

"Sure, hundreds of times," Jo said sarcastically. "Canoes all over the place in the Bronx. They're puttin taxis outta business."

She sounds so jumpy, thought Blair. High-strung, even. Which is not like my Jo. An idea formed.

"Jo … Do you know how to swim?"

"Aw … crap!" said Jo.

"So, you don't know how to swim?"

"What part of "Aw, crap' was confusin, babe?"

Blair cleaned her brush, set it in the jelly jar. She draped a loose cloth over the canvas.

"We're done for today," she said. "Thank you for posing again. It's almost finished."

Jo set the bow on the fainting couch. She turned and stretched, cracking her spine like little gunshots.

"Can I see it?" she asked.

Blair hesitated. "Not yet."

"You keep sayin that," Jo complained.

"I want it to be complete."

"I don't know about this whole art contest. You're sure no one's gonna recognize me?"

"Positive."

"Cause it would be so damn embarassin if someone figured out it was me."

"Jo, trust me – no one has any idea how beautiful you are under the flannel. And the denim. And the leather."

"Except you," said Jo, smiling. "C'mere."

She opened her arms. Blair went to her.

Blair's arms slipped easily around Jo's shoulders, Jo's arms wrapped easily around Blair's waist. They kissed, softly and then with increasing hunger.

"I love you, Blair Warner," Jo murmured.

"Shh." Blair slid her hands down Jo's naked back, pulled the brunette hard against her. Jo's hands slid down to cup Blair's generous derriere. "Bed. Now. Please," breathed Blair.

"You read my mind, Princess."

Jo scooped Blair into her arms and carried her into the bedroom.


It made perfect sense that it happened. In retrospect, it seemed like only a matter of time before it had to happen.

Blair took her usual post-coital nap. Jo lay dazed in the afterglow of their very rambunctious lovemaking. It was understandable that when the phone on the bedside table rang, Jo, half-asleep, grabbed it quickly, before it could wake Blair.

It was understandable that a sated, drowsy Jo held the receiver to her mouth and mumbled "This is Jo."

There was dead silence at the other end of the line.

It took a fraction of a second for Jo to register her mistake. The afterglow was washed away by a wave of icy fear.

Oh, shit! Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no!

It was Blair's room – Blair's room, not Jo's!

Jo had answered Blair's phone, and answered by name, as if she was in her suite. Had answered in the sleepy, comfortable voice of someone who'd just been loved within an inch of her life …

Christ … if it's Spenlow, Blair's porter, he's gonna wonder how the hell I got up here, cause I didn't sign in. There's gonna be questions we can't answer. If it's Blair's mother, oh, God, if it's Monica! Will she figure it out?

Jo's body actually trembled. The receiver shook a little in her hand.

Why didn't the person at the other end say something, no matter how terrible, and end the suspense?

"Jo," said Mrs. Garrett gently, "is Blair there?"

Relief washed over Jo like a warm bath. She covered the receiver with her hand, sighed.

"Jo?"

"Oh, ah, hey, Mrs. G. Yeah it's me."

"I know, Jo," Mrs. Garrett said. "I'm calling for Blair, though. Is she available?"

"She's, ah –" Jo regarded her sleeping lover. Blair's face was completely at peace, like an angel's. "She's indisposed right now," said Jo. It was a polite term Jo had picked up from Blair. "Indisposed" usually seemed to mean someone was in the john; it was a term that tended to discourage further questions.

"Oh, I see. Can you take a message for her?"

"Of course, of course. I, ah, dropped by to do my homework, see, and Blair asked me to listen for her phone while she's indisposed. But I fell asleep. On the sofa. In the sitting room."

"Perfectly understandable," Mrs. Garrett said gently. "That's a very comfortable sofa." It sounded, for some reason, like she had a smile in her voice.

"So, what's your message, Mrs. G? Shoot."

"Please tell Blair that I will definitely be attending the Halloween weekend. I'll be ready at four-thirty on Friday. And I'm looking forward to spending time with you girls."

"Oh, us too, Mrs. G, us too. We don't see enough of you lately."

"Well, you'll see me this weekend. Unless, I suppose, I come dressed as the Invisible Man." Mrs. Garrett chuckled at her little joke.

"Hey, good one!" laughed Jo.

Blair stirred in her sleep. Whatever she was dreaming about, she smiled beatifically.

Jo reached out and took one of Blair's hands. She squeezed it tenderly, far too gently to wake the sleeping girl.

"Mrs. G?"

"Yes, Jo?"

"You know you're pretty much like another mother to me. Right?"

"Yes, Jo. And you know that you're pretty much like a daughter to me, I hope."

"Sure. I do. And Blair too."

"Yes. Blair too."

"And you always tell us that we can tell you anythin, anythin at all."

"Yes, Jo. You can tell me anything, whenever you feel comfortable telling me."

"Mrs. G?"

"Yes?"

Jo took a deep breath.

"Mrs. G?"

"Yes, Jo?"

"I'm not in the sitting room."

"No, Jo. I didn't think you were."

Jo took another deep breath. In for a penny, in for a pound.

"Mrs. G?"

"Yes, Jo?"

"Blair is right here, right next to me, but she's asleep."

"I kind of thought she might be," Mrs. Garrett said calmly.

She ain't shocked. She ain't shocked!

"Mrs. G?"

"Yes, Jo?"

This is it. This is the final plunge.

"Mrs. G, Blair and me are in love. With each other."

"Yes, Jo. I kind of thought you might be," Mrs. Garrett said calmly.

Jo's throat constricted. She felt tears sliding down her face.

"You knew, huh?" she managed to ask hoarsely.

"Not until recently," said Mrs. Garrett. "But yes, I knew."

"She's my life, Mrs. G," said Jo. She wiped her eyes. "We love each other so much. We can't, I mean, we can't really get married, but if we could, you know … I asked her. I gave her a ring."

On the other end of the line, Mrs. Garrett sniffled. She was a true romantic at heart.

"I assume she accepted it?" Mrs. Garrett said.

"Yes. You ain't shocked, Mrs. G? You ain't disgusted or anythin?"

"No, Jo. Oh, no." There was a funny sound, like a little trumpet, at Mrs. Garrett's end of the line – Mrs. G was blowing her nose, Jo realized.

"You introduced us," said Jo. "It was your idea to make us roommates, to put us together. You remember what you told me? Cause I'll never forget it. I said how I didn't want to room with Blair in 'snobbo city'. And you told me, 'it's good to learn to live with new people; that's what school life is all about'. I thought you were crazy. But boy, you were right, Mrs. G. You were so right."

Mrs. Garrett blew her nose again. "I knew you would get along together," she said. "Eventually. You have so much in common, underneath your differences. You're both bright, and kind, and beautiful. And you want to make things happen. Good things. And you stand up for the little guy."

"I can never thank you enough for introducin us, Mrs. G. I can't imagine livin without her."

"I know, Jo. And I'm very happy for both of you. But my dears, you have to be careful."

"Yeah. We know."

"Very careful, Jo. You're too young to realize … people get very upset over things they don't understand."

Jo laughed, a bitter little sound. "Mrs. G, you can't imagine some of the things I've seen in the Bronx."

"Well, Jo, I'm sorry to say you can't imagine some of the things I saw in the little communities where I was raised. Sometimes you find the deepest ignorance in the most unexpected places. The kindest smiles can hide the greatest fears … and the greatest hates."

"We're very careful, Mrs. G. I promise."

"Am I the first person you've told?"

"Yeah. Stupid Alec figured it out on his own – we didn't tell him. You're the first one we planned to tell."

"I'm very honored that you have so much trust in me, Jo."

"We were plannin to tell all three of you this weekend, you and Nat and Tootie. It's just, it's gettin real hard to keep it from you. We don't want to live a lie with our closest friends."

"I can understand that. How do you think Tootie and Natalie will take it?"

"Jeez. We don't know. It might seem crazy to them, or gross, or somethin. But we're hopin they'll try to understand."

"It's wonderful, isn't it?" Mrs. Garrett asked. Jo could tell by Mrs. Garrett's voice that at the other end of the phone line she was beaming.

"What is?"

"Being a 'we'. Knowing that someone loves you, for exactly who you are, no matter what. Becoming this new, third creature that's more important than either of you individually."

Jo blinked back tears. "I knew you would understand. Yeah. That's exactly what it's like."

"Hang onto that. Hang on tight. You'll need to, at some point. Always remember that you and Blair have each other. And, Jo?"

"Yeah, Mrs. G?"

"You both will always, always have me."

"We love ya, Mrs. G."

"And I love you both. I'll see you on Friday."

"See ya Friday."

Jo quietly placed the receiver back in the cradle, trying not to wake Blair.

She stretched out beside her lover, pulled the blonde close.

Blair looked so beautiful, so perfect. It made Jo almost uneasy. Sleeping like this, beyond any waking pain, Blair reminded Jo of Juliet's tragic end.

Ah, dear Juliet, why art thou yet so fair?

Jo had helped Tootie run lines for "Romeo and Juliet" last year.

What the hell was it the old Friar told Juliet, before she offed herself? About the whole world bein against 'em?

"A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents …"

Jo kissed Blair's cheek.

Nothin is gonna thwart us, babe. We're gonna figure this out. We gotta. We gotta.

Not everyone was going to be nearly as understanding as Mrs. Garrett, Jo knew. But they had to find a way to make it work.

Jo fell into a troubled sleep in Blair's arms.


Friday, October 28, 1983. The front steps of Goodnow Hall.

"No," Jo said firmly. "No, no, no."

"Yes," Blair said firmly. "There's no point in arguing. It's so cute how you still try to argue."

They were waiting for the Warner limo to pick them up for the weekend. It was like being the last two people on earth. Spenlow, the Goodnow porter, was probably lurking behind a window, as he usually seemed to be, but the campus felt deserted. Many Langley students had made an early start on the long Halloween weekend. The rest were hunkered inside somewhere, out of the breeze.

Blair was stunning in an elegant burgundy trench coat, surrounded by her usual mountain of Gucci luggage, which had been toted down the stairs by Spenlow and his assistants.

Jo was snug in her gloriously soft, vintage leather aviator's jacket with the fleece collar, a recent gift from Blair. Jo carried her scuffed Amelia Earhart suitcase, Blair having forbidden her to bring the black duffle bag – the only other piece of luggage Jo owned.

"The Earhart has pedigree," Blair had said approvingly when she helped Jo to pack. "Hell, it has patina."

"Yeah," Jo had said. "I kinda spilled some coffee on it. And it had some mold growin on it when Balducci dug it out of his basement. But I cleaned that off."

"That's not what I meant by patina. And for heaven's sake, don't tell that story at Petal's!"

"Jeez, you keep sayin her crowd is so down-to-earth."

"Down-to-earth, darling … not a bunch of slobs."

"Well most of them are my teammates. And you can't tell me how to behave around my teammates."

Blair had given Jo a look that was a mixture of pity and amusement. "Jo, have you done any research at all on what it means to be engaged?"

"What, I'm supposed to do whatever you say?"

"In social situations, yes. Technically, I'm taking the bride role in this relationship. So whatever I say goes."

"That's not fair!"

"Perhaps not. But it's tradition."

"So, what situations do I get to control?"

Blair had considered that carefully, then leaned close to Jo and whispered something in the brunette's ear. Jo had blushed deeply, smiling.

"Well," she'd said, her eyes alight, "I suppose that makes it OK."

Now, on the steps of Goodnow, Blair had finally revealed the Halloween costumes she'd chosen for both of them.

"Marc Antony? For cryin out loud, Blair! Friggin Marc Antony? And you're Cleopatra? Why don't we just run around and tell everyone we're a couple, for Pete's sake!"

Blair made that little "tisking" sound that Jo was really starting to dislike.

"Jo, you have to trust me on this. Most of Petal's crowd went to single-sex prep schools, like Eastland, and they understand how it is."

"And how is it? Illuminate those of us that went to coed public schools in the Bronx."

"Remember how Tootie played Baron Von Trapp in Eastland's production of 'The Sound of Music'?"

"Of course. She was really good. And, like she'd ever let us forget!"

"She played Baron Von Trapp at summer camp too."

"Yeah. So what?"

"At girls' schools – or camps – girls have to play the male parts. And at boys' schools, boys have to assume the female roles. It's just the way it's been done, since Shakespeare's day. No one thinks anything of it. No one bats an eyelash."

"So I'm gonna get all guyed up like Marc Antony –"

"It's a very flattering costume, Jo."

"Right."

"It is. You don't think I'd make you look like a tough, do you? I mean, more than you already do?"

"Frankly, babe, I don't know what you'd do. You don't think people are gonna look at you in a Cleopatra get-up, and me as Marc Antony, and not start puttin two and two together? I mean, are these people right in the head?"

"They won't see anything wrong with it. It's not something that crosses their mind. They'll just think it's clever. And anyway, I'll look so damn good as Cleopatra, no one will give you much of a glance."

"Is that so?"

"That's so."

Jo folded her arms across her chest. "Well, when the mob starts chasin us around Lake Peekskill with the torches and pitchforks, get ready for me to say 'I told ya so'."

"If that happens, you can tell me 'I told ya so' as much as you want."

"Are you placatin me?"

"Of course not, darling." Blair patted Jo's arm. "There, there. There, there."

Jo took a deep breath. "Now look here, Blair Warner –"

"Blair Warner-Polniaczek."

"Not yet, you aren't! And I'll have you know that –"

Jo broke off as an enormous vehicle pulled into the Goodnow Hall driveway. It was a gorgeous, gleaming black limousine with six doors. It seemed to stretch on forever.

"Blair?"

"Yes, Jo?"

"Is this our car?"

"Yes, Jo."

"But … what about the Phantom?"

"That's really too small for our purposes. Remember how cramped we were during the drive to the Plaza?"

"Is that a Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman limo?"

"I couldn't begin to guess. James can tell you."

Jo stared at the limo, all but drooling over the vehicle, as James, the Warner chauffeur, alighted and tipped his cap.

"Miss Warner. Miss Polniaczek. Shall I load your luggage?"

"Please James," said Blair. "Lovely to see you."

"Thank you, Miss."

James was a soft-spoken, middle-aged man with a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair. He never said much, and Jo respected that. This was the kind of guy that was all about getting the job done and never mind a bunch of stupid chit-chat.

Now, he quietly opened one of the limo's rear doors, closed it after the two young women were seated, and began efficiently loading their luggage into the trunk.

Jo and Blair sat on the limo's rear bench. There was a bench seat facing them, and there were two jump seats.

Jo regarded the tinted window that separated the seating area from the driver.

"Is that one of those power windows? Like in the movies? Will we –"

"Yes, Jo," said Blair, amused. "We'll have a little privacy this time. At least until we pick up Mrs. Garrett."

Once the limo was rolling toward downtown Peekskill, Jo took Blair in her arms. Jo kissed Blair, slowly and thoroughly, as a token of her approval of the Mercedes-Benz 600, and the privacy it afforded.

Blair laced her fingers behind Jo's neck. She loved kissing Jo. Kissing had never been so right, so sensuous, with anyone else.

Jo placed her hands on Blair's hips, pulling the heiress close. Her lips moved hungrily. Blair was like a drug to her. Jo could never get enough. The blonde's hair was freshly washed, fragrant with Blair's shampoo. Blair's neck and throat smelled like Chanel No. 5.

It seemed like only seconds had passed when Blair pulled away, straightening her hair and fixing her lipstick in a little gold pocket mirror.

She brushed a handkerchief over Jo's mouth, removing any tell-tale signs of lipstick.

"We have a few more minutes," Jo complained.

"No we don't, darling. See?" They pulled into the driveway of the Off Ramp Motel. Mrs. Garrett stood in front of the office with a small blue suitcase.

"Girls!" cried Mrs. Garrett joyfully after James opened the door for her. She slid onto the bench seat opposite them. "I'm so happy to see you! You both look beautiful!"

Blair hugged Mrs. Garrett. Jo hugged Mrs. Garrett, her green-blue eyes moist with unshed tears.

Mrs. Garrett took Blair's left hand as the limo pulled out of the motel driveway.

"It's lovely," Mrs. Garrett said, regarding the simple silver ring on Blair's third finger.

"It was Jo's grandmother's," Blair said with quiet pride.

"You're glowing, Blair." Mrs. Garrett pinched the heiress' cheeks. "You too, Jo." She pinched Jo's cheeks.

"Aw, jeez, Mrs. G." Jo ducked her head, bashful. "Are you sure this doesn't, I don't know, creep you out or anythin?"

"Not in the least!" Mrs. Garrett said with spirit.

"You're sure you don't feel funny with us? Now that you know? Cause I gotta admit, I feel a little funny knowin that you know."

"Well, Jo, I've known for a while. Just a little while, but I've had time to get used to the idea."

"And you're sure you're not freaked out?"

Mrs. Garrett smiled at the couple, tears in her eyes. "Jo, Blair. My girls. I think … you're beautiful."

In the next instant she clenched her fists, lifted them in one of her signature feisty, belligerent gestures. "If only everyone felt the same way! If only I could give you girls a kinder world!"

"Eh, one thing I learned in the Bronx," Jo said, "is you can't expect the world to be kind. You want a kinder world, ya gotta work for it."

"Well. If anyone can do it, you two can!"

Jo wiped her eyes. "Lotta dust in this limo," she complained. "Or pollen, or somethin."

Blair took one of Jo's hands. Mrs. Garrett took the other.

"Mrs. Garrett," Blair began, "do you remember when you taught that sex-ed class at Eastland?"

"Do I remember? How could I forget?"

"You never covered anything about our situation." Blair squeezed Jo's hand.

Mrs. Garrett's mouth pinched into an angry line. "You can thank Mr. Bradley for that!" she said, eyes flashing. "As a registered nurse, I was ready to teach any and all sex ed subjects, including that one. But Mr. Bradley was too chicken-livered to let me. My curriculum was, shall we say, heavily censored. Mr. Bradley was afraid that discussing lesbianism might get the girls all worked up."

"What a weenie!" said Blair.

"The weeniest!" Mrs. Garrett agreed grimly. "He seemed to think that even mentioning the word would turn the campus into the Isle of Lesbos!"

"Into what?" asked Jo.

"The Isle of Lesbos," said Blair. "I'll explain it later, Jo. We only have a few minutes before we pick up Natalie and Tootie." She turned to her surrogate mother. "Mrs. Garrett, I know that sometimes men like men, and women like women. It's the kind of thing no one talks about, especially in front of children, but every once in a while I've heard whispers, rumors. It's not terribly common is it?"

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "Not terribly common, no. But not that rare either. It's hard to say for sure, Blair, because it's something people hide. It might be much more widespread than we think. The important thing is that in the 1970's, psychiatrists stopped classifying it as a disease. And many states have started to decriminalize it."

"Decriminalize it?" asked Jo. "You mean, it's a crime?"

"In some places, yes, it's still considered a crime, Jo."

"What about New York?"

"No."

"Well thank God for small favors! At least no one can throw us in the slammer!"

"Not in New York, at least," said Blair, quirking her mouth in an attempt at bravado.

"And if it ain't considered a disease, your parents can't throw you into a nuthouse," Jo said excitedly.

"There are ways around that," Blair said bitterly. "There was a girl at Groton. Her parents pulled her out suddenly, and the rumor was, well … They put her in an institution. They claimed she was 'depressed'."

"Christ," Jo said softly.

"Language, Jo," Blair and Mrs. Garrett said absently. It was an automatic response; their hearts weren't in the rebuke.

"It's a topic that still has a lot of ignorance surrounding it," said Mrs. Garrett. "And, unfortunately, in some cases, a lot of hate. You know that I support you girls one-hundred percent." Mrs. Garrett squeezed their hands tightly. "But you must, you must be very careful whom you tell, and when and how you tell them."

"Don't worry," said Jo. "Like I said on the phone, Mrs. G – we're gonna be really smart about this."

"Really smart, Jo? 'Really smart' as in answering Blair's phone with a bedroom voice?"

"Bedroom voice? Ah, jeez." Jo blushed.

"Hear, hear," said Blair. "I've told Jo repeatedly not to answer my phone when she, when we, ah –" Now it was Blair's turn to blush. "My point is, we're lucky it was you calling when Jo answered."

"Well I wouldn't hafta answer it if you answered your phone," Jo complained. "It's not my fault you always fall asleep after you, ah, after you, ah, you-know-what, Miss Rip Van Winkle!"

Now Mrs. Garrett blushed. "Girls," she said, "I support your relationship one-hundred percent, but there are some details that I don't need to hear."

"But Mrs. Garrett, it's so annoyin! Every time we –"

"La-la-la-la-la," Mrs. Garrett trilled, singing in her fluting voice. She put her hands over her ears. "That's your personal business, girls. I don't need those details, whether it's about a boyfriend or a girlfriend."

"Of course you don't," Blair agreed. She swatted Jo lightly on the arm. "Jo, you're embarrassing Mrs. Garrett. And me!"

"Well, excuse me, Princess Grace! I thought we were havin a frank, open discussion about sex and love. You know how uncomfortable that stuff makes me, but I'm tryin to be, you know, open and whatever. For you."

"And I appreciate it, darling. I truly do." Blair took both of Jo's hands. "But Mrs. Garrett does not need to know about my –"

"Matin habits?"

"That's not quite the term I would use," Blair mused.

"Let's go with 'mating habits'," Mrs. Garrett advised. "That has a nice, G-rated 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' ring to it."

"Oh, it's a wild kingdom all right," Jo murmured.

"Jo!" cried Blair and Mrs. Garrett. Blair pulled her long hair across her blushing face.

"For Pete's sake, I'm jokin around, I'm jokin around," said Jo. "I'm nervous! Talkin about this stuff, it's all real new and disturbin but kinda a relief, too, to be able to discuss it."

"You see, Blair?" said Mrs. Garrett. "Jo's sorry."

"Well, keep your composure," Blair told Jo, emerging from behind her curtain of blonde hair. "Show some dignity, for heaven's sake."

"I will. Jeez. I promise. I'm sorry I embarrassed ya, Blair," Jo said contritely.

"You are forgiven," Blair said magnanimously.

"Well you don't gotta say it like that," Jo complained.

"Like what?"

"Like you're a martyr."

"A martyr?"

"Come on, Blair. Climb down off the cross."

"How dare you?"

"Well," sighed Mrs. Garrett, "it's good to know that even though you're both away at college, grown up and in love, one thing is still abundantly clear."

"What's that, Mrs. G?"

"You still need me."

"Mrs. Garrett! We will always need you," said Blair. "You're family."

"You are," Jo said sincerely. "You're the best, Mrs. G."


Natalie and Tootie stood in front of Eastland's dining hall.

Tootie sighed, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her heavy blue winter coat. She wore a knit cap and had a scarf wrapped around her throat.

"Blair's car is late," she said, mopping her brow, "and I think I'm gonna melt before it gets here!"

"You're gonna melt?" Natalie demanded. Her face was beaded with perspiration – not surprising, given that she was bundled up in multiple argyle sweaters, a long coat, a knit hat and heavy plaid scarf.

"Well it's your own fault, Natalie," Tootie said with an almost brutal lack of sympathy. "It must be about 60 degrees out! You said it was going to be freezing!"

"Trust me, Toot, you'll thank me later! A cottage on Lake Peekskill is going to be beyond freezing. We're talking ten, twenty degrees, tops. There's the cold water, and the wind chill factor – it'll be like visiting the inside of a snow cone machine! Why couldn't Moose's cottage be in Hawaii?" Nat's eyes grew dreamy. "I'll bet it's a toasty 85 degrees in Waikiki."

"It feels like it's a toasty 85 degrees right here!"

"Oh, pshaw!" Natalie mopped her brow with her heavy gloves. "Think of it like a sauna. We're slimming down while we wait for Blair's car."

"Well some of us don't need to slim down. If I slim down any more, I'll look like Mr. Zip!"

Nat gave Tootie a look. "Have you ever heard the phrase 'the unkindest cut'?"

"I'm sorry, Natalie. I just get really cranky when I'm melting like Frosty the Snowman in that greenhouse."

"Oh my gosh – Frosty! That scene always makes me cry!"

"It's a cartoon, Natalie."

"And then when Santa makes the wind blow, and Frosty comes back to life –"

"A cartoon, Natalie."

"Sometimes I don't know you, Dorothy Ramsey!"

"Well let me introduce myself. I'm your best friend, and I'm about to melt into a puddle!"

"Oh, that's right – my best friend – the drama queen!"

"Hey! That's not very nice!"

"Well I don't feel like being nice." Natalie mopped her face again. "I'm sweating like a suckling pig at a luau, here!"

"Aha! So you admit we're idiots to be all bundled up like this!"

"I admit nothing!"

There was a crunch of gravel as a long, elegant limousine pulled up in front of the dining hall.

"I thought Alex already left for the weekend," said Natalie, referring to one of Eastland's resident royals, the exiled princess of Italy.

"She did," said Tootie. "But maybe the royal chauffer didn't get the memo."

As soon as the car stopped, one of the back windows unrolled. Blair's smiling face and Mrs. Garrett's smiling face peered out.

"Tootie and Natalie, come on dooooooown!" Mrs. Garrett cried excitedly, doing her best imitation of Bob Barker on "The Price is Right".

James was out of the limo in an instant, opening the trunk to accommodate Natalie and Tootie's luggage, opening the rear door so they could climb into the back.

"Wow!" said Tootie, perching on one of the jump seats. "Plenty of room this time!"

"There sure is," said Nat, claiming half of the rear-facing bench seat occupied by Mrs. Garrett. "This is amazing!"

Blair smiled warmly at her friends. "Glad you like it."

"Like it, we love it!" Tootie enthused, peeling off her hat and scarf, unbuttoning her coat.

There were hugs and greetings all around.

"Why are you guys dressed like Arctic explorers?" Jo asked curiously, as James guided the limo through the Eastland campus.

"Let me tell you," said Natalie, removing her hat and scarf, "when that icy wind rolls in off Lake Peekskill, you'll wish you were bundled up like we are!"

"Hey, remember when the dining hall got so cold?" said Tootie. "We were all huddled under that blanket in the lounge – and we were still freezing!"

"Jeez, yeah," laughed Jo.

That had been a crazy time. There were all kinds of problems, not only in the Eastland dining hall, but in the rooms above it that they shared with Mrs. Garrett. The rooms were too hot, then too cold, and then the water was turned off … It was a nightmare!

Before long, the girls were at each others' throats. They had actually separated, moving into different dorms before realizing how much they missed each other.

I can't imagine livin without Blair now, Jo thought. I can't imagine I ever wanted to live apart from her, not even for a second. What a friggin moron I was!

Jo glanced at Blair, who met her eyes sheepishly.

My God, Blair's thinkin the same thing! thought Jo. She laughed, delighted.

Blair was thinking the same thing, and she knew why Jo was laughing.

"Shut up," Blair said affectionately, playfully swatting Jo's arm.

"Are you too at it already?" complained Natalie.

"Guys, we want a civilized trip," Tootie said warningly. "We're begging you! No insults –""

"Or fist fights," said Natalie.

"Or blood baths," said Tootie.

"Or assorted mayhem," Natalie finished.

Blair smiled shyly at Jo. Jo smiled shyly at Blair. Insults and fist fights were the last things on their minds!

I love you, darling, Blair said with her eyes.

Love ya, babe, Jo returned.

Looking at each other, Blair and Jo felt the world wheel away. It was one of what Jo called their Tony-and-Maria moments; just as in "West Side Story", sometimes when Jo and Blair looked at each other the world slipped away, and they fell into a reverie where they were only conscious of each other.

Tootie shook her head, annoyed. They're doing it again – the weird mood swings – the silent communication. It's like they joined a cult! Tootie nudged Natalie with her elbow.

Mrs. Garrett cleared her throat. Loudly. She heartily approved of Jo and Blair's plan to reveal their relationship to Natalie and Tootie – but a bit of preparation was required. If Jo and Blair revealed all now, suddenly, with a spontaneous kiss, it would stun and upset the younger girls – at least initially.

"Jo and Blair will be on their best behavior," Mrs. Garrett said brightly. She gripped one of Jo's wrists and one of Blair's wrists and squeezed affectionately.

Mrs. Garrett's grip reminded Jo and Blair that they weren't alone in the limo. Somewhat reluctantly, they turned their gaze to Mrs. Garrett, smiled at her.

"We'll be unbelievably civilized," Blair promised.

"We'll be on our very best behavior," Jo vowed, with uncharacteristic gentleness. Her voice was husky.

Natalie rolled her eyes.

"All right, what gives?" she demanded. "Something's up, and this journalist refuses to rest until I uncover whatever it is! My 'Freaky Friday' theory was wrong, and so was my UFO hypothesis. But the jury is still out on pod people!"

Tootie nodded. "What she said!"

The younger girls waited for Blair's protest and Jo's scowl – the normal reactions when Natalie or Tootie pried.

Instead, Natalie and Tootie were rewarded with sweet smiles, gentle smiles, not just from Blair, but from no-nonsense Jo.

Blair's eyes were luminous with an inner joy. Jo's eyes were wet with the tears she was holding back.

"Oh my God!" blurted Tootie. It all makes sense! That's why they're being so moody, and weirdly nice to each other sometimes, and why they seem so secretive. They're protecting us! "Blair's dying!"

Blair and Jo exchanged an affectionate, amused look.

"Tootie," Blair said kindly, "I'm not dying."

"Then Jo –"

"Jo's not dying either," said Blair.

"I sure ain't," said Jo. "Never better in my life!" She flashed her klieg-light grin, even as she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "Tootie, pal, you gotta stop thinkin everyone's dyin when they act a little different."

"A little different? Face it – you two have been acting weird all semester."

Blair and Jo shrugged.

Outside the limo's windows the golden-scarlet-grey landscape of rural Peekskill flew by. Showers of leaves drifted down, see-sawing on the wind before coming to rest in drifts on the ground.

"It's a beautiful day," Blair said feelingly.

"Yes," agreed Jo.

"I'll take you canoeing tomorrow," Blair said. "If the weather's fine. Don't be nervous. I know what I'm doing."

"I trust you," Jo said quietly.

"And we'll take a walk. There are some lovely paths around Petal's cottage. Her family owns the land for acres around it. We can just walk and walk."

"Blair," said Natalie, "when have you ever just wanted to 'walk and walk'?"

"And where did you learn how to paddle a canoe?" demanded Tootie.

"Years of summer camp," Blair explained absently, her eyes on the landscape and her thoughts on Jo.

"Well don't think you two are leaving us out," complained Tootie. "I love long walks. And canoeing."

"Me too," said Natalie. She had never been in a canoe in her life, but she wasn't going to be left behind!

"Perfect," Blair said. She smiled. "Jo and I have some things that we want to discuss with both of you. A walk or a glide on the lake will give us the perfect opportunity."

"Well. All right then," Tootie said a trifle sulkily. She had expected more of an argument; Blair's instant agreement caught her off guard. After all, when Blair and Jo were talking about taking an excursion, it sounded like they were talking about taking a walk or canoe ride with each other, leaving Tootie and Nat high and dry. It almost sounded like … like …

Tootie shook her head. What a crazy thought!

Natalie rubbed her hands together excitedly. "'Ah, Wilderness'!" she said. "So, Blair, if you're through admiring nature for the moment, let's switch to a far more interesting topic. What do you know about the boys attending this party? I want specifics, Blair – no detail is too petty!"

"Mmm?" Blair turned reluctantly from the window. "Did you say something, Natalie?"

"She's asking about the boys," Jo said quietly.

"What boys?"

"The boys that are gonna be at this party."

"Oh." Blair shrugged. The boys who were going to be at the party were the last thing on her mind. "Like I said on the phone, Natalie, the boys are Petal's family friends, some school chums, mostly old money. Some are catches, but some are rogues."

"The most charming ones, probably," sighed Nat.

"Probably. So you might want to check with Petal, or with me, before you accept any proposals."

"Don't worry, Nat," said Jo, "if anyone gives you a hard time, you just let me know. I'll kick his fancy-pants into the lake!"

"Jo," said Mrs. Garrett disapprovingly.

"I said 'fancy-pants'," said Jo defensively. "I could've said lots worse."

"You could've," agreed Blair. The heiress smiled affectionately at Jo. Blair's fingers toyed with her long blonde hair. As Blair's fingers moved, the silver ring on her left hand glinted in the late afternoon sunlight.

The light glimmering on the ring flashed into Tootie's eyes for a second. What a pretty little ring … it looks like an engagement ring. On Blair's ring finger, on her left hand …

"Blair!" Tootie blurted.

Mrs. Garrett covered her ears. "Tootie, please! There's no need to shout."

"But Blair – she's engaged!" shouted Tootie.

"She's what?" demanded Natalie. Her eyes flew automatically to the third finger of Blair's left hand. She saw the gleam of the slight silver band. Natalie's jaw dropped. Her eyes goggled. "Blair! Blair, you are engaged!"

"Please, everyone stop yelling," pleaded Mrs. Garrett.

But her young friends were too excited to heed her.

"Engaged!" shouted Tootie. "That's what you were going to tell us!"

"That's why you two are acting so strange!" crowed Natalie. "Engaged! Engaged! So what's his name?"

"Where did you meet him?" demanded Tootie.

"When do we meet him?" demanded Nat. "Oh my God! Is it Alec? I can see it now: Duchess Blair! But you told me you broke up with Alec. Or was that to throw me off the scent? Oh, you're a deep one, Blair!"

Jo snorted. "Deep as a puddle," she said, with a teasing glance at the blonde.

Blair laughed. She took Jo's arm, leaned her head on Jo's shoulder.

"Do we tell them now?" Blair asked Jo.

"You don't have to tell us," Tootie said triumphantly. "Haven't you been listening? We figured it out! You two think you're so clever, keeping secrets!"

"So you're going to be Blair's maid of honor, right Jo?" asked Natalie.

Jo laughed. "Not exactly," she said.

"But you're Blair's best friend!" said Tootie. "Of course you'll be her maid of honor."

"I'm, ah, gonna be tied up with some other responsibilities," said Jo, eyes dancing.

"I get it," said Nat. "Blair's father disapproves, right? So it's not Alec – Blair's marrying the poor guy. It's like 'Rich Man, Poor Man' all over again! So Jo's gonna give Blair away instead of her dad."

"The poor guy – right!" said Tootie. "That's why it's such a tiny little ring."

Jo scowled. "It ain't a tiny little ring!" she said.

"Of course not," Nat said hastily. She shot Tootie a look – Don't insult the ring!

"It's a great ring," Tootie said encouragingly. "It's just, um, not a ring you'd associate with an aristocrat."

"It's a beautiful ring," Blair said, holding out her hand and regarding the ring dreamily. "It's the most beautiful ring I've ever seen."

"It's not half what you deserve," Jo said huskily. "But it'll do."

"Come on – who's the fiancé?" Natalie demanded. "Is it the poor guy? Will he be at the party this weekend? Will we finally meet him?"

"Do your parents know?" Tootie pursued. "Do they support the engagement?"

"Oh, this is all so romantic!" gushed Natalie, blue eyes sparkling. "Blair Warner, secretly engaged. 'Extra, extra: Dazzling Debutante Ditches Duke! Hoity-Toity Heiress Hooks Hot Hobo!'"

Tootie laughed, delighted with her best friend's word play.

"'Hoity-Toity'?" asked Blair, lifting her eyebrows.

"Not that you are," Natalie said hastily. "'Hoity-Toity', I mean. But it sounds good in the headline."

"How about switchin the 'Hot'?" suggested Jo. "'Hot Heiress Hooks Handsome Hobo'."

"That's better," Blair approved, squeezing Jo's arm. Her head still leaned on Jo's shoulder.

Look at those two, Tootie thought fondly. Who could've predicted they'd become such amazing friends? They hated each other on site when they first met! Everything became an argument, and a competition. But over the years they really bonded. And now, sure, they act weird sometimes, and fight like cats and dogs, but they're really as close as an old married couple …

An old married couple …

Mrs. Garrett cleared her throat. Loudly.

"Girls, that's enough teasing and kidding around. Blair, congratulations on your engagement."

"Thank you, Mrs. Garrett."

"Tootie and Natalie, when Blair and, ah, when Blair is ready to tell you more about her engagement, she will. Won't you Blair?"

"Yes," Blair said. It dawned on her that she was leaning comfortably against Jo. She reluctantly sat up straight, leaning against the door, away from her lover.

An old married couple …

Tootie's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she saw Blair pull slightly away from Jo.

Come on, Tootie girl, get a grip. That's the craziest idea … They're not … There's no way they, that they would …

"So, Tootie – how are rehearsals going?" asked Mrs. Garrett. She intended to distract the younger girls from speculating about Blair's engagement, and she couldn't have picked a better topic.

Tootie frowned. Rehearsals for Eastland's production of 'The Women'. It was a dream role – and she was blowing it.

Natalie put an arm around Tootie's shoulders in a gesture both protective and supportive.

"Tootie's got a few jitters," said Nat, "but she's getting a handle on them. Aren't you, Tootie?" She smiled encouragingly.

"No." Tootie shook her head. "Honestly? It's getting worse. It used to be I could get out most of my dialog before the shaking started. But lately? I can barely deliver a line before my knees start knocking together. My hands tremble, and I blush and I get cotton-mouth."

"Tootie, I'm so sorry to hear that!" Mrs. Garrett said sincerely. "How long has this been going on? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Thanks, Mrs. Garrett, but there's nothing you can do. I have no idea where the nerves are coming from. I've never had stage-fright!"

Blair chewed thoughtfully on a strand of blonde hair. "Tootie?"

"Yes?"

"Something must be triggering your nerves. What's different about this play?"

"I don't know. Nothing."

"You've had starring roles before, so it's not that."

"'The Women' isn't a musical," mused Tootie. "No songs or dance steps to learn. That should make it easier, though, not scary."

"Is that how you feel, Tootie – scared?" Jo asked with unusual tenderness.

"Not when I'm offstage. But when I get up there and start acting, and see all those empty seats, it's like I have no control. I feel terrified."

"How awful!" said Blair.

"Well, we'll be in the audience," Jo said stoutly. "We'll be cheerin ya on every step of the way!"

"Of course we will!" agreed Mrs. Garrett.

"And if anyone cracks wise or heckles ya, I'll toss 'em out on their keister!" Jo promised.

Tootie grinned. "You guys are the greatest. You know that, right?"

"Of course," said Natalie, buffing her fingernails on her jacket.

"We're the best," Blair said with a dazzling grin. "Absolutely top-drawer, as the Gammas say."

"We don't suck," Jo agreed with mock modesty.

"You really are the best," Tootie insisted. "You're the best friends, ever."

Jo tossed her gloves at Tootie, pegging her on the side of the head.

"Hey!"

"That's enough mush," Jo said firmly.

"That hurt!"

"C'mon Tootie – my gloves hurt?"

"Jo," said Mrs. Garrett, "that wasn't very mature."

Jo bent down, scooped up her gloves.

"OK, OK – I'm sorry, Toot. Just goofin around."

"Well, so much for civility," laughed Nat. "I predict one of our usual rambunctious weekends!"

"Nah," Jo said, with a quick, tender glance at Blair – so quick that Tootie wondered if she'd imagined it. "This ain't gonna be one of our usual weekends. Not by a long shot!"

"Jo," Nat said thoughtfully, "you have a secret too, don't you?"

"Yeah." Jo smiled her bashful, crooked smile. "Guys … I'm engaged too."

Tootie almost fell off her seat. Am I right? It would fit. But it just … how could it be?

Natalie clutched at her heart.

"A double engagement? You're both engaged? Will it be a double wedding? Jo, who's the guy? I didn't even know you were dating anyone! Oh, my gosh – everyone is getting married except me! I'm officially a spinster!"

Mrs. Garrett held up one hand and gazed firmly at Natalie.

"Natalie Green, that's enough for now. You are a high school junior – hardly a spinster! And Blair and Jo will answer all your questions later. For now, sit back and enjoy the scenery."

"Enjoy the scenery? Mrs. Garrett, with all due respect, you've got to be kidding! Two of my best friends just got engaged! What kind of friend would I be if I didn't harass them mercilessly for every last detail?"

"The kind of friend who doesn't get their head dunked in Lake Peekskill," suggested Jo.

"Jo, where's your ring?" Tootie asked curiously.

Jo's eyebrows lifted in surprise. She glanced down at the naked third finger of her left hand.

Huhn. Never even thought of askin Princess for a ring. Not like I need one.

"I, ah, haven't gotten a ring yet," Jo said. "You know me – that mush ain't important to me."

"Jo!" Natalie said, clutching at her heart again, "what are you saying? Of course he has to give you a ring!" She turned to Mrs. Garrett. "Is it a legal engagement if the guy doesn't give a ring?"

Mrs. Garrett pursed her lips. "I told you, Natalie – this isn't the time. You can discuss it later."

"But – no ring?"

"Natalie," trilled Mrs. Garrett, "loose lips sink ships!"

"What does that mean?"

"It means, pipe down, Natalie. It's Jo's business whether or not she wants a ring."

Blair was smiling to herself. Jo caught the smile. She knew what it meant.

Tootie caught the smile too. It's almost as if … hmmm.


Petal Von Schuylkill's "cottage" by Lake Peekskill was tucked on its own winding drive through acres of shadowy, romantic woods. Birds sang in the twilight. The leaves blazed in every imaginable shade of yellow, orange and red.

When the "cottage" hove into view, Mrs. Garrett, Tootie, Natalie and Jo gasped.

"Some 'cottage'!" said Nat.

"It's bigger than the Plaza," said Tootie. She was exaggerating … but not by much.

"I thought Lake Peekskill was mostly cabins and cottages," said Mrs. Garrett.

"It is," said Blair, "but you wouldn't expect Petal's family to keep an actual cottage, would you? This is more in line with the so-called 'cottages' in Newport. It was built in the 1800's as a summer hotel."

"I like it," said Tootie. "It must be nice to have a place where hundreds of friends can drop by on a whim, and you'll have room for them!"

Nat glared at Blair. "'Come as you are,'" she quoted bitterly. "Down-to-earth,' you said. 'Nothing too shiny or new', you said!"

"Oh, pshaw!" Blair waved a perfectly manicured hand, dismissing Natalie's concerns. "The Von Schuylkills are just plain folks."

"Oh, salt of the earth," Natalie said wryly. "And it looks like they own the earth, too!"

James parked the limo in front of the main entrance, a set of gargantuan wooden doors that wouldn't have looked out of place on a medieval cathedral.

"They're like the gates in 'King Kong'," Jo said, impressed.

James opened the limo's doors and the women poured out of the Mercedes, stretching their cramped muscles and staring at the beautiful old house.

The Von Schuylkill manor was a mass of stone walls and towers, supported by thick timbers, and the entire structure was draped in layers of ivy and moss and flowers. The house almost seemed to have grown up out of the damp forest floor, and the forest had partially reclaimed it.

Jo whistled. "Great old pile for a Halloween party," she said approvingly. "Bring on the ghosts and ghouls!"

"Isn't it beautiful?" Blair enthused. "I mean, in a brooding, fairy tale sort of way."

"It's lovely," said Mrs. Garrett. "But I think we're going to have to leave a trail of bread crumbs to find our way around."

Natalie shivered. "Guys … I don't have a very good feeling about this."

"Nat, no drama this weekend," said Jo. "Please? Leave that to Toot."

"Hey!" objected Tootie.

"I'm not being dramatic," Natalie said defensively. "I get a very creepy feeling about this place."

"Nat, there's nothin creepy about this place," Jo said reasonably.

"Are you kidding? Transylvania called; Dracula wants his castle back!"

As if on cue, a blood-curdling howl, as of a ravenous wolf, pierced the twilit air.

Natalie grabbed Tootie's arm. "Nothing creepy, huh?" Nat asked Jo. "What do you call that? Lon Chaney, Jr., eat your heart out!"

"Eh, we're in the woods," said Jo. "Probably a coyote or somethin."

"Jo, there aren't coyotes on Lake Peekskill," scoffed Natalie.

"Well, panthers or cougars or somethin. Whatever friggin animals do run around these woods. It ain't a werewolf."

The howl rang out again, louder and more prolonged this time.

Mrs. Garrett took Blair's hand. Blair took Jo's hand. What Blair wanted to do was to leap into Jo's arms, but she had the presence of mind not to do so.

"Jeez, Louise," said Jo, "it's just a bobcat or somethin. Everybody just calm down."

Blair pressed closer to Jo, as close as she dared. Jo was doing a wonderful job of looking calm, but Blair felt Jo's pulse racing, felt her heart beating hard.

Like all perfectly trained retainers, James seemed oblivious to howling werewolves. He unloaded the luggage with rapid efficiency.

A grey-and-white liveried servant who seemed to materialize from nowhere placed their bags onto a luggage trolley and pushed it into one of the house's numerous side doors.

James tipped his cap to Blair. "Miss Warner – anything more before I depart?"

"Does James have to depart?" wondered Tootie.

"Good question," said Natalie. "Maybe James and the limo can stick around for the weekend. Within shouting distance. In case we need to, oh, I don't know, flee in the middle of the night!"

Jo rolled her eyes. "For Pete's sake!"

"Thank you, James," Blair said politely, "but you can go now. We'll see you at 3 pm on Monday."

"If we're still alive," Natalie said in a small voice.

James bowed crisply to the women.

"Have a pleasant weekend." He slipped into the enormous limo. Within a moment the engine was purring and the massive vehicle had vanished among the thickly growing trees and foliage.

The wolf, or whatever the hell it was, howled for a third time. This time it sounded like it was almost on top of them.

If Blair Warner hadn't been impeccably trained in manners and deportment since the age of two, she would have flung herself into Jo's arms and buried her head against Jo's chest, decorum and reputation be damned.

"Well," Blair said tightly, with a bright smile, "shall we?"

"Shall we get the hell inside before we're a werewolf's dinner?" asked Nat. "Yes. Yes, we shall!"

Natalie all but sprinted up the steps, Tootie in tow. Jo had never seen Nat run so quickly. She chuckled.

"You know what this place reminds me of?" she asked Blair and Mrs. Garrett. "You ever see 'Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein'? What a hoot!"

"No doubt it's hilarious," said Blair.

Natalie and Tootie were already near the top landing, their backs to the older girls, and Mrs. Garrett was toiling up the stone stairs a few steps above Blair and Jo. Not seeing anyone else around, Blair squirmed her way under Jo's arm and pressed close to the brunette.

Jo laughed. "Princess – you ain't really scared, are you?"

"Of course not," Blair said with dignity, wrapping her arms around Jo's waist.

"God, I love you," Jo said fondly. She dropped a quick kiss on Blair's forehead. "Now get the hell away from me before you get us thrown out, babe."

Blair reluctantly withdrew from Jo. "Walk next to me," she directed. "Right next to me. Please?"

"Of course. Any werewolves dare to attack Blair Warner, I'll make you a fur coat out of 'em!"

"Thank you, darling."

"Well, what kinda fiancée would I be if I let a werewolf eat you? Unless – am I already in the will?"

Blair smacked Jo's arm.

When Blair and Jo reached the landing they found Natalie pounding on the massive wooden doors and Tootie pulling repeatedly on a twisted bell wire. The toll of a mournful bell emanated from deep within the house every time Tootie pulled the wire.

"Good heavens!" said Blair. "Will you two calm down? Give the butler a minute to respond. He and his staff must be at sixes and sevens getting all of Petal's guests settled."

Jo was more succinct. "Knock it off!" she told the younger girls. "Show a little class."

"Did Jo Polniaczek just tell me to show a little class?" marveled Tootie.

"She's already possessed," suggested Natalie.

The animal – whatever it was – howled again. It sounded like it was in the dense trees along the drive.

Nat banged harder on the stout door. "Hello! Hello? Can someone let us in before we're wolf goulash?"

There was a rusty creaking as one of the massive doors swing open, seemingly on its own.

"Hello?" Natalie asked in a small voice.

She and Tootie peered inside.

Candles flickered within, casting strange shadows throughout a massive foyer with a black-and-white-checked marble floor. A grand staircase swept upward into darkness. A suit of armor stood guard near an ink-black hallway.

"Well, are you goin in or what?" crabbed Jo.

"I'm gonna go with 'or what'," gulped Natalie.

"Where's Scooby Doo when you need him?" wondered Tootie.

"Scooby Doo? I demand the Hardy Boys at the very least!" said Natalie.

"Parker Stevenson is pretty dreamy," sighed Tootie.

"For cryin out loud!" Taking Blair and Mrs. Garrett by the arm, Jo led the women past Natalie and Tootie, into the foyer with its menacing shadows and flickering candlelight.

Mrs. Garrett clucked her tongue. "Look at that dust," she said, pointing to the thick layer of grime on the floor, the steps, the banister and the heavy oak table in the center of the room.

"Must be the maid's year off," cracked Jo.

Mrs. Garrett dragged a finger through the dust, regarded it thoughtfully. She gingerly sniffed the powder.

"Ah!" she said. "Flour! And salt, if I'm not mistaken!"

"What does that mean?" asked Natalie.

"It means these are props!" said Tootie. "Like a stage set."

"Yes indeed," said Mrs. Garrett, looking around. "This reminds me of some good old-fashioned Halloween parties back in Appleton, Wisconsin. I think we're in for a wonderful weekend!"

A blinding flash of lightning dazzled the room. Thunder boomed.

"Is the storm a prop?" Natalie demanded.

"It's all stage magic," said Tootie. "There must be hidden speakers around here."

"Sure," said Jo. "I'll bet that werewolf's just a stupid recording. Hey! Neat!" She crossed to the suit of armor. "Don't worry, Nat, if there really is a monster, you can hide in this tin can." Jo knocked on the visor of the knight's helmet. "Hello? Heh-heh. Anybody at home?"

"Hello Miss Polniaczek," boomed the suit of armor. The knight extended one gleaming arm, offering its gauntlet for Jo to shake.

The former Young Diablo yelped.

Jo grabbed the knight's arm, twisted it around behind its back, as if she were a cop about to handcuff a perp.

"Ow! What the bloody hell?" shouted the knight.

Jo pushed the knight to its knees, with a loud clattering and clanking of ancient metals, keeping its arm twisted behind it. She put her knee against the small of its back, so, despite its struggles, the knight couldn't stand up and fight back.

"Let me go, Jo!" the knight demanded plaintively. "Struth, you're a strong one!"

"Alec?" asked Blair, recognizing the plummy British tones emanating from the visor.

"Alec!" said Jo, disgusted. She released the knight.

He struggled to his feet, clattering and clanking like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz". "Friggin Alec!" said Jo.

He flipped up the visor, revealing his angelically handsome, perfectly chiseled features and the short-cropped dark curls that so many women longed to touch. His face was red and perspiring. "Bloody inferno in here," he complained. "But ah, Jo, worth it to have gobsmacked you!"

"You want smackin, I'll show you smackin," Jo said belligerently, cocking one arm.

Alec laughed, held up his gauntlets, palms-outward in a gesture of surrender.

"I concede, I concede! I know better than to tangle with Jo Polniaczek the Mighty. Blair, will you leash your pet before she tears out my throat?"

"Why should I?" drawled Blair. "Am I Jo's keeper?"

"In a word – yes. And a beautiful keeper, if I may be so bold."

"You may not," growled Jo. "Blair – can I deck him?"

"Well …" Blair considered the request.

"He called me a 'pet', Blair!"

"That was very rude," Blair agreed.

"He made a monkey outta me, Blair!"

"He did, didn't he?"

"Not the most difficult feat," Alec said, bestowing a charming smile upon the heiress. "Come now. I've been making monkeys out of all the new arrivals for the past two hours. All part of the atmosphere. Don't tell me your boon companion can't take a little joke."

"Oh, I can take it," said Jo. "I can take it, and you, straight to the scrap heap!"

She pushed her face up against the visor, so that she was brow to brow with the duke's son. Jo's green-blue eyes bored into Alec's clear sapphire eyes. She didn't blink.

"God's teeth, you're a formidable woman," Alec said admiringly. "Marry me, won't you? It'd be an adventure – even though we're both stony broke and won't have a pot to piss in."

Jo rapped on his helmet. "We can use this," she said. "You effin –""

"Jo!" Blair and Mrs. Garrett said warningly.

"But he, this joker, he almost made me pee my pants!"

"Thank God for almost," said Blair.

"No kiddin!" said Jo. "Listen, Lord Blitheridge, you keep on the other side of the castle from me this weekend. Or I'm gonna rearrange your armor for ya, and I promise you ain't gonna like where this ends up." She rapped the helmet again.

Alec laughed. "Blair, every time I meet Miss Polniaczek I understand even more what you see in her. Underneath that thuggish grammar, her spirit is absolutely to-the-manor-born. I wonder if she could be related to Emmie Savoy, after all."

"Thuggish grammar?" Jo demanded. She cocked her arm again.

Blair intervened hastily, taking one of Alec's arms and one of Jo's.

"Jo. Lord Nethridge. Surely we can get through this weekend in a civilized manner." She kissed Alec's cheek, and then Jo's. "We're all friends, aren't we?"

"Rather more than friends," Alec said cheerfully. "Co-conspirators, really."

"Not any longer," growled Jo. "You've been dumped, old chum."

Alec's smiled faltered. He glanced at Blair.

"You no longer require my services, Miss Warner?" he asked Blair. There was suddenly something tremendously sad in his eyes. Now Jo understood what Blair had been saying lately about Alec looking depressed.

"She never required your services," said Jo. Tough luck, pal. She loves me, and you know it. Deal.

"Now, let's not be hasty, Jo," said Blair. "We're taking Natalie and Tootie into our confidence – not the whole world, and certainly not my mother! Alec is still a very important part of our little ménage."

"Ménage?" asked Natalie, waggling her eyebrows.

"Nat, it ain't that kinda ménage," said Jo. "Alec's just kinda been helpin us with somethin."

Blair touched Alec's shoulder gently. He couldn't feel it through the armor, but he saw the gesture and gave her a grateful smile.

"Alec has been a tremendous help," said Blair. "I don't know what we would've done without him."

"Let's not get nuts about it," objected Jo.

"Jo," Alec said seriously, "I'm sorry I scared you."

"Scared me? Who says you scared me?"

"Anyone who heard that scream," said Natalie.

"It wasn't a scream," said Jo. "It was a shout."

"They heard that 'shout' in the next county," teased Tootie.

"You see what you did?" Jo asked Alec. "Now Tootie's makin fun of me!"

"I really am sorry," he said. "It was supposed to funny."

"Funny for whom?"

Natalie and Tootie raised their hands.

"It was a friendly prank," Alec told Jo. "I really have grown very fond of you. Both of you."

"And we're fond of you too," said Blair.

"Aw!" Natalie and Tootie said together.

"No 'Aw'," objected Jo, scowling. "This isn't an 'Aw' thing. I ain't fond of him."

"You are," Blair insisted. "You're a little bit fond of him."

"Not even a little bit. Actually, as I think I mighta mentioned a coupla hundred times, he drives me up the wall. But I can put up with him a little longer – for you, Blair." Jo faced Alec head on, a gleam in her eye. "See, milord, Blair is engaged now – and not to you."

"Jo," Blair said warningly. "This isn't the moment."

"This is a great moment," said Jo. "Alec is understandin me. Aren't you, Alec?"

"I wish you could believe me," Alec said quietly. "I wish both of you nothing but the best. I wish things were different, but," he smiled bitterly, "I'm quite the pragmatist these days."

Blair sighed. "Jo, if you can stop taunting Lord Nethridge, and Alec, if you can climb down off the cross, we might actually be able to enjoy this weekend."

"I ain't tauntin him," objected Jo.

"And I'm not on any cross," objected Alec. "Perish the thought! I'm an Anglican."

The blood-curdling howl of a wolf rolled through the foyer.

"The next guest has arrived," said Alec.

"That's a recording – right?" asked Natalie.

"Yes. There are motion sensors along the drive and the front steps. They trigger the sound effects." He flipped down his visor. "I need to get back to my post," he said, voice muffled by the visor.

"Well what the hell are we supposed to do?" Jo demanded.

Alec pointed to the grand staircase, with its dusty banister and festoons of cobwebs – although the harder Jo looked at the cobwebs, the more they looked like spun sugar.

"Follow the candles," Alec advised, voice echoing within his armor.

Natalie rubbed her hands together. "My first long weekend in the country! Mystery! Intrigue! Bawdy misunderstandings."

"Natalie," Mrs. Garrett said warningly.

"Hey, I didn't say they'd be my bawdy misunderstandings," Natalie said hastily.

"They'd better not be," said Mrs. Garrett. "I might not work at Eastland anymore, but I will be serving as your chaperone this weekend."

"You mean our jailor," said Tootie.

There was another wolf howl. Natalie jumped.

"Recording," said the suit of armor.

"I know, I know," said Natalie. "It's just so unnerving!"

"I think we all need to lie down for a few moments," said Mrs. Garrett, starting up the grand staircase. "Come along girls. Let's go find our dungeons!"


Tootie and Natalie found their suitcases already unpacked in the massive room they were to share. Their clothes were neatly folded in the drawers of an antique walnut bureau, and neatly hung in a closet that was bigger than their room at Eastland.

"Are these Persian?" Tootie asked, regarding the chamber's luminous blue and red rugs.

"I think so. Beautiful craftsmanship." Natalie looked around the lovely old room, at the warm fire crackling in the hearth. She grinned. "A girl could get used to this!"

"Check this," said Tootie, finding a note on the bureau. It was written in calligraphy on thick, cream-colored paper. "'Welcome guests. Please join us for cocktails at seven-thirty, followed by dinner at eight.' 'Dinner at Eight'!" Tootie said excitedly. "I've always wanted dinner at eight!"

"Face it Tootie – we've arrived!"

Tootie continued reading. "'First-night dress: casual. Come as you are. If you require anything, simply pull the bell rope. Ghost stories and cognac in the Great Hall at midnight.' Ghost stories! At midnight! Did I lie, Natalie? This is going to be the best Halloween party ever!"

"Agreed."

Faintly, many stories and many staircases away, came the howling of a wolf.

"More guests," said Tootie. She went to the fireplace, held out her hands to warm them. "I have to admit, you were right, Natalie. It is getting a little colder."

"Hey, when it comes to the weather, I'll never steer you wrong." Natalie began rummaging through the closet. "'Come as you are.' 'Come as you are.' Can one wear blue jeans to cocktails at the Von Schuylkill cottage?"

"Only if one wants to be ignored by their best friend!"

"But, it says 'Come as you are'."

Tootie shook her head. "Natalie, 'Come as you are' means something different to the rich. Like, 'It's OK to wear your second-best tiara'!"

"Second best? I don't even have a tenth-best!"

"What about your wine-colored dress? That's pretty. I think I'll wear my blue."

"I wonder what Jo's going to wear?" said Natalie. I'll bet she gets to wear jeans!"

"Jo is the star of the Langley field hockey team. She can wear whatever she wants. We are lucky we were invited. Anyway, I can almost guarantee you Jo isn't going to wear jeans. Blair will make her wear something pretty."

"What's up with those two anyway?" mused Nat. "They're arguing, then they're being all sweet to each other, and they both run off and get engaged to some mystery guys without telling us anything. What gives? I mean, I'm happy for them, but I was on the phone with Blair for half an hour the other day. You'd think she might've mentioned something!"

Tootie opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated.

If I'm wrong … But I don't think I'm wrong.

Tootie cleared her throat. "Nat?"

"Yeah?" Natalie took her wine-colored dress out of the closet, crossed to the full-length, walnut-framed mirror. She held the dress up under her chin. "So … will I devastate in this, or will I devastate in this? I plan to break some hearts this weekend. All in good fun, of course. How does Blair do that thing, with her hair?" Natalie tossed her shoulder length locks. "'Hi there handsome. I'm Natalie Green, editor of the Eastland Gazette. Dance? Why I'd love to dance!'" Nat sashayed a few steps in front of the mirror.

"Nat, you remember my Aunt Sylvia?"

"Sure," said Natalie, turning back and forth in front of the mirror.

"And her husband Brian?"

"Of course. We visited them what, three years ago? It's so sad they got a divorce."

"Sad, yes. But not too surprising."

"I know what you mean," said Natalie. "It must have been tough, dealing with the whole black-and-white thing. Plus, two wonderful people, but let's be honest – they didn't really seem to get along."

"True. True." How do I phrase this? wondered Tootie. "But there was something else, too."

"Really? What?"

"It turns out that Aunt Sylvia …" Tootie trailed off.

"Aunt Sylvia what?" Natalie prompted. She twirled in front of the mirror. "You're right, Tootie. This is the dress for my first impression! Hearts – get ready to break!"

"My Aunt Sylvia is a lesbian!" blurted Tootie.

"What?"

Natalie gaped. She tossed her dress onto the giant four-poster bed. She staggered to an antique chair by the fireplace, sank into it. "OK, Tootie – dish!"

Tootie shrugged, looked uncomfortably at the floor. "It's not something we talk about in the family. No one even told me. I just happened to overhear my mother talking her cousin on the phone, right after we all learned Sylvia and Brian were divorcing."

Natalie raised one eyebrow. "'Just happened to overhear'?"

"OK. I was snooping. But that's not the point. My mother said, 'Well, it was bound to happen. Sylvia still prefers the company of women'. And her cousin Joan said 'I thought she got over that'. And my mother said 'Apparently not'. And then my father said 'Dorothy Ramsey, are you eavesdropping on your mother's conversation?' So I didn't get to hear any more."

"Wow." Natalie shook her head in wonderment. "Aunt Sylvia – a real, live, card-carrying lesbian. Unless you misunderstood the conversation."

"She 'prefers the company of women'. What else could it mean?"

"I don't know. Maybe Sylvia just likes hanging out with her friends. Shopping. Playing bridge. You know – doing girl stuff."

"Enough to get a divorce?" Tootie asked skeptically.

"I see your point. No one would divorce over shopping and bridge. Except maybe Blair."

Tootie bit her lower lip.

"That's … kind of what I'm getting to. Doesn't it seem funny to you, all of Blair and Jo's romantic stories lately? I mean, there was that whole rigmarole about Jo dating some sandwich shop guy this summer, and Blair dating a garbage guy, or a race car driver, and then Blair's mom was convinced Blair was seeing a mechanic, and then Alec started dating Blair, and now Blair's engaged, but not to Alec, and suddenly Jo's engaged to someone we never met!"

Natalie stared at Tootie. "Did you say all that on one breath?"

"Sure."

"I'm impressed!"

"Doesn't it all seem a little far-fetched? All these stories Blair and Jo tell?"

Natalie shrugged. "Far-fetched? Yes and no. They're beautiful, they're young – heck, we know for a fact they both have a British lord chasing after them! If I was telling the stories, yeah, they'd be far-fetched. But with Blair and Jo, anything's possible."

"Well I think it's a crock," Tootie said decisively. "They've been making things up as they go along this semester – and they're both terrible liars. I can't believe we've fallen for it as long as we have!"

Natalie shrugged again. "So, they're sick of us prying into their dating! It had to happen. They've just been trying to throw us off the track. But they are engaged. I'd stake my journalistic reputation on that. Did you see Blair's face when she looked at that ring?" Natalie fanned herself. "That girl is in love! And did you hear Jo's voice, how she was getting all choked up? She's in love too!"

"Yeah, I'm, ah, not disputing that," Tootie said. Come on, Nat. Put the pieces together.

"Maybe Blair has been dating a mechanic," Natalie said thoughtfully. "I mean, you saw that dinky little ring. Pretty, but not exactly the Hope Diamond. Gotta admit, I feel kind of bad for Alec. He's really smitten with her. And Jo! But mainly Blair, I think."

"Have you noticed, Nat, how funny Jo is about Alec?"

"Funny as a heart attack."

"That's what I mean. She's very … hostile to him."

"Well, Blair's her best friend. And Jo doesn't think Alec is right for Blair. Which, newsflash, he's not."

"But Jo seems so possessive of Blair. It's almost like she's jealous of Alec."

"Best friends get that way," Natalie said dismissively. "Remember when I was dating Gil last year? You were sort of a brat about it. Although, I admit it, I admit it, I handled it pretty insensitively."

"Yes," said Tootie, "I was, and you did. But with Blair and Jo, everything is so … intense."

"Tootie, Tootie, Tootie. Look – we're best friends. Heck, as far as I'm concerned, you're the little sister my parents should've had, but didn't! You're more my sister than Brenda ever will be. You ever need one of my kidneys – say the word and it's yours! But Jo and Blair, they're on a whole different plane. They have one of those mythic, friendship-of-the-ages kind of relationships. Like David and Jonathan. Achilles and Patroclus. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton."

"Don't forget Abbot and Costello," laughed Tootie.

"Of course! But which is which?" laughed Nat.

"Natalie," said Tootie, growing serious again, "I think you're more right than you know. Achilles and Patroclus were supposed to be, you know, really close."

"Right. They were cousins, weren't they? That's why Achilles went all Rambo when Patroclus died."

"No, Nat, I mean, really close. Like lovers."

"Tootie!" said Natalie, shocked. "How can you say that?"

"Because it's true," Tootie said defensively. "Well, some literary critics think it's true."

"Boy, they're teaching a different 'Iliad' than I read last year!" said Natalie. "Eastland is getting more progressive by the minute! Lovers. Lovers? How did anyone have time for love with all the battles and the warfare and the wrath of the gods?"

"See, Nat, what I'm getting at …" I wish I didn't have to come out and say this. I wish she'd just figure this out. It always surprised Tootie how naïve Natalie could be. Natalie could be so shrewd, and then almost childlike in her innocence the next moment. "See, Nat, I'm trying to add up all Blair and Jo's crazy stories this semester, and this sudden engagement –""

"Engagements, Tootie. Engagements – plural. They're both engaged."

"Yeah, but see … I'm thinking it's the same engagement. Natalie – I think Jo and Blair are in love. I think they're engaged to each other!"

Part 2

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