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 2

Natalie had never fainted before.

She had a strong constitution, physically and emotionally. And being a doctor's daughter, she'd never even felt faint getting vaccinations or having blood drawn.

Natalie had never fainted before … So why was she lying on her back, uncomfortably draped across an antique chair that had toppled over? Why was there a buzzing in her ears? And why did her vision seem constricted, as though she were peering through a tunnel?

"Natalie? Nat?" Tootie sounded on the edge of hysteria. She knelt by Natalie, shaking the older girl's shoulder. "Nat? Can you hear me now?"

"Please stop yelling," Natalie murmured.

She tried to sit up, felt a bit lightheaded, fell back.

Tootie caught Nat before she could strike her head on the floor. "I'm getting help!"

"No, Tootie." Natalie struggled into a sitting position. "I'm fine. Really." She put a hand to the back of her head, which was throbbing. "What happened?"

"What happened? What do you think happened? You fainted!"

Natalie shook her head. "Impossible. We don't faint in my family."

"Well you do now! Nat, are you really all right? I was so scared."

"I'm all right, but I think I'm gonna need an aspirin. Must've clonked my head when I fell. It feels like an elephant's doing a mambo on my brain."

"Nat, I should really get a doctor."

"He couldn't tell us anything more than I've heard my dad say over the years. Dr. Green's patented concussion advice! You need to make sure I stay awake the rest of the evening, that's all. As long as I don't start acting goofy, you'll know I'm OK."

"And what if you do start acting goofy? We must be miles from any hospital."

"Someone here will be a doctor. Rich people always become doctors if they take a profession."

"Let me get you some water."

"Tootie –"

Tootie silenced Natalie with a glare. The young woman darted into the suite's bathroom; she returned with a glass of water.

"Drink it, Nat. No arguments!"

Natalie drank. The water was cold and pure. "They must have their own spring," she mused.

"To hell with their spring!" said Tootie. "Are you OK?"

"Yes. I'm sorry I scared you, Tootie, but I'm going to be all right. Here – help me up."

Clinging to Tootie's hands, Natalie climbed slowly to her feet. She went to the sofa, sank down on it.

Tootie righted the antique chair that Nat had toppled.

"Did I break it?" asked Natalie, hand to the back of her head.

Tootie regarded the chair critically. "Nah. It's fine. But who cares about a stupid chair? Are you broken?"

"Tootie, I'm not made of glass. You just startled me with your crazy talk – that's all."

"So you remember what I said? Right before you fainted?"

"It was a pretty unforgettable statement, Tootie. And completely nuts."

"Is it?" Tootie sat on the chair. She leaned forward intently. "Think about it Natalie."

"I don't have to! It's ridiculous. Boy-crazy Blair Warner? In love with a girl? Tootie, we were at school with her forever! I think maybe we would've noticed if she liked girls."

"Not if she kept it quiet. Which she would."

"But, Blair? Blair Warner? I just can't believe it. Remember what a hard time she gave Cindy for being a tomboy? She practically accused Cindy of liking girls. It was brutal."

"Blair was a lot younger then. And if Blair was starting to feel things for girls, and if Cindy made her think of her own feelings –"

"Hold on there, Dr. Freud. What about Blair and Steve? Blair and Harrison? Blair and all those guys? And remember Chad? She was obsessed with Chad!"

"Sure she was obsessed with Chad. It wasn't healthy, Nat. It was almost like Blair was trying to hypnotize herself into loving the guy. And who stayed up with Blair all night to snap her out of it? Jo!"

Natalie shook her head vehemently. "No. Not in a million years. Blair Warner is not a lesbian."

"How can you know that? What do we really know about lesbians?"

Natalie considered the question seriously. "Not much, I guess."

"Not much? How about nothing?"

"Well …" Aspiring star reporter Natalie Green was never comfortable knowing "nothing" about a subject. She racked her brain. "Gil and his friends used to laugh about this movie, 'Personal Best'. He said it was about two Olympians who slept together. Female Olympians. And Gil tried to convince me to go to see 'The Hunger' with him last April."

"The vampire movie?"

"Lesbian vampires."

Tootie frowned. "Gil sounds like he had lesbians on the brain."

"Sorta why I broke up with him. The point is, OK, I don't know that much about women who prefer the company of women. But I know enough to know Blair isn't one of them."

Tootie shook her head. "Blair's not an Olympic athlete, or a vampire – but she is in love with Jo. I can't believe I never put it together before today. Not consciously, anyway."

"But Tootie, it doesn't make sense. They're so normal. Well, as normal as Blair and Jo could ever be, with all their quirks! Even Jo, sure she's a tomboy, she fixes stuff, she rides a motorcycle, she's a jock, but she loves guys. Remember Eddie? Jo almost married Eddie."

"I'm not saying I've got this all figured out, but whatever happened in the past, Jo and Blair are in love now. Nat, just watch how they look at each other. And all their little gestures. Just listen to how they speak to each other. It's actually kind of beautiful. What were you saying before? It's like this mythic connection. These two amazing young women, totally connected to each other."

"But not in love," Natalie insisted. "They have a great partnership. A great friendship. Like I said, they're like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton."

Tootie lifted one eyebrow. "Except Susan and Betty weren't gettin it on!"

"Tootie!"

"Not unless the history books were leaving out the juiciest parts, anyway."

"Tootie, bite your tongue! Anthony and Cady Stanton are goddesses of the feminist pantheon. Do not play fast and loose with their reputations!"

"Jeesh, you're cranky. I'm just kidding around. Trying to lighten the mood. This is pretty heavy stuff. Our two best friends – head over heels in love." Tootie's eyes grew dreamy. "Imagine if they really could get married? I'd be Blair's maid of honor. You'd be Jo's."

"Tootie, you're talking crazy. This whole Halloween weekend has already scrambled your brain."

"Hey – I'm not the one with the concussion."

Natalie took a deep drink of water. "Here's what we're going to do," she told Tootie. "We're going to get all dolled up, go to cocktails at seven-thirty and dinner at eight. We're going to act totally normal and put this nonsense out of our minds."

"Nonsense?"

"I'm going to flirt outrageously with the best-looking guys. You're going to be your usual entertaining, witty self. And whenever they're ready, Blair and Jo will tell us about the men that they're engaged to."

Tootie's eyes sparkled. "Care to make a small wager on that?"

"Why a small wager? Make it a big one. Say, twenty dollars?"

"Oh, you're on, Green!" said Tootie. "You're on!"


Perhaps because Jo was the star of the field hockey team, or perhaps because the Warners were as much New York royalty as the Von Schuylkills, Petal had given Jo and Blair the best guest suite in the "cottage". It was a grand complex of chambers decorated with unfathomably costly tapestries, rugs, furniture and bric-a-brac.

There was a foyer, sitting room, dining room, mini-bar, powder room and master bath. Most importantly, in Jo and Blair's opinion, there was a master bedroom with a view of the lake, and a four-poster bed as large as an aircraft carrier.

Their luggage had already been unpacked by servants, their clothing carefully put away, their toiletries arranged in the master bathroom.

Jo's first order of business was to lock and bolt and chain the suite's main door. Her next order of business was to check the suite for any other connecting doors.

In bawdy farces, complications always ensued when servants or other guests barged unannounced into bedrooms. Jo had plans for the four poster bed, and she didn't need anyone walking in on her and Blair in media res.

Blair had found the welcome note on the marble-topped table in the foyer. "We're having cocktails at seven-thirty," Blair called to Jo. "Dinner's at eight. Ghost stories and cognac at midnight."

"Shower in five minutes," Jo called from the bedroom. She stepped into another passage. Jesus, this place is a maze! "Foreplay in six minutes," she called to Blair. "Mind-melting shower sex in fifteen minutes. Please adjust your calendar as necessary, Princess."

Blair rolled her eyes.

"Barbarian!" she called.

"Sure, whatever," Jo called from yet another room. "But if you're not there, I'll start without you."

Jo shed her aviator jacket, gloves and shoes in the master bedroom.

In the master bathroom she slipped off her blouse and jeans. She wore a white silk bra and white silk panties – recent gifts from Blair.

Somehow during the past month, Jo's sensible Sears underwear and bras had all been lost or misplaced. Jo had her suspicions about Blair's involvement in these mysterious disappearances. But the new bras and panties were so comfortable, and so "Jo" – classically cut, with no ridiculous bows or lace or flowers – that Jo had decided not to complain.

In her elegant silk bra and panties, Jo regarded herself critically in the floor-length mirror. She had always had a lean strength, but a couple of months of field hockey practice had really toned her slender muscles. She patted her flat stomach. She twisted to catch a glimpse of her taut, sculpted derriere.

"Lookin OK, kid," she told herself. "Thumbs up."

She threw a towel over the mirror.

The bathroom boasted an enormous bathtub but Jo wasn't in a bath mood. She went to the shower, opened the frosted glass door, turned on the hot and cold taps. Water pounded down. Steam swirled.

"Blair," she called out. "Babe! Foreplay in one minute!"

"There's no need to shout," Blair said from the doorway. "I'm right here. Early, in point of fact. That's what you've done to me, Jo Polniaczek; I'm actually becoming one of those irritating people who's always on time for things."

Blair leaned against the doorframe, a casual, relaxed pose, highly seductive, like Elizabeth Taylor in "Butterfield Eight".

Somewhere in the grand suite, Blair had shed most of her clothing. Now, she wore only a lacy violet bra and lacy violet panties. Jo's heart started pounding, as it always did when Blair caught her off guard with her beautiful body.

"That's, ah, what you get," Jo managed to say. She swallowed hard. "That's what you get for makin me all soft and civilized. I'm makin you punctual."

"Something to think about, though, darling," said Blair. "Please don't yell things like 'Sex in five minutes', will you? What if Tootie or Nat had dropped by? Can you picture me trying to explain that?"

"But we're gonna tell them about us this weekend."

"But let's not tell them that way."

"OK. You got it. So … are you gonna c'mere?"

"You haven't asked me."

"So … c'mere already." Jo's voice was soft, throaty. She could already feel a pressure, a heat, an electric tingling building between her legs. Just listenin to her ... Just hearin Blair's voice, I could come.

Blair crossed the floor slowly. Her eyes danced. She looked so happy. And so hungry.

She made Jo wait, teasing her lover, hesitating as long as she could stand it before she finally slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders, pressed her body against the brunette.

Jo circled Blair's waist with her arms, pressed hard against the heiress. I love how she feels. Blair was generous in all the right places, as far as Jo was concerned, generous breasts, generous hips, and generous behind. Blair's skin was porcelain pale, always soft and fragrant.

"Mmmn." Blair kissed Jo's throat, her collarbone. Her fingers caught in Jo's long dark hair, pulled Jo's face closer.

Jo trailed kisses along Blair's shoulders. She slipped one hand into Blair's panties. With the other hand she deftly unhooked Blair's bra. It fell to the tile floor. Jo squeezed Blair's right breast, rubbed her thumb over the rock-hard nipple. Blair moaned. Jo bent, took the dark nipple into her mouth.

"God," Blair murmured. "Oh, Jo …"

Jo sucked at the nipple, gently, then with a sudden assertiveness. Blair liked a little bit of roughness to her foreplay. Jo bit the nipple lightly. Blair groaned her approval.

Jo moved her other hand to the patch of fine, light brown hair between Blair's legs. Blair was already steaming and wet between her legs. Jo stroked the damp lips, easily found the nub of Blair's clitoris.

"Now," Blair said urgently. "Please!"

Jo understood. They weren't going to make it to the shower just yet. Jo was already wet and hot between her own legs, lightheaded with desire.

Jo released Blair's breast and knelt before her lover. She pulled down Blair's lacy panties, not slowly, not drawing out the foreplay, but with an urgent, blinding need.

Blair shifted, spreading her legs. Roughly, Jo pushed them even further apart. She held Blair's hips tightly, fingers digging into the pale flesh. Jo pressed her mouth against Blair's sex, tasting her lover's musk and the sweat.

Blair whimpered. She shifted her legs again. Jo understood. With astonishing strength and grace, she pulled Blair down, stretched her out on the soft white rug ...

Blair turned her head from side to side, making little cries of ecstasy. There were no words to describe how she felt when Jo made love to her. Jo's tongue drove deeper into Blair's center. Jo's fingers made her nipples sing with electric little pulses that traveled all the way down to her sex ...

The pressure built, and the pleasure, and the electricity. The blonde buried her hands in Jo's hair, guiding her lover. Blair's hips arched; her legs thrashed; Jo hung on, never stilling her skillful tongue.

Blair was blind with pleasure. Her head swam. She was going to pass out before she came! She was going to –

"Ahhhhhhh!" Blair came with a scream.

Her head lolled back on the white rug. Her muscles went limp, twitching and jumping with aftershocks.

Jo looked up from Blair's slick sex, laughing. Blair was an enthusiastic lover, but she'd never come that loudly or that quickly before.

"Holy hell, Blair, thank God it's Halloween weekend. Sounded like you were gettin axe-murdered! You think these rooms are pretty sound-proof? Cause if not, we're gonna have some explainin to do."

"Mmm," said Blair. She closed her eyes. "I guess … I must've really needed that."

Jo pulled herself up so that she was lying on top of Blair. She lightly stroked Blair's thighs, her stomach, the hollow between her breasts. Blair drifted into a post-coital doze …

The next thing Blair was aware of was the full weight of Jo's naked body pressing against her. Jo had slipped out of her bra and panties while Blair drowsed and tossed them to the other side of the bathroom.

"Hello," Blair murmured.

"Hello," Jo said, a little shyly. She had grown increasingly comfortable with her own nudity over the last two months, but she was still bashful from time to time.

"I love how you feel," whispered Blair.

Jo's hips began to rock gently; she pressed hard against Blair's hip.

Blair slid her hands over Jo's body. In a moment both young women were flushed, hectic, beaded with sweat …

I love it when Jo's unselfconscious with me … When she just lets go …

"You sounded," Blair teased later, as they lay panting and tangled on the white rug, "like someone was axe-murdering you."

"Nah," said Jo, still panting. "Like someone was making love to me. Whew!" She drew a deep breath. "You amaze me, babe."

"I have my moments," Blair admitted, a little smugly. She kissed Jo again. "Now, I believe I was promised mind-melting shower sex. You're not going back on your word, are you?"

"Not a chance. But we're gonna be late for the cocktail party."

Blair made an indelicate remark about punctuality and cocktail parties.

"Suit yourself, Princess." Jo gave the blonde a wicked grin. Jo untangled herself from Blair, took the blonde in her arms, lifted her, carried her the short distance to the steaming shower.

"I am a woman of my word," Jo said gravely, as the warm water washed over them.

"You have no idea how much I appreciate that quality," said Blair.


Cocktail parties, Jo decided, weren't so bad, as long as you knew some of the people there. Which she did. She knew Petal – aka Moose – Von Schuylkill, their hostess. Petal stood at the door of the Great Hall, greeting everyone as they arrived.

Befitting her nickname, Moose was a tall, broad-shouldered woman who looked like she could probably bench-press most of her field hockey teammates.

Stomping up and down the field, she looked like formidable foe indeed. Now, in faded tweeds and an antique cameo, her hair coiled in a chic but unpretentious twist, a dab of lipstick on her mouth, Moose looked like a young grande dame, a regal mistress of the manor.

"Jo, wonderful that you could join us." Moose shook Jo's hand with enthusiasm. "We might get a pick-up match together tomorrow. South lawn. More details forthcoming. Blair, it's always lovely to see you!" She pecked Blair's cheek – no phony air-kisses between the Warners and Von Schuylkills. "Did you see Alec? Yes, we thought it would be fun to plant someone in the armor, and he volunteered. Just one of many little surprises in store this weekend. We'll all have to be on our mettle …"

It was a big house party – almost a hundred people, Jo guessed – and most of them were gathered in the Great Hall by the time Blair and Jo arrived.

"Jeez, talk about 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'" said Jo, looking around. The timbered roof peaked seventy feet above the floor. A gallery bordered the hall, about thirty feet up. It looked a little rickety to Jo … You wouldn't catch me runnin around up there! The upper walls were decorated with pennants, murky family portraits, stags' heads, bears' heads and even a few lion and tiger heads.

"So …" said Jo, regarding the mounted heads, "The Von Schuylkills – not exactly animal activists, huh?"

"Petal is," said Blair, "but her grandfather was a Roosevelt-Hemingway type. Big noise in big game."

"Tough break for the game!"

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

Blair leaned in quickly, whispered in Jo's ear. "You look beautiful, darling."

Jo blushed. "You too," she mumbled.

Blair was lovely in grey and green tweeds, perfect for a casual country house reception.

Jo was pretty damn gorgeous herself in a cobalt silk pants suit. Blair had lent it to her, along with some other outfits, for the weekend.

Jo noticed that the clothes fit her suspiciously well. She and Blair were about the same height, but Blair was far more curvaceous. Jo suspected her lover had had the clothes altered to fit her leaner frame.

Even a month ago Jo's pride would've been stung at what she would have interpreted as charity.

Now, as Blair's fiancée, Jo's perspective had shifted. If they were going to spend the rest of their lives together, Jo was going to have to attend some fancy wingdings. And it would embarrass Blair, and, frankly, Jo, to show up to said wingdings in jeans and camouflage T-shirts. Blair was learning not to wear fur coats and Gucci to the South Bronx; Jo was willing to wear Chanel among the upper crust.

The Great Hall was crowded with guests, in all sorts of outfits, from jeans to gleaming gowns. The majority of Petal's crowd were apparently comfortable enough to indulge their own tastes in dress.

The buzz of multiple interweaving conversations filled the great room. A fire blazed in the stone hearth. Grey-and-white liveried servants circulated with trays of cocktails.

Many heads had turned when Blair and Jo entered the Great Hall. There were excited whispers about Blair, who was a luminary in society and linked now with Alec, Lord Nethridge.

There were excited whispers about Jo, too. She was a somewhat mysterious figure, new to society, a nobody – but an intriguing nobody. She'd made quite an impression on those who had seen her at the Plaza's Palm Court last month, or heard about the drama at the Warner table.

Jo pretended she couldn't hear what people were saying. She was an intensely private person; it was harder than she'd expected, being under society's gaze.

"She is lovely, isn't she?"

"Wasn't there some to-do with Lord Nethridge at the Plaza?"

"Does anyone know where she comes from?"

"She was the Eastland valedictorian, you know. And so pretty."

Jo was particularly pretty that night. Her hair was loose, softly framing her face. Jo didn't care much for makeup ("I just brush my teeth and go," was one of her Eastland mottos) but the barest hint of mascara brought out the depths of her blue-green eyes.

"What do you want to drink?" Blair asked Jo.

"Dunno. Beer?" Jo asked hopefully.

Blair rolled her eyes. "I know you don't want anything too sweet, with an umbrella in it, but can you live with a vodka tonic? A gin and tonic? A gimlet?"

"What's in a gin and tonic?" Jo asked, making a moronic face.

Blair bit back a smile. "Jo … tell me you're kidding."

"Blair … I'm kidding. I'll have a gimlet."

Jo was a little nervous about just standing there while Blair secured their drinks, but as luck would have it she saw two of her teammates.

Jacqueline Messerschmitt, aka Jackrabbit, was a thin, rather high-strung young Brit. She was conversing with Portia Barclay, aka Lefty, a pretty little blonde, dreamy-looking but fiercely intellectual underneath.

"Princess!" cried Jackrabbit when she spotted Jo. "'Hail, hail the gang's all here!'"

"'What the heck do we care?'" Portia quoted the next verse gloomily.

"Well that ain't much of a greeting," Jo told Portia.

"Sorry. Nothing personal," Portia said.

"Her young man," Jacqueline explained to Jo. "Let down the side. Didn't show."

"Oh. Well," Jo clapped Portia on the shoulder in a commiserating fashion, "sorry to hear that, Lefty. But don't worry, there's lotsa guys here. Lotta fish in the sea."

"I want Gerald," Portia moped. "He's Harvard pre-law. We're a perfect brain match."

"Not if he ain't here!"

"Ha ha ha!" laughed Jacqueline. "Good one! She's got you there, Lefty!"

Jacqueline cracked Jo up. She was like a British Katherine Hepburn, especially the clear, well-bred voice and the staccato laugh.

Alec had revealed at the Plaza Charity Ball that Jackrabbit was actually a viscountess. But she didn't like anyone to know that, insisting on being treated like everyone else. Partly to oblige her and partly because they despised pretention, her teammates never referred to her title.

"So who'd you come with?" Jo asked Jacqueline. "Any new hunks in tow?"

"Not at the moment. My life is presently a hunk-less desert."

"Well, like I told Lefty, lotta guys here," Jo said encouragingly. "Take your pick, Jackrabbit."

"Thanks, Jo," Jacqueline smiled. "Shot in the arm, and all that. Decent of you."

"Where's your date?" Portia asked Jo.

"Me? Oh, you know," Jo said vaguely, "I'm staggin it."

A knot of people near them parted and Blair appeared, holding a gimlet and a white wine spritzer with a twist. She handed the gimlet to Jo.

"Portia, Jacqueline, lovely to see you," said Blair with a warm smile. "I understand the Langley Lions have a lock on the state championship."

"Perhaps," Portia said gloomily. "There's still time for us to choke."

"Her date stood her up," Jo explained to Blair. "That's why she's channelin Sylvia Plath this evenin."

"Gerald is my brain mate," Portia murmured. "We have the exact same IQ."

"Well, he doesn't even got a brain if he stood you up, Lefty."

"Hear, hear!" Jacqueline said with spirit. "That's the tack to take. Lefty, listen to Jo. Moping is forbidden, starting … now!"

During the next few minutes they were joined by other members of the Langley Lions field hockey team, Lurch, Bullet, Legs, and the rest. They traded remarks, jibes, and predictions about the state tournament, perfectly at ease with each other. Blair knew most of them; they had been at school together, or camp, or Biarritz or Aspen. They were part of her world.

From time to time sorority girls would drift into their group, their singular aim to convince the Blair Warner to join their sorority next semester. With her brains, her style, her family name and her almost limitless wealth, Blair was the sorority catch of the year – if any of the houses could catch her!

Blair was pleasant but noncommittal; after a few minutes, each delegate went away disappointed.

"You're breakin their hearts," Jo teased after spindly, tightly wound Boots St. Clair of Gamma Gamma gave up and disappeared into the crowd.

Blair waved a dismissive hand. "It's all in the game," she said. "Nothing serious."

"Jo, you should pledge Zeta Zeta next semester," said Jacqueline.

"Me?" Jo was startled – and, Blair noted, rather flattered. "In a sorority?"

"Why not? Not too good for us, are you?"

"Not hardly. Does Zeta Zeta mind an unpronounceable Polish name?"

"We can learn it," laughed Jacqueline. "Zeta Zeta likes winners, Jo. Winners with heart."

"That's Jo," Blair said, beaming.

Jo blushed. She flashed her megawatt grin at Blair, then Jacqueline. "I don't know, Jackrabbit. That's somethin I'd have to chew on. But thanks."

Mrs. Garrett, resplendent in a pretty blue cocktail dress that contrasted nicely with her bun of red hair, joined them a few minutes later. She was smiling, but Blair noticed the dark circles under her eyes.

"Do you have another one of your headaches, Mrs. Garrett?" Blair asked solicitously.

"No, Blair, not now. Earlier, but I took a nap and slept it off."

Mrs. Garrett greeted the Lions that she had met at the Plaza Charity Ball. As always, Mrs. Garrett had made quite an impression; the young women remembered her and were pleased to see her again. Within a few moments she had drifted off with a knot of young women, in quest of hot chocolate, animatedly explaining to them the secret of a really good Hungarian goulash.

Alec appeared suddenly, almost pouncing. He stood behind Blair, putting his large, perfectly manicured hands on her shoulders in a gesture that, consciously or unconsciously, was protective and possessive.

"Hello, darling," he said, kissing the back of her head.

Jo had been having a truly wonderful time; now, within seconds, her blood was boiling. Only the sternest self-control kept her from ripping Alec's hands away from Blair and punching him in the face. Three years ago she wouldn't have hesitated to defend her "turf".

Now Jo was grown up enough to get it, even if she didn't always like it: Blair wasn't anyone's turf. She was her own person – and Jo had to trust Blair to hold her own.

"Remember," Blair had warned Jo, while they were dressing for cocktails, "We're telling Nat and Tootie the whole truth this weekend, but everyone else needs to think I'm still with Alec. Otherwise people will be calling my mother – and I want to be the one to control that message."

"Lord Nethridge," Jacqueline said icily. For reasons of her own, she seemed to like Alec even less than Jo did. "Is it the new fashion, one wonders, to paw at one's girlfriend as if she were a side of beef?"

"What a vulgar image," Alec said pleasantly. He gave Jackrabbit his toothiest smile.

"Yes," Jacqueline said, not turning a hair. She looked Alec up and down. "It is."

Alec blushed. He could "play the game," as Blair called it, to a point, but he was weirdly sensitive for an aristocrat. Comments about money, in particular, as well as his breeding and his looks sometimes stung him where it seemed he might have shrugged them off.

Jacqueline had just stung him and she knew it. She smiled. He bowed coolly, as if conceding that she'd drawn first blood.

"Alec, dear, would you get me a white wine spritzer?" Blair asked sweetly.

Alec glanced meaningfully at the white wine spritzer in Blair's hand.

"I'm very thirsty," Blair said. "Please?"

Alec looked at Jo. Her face was impassive but there was a smirk in her eyes, and he saw it. This little farce is almost over pal, said Jo's eyes.

Alec dropped another kiss on top of Blair's head. "Of course, dear. Be right back."

He slipped into the crowd.

"Blair, I know it's awful cheek, but I simply must ask you – how can you stand him?" asked Jacqueline.

"Alec is wonderful," Blair said sincerely. "People don't understand him."

"Blair, people understand him perfectly. He's the most awful cad!"

"He's funny. And he has a good heart."

Jo had a sudden attack of coughing. Her cough sounded oddly like the word "bullshit", muffled and repeated several times in quick succession.

Jackrabbit patted Jo on the back. "Are you all right, Princess?"

"Fine. Fine. Gimlet musta gone down the wrong pipe, is all."

"Warner!" called a haughty voice. "As I live and breathe!"

Jo sipped her gimlet. Hell … another sorority dame. After ten minutes of being on her best behavior, Jo was starting to feel a little itchy.

But it wasn't just another sorority dame joining their group. It was far, far worse. The overdressed, preening young socialite looked familiar …

"Becker!" Blair said, impeccably feigning delight. "You look divine! Did you lose more weight?"

"Oh, a pound or two. It's not like I had much to lose. You're looking, ah, hearty."

Hearty! That was socialite code for "fatso". Jo itched to kick Becker in the ass.

"How sweet of you to say," Blair cooed. "I only hope that someday I can be as hearty as you are."

Ha! Thought Jo. Take that, Becker! When it came to left-handed compliments, Blair had no peer. Jo knew it first-hand from all the left-handed compliments Blair had zinged her with over the years.

When Jo and Blair were juniors at Eastland, they'd taken the train into New York together to meet friends. Jo was spending the weekend with Jesse; like Jo, she was a former member of the Young Diablos. Blair was spending the weekend with one of her shopaholic socialite chums, Dina Becker.

Blair and Jo had waited for their friends at the Grand Central Station coffee shop – and what a fiasco that had been!

And it was mostly my fault, Jo realized in retrospect. At first, Blair had been civil to Jo and her tough pal Jesse. Even then, thought Jo, Blair was trying to be open to my world. But was I open to hers? Ha! Course, meetin a snobby ditz like Dina Becker didn't make it exactly easy.

Jo and Jesse had insulted Blair and Dina, making snarky remarks about Farrah Faucet and Gloria Vanderbilt, etc. etc. Naturally the socialites had bristled and fired off their own insults. Jo had defended Jesse's rudeness. Blair had defended Dina's snobbishness. Blair had even delivered one of her best slams ever, calling Jo a "grungy grease monkey".

Jo realized now that the whole argument had been a crock. Behind all the childish insults, it was just Jo and Blair, feeling things for each other they couldn't understand or explain, not even able to admit they were friends, let alone that they were falling in love.

Now, at Petal's manor on Lake Peekskill, Jo marveled at how much she and Blair had matured, while for Dina Becker time seemed to have stood still. Dina rambled on in her haughty voice, discussing the "idiocies" of her maid, the tediousness of her studies at Smith, and the gorgeousness of her latest beau.

Dina chattered on, not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. Finally, she worked her way around to criticizing Petal's house party.

"Well, what did you think of that reception, Warner? The wolves howling and the haunted armor – very childish, n'est-ce pas? One expects more from a Von Schuylkill weekend. Petal's slipping, definitely slipping."

"Do you think so?" Blair asked, amused.

"Slipping! Most definitely. I ask you, Warner – are we five years old? Haunted armor? Please!"

Blair smiled broadly. "Dina Becker, please allow me to present Jacqueline Messerschmitt – one of Petal Von Schuylkill's oldest chums."

"Charmed," Jacqueline said in a voice so hard and chilly it could've etched glass.

Dina's cheeks tinged pink. "Er, likewise," she said to Jacqueline.

Dina darted a venomous glance at Blair. Thanks for the warning, Warner!

"Dina, this is Portia Barclay – another bosom friend of Petal's."

"Pleased to meet you," Dina said to Portia.

Portia looked Dina up and down, and then sniffed. "115," Portia said decisively.

"Pardon?" asked Dina, baffled.

"Your IQ," said Portia. "115. And not a point over. I'm never wrong."

"Well, it might be 115," said Dina. "Who on earth keeps track of IQ scores?"

"I do," said Portia.

"Well, bully for you!" Dina said coolly.

Dina glanced around, noticing Jo for the first time. Dina had committed a horrific faux pas in criticizing their hostess in front of two of the hostess' dearest friends. Not being able to disappear into the floor boards in utter humiliation, Dina sought to turn the conversation.

"Apparently Warner has forgotten her manners," Dina told Jo. Dina extended her hand. "I'm Dina Becker, of the New York Beckers."

She doesn't remember me, thought Jo, suppressing a chuckle. Course, last time we met I was wearin my ponytail, my flannel shirt … and, oh yeah, the chip on my shoulder.

Jo smiled warmly. She shook Dina's hand, two quick, confident shakes. "Joanne Marie Polniaczek," she said. "Of the New York Polniaczeks."

"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you," said Dina, appreciating Jo's friendliness after Jacqueline and Portia's chilly reception. "Polniaczek … is your father in the diplomatic corps?"

"Well ..." Jo considered Charlie Polniaczek, former warehouse worker, former convict, presently a Wall Street runner. "He is a charmer," she said, flashing a klieg-light smile at the thought of her father playing diplomat.

"I believe it," said Dina. She looked Jo up and down, from Jo's expensive blue flats to the brilliant smile and sparkling eyes. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, n'est-ce pas?"

The tips of Jo's ears turned pink; luckily her long dark hair hid them.

Did Dina Becker just check me out? she wondered. What the hell?

Blair knew better.

Dina was checking Jo out, but not from a romantic perspective. Dina always assessed the wealth and breeding of any new person she met.

And Jo's fantastically expensive ensemble – Blair had been very casual about lending the outfit; Jo was still new to high fashion, so although she knew it was probably pricey, she had no idea how much it had actually cost – met with Dina's approval, as did Jo's beauty and charming demeanor.

"I'm sorry we haven't met before," Dina told Jo. "Where has Warner been hiding you?"

"Oh, but you have met," Blair said. Her eyes danced. "Where was it that you met Becker, Jo? Was it the Rockefeller cotillion? The Plaza Charity Ball? Oh, I'm sorry, Becker – you weren't at the ball this year, were you?"

Dina scowled. "They, ah, misplaced our invitations this year."

Blair tapped her chin with one perfectly manicured fingertip. "Where could it have been that you met Jo? She's such a dear friend; we attend so many events."

"Are you sure she and I have met? I'm certain I would have remembered."

"Oh, you've met."

"Truly?" Dina regarded Jo intently. There was something vaguely familiar about the brunette. Something around the eyes ...

"I'm surprised you don't remember, Becker," said Blair. "At the time it seemed like Jo made an indelible impression."

Jo choked a little on her gimlet.

"Do you attend Langley College with Blair?" Dina asked Jo.

Jo nodded. She was trying so hard not to laugh, that she didn't trust herself to speak. One word and her carefully controlled expression would crack.

"Usually Langley only takes one student from each prep school," Blair explained helpfully, "but Jo and I were both accepted. They made an exception for her. First time ever. Jo was the Eastland valedictorian, you know."

"Really? Well … I'm impressed. Polniaczek, don't let Warner monopolize you all weekend. There is life outside her little … circle." Dina flicked a withering glance from Blair to Jacqueline to Portia.

Christ, I'd love to grab Blair right now and kiss the stuffin outta her! thought Jo. I swear to God, Dina would pop a vein. Or she'd stomp her foot like Rumplestiltskin …

Blair was doing a beautiful job of looking confused. "Dina, you applied to Langley, didn't you? Or am I confusing you with someone else?"

Dina scowled. "I applied," she said shortly. "You know I did."

"Then why didn't you attend?" asked Blair. "Why, you and Polniaczek and I could be spending scads of time together. I mean, Smith is all right – but it's no Langley."

Dina's eyes narrowed. "Didn't you hear, Warner? Langley rejected me."

"Oh, my. That's right. It must have slipped my mind."

"Don't give it a second thought, dear," Dina said with a nasty smile. "You do seem to be slipping."

"Who's slipping?" asked Alec pleasantly, appearing without warning at Dina's elbow. He startled her; she almost spilled her drink. "Pardon," he said to Dina. "Not my intention to alarm anyone."

Alec moved to Blair's side, taking her half-empty drink, handing her a fresh white wine spritzer. He put an arm around Blair, tenderly kissed her cheek.

Dina goggled at them.

I gotta admit, Jo thought ruefully, Blitheridge and Blair do make a beautiful couple. They were both so gorgeously healthy, their features perfectly chiseled, their faces tinged with pink. His curly dark locks were a fine counterpoint to her blonde hair, his sapphire-blue eyes a fine complement to her milk-chocolate eyes. Blair's mother was right – Alec and Blair would have incredible kids.

This … is not … happening … thought Dina, staring at Blair's perfect beau. Blair Warner. The girl who always got everything she wanted. Their whole lives, Blair had always found a way to outdo Dina in everything.

When they were younger, Dina had looked up to Blair, emulating her in almost everything. But as they grew older, as Blair seemed to move further ahead, Dina became more and more resentful …

"Who's your friend, darling?" Alec asked Blair.

"Alec, please allow me to present Dina Becker, one of my oldest friends. Dina, allow me to present Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge – my friend."

Her friend! Some friend, to be hanging on her like that! thought Dina. But at least Blair hadn't said fiancée. It would have been too much for Dina to bear if Blair were actually engaged to this perfect specimen of manhood.

Alec took Dina's hand, brushed his lips over her knuckles, the barest touch that courtesy would allow.

"Miss Becker," he said, "I'm charmed."

"You, you certainly are," Dina said, flushed and flustered. When Alec released her hand, she unconsciously patted her hair, smoothing it. "You're a lord?"

"Yes," Alec smiled. "But please, just call me Alec. I find titles rather stuffy."

Jacqueline snorted.

"Gezundheit," Alec told Jacqueline gravely. "Autumn cold, do you think?"

"Dust," Jacqueline said with dignity.

"Ah!" He returned his attention to Dina. "Miss Becker, I hope you'll add me to your dance card for the masquerade ball."

Dina flushed again. She smoothed more strands of hair. "That would be delightful," she managed. She shot a venomous look of triumph at Blair. Blair patted a yawn.

"Well, I'm famished," said Blair. "Is it almost eight?"

Jo caught Blair's eye. You should be famished, after our little romp upstairs, Jo telegraphed.

Blair's eyes sparkled. Damn right! she telegraphed back.

"It's just on eight o'clock," Alec confirmed, glancing at his gleaming Tourbillon wristwatch.

As if on cue, a gong rang, its deep, brassy note vibrating throughout the Great Hall.

The crowd fell silent.

"Dinner," an ancient butler intoned solemnly, "is served!"

Jo glanced around, standing up on her tiptoes to scan the crowd as everyone began drifting toward the double pocket doors at the far end of the hall.

"Where the hell are Nat and Tootie?" she demanded of no one in particular.

Alec, who towered over Jo, scanned the crowd from his superior vantage point. "I don't see them. Maybe they decided to – ah! They were up in the gallery. They're going into the dining room now."

"What were they doing up there?" asked Jo. "Why didn't they join the party?"

"We'll ask them when we see them," said Alec, shrugging. He offered Blair his arm. "Shall we?"

That voice, thought Dina, looking nervously at Jo. Where have I heard that voice before? It wasn't a bad voice, but it was a little rough-around-the-edges. And Dina associated it with some unpleasant incident.

Dina fell into step next to Jo as the crowd streamed toward the dining room.

"Where did we meet?" Dina asked Jo. "Was it one of the embassy balls?"

Jo shook her head.

"The Rutherford cotillion?"

Jo laughed.

"Rutherford? As in Mitzy Rutherford? Fat chance!"

Dina bit her lip. In her experience, diplomat's daughters did not say "Fat chance". Unless they were bohemian eccentrics, of course.

"I'm sorry," said Dina, "it's right on the tip of my tongue, but I can't quite recall. Tell me. Where did we meet?"

Jo finally took pity on the socialite.

"Picture a simple coffee shop," she said. "At Grand Central Station. You were meetin Warner, armed with a game plan for decimatin every high-class store in Manhattan. Warner had a school chum with her, a tough little ragamuffin with a big attitude."

"Dear God!" Dina said with feeling. "That creature! And the creature that joined her. Ye gods and little fishes! They must be serving ten-to-twenty at Ossining by now!"

"Do you think so?"

"Oh, I'm sure of it. I was actually trembling after that encounter with those, those thugs!"

Jo felt a twinge of irritation mixed with pity. Poor snobby little schlub. What a narrow world!

"I'm, uh, sorry to hear you were so shaken up," Jo said quietly.

"Oh, I was. I put on a brave face, but I was actually frightened. That's when Warner started to go downhill, you know. Well – that's when I noticed it, anyway. She keeps very low company."

"Does she?" A couple of years before, Jo would've popped Dina in the jaw for a remark like that. Now, she was just amused. Even a little sorry for the sheltered young woman.

"So, what does that thug have to do with you?" Dina asked. "Were you at Eastland with her and Blair?"

"Yes," Jo said. "In a manner of speakin. You see – I am her."

Dina gaped. She stumbled, and would have fallen if Jo hadn't firmly grabbed her elbow and helped to steer her forward with the crowd.

"Get a grip, Dina," said Jo. "Don't faint or anythin."

"But you … but how … ?" Dina muttered to herself. There was a roaring in her ears. Nothing made sense any more. There was too much mingling between the classes. Only the other day, her maid had quit to pursue, of all things, a college degree. And now a petty criminal had stolen one of her best friends, and been accepted to Langley College!

"You can't be that creature," Dina said.

"OK. But, see, I am." Jo grinned mischievously at Dina, kept steering her through the crowd. "What do you think – will they have hamburgers on the menu?"

Dina groaned.


Petal's dining hall contained the most enormous table Jo had ever seen. It seated one hundred, with Petal, as hostess, at one end, and an elderly countess, the most senior member of the guests, at the other end.

Guests were arranged along the length of the table according to all sorts of arcane rules about age and gender and social standing and title, not to mention relationships and common interests.

Blair was seated near Alec, because they were supposed to be dating. Jo was seated near most of her Langley Lions teammates. Natalie and Tootie were seated in Jo's vicinity, because she had invited them.

Mrs. Garrett was seated among the more senior guests, aged fifty and up, an eclectic, somewhat bohemian mix. Within moments the ever-friendly Mrs. Garrett had added a noted soprano, an archeologist, a baroness and a TV producer to her list of acquaintances.

A musician's gallery ran the length of the dining room. Throughout the twelve-course meal – a hearty feast heavy on seasonal dishes like pumpkin soup and wedges of Vermont cheddar – a string quartet played variations on Vivaldi's "Autumn" and season-appropriate tunes like Duke's "Autumn in New York" and Kosma's "Autumn Leaves".

Blair had educated Jo about finger bowls when they were at Eastland. During the early days of their friendship, Blair had expected Jo, barbarian that she was, to drink from finger bowls.

It was an old joke between them. Although they were separated by a number of guests, Jo managed to catch Blair's eyes. Jo delicately dipped her fingers into the little bowl, and then dried them on the tiny fingertip towel that smelt of lemons. Jo's eyes laughed. Blair smiled incandescently.

"What's so funny?" Alec asked Blair, wanting to join in the fun.

"Nothing. Old joke," said Blair.

"Did you catch that exchange?" Tootie whispered to Natalie.

Natalie shrugged.

"Oh, come on," Tootie said, exasperated. "Didn't you see that look between Jo and Blair?"

"All I saw was two old friends having a smile about the finger bowls. It's an old joke, Tootie. Remember the time that Jo –""

"Of course I remember! And you remember too. But you'll notice they didn't include us in the joke. They just had another one of their private little moments."

"Sure. Private little moment. At a table of thousands!"

"Why not? No one knows how to read their expressions except us. Nat – why do you have to be so stubborn about this?"

"I'm stubborn? Tootie … just admit you were wrong."

"Haven't you been watching? How about what we saw from the gallery?"

Natalie rolled her eyes. "All I've seen so far tonight is Jo being unusually civilized, and Blair and Alec doting on each other. I'm expecting that twenty dollars before lights out!"

"Ha!"

Jo couldn't hear what Tootie and Natalie were saying – they were seated just out of her earshot – but she could see a big argument brewing between them.

Jo leaned over and whispered something to Lurch, who whispered to Lefty, who whispered to Jackrabbit.

Jacqueline turned to Tootie with a pleasant smile. "I have a message for both of you, from Jo. She says, and I quote, 'Knock it off, or I'm crackin skulls'."

"So much for Jo's civility!" said Natalie. "All right, all right. We'll be good!"

After devouring a slice of pumpkin cheesecake, and downing a cup of the best black coffee she'd ever tasted, Jo was ready to grab Blair's hand and head up to their suite for a contented nap tangled together on the four-poster bed.

Had it been any other night she would've been disappointed; house parties were always heavily scheduled, especially the evenings, leaving guests little time to themselves. But it was the first night, and between ten o'clock and the midnight ghost stories, guests were at liberty to do whatever they wanted.

Petal clanged her coffee cup with a silver spoon; one hundred guests fell silent. Petal stood and addressed her guests.

"I'm very pleased that you all were able to come. Going to be a wonderful weekend," she said enthusiastically. "One of many little surprises. Remember – it's all in good fun. If there is anything you need that you're not finding, please let us know. Now, you're on your own until the clock strikes midnight!"

There was a loud rumble of thunder, and the lights went out for a second, plunging the dining hall into pitch darkness. Women screamed excitedly. A couple of men shouted.

The lights blazed on again immediately – but Petal had vanished.

There was a smattering of applause; clearly this was part of the Halloween fun.

"Outstanding!" yelled someone.

"Petal's been murdered!" shouted someone else. "It's a murder weekend!"

"No it's not," objected a querulous voice. "That wasn't on the invitation."

"It's just a lark," Alec called out in his strong, reasonable voice. "No murders. At least, not yet."

He looked meaningfully at Dina Becker, who was seated well down the table in one of the least desirable pockets of guests, people who had, somehow, finagled an invitation but were not particularly friendly with – or welcomed by – the Von Schuylkill clan.

Dina was looking daggers at Blair and Jo – had been doing so all evening.

Guests left the table, disappearing through different doors, to pursue diverse activities until midnight. Alec and Blair remained seated.

"Our Jo got through dinner very well," Alec said fondly.

"You're so nice to her," mused Blair. "And she's so terrible to you. Understandably, of course."

"Oh, of course. Whatever the inamorata does is always 'of course'."

"Well it's not very nice for her, is it, watching you pretend to be my boyfriend?"

"Who's pretending?"

"Alec," Blair said warningly, "we've been through this a hundred times."

"I know. Remark withdrawn." Dina finally left the dining room, casting a last, dark look over her shoulder at Blair. "Was she really one of your best friends?" Alec asked Blair curiously.

"Jo? Of course. She still is."

"No, little nitwit – Dina Becker."

"Becker? I cringe to admit it now, but, yes."

"What a shallow little brat you must've been."

"Guilty as charged."

His brow furrowed. "But you always seemed so sweet and unspoilt whenever we met."

Blair laughed. It was a lovely, sparkling laugh; guests turned, noted approvingly that Blair and Alec were still sitting at table, heads together, the very picture of a radiant young couple.

"Of course I seemed sweet and unspoilt, dunce! Mother taught me to seem sweet and unspoilt from the cradle – especially in the company of future dukes!"

Alec shook his head. "What a fool I must've seemed to you."

"Seemed?"

"Very amusing. Well, I can admit it; I still can't keep up with your stratagems. But, speaking of your mother –"

Blair groaned. "What is she up to now? I'm supposed to be dating you. Isn't that enough?"

"She's pleased as hell that we're still dating. But she wants to host a dinner. For us. Meaning you and me. And your father."

"My father?" Blair was startled. "She can't stand my father. They put up with each other, barely, on the rare occasions they attended the same Eastland events, but – just you and me and them for dinner?"

"Your mother surmises that we're growing serious. And, given the farrago of romantic nonsense I've been spinning, who can blame her? Sometimes I half-believe my own folderol. Which is nice – until I remember that we're just pulling the wool over the old – that is, over your mother's eyes. And then I cry bitter tears and gnash my teeth."

"Keep gnashin," Jo said unsympathetically. As the room had cleared, Jo had moved closer to the couple, taking a seat next to Blair.

"You are as cold as Artemis," Alec said, half-admiringly. "You know the story of Artemis and Actaeon?"

"Of course," Jo said absently. She couldn't hold Blair's hand, or touch her lover; even though the guests were rapidly dispersing, there were still too many people around for that, not to mention servants, and the musicians still playing up in the gallery. Even so, just sitting next to Blair was nice. Jo could smell her fragrance, could feel the heat from her body.

"Artemis was bathing in the forest one day," said Alec, "and –"

"I told you, I know the story," said Jo, annoyed at the interruption of her contemplation of Blair. "Artemis takes an open-air spritz, the hunter Actaeon barges into the glade or the glen or the grove or whatever the hell it is and sees her. Artemis is totally embarrassed and pissed off – go figure! – Actaeon says 'Oops, it was an accident' – yeah, right! – and Artemis turns him into a stag. His own hounds tear him to pieces. Bad way to go. Somethin to think about – not upsettin goddesses."

"Yes," said Alec feelingly. "Something to think about. Indeed." Tenderly he kissed Blair's cheek. "Well, sweetheart, I suppose I'll see you at midnight. Save me a seat by the hearth."

"See you later, sweetheart," said Jo, blowing Alec a kiss. Blair dug an elbow into Jo's ribs. "Ow!"

"Don't mock my pretend boyfriend," Blair whispered.

"Eh, all right, all right. Sorry, Alec," Jo said reluctantly.

"Quite all right. All in the line of duty."

He stood, bowed to both women, drifted out of the room whistling an air from "La Bohme".

Jo smiled at Blair. Alone at last, said her smile. Let's get out of here and go upstairs for awhile, said her eyes.

Blair frowned. Severely. Keep dreaming! said her frown.

Jo sighed. "Why are you always defendin him?"

"Why don't you ever give him a chance?"

"I guess … I just … Part of me still thinks, how did I end up so lucky?" Jo said quietly. She looked around. The incredibly efficient servants had already cleared the table and left the room. "Maybe you should be with him," Jo continued softly. "I still feel sort of guilty. Like I'm waitin for the other shoe to drop."

"I'd like to drop it on your head," Blair said with quiet intensity. "When are you going to accept that I, that' we're –" she looked around the massive dining hall. Small knots of guests, including Natalie and Tootie, still lingered around the distant doorways. "When are you going to accept that I feel the way I feel?" Blair concluded. "When are you going to feel one-hundred percent secure about us?"

"Honestly? Our thirtieth anniversary. Maybe."

"If you could somehow feel exactly what I'm feeling," Blair whispered. "If you could know for sure …"

"I know," said Jo. "Believe me. I trust you and I know what you feel – as much as anyone can know what someone else feels. I see it in your eyes, Blair."

"But?"

"But … it's a gut reaction in me. Fight and flight. Waitin for everythin to go to hell. Seems to be programmed into my animal brain, you know? Just keep bein patient with me."

"Jo, I can be as patient as you need. I just feel badly for you. And Alec. You have to get over this animosity. Especially because ..."

"Especially because?"

"Jo – do you promise you won't lose your temper if I tell you something?"

"Temper? What temper?"

"I'm serious, Jo."

"Isn't this a conversation we should be havin back in the suite? If it's so serious you think I'm gonna blow my stack?"

"If we talk back in the suite, we'll get … distracted. Jo, my mother wants to host a supper for me and Alec. And my father."

Jo grinned. "That's great!"

"How is that great?"

"It means it's gotten too serious! Time to call it off, Princess. Time for you and Alec to have a big, dramatic breakup. You can say he was cheatin on you. Or, heck, be magnanimous. Say he dumped you! Either way, you can mope around for at least a few months without your parents buggin you about your love life." Jo held her hand up for a high-five. "C'mon, Blair. Hey. Don't leave me hangin."

Blair sighed. "First, I do not high-five."

"Spoilsport," teased Jo, but she lowered her hand. We'll work on that, Princess. How can anyone not high-five?

"Second, Alec and I are very much in the public eye. It would damage his reputation – or mine – if one of us 'dumped' the other. We'd have to make it mutual, very amicable, and make sure we're both still considered excellent catches. Besides which, who would ever believe that someone would dump me?"

"Good point. So, OK. You and Alec are about to have a very public, mutually painful but gosh-golly amicable break up. How soon can you make the announcement? Five minutes? Ten? What about at the big ghost story watchamacallit tonight?"

"Jo," Blair said quietly, in one of her sweetest voices, "I was thinking –"

"Oh, crud. What is it? When you use that voice, I know this is gonna be a lulu."

"I was thinking it would be a good idea if Alec and I, if we pretended to, you know, actually …"

Comprehension dawned in Jo's eyes. She glared. "You can't bring yourself to say it, can you?"

"I can say it," Blair said defensively. "But if you know what I'm going to say –"

"No, no. I figured out what you're going to say, but I want you to say it!"

"Jo –"

"Don't 'Jo' me, Miss Warner." Jo folded her arms across her chest.

"Jo, it would solve a lot of problems if, if Alec and I pretended to be engaged."

Jo clenched her jaw. Hard. In more than three years, Blair had never given Jo such a challenging test of self-control.

I will not blow my top … I will not blow my top … I will not blow my top …

"Blair," Jo said through gritted teeth, "that is a terrible idea." She looked around. The dining room was almost deserted now. Up in the gallery, the musicians had finally packed up and were departing. A handful of guests, including Tootie and Natalie, chatted near the far door.

"See, that wouldn't solve any problems," Jo continued through clenched teeth. "It would create problems. If you think it's tricky to break up with Alec while you're just pretend boyfriend and girlfriend, how tricky will it be to call off your pretend engagement down the road?"

"I want to wear your ring," Blair said.

Blair held up her naked left hand; the ring was back in the suite, in her jewelry case – the small travel case she used for long weekends.

"I want to wear your ring every day," said Blair, "every minute. But people are going to see it, and they'll talk. I have to be engaged to somebody. Alec's already in place. I can look radiant and talk about how much I love being in love, and flash the ring, and everyone will think, they'll think …"

"That you're talking about Alec," Jo finished for her. "Blair … we're goin the wrong direction here. We're supposed to be gettin more honest about us. I mean, as honest as we can be."

"We are. We're telling Natalie and Tootie about us this weekend. Let's tell them tonight – let's not wait any longer."

Jo shook her head. "If you say you're goin to marry Alec," Jo said, teeth clenching so tight she felt like she had lockjaw, "it's wrong. Throwin your mom off the trail, well, that's just survival. And she kinda asked for it, goin behind your back with Alec and all. But if you announce you're marryin Alec, if it gets in the papers –"

"Of course it'll be in the papers. That's the point. And why are you talking like a Smith girl?"

"Cause I'm keepin my temper," Jo said, maintaining a tenuous grip onto her last thread of patience. "Blair … puttin one over on Monica is one thing, but lyin to the whole world … Babe, that's just wrong."

Blair lifted her chin defiantly. "I knew you'd be unreasonable about this."

"Unreasonable? You want to commit media fraud, and I'm bein unreasonable?"

"It's not fraud," Blair objected, stung. "It's playing the game. You don't understand how –"

"Blair, I'm gettin a little tired of this whole 'Jo doesn't know how to play the game' tune. Sure, I don't know how to play it like you do, but I know when somethin's just plain wrong and this is wrong."

"But Tootie and Natalie will know the truth. Mrs. Garrett will know. Alec will know – it won't be like I'm leading him on. And we'll know the truth."

"So, that's like six people who know the truth against thousands of people reading a bunch of crap in the society pages? It would be a lie, Blair. A big, fat, intentional lie. And it would be sorta like leadin Alec on. Cause he really likes you. It'd be usin him, and no one deserves that. I can't even imagine how rotten I'd feel if you didn't feel like you do about me. Babe … I'm sorry. I can't live with such a big lie."

Blair bit her lip. She'd known Jo would be difficult to convince, but she hadn't anticipated such a stubborn, heels-dug-in response. She's my moral compass in so many ways. But she's overreacting about this.

"So," Blair challenged, "you were fine with the pretend boyfriend thing, but now, all of a sudden, you're saying –"

"Blair, I wasn't fine with the pretend boyfriend thing," her temper starting to slip. "I think I made that totally friggin clear, on more than one damn occasion. But, like you said, your mom kinda asked for it, and it was temporary, so I lived with it. But this is a friggin bridge too far."

She's really getting upset, Blair thought. She's not listening. If she would just let me explain …

Jo took a deep, calming breath. "Blair. If you get engaged to Alec …"

"Yes?" Blair prompted.

Jo sighed. "If you get engaged to Alec, you might as well make it real."

Blair was very still for a moment. She cleared her throat. "Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Did you just give me an ultimatum?"

"Yeah. I guess I did."

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

Blair stood up slowly, with regal grace, glaring down her perfect nose at her lover.

"Go to hell," the heiress said coldly.

Jo froze. It took her a few seconds to register what Blair had just done, just said. And how she'd said it.

It was like the old Blair Warner. Not even the Blair whom Jo had met sophomore year at Eastland. It was like spoiled, immature, younger Blair, the one Jo heard stories about from some of the other girls. Arrogant, supercilious Blair, who'd tormented Cindy for being a tomboy, who'd teased Sue Ann about her weight, who'd joined a snotty secret club.

Jo felt hurt, and not a little sick to her stomach contemplating this side of Blair. Jo took a deep breath. She tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind.

Blair felt completely off-balance. As soon as she'd done it, it felt like a shitty thing to do. But no one gave Blair Warner an ultimatum. Jo had to be taught a lesson.

She'd expected Jo to be angry at first, to explode, then feel guilty for exploding, and then to realize she'd gone too far in delivering an ultimatum. Blair had, in other words, tried to play Jo the way she'd played dozens of past boyfriends when she wanted to get her way in something.

But Blair hadn't reckoned on Jo Polniaczek.

Jo hadn't exploded. Instead, Jo looked hurt – deeply hurt. She met Blair's eyes, finally, and there was a pain in Jo's eyes Blair had never seen before.

Blair gave a little gasp.

"Jo –" she said quickly. I take it back, I take it back, I take it back … "Jo, I didn't mean … Look, if you'd just listen to me instead of judging me –"

Jo held up one hand as a mute request for Blair to stop. Jo stood up slowly, looking like she'd been gut-punched.

"You know," she said quietly, "I got stabbed once. When I was a kid. And Blair … It didn't hurt this much. I gotta, I just gotta be alone for a little bit."

Jo turned and walked slowly out of the room, not going toward the main door, where Tootie and Natalie were the last guests lingering, but toward a deserted side door.

Blair felt tears springing into her eyes. She felt nauseated; she had never hurt anyone so badly. Not that I know of anyway. Oh, what a bitch I am. It's not a game with Jo. It's never a game. She's so literal, and I, God! What a bitch!

Blair sank down into her chair, covered her face with her hands. Tootie and Natalie were at her side in an instant.

"What happened?" Tootie asked, hugging Blair tight.

"Are you all right?" asked Natalie, putting an arm around Blair's shoulders.

"Don't bother about me," Blair said, tears streaming down her face. "I don't deserve your friendship. I don't deserve anyone's friendship!"

"Well, as long as you're not going to overdramatize it," Natalie joked.

"Blair, come on," said Tootie. "Whatever it is, it can't be that bad."

Blair slunk down in her chair; her head leaned forward despondently, almost touching the table.

"I told Jo to 'Go to hell'," she said miserably.

"You what?" asked Natalie.

Tootie shook her head. "OK," she conceded. "That is pretty bad."

"Why would you say that to Jo?" asked Natalie. "What could she possibly have done? And why didn't Jo clean your clock the way she did when you insulted her religion last year?"

Blair shook her head, face still buried in her hands. "Jo would never strike me. She's so gentle."

"Jo? Jo Polniaczek? Gentle?"

"It doesn't matter what she did" Blair continued. "What I said was completely uncalled for. There's no excuse for it!"

"Eh … maybe there's kind of an excuse," said Jo.

She had come up behind the girls, quietly.

Jo dropped down next to Blair's chair, put her hands on Blair's shoulders. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so all-or-nothin. I can kinda be that way from time to time. In case you hadn't noticed."

"Well … yes," said Blair. "You can. But I was trying to shock you. I was manipulating the situation. I can be kind of like that from time to time."

"So we're both horses' asses," said Jo. Her hands slid from Blair's shoulders to her face, cradled it tenderly. "I'll never give you an ultimatum like that again."

Blair put her hands over Jo's, looked deeply into Jo's eyes. "I'll never say that to you again, Jo. Not ever. No matter what."

"I'd appreciate that," Jo said huskily. "Cause it really did hurt."

"Ahem!" said Tootie. "Underage friends still present."

"What?" Blair asked absently. She had eyes and ears only for Jo.

"I said, 'underage friends still present'. Not that you two seem to care." Tootie turned to Natalie triumphantly. "I'll take that twenty dollars now, Miss Green."

"Now hold on a minute," said Natalie. "Who says you won the bet?"

"Nat, do you have eyes? Do you have ears?"

"So, they had a fight. They're apologizing. Friends do that."

Jo leaned forward and kissed Blair tenderly. Blair slid her hands around Jo's neck.

Tootie put a hand on her hip. "Do friends do that?" she demanded.

"Son of a gun," muttered Natalie, blushing scarlet to the roots of her hair.

Blair and Jo broke off their kiss, suddenly remembering their friends.

"Oh, ah, Nat, Toot … Me and Blair are together," Jo said shyly.

"Thanks for the breaking news!" Natalie said. She put a hand to her heart, sank into one of the empty chairs. "What … the … hell?"

"My twenty, please," Tootie said smugly, holding out her hand.

"Twenty? You should have bet fifty!" sputtered Natalie. "A hundred! I mean … Blair and Jo? Blair and Jo?"

"Twenty, a hundred, whatever you want to pay, Nat, just make sure you pay up before the night is over," Tootie crowed.

"You two bet on us?" Blair demanded. "How gauche!" She took a monogrammed handkerchief from her bosom. "Jo, darling – your lipstick."

"Thanks," murmured Jo.

"Darling?" laughed Tootie.

"Yeah," said Jo, shooting Tootie a patented Polniaczek glare. "You got a problem with that, Stretch?"

But Tootie couldn't be intimidated by Jo, not at this moment, having just seen Jo so docile with Blair.

"Darling! Darling Jo!" Tootie giggled.

"Eh, you're cruisin for a bruisin," muttered Jo.

"Jo," Blair said fondly. "She's just teasing you. Isn't that better than her being horrified?"

"I don't know," Jo said seriously. "Horror might be better."

"When did this happen?" Natalie demanded of the world at large. "How did I miss this? How can I possibly hold my head up as an aspiring journalist again?"

"Don't feel bad," said Jo. Between Tootie's laughter and Natalie's shock, Jo was blushing, and having a little trouble meeting her young friends' eyes. "Blair and me, we've just been together a couple months. And we've been keepin it real quiet."

"Does Mrs. Garrett know?" asked Tootie.

"Yeah. She figured it out," said Jo.

"But what about poor Alec?" Natalie demanded. "And I can't believe I'm calling him 'poor Alec', but, I ask you, is it fair to lead him on the way Blair's been leading him on?"

"Alec knows," Blair said. "He figured it out, so he's been in our confidence since that night at the Plaza."

"Alec figured it out?" asked Nat. "Mrs. Garrett figured it out? Tootie figured it out? Maybe they should be journalists."

Tootie patted Natalie on the shoulder. "It's OK, Nat. Don't beat yourself up. Isn't there something in journalism, about how if you're too close to a story, you can't see it clearly?"

"Well … yes," Natalie said grudgingly.

Jo stood up, holding Blair's hand, but ready to release it at a moment's notice if anyone other than Alec or Mrs. Garrett walked through the doors.

"Nat, we kept it secret. We knew we wanted to tell you and Tootie but it took us awhile to figure out how and when. How could you possibly have guessed?"

"But Tootie already –"

"Look, Nat – Tootie is like Nancy Drew crossed with a bloodhound and a lie detector. No one roots out secrets like Tootie."

"Why, thank you Jo," said Tootie, surprised and pleased. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me!"

"But how did this happen?" asked Nat. "I mean, Jo! And Blair! The two of you. How?"

Jo shrugged. She hated talking about "mushy" stuff. It made her nervous and embarrassed. Her cheeks were flushed.

"Blair and me, ah, we've been havin these feelins. And when we started school in September, we talked about the feelins, and, ah, one thing led to another, and we decided to go out together. See where it takes us."

"That first day, when we surprised you at Langley!" Tootie said triumphantly. "I knew you two were acting weird. And Nat, you knew it too. We just didn't know what it meant."

"I did know something weird was up," Natalie said, taking heart. "OK. So I'm not the worst aspiring journalist ever. Second worst. Third worst, maybe."

"You're great," Jo insisted, laughing. "Me and Blair are just really good at keepin secrets."

Blair snorted. "Jo, you're terrible at keeping secrets. I was the Mata Hari of this operation."

"She's right," Tootie said. "You were the weak link, Jo. It was you behavior that put me on the scent. Although Blair – you don't want to quit your day job."

Blair touched Jo's cheek. "I've told you, darling. You have a beautifully honest nature."

Natalie stared at Blair like she'd grown three heads. "'Darling'? 'Darling'? All right, I get that you two are together, but, I still don't get it. Do you know what I mean?"

"Nope. No flippin idea," said Jo.

"I mean, you two are together? Like, together-together?" Natalie asked significantly.

Jo blushed crimson. Blair smiled a little smugly. She wrapped a tendril of Jo's hair around her fingers.

"We are one-thousand percent together," Blair said happily.

"Which explains why you've been so weirdly nice to each other sometimes," mused Natalie. She chewed it over, then shook her head. "No. I still can't absorb this. Blair – you're boy-crazy Blair Warner! Jo – you almost eloped with Eddie!"

"Jeez, like, three years ago," said Jo. "Am I ever gonna live that down?"

"No," Blair, Tootie and Natalie said together.

"You're one of the few Eastland girls to ever try to elope," Tootie explained.

"Yeah," said Natalie. "That's part of the Eastland canon forever now."

Jo groaned.

"You should take it as a compliment, Jo," said Tootie. "You're one of Eastland's legendary figures. Field hockey star, valedictorian, runaway bride. Not to mention escapades like stealing the school van, getting arrested, getting that teacher fired –"

"Damn, all right, I get it. Forget I asked!"

"Look, we're getting away from the point," Natalie complained. "How did this happen? How do two girls end up wanting to, to be, together? Like, together-together?"

"Who cares?" Tootie demanded. "It happens that way, for some people. Like my Aunt Sylvia. Love is love is love." She beamed at Blair and Jo. "I think it's beautiful."

Blair and Jo each took one of Tootie's hands.

"Thanks, Toot," Jo said softly.

"When did you go and grow up?" Blair teased Tootie.

Tootie grinned. "Well, you know, I had Mrs. Garrett and a few really good role models helping me."

"But, it doesn't make sense," Natalie groused. "Look, I love you guys, come hell or high water, but I don't understand this. How does boy-crazy Blair Warner fall for a Bronx grease monkey?"

"You know, if I never heard the phrase 'boy-crazy Blair Warner' again, that would be OK with me," said Blair.

Jo, Tootie and Natalie laughed.

"Face it, babe," said Jo, "it's gonna say 'Boy-crazy Blair Warner' on your tombstone!"

Blair rolled her eyes. "The irony," she said, "is that I don't even like boys. I mean, not romantically."

Natalie put her hand to her heart. "I feel faint again," she said.

"I knew I liked Jo from pretty much the first moment I met her," Blair continued. "I understood what I was feeling, because I'd felt it for other girls."

"I was the dunce," Jo said ruefully. "I knew I felt somethin real strong for Blair, but I couldn't quite figure it out. See, I only ever liked boys before I met Princess here. What I felt for her – I didn't get it, but it bugged the hell outta me."

"Hence, our legendary spats," said Blair.

"Classic sexual tension," Tootie said knowingly.

Jo blushed crimson again. Natalie put her hands over her ears.

"What?" Tootie demanded. "Donahue does shows about it. It's perfectly natural."

"And highly personal!" Jo sputtered.

"Hear, hear!" said Natalie. "Can we keep this conversation PG? Are you trying to kill me, Tootie?"

Blair squeezed Tootie's hand. "It is perfectly natural, Tootie. For some girls. But not most. So it's very important that you and Natalie keep this to yourselves."

"I'm not telling anyone," Natalie said fervently.

"See, the school might try to kick us out," Jo said. "And our parents … let's just say I don't think they're ready for a bombshell like this. And we ain't ready for their reactions! My mother'd be heartbroken. And maybe kick me out. Blair's folks will probably cut off her money for school –"

"My money, period," said Blair. "But I'll be completely independent when I turn twenty-one. And then – look out world!"

"Wow!" Tootie breathed admiringly. "Another Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton!"

"Eh, let's not go overboard," said Jo. But she was clearly pleased with Tootie's acceptance and enthusiasm. Gotta hand it to the kid – she's got a big heart!

"So, where does Alec fit into all this?" asked Natalie. "You said he figured it out … And now he's helping you cover it up?"

"Mainly we needed someone to keep mother off our backs," said Blair. "You remember that ugly scene at the Plaza."

"Which one?" Nat asked with feeling.

"The whole business about my mother trying to set me up with Alec – completely behind my back. We decided, why not give her what she wants? As long as she thinks I'm with Alec, she's happy, and it keeps her from interfering with me and Jo."

"Kept her from interferin," Jo said darkly. "She's doin it again. Tryin to get Alec and Blair engaged."

"Well, is that so terrible?" Natalie wondered. "What mother wouldn't want her daughter to marry a duke-in-waiting?"

"I ain't sayin it's terrible. But it does kinda put the kibosh on me and Blair."

"That's what Jo and I were arguing about just now," said Blair. "I think Alec and I should pretend to be engaged. We could drag that out until I'm twenty-one."

"And I think it's too big a lie," said Jo. She touched Blair's face. "I mean, I get that you'd be doin it for us, and I get that it'd be effective, but the ethics, you know … It bothers me."

"I know," Blair said quietly. "I think we need to sleep on it. And talk to Alec, of course."

"Agreed," said Jo. "We won't do anythin hasty. And I'll keep an open mind."

"That's all I ask." Blair smiled at Jo. Jo returned the smile with one of her shy, crooked little grins.

"Ahem!" Natalie said loudly, breaking into Blair and Jo's mutual admiration. "Technically, it's fairly common for celebrities to plant PR items in the media. A lot of times the items are a bunch of hooey, but that's expected. I mean, it's not like celebrity news is hard journalism. A celebrity engagement isn't exactly an exposé on nuclear reactors or Soviet spies."

Jo considered that. "Are Blair and Alec celebrities?" she wondered.

"Yes and no," said Nat. "I'd say they fall under the category of 'unknown notables'. Right now they're only important within their own circles. But if one of them does something amazing, or amazingly scandalous, then they'll be splashed all over the news."

"Like, if it turns out Blair Warner is datin a gearhead from the Bronx – a girl gearhead –"

"We're talking 'National Enquirer'," said Natalie, "and some legitimate news papers and radio and TV stations would pick it up too. 'Personal Best' and 'The Hunger' put lesbians in the public eye. People are curious. Twenty-four hours after the story breaks, your names will be household words."

"My father would commit me," Blair said decisively. "He'd say I was mentally disturbed. That's the only way he could live down that type of scandal."

"My mother would throw herself off the top of St. Adalbert's," Jo said glumly. "She'd never get over the shame. And the sorrow. And the wonderin where she musta went wrong."

"You really do need to keep a lid on this," Natalie agreed. "At least until you're ready, and you can control the message."

"So, we keep a lid on it," said Jo. "But does that mean we lie to the whole world about Blair and Alec?"

"'Lie' is so harsh," Natalie objected. "This is sort of like, you know, those Hollywood celebrities that are homosexual, but it would kill their career, so they're always going on glamorous phony dates with the opposite sex."

"Like who?" Tootie asked curiously. "And how do you know so much about this?"

"I really am studying journalism," Natalie said, a little defensively. "Of course I know these things."

"I studied journalism at Eastland," said Jo. "The part about homosexual celebrities seems to have kinda slipped my mind."

"Of course I didn't learn about that at Eastland," Natalie said with exaggerated patience. "It's called reading, people. I devour books by journalists, about journalism. Have you people met me?"

"So, what's this 'Personal Best' thing?" asked Jo.

"You're kidding," said Natalie.

"About what?"

"You haven't seen 'Personal Best'?"

"If I saw it, would I be askin about it? What, it's a movie?"

"Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo."

"What?" Jo always got crabby when people didn't just get to the point.

"'Personal Best' is supposed to be the lesbian movie of the decade. Of the century. Plus, bonus, it's about Olympic athletes."

"Hmm." Jo looked at Blair. "Maybe we should check it out. Get some pointers."

"Ew!" said Natalie.

"Not about that," Jo said, blushing. "About, I mean, what it's like to be girlfriends. We're kinda flyin blind here."

"You're holding your own," Blair said affectionately.

"Except where I keep stompin out durin our arguments."

"But you always come back."

"True …" Jo flashed her megawatt smile at her lover.

"Aw," said Tootie.

Natalie cleared her throat. "Basically," she said, "it might be a good idea to plant a story about Blair and Alec being engaged. I'm not saying you'll win any ethics prizes, but it's not like anyone outside the New York 400 is even going to notice the story."

"Won't it be awful?" Jo asked Blair quietly. "Every time you meet your mother, she'll be believin this big lie. She'll be all excited about you marryin Alec – and it won't even be true. And at some point you'll have to break off the engagement, and she'll hafta deal with that … Won't you feel … crummy? Every time you talk to her?"

"Of course. But I already do," Blair murmured. "Anything I tell her about my love life is a lie … until I'm twenty-one."

"It seems like this is all moot until Alec weighs in," said Natalie. "He'd have to agree."

"He'll agree," Jo said. "He's crazy about Blair. He'll do whatever she asks."

"And how is he going to feel when the engagment's over?" asked Natalie.

"Rotten. Of course," said Jo. "Pretendin to be engaged to Blair, he's gonna get even more attached than he is now. When they gotta break up, it's really gonna break his heart."

"I didn't ask him to fall for me," said Blair. "And he's crazy about you too, Jo."

"Face it – you're a couple of foxes," said Tootie. She patted her hair. "Almost as foxy as me."

"Well, don't spend too much time with Alec," Jo told Tootie. "He'll be fallin for you next."

"So, bear with me," said Natalie, "just trying to make sure I've got this straight: Blair and Jo, you're secretly engaged to each other? Got it. Still don't understand it, but got it. Jo, you're not engaged to any guy? OK. And Blair, you're going to be pretend to be engaged to Alec? Maybe? OK. I think I've got it all straight. So to speak."

They all jumped as the main door swung open. Jacqueline Messerschmitt, otherwise called Jackrabbit, clacked into the great dining hall on her high heels.

"Ah, there they are – the four musketeers! Deep in some sort of conference – as usual. What hijinks are on the agenda tonight?"

"None, hopefully," said Natalie. "It's already been a heck of an evening!"

"Pick-up match at noon tomorrow," Jackrabbit told Jo. "On the south lawn."

"Didn't bring my stick," Jo said ruefully.

"No matter. Summer house is stocked with absolute scads of sticks. Please, Princess, how can we play a pick-up match without our star player?"

Jo blushed. "Star? Come on, I ain't, you know, that great."

"False modesty is very unbecoming," said Jackrabbit. "Noon. Tomorrow. Or we'll come find you."

"All right, all right, I'll be there," groused Jo.

"Lovely." Jacqueline turned to Tootie. "You were introduced as 'Tootie' at the Plaza, but am I correct in assuming that you're Dorothy Ramsey?"

"Yes," said Tootie. "My mother loves 'The Wizard of Oz'."

"How droll!"

"Not really. Not if you have to go through life named 'Dorothy'."

"Am I correct that you're the Dorothy Ramsey who played Baron Von Trapp in Eastland's production of 'Sound of Music'? And you starred in 'South Pacific'?"

Tootie smiled. She lived for the limelight.

"You're absolutely correct," she said. "Do you want my autograph?"

Jo, Blair and Natalie rolled their eyes good-naturedly.

"Autograph? No. But Moose is contending with a bit of a sticky wicket. Choreographer's stranded in the city, last-minute changes to her production, whole to-do. Won't be able to get up here this weekend. You dance, do you not?"

"Dance? Do I ever!"

"Lovely. We need your help."

"You and Moose, I mean, Petal, need my help?" Tootie beamed, flattered.

"Said so, didn't I? Come now – quick conference before the witching hour."

"Sure!"

Tootie followed Jacqueline from the room, a bounce in her step and a smile on her face.

"What the hell is Moose cookin up?" wondered Jo. "Some dance?"

"She did promise us a weekend of surprises," said Blair.

Natalie shook her head. "I don't think I can handle even one more surprise! I've hit my quota!"

Blair put a hand on Nat's shoulder. "You don't really approve, do you?"

"Hey." Natalie lifted her hands, palms out, in a conciliatory gesture. "It's not up to me to approve or disapprove. You're two of my best friends, and I'm going to support you a hundred percent!"

"But … you don't approve," Blair repeated.

"It's not that I don't approve. I just don't understand. How does a girl love a girl?"

"Don't ask me," Jo said, a little defensively. "I don't get it either. It's not like I asked to fall in love with Blair. It's not like it was somethin I was lookin for."

"Thanks, darling," said Blair. "That's very flattering."

"'Darling'. 'Darling'! I just can't get used to that!" said Natalie. "Jo. Blair. In love. With each other. That's it! It's the beginning of the final days!"

Jo laughed. "I know, right? It is pretty crazy."

"Is it?" Blair asked coolly.

"Babe, come on. Admit it. It's nutty. Who coulda predicted this?"

"'Babe'," marveled Natalie. "'Babe'! This is really going to take some adjustment."

Jo's smiled faded. "Nat, you know it's still us, right? Even though this is unexpected. It's still just me and Blair, your friends. We ain't changed. You aren't, like, grossed out or anythin, are you?"

"No," Natalie reassured her. "Not grossed out. Just thrown for a loop. Plus, I owe Tootie twenty dollars."

"I still can't believe you bet on our relationship," chided Blair. "Very tacky."

"Agreed. Though, it would've been less tacky if I'd won!"

"So, it's weird right now," said Jo, "but I'm glad you and Tootie know about us. It was startin to eat at us, you guys not knowin."

Natalie put a hand on Jo's arm. "Tootie and I look up to you – both of you. But we know you're human. You can tell us anything – no matter how weird. We've got your backs."

"Thanks."

"So." Natalie buffed her fingernails on her dress. "I guess that means I'm the only really boy-crazy one of us in the bunch!"

"I guess so," said Jo.

Blair mimed handing something to Natalie. "Nat – I hereby pass the 'boy-crazy' torch to you. Wield it wisely – and well."

"This is better than 'Harvest Queen'," gushed Natalie. "I don't know what to say! I promise to think about boys, boys, boys, all the time, and flirt outrageously at every social event!"

"Then the torch has been passed to the right person," Blair said solemnly.

"Still gonna be on your tombstone," Jo teased Blair. "'Boy-crazy Blair Warner'!"

"Better than 'grease monkey'!" teased Blair.

"At least you two still banter," said Natalie. "At least something's still the same."

"Don't worry, Natalie; Jo and I will always argue," Blair said comfortingly. "We have to. Jo's always wrong about something."

"Eh, right back at you, Princess," Jo said, laughing.

This … is … weird, Natalie thought. Going to be awhile before I'm totally OK with this. Still … they are pretty damn cute together. Especially when they fight.

"Come on," said Natalie, standing up. "Let's do a little exploring before the ghost stories start. I don't know about you two, but I've never been in a house that used to be a hotel. There's got to be a story here for the Eastland Gazette."

"Lead on, MacNatalie," said Blair. "We'll be right behind you."

"Maybe we should go back to the suite for a little bit," Jo said casually to Blair. "You know. To check on that thing."

Blair shook her head. "'That thing' will be fine, Jo. We'll check on it later."

"But, it might not be ready later."

"It better be," said Blair.

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Oh, dear lord. You're talking some kind of sex code, aren't you? I don't want to know that you're talking some kind of sex code."

"Don't worry about our code," Jo said crabbily. "Just lead on. Maybe there's a dumbwaiter shaft I can drop Princess in if she keeps givin me a hard time."

"Maybe there's a dungeon," said Blair, "where I can toss Jo if she keeps sulking."

The three young women crossed the floor to a small, intriguing-looking side door. Natalie pulled it open; it creaked like a classic haunted-house portal.

"Wow," said Natalie, peering into a dark, narrow corridor. "I feel like Velma on 'Scooby Doo'. Blair, you can be 'Danger-prone Daphne'."

Jo snickered. "That's about right," she said.

"I guess that makes you 'Fred'," Blair told Jo sweetly. "Or, what's the dog's name? 'Scooby'."

"Hey, I'll be Scooby," said Jo. "He's funny, he's loyal, and he gets to eat all the time."

"He drools," said Blair. "And he looks like he sheds."

"Will you two pipe down?" asked Natalie. "Or, go back to the 'darlings' and 'babes'."

"Of course, darlin," said Jo.

"Whatever you want, babe," said Blair.

As the three women disappeared into the narrow corridor, a figure high up on the dining hall gallery finally moved. It had been leaning, very still, in one of the alcoves, listening to every word said below.

"Very interesting," mused the eavesdropper. "Very interesting indeed! Blair and Jo – prepare for the surprise of your life!"


At midnight, a gong boomed twelve times, its tones reverberating through the great house.

In the Great Hall, about two-thirds of the guests were gathered, the others having opted to call it a night.

Candles burned in wall sconces, and a fire crackled in the enormous hearth, casting ruddy light and flickering shadows across the walls and floor. The animal heads mounted high above seemed to glower down at the assembled guests.

From time to time there was a rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning – special effects, Tootie suspected, manufactured by Petal Von Schuylkill's crack technical team.

Servants circulated with drink trays, flavorful cognac nightcaps and for those under nineteen, like Tootie and Natalie, steaming cups of hot chocolate.

As usual, the Langley Lions sat near each other, not far from Jo, Blair, Natalie and Tootie. Mrs. Garrett was sitting near some of her new acquaintances, deep in conversation with a handsome man with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair.

"Has Mrs. Garrett found true love?" Tootie asked dramatically. "Are we going to have a step-mentor?"

"He looks a little shifty to me," Jo said critically.

"Jo," Blair said, "in your eyes, no one is ever going to be good enough for Mrs. Garrett."

"She's special," said Jo. "She needs someone special, that's all. Look how beady this guy's eyes are."

"His eyes are fine," said Blair.

"No, they're beady. And close-set. That guy's done time, I'd bet my life on it."

"So what did Petal want you to help with?" Natalie asked Tootie.

Tootie pantomimed locking her mouth with an invisible key, and tossing away the key.

"A secret?" asked Natalie. She rubbed her hands together. "My reporter's spider senses are tingling. It's some big dance number for the masquerade ball, right?"

Tootie shrugged.

"Come on, Tootie – give me something. For the love of God, give me something! Jo and Blair and I just rambled all over this place, and I've got bupkis. I need something exciting for the Gazette to justify missing Monday classes."

"Come on," Tootie said skeptically. "This huge mansion, and you didn't find anything intriguing?"

"Tootie, the secret of this manor house is cobwebs. Just cobwebs." Natalie dragged her fingers through her hair. "I think I've got a spider making a nest in here."

"Ew!" said Tootie.

"I know," said Natalie. "It's gross – but it's not a story."

Alec sat down on the sofa, wedging himself between Blair and Jo. He put an arm around Blair's shoulders. "Don't be frightened, dear," he said.

"Oh, she's not," said Jo. "She knows I'm right here."

Alec grinned at Jo. "I find that comforting as well," he said.

"Do you? You shouldn't."

He laughed.

Dina Becker looked daggers at all of them, particularly Alec and Blair, from her chair near the back of the room. Jo smiled mischievously at Dina, gave her a little wave.

Spindly Boots St. Clair, Gamma Gamma extraordinaire, arrived just after midnight, a little breathless, and wedged herself between Alec and Jo.

"Mind if I sit here?" she asked.

"Actually –" Jo began, but Boots, not really looking for an answer, interrupted her.

"Isn't this too, too scrumptious?" she asked nobody in particular. "I have goose bumps! Feel!" She held one pale, spindly arm out in front of her. Nobody felt it, but she didn't seem to mind. "Ghost stories are the living end! I can't imagine what Petal has in store!"

There was a particularly bright flash of lightning and a particularly loud boom of thunder. Petal Von Schuylkill stood and walked to the great hearth. She leaned against it, lifting her glass.

"My dear friends, new and old, we are gathered here to tell tales that will blanche our hair and curdle our blood. Those that are faint of heart might want to find their way to bed."

Natalie made a motion, as if to rise, but Tootie stopped her. "Oh, no," whispered Tootie. "If I can take it, so can you!"

Natalie sighed.

"This cottage," Petal told her guests, "used to be the Grand Lake Hotel. Every summer it hosted thousands of visitors from New York, New England and Pennsylvania. They came for the tranquil lake, for boating and hiking, and for the hotel's fine meals. But some of the visitors never left."

Thunder boomed ominously.

"Oh, delish!" whispered Boots. She gripped one of Alec's arms and one of Jo's.

Aw, for Pete's sake! thought Jo. Jo didn't like unsolicited personal contact, especially from strangers, and Boots was pretty strange. Jo actually kind of liked that Boots made a buffer between her and Alec. Problem was, Boots sitting there pushed Jo even further down the couch, farther away from Blair.

"Sometime during the summer of 1892," said Petal, "Arabella and Percival Webster-Colt checked in to the Grand Lake Hotel. They were on their honeymoon. It was to be a beautiful two weeks. But they hadn't reckoned on Horace Foster Samuels."

"Jeez, didn't anyone have a plain old normal name back then?" marveled Jo.

"Like Polniaczek?" suggested Tootie.

"Hey, in my neighborhood, Polniaczek is a very normal name," Jo said defensively. "It's as American as apple pie. You got a problem with my name?"

"Shhh!" Natalie hissed.

Blair reinforced Natalie's shushing sound with a pointed glare at Jo.

Behave like a barbarian, warned the glare, and we'll be going directly to sleep tonight.

"Horace Foster Samuels," Petal was saying, "was the foreman in Webster-Colt's molasses factory. Webster-Colt had just discharged Samuels for drunken and disorderly behavior, and for behaving in an overly familiar manner with Arabella."

"Oooh, I don't like where this is going," Boots whispered excitedly.

"Shhh!" Natalie hissed again.

"The Webster-Colts," Petal was saying, "didn't realize that Samuels had followed them to Lake Peekskill. They didn't realize that Samuels had checked into their hotel. They didn't realize that when they strolled along the bank of Lake Peekskill, or played croquet, or dined in the grand dining room – the room where we dined tonight – Samuels was watching them, nursing his angry grudge."

What, were they blind? wondered Jo. What a crock!

"On the last evening of their honeymoon," Petal continued, "they found a note in their room, inviting them to sample the hotel's finest vintages at a private wine tasting. Suspecting nothing, they descended to the wine cellar, which is several levels below the main cellar."

Yeah, who wouldn't go? wondered Jo. Not suspicious at all! In her opinion, whatever was about to happen, the Webster-Colts had been asking for it.

Jo sipped her drink. A "stinger", Blair had called it. It was amber-colored and tasted a little bitter, but with a sweet, even refreshing kick. It burned a nice warm trail down Jo's throat to her stomach.

"Arriving in the wine cellar, the Webster-Colts found it deserted. Or so it seemed. Percival Webster-Colt made a search of the premises, but found no one."

Yup, thought Jo, taking another sip of her stinger. Get invited to a creepy deserted basement, you should definitely stick around and search it. She took another sip. Her stomach burned, not unpleasantly, and her head was starting to swim. Gosh, Blair's so pretty. I love how the firelight shines on her hair. I'd never take her into a creepy deserted wine cellar. You love someone, you protect them.

"Just as the Webster-Colts had decided to depart the cellar, they heard a scratching sound emanating from one of the casks. Arabella suggested that a cat might have become trapped in an empty cask. She asked Percival to free it."

Oh, this ain't gonna be good.

"Percival opened the lid, expecting a cat to leap out. Instead, Horace Foster Samuels, who had been coiled inside the cask, leaped up and struck Percival with a hatchet!"

Yipes!

Boots dug her fingernails into Jo's forearm. Jo suppressed a curse. As politely as she could manage, she pried Boots' fingers from her arm.

Lightning flashed and a blood-curdling scream rent the air!

Boots grabbed Jo's upper arm and snuggled against her.

What the hell? wondered Jo, annoyed. This girl has no sense of personal space!

Blair, sensing movement peripherally, had turned just in time to see Boots snuggle against Jo. Blair lifted her eyebrows. She met Jo's eyes in the flickering firelight.

Anything you want to tell me, darling? Blair telegraphed.

Gimme a break! telegraphed Jo.

Blair bit back a smile.

"Samuels, struck, and struck, and struck again!" Petal declaimed dramatically. Every time she said "struck" thunder boomed. "Percival Webster-Colt collapsed in a gruesome, bloody heap."

Good riddance, dimwit, thought Jo.

"However, he was still alive, although barely. In his semi-conscious state, Webster-Colt felt himself being lifted and carried to another cask. A larger cask. A cask filled to the brim with molasses."

"Molasses!" Boots breathed in Jo's ear. Her nails dug into Jo's bicep.

"Samuels dropped Webster-Colt into the sticky cask. The last thing Percival saw was his beloved Arabella, smiling cruelly as she watched Samuels shove Percival's head down into the cask of molasses and seal the lid!"

A ripple of "Ohs" and "Ahs" spread around the room.

"What happened?" asked someone.

"She was in on it," said someone else.

"Percival Webster-Colt spent his last seconds of life drowning in molasses – the perfect irony, since he owned a molasses factory. After she inherited Webster-Colt's millions, Arabella disappeared. Many say she ran off with Samuels. Certainly, neither of them was ever seen again."

Petal took a deep draft of her drink. She faced the guests again, put a hand to her ear as if she heard something. "They are long gone, but Webster-Colt might still be with us. On chill autumn nights, guests strolling near the cellars sometimes report hearing a frantic, bubbling cry … as of someone drowning in molasses."

Petal bowed.

The room erupted into nervous applause.

"Gonna be a lotta people havin nightmares tonight," Jo predicted.

"Who goes strolling near the cellars?" wondered Blair.

"It's a story, b-, ah, Blair," Jo said. Shit. Almost called her 'babe'!

Blair had caught the near-slip, and gave Jo a warning glance.

"What a horrifying story!" Boots said. She linked one arm through Alec's, one through Jo's, pulling both of them close as if they were her dearest old chums.

"Boots, it ain't real," said Jo. "It's all in good fun." She tried to slip free from Boots' grip, but the petite socialite had a surprisingly steely, sinewy strength. There was no escape. "Boots, ah, you're cuttin off my circulation."

"Sorry," said Boots, slightly loosening her grip. "Aren't ghost stories the most?"

Blair yawned broadly. "My, look at the time. I think I'll turn in."

Jo grinned. Like Tootie said, babe – don't quit your day job.

Blair kissed Alec on the cheek, stood, stretched.

"Enjoy the stories," she told her friends. "I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow morning."

"Good night, Blair," said Tootie.

"Good night," said Natalie.

"Night, Blondie," Jo said, feigning indifference. Now, she thought, how long do I gotta stay here so it doesn't look too obvious I'm followin her upstairs?

A handsome young man took Petal's place at the hearth. He looked vaguely familiar.

"That's Belmont Keane," Tootie whispered excitedly.

"Who?" asked Jo.

"Belmont Keane," said Boots. "You know … He plays that hunky young doctor on 'St. Elsewhere'. Whammo!"

"Be still my heart!" Nat said admiringly. "He's even hunkier in person! Anyone know why's he here?" Even in the midst of her admiration, she smelled a story. "I thought these were Petal's friends and schoolmates?"

"He's one of Petal's many, many cousins," said Alec. "Black sheep of the family, going to Hollywood, instead of just sitting around on his assets sipping brandy. But Petal's a good sort; doesn't hold it against anyone if they have a work ethic."

"No one could hold that against you," Jo said pointedly. She took another sip of her stinger.

"My tale," said Belmont, "begins in London's East End. The year was 1888 – almost one hundred years ago." He had a fine, resonant voice – very effective, Jo had to admit.

"Hubba-hubba," whispered Natalie. "I think I need to set up an interview with Mr. Keane …"

"Natalie," whispered Tootie, "don't abuse your journalistic position."

"Tootie, I resent that accusation." Natalie sighed. "His eyes are even bluer than Alec's," she whispered dreamily.

"The police were on the scent of a deranged killer," said Belmont. "History would come to know him as Jack the Ripper. Was he a doctor? A butcher? A barber? A member of the royal family? He seemed to come and go as he pleased, like a phantom. Between August 31 and November 9, he killed five women, all ladies of the night. Each murder was more vicious than the one that preceded it. And then … the murders ceased."

Deafening boom of thunder. A couple of people shrieked.

"Why did the murders occur during such a concentrated period of time?" Belmont asked. "Is it possible that Jack the Ripper was not a Brit, but, in fact, a visitor to Britain's shores? Did the murders cease because he returned to his home country?"

There was an uneasy stir among the guests. Belmont's voice was a powerful instrument and he wielded it well, modulating his tone, moving from a near-whisper to a ringing declamation as the material dictated.

"Could Jack the Ripper, in fact, have been none other than local Peekskill physician Dr. Bartholomew Phelpot?"

Boots shivered delightedly. She dug her fingers into Jo's bicep so hard, Jo was sure there would be bruises.

"Dr. Phelpot toured Europe in 1888, concluding with three months in England – August 15 through November 15. Could he have been the maniac who terrorized London? He returned to his quiet country practice in Peekskill in time for Thanksgiving. Friends found him changed – and not for the better. He sold his house, and his practice, and retreated to a room in the Grand Lake Hotel. Yes – this very building!"

Someone gave a little shriek – That almost sounds like Mrs. Garrett, thought Jo.

"Dr. Phelpot kept to his room on the fifth floor, conducting strange experiments. Clouds of smoke and strange chemical odors drifted from beneath the door of his suite. And then the reports began – reports of missing women."

Boots gasped.

Jo pried Boots' fingers off her arm. "That hurts," Jo whispered.

"I'm scared," whispered Boots.

"Well amputatin my arm ain't gonna help."

"Sorry." Boots put an arm around Jo's shoulders, burrowed close against her.

Jesus, here's me and Blair worried people are gonna figure out we're together, but it looks like Boots and me are the ones that are gonna get pegged as a couple!

Jo swigged down the last of her stinger. Her head was really starting to swim. Stung by the stinger, heh-heh. Uh-oh. Am I gettin bombed?

Belmont rambled on in his beautiful voice, weaving a tale of local mystery and murder, centered on the very house in which they were staying.

All a bunch of crap, thought Jo. But … still …

She cast her eyes around the room. Everyone was rapt. Even the toughest guys in the room looked uneasy. Course, that's tough by Park Avenue standards – not Bronx!

Tootie was biting her nails. Natalie looked entranced, whether by the story, or Belmont, or, most likely, both. Boots looked like she was going to pee her pants, she was so scared. And Alec –

Alec was staring at Jo with a mixture of amusement and affection.

Jo scowled at him. He mimicked her scowl.

Why's he gotta be so nice to me? I just want to hate him. Is that too much to ask?

A servant materialized in front of Jo, silently, handing her another stinger. Jo took it absently, sipped it. This one tasted even better than the first.

The faintest of frowns appeared between Alec's dark eyebrows as he noticed Jo's new drink. He shook his head slightly.

Defiantly, Jo took a deep draft of the stinger. None of his damn business if I drink the house dry!

"They found the first body in the boathouse," Belmont was saying. "It was a gruesome sight."

Jo didn't want to hear about gruesome sights. She let her mind drift to Blair. The blonde was no doubt already undressed, already under the covers of the four-poster bed. Just a few more minutes … as soon as hunka-hunka wraps up his story, I'm outta here …

Someone was snoring … It's me!

Jo opened her eyes. When the hell did I doze off?

Her head was resting on Boots' shoulder. Oh, this gets better and better! She sat up, quickly.

Alec was looking at Jo, shaking his head. Luckily, everyone else seemed to be spellbound by Belmont, who was finally concluding his grisly tale.

"And that," he said gravely, "is why every Halloween, the cries of the vanished women echo across the cold waters of the lake."

There was a moment of silence, and then the guests erupted into thunderous applause.

Belmont bowed.

"Wow," Tootie said admiringly. "He is absolutely wasted on television. He should be on the stage!"

"He should be in a movie," Natalie said dreamily. "On a seventy-foot tall screen."

"Well, he certainly likes the sound of his own voice," said Jo, stifling a yawn.

"How could you sleep during that story?" asked Boots, fascinated. "I'm not going to close my eyes tonight!"

"Eh, when you grow up in the Bronx, it takes more than some cockamamie Jack the Ripper story to scare you." Jo yawned again. She set her half-empty glass on the nearest table. "Well, guys, it's been a real pleasure, but I'm gonna head up now before the next story." She stood, turning her head from side to side, cracking her neck like little gunshots.

"Good night, Jo," said Boots. She was already scooting closer to Alec, clinging tighter to his arm.

"Good night, Galatea," smiled Alec.

"'Night, Blitheridge," said Jo.

Jo turned to Natalie and Tootie, hugged them each briefly in turn.

"Guys," she said quietly. "Thanks for being so understandin today. You two are, like, you're the best friends anyone could have. I truly mean that."

"We know," said Tootie. "We really are the best."

"The best of the best," agreed Natalie. "If there were a best friend hall of fame, it would have statues of us!"

"Well … let's not go nuts," Jo said. She stifled an enormous yawn.

"Is that for show?" whispered Tootie. "Or are you really that tired?"

"Let's just say that stingers, they're stronger than they taste. You guys are lucky you can only drink the hot chocolate."

"Poor Blair," Tootie said mischievously. "Upstairs waiting for Conan the Barbarian. Getting Rip Van Winkle instead!"

"Hey!" said Jo. "Stop talkin about that stuff. You're only fifteen."

"What she said!" Natalie agreed fervently. "I don't even want to think about … oh. Great! Now I've got an image stuck in my head!"

"Well get it out of your head!" said Jo. "Both of you! That's, ah, very private stuff. Our very private business."

"Just go now," Natalie urged her. "I don't think I can get it out of my head while you're standing there."

"Jeez, Louise!"

Shaking her head darkly, Jo strode out of the Great Hall.


Ghost stories, thought Jo, were a lot of hooey.

Fun hooey sometimes – but hooey all the same.

As she stumbled up a maze of staircases, yawning, eyelids heavy, she felt no apprehension.

Well … maybe a little bit. Maybe the faintest hint of apprehension.

That thing about the molasses barrel – that was pretty disturbing. And Belmont did spin a pretty good yarn – well, the part she'd been awake to hear.

Jo made a few wrong turns, had to backtrack several times. She was the only guest stumbling up to her room at this hour. Everyone else was either already in bed or still down in the Great Hall.

Funny how different a house felt at night. All the stairs and corridors were very confusing when you were alone. And maybe a little unsettling, after a round of ghost stories, with only a few flickering candles to light the way.

Funny how old houses creaked. And how sometimes, shadows could look almost like a person. Lurking behind you. Or around a corner, up ahead. And was that a footstep? And was that – huhn. Was that a scream? Only one of Petal's sound effects, of course. But damn real sounding. All part of the fun …

Jo breathed a sigh of relief when she found the suite. She slipped her key into the lock, turned it, pushed the door open. The foyer was dimly lit by a couple of faux gas lamps.

Jo closed the door behind her. Was that a footstep in the hall? She locked, bolted, and chained the door. If it was a footstep in the hall – too bad! We are not at home to visitors tonight … Jo dropped her key in the little porcelain dish on the foyer table.

Stifling a tremendous yawn, Jo kicked off her shoes, unbuttoned her silk shirt, let it fall, unbuttoned her silk trousers and stepped out of them. In her bra and panties she tiptoed down the corridor that branched off to the left.

The bedroom's down here. Right? Dammit … She backtracked to the foyer, tiptoed down the hall that branched off to the right. All the doors looked the same. She opened a door onto a little library. Don't even think I noticed that room today!

She tried another door. The master bathroom. Well, when in Rome … She used the facilities, brushed her teeth and splashed cold water on her face. She dabbed Chanel in the hollow of her throat, between her breasts.

Yikes! She thought, looking in the mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes. Her hair looked a little wild. She smoothed it down with both hands. Damn … Good thing Blair loves me!

The third door she tried was the master bedroom.

Blair had lit the candles on the night table, washing the room in faint golden light. Very flattering.

Blair lay under the cream-colored blankets of the four-poster bed, bare breasts and shoulders in full view. She lay back against the pillows, golden hair spread across them. Her warm milk-chocolate eyes glinted in the candlelight.

"I thought you were never coming up," she said softly.

She opened her arms. "Come to bed, darling."

Jo slipped under the covers.

Jo slid her arms around Blair's generous waist, kissed the blonde, gently at first, then deepening the kiss, pressing her tongue into Blair's mouth. Blair's tongue met hers enthusiastically.

Jo could kiss Blair for hours. Had kissed Blair for hours. Sometimes when they kissed, Jo seemed to go someplace else. It was a transcendent feeling, difficult to describe in words. It was as if her spirit, and Blair's, lifted out of their bodies, drifted into some third space, where they were united. It was beautiful … a sensation of perfect union.

The brunette felt Blair's hands cupping her breasts, Blair's fingers stroking Jo's small pink nipples.

"That's nice," said Jo. "That's –"

She yawned. An enormous yawn that racked her entire body.

Blair's hands dropped from Jo's breasts. She laced her fingers behind Jo's neck instead.

"You're tired, darling."

"No, I'm –" Another yawn racked Jo from head to toe. "Not tired," Jo finished drowsily.

Blair laughed. "We have two more nights, Jo. I want you to conserve your energy."

"Mmn. That's … maybe a good idea," Jo conceded. She squeezed Blair's derriere. "I've got lots of –" another yawn – "ideas about this bed."

"I'm sure you do, darling." Blair nuzzled Jo's neck. "We can talk all about it tomorrow morning."

"Good. Cause … zzzzzzzzzptflzzzzzzzz …" Jo began to snore softly.

Blair kissed her lover's eyelids.

"Sleep well, my love."

Blair leaned over and blew out the candles.


Ow. My head. My damn head … Ow!

Jo woke groggily. Her head felt like a hippopotamus was clog-dancing on it, a pounding, heavy pain.

Is this what a hangover feels like? She didn't drink, not much … a beer from time to time. But how can a gimlet before supper, and one-and-a-half stingers make me feel like this?

"Good morning, sleepy head," said Blair.

"Hey, babe." Jo turned, wrapped her arms around her lover. Blair felt so warm, so smooth. Jo slid her hands up and down Blair's back, felt Blair's lean muscles ripple. The heiress was anything but a jock. Still, equestrian sports and swimming had given her a deceptively powerful, toned body.

"Did you sleep well?" Blair asked, kissing Jo's cheek.

"Honestly? I feel like maybe I'm comin down with somethin."

"I see. 'Comin down with somethin' … like too many stingers, perhaps?"

Jo groaned. "I only had one, and part of another one. Why would they make 'em so powerful?"

Blair laughed. "They were like water," she said. "You only had one?"

"And, like, half of another one."

"My little lightweight," Blair said fondly.

"Ow. My head. It really hurts. And the room seems to be spinnin."

"Here." Blair gently massaged Jo's temples. "Does that help?"

"Kinda. Actually, no. But don't stop. I just love you touchin me."

"There are other, more interesting places I could touch you, Jo. Maybe that would take your mind off the pain?"

"That sounds like a good plan," Jo said. "Let's try that."

Blair kissed her way down Jo's throat and chest, took one of Jo's nipples into her mouth. Blair pressed one hand between Jo's legs, lightly stroking. She was rewarded almost instantly with a warm dampness …

Blair made love to Jo. Jo was appreciative, but unusually passive, lying still while Blair worked her magic.

"How's your head now?" asked Blair, panting.

"It still hurts," Jo admitted. "It hurts like hell."

"Jo, you didn't fall, or hit your head on anything yesterday?"

"No."

"You didn't get hit in the head or anything?"

"No. You didn't throw anything at me yesterday."

Blair giggled. OK … if Jo can joke like that, I guess she's not dying. Even so …

"I want Alec to look at your head," Blair said.

"Jackass? What good is he? I guess maybe I just drank a bad stinger," Jo said. "Or maybe I really am a lightweight."

"Alec is pre-med," said Blair.

"Babe, he's a freshman in college. Pre-med? All he probably knows at this point is how to put a bandaid on someone." She put a hand to her forehead. "Aren't there any real doctors here? Cause – ow! Shit! I feel so dizzy."

Blair sat up, genuinely alarmed now. Jo had an ingrained blue-collar resistance to seeking medical attention. She disliked hospitals, doctors, nurses, and would probably rather stumble around on a broken leg than get it looked at. If Jo was asking for a doctor, she was truly ill.

"Jo, darling, you need to get dressed."

Blair slid out of bed, went to the cupboard, found a pair of light blue silk pajamas. "Can you put these on, Jo?"

Jo tried to sit up. A wave of nausea washed over her and she sank back against the pillows.

"Here," said Blair. She sat on the edge of the bed, next to Jo, and lifted the blankets. "Scoot your rear a bit, darling …" When Jo was dressed, Blair kissed her. "I'll find someone," she said.

"A real doctor," Jo insisted. "God. I don't remember ever feelin this bad." She put her palms to her temples, pressed. "Ow."

"I'll be back in a few minutes," Blair promised, moving toward the door.

"Blair," called Jo.

"Yes, darling?"

"Uh … you should probably put on some clothes."

Part 3

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