DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com

Not Just Another New Year's Eve
By Blitzreiter

 

Saturday, December 31, 1983. New Year's Eve Day. Lake Peekskill, New York. Petal Von Schuylkill's cottage.

Jo woke before dawn in the titanic four-poster bed that she shared with Blair.

Petal had put them in the same fabulous labyrinth of a suite that she'd assigned to Jo and Blair during Halloween weekend.

Jo slipped silently from under the covers, careful not to wake her lover. Embers still glowed in the hearth, and there was a faint hissing and clanking from the radiator, indicating that it was working, but the room was distinctly chilly.

Jo ghosted to the large bay window, quietly opened the slats of one shutter.

It was still dark outside, with the faintest glimmers of a milky winter sun beginning to stain the sky above the tall pines. Lake Peekskill lay vast, dark and calm amidst the surrounding forest.

Jo grabbed a bundle of clothing that she had artlessly draped over the window seat the night before. She was still a terrible liar, but she had begun to learn some modicum of stealth and deception from her fiancée.

After walking halfway down one corridor, Jo realized she was going the wrong way. She crept back into the bedroom, and exited through a different door.

Freakin maze, Jo thought. Even though this was her second time staying in the suite, she still got all turned around. But she couldn't complain. In her book, Petal was aces to give Blair and Jo what Jo was convinced was the largest and nicest suite in the manor. Everything in the rooms was beautiful and antique, pleasing Blair's artistic soul.

Jo finally found the master bathroom, used the facilities, then jumped into the shower for two minutes, just long enough to dampen her hair and scrub herself clean. She dragged a toothbrush over her teeth.

Then she slipped into her white-and-blue Langley Lions field hockey uniform. Next season her jerseys would say "Captain". Over the shirt and shorts, Jo pulled on her dark pea coat. Even wrapped in the coat, she shivered.

Jeez, it's freezin! Can't even imagine how freakin cold it is outside!

Of course, in a few minutes, she wouldn't have to imagine … She'd know …

Jo crept back through the bedroom. Blair was a lump under the covers, a tangle of long limbs and generous bust and derriere. Stray strands of blonde hair peeked from under the white blankets. Blair's nose whistled faintly as she slept.

Before Jo left the bedroom, she cast one tender, longing look at her sleeping lover.

Sorry I gotta do this, babe. I know you ain't gonna like it … but a Lion's gotta do what a Lion's gotta do.

Jo slipped quietly from the room.

As soon as Jo was gone, Blair's nose ceased whistling.

The blonde threw back the blankets and bounded out of bed.


Jo was lost three times before she found her way to a door that led to the boathouse and docks behind Petal's manor.

The Von Schuylkill "cottage" had been built in the 1800's as a grand summer resort for nineteenth-century tycoons and their families. It was a gorgeous, rambling monstrosity of brick, stone and timber rendered with a Dutch Gothic flavor.

Dawn was breaking as Jo padded down the stone steps in her sneakers. She hadn't bothered with socks, so her ankles felt like ice cubes. There was no wind, but the icy cold of the air burned her face, her hands, and her neck – every part of her exposed to the elements.

Jo followed a flagstone path to the Von Schuylkill dock. Most of the expansive back lawn lay under a blanket of snow, but a servant had shoveled the flagstone path. The stepping stones were icy; Jo picked her way carefully to keep from falling on her ass or breaking a limb.

The planks of the dock were icy too. Jo hugged herself tightly through the fabric of her dark pea coat. Damn, it can't be more than ten degrees out! Maybe less!

A weak, milky sunlight continued to spread across the sky. The lake was a shining platinum color, smudged with the shadows of the dark pines and the naked branches of the birch and maples.

Jo paced up and down the docks a few times, teeth chattering. She had wanted to be the first to arrive – as the Lions' team captain, she felt it was important that she take the lead. But after a few minutes of shivering and stamping her feet, she started to get annoyed.

Where the hell is everyone? What am I, here for my freakin health?

Then a thought occurred to her – a glorious thought.

Maybe they decided to cancel! God in heaven, please let them cancel!

Jo cast a wary eye at the chill water …

"Ahoy, captain!" shouted Jacqueline. The slender viscountess strode across the flagstones toward Jo, Petal and Portia following close behind her.

Inwardly, Jo groaned. Shit. Guess we're goin through with it …

"Smashing morning, isn't it?" Jacqueline asked joyfully in her crisp, staccato voice. "Puts one in mind of the Scottish highlands. Nothing like a brisk dawn constitutional to get the blood singing!"

"Yeah … absolutely," Jo said, feigning enthusiasm.

"Good morning, Jo," called Petal. The tall, handsome, solid young woman, aptly nicknamed Moose, had been the Lions' captain before the team had voted to make MVP superstar Jo Polniaczek their new leader. Petal was not only gracious about the transfer of power, but had actually suggested the change.

"Why do we do this every year?" demanded Portia. The dreamy – yet fiercely intellectual – blonde was slipping and sliding on the stones in Petal's wake. "This is insanity!"

Amen! Wish I could say that, Jo thought ruefully. But as captain, I gotta set a stoic example …

Jacqueline, Petal and Portia were wearing the blue-and-white Langley Lions uniforms under their coats. Jacqueline and Portia's coats were buttoned almost up to their chins, their hands shoved deep in their pockets. Petal wore her coat open negligently; her face had a ruddy, healthy color and she appeared not to be shivering at all.

"Lovely morning," Petal said approvingly, taking a deep breath of the icy air. She stretched.

"It's too cold," Portia moaned.

"Stop being an infant," chided Jacqueline. "It's only once a year – and the last year for you and Petal."

"Don't remind me," Petal said. She and Portia were seniors; the '83 field hockey season had been their last as Langley Lions. "I'm going to miss the Lions like hell," Petal said wistfully.

"Well, I'll miss the Lions," said Portia, "but I won't miss this!"

"Honestly, you'd think you were dying," scolded Jacqueline. "Buck up – both of you! You're only graduating! You can come see the matches next year. In fact – you'd damn well better!" Jacqueline, as a junior, had one more year to play.

"Of course we'll come to the games," Petal said stoutly. "And with Jo at the helm, the Lions are sure to win nationals next year."

Jo blushed.

"Don't compliment Princess," said Portia. "You know that makes her uncomfortable." She shivered violently, tucking her narrow chin into the collar of her coat. "Frostbite sets in when your flesh reaches eighteen degrees Fahrenheit. In case anyone is wondering."

"Lefty, that's one of those horrid facts we don't need to know," said Jacqueline.

"Well, it's true," said Portia. "And it can't be more than ten degrees out! My nose is getting frostbitten – I can feel it."

"Lefty, dear, that's your imagination," Petal said soothingly.

"Ahoy the shore!" shouted Lurch, aka Anastasia Hargrove, a lantern-jawed giantess. She waved enthusiastically to the Lions already gathered on the dock. She stomped down the flagstone path to the dock, trailed by Bullet, Legs – all the Langley Lions, all wearing their uniforms under coats and jackets ...

Natalie, looking grumpy and half-asleep followed behind the Lions, Tootie at her side. Both were so warmly wrapped in parkas, hats, scarves and gloves that Jo only recognized them because she'd roomed with them for three-and-a-half years.

"Nat!" Jo called. "Toot! What are you guys doin here?"

"Article," Natalie called back. "Eastland Gazette."

"Oh."

Natalie wasn't big on sports, but she'd been swept up in the excitement of the Lions' championship season and the big, quirky personalities of the players.

Her columns about the Lions had captured the imagination of the Eastland student body, many of whom now dreamed of attending Langley to play field hockey under the leadership of their own star alum, Jo Polniaczek.

"Why is Toot here?" Jo called to Natalie. All that was visible of Tootie, under her layers of clothing, were two sleepy eyes peering out from under the furry hood of her parka and over her scarlet scarf.

"She's here for moral support," called Natalie. "Also to fill me in on what I miss if I fall asleep on my feet!" Natalie patted an enormous yawn with one gloved hand.

Tootie gave Jo a thumbs-up.

Jo greeted her teammates as they arrived, clasping their arms and thanking them for coming. Jo had grown close to the band of women in her own lone-wolf kind of way.

Jo looked from her teammates to the cold waters of Lake Peekskill.

Last chance to back out, kid, Jo told herself. You can do the sensible thing, or the brave thing.

She sighed … She would make her usual choice. I can't let them down …

"Hail, hail, the gang's all here!" Petal said gaily, when everyone was lined up along the edge of the dock. "It is my bittersweet pleasure to welcome you all to this meeting of the Langley Lions New Year's Polar Bear Club. As have generations of Lions before us, we will bid the old year adieu with a dip in Lake Peekskill. We will emerge refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges of the New Year!"

There was a hearty round of applause; everyone clapped vigorously, partly from real enthusiasm, but partly, Jo suspected, to keep warm.

Petal slipped out of her coat and tossed it onto the wooden planks. She kicked off her sneakers.

Everyone else followed suit, trembling and blowing on their hands, stamping their bare feet. They looked splendid, if half-frozen, in their Lions uniforms.

"Without further ado," said Petal, "I turn the program over to our new team captain. She led us to nationals and to near-victory there this year; one can only imagine what heights she will lead you to in 1984. Although Portia and I will no longer be Lions next year, the Lions will always remain close to our hearts. Once a Lion, always a Lion. Princess?" She made a gesture, as if passing a torch to Jo.

Jo made a bashful gesture as if accepting it.

"Uh, ahem," said Jo. Her face felt numb, the tips of her ears burned, her lips felt like they'd been injected with Novocain. "I'm, ah, very honored, as you know, to have been made Lions captain. Next year we're gonna win nationals – not on account of me, but all of us bein a team!"

"Huzzah!" cried Jacqueline. Everyone cheered.

"Yeah, so, uh, without further ado," Jo cast a wild look at the silvery water, "we who are about to be victorious salute you!"

All you have to do, Petal had told Jo the night before, is run along the dock and then leap off of it into the water. Everyone will follow you.

Jo drew a deep breath. Now or freakin never! she thought.

If she was going to do this it was best to get it over with immediately, without thinking (which is how I do all the crazy stupid shit I do)!

Bouncing up and down on her toes a few times, Jo took off down the dock at a wild pace, long dark hair streaming behind her, bare feet slipping and sliding on the icy boards. She felt a stinging pain in the sole of her left foot – friggin splinter, probably! – but ignored it, running even faster.

She heard dozens of bare feet slapping the dock behind her, felt the vibration of her charging teammates in the trembling of the wood beneath her. The delicate little silver cross Blair had given Jo for Christmas rose and fell against her chest as she ran. Dear Lord, please don't let me drown!

When Jo saw the end of the dock nearing, she sped up. Just get this the hell over with …

Suddenly there was nothing under her feet but winter air … she was flying … she had meant to drop close to the dock, so she could cling to it after she hit the water, but she was going too fast; her momentum propelled her far out over the water.

Jo felt like she had wings; she soared over the silver-black surface of Lake Peekskill. Someone behind her – Petal? Jacqueline? – cheered.

And then all was frozen darkness. It was like slamming into a wall. Lake Peekskill swallowed her.

It was unimaginably cold.

Jo was slight but her momentum drove her deep into the icy waters; everything was grey and black and confused.

She struggled, panicking. Her limbs thrashed. All she wanted was to take a big gulp of air and, of course, that was the last thing she could do.

Instinctively, Jo kicked her feet. She drove herself upward toward the sooty-milk light.

When she broke the surface, she gasped in a big lungful of wintery air. It stung her throat like a thousand needles, but it felt so damn good to breathe. She took in some water with the air, coughed, and started choking a little bit. She kicked her legs and flailed her arms and sank under the water again.

Just as Jo began slipping down, down, down into the dark waters of Lake Peekskill, she felt firm hands grab each of her arms. Something or someone dragged her back toward the surface.

Jo looked to one side, dazed. Petal was holding her left arm. Jo looked to the other side. Jacqueline was holding her right arm. Their hair billowed above their heads. Petal was like a magnificent water goddess, an undersea Boadicea; Jacqueline was like a red-haired Rhine maiden.

Kicking gracefully, they pulled Jo up to the surface, and then dragged her the short distance to the dock.

Jo clung to the dock piles, blue-lipped, teeth chattering. Around her, some Lions were dog-paddling in the water, splashing each other, laughing. Other Lions were already scrambling back up onto the dock.

Jo grinned at Petal and Jacqueline.

"Thanks, Moose! Thanks, Jackrabbit! I think you mighta just saved my life."

"Not at all, Princess," said Petal, as if she saved people from drowning every day. Even in the icy lake, Petal wasn't trembling. She might have been in a warm bath.

Jacqueline was shivering, but perfectly cheerful. "Can't let the captain drown, can we?" she asked reasonably.

"How'd ya know?" asked Jo. "I mean, that I can't swim?"

Petal and Jacqueline laughed at some shared memory.

"Blair warned us," said Jacqueline, "and I quote, 'If you let Jo drown, I will personally chop off your' – well, I guess I won't quote her exact words. Suffice it to say that she threatened to remove parts of anatomy that we don't even possess. Lovely pal you have there, Princess. I think she'd die for you."

"We know she'd kill for you," Petal said drily.

Jo was bewildered. "But how did Blair know I was gonna do this? I promised her I wouldn't."

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. "And, of course, Blair, being a complete imbecile, fell for your transparent fib? Please. I'd think you know her better than that by now."

Jo shook her head, partly in awe of Blair's intelligence and partly in dismay at her own stupidity. Yeah … you'd think I would know Blair better by now!

Jo looked around at her teammates; most of the Lions were starting to turn a little blue; even the heartiest were scrambling onto the dock.

"Do they …?" Jo asked hesitantly.

"No," said Petal. "They don't know that you can't swim, Princess. But I suggest you learn sometime before next New Year's Eve."

Jo nodded fervently. "Oh, count on it!"

Jo clambered up onto the dock, trembling, rubbing her arms and legs. Petal and Jacqueline followed her. They joined the general stream of the crowd toward shore, where their coats lay. As they walked, Petal wrapped one large arm around Jo's shoulders, one large arm around Jacqueline's.

"It's been a damned fine year," said Petal. "One can only hope '84 will be as exciting."

Jo caught sight of a very beautiful, very angry-looking blonde standing between Natalie and Tootie.

Natalie was scribbling into a little notebook.

Tootie was hopping up and down to keep warm. She gave Jo another thumb-up sign.

The blonde glared hard at Jo from under the rim of her Russian fur cap.

We are going to have word, Miss Polniaczek, said the glare. Many, many words. And you are not going to like them.

Jo sighed. She turned to Petal.

"I think I can guarantee," said Jo, "that 1984 is gonna be very excitin. I think it's gonna make 1983 look like a snooze-a-thon."

"D'you think so?" Jacqueline asked curiously. "How can you be so sure?"

Jo glanced warily at Blair again. It was a funny thing, Jo thought, now that she was drawing closer to the blonde; Blair's brows were knit and her mouth compressed, both signs that she was pissed off, but there was a proud, tender light dancing in her eyes …

"Trust me," said Jo, "1984 is gonna be very excitin. I don't think any of us can predict where the hell it's gonna take us. But it's gonna be some freakin ride!"


Among its hundreds of chamber, the Von Schuylkill "cottage" had a writing room.

Cleaned daily by the attentive staff, but largely unchanged in its furniture and décor since 1880, the room was a Victorian dream of comfortable little chairs, settees and writing desks. The desks smelled of old-fashioned beeswax polish. There was a dark green blotter on each, and the drawers were stocked with writing implements, envelopes and thick, creamy writing paper with "Von Schuylkill Cottage" printed on the top of each page next to a tiny engraved sketch of the grand manor.

Because the writing room was built in an era of candlelight and gas lamps, the narrow chamber had many east-facing windows. The windows admitted plenty of natural morning light for the occupants who, back in the day, would have been society women and their daughters, all writing notes to family, friends and acquaintances back home.

Presently the room was deserted except for one occupant; a pretty, plump, rosy-cheeked young woman with sparkling blue eyes. Usually the eyes sparkled with laughter; just now they were bright with unshed tears.

Natalie sat at one of the desks, chewing on a crimson Eastland ballpoint pen.

A blank sheet of creamy paper lay on the blotter before her.

Natalie was not writing her column on the Langley Lions' Polar Bear lark. That she had already written in her compact notebook, which was tucked safely in her blazer pocket.

Natalie was writing – trying to write – something infinitely less pleasant.

Dear Belmont, she thought, I think we both know it's over – especially you, since you haven't seen fit to return my phone calls for weeks now. I suppose I could just let you fade out of my life, but I wanted to show you the courtesy you haven't shown me – I wanted to say good bye …

Natalie leaned her head on her hands.

Bull! she told herself miserably. I don't want to say goodbye! I want Belmont to call me. Good grief, how did I get here? Proud feminist Natalie Green, raised by fiercely liberal parents … How did I get here, sitting in a writing room like a Victorian girl with the vapors, moping over a ne'er-do-well?

Perhaps if she tried an independent, feminist-sounding goodbye?

Dear Belmont – kiss my ass! thought Natalie.

It conveyed the right spirit … but was it perhaps a little too hostile?

Natalie tore the sheet of paper before her into little tiny pieces, even though it was blank. Its very blankness was what upset her.

If I can just get started … the right opening …

"Hello, Natalie," said a deep, pleasant voice.

Natalie spun around on her chair.

Belmont Keane. In the flesh. Standing in the doorway of the writing room.

Natalie took a deep breath. I will not fling an inkstand at his head …

The young actor was even taller and broader-shouldered than Alec was, with a deeper and more beautiful voice. He was casually but impeccably dressed, as always – new jeans with knife-sharp creases, a white shirt, a grey tweed jacket.

Just now he was looking adorably shy and penitent –

But he's an actor! Natalie sternly reminded herself. No "St. Elsewhere" Casanova is going to flim-flam me!

"Might I come in?" Belmont asked hesitantly.

"Since, technically, you're already in the room, that's a ridiculous question!" said Natalie. "And don't give me some aw-shucks, golly-gee routine. It's your cousin's place; you can go into any room you want. But why don't you go jump in the lake instead?"

Belmont hung his head. He sighed. He turned as if to leave the room.

"What a wimp!" flared Natalie. "Don't you have any backbone?"

He paused in the doorway. "Not much," he said ruefully, over his shoulder. "Look, Natalie, do you want to talk or not? Do you want me to stay or go?"

"What do I want?" Natalie asked. "I want you to tell me what you want. Are we dating, or not? Because I thought we were. But I need to know you're committed to it – and I need you to start returning my damn phone calls!"

Belmont turned to face her, advanced a few paces into the room. He shifted from one beautifully shod foot to the other.

"Well?" Natalie demanded, hands on her hips. "Are we giving this a real try, or what?"

He spread his hands, palms upward, in a helpless gesture. "Natalie … I am very attracted to you. You're pretty … you're funny … you're smart …"

"But?" she prompted. "When someone starts cataloging wonderful qualities, there's usually a 'but' on the way!"

"But … I'm sorry, Natalie, but I've decided to give Kim another try."

Natalie nodded, letting that sink in. His answer was on par with what she'd suspected. Belmont had gone back to Kim, the Los Angeles actress he'd once dated, and he hadn't had the guts to pick up the phone to tell Natalie.

"Kim and I … we're going to make a film together," Belmont continued. "Nothing big, just a little picture that might help me break into feature films. We'll be in New York together for several months, eating, drinking and breathing the picture; we'll be with each other day and night. If Kim and I are dating again, it will just be … easier."

Natalie snorted. She was too angry to feel hurt just now. "By all means," she said, "be sure to do whatever is easier."

"Natalie –"

"No!" Natalie held up one hand. "Please don't apologize again. It's getting real old real fast. All right, you're dating Kim now. Am I disappointed? Yes. Does it hurt? You bet your life it does! But at least now I know."

"I'm sorry I didn't –"

"I think we're done here, Belmont."

"OK." He nodded once, miserably. "I wish you the best, Natalie." He left the room, quietly closing the door behind him.

Natalie sighed. So … that was that. Well, if you had to get dumped, getting dumped for a beautiful blonde Hollywood actress, a young glamour girl whose star was on the rise, was the way to get dumped. Because how could she, brainy, witty, mouthy, chunky Natalie Green, possibly compete with a vain, empty-headed starlet?

Natalie leaned her head on her hands, and began to cry …

"Never mind that dimwit," said Tootie, hugging Nat tightly. "Long distance relationships are dumb anyway!"

Natalie looked up, sniffling. "Where did you come from?" she asked Tootie.

Tootie laughed. "Hello? Remember me? Tootie Ramsey, your best friend? How am I not going to be eavesdropping when you and Belmont have your showdown?"

"But … how did you even know he was here?"

Tootie gave Natalie a pitying look. "You still don't appreciate the extent of my investigate gifts."

Natalie managed a weak smile. "You mean your gift for snooping?"

"That's not the most polite way to put it, but, yeah," Tootie agreed.

"You know, Tootie, I'm starting to think I'm not really cut out for the whole journalism thing. You on the other hand, would make a terrific investigative reporter. Either that, or you should work the FBI!"

"Maybe I will," Tootie said thoughtfully. "Being a world-famous actress would be a great cover for a spy. I can see it now – 'Mata Tootie'! Garbo – eat your heart out!" She gave Natalie another hug. "You can't give up on your dream, though, Nat. You've always known you'd be a journalist. Remember what you always say – you're all about scoops and deadlines and newsprint!"

"Yeah. I mean, it's 'headlines', not 'deadlines', but that's always been my motto." Natalie pushed one hand through her hair, rubbing her head in an agitated manner. "And, that's fine, as far as it goes. But I don't know. Do I want to just be on the sidelines, reporting what's happening? I think I want to be more in the thick of things. I want to be making a difference hands-on."

Tootie's eyebrows rose to the top of her forehead. "Natalie Green, are you honestly telling me you're not going to be a reporter? Because of some stupid, vain actor?"

"No. It has nothing to do with him. It's … Never mind. We'll talk about it later. Right now, I am in dire need of a soda. Maybe two!" She clapped a friendly hand on Tootie's shoulder. "Tootie – we're off to the kitchens!"

Tootie shook her head dubiously. "I don't know, Nat. You can't just drink your troubles away in a sea of cola."

"Well, Tootie, I can certainly try!"


Blair had been frostily silent during their walk back to the suite. Blair had been, in fact, chillier than Lake Peekskill, although her eyes continued to shine with that fierce pride and joy.

"Warm shower. Now!" were the only three words Blair would say to Jo when they reached the suite.

Jo, teeth chattering, bones aching from the cold, was only too happy to strip out of her damp Lions uniform, on which minute icicles were already forming along the hems, and step into a steaming hot shower. Unfortunately, Blair didn't join her …

When Jo was clean and warm and wrapped in a heavy blue bathrobe, warm suede moccasins on her feet, she joined Blair in the bedroom.

Blair was pacing back and forth. That troubled line was still between her brows, her mouth was still angry. She pointed to the window seat. "You – sit!" she commanded.

Jo sat.

By now the radiator was going full blast, hissing and clanking and generating plenty of heat, and a servant had stoked the fire in the hearth, so that it was blazing merrily with a lovely wood-smoke scent.

Blair had ordered a tray of coffee. There was a cup on the little table near the window seat. It was a porcelain, gilt-edged cup with hand-painted violets, very pretty and cheerful on such a winter's day (Probably Louis the Fourteenth used to sip his café au lait outta this! thought Jo).

Jo sipped the coffee. Best damn coffee she ever tasted – rich, earthy. She sat back against the window seat. She comfortably drowsy and ready to be yelled at.

"I don't know where to begin!" Blair said. She threw her arms up in the air as she paced. "You are the most bone-headed, stubborn, reckless Neanderthal –"

"That you've ever met," Jo finished for her. "I know. I know."

"That I've ever met? That's not broad enough. You're the most bone-headed, stubborn, reckless Neanderthal in the world. No. In the universe! If your stupid Star Wars universe –"

"Galaxy."

"Don't interrupt me! If the stupid universe or galaxy or whatever actually existed, with billions and billions more people than exist now, you'd still be more bone-headed than any of them!"

"OK. You're right, babe. I can live with that."

Blair shook her fists in exasperation. "I don't want you to live with that! Am I getting through to you at all? Not only is it ten degrees outside, you decide to jump into the freezing water, not knowing how to swim, without telling anyone you can't swim! After you promised me that you wouldn't! Could you possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, be more idiotic?"

"Honestly?" Jo chewed on that for a few seconds. "I hate to admit it, Babe, but probably, yeah."

"Aaargh!!" Blair made an inarticulate sound, her hands making little claw-like motions, opening and closing. Blair glared at Jo like she was contemplating strangling the brunette.

Jo sighed. "Babe … my beautiful, beautiful bottle blonde …"

"I am not a bottle blonde!"

"Er … OK." Too soon for humor, mused Jo. Not gonna joke myself outta this. "Blair, you gotta understand how it is."

"And how is it?" Blair asked, her voice suddenly dangerously quiet.

"Ah … See, I'm the Lions team captain now."

"Yes. I know. You're responsible for leading the team. Making sure that they don't do anything dangerous or stupid."

"Uh, yeah." Why does she hafta put it like that? "See, babe, not being a jock, you don't understand it, but when you're part of a team, traditions are real important. You gotta have a kind of continuity with the teammates before you, and the teammates that are comin after you. And the Langley Lions have done the Polar Bear thing since, jeez, since 1903."

Blair didn't say anything. She just glared. Her breath came very hard through her nose.

I think she might actually kill me, mused Jo. I don't think I can reason myself out of this. Let's see how much flattery I can get out before she leaps at me …

Jo cleared her throat. "A captain has to be brave, right? A captain can't back down, even when they have a caring, loving, rational fiancée who knows that what they're doin is stupid."

Blair didn't say anything, but her breathing quieted. Jo took that as a good sign.

"So, just because I have this amazin fiancée, I can't let the guys down. I can't stop an eighty-year-old tradition no matter how amazin and beautiful you are, and no matter how much I adore you."

"Continue," Blair said magnanimously. She knew what Jo was doing … but she rather liked it.

"My plan," said Jo "was to jump off the dock right next to the pilins. And then I could just grab hold and Petal or someone strong would help me climb back up. I knew I wouldn't be in any real danger."

Blair stirred restlessly. The crease between her brows deepened.

"Because I could never put myself in danger," Jo continued hastily, "not real danger, when I had the most beautiful, perfect, understandin fiancée in the world waiting for me to return safely. I could never be so thoughtless, heedless and horrible."

"Hmm." Blair considered that. "You really had a plan?"

"I did," Jo said honestly. "I knew what I was doin was dumb, but I did have a plan so I wouldn't actually die and leave you all widowed."

"But the plan didn't work," Blair noted. "You must have, God, Jo –" she covered her face with one hand, "you went so far into the lake …"

"Babe, please, don't cry," Jo said, leaning forward anxiously. "I just got carried away when I was runnin, it was too much momentum. Babe, in all honesty, I owe you my life right now. If you hadn't figured out I was gonna go through with it after all … If you hadn't told Petal and Jacqueline I can't swim ... Thank you, babe, that's all I can say. It's only on account of you I'm sittin here right now."

"You don't have to thank me," Blair sobbed into her hands. "Of course I knew you were going to do it! You still can't lie properly. And of course I would tell someone you can't swim, idiot. Besides which I'm a lifeguard … if worse came to worse I would've pulled you out. But I was … I am very proud of you and your stupid, unstoppable bravery. I just didn't expect … When I was watching you, when it was happening, and you went in so deep and then you came up and then you … you went under ..."

"Shh." Jo pulled Blair onto her lap. She wrapped her arms tightly around the blonde, kissing her hair, murmuring soothing words. For a moment Blair stiffened – she had her pride, as much as Jo did – and tried to pull away. But Jo held fast, and Blair relaxed against the brunette, tossing her pride away for the moment, giving in to her relief.

"Blair, I'll change the tradition," Jo promised rashly. "Next year, no more Polar Bear swim. We'll do somethin else."

"Don't you dare!" sobbed Blair. "Change it? Who knows what else you'd come up with? You'll be sky diving or riding wild broncos or something ten times more reckless!"

Jo laughed. She squeezed Blair, loving the feeling of having the blonde in her arms. "Too freakin right, babe! I probably would. Not the sky divin, though. You know my thing with heights."

"Well, you'd do something ridiculous. You'd probably all jump the Grand Canyon on motorcycles or something!"

Jo laughed again. "Hmm. Careful, Blondie, you might start givin me some ideas." She kissed Blair's hair, her throat. Jo sneezed suddenly. "Sorry, babe, I –ha-chooooo!" She sneezed again.

"Well, isn't that lovely," said Blair, whisking a clean white handkerchief from somewhere – Blair always had, apparently, a dozen clean white handkerchiefs on her, at all times. She handed the scrap of white fabric to Jo, who blew her nose. "You escaped drowning, but there's always double pneumonia!"

"Blair … c'mon, babe. I ain't gonna get double pneumonia. Ha-chooooo!" Jo sneezed, then blew her nose again. "And I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. When classes start again, I'm gonna sign up for swimmin lessons. I'm gonna learn how to swim so next year it'll be – ha-choooo!"

Blair pressed a hand against Jo's forehead. "You're burning up," she said. "You've got a fever!"

Jo chuckled. "Just the fever of love," she said, running her hands up and down Blair's sides.

But Blair pulled out of the circle of Jo's arms, stood and glared down at her fiancée.

"Oh, no you don't. You're not getting me sick, Jo Polniaczek. I'm not getting influenza because you were so dimwitted as to throw yourself into Lake Peekskill in the dead of winter!"

"Yeah, well, good thing you ain't studyin to be a nurse," Jo groused, a little hurt by Blair's sudden defection. "Jeez, Babe, people get sick. Memba when you had that crazy cold? When Chef Antoine came to visit? Did I treat you like you had cooties?"

"You grew up in close proximity to all sorts of dreadful diseases," said Blair. "You have the benefit of a strong immune system. I, on the other hand, didn't have that advantage. I am very sensitive to germs – no offense."

"Oh, well, pardon me, why would an outrageous freakin statement like that give me offense? Of course I don't wanna infect my delicate little flower with my dread influenza – which by the way, I don't have. I'm not sick, I'm, I'm, ah – ah – ah –choo!" Jo sneezed so hard into the handkerchief it was amazing that she didn't blow it into a hundred little scraps.

"You look terrible," said Blair, drawing back a step. "You're so pale. I'm going to get Portia."

"You're runnin away from me!" Jo accused, astonished. "You're actually runnin away from me in my hour of need! How're we s'posed to get married? You know that thing the priest always says, about 'in sickness and in health'?"

"That's what hospitals are for, darling."

"Hospitals? For a freakin cold?"

"I'll be right back. Try not to, er, touch anything," Blair said.

"Blair!" Jo called, "you're wearin your bathrobe! You gonna run around this place in your bathrobe?"

But Blair either didn't hear her, or didn't care what she was wearing.


Portia took Jo's temperature and pulse and blood pressure with the cool, distant manner of a real doctor. She looked bored, her mind a thousand miles away.

"Why didn't Blair come with you?" Jo asked around the thermometer.

"Don't talk," said Portia.

"But where's Blair?"

"Don't talk when the thermometer's in your mouth," Portia said. "If you bite it, the mercury will poison you."

"I thought that was an old wives' tale?"

"Keep talking and find out," Portia said drily.

Jo shut up until Portia withdrew the thermometer, read it, murmured "Huhn."

"'Huhn' what?" Jo demanded. She was still sitting on the window seat. She had refused to get into bed like an invalid. So she sneezed a few times – so what? Didn't mean she was dying! Other than the sneezes she felt fine.

"Your temperature is normal," said Portia, "ditto your pulse and your blood pressure. Does your head hurt? Your stomach? Any muscle aches?"

"No, no and no," Jo said impatiently. "So I'm A-OK – right?"

"You appear to be. Keeping in mind that I'm only a Langley senior in a pre-med program, meaning that my actual medical expertise is on par with someone who watches a lot of 'Trapper John' or 'Quincy'."

"Doesn't Quincy only examine dead people?"

"You know what I mean." Portia sat down on the window seat next to Jo. "As far as I can tell, you're fine, but if you start to feel badly, take a Tylenol and go to the campus infirmary on Monday."

"Oh no – no Tylenol for me after what happened last year!"

"That was isolated to the Chicago area, Jo. And in the wake of those incidents, Tylenol packaging is now the safest in the industry. I would say the odds of your taking a poisoned Tylenol are approximately –"

"Never mind the odds. I start feelin bad, I'll take some aspirin," Jo said firmly.

Portia shrugged. "It's your funeral. So to speak."

"I gotta say, Portia, you should work on your bedside manner. It's kinda Dr. Spock-ish."

Portia lifted one eyebrow. "Thank you."

"Lefty, it ain't a compliment. I'm sayin you might wanna warm it up a little bit."

"The thermometer was cold? Or the stethoscope?"

Jo groaned. "Just skip it. You know yet where you're goin to med school?"

Portia sighed. "John Hopkins or Harvard. It's a difficult decision."

"It must be. Jeez. They both said 'yes'? Congratulations!"

"I'd rather go to John Hopkins … but that's where Gerald is going. And since he broke my heart, it wouldn't be an intelligent decision to attend a program where I'm likely to see him every day. Harvard would be a clean break."

Jo shook her head. Portia was the oddest mix of the logical and the emotional … but somehow it seemed to even out all right.

"Is everything all right?" Blair asked quietly. She was standing in the doorway, ready to turn and flee should she hear the word "germ".

"Tell her, Lefty," Jo said smugly.

"Jo's fine," said Portia.

"Thank goodness!" said Blair. She entered the room, smiling happily, and sat on a chair near the window seat. "I'm glad you'll be all right, Jo."

"Oh, I could tell," Jo said sarcastically.

"It's interesting," said Portia, "how some people can't abide sickness. It's a type of phobia: nosophobia, to be exact, a morbid or abnormal fear of becoming ill."

"Is there a cure?" Jo asked Portia, with a significant look at Blair. Blair stuck her tongue out at Jo.

"I don't know," Portia said seriously. "Some phobias can be cured by exposure therapy."

"Meanin what?"

"Meaning you surround the person with whatever frightens them. Someone afraid of snakes should hold a snake; someone afraid of becoming ill should spend time with sick people. That sort of thing."

"Ah-ah-ah-choo!" Jo sneezed mightily.

"Oh, har-de-har-har," said Blair. "Trs drôle!"

"I'm not kiddin around," said Jo, "I've got to – ah-CHOO! Ah-choo!"

"Blair," Portia said thoughtfully, "have you changed your perfume lately?"

"No."

"What about your shampoo?"

"Achoo!" sneezed Jo.

"I'm trying Prell," said Blair. "I bought a bottle before we drove up here this weekend."

Jo sneezed again.

Portia turned to Jo. "Do you use Prell?"

"Me? You gotta be kiddin! Choo!"

"Blair, go sit over there," said Portia.

"Where?"

"Anywhere away from Jo."

Mystified, Blair complied; she sat on the far edge of the bed.

"How do you feel now?" Portia asked Jo.

Jo inhaled deeply. "I feel … OK now."

"Was Blair sitting close to you when you started sneezing earlier?"

Jo flushed at the memory of Blair on her lap, Jo's face buried in Blair's abundant, thick blonde hair.

"I see," said Portia.

"Whaddya mean, you see?" Jo asked defensively. Petal knew that Jo and Blair were more than friends, but the rest of the Langley Lions were in the dark. Or so Jo and Blair thought.

Portia rolled her eyes.

"Jo, even Dr. Spock would notice the chemical reaction between you two. Besides which, this is the second time I've examined you in this suite, and the second time I've noticed that you and Blair seem to be sharing the same bed."

"We're friends," Blair said defensively. "We like to chat all night. And Jo is afraid of monsters. And, er, we're dear, close friends."

Portia rolled her eyes again.

Jo flushed a deeper crimson. Aw, for cryin out loud … An intensely private person, Jo liked to control who knew what, and when, about her personal life – especially something as personal as her lover.

"Who else knows?" Blair asked Portia bluntly.

Portia shrugged. "Who can say? I find it obvious – but not everyone is as observant as I am, nor do they have my powers of deductive and inductive reasoning."

"Yeah, yeah, that's great, Sherlock Holmes," crabbed Jo, "but who have you told?"

"No one," said Portia. "Why would I tell anyone? I have a very full life, Jo. Your sex life isn't exactly at the front of my mind all day."

"Well, for Pete's sake, you gotta keep it quiet," Jo said. "I'm orderin you! As your captain! Or else!"

"That's it, Jo," said Blair. "Nothing like a few threats to enlist someone's cheerful cooperation!"

"Hey, no one's askin you, Prell Girl! I guess nothin put the 'ah-choo' in shampoo like Prell – huh?"

"How could I know you'd be allergic to it?"

"What was wrong with your old shampoo?"

"Nothing! My hair was gorgeous! But excuse me for trying to make it even thicker and shinier for you!"

"Did I ask ya? Did I ask ya to make your hair thicker or shinier for me?"

Portia stood up. "And this is where I make my escape," she said. "See you both at luncheon."

"Portia –" Jo began, but Portia held up her hands.

"No. Don't explain. None of it is my business. But I suggest Blair stop using the Prell, or it's going to be a very sneezy weekend."

When Portia had left, closing the door behind her, Blair hid her face in her hands.

"I'm so embarrassed," she said.

"About what?" Jo demanded. "Makin me sneeze, or abandonin me when you thought I was sick?"

"Both!"

Jo sighed. "Blair … Blondie … How come when I was so sick last time we were here, you stuck to me like glue? And how come you can stand up to your parents like a lioness, but when it comes to a stupid cold, you're in full retreat?"

Blair fidgeted uncomfortably on the bed. She wanted to go to Jo … or for Jo to come to her … but until she washed the Prell out of her hair, that wasn't the best idea.

"When it's something serious," Blair said slowly, "I can be reasonably heroic. But when it's just a cold … well, I do look terrible with a red nose, don't I? You were talking about that cold I had when Chef Antoine visited … Do you remember how miserable I felt?"

"Yeah. And I remember you made the rest of us feel pretty miserable too! So lemme just be sure I got this straight: if I get the plague, you'll be Florence Nightingale, but if I get the flu, I'm on my own?"

"I'm sorry, darling. I know it's ridiculous, but that seems to be the way it is."

"But that's crazy!"

Blair bristled. "'Crazy is a strong word. It's not 'crazy'. Eccentric, perhaps."

"Babe, it's freakin nuts."

"I'll have you know my parents always slept in separate rooms when one of them had a cold."

"And look how great that turned out!"

Blair gasped. I can't believe she said that!

Jo knew she shouldn't have said it the moment it was out of her mouth. But Jo felt cranky; Blair had put her back up and she didn't want to take it back … not just yet, anyway.

"You're one to talk," Blair said angrily. "Your parents shared a room for years, in sickness and in health, and look how that turned out!"

Now Jo gasped. "Are you throwin my parents' divorce in my face?" Jo asked with dangerous quiet.

Blair knew she shouldn't have said it the moment the words were out of her mouth. But she wasn't going to back down if Jo wouldn't!

"Ha!" Blair said, with a fair stab at bravado. "Like you didn't just do the same thing to me!"

"Take it back," said Jo, an edge to her voice.

Blair folded her arms across her prodigious chest. "I will not. You take it back."

Jo gritted her teeth. "I'll take it back when you take it back."

"But you started it!"

"I started it? You started it when you abandoned me in my time of need!"

"Nice try, Polniaczek! But you started it when you lied to me and jumped into Lake Peekskill!"

"Eh, go wash your hair!"

"Go jump in a lake!"

Jo stood up. "I think I will! I think I'll go jump back in the lake. Nice and quiet under the water. You can't hear a bunch of wild accusations under there!"

"Really? Then maybe I should try that myself!"

"Maybe you should, Princess!"

"Well maybe I will, grease monkey!"

"Fine!" Jo wrenched open the bedroom door. She tore out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

"Fine!" Blair shouted after her fiancée as the door slammed.

Blair heard Jo's moccasins slapping on the hard wood floors of the suite's corridors, heard other doors being wrenched open and slammed. And then … silence.

"Stubborn, pig-headed, know-it-all Neanderthal!" Blair fumed.

She grabbed a small porcelain cupid off the night table and hurled it across the room; it struck the far wall and shattered into a dozen pieces.


One of the most beautiful rooms in the Von Schuylkill "cottage" was the library, a grand, four-story chamber with dozens of rows of books, many old first editions, accessible via tall ladders that slid along brass rails, and narrow little catwalks boasting cozy alcoves where you could curl up with the book that struck your fancy.

On the main floor were tables where one could study, with straight-backed chairs to keep one alert, and squashy, comfortable easy chairs, for getting lost in some diverting fiction. A fire crackled in the hearth.

Jo strolled around the edge of the library, hands stuffed into the pockets of her bathrobe. Jo found the library comforting. She loved books, and this was a book-lover's paradise.

"Are you going to settle," asked a deep voice, "or hover?"

Jo jumped like she'd been goosed.

Alec was sunk into one of the easy chairs, a gloomy expression on his handsome face, and a book of Tennyson's poetry in one hand.

"Alec, Christ – you tryin to give me a heart attack?"

"Of course not, Artemis."

She sat down in the chair across from his. "What are you doin here?"

"Reading Tennyson."

"No, I mean here – at Petal's."

Alec sighed. "I'm here to win back the fair Jacqueline."

"With Tennyson?" Jo asked dubiously.

"Do you have something against Tennyson?" Alec asked.

"Nah, he's great. It's just … his love stuff tends to be kinda gloomy. Don't think that'd win Jacqueline back – might even drive her further away."

"The Tennyson is for me," said Alec. "Getting my nerve up." He read dramatically from the book: "'Storm'd at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell!'"

Jo sighed, sinking back into the squashy chair. She propped her moccasins on the coffee table.

"Into the mouth of Hell … yeah, that's love," she said darkly.

Alec quirked an eyebrow. "Don't tell me there's trouble on Mount Olympus?" he asked with a sympathetic smile. "Aphrodite having a fit of temperament?"

"Aphrodite can bite my ass!" Jo said petulantly.

Alec laughed. "Come on, Artemis. It can't be that bad."

"You don't know," said Jo. "You only know the side of her where she's all charmin and goo-goo eyed."

"I don't know about that," Alec demurred. "When I was her pretend boyfriend, I was allowed to peek behind the curtain a few times."

Jo shot him a hard look.

"And by 'peeking behind the curtain' I mean I glimpsed aspects of Blair's personality that she doesn't show everyone," Alec clarified hastily. "It wasn't, in any way, a sexual reference, you understand."

"Good." Jo folded her arms across her chest. "I don't hafta kill you, then."

"Why do we do it?" Alec asked, tossing the Tennyson book onto the table. "What mysterious allure do women have? What is the secret of their inaudible siren song?"

"Eh, I think that's enough poetry for you today," Jo observed critically. "You're gettin a little overwrought, milord."

"But I mean it, Jo. Why do we let them, let them –"

"Jerk us around?"

"Yes! Why do we let them jerk us around the way they do? Why don't we tell them to go hang?"

"Women don't got the market cornered on jerkin people around," Jo said reasonably. "And anyhow, you're askin the wrong girl. Blair's the only, you know, skirt-type I ever felt this way about."

"Truly?"

Jo made an indelicate gesture. "Young Diablo's honor," she said.

"So Blair is the only woman you've ever seduced?"

"Ha!" Jo threw back her head and laughed. "Me? Seduced her? You didn't get too many peeks behind the curtain if you think that's how it happened! Blair was, she was all, she kissed me, and she was pawin me, and it was just …"

"Heavenly?" Alec guessed.

"Yeah," Jo said wistfully. "Heavenly."

Alec propped his feet on the table, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head.

"Jack seduced me," he said dreamily. "When I was in the hospital, after that bloody thug attacked us. She sat by my bedside all night, telling me what a reckless idiot I was …"

"Sounds wonderful," Jo said drily.

But sarcasm was lost on Alec as he reminisced. "She's so damn direct," he said admiringly. "Says what she means and means what she says. You don't find that much in Society. It's a rare and precious quality. Except," he grimaced, "when she says that it's over."

"Look, Alec, not to pry, or whatever, but I really think you two got a shot. You just overwhelmed her, you know, proposin so fast. You gotta hang in there. She needs to see you're in it for the long haul."

"The long haul?"

"Eh, it's a truckin metaphor. It's like," she searched for an appropriate British counterpart, "you know how you guys play cricket, and it takes five million years for one game, and nothin really happens? Well Jacqueline's gotta know you're in for the whole cricket match."

"Excuse me, Jo – did you just insult my national pastime?"

"Eh, keep your wig on. C'mon. I ain't sayin cricket's pointless, but it ain't exactly baseball."

"And a bloody fine thing it's not! You've never seen cricket played properly, Jo."

"And I can go my whole life just fine without seein that," Jo said fervently. "Now rugby – that's a horse of a different freakin color. Rugby's a real game."

"Now there I can agree with you. I played the Eton field game every year I was at school there. I was a Bully – and before you venture some snide crack, a 'bully' is a field position; it's roughly comparable to a forward."

"Huh. So you actually got off your ass and ran around? You weren't just sittin on your brains, cheatin your fellow students at cards?"

Alec flushed. He looked away.

"Shit," said Jo, "I'm sorry, Alec. I seem to be in a helluva mood today. Don't take it serious."

"No, it's just, you hit the mark, Artemis. I played a lot of cards at Eton, and I won a lot of hands. When you're stony you have to find ways to get along," he said bitterly.

"I know, Alec, believe me. I used to throw dice at recess. Matter of fact, that's how I started savin up for my bike." She kicked one of his feet in a friendly manner. "In some ways we ain't so different, Anviston. We both know what it's like to scrape along."

"That's true," he said. "Of course, everyone around you was scraping along, too. You weren't surrounded by peers who could buy and sell you."

"Oh, now, hey, I'm not gettin into a pissin match with you, milord. None of this 'mine is bigger than yours'. Both our childhoods kinda sucked."

"Agreed," he said.

They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Jo's eyes roved along the dozens of rows of books, four damn stories of books. It would be nice, she thought, to have a library like this one day! She could spend weeks in here, and never get bored …

"What about Barrett Browning?" Alec mused aloud.

"What about ol' Betty?"

"Maybe some Barrett Browning would woo Jacqueline back. Do you think? 'Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love. Yet love me – wilt thou? Open thy heart wide, and fold within, the wet wings of thy dove.'"

Jo made gagging sounds. "For cryin out loud, Alec, I ain't got nothin against Barrett Brownin in principle, but that poem is a freakin downer!"

"'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the –'"

Jo made louder gagging noises. "Alec, never mind the poetry. Don't hide behind a bunch of freakin words. Jacqueline's a sensible girl. Just show her you're in it for the long haul, that is, for the whole cricket match. And kiss her. Nothin seals the deal like a good kiss."

"And are you going to take your own advice, Artemis?"

Jo sighed. "I guess. I don't know. I mean … Blair must've been scared this morning, when I jumped in the lake."

"When you did what?"

"When I jumped in the lake. The Lions' Polar Bear thing. It's a tradition. But I can't swim, see. Which, if you spread that around, I'll kill you. Blair told me not to jump in the lake, cause I might drown. So I said I wouldn't. But I'm the team captain. So I had to do it."

Alec shook his head slowly from side to side. "Let me be sure I understand this: you told Blair you wouldn't jump in the lake, because you can't swim. And then – you jumped in the lake?"

"Well … it sounds kinda bad when you put it so starkly."

"It sounds kind of bad?"

"I'm the team captain! I had to do it!"

"I'm not disputing that, Jo. But you lied to Blair. And you did something life-threatening. And she seems rather attached to your being alive – being in love with you, and all."

"I know. I know. I'm a total jerk!"

"Well – I don't know that I'd go that far."

"But you don't know what happened after! Blair tried this stupid shampoo, and it made me sneeze, but she thought I was gettin a cold, so she ditched me! She ditched me! Afraid of freakin germs!"

Alec laughed.

"It ain't funny!" Jo objected. "What kinda wife is she supposed to be, she can't handle the common cold?"

"I seem to remember her not leaving your side when we last were here," Alec said mildly. "When you were incapacitated by the chloral hydrate. And then a head wound."

"That was different," Jo said dismissively. "That was serious."

"Jo … Do you ever listen to yourself? I mean really listen?"

"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Jo demanded.

"Yours. And hers. I'm the loudest Jo-Blair cheerleader in the arena. And I'm telling you, my dear, that this is perhaps the dumbest argument I've ever heard! You're angry because Blair only stands by you during serious incidents? Good grief! That makes my parents' rows seem positively Einsteinian."

Jo shifted uneasily in her chair. "Yeah? You really think so?"

"Don't you?"

Jo sighed. "I guess it is a little funny. I mean … her shampoo … and I'm, like, sneezin my friggin head off … and she's all, you know, 'uh-oh, it's a germ!' …"

"I'm not sure if I follow that, but as long as it means you're going to reconcile, my job is done."

"Well, you don't hafta be all smug about it," Jo groused. "I woulda reconciled with her anyway. Blair's only, you know, the light of my life, my damn reason for breathin."

"Just had to blow off a bit of steam, did you?"

"Yeah. Exactly. Thanks, ah, for lettin me, you know –"

"Cry on my shoulder?"

"Who's cryin? Thanks for lettin me blow off a little steam. You're not such a total, complete jackass like I used to think. You might have a coupla redeemin features."

Alec mimed happy tears.

Jo pegged him in the head with one of her moccasins.

"Bloody hell!" swore Alec. "One of you musketeers is going to give me a concussion one day!"

"Eh, maybe. But it ain't like it'll impair your already-limited thought processes."

Alec handed the moccasin across the table. Jo slipped it onto her foot.

"So. Guess I should maybe go find Blair," Jo said reluctantly. Wow. It really must've scared the hell out of her when I flung myself into Lake Peekskill. I wonder exactly how mad she is?

"I should find Jacqueline," said Alec. He drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair. He looked about as anxious to face Jacqueline as Jo was to face Blair.

"Or – just thinkin off the top of my head here, milord – but I could maybe teach you how to play some American football."

"Really? That might be rather cracking." Although he considered American football to be ridiculous (all that protective gear!), Alec was ready to grasp at any activity that would delay his conversation with Jacqueline.

All he had thought of on the way to Petal's cottage was how much he wanted to see Jacqueline, and what he would say to her. But the words he'd planned to say all seemed foolish now that he was actually there …

Jo sighed. "On second thought … I can't exactly play football in the snow like this." She gestured to her bathrobe and moccasins.

"Oh." Alec's face fell. "True."

"Have to go to the room to change anyhow, so … might as well face Blair now."

Jo stood up. She leaned down and shook Alec's hand. "In case I don't see you again," she said. "Just want you to know I don't think you're a total a-hole. And it has been increasinly less horrible to have you as a housemate."

"Thank you," Alec said drily. "Wait – hold up a moment." He reached into a blazer pocket, pulled out a pack of Benson & Hedges Silk Cut cigarettes. He tapped the pack against the table a couple of times, then tipped out a single cigarette and handed it to Jo.

"What's this for?" asked Jo, puzzled. Alec knew she didn't smoke.

"It's traditional for a poor devil to smoke a last cigarette," Alec said, "before facing the firing squad."

Jo laughed. She tucked the cigarette behind one ear. "I'll save it for later," she said. "For if I survive! Do I get a blindfold too?"

Alec pointed to his tie. "You can use this, if you like."

"Nah. Guess I better do this with my eyes wide open."

"Good luck, Jo."

"You too, pal."


Petal's New Year's weekend was far less elaborate than her Halloween party had been.

She had invited perhaps fifty people, all family members, friends and Langley Lions teammates.

There were few scheduled activities, and the meals were more intimate, relatively speaking, with only fifty or so guests gathered around the grand dining hall table. Leaves had been removed so that the table was only half as large as it had been during Halloween weekend.

Saturday's luncheon was a reasonably restrained affair of only six courses, including a hearty split-pea soup, new potatoes and thick slices of roast lamb with port wine sauce.

Natalie and Tootie were seated near Jo and Blair, or, rather, where Jo and Blair would have been, were their chairs not empty.

Portia and Petal were seated on the other side of the empty chairs. Jacqueline should have been next to Portia, but Jackrabbit, like Jo and Blair, was absent.

"So, is Belmont going to join us?" Natalie asked Petal as the soup course was served. Natalie tried to sound casual, but her heart was pounding. Part of her wanted to see Belmont again; part of her never wanted to see him again in her lifetime.

Petal shook her head. "They're having luncheon in their suite."

Natalie felt as if she'd just been splashed with a bucket of cold water. "They?" she asked. "You mean … She's with him. He brought her here for the weekend." The glamorous young actress … the woman Belmont ditched Natalie for …

"I'm afraid so," said Petal. "I've put them on the other side of the house from you, and if all goes well you won't see them at all this weekend. Of course, I've never yet seen a musketeer gathering where everything went like clockwork!"

Natalie's hand shook a little as she drank a spoonful of soup. Tootie patted her arm in a commiserating fashion.

"Who cares who he has with him?" Tootie asked with spirit.

"I do," Nat said dully. "I hate to admit it – but I do."

Petal smiled at Natalie. "The way to look at Belmont," she said kindly, "is like a big, friendly puppy who wants everyone to be happy – including himself. He has a very short attention span. It isn't personal, Natalie. When he's in Los Angeles, he sees Kim and he wants Kim, and he wants her to be happy. When he's in Peekskill, he sees you and he wants you, and wants you to be happy."

"So, he's in training to be a bigamist," Tootie said wryly. Her hand flew to her mouth. "Petal … I'm sorry! I keep forgetting he's your cousin."

"Distant cousin," Petal said. "He's family and I love him, but I can't defend the situations he gets himself into by not being able to choose. He always wants the best of all possible worlds for everyone – and life doesn't work that way."

Well, he made a choice this time, thought Natalie. And he didn't choose me. She felt tears threatening. I need to turn the subject …

"Where the heck are Jo and Blair?" Natalie wondered aloud.

"They're probably having sex," Portia said with a touch of envy.

Natalie spit out her soup.

She made choking sounds. Tootie patted her on the back.

"What's the matter?" asked Portia. "That's what people do, after a fight. Sex reinforces the apology and renews the relationship. Lucky Jo and Blair. I wish I were having sex with someone."

"For heaven's sake," Petal said, biting back a smile, "is that proper luncheon conversation?"

"Why not?" Portia looked about absently. "It's all in the family, isn't it? No strangers today."

"Not everybody is au courant where Jo and Blair are concerned," Petal said quietly. "And Jo won't thank you for spreading that news."

"Do you think people don't know?" Portia looked about the table again. "How dense could they be?"

When Natalie stopped choking, she dabbed her mouth with a cloth serviette. She drank some water.

"Are you all right, Natalie?" Petal asked solicitously.

"Fine, fine," Natalie said hoarsely. "But really, Portia, ixnay on the oBlairjay onversationcay."

Portia lifted her eyebrows interrogatively.

"I'm sorry," Portia apologized, "but I don't seem to recognize that Latin idiom."

"It's pig Latin, Lefty," Petal said with fond exasperation. "Natalie's just telling you the same thing I did – please don't mention Jo and Blair's relationship again."

Portia shrugged. She savored another spoonful of split-pea soup. "If you think people are that stupid, far be it from me to disillusion you. There's already a bit of a to-do brewing."

"What do you mean?" asked Natalie. "What kind of 'to-do'?"

"It's just a whisper now. But people are starting to wonder where Blair is. She's one of the premier heiresses in Society. She should have attended half-a-dozen events these last weeks, alone and with her family. Instead of which, she was nowhere to be found."

"Well, what are people saying?" asked Tootie.

"They think it has to do with Alec throwing her over for Jacqueline. The older generation suspects Blair is nursing a broken heart. But once it gets around how close she is with Alec, that he's her housemate …"

"They'll start speculating about the real reason she's dropped out of sight," Tootie mused aloud. "Especially Blair's enemies."

Tootie nodded toward the far end of the table, where a sour-faced Dina Becker sat amidst the less desirable guests – relatives in disgrace, assorted parasites and hangers-on, and those like Dina who had cadged an invite from an unwitting guest who had been formally invited.

Petal made a slight face. It never did for the hostess to look other than cheerful, but she couldn't contemplate Dina Becker without feeling irritated.

"First she finagles her way into my Halloween weekend," Petal complained softly, "and now she's crashed New Year's Eve. The colossal nerve of the girl is not to be believed – especially considering her position in Society!"

"For those of us born with plastic spoons, instead of silver, what is Dina's position in Society?" wondered Natalie.

Petal considered the question. When the soup course had been cleared, and replaced with a roasted winter-vegetable salad, Petal finally answered.

"The Beckers are an old family," she said, "they were among the original New Amsterdam colonists. But there are Beckers, and there are Beckers, if you know what I mean."

"Nope. Not a clue," Natalie said honestly.

Petal smiled. "Well, most of us, if we rattle our family tree, will see a few nobles fall out, a few rogues, and, for the most part, a whole lot of relatively ordinary people. Family heritage is like reincarnation; everyone wants to think they were Cleopatra or Richard the Lionhearted."

"Not me," said Tootie. "I'd like to think I was Sarah Bernhardt! Or Helena Modjeska! And I'd like to say Josephine Baker, but she was still alive when I was born."

"Thank you, Tootie, for proving my point," Petal said. "If there is any truth to reincarnation, it's far more likely that we were everyday people rather than famous people – but we all like to think we were famous. Family heritage is no different. Most of us would like to think we're descended from great historical figures – but few of us are."

"But you are, actually, descended from a prestigious family – aren't you?" asked Tootie.

Petal nodded. "As is Blair. But we don't make a fuss about it. One doesn't. One's pedigree is a matter of record, particularly if it's old and distinguished, so bragging is tacky."

"Like Jacqueline not running around telling everyone 'Look at me, I'm a viscountess'," suggested Tootie.

"Precisely. Which is why Dina Becker puts everyone's back up by claiming to be directly descended from Baron Piers Ernst Becker, one of the original New Amsterdam big-wigs."

"But she isn't?"

"Not remotely. Hers is a minor branch of the family. They've done well financially, without a doubt, but they're a minor twig on a mighty oak."

"But isn't that a little bit, ah …" Natalie searched for a polite way to phrase her question.

"Snobby?" laughed Petal. "Yes. And no. Society has its hierarchies, for better and for worse, but wherever you fall in the pecking order, as long as you're honest about it, there's no issue. When you lie about it, that's a different matter. It's like an Army corporal trying to pass himself off as a general. Such a charade is ill-advised, sure to be found out and borderline delusional."

"I think it's sort of sad," said Tootie.

"It is. But it's less sad when you realize that Dina has been insulting people, left and right, who have never done a damn thing to her. It's bizarre. She seems to have gone off the rails."

"Well, all I know is, if she starts any trouble with Jo and Blair, we'll finish it," Nat said stoutly.

"No lie!" said Tootie.

"Hear, hear," said Portia.

"Agreed," said Petal. "I almost wish Dina would do something outrageous, so I'd have a valid excuse to send her away today, and ban her from the cottage."

The quartet spoke in low voices; there was no way that Dina, at the far end of the table, could have heard what they were saying. Nonetheless, at that moment she cast a dark look in their direction.

Tootie shivered. "Wow," she said quietly. "That was one malevolent look!"

"She could give glaring lessons to Cruella de Vil!" said Natalie.

"So you see what I mean?" asked Petal.

"You weren't kidding!" Nat said feelingly.

"But she wasn't glaring at us," Tootie said. She tilted her head thoughtfully. "She was glaring at Jo and Blair."

"But Jo and Blair aren't here," Portia said gently, as if Tootie were, perhaps, a little slow.

"I know. But Dina was glaring at where they should be sitting. Guys … there's gonna be trouble …."


Jo was finally starting to get her bearings in the massive Von Schuylkill manor. This time, she only made one wrong turn on her way to the suite she shared with Blair.

She slipped the door key out of her bathrobe pocket and unlocked it. She took it as a good sign that Blair hadn't drawn the chain or turned the bolt, which would have locked Jo out.

When Jo entered the foyer she dropped her key in a no doubt priceless little porcelain dish on the hall table. She locked the door behind her, bolted and chained it. It was a ritual that had saved their lives during Halloween weekend, and one that she'd become accustomed to so that no one ever walked in on her and Blair in the throes of passion.

Of course … I don't know if I'm gonna be walkin into any throes of passion just now, Jo mused. Throwin, maybe … as in Blair throwin somethin at my thick skull …

The bedroom door was halfway closed. Through the open portion, Jo could see candlelight flickering on the walls and wainscoting.

OK, candlelight's a good sign, Jo thought. Nothin like a little romantic lightin to make an apology more, er, romantic.

"Blair," Jo said as she gently pushed open the door, "I'm an ass and there's no two ways about it. I shoulda told you I was gonna do the Polar Bear thing. Next time I – WOW!"

The brunette broke off, grinning appreciatively, as she saw Blair sitting naked and cross-legged in the candlelight on their expansive four-poster bed.

Jo whistled. "I take it this means I'm forgiven," she said. Then she noticed the shattered fragments of the porcelain cupid, strewn at the base of the wall next to her. "Or not," she said, suddenly doubtful. "You killed cupid, babe?"

"No," said Blair. "It was suicide. He couldn't take our infantile arguments any longer."

Jo nodded. "Infantile" … that was a fair description of their blowout. And Blair had included herself under the umbrella of that unflattering little adjective.

"Think we're ever gonna stop havin stupid arguments?" Jo asked thoughtfully.

"No," said Blair. "I think we'll always have stupid arguments. But we'll have more fun making up."

"So I see," grinned Jo, moving closer to the bed.

Jo never tired of seeing Blair's beautiful body, her long, toned limbs, full hips and derriere, taut stomach and her large breasts with their dark nipples. Blair had little sprays of freckles on unexpected expanses of skin – must be some Irish in her somewhere, Jo thought.

Blair was always so smooth and lush, wonderful to the touch –to all of Jo's senses, fragrant with a musky-and-sweet scent when she was aroused. And now, with the flattering candlelight dancing on her porcelain skin … Blair is so damn gorgeous!

Blair smiled shyly at her fiancée.

Jo climbed onto the bed with the casual grace of a feline, sitting across from Blair, slipping lean, feminine arms around Blair's waist and pulling the heiress close so that she could kiss her slowly and thoroughly.

"So – am I forgiven, babe?" Jo whispered after the kiss concluded.

"Of course," said Blair. "As soon as we talk out our feelings."

Jo groaned softly. "You called Mrs. G," she accused.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that accusation," Blair said with dignity.

"C'mon, Blair – 'Talk out our feelins'? That's a total Mrs. G suggestion."

"All right, I admit it. I called Mrs. Garrett."

"How's she doin?" asked Jo. "She got Drake at River Rock for New Year's Eve?"

Blair nodded. "She's cooking him her award-winning lobster with dill and sweet butter."

"Must be nice for her," mused Jo, "havin a little privacy for a change, without us under her feet."

"She must miss us, though," said Blair. "Who wouldn't miss us? But I'm sure she and Drake will have a lovely romantic weekend."

"Not as romantic as we're having," Jo said dreamily, nuzzling Blair's neck.

Blair noticed the cigarette tucked above Jo's ear.

"What on earth is this?" Blair plucked the cigarette, pinching it between her fingers and staring at it as if it were a repellent cockroach.

Jo laughed. "It's nothin. Alec's little joke, that's all."

Jo took the cigarette from Blair and threw it off the bed. "C'mere," Jo whispered to Blair, pulling her closer, leaning in for another kiss …

Blair pulled away, turning her head so that Jo's mouth connected not with sizzling pink lip quencher but with a mane of blonde hair. Jo didn't sneeze this time; Blair's hair was damp, and fragrant with Vidal Sassoon shampoo. Adios, Prell! thought Jo.

"Everything OK?" asked Jo, stroking Blair's naked back. "I thought you forgave me?"

"I did," said Blair. "You're forgiven, darling. And, I must admit, I owe you an apology for running out on you when I thought you were sick."

"Apology accepted," said Jo. She leaned in for another kiss … again Blair turned her head.

"What gives?" asked Jo. "Listen, that really was Alec's cigarette. I ain't been smokin, Blondie. My breath is all kissably fresh."

"Jo. Darling."

Jo rolled her eyes. Whenever Blair adopted that coaxing tone, she was going to suggest (command?) something that she knew Jo wouldn't like.

"Yeah?" Jo asked warily. "Whaddya got up your sleeve, Blair?"

Blair smiled. "In case you hadn't noticed," she said, "I'm not wearing any sleeves."

"As a matter of face I had noticed," said Jo. "You're not wearin any sleeves – you're not wearin a stitch! And nice girls don't do that unless they're extendin a pretty specific invitation."

"Jo, we are going to broaden our horizons," Blair said.

Jo grinned, leaning forward yet again to steal an enthusiastic kiss.

But Blair turned aside a third time.

"Not like that," Blair objected. "We are going to broaden our emotional horizons."

Jo hung her head. "Just shoot me now," she said miserably.

"Darling, you're going to love it. I promise. But we need to get you out of your robe."

Jo lifted her head, a faint hope dawning in her eyes.

"I've gotta be naked?"

"As a jaybird, Jo. It only works if we're both naked."

"Well … OK, that sounds a little better."

Jo shucked out of her bathrobe, and then peeled off her pajama top and bottoms, hurling them across the room.

"Now what?" she asked, suggestively waggling her eyebrows.

"Sit across from me," said Blair, "cross-legged. Like this. Our knees should touch."

"Just our knees?"

"For now. Yes. Like that. And now we put our hands on each other's shoulders. Perfect."

Jo found it almost impossible to sit buck naked in front of Blair, hands on Blair's shoulders, knees pressing against Blair's knees, without pulling Blair on top of her and making mad, passionate love. Between her legs Jo's sex tingled with urgent, electric need.

"Blair, uh, how long does this emotional broadenin take?"

"Jo, honestly – can you try to be civilized for a few minutes?"

"I guess, a few minutes, I can handle that," Jo said reluctantly.

"Well I should hope so! Are you a woman or a wild beast?"

"At the moment, I'm feelin pretty torn between the two," Jo admitted.

"Take a deep breath," Blair said severely.

Jo took a deep breath, and Blair took one too. Jo held her breath until Blair exhaled, and then she exhaled too.

"Another," said Blair. They held and then expelled another long, deep breath.

"This some kinda hippie-dippy meditation?" asked Jo. "Cause babe, I don't gotta go through all this boloney to forgive you for one stupid thing."

"Silence," Blair said severely. She drew another deep breath. Jo sighed, copied Blair's breathing …

"Now look at me," Blair said finally.

"I already looked at you. You're beautiful."

"Yes, I am, but I mean, really look at me. Look inside me," said Blair.

Of all the nutty, cockamamie nonsense, thought Jo. But she gazed at her blonde lover, trying to "look" inside her.

Beyond the blonde hair, the beautiful face, the glorious body, Jo focused on the warm, milk-chocolate eyes. They say the eyes are the window of the soul … In the dim candlelight the little green-and-gold flecks that swam in Blair's eyes were not visible … but Jo knew they were there.

Jo leaned forward, so that she could really focus on Blair's eyes. They were slightly almond-shaped. Blair was, as far as Jo knew, of German and British descent, but there was some Slav in there too, Jo thought, maybe even some Pole.

Those broad cheekbones, that proud forehead, the tilt of the dark eyes … Mona Green, Natalie's grandmother, had said that Blair was the spitting image of her fifty years before …

Looking into Blair's eyes, Jo found it easy to fall into those depths and get lost. There was such intelligence in the eyes, and confidence, and playfulness, and warmth, and underneath all of those qualities, an infinite kindness … more than a kindness …

"Aphrodite," Jo murmured.

"What did you say?" whispered Blair, looking deep into Jo's blue-green eyes.

"I said, 'Aphrodite'. I get it now. I really get it," Jo murmured. "Why Alec calls you that. You're just … you're so full of love, Blair. So much love. And your whole life, when you were a kid, your parents not payin attention to you … Babe … you must've been so lonely."

Blair's eyes misted over with tears.

Jo kissed her eyes. "I love you, Blair. You got someone now who loves you forever …"

Blair turned her face to nuzzle Jo, and then pulled back reluctantly.

"This is, ah," Blair cleared her throat, her voice thick with emotion, "this is an exercise about revealing ourselves to each other."

Jo glanced at the light brown thatch of hair between Blair's legs, the thick dark tangle between her own.

"Not that kind of revealing," said Blair. "The nakedness is just a physical symbol of our emotional nakedness before each other. We have to really, really look at each other and tell each other what we see. Like you just did – and very beautifully, might I say."

"Did Mrs. G say we should do this?" Jo asked dubiously.

"It was my idea. I heard about it on a talk show the other morning."

Jo shook her head darkly. "We gotta get you back into classes, somehow," she said. "You're gonna start rottin your brain, sittin around watchin TV all freakin day while I'm studyin."

"Shh. We can talk about that later. But right now … "

"Yeah. I got it. Emotional nudity." Jo stared earnestly at Blair. She let her guard drop. "Tell me, babe – whaddya see in me?"

Blair's eyes narrowed as she peered intently into Jo's.

"Do you want the truth, Jo?"

"Always."

"I see sadness."

Jo nodded. She drew a shaky breath. "That sounds about right."

"Profound sadness. But it's so deep down …"

"Yeah."

"Is it about … is it your father leaving your mother? When you were little?"

Jo nodded. She felt a lump in her throat, couldn't talk around it.

Blair stroked her shoulders gently.

"There's no pain like it – is there?" asked Blair. "One day you're a family and then the next … you're not. And now, with both your parents freezing you out … it's like the same thing, only worse."

Jo nodded. Tears rolled down her face.

"Jo, I've always had all this love in me, and I've never had anyone who seemed to want it."

Jo leaned her forehead against Blair's.

"I want it," Jo said hoarsely.

"It's yours, Jo. And you don't have to be afraid. Even if I'm a brat when you get a cold, I love you. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going to leave you alone, Jo."

"Well I ain't gonna leave you alone either," Jo promised.

"When I saw you jump into the water, it scared the hell out of me. My whole life I never knew what it was like to be loved, completely loved … now that I've found you, the thought of losing you …"

"You ain't gonna lose me, babe."

"I don't know. I mean, either I will, or I won't. But I can't keep you from being who you are. And you are a woman who takes insanely brave risks."

"I, uh, seem to be," Jo admitted. She brushed her tears away.

"I, on the other hand, am a woman who runs away from a couple of sneezes."

"Not even." Jo's eyes were so close to Blair's … They met each other's gaze squarely, without flinching. "Blair, you can be as scared of a few germs as you wanna be. When I think how you've stood by me … everythin you've given up, no complaints, so we can be together … Blair, you're freakin fearless."

Blair blushed.

"You are," Jo insisted. She cupped Blair's face between her hands. "I'm sorry I overreacted when you took off. Guess we both got some abandonment issues. But it's all stuff we can work through."

"I know it is. Oh, Jo. My Jo!" Blair couldn't help herself … To hell with this exercise – that's enough psychology for today! Blair laced her fingers behind Jo's head, kissed her passionately. Blair's tongue drove deep into Jo's soft mouth.

"Mmmn," Jo murmured, returning Blair's kiss with gusto.

Jo trailed her fingers down Blair's back as they kissed, along her spine, over the hollow at the small of her back, finally settling on her generous hips.

"I love you," Blair panted.

"Love you too, babe."

Blair pushed her fingers into Jo's long hair. She loved Jo's hair … So thick and soft, like the locks of a fairy tale princess … a Greek goddess …

"Here," Jo said breathlessly, pulling Blair onto her lap.

Blair made an excited little sound as their sexes met. They pressed together, damp, tingling, alive to every sensation …

Jo thrust against Blair; the blonde thrust back. Their hips rocked as they found a rhythm.

Jo shifted, lying back on the bed, pulling Blair on top of her. The brunette's hair spread in wild dark billows over the white coverlet. Blair's blonde mane spilled over Jo's face and breasts.

"Kiss me," moaned Jo. Blair kissed her lover hungrily, with a bottomless need, fingers pressing into the soft pale flesh of Jo's arms.

Jo's slender hands cupped Blair's bottom. The women thrust their hips harder, and faster, breath coming more rapidly the more excited they became.

The pleasure built between their legs until they were almost swooning. Blair felt drunk with excitement. She nipped wildly at Jo's throat, and then let her fingers drift down over Jo's swollen clitoris, stroking it with rough affection.

Jo gasped. The tough was so dexterous, so unexpected.

Jo thrust faster, rubbing against Blair's fingers, legs thrashing. The pleasure was almost unbearable. In a moment she came with a shout …

Her head fell back against the covers. Her eyes closed, her mouth relaxing into a smile.

A moment later Blair cried out, every muscle in her body growing rigid as she came; she fell across Jo, breathing hard, muscles twitching in the aftermath of her climax …

Blair pillowed her head on Jo's pert, delicate breasts. "How do you do that?" she whispered.

"Do what?" Jo asked serenely.

"Make love like that."

"Hmm. Well … I've got this really beautiful incentive … She gets me all riled up …"

Blair ran her hands up and down Jo's sides. Sleepily she kissed Jo's breasts, nuzzling one nipple.

"I get you riled up?" Blair asked, sounding bashful and smug at once.

"Uh-huhn."

"Does this rile you up?" Blair took the nipple into her mouth, gently sucking at it. "Or this?" She took Jo's other nipple between her thumb and forefinger, gently squeezing it.

Jo moaned. She pressed her damp sex against Blair's body, began rocking her hips.

"Can I take you, Jo?" whispered Blair. "I want to take you, right now. Is it all right?"

"Babe … you don't even gotta ask …"


The woods were quiet, but not silent. There was the occasional bird song, and the occasional thud of snow falling from high branches onto the drifts of snow on the forest floor.

The sound of Alec and Jacqueline's boots crunching on the snow seemed muffled in the cold winter air. It was as if the world were wrapped in a layer of pale wool. Alec could hear his heart thudding in his chest, the blood pulsing in his head.

Jacqueline had agreed, reluctantly, to a stroll with Alec. Having visited Petal's cottage often, she knew all of its trails, and chose a route that wound through the forest surrounding the great manor. They had their privacy, but they were always within sight of the house.

Jacqueline strolled the way she did everything – rapidly, with swift, decisive movements and a lot of nervous energy. Her quick little steps reminded Alec of her staccato laughter. She was several yards ahead of Alec, apparently oblivious to him.

He walked slowly, not to say ploddingly, in her wake. What do I tell her? How do I win her back?

Jo had made some excellent points, not an hour before, but somehow in the frozen air, with Jacqueline so near at hand, his brain turned to mush and he could recall none of Jo's advice. His thoughts were here, there and everywhere.

Every now and again he thought he heard stealthy footsteps behind them, boots crunching in the snow. But every time he turned around, there was no one there. I'm getting a tad bit paranoid, he thought.

Jacqueline paused in a stand of birch, putting a gloved finger to her lips to signal Alec to be silent.

She pointed; a brilliant cardinal sat on a low branch, crimson as a splotch of blood against the white snow and the bare branches of the trees.

"She's a beauty," murmured Alec.

"He," Jacqueline whispered severely. "The female cardinal is a dull brown. One of life's many inequities."

Alec removed one glove and gallantly dusted the snow off a fallen tree trunk. He gestured for Jacqueline to sit. She hesitated, but then, reluctantly, she sat down.

Alec sat next to her. "I'm no good," he said without preamble.

The cardinal, startled by Alec's clear, plummy tones, fluttered its wings and flew away.

Jacqueline glared at Alec.

"Do you know how rare it is to see a cardinal in this stretch of woods?"

"No," he said frankly. "And I'm sorry I scared that one. But Jacqueline, I've got to get this out."

Jacqueline wouldn't look at him. She broke a branch off of the fallen tree trunk. She jabbed it into the snow, began to trace little circles.

"You're spending too much time with the Americans," she said. "You've got to get it out, eh? Then I suppose I've got to listen. Proceed," she said with ill grace.

"Jacqueline, I'm no good," Alec said bluntly. "I've never been any good. I'm vain; I'm weak; I'm neurotic –"

"Wake me up when you get to your bad points," Jacqueline said drily.

"My point is this – I'm not anybody special, notwithstanding my looks, and my title. But I love you. And I think you love me. And I want you to take me as I am, with all of my abominable faults, and be my Duchess."

Jacqueline jabbed her stick viciously into the snow.

"First," she said, "that is the most terrible proposal I have ever heard. It is worse, even, than your original proposal."

"I'm sorry," Alec said earnestly. "I'm just trying to be completely honest."

"Second," she said, "I told you that I am not ready to be married to anyone – and least of all to a young man of your dubious repute."

"But if you'd only –"

"Third," she said, "I do love you, with all of your abominable faults. But you are going to have to wait for me."

Alec's face lit up; a kind of hope dawned in his eyes.

"Then … you will marry me?"

"Someday. Perhaps. And before you ask, I don't know when. Alec … you are the most mercurial person I have ever known. You have never been steady. Or reliable. You have never been a man that one could depend upon. Lately I have observed some slight – some very, very slight – signs of improvement. I suspect that you might be maturing, at long last. And if that is the case … you will have your answer before we graduate."

Alec's face fell. "You want me to wait three-and-a-half years?"

Jacqueline shrugged. "If you can't wait three-and-a-half years, why am I to pledge the rest of my life to you?"

"I understand that I need to prove myself, but – three-and-a-half years?"

"Those are my terms, yes. Alec, if we do marry, we're uniting two great houses, two ancient lineages. We can't rush into this on a whim."

"Hang our ancient lineage, and a pox upon both our houses!" Alec said recklessly. He dropped impulsively to one knee, in the snow, instantly soaking his shin and chilling it to the bone. He took Jacqueline's hand. "Jacqueline Messerschmitt, will you marry me?"

She shook her head. "No, Alec. Not for some time, if at all."

"'Struth, you're a cold woman!" He dropped her hand.

She shivered. "If you mean that literally, dunce, you are quite correct. Let's go in, shall we?"

"Jacqueline … Jack … dearest … At least tell me that I can hope. Can I hope?"

"Alec, don't be tiresome. Or dramatic. I've already told you that you can hope. But you are going to have to earn my trust."

"I shall. I truly shall."

A branch or twig snapped nearby. Alec's head swung around. Nothing … just trees, and their bare branches, and drifts of snow, and beyond them the vast lake and Petal's vast manor.

"What's the matter?" asked Jacqueline.

"Nothing," said Alec, "just a feeling. As if we're being watched."

Jacqueline sighed. "Add paranoia to your long list of faults," she said.

"I say, I already admitted I'm a trifle neurotic. 'Paranoid' seems a bit strong."

Another branch or twig snapped, this time somewhere to Alec's left. His head swung around. "There? You must have heard that!"

"Possum," Jacqueline said dismissively. "Raccoon. Some harmless woodland creature."

"Are woodland creatures harmless?" Alec asked doubtfully. "They can be very vicious, can't they, especially when they're famished. Like now, in the dead of winter."

Jacqueline laughed, a sharp, silvery sound in the cold air. "Lord Nethridge – are you afraid of animals?"

"Wild animals," he said. "As anyone with any sense is.

"Well, then, let's return to the house directly, before you are mauled by a rabid raccoon."

"Are you laughing at me, Jack?"

"A little," she admitted, eyes twinkling. She extended one gloved hand. "But let's do go in, Alec. I'm an icicle. I want a hot toddy in front of a crackling fire."

"That sounds lovely," he said, gallantly helping Jacqueline to her feet.

"Alone," Jacqueline said severely.

"Oh." His face fell.

"I need to think," Jacqueline said. "You've given me a great deal to think about, Lord Nethridge."

As they strolled toward the great manor house, Alec heard more snapping sounds behind them. He turned his head several times, but couldn't see anyone or anything. Although there was a faint flutter of red, at one point, flashing out of sight behind a thick pine.

"I think I saw your cardinal again," he told Jacqueline. "Are cardinals considered good luck?"

"I don't know about luck, good or bad," said Jacqueline, "but they are evocative of passion and love and new beginnings."

"New beginnings? Passion? I say, I like that!" Alec thought about taking Jacqueline's hand. But will it annoy her? Hang it, Jo wouldn't ask Blair's permission – Jo would just do it!

Alec took Jacqueline's hand. He squeezed it affectionately as they climbed the steps of the great house.

Jacqueline didn't squeeze his hand in return … But she didn't release it either.

That's some hope, thought Alec. Jacqueline Messerschmitt – I'll win you yet!


"Where have you been?" Natalie asked when Tootie returned to their large room an hour before dinner was scheduled to be served.

Tootie was bundled in a winter-white parka, furry white boots and a scarlet scarf. She was trembling, her teeth chattering.

"For Pete's sake," said Natalie, raising her arms in a heaven-help-us gesture, "don't tell me you've been running around outside! It's freezing cold out there! Literally!"

"Believe me, I know!" said Tootie through lips that were turning a little blue. She went directly to the fire burning cheerfully in the hearth, kicking off her boots and unwinding her bright scarf.

"What were you thinking?" asked Natalie. "Or were you even thinking at all?"

"I'm always thinking," Tootie said decisively.

"Well I'm thinking you're going to get pneumonia! Jo's jumping into the lake, you're running around the woods – does no one understand how easy it is to get sick?"

"I'll be fine," Tootie said cheerfully. She propped her feet, sheathed in three pairs of thick socks, against the fender. "Can we ring for some hot cocoa or something?"

"Hot cocoa? You need an electric blanket! What were you doing out there?"

Tootie grinned. "Just a little reconnaissance."

"Reconnaissance?" Natalie's interest was piqued. She dropped into the chair next to Tootie's and propped her own feet on the fender. "Do tell."

"Gee, I don't know," Tootie teased. She put a hand to her throat. "Maybe I should rest my voice. You know; so I don't get double pneumonia."

"Aw, I'm sure you're fine," said Nat, waving a dismissive hand. "Now dish, Tootie. What's the scoop?"

Tootie leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. "Jacqueline refused Alec again. He's crushed – but she said if he can keep his act together until they graduate, she might consider marrying him."

"Very sensible," Natalie said, nodding her approval. After what I've been through with Belmont … You want to test a man up front, not after you've already given him your heart …

"Belmont and Kim are in the parlor right now," Tootie said hesitantly. "So you might want to steer clear of there for a while."

"And what are Belmont and Kim doing in the parlor?" Natalie asked in a harsh voice.

"Admiring the sounds of their own voices," Tootie said drily. "Nat – she's awful. She's all bleached blonde, and phony, and her skin is orange from a fake tan, and her laugh – my goodness, that laugh!"

"What's wrong with it?"

Tootie laughed in a high-pitched, almost cackling manner.

Natalie shuddered. "Is it really that bad?"

"Nat, it's worse. If Belmont could even contemplate dating her instead of you, he's an even bigger ass than I thought."

"You thought he was an ass? When did you think he was an ass?"

"I've always thought Belmont was an ass."

"Well that's news to me."

"I kept my opinion to myself, Natalie. I didn't want to hurt your feelings when you were all into him. Nat, the man can act and he's easy on the eye… but he's a total loser!"

Natalie sighed. "You're right. He is. Why do I always pick these total losers?"

"You are pretty young, Nat. I think you'll get better with practice."

"So … What other earth-shattering information did you uncover?"

"One of the footmen has a gambling problem," Tootie said excitedly. "He's been selling off the Von Schuylkill family silver, piece by piece, to cover his debts."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I'm not!"

"Why were you spying on the footmen?"

"I wasn't. I was trying to listen in on someone else, but I just happened to overhear the footman calling his bookie and then his fence."

"Are you going to tell Petal?"

"I already did. She's going to have the Peekskill P.D. look into it – the real police this time," Tootie said, shuddering as she recalled the phony officer who had attacked Jo, Blair and Alec at Halloween …

"You truly are a junior Nancy Drew," Natalie said admiringly.

"You're not wrong!" Tootie blew on her fingernails, buffed them on her lapel. "But the most important thing I found out has to do with Jo and Blair."

Natalie grimaced. "Is this something I want to know? This isn't some sex thing, is it?"

"No. I mean, not directly. But Jo and Blair are still in their room."

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Like that's a newsflash! Those two are cruising toward a rude awakening. Everyone's going to start figuring it out."

"That's what I'm worried about! I caught Dina Becker staking out their room."

"What?"

"Dina Becker was hanging around near their suite. I asked her point-blank what she was doing there. She said she was looking for the kitchen. The kitchen! I ask you! … Number one, the kitchen's on the ground floor. Number two, Dina Becker never goes near a kitchen if she can help it!"

"How do you know that?" Natalie asked curiously.

"Blair mentioned it one time. Dina thinks kitchens are for the help, period. She's up to something, Nat. We've got to keep an eye on her. I got a very creepy feeling from her."

"Well, from what Blair says, she is a creep."

"No, I mean … There was something weird in her eyes. Like she's not quite right in the head."

"Do you think she was spying on Jo and Blair?"

"I don't know about spying," Tootie objected. "It's not like you can see or hear what's going on in Jo and Blair's suite from the hallway. I mean, these walls are a foot thick! It was more like Dina was, I don't know, lurking. Lying in wait."

Natalie shifted uneasily on her chair. "Tootie, you don't think Dina would actually try to hurt Jo or Blair … Do you? She wasn't carrying a lead pipe, or a heavy candlestick or anything?"

Tootie bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "No visible weapon. But she was carrying something in her hand – something small. A little box maybe? She put it behind her back when she saw me."

"A little box? Hello! That could be a weapon!"

Tootie frowned skeptically. "What is Dina gonna to do – throw paper clips at them?"

"It was that small of a box? Like a box of paper clips?"

"No. It was a little bigger. It was about the size of, you know those combination salt-and-pepper shakers? With the little buttons? My grandmother has one."

"Oh, sure. Mine too," Nat agreed. "So it's about –" Nat gestured with her hands, pantomiming the size. "What could it've been? If Dina put it behind her back, she didn't want you to see it, so it's got to mean something. Name things that are about yea-big."

"A box of crayons."

Nat rolled her eyes. "Tootie – Do we suspect Dina is going to Crayola Jo and Blair? What would an attack like that even look like?"

"Maybe Dina was going to write some mean graffiti outside their suite," said Tootie. "Maybe she has figured out Jo and Blair are together."

"OK. That actually makes sense."

"Thanks," Tootie said sarcastically.

"All right, all right, don't get your parka in a twist, Ramsey. What else is this size?"

"I don't know. A box of Band-Aids?"

"Sure. I can see the headline now: 'Brutal Basher Brought Band-Aids to the Beating'!"

"How do you do that?" Tootie asked admiringly.

"What?"

"Just come up with those headlines, off the top of your head like that?"

"It's a gift," Natalie said nonchalantly. "A precious, amazing gift. But back to Dina Becker –"

Tootie snapped her fingers. "I know what it was!"

"What?" Natalie leaned forward excitedly.

"It was a camera!" said Tootie. "You know, one of those little amateur Kodak jobs, with the flashbulb you attach."

Nat gasped. "Dina was lying in wait," said Natalie, "but not to physically hit them – to snap their picture! If Jo and Blair come out of their suite all lovey-dovey –"

"Dina will have a photo to sell to the Times!"

Tootie leaped up out of her chair. "There's not a moment to lose!" she cried.

Natalie gave her a look.

"What?" asked Tootie. "I've always wanted to say that."

"Come on, Modjeska," said Natalie, "let's go find Jo and Blair."


"I don't believe it," said Blair. "It's ridiculous."

She and Jo sat next to each other on the divan in their sitting room, Jo resplendent in her blue silk pantsuit, Blair resplendent in a winter-white Chanel dress.

Natalie and Tootie sat in the chairs across from them. They were all sipping hot chocolate poured from a fat-bellied silver pot on the coffee table.

Blair had a faint chocolate mustache above her upper lip, which, by mutual agreement reached through that telepathic communication that close friends develop, Jo, Natalie and Tootie had so far declined to warn her about.

"Why is it ridiculous?" asked Jo. "Look, when I think back to how we teased Dina at Halloween, I ain't exactly proud of myself – or you, Blair. So, yeah, Dina's a hoity-toity witch … Big deal. I actually feel kinda bad for her. You can tell she ain't had a happy life – why else be so flippin nasty?"

"What did you do to her at Halloween?" Natalie asked.

"Eh, we kinda … I met her a coupla years ago, one time me and Blondie went into the city. Dina was a bitch on wheels to me and Jesse. But Jesse was bein a jerk, and lookin back, I was pretty jerky too. So, Dina meets me again, coupla years later, at Halloween. Only I'm all cleaned up and civilized and stuff."

"I don't know about all cleaned up and civilized," Blair said doubtfully.

"Well, I wasn't a little hooligan anymore, right? So Dina didn't recognize me. So Blair and me, we kinda played around with that."

"How?"

Jo ducked her head, ashamed at the memory. "It was like, we acted like I was someone in society or somethin. Dina was goin nuts tryin to remember where we met before. She kept tryin to guess where I came from, and she thought my Pop must be a diplomat, and we just, we kinda –"

"You made a fool out of her," Tootie said distinctly.

"Yeah."

"Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo," Natalie said disapprovingly, shaking her head.

"Well Blair did it too!" said Jo.

"Thanks, darling," said Blair. "I love the way you pull me under the bus with you."

"Hey, we're in this for better and worse, babe. I go down, you go down with me!"

Blair bit back a smile at Jo's unintentional double entendre, recalling their enthusiastic exertions not an hour past …

"Let's just put judgments and blame aside," said Tootie. "Whatever you did to Dina, she is one pissed-off debutante. If you could have seen her face at luncheon, and then her expression when she was lurking near your suite …" Tootie shivered.

"Did you just say 'luncheon'?" asked Jo.

"Yes."

Jo shook her head. "This place is turnin us all into a bunch of freakin blue bloods. No, er, offense intended," she told Blair hastily.

"As someone who was born a 'freakin blue blood', why on earth would I take offense?" Blair asked with dangerous sweetness.

"Oh, no!" said Natalie. "We don't have time for this. No more fights and make-up sessions! Dina is out for your blood, blue or otherwise. If you two aren't careful, she's going to get the picture she wants and you're going to end up on the front page of the Times and the Enquirer!"

Jo shifted nervously on the divan. She leaned against Blair.

"Babe, you know I don't want that for my Ma. If we were splashed all over the press, she'd friggin die."

"I know." Blair sipped her cocoa, unconsciously extending her chocolate mustache.

Natalie snickered, covering it with a sneeze.

"Gesundheit," Blair said absently.

"What it boils down to is we need to get that camera," said Jo. "And I know just how to do it!"

"No," said Natalie. "No violence this weekend. Can we have one peaceful gathering? This is supposed to be a celebration of new opportunities, new perspectives, new hope!"

"Well, after I'm done with Dina, she's gonna need a new camera," Jo said. "Maybe a new face. Seems to me that's totally in keepin with the theme of the day."

Blair patted Jo's head fondly. "And to think – this violent barbarian is mine – all mine!"

"It's like you won the lottery," said Jo. "All the lotteries at once."

Blair laughed.

"We need to come up with a plan based on stealth," said Natalie, "not brute force."

"I can be stealthy," Jo said. "You don't last very long in the Bronx if you can't be stealthy."

"Aren't we all getting a tad bit ahead of ourselves?" Blair asked reasonably. "Let's face it – we don't really know what Becker was doing outside our suite, or whether she was actually holding a camera."

"Sure, babe – maybe it was an autograph book," said Jo. "Maybe she's the president of our fan club!"

Tootie laughed. "You never know, Jo. Maybe Dina has a crush on you – like Boots does! They're dropping like flies for Jo Polniaczek!"

Natalie cracked up.

Blair tried unsuccessfully to suppress a laugh, but it bubbled up around the fingers she pressed to her mouth.

"Et tu, Blair?" Jo asked, a little hurt. "It's that crazy someone might have a crush on me?"

"Of course not, darling," Blair said soothingly. "It's just – Becker? Having a crush? On you?"

Jo scowled.

"By which I mean, Becker would never have the good taste to fancy you," Blair explained.

"Oh. Well, yeah. That's true," Jo agreed, mollified. "Look, all kiddin aside, if Dina's hanging around our door, it ain't cause she wants to give either of us a kiss!"

"What we need," mused Natalie, "is a good old-fashioned trap. Catch her in the act."

"The act of what?" asked Jo.

"Of whatever. Then we know what we're up against. Tootie, can you still imitate Blair?"

"Of course."

"Then here's what I'm thinking. We wait until –"

"Hold on a moment," said Blair. "What do you mean, can Tootie still imitate moi?"

"It's no big deal," said Tootie.

"You can imitate Blondie?" Jo chuckled. "This I gotta hear!"

"It's nothing," said Tootie. "Blair has a very distinct speech pattern, so it's easy."

"Do I really?" drawled Blair, lifting one dark eyebrow.

"Yes, Blair – you do," drawled Tootie in an uncanny echo of the blonde's voice. Tootie even raised one eyebrow as she mimicked the heiress.

"But that's … that's …" Blair couldn't find the words.

"Freakin amazin!" enthused Jo. She clapped Tootie on the back. "Stretch, just when I think I know how talented you are, you go and top yourself!"

Tootie smiled, clearly pleased that she had impressed Jo.

"It's not amazing," objected Blair. "It's … impertinent."

"Impertinent? For Pete's sake, babe – you ain't the Queen of England."

"How long have you been doing this?" Blair asked Tootie.

"Uh … awhile," Tootie said evasively.

"Define 'awhile'."

"Babe, you should take it as a compliment," said Jo.

"You really should," Natalie agreed. "That's how it all started – a kind of tribute show. Tootie and I wanted to go to Penley Auerbach's slumber party, but we were just a couple of little kids – personae non gratae. But when word got around that Tootie could mimic the legendary Blair Warner –"

"Just how long ago was this?" Blair asked.

Natalie looked to Tootie. "Six years ago?"

"That's about right," Tootie agreed.

"Blair was already legendary six years ago?" Jo asked curiously.

"Blair Warner is Blair Warner, after all," said Natalie. "The whole Eastland campus was buzzing when she enrolled!"

"Jo doesn't understand," Tootie said. "She'd never heard of Blair until she met her."

"Not like Blair and I moved in the same circles," said Jo. "But once I met her, the impression was pretty freakin indelible!"

"Well … You were wearing last year's jeans," said Tootie, in a dead-on, snobby-young-Blair voice.

"Wow! That's amazin!" Jo laughed, Natalie and Tootie joining in.

"I'm glad you're all having such a hilarious time at my expense," Blair said drily.

"Natalie and I didn't mean anything bad by it," said Tootie. "And who could have predicted we were going to become best friends with you – the Blair Warner?"

"For cryin out loud, babe," said Jo. "It's an homage. Like a celebrity impersonation, like Rich Little or somethin. Take it as a compliment, like they said."

"You really should take it as a compliment," said Natalie. "And Tootie's 'Blair' is way better than my 'Jo'."

"Yeah. Wait. Your what?" Jo demanded.

"Her 'Jo'," Blair said sweetly. "Don't be upset, darling. Think of it as an homage."

"Face it, Jo," said Tootie, "you weren't at Eastland twenty-four hours before you became a legend, too. Natalie's impression of you got Nat and me into quite a few sleepovers that year!"

Jo glared at Natalie. "You? Impersonatin me?"

"It's all in the dropped 'g's," said Natalie. "Piece of cake!"

"Well I'm bringin down the friggin curtain on the Jo and Blair show," Jo said decisively. "You're closin out of town – namely, here. Right now."

"I told you they wouldn't understand," Tootie said to Natalie.

Nat sighed. "Look," she told Jo and Blair, "maybe it is time for Tootie and I to retire our little routine –"

"Routine?" asked Jo. "It's a whole damn routine?"

"– But we need to make one last performance," Natalie continued. "For the benefit of Dina Becker."

"What did you have in mind?" Blair asked dubiously.

"No way!" said Jo. "Bad enough Dina's spyin on the real us, without throwin the Wonder Twins into the mix!"

"Let's at least hear them out," said Blair.

"Wonder Twins – I like that," said Natalie. She fist-bumped Tootie. "Shape of Jo!" she cried.

"Form of Blair!" cried Tootie.

Jo and Blair glared at the duo.

"Your sales pitch is lacking," said Blair. She glanced at Jo. "What do you think, darling?"

Jo made a decided thumbs-down gesture.

"Look, all clowning aside, it is a great plan," Natalie said hastily.

"But what is the plan?" asked Blair.

"It's simple. Alec invites Dina to go for a walk, and then –"

"Hold up, hold up," said Jo. "You're draggin Alec into this? I'm likin this plan even less – and I didn't think that was possible! Alec's got a lot on his plate right now. He doesn't need to get sucked into our drama."

"Just hear me out," said Nat. "You're actually gonna love this plan." Jo gave her death-ray glare. "Well … you're gonna like this plan," Natalie amended. She spread her hands. "Picture Alec … Dina … and a scrap of insulting conversation …"


That night, after a sumptuous feast, Petal's guests gathered in the Great Hall under the baleful gaze of the animal heads and Von Schuylkill family portraits hanging high above.

A fire blazed in the massive hearth. Servants in grey-and-black livery circulated with trays of hot chocolate, Irish coffee, hot rum toddies and sweet, hot gin punches modeled on drinks popular in Charles Dickens' day.

The Great Hall wasn't as crowded as it had been at Halloween, since there were now half as many guests, but it buzzed with conversation as people gathered in anticipation of Petal's annual New Year's Eve ghost stories.

Tootie and Natalie sat next to each other on a priceless antique divan, both looking moody and distracted. Alec sat down next to them.

"Oh what can ail thee, dames-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?" asked Alec.

"Alec – don't call me a dame," crabbed Natalie.

"Ah. I always forget. Or, rather, you always forget that in the UK –"

"Yeah, yeah – in the UK it's great to be a dame. I just don't like how it sounds, Alec."

"Don't mind Nat," said Tootie. "Belmont and Kim decided to join the party." She nudged her chin toward the far end of the room, where Belmont was laughing with an ethereally beautiful blonde.

Alec followed her gaze. "I say, she's cracking!" he exclaimed. "Although," he glanced hastily at Natalie, "her eyes are very close together. And her teeth, ah, can't possibly be that white."

"Don't bother," said Natalie. "I know she's beautiful. Somebody," she fixed Tootie with a hard look, "led me to believe that she was a frowzy bottle blonde with a bad fake tan."

"Hey, I never said 'frowzy'," Tootie objected. "And of course I was going to make her sound hideous. That's what best friends do!"

"I don't care how unbelievably goddess-like Belmont's flavor-of-the-month is," Alec said stoutly. He put a brotherly hand on Natalie's shoulder. "You, my dear, are class. And that never tarnishes, and it never fades."

Natalie scowled. "Alec, I know you mean well, but just shut up, would you? 'Class' is just another way of saying an ugly girl has a great personality."

Alec frowned. "Natalie – you're very pretty. And I won't listen to you putting yourself down."

"Look, I'm not even upset about Belmont," said Natalie. "I mean, a little bit, yes, but I'm thinking about something else right now."

"What?" asked Tootie.

"I'm sitting here, on the threshold of 1984, trying to picture what I'm going to make of my life. And I've been thinking about my major – about wanting to be a journalist."

"Again?" asked Tootie. "Come on, Nat; you were born wearing a little fedora and a press pass. You're all about scoops, and headlines –"

"But am I?" Natalie interrupted. "I love a good story, and I like to know what's going on, but am I really meant to be a reporter or an editor? Is that the best use of my talents?"

Tootie put a hand to her heart. "Natalie, I don't think I can handle this. You know you're my soul-sister, but please tell me you're not going to Type-A this festive gathering into some kind of stress-a-thon! You've always wanted to be a journalist, Nat. My world is spinning when I try to think of you being anything else! What else would you do?"

"Anything she wants," said Alec. "She's got a damned logical, orderly mind."

"Somehow I keep thinking about those images on TV, after the Kuwait bombings," said Natalie. "All that chaos and trauma. There's so much violence and pain in the world."

"And if you're a journalist, you can tell everyone about it," said Tootie. "You can get people stirred up, so they'll try to change it."

"I know. That's what I've always planned to do – travel the world, hit the hot spots, uncover stories of the depths of inhumanity, and the beauty of the human spirit."

"Well? That sounds pretty important to me," Tootie said encouragingly.

"It is," Nat agreed. "But I don't think it's for me. When I was watching the news coverage after the bombings, I kept zeroing in on all the wounded, and the ambulances. When people are hurt, they don't need a journalist – they need someone who can give them real help, medical help."

"Ah!" said Alec. "You want to be a nurse."

"Nurses are wonderful," said Natalie, "but I don't know that I have that personality. Nurses have to spend a lot of time being patient and sweet and taking orders. Whereas, to be honest, I'm more impatient and bossy. I think I want to be a doctor," said Natalie.

"Like your dad!" Tootie said excitedly. "Nat – that makes total sense."

"I know, doesn't it? But is it the right decision?"

"You have plenty of time to figure that out," said Alec. "You have two more years at Eastland."

"One-and-a-half years," corrected Natalie. "Time is flying. Tomorrow it's 1984. Before you know it, it'll be 1994! At some point, I have to decide who I am and what I want to contribute to the world."

"There's something Eleanor Roosevelt-ish about you," Alec said admiringly. "And I don't mean the eyebrows. God's teeth, you're trying to plan the good you're going to do with your life! And what am I doing? Moping over a girl!"

"But you're going to be a doctor," said Natalie. "You're going to help heal people."

"Hmm." Alec grimaced. "About that … Pre-medical studies don't seem to be my forte. Chemistry remains a mystery."

"Hey, chemistry doesn't come easily to me either," said Nat. "But there are study techniques to get through it." She turned to Tootie, with a grin.

"A! U!" they yelled together, and then collapsed into giggles.

Alec shook his head. "Chemistry and female humor. Both deep, deep mysteries."

"Just a little joke," Nat said, recovering. "Tootie came up with it during finals last spring. It's a mnemonic device for remembering the abbreviation for gold. 'AU', right? And if someone steals your gold watch, you yell '"Ay, you! Bring back my watch.' Or something like that."

"I remain completely in the dark," said Alec.

"Look, you're having trouble with chemistry. You can get through it," said Nat. "It's no reason to give up the pre-med program."

"If it were only chemistry," Alec said ruefully. "Latin is easy, of course; been studying it since I was in short trousers. But I'm hopeless with statistics. And math. And I'm failing biology."

"How can you fail biology?" asked Natalie, baffled. "Biology is fascinating."

"It's so bloody complicated," complained Alec. "It's all schematics, like architecture or engineering."

"Well, duh, Alec – it's the architecture and engineering of the human body."

"That's just my point. I don't understand engineering, and I don't understand biology. And I point-blank refuse to cut up any animals, living or dead."

"I think you're right, Alec," said Natalie. "Being a doctor doesn't sound like your thing."

"Why don't you study music?" asked Tootie. "You play so beautifully."

"I'd love to," Alec said. He grimaced. "If only I could convince the mater …"

Natalie squared her shoulders. "I'm going to do it," she said decisively. "No more waffling and wondering. I am going to become a doctor."

"Whatever you want to do," said Tootie, "I support you, Nat."

"Hear, hear," said Alec. "Natalie Green, M.D. That has a nice ring to it. And you can patch up Jo and me – for free, of course – when people knock us about, which they seem to do on a regular basis."

"I don't know," said Natalie, "you and Jo get knocked about a lot. I might have to charge some kind of nominal fee."

"We can negotiate that," Alec said confidently.

Natalie looked across the room, where Petal, Portia and Jacqueline sat together, talking in low voices.

"I think I'll go pick Portia's brain about pre-med programs," she said. "We're a go for Operation Becker, right?"

"As soon as she arrives," said Alec, "I shall launch my part of the scheme."

"You know what you're supposed to do, right?" asked Natalie.

"Since it mainly involves my being charming, you have no worries."

"But you know you're supposed to –"

"You are bossy," Alec interrupted. "You'll make a wonderful doctor!"

"Alls I'm saying is –"

"Go talk to Portia," Alec said severely.

"Jeesh, try to help some people," said Natalie. But she crossed the room and sat down next to the pre-med student …

"Well?" Alec asked Tootie when they were alone.

"Well what?"

"What are you moping about, Norma Shearer?"

"Nothing." Tootie sighed. "Nothing important, anyway – not like careers or bombings or the fate of the world."

"Nevertheless," he prompted.

She sighed again. "It's just, I'm fifteen, and it's New Year's Eve, again, and once again I'm not in love."

"Ah."

"Stupid – right?"

"Not at all." At that moment, Jacqueline's staccato laugh rang out. Alec glanced in her direction, glanced away just as quickly. "There's nothing stupid about love," Alec said, "not when you have it … and not when you don't."

Tootie put a hand on Alec's arm. "I'm sorry Jacqueline's making you wait," she said.

"Thanks. That is to say, what?"

"I'm sorry Jacqueline's making you wait until graduation before she accepts your proposal. Sure, you have a checkered past, but that still seems pretty extreme."

Alec's eyes narrowed. "And how do you know about that?" he asked.

"Oh. Er – you told us. Remember? When we were planning Operation Becker."

"I most certainly did not," Alec said. "Tootie – were you in the woods this afternoon?"

"Possibly," Tootie said evasively. "I was a lot of places this afternoon."

"I'll bet you were," laughed Alec. "Tootie – whether Natalie becomes a reporter or a doctor or the bloody President of the United States, you should be spy. Picture a female James Bond!"

"Ramsey – Dorothy Ramsey," mused Tootie. "Hmm."

"Something to think about, at any rate," laughed Alec. "I'm sure the C.I.A. is always looking for a few good women. And imagine the romance you'd find then – dangerous, international romance!"

"International romance," breathed Tootie. "Wow."

Alec ruffled her hair fondly.

"Hey – watch the 'do!" she complained.

"Sorry."

"Well ain't this cozy," griped Jo, standing over her two friends. "Which, since you're about to throw us under the bus, Alec, doesn't exactly make any sense."

"Oops," said Tootie.

"Oops is right," said Jo. "Come on, milord – beat it!"

Alec stood up, frowning, leaning toward Jo in a hostile manner. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he demanded loudly.

Several people sitting near them turned their heads.

"Hey, calm the hell down," whispered Jo. "You don't gotta fly off the handle."

"I'm not," whispered Alec. "I'm setting up our acrimonious rift. Dina Becker just came in."

"Oh." Jo raised her voice. "Who the hell do you think you are?" she snarled at Alec in a wooden manner.

Tootie rolled her eyes. Don't quit your day job, Jo. Let's hope Dina has a tin ear for acting ...

More people turned their heads as Jo and Alec argued.

"I'm Lord Bloody Nethridge, that's who!" shouted Alec.

"Well who am I?" Jo demanded. "Some little guttersnipe?"

"Too right!"

At the other end of the room, Petal looked at Natalie. "Really? The musketeers can't attend one gathering without some type of drama?"

"They're just very exciting people," said Portia.

"It's Alec's fault," Jacqueline sniffed. "No doubt he provoked Jo. He does that – provokes one."

Natalie laughed. "Don't worry, guys. It's all staged."

"Oh yeah? How about a knuckle sandwich!" Jo yelled at Alec.

"At least, I hope it's staged," said Natalie. "Er – would you excuse me for a moment?"

Nat hurried across the room to her friends.

Alec and Jo were standing nose-to-nose, Alec leaning down, Jo leaning upward. Their mouths were grim, but a careful observer could see that their eyes were dancing with laughter.

"Guys, it's getting a little out of hand," whispered Natalie. "You've made your point. Wrap it up now."

"Eh, it was just gettin fun," complained Jo.

"End scene," Tootie said firmly.

"Is Dina watching?" whispered Alec.

"And how," said Tootie. "She's on the edge of her chair."

"Perfect. Hit me, Jo."

"What?"

"Hit me. Not hard, though, if you please. My face is my fortune."

Jo hesitated.

"Dina has to believe we're at each other's throats," whispered Alec.

"He's right," Nat said quietly.

"Dammit. I can't do it!" Jo hissed. "Stupid Alec. Becomin my stupid friend!"

"Why Jo – I'm touched," Alec said in a low voice.

SLAP!

Alec's head snapped back.

Blair had stepped between Alec and Jo, treating the young lord to a ringing slap across the face.

"Bloody hell! That really hurt!"

"That's for throwing me over for Jacqueline!" Blair said loudly. She winked at Alec. "You cad! And how dare you insult my best friend!"

"Well! I know when I'm not wanted!" shouted Alec.

"First time for everything," murmured Jo.

Alec stormed away from the musketeers, taking what appeared to be a distraught, unplanned ramble among the guests. He was, in fact, making his way toward the chair in which Dina Becker sat …

"Nicely done," Tootie told her friends admiringly. "Although Jo –"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I ain't ever gonna win any Oscars!"

"Blair, your improv was amazing. Nice timing," said Tootie.

Blair shrugged. "It just sort of came to me. I don't like seeing anyone yell at Jo – even for show."

Blair and Jo wedged themselves onto the divan next to Natalie and Tootie. Petal approached them, shaking her head in affectionate frustration.

"Anyone care to tell me what that donnybrook was all about? Since I am the hostess of this gathering?"

"We'll explain it all later, Moose," Jo said quietly. "Sorry for the hubbub. But we're tryin to fix Dina's wagon before she fixes ours."

Petal raised her eyebrows. "Becker's up to something? Then by all means, captain – anything short of murder. You may have at it with my blessing. But, my dear, rambunctious friends …"

"Yes?" asked Blair.

"Can you please allow the ghost stories to proceed without interruption? It's an old family tradition, and I don't want to be the Von Schuylkill who brings it to an ignoble end."

"We'll be good," Blair said sincerely.

"Thank you."


Alec touched his face tentatively. Blair had pulled her slap at the last moment – it had connected with his handsome, perfectly chiseled face, but the slap had sounded worse than it felt.

"You must be perfectly humiliated," Dina said haughtily.

Alec had dropped into an empty chair near Dina's, seemingly choosing one at random. As anticipated, the young social-climber couldn't resist scraping an acquaintance with an attractive English lord who had just had an angry argument with her two nemeses.

"I am never humiliated," Alec said with spirit. "Those two commoners – how could they humiliate me, an Anviston with ancestral roots reaching back to King Egbert?"

What an ass I sound! thought Alec. But the status-conscious Dina would undoubtedly be even more attracted to a young lord descended from royalty.

Dina didn't disappoint. She grinned at him – an off-putting, gruesome, grimace-like grin that he supposed was meant to be enticing.

"Poor dear," she said, batting her eyelashes. "But I could have warned you about those two. They are lower than low – trs déclassé!"

"As I have discovered," Alec agreed, sounding chagrined, "much to my dismay."

"Foolish boy. But I take it you've learned your lesson?"

"Too right!" He shuddered. "I had a narrow escape with Miss Bloody Blair Warner. Can't fathom that I almost married her."

"She wasn't always so dreadful," Dina said grudgingly. "She had promise. Once. But then she began keeping very odd company. Very odd indeed. Like that Jo person. I ask you – where, outside of a prison, would you meet someone of such low caliber?"

"I'm sure I don't know," said Alec. He smiled as if Dina had said something witty, but his well-shod foot itched to kick Dina Becker in the arrogant ass.

Standing in front of the great hearth, Petal clanked the rim of her hot rum toddy glass, drawing everyone's attention.

"My dear guests," she said, when the room's dozens of conversations were hushed, "once again we gather on the bank of Lake Peekskill, in the old family pile, to welcome the New Year with ghostly stories. M.R. James and his peers often celebrated Christmas with supernatural tales. As most of you know, my great-grandfather, who loved the James stories, decided to establish the same tradition here, every New Year's Eve. And so, without further ado, I will begin the night with a re-telling of James' famous tale, 'Casting the Runes' …"

Alec yawned. "Damned bore," he whispered to Dina. "Every British school boy knows this one by heart. I have a rather ripping idea … Why don't we explore this old place, see if we can rouse some real spirits?" He extended his hand to Dina. He smiled playfully.

Dina gasped, thrown off balance by this sudden, decidedly charming suggestion. She had been flirting with the young lord, yes – but who could have predicted that he would fall for her so quickly?

He took her hand, squeezed it warmly. "Do come along," he whispered. "Let's see what we find …"

"Well, ah, it isn't very polite, but, certainly," Dina said breathlessly, allowing him to pull her gently to her feet.

"And there they go," Nat told to the other musketeers. "So here we go."

"Give 'em a sec," Jo said softly. "Don't want Dina to see you and Tootie troopin out. She may be dumb, but she ain't stupid."

"Huhn," said Natalie, "that's a good idea. I guess you do learn a little stealth in the Bronx."

"Yeah," Jo chuckled. "A little."


Dina shivered. She didn't like the armor room. It was just like a man to take a woman to a room full of suits of armor, as if that were a romantic place!

"Isn't it cracking?" asked Alec, admiring one of the life-sized suits of Samurai armor.

He had led them to the dead center of the massive hall, among rows and columns of suits of armor throughout history, all arranged on stone pedestals. The effect was as if Alec had led Dina into the center of an ancient army.

The chamber's dim lights glinted on visors and braces and breastplates and greaves, on the tips of swords and spears and arrows and maces …

Dina shivered again. Alec was holding her arm; she burrowed into his side, as if for protection.

Alec chuckled. "Not nervous of these fellows, are you? I assure you they're empty. Only for show, my dear."

Dina looked nervously at the medieval knight standing several rows away, gleaming and menacing. Something stirred in her memory. At Petal's Halloween party, someone had been dressed in a knight's armor, startling guests as they arrived. It had been so childish … yet so unnerving …

"D'you know what I would like?" asked Alec. "I'd like to push one of these over onto Miss Bloody Jo Polniaczek! Little upstart. How dare she come between me and Blair?"

"Hah!" Dina laughed harshly. "Warner's blind, where that tough is concerned."

"Isn't she, though? I'd noticed that. And I find myself asking, what hold can that, that ickle greaser have over a well-bred girl like Blair Warner?"

Dina nodded. "You're not the only one wondering that," she said smugly.

"No?"

"No. I mean, really! Warner has all but dropped out of society! She didn't attend any holiday events – well, with the exception of this one. She's rattling around that big Peekskill house with a bunch of common or garden nobodies! Present company excepted, of course," she added hastily.

"Of course," Alec said gravely.

"Why do you live there?" Dina asked.

Alec sighed in a most melancholy manner. "You know the saying, 'Out of sight, out of mind'? I was afraid if Blair and I were apart, she'd never come back to me. So I became a housemate."

"But … I thought … you left Blair, did you not? To court Jacqueline Messerschmitt."

Alec hung his head. "Blair left me," he said. "I wanted her back terribly. But when she wouldn't come back, I turned to Jacqueline. And now Jacqueline has left me. I'm all alone."

God blind me, what a pathetic article I sound!

Dina seemed to concur. "I don't want to keep talking about you and Warner," Dina complained. "I don't want to discuss Warner, period. She's going to get hers soon, at any rate!"

"Is she?" asked Alec. Now we're getting somewhere! "How d'you mean?"

Dina tapped Alec's nose playfully. "That would be telling."

"She hurt me, Dina – terribly. And she insulted me. They hurt me – Blair and Jo. If anyone is going to make fools of them, I want to help!"

Dina tapped his nose again. "My father is taking care of it," she said.

"Is he? But aren't, are you, er, assisting him in some way?"

"Me?" Dina sounded surprised. "What could I do?"

What indeed? Alec wondered wryly.

He shrugged. "I just thought, intelligent young woman, following in the family footsteps – you might be helping your father to put one over on Blair Warner and her scruffy little lapdog." Sorry, Jo!

Dina laughed. "Scruffy little lapdog! I like that. Very appropo. Scruffy little lapdog!"

"What is your father going to do?" asked Alec.

"Daddy? Something to do with business. The Warners won't be holding their heads up so high after he finishes with them!"

Alec felt an icy finger along his spine.

Impulsively he grabbed Dina's hands. "What is your father going to do?"

"I told you – it's business. And what do I know about business? Now let me go!" She pulled her hands free of his grip. "That hurt."

"I'm sorry," Alec said absently. Business. What about business? The Beckers were bankers … no pedigree to speak of, but a lot of money. The Warners had their fingers in a lot of pies – textiles, fashion, heavy metals, precious metals, land, oil, agriculture, communication – but not finance.

Had David Warner borrowed money from a Becker bank? Had the Warner Company defaulted on a loan … or was BZ Becker maneuvering a situation where Warner Co would have to do so?

It was how the Medicis had done it … They started with finance … And within generations they were unstoppable. The power … the prestige … they were patrons of the arts, politicians, rules and popes. The Beckers were going to try to topple the Warners … not just the Warners, most likely, but other old families like the Von Schuylkills … and the Messerschmitts …

Dina was glaring at Alec as his mind raced. "Far be it from me to side with Blair Warner," she said, "but I'm beginning to see why she left you!"

Alec ignored her. He had to warn Blair immediately … And Petal, and Jacqueline.

At that moment he heard Blair, right on schedule, passing the armor room.

"And I ask you, Jo – have you ever seen such a horrid ensemble?"

"Nope! Heh-heh. Becker looked like a wilted tulip!" That sounded like Jo, albeit a little nasal.

The two young women laughed.

Dina glared down the row of armor, toward the door. The laughter faded as the young women continued down the hallway.

"How dare they!" Dina seethed. "Especially that Jo creature – what does she know about ensembles, good or bad? Well – the shoe will be on the other foot soon enough!"

Alec looked at her curiously. "Don't you, er, want to follow them?"

Dina stared at Alec as if he were stark raving mad. "Follow them? I can't abide them!"

"But don't you, that is, don't you have something for them?"

"Only utter contempt!"

By a great exertion of self-control, Alec did not strangle Dina.

Why won't she follow them? What was she doing outside their door? What was she carrying?

If Dina didn't want to follow the girls, how were they going to answer these questions?

"I want to follow them," said Alec. "Why aren't they listening to ghost stories with everyone else?"

"Who cares?" asked Dina.

"Maybe they're up to something," said Alec.

"What could they be up to?" Dina asked dismissively. "Honestly, Alec – you can't imagine what a turn-off it is when you babble on about a couple of non-entities like those two! I think I'll go back to the Great Hall."

"Not yet," Alec said a little wildly. How the hell can I get her to open her bag?

"You are very strange," Dina said, taking a step back. "I don't think I want to talk with you any longer."

Alec sighed. "Miss Becker – I'm very sorry about this."

"About what?"

"About this."

He grabbed her large, mocha-colored clutch bag out of her hands.

"How dare you!" she cried.

"I'm terribly sorry," Alec said sincerely, as he unfastened the clasp of her clutch. Dina Becker was a witch, but it went against all of his breeding to grab and open a lady's purse.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dina shouted at him. And then, to the room at large, as if the empty suits of armor were a battalion of police officers she yelled, "Help! Theft! Help!"

"I'm not stealing anything," Alec insisted, rifling through the contents of her bag. "I'm looking for a, er, for a handkerchief. I feel like I'm going to sneeze."

"Did you ever hear of asking?"

"There wasn't time!"

Dammit! Nothing in her purse seemed suspicious – mascara, lip gloss, rouge, eye shadow, car keys, handkerchiefs, a glass bottle of scent, a heavy lighter and a heavy silver-and-pearl cigarette case.

Although, funny thing … the inside of Dina's purse smelled faintly of gasoline … and it seemed to be emanating from the bottle of scent …

Alec held the bottle under his nose.

"That's mine!" shrieked Dina. She sprang at him suddenly, clawing at his face.

"Ow, dammit!" Dina had caught him off guard, gashing three deep scratches across his left cheek.

Alec dropped the clutch bag but managed to hang onto the bottle.

With his empty hand he caught Dina around her neck in a choke-hold – not tight enough to strangle her, but enough to make her slump over his muscular arm, hands and feet flailing ineffectually.

"What were you going to do with this?" he demanded. "A little bottle of gasoline? A lighter? And a couple of cheap, unmarked handkerchiefs? And what's in the cigarette case?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she rasped. "Let me go!"

"No doubt the Peekskill Fire Department will be very interested in these materials. The Peekskill P.D., too."

Dina laughed a little hysterically. "I want my lawyer," she said. "He'll straighten all this out! I'm Dina Becker, dammit! No one makes a fool of me! No one!"

Keeping his hold on Dina, Alec stooped, dug the cigarette case out of the clutch, thumbed it open. There were no cigarettes inside, but, rather a drift of black particles with a strong gunpowder smell.

"You little psycho," he muttered.

"Alec!" called Natalie. He looked up. Natalie and Tootie were in the far doorway. "What happened?" called Natalie. "Why didn't you follow us?"

"Get Petal," he shouted. "Tell her to call the police."

"They're already here," said Tootie. "They're questioning one of the footmen about some missing silver."

"Missing silver? Ask them if they're interested in attempted murder!" Dina struggled, but Alec tightened his grip around her neck.


The word of Alec, Lord Nethridge, was not in itself enough to arrest Dina. His past was too checkered.

But Dina's hysterical behavior; the fact that gasoline and gunpowder were found in her purse; the evil eye she'd given Jo and Blair publicly throughout the day; and Tootie's account of having spotted Dina outside of Jo and Blair's suite with the little case of gunpowder, all combined to ensure that the Peekskill police took Dina out of the manor in handcuffs, albeit very discretely, via back corridors and a side door.

The musketeers and Alec sat in Jo and Blair's sitting room, drinking coffee and discussing the evening's disturbing events.

Natalie shook her head. "Dina sure didn't make a case for her sanity when she kept saying Jo and Blair set her up!"

"Of course not," said Jo. "Dina keeps sayin me and Blair were followin her and Alec tonight – but everyone saw me and Blair sittin in the Great Hall durin the ghost stories! Ergo, add that with her kooky behavior, and she looks like a total nut."

"Your Jo and Blair impressions really were uncanny," Alec complimented Natalie and Tootie. "I can understand why Dina was fooled. Although Jo isn't quite so nasal."

"Hey! I ain't nasal at all!" objected Jo.

"What's going to happen to Dina?" asked Tootie. "I can't help feeling a little sorry for her."

"I don't feel in the least sorry," said Alec, putting a hand to the square of gauze Portia had taped over his wounded cheek. "Dina Becker's unpleasant and ill-mannered and she tried to hurt my, my family, dammit! I say let her hang!"

"Calm down, Lord Hothead," said Jo. "Everybody's all right. Thanks to Tootie."

"Tootie?" Alec demanded. "What do you mean, thanks to Tootie? Who got half their bloody face clawed away wrestling your attempted murderess to the ground?"

"And we appreciate it," Blair said sincerely. "But Tootie's the one that noticed Dina lurking outside our suite with something she hid behind her back; Tootie's the one that set this whole investigation in motion."

"Maybe I should join the C.I.A.," mused Tootie. "Special Agent Ramsey. It has a kind of ring to it."

"Could she really have harmed us?" Blair asked with a shiver.

"Damn straight she coulda!" said Jo. "She coulda scattered that powder under the door, poured the gasoline, lit those handkerchiefs and shoved them under. When you think about all the freakin flammable shit in here, the curtains, the tapestries, the furniture – Christ!"

Jo absent-mindedly touched the little silver cross she always wore around her neck, Blair's Christmas gift to her.

"Why would she hate us that much?" Blair demanded.

"Her mental state don't seem to exactly be firin on all pistons," Jo said. "She's probably always been jealous of you, didn't like how you were changin when you met her in the city coupla years ago, didn't like how we teased her at Halloween – I mean, look at you, babe. Who wouldn't got outta their mind with jealousy?"

"It was even more than that," Alec said. "Her family seems to have this rabid, generations-long grudge against the Warners, the Von Schuylkills, the Messerschmitts – all the old New York families. It's morbid. After hearing her father rant and rave, hearing about his hostile business plans, Dina apparently toppled into some mental abyss. I've already told Petal and Jacqueline to warn their parents about Becker's business machinations – whatever they may be. This is all far from over."

"We have to find a way to warn Daddy," Blair told Jo.

"Well it'll hafta be anonymous," Jo said with feeling. "David Warner ain't gonna believe anythin we tell him. Maybe, we can send him a clippin about Dina gettin arrested, just put a note with it, 'Becker's goin after your business next'! Somethin like that."

Blair shook her head with fond exasperation. "What 'clippin' darling? You don't think this is going to be in the papers, do you?"

"Are you kiddin? Becker tried to turn our suite into the friggin Towerin Inferno! Famous families like the Beckers and Warners? That ain't gonna make the news?"

"Of course not, darling. What do you think publicists are for?"

"Uh, to publicize things?"

"Sometimes," said Blair. "But in most cases they're on retainer to quash unflattering stories."

"How the other half lives," mused Natalie. "And, yet another reason for me to ditch journalism!"

"Unflatterin stories?" Jo asked Blair, outraged. "Unflatterin? Blair, the girl's a total psycho. She tried to torch us. That's what the first families of New York consider an unflatterin story?"

"Well she didn't actually hurt us, did she? There wasn't any physical harm done."

"Oh, none at all," Alec said sarcastically, touching his bandage again.

"It's not like a bank failed or the stock market crashed," Blair said reasonably. "It was just a little flap between some privileged girls."

"A little flap? Babe – you didn't hit your head or anythin, did you?"

"Jo, it actually works to our advantage. Do you really want Rose and Charlie picking up a newspaper and reading that someone tried to kill you?"

"Oh. OK. I didn't really think that through."

"No, darling, you didn't."

Tootie glanced at her wristwatch. "Damn!" she said.

"Language, Tootie," Natalie chided in a fair imitation of Mrs. Garrett.

"But it's after midnight," said Tootie. "Way after midnight! We missed the New Year countdown! We missed Dick Clark's Rockin New Year's Eve – and Culture Club was going to be on! And Rick James! And Barry Manilow."

"Damn," said Jo. "Just shoot me now. We missed Barry Manilow? 1984's already ruined!"

"Be nice," Blair told Jo.

Alec dropped his arms around Natalie and Tootie, crushing them in a bear hug.

"Happy New Year, Snoop Sisters!"

"Happy New Year, Alec!"

Jo cupped Blair's face with her hands. "Happy New Year, babe," she said quietly.

"Happy New Year, Jo."

Jo kissed Blair's mouth softly, an almost-chaste brush of the lips.

"Hey, hey, get a room!" Natalie complained.

"This is our room," Jo said pointedly. "And we're kickin you all out in a couple minutes. But now –" she hugged Natalie and Tootie fiercely, "lemme just say thanks for savin our lives, ya little lugs!"

"Yes. Thank you," Blair said earnestly, hugging the young Eastland women.

"Sitting. Right. Bloody. Here," Alec said. "Why I continually risk my life for you ungrateful musketeers, I do not fathom."

"Because you love us," Blair said simply. "Like you said a few minutes ago – we're family now."

"I said no such thing," Alec objected.

"Eh, c'mere, you big stuffed shirt!" Jo caught Alec in a rough embrace. "Thanks for takin Bonkers Becker outta commission – and gettin your pretty-boy mug scratched up in the process."

"Yes, Alec," said Blair, hugging him, "thank you."

Alec blushed, pleased. "Well. All in a day's work, when a chap is the strong, heroic type."

"And all the more impressive when he's just an ordinary chap like you," grinned Jo.

"Artemis, that's quite possibly the rudest thing anyone's ever said to me. Or the kindest. I can't decide which."

"Well, decide somewhere else," Jo said firmly. "Cause I wanna ring in 1984 with Blair, and this ain't a ticketed event."

"Already?" Natalie demanded. "The New Year's just begun and already there's sexual innuendo?"

"Hey, what can I say? It's gonna be a sexy year."

"Not for me," Alec said broodingly.

"Or me," sighed Natalie.

"Or me," sighed Tootie.

"OK, that's it," said Jo. "All mopey, depressed people must vacate these premises now. C'mon. Move it along. Nothin to see here, folks."

"But we didn't say our New Year's resolutions," objected Tootie.

"For cryin out loud!" said Jo.

"I'm not leaving until we've all shared our resolutions," Tootie said stubbornly.

"All right, all right – so say 'em already!"

"Some people – I'm not naming any names – but some people might want to work on their patience in 1984," said Natalie. "And their temper."

"Never mind the editorial," groused Jo.

"My resolution is to fall in love," said Tootie. She clasped her hands. "Madly, passionately in love. The kind of passionate, mythic love that Shakespeare wrote about!"

"Eh, don't go overboard on the passion, there, Stretch," said Jo. "Remember – you're still pretty young."

"My resolution is to learn more about becoming a doctor," Natalie said quietly. "And just, in general, to kind of open my eyes more and pay attention more to what's happening in the world."

"A very noble goal," Blair said approvingly.

"And my goal," said Alec, "is to stop being attacked every five bloody minutes!"

"Forget it," said Jo. "Long as you're hangin around with us, you better make sure your Blue Cross policy is up-to-date!"

"What's your goal?" Blair asked Jo.

Jo slipped her arms around Blair's waist. "To keep studyin hard," she said softly. "So you're proud of me."

"I'm always proud of you," murmured Blair.

"Yeah, I know … But with the sacrifices you're makin –"

"They aren't sacrifices, Jo. They're investments in our future."

"Be that as it may," Jo kissed Blair's forehead, "I'm gonna try to keep bein worthy of all that faith you got in me."

"I love you, Jo." Blair nuzzled Jo's neck.

"Love you too, babe. Love you forever and back."

Alec cleared his throat.

He put one hand on Natalie's shoulder and one hand on Tootie's.

"Let's give Artemis and Aphrodite their privacy," he said firmly.

"But Blair didn't share her resolution," Tootie objected.

"Never mind," said Alec, guiding Natalie and Tootie from the room.

"Blair, what's your resolution?" Tootie called from the corridor.

"To be worthy of Jo!" Blair shouted.

"To be surly and slow?" Tootie called incredulously.

"No – worthy of Jo!" shouted Blair.

But in the far distance Jo and Blair heard the suite door close.

"Let's go lock it," Blair said.

"Of course."

They locked and bolted and chained the door to the suite. Blair burrowed into the circle of Jo's arms.

"It really scares me," she said, "what Dina was planning to do."

"I know. Me too," Jo admitted.

"We were such good friends when we were small," said Blair. "I don't know what happened to her."

"Some people just snap their twig, babe. And your world, gotta say – it's a pretty intense place."

"I remember when we were five, we played princess," said Blair. "Princesses at the ball."

"See, that's a nice memory," said Jo. She kissed Blair's hair. "Think of stuff like that. That's what you wanna remember."

"Jo?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Can you carry me to the bed?"

Jo lifted Blair into her arms. "Happy 1984!"

The End

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