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SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 – 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
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The One That I Want
Early September, 1984. Langley College, Peekskill, New York.
In the Langley Art Center, a Dutch Gothic monstrosity of red and grey stone, in the oval gallery at the very top of the building, Jo Polniaczek sat on a bench in front of a large canvas depicting the goddess Artemis.
Artemis was glorious, fiercely feminine, and nearly nude. The artist had portrayed her from behind, the huntress' leanly lovely muscles tensed in that moment just before she let her arrow fly. The goddess was draped in a barely-there gossamer tunic woven, seemingly, of twilight mist. She was the epitome of feminine strength and beauty.
It was an astonishing painting, richly detailed; that was why it had taken first prize at the Langley College Annual Art Gala last February. The canvas was encased in a heavy gold frame, and below it was a simple but elegant bronze plaque that read:
"'The Huntress'. First Prize. Langley College Annual Art Gala. February 14, 1984. Artist: Blair Warner."
Jo grinned her crooked little grin as she regarded the painting. She shook her head. Whenever she saw the painting, she was reminded anew of how amazing Blair was, and was astonished anew that Blair had fallen in love with her her, Jo Polniaczek from the Bronx.
What a mismatch it seemed fabulously wealthy, privileged Blair Warner and rough-around-the-edges scholarship student Jo Polniaczek. But they were so much more than their obvious differences.
Beneath the superficial debutante routine that Blair had learned at her mother's knee, the heiress was an intensely observant, loving and talented woman. Blair saw with her eyes and with her heart. How else could anyone explain the masterpiece that she had wrought here?
Blair had taken Jo, her lover and fiancée, as a model for Artemis. In the painting, Blair had captured not only Jo's anatomy, but her spirit, her essential Jo-ness
Jo was startled by a gentle kiss on her cheek.
Blair sat down next to her on the bench. Jo darted a glance around the vast gallery but
"Don't worry, we're alone," Blair said quietly. She kissed Jo's cheek again. "Happy Anniversary, darling."
"Happy Anniversary," grinned Jo.
Jo slipped one of her beautiful hands into Blair's hand, twined her fingers with the blonde's.
Blair raised her eyebrows. "Do we dare hold hands?" she asked.
"Why not? You just said the coast is clear, babe."
"I know, but it's I'm afraid that we might get to talking, darling, and forget we're holding hands. And then some bitter old instructor will wander over here, on soft-soled shoes "
"And we'll be booted out of Langley as degenerates." Jo sighed.
Blair smoothed a dark tendril of hair back from Jo's forehead. "We shouldn't anger the Fates, darling. Not when everything is finally, finally going well. Let's not get Langley's Scholar-Athlete of the Year booted out of Langley on a morals infraction. And let's not get me booted, now that I'm enrolled again."
Jo reluctantly withdrew her hand from Blair's.
"Morals infraction," snorted Jo. "We love each other. Why is that the crime of the century?"
"It isn't," Blair said gently. "But Langley is a conservative institution."
"Do tell! I hadn't freakin noticed!"
"Shhh." Blair cupped Jo's face with her perfectly manicured fingers, leaned forward, kissed her fiancée with incredible tenderness.
Jo returned the kiss.
"I'm sorry," said Jo. "I didn't mean to be a downer, babe. I was actually in a real good mood till I started thinkin just now about how we gotta lie again now we're back at school. Bein so open in Italy this summer, bein able to be so open at River Rock, with our friends I don't know, with classes and practice startin up, suddenly we gotta pretend again. We gotta pretend we ain't crazy about each other. And that feels nuts."
"I know. But it won't always be this way."
"Damn right it won't," Jo said with spirit. "It ain't OK. It ain't OK we gotta lie about this. Someone's gotta do somethin."
"My beautiful crusader." The blonde ruffled Jo's hair. "I think Italy spoiled us," Blair said in a rueful tone.
"Italy opened our eyes," Jo corrected. She moved restlessly, throwing off her dour mood by sheer force of will. "All right, enough of my doom and gloom, babe. Did you get registered? I mean, officially registered?"
Blair smiled. It was one of her dazzlers. Her dark, beautiful doe eyes sparkled. "Yes, Jo your fiancée is now officially re-enrolled in prestigious Langley College. You are no longer engaged to a slacking ignoramus."
"Phew! Cause, you know, if you didn't enroll, well, I was gonna hafta give you the boot, gorgeous."
Blair raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Yup." Jo nodded somberly, but her eyes twinkled with mischief. "I ain't gonna be some kinda sugar-mamma, Blair, while you're loungin around like some kinda kept woman."
Blair snuggled closer to Jo, almost climbing onto her lap. "Are you sure?" Blair teased. "Because I think I might make a very good kept woman." She leaned forward and nipped at Jo's earlobe.
Damn, that feels wonderful, thought Jo. But she glanced about nervously. "Blair, for cryin out loud you said it yourself, anyone could freakin walk in here and "
"All right, darling, all right. Point taken," laughed Blair, scooting back to her side of the bench. She smiled at her lover. "You know, Jo you're kind of cute when you're flustered."
"Who said I was flustered?" Jo asked defensively. "I just don't want us to get expelled."
"Well I'm over here now, out of harm's way. Calm down, Jo. Don't have a stroke."
"Who's havin a stroke? I just don't think you oughta be cuddlin up to me on my lap bitin my ear and stuff right here in public."
"And I agree," Blair said. "I think I can restrain myself until we get home."
"So, uh," Jo cleared her throat. When Blair had climbed onto her lap and bitten her ear it had shot a jolt of electricity between Jo's legs. Of course, Blair could do that even without climbing onto her lap and biting her. Blair could do that with a bewitching smile, a glance, the slightest touch
"Were you going to say something, Jo?" Blair asked, biting back a smile.
"Um, I think so But I forget what I was gonna ask. Oh. Yeah. Did you enroll in the art program?"
"Yes. You are now engaged to a Langley Art major." Blair glanced up at her portrait of Artemis. "To be honest, darling, I'm excited but I'm a little frightened."
"Of what?" asked Jo. Sometimes she and Blair could communicate without words, but sometimes Blair mystified her. "You know you're gonna kick ass. I mean, jeez, Blair," Jo gestured to the painting, "the woman that painted that what the hell could you be scared of?"
Blair shrugged. She looked oddly shy. "I don't know if I can ever create anything that good again, Jo. Ever," she said.
"Eh, that's just nerves," Jo said dismissively. "You creative types are so high-strung. Babe, you are gonna just keep gettin better and better. You are truly freakin talented."
Blair felt her heart flutter. Praise from Jo was so precious. "Am I?"
"But, I mean, am I really?"
Now it was Jo's turn to bite back a smile. It was both adorable and maddening, she reflected, how much reassurance Blair needed at times.
"Blair," Jo said kindly, "just before you came in I was literally sittin here thinkin I can't believe such a talented woman wants to marry me."
"Well bless you for that!" Blair gave Jo a quick peck on the cheek.
"Yep." Jo smiled her million-watt smile at her lover. She could never resist teasing Blair. "I was sittin here, wonderin how I lucked out with such a talented, brilliant, insecure, neurotic, irrational Ow!" Jo laughed as Blair pinched her shoulder. "And, let me add, violent fiancée."
"I'm only violent when you provoke me," Blair objected.
"Eh, that's your defense, huh? Blame the victim?"
"Poor baby." Blair lovingly stroked the shoulder she'd just pinched. "There? Is that better?"
"Gettin there," said Jo.
"Well just wait until we're alone later," Blair murmured, resisting the impulse to slide onto Jo's lap again and wrap her arms around the beautiful brunette. "I'll get you wherever you want to go, darling."
Jo smiled again, her shy, slightly goofy, crooked smile. Blair couldn't resist leaning forward and giving her lover a quick peck on the mouth.
"In fact," Blair said, voice growing husky, dark eyes gazing intently into Jo's blue-green eyes, "while it's very sweet that you wanted us to meet here, I think it's time for us to go home and formally begin the anniversary festivities. In private."
Jo felt a little lightheaded. Just from her lookin at me. Just from her talkin to me, I get all goofy, like in some romance novel
Jo took a deep breath. "Blair I had I had this kind of idea "
Blair nodded encouragingly. "What is it, Jo? Believe me when I say that I'm game for anything tonight. Anything."
Jo swallowed. Hard. Blair had never been shy about her body, or sex. Bein game for anythin Jeez! That opens up a lotta interestin thoughts
"Uh Wow. That sounds very intriguin, babe. But I don't know if you're gonna be up for this."
"You won't know until you ask, darling." Blair's smile could only be described as frankly wicked.
"See, uh " Jo cleared her throat. "See, a year ago today, you picked me up at the train station. And you drove us around a while and then I drove us around awhile and we finally admitted to each other that we had these feelins for each other. And we had no idea back then where it would lead."
Blair stirred a little restlessly. "Yes, darling. I was there, if you recall."
"But see, that's just it. You weren't there not that night. You had to leave that evenin remember? You had to go have dinner with your pop and then you stayed over at your mother's. And I couldn't get into my dorm, cause Pop's check bounced, so I hadda sleep in your truck "
Blair made a little gasping sound. She took Jo's hands. "I'd forgotten that part. My poor darling! I still remember how adorable you looked, curled up in the cab of the truck, like a little waif."
Jo rolled her eyes. "For cryin out loud, Blair it's not like I was Oliver Twist!"
"Eh, it was no big deal. I've slept rougher than sleepin in your truck, even when I was a kid. That truck is practically the freakin Plaza compared to some of the places I've had to bunk. But what I'm gettin at, babe, is that first night, we were apart, right? Thinkin our different thoughts, and, you know, mullin it over, thinkin about our feelins. It wasn't till the next night that we, you know "
Jo felt herself blush, and then she blushed deeper, embarrassed at blushing. It was silly, she knew after a year of making love to this amazing woman, of forging deeper and deeper levels of emotional and sexual intimacy, how could it still make her bashful, thinking of their first time together? But it did.
Blair brought Jo's hands to her lips and kissed them. Her eyes shone.
"I love that thinking about our first time still makes you blush," Blair said quietly.
Jo shrugged. "I don't get why it does."
Blair kissed her fingers. "When you think about it, darling, it's like you're back there. It's like you live it all over again, and you feel what you felt. You were so shy "
"I was scared. So excited but so freakin scared."
"And that's partly what made it so beautiful, Jo."
"I only could do it because because I always feel so safe with you, babe. You're the only one, you know, that I can, I don't feel like I hafta be on guard, even when I'm terrified. You weren't scared, were you, babe?"
Blair shook her head. "Not even a little bit," she said candidly. "Jo I'd loved you for so long. I wanted you so much. Being with you was my dream come true. I didn't get scared until after. When I had you, and then I started to think, well "
"'What if she leaves me?'" said Jo.
"Exactly. I couldn't be afraid of losing you until I had you. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah. It does. But see, for me it was the opposite, babe. Once we made love, once I knew we loved each other, then I stopped bein scared. I just knew we were gonna be forever."
Blair leaned forward, lightly touching her forehead against Jo's.
"I wish I could be as sure of us as you are. Even now, I get frightened sometimes "
"Like when you see Boots oglin me," chuckled Jo.
Blair's nostrils flared. "And, since you bring it up, why does Boots keep 'oglin' you? Now that she has Mizu in her bed, I would have thought Boots would stop mooning over you."
Jo cracked her knuckles. "Sorry, babe. That's just how it is. Once a girl gets a crush on the Jo-ster "
"Pardonez-moi. I can't possibly have heard you correctly. Did you just refer to yourself as the Jo-ster?"
"That's my new team nickname."
"I thought they called you Princess?"
"That was last year. Now I'm team captain, babe. Now I'm a sophomore. I got these little freshman players lookin up to me, like baby ducklins. I can't be nicknamed Princess, for cryin out loud."
"Point taken. But the Jo-ster? What genius came up with that?"
"One of the freshmen. Spunky little thing. She's a scholarship student."
"Let me guess she's from the Bronx?"
"Right idea, babe, but the wrong borough. She's a Brooklyn girl."
"And she calls you the Jo-ster? Isn't that a little disrespectful? I mean, you're the captain."
Jo shook her head. "It's not like that. It ain't like she comes up to me and says 'Hi, Jo-ster'. It's when I'm demonstratin a move, you know, or I score a goal, she yells out 'Woo, Jo-ster'!"
Blair raised one eyebrow. "'Woo, Jo-ster'?"
"Yeah, but, I mean, it's like she shouts it, you know? And everyone else started pickin up on it."
"So I'm about to celebrate my first anniversary with a woman called 'the Jo-ster'?"
"Looks like," grinned Jo. She darted a glance around the gallery. So far they'd been damn lucky no one else had strolled in. Langley was known for its art program, so while the Langley gallery wasn't exactly Grand Central Station, usually it wasn't this empty, either.
Jo decided to take another chance. In for a freakin penny, in for a freakin dollar, she thought, Americanizing one of Alec's favorite sayings.
She slid her arms around Blair's waist, pulled the blonde hard against her and kissed her long and thoroughly. She felt Blair melt in her arms.
When they came up for air, Blair leaned her head on Jo's shoulder.
"What were we arguing about?" Blair asked breathlessly.
"We weren't arguin about anythin," teased Jo. "You were tellin me how amazin I am."
"Is that so?"
"Hmm. I'm skeptical But I'll let it go this time. Darling?"
"Let's go home. I want you so much, Jo."
"Yeah. About that. See " How the hell am I gonna explain this? Is she gonna get it? "Blair, I was thinkin that we should, you know, be apart tonight."
Blair pulled away from Jo. Blair gave her lover a look. The look. Jo hadn't seen that look since they'd been students at Eastland Academy.
"Jo Why must you toy with my sanity?"
"I just think it's, you know, how we should do this," said Jo. "A year ago tonight we were apart. Right? And that's when we realized how much we belonged together. Because, you know, we were missin each other so much. Do you realize, babe, we haven't been apart for the night for, jeez, I don't even know how long."
"I see," Blair said coolly. "You need a night off."
Jo groaned. "Babe You don't get what I'm drivin at."
"Of course I do. It's our one-year anniversary, and you want to spend it without me!"
Jo put her head in her hands. "God, if you're listenin to me up there, gimme a little strength, will ya? Cause I really, really need it."
Blair's eyes flashed. "Now you listen to me Joanne Marie Polniaczek." Blair poked Jo's chest with one perfectly manicured finger. "Miss Princess, Miss Jo-ster, and whatever else your little acolytes are calling you these days! You are mine, Jo! You are my fiancée and I love you and you are spending tonight with me if I have to pin you down and tie you up and make love to you all night long!"
"Well if you're gonna be all romantic and mushy about it," said Jo.
"How can you possibly want to spend our anniversary apart?"
"I'm tryin to oh, Christ. I was worried you weren't gonna understand, and you don't."
"No, darling I don't."
"See, Blair, I'm tryin to recreate how it was. Kinda like, sorta like " Jo blushed, "like the night-before-the-weddin kinda thing."
Blair bit her lip. Night before the wedding, eh? "Proceed," Blair said graciously. "You have my attention."
"That's kinda how I think about it when I look back," Jo said, spreading her hands. "We kissed a little bit, that first day we admitted we had feelins, and it was amazin, and you introduced me to Eduardo and then you had to take off for the city. And we spent the night without each other but all we could think about was each other. It was a really important night Like before a weddin, when the bride and groom gotta be apart. I mean, when we met the next day, we coulda decided it was crazy to try to be girlfriends, we coulda been too afraid, or too sensible. We coulda pretended nothing had happened. But we loved each other too much, babe. We had too much guts to let it go. So that next day, that was the night, we, you know " She felt herself blushing again.
"The next night was when we consummated our love," Blair said softly. "Like a wedding night."
"Hmm." Blair considered Jo's words. "So what you want us to do is to spend tonight apart, as if it were the night before our wedding, thinking about each other, and missing each other And then we'll make insane love tomorrow?"
Jo grinned. "Now you got it. Tonight we mull over how we made the right choice a year ago. And then tomorrow night we'll, you know, we'll reaffirm our love."
Blair's mouth twitched. "You're kind of a big sap, Jo Polniaczek."
"Too sappy?" Jo asked, blushing yet again.
"Not at all." Blair brushed her fingertips along Jo's jaw. "It's a lovely idea. There is, however, one rather glaring problem with your plan."
"We live together now, darling. How are we supposed to spend the night apart?"
"Oh. That. Piece of cake. I already thought about that. I just spend the night in another room."
"Not, you know, in Boots' room or somethin," Jo said hastily. "One of the empty rooms."
"But do we have any empty rooms?" Blair asked. "Now that we're bursting at the seams with musketeers and Lions? There's our suite, and the suite Mrs. Garrett and Drake share, and Tootie's room, and Nat's, and Alec's, and Jack's, and Portia's, and Petal's, and Boots and Mizu's room " Blair was ticking off rooms on her fingers. "That's nine bedrooms, Jo."
"We gotta have one empty bedroom," said Jo. "Doesn't River Rock have ten bedrooms? What did the lease say? We've got ten right?"
"I'm trying to remember."
"Look, I ain't that picky. Worse comes to worse I get a sleepin bag and curl up on a couch. But you gotta promise you won't sneak down and ravish me in the middle of the night."
"Ha! It's not me you have to worry about. I'm more worried about Boots slipping into your sleeping bag while you're half-asleep and vulnerable."
"She won't," Jo said confidently. "Boots is very considerate. She wouldn't do somethin that could hurt Mizu's feelins."
"Does Mizu have feelings?" Blair asked curiously. "There's something about her, something "
"Sociopathic?" Jo suggested.
"Unkind But possibly accurate."
"It doesn't matter whether Mizu would be hurt. Boots is so sweet, she wouldn't do anythin that even might hurt her."
Blair frowned again. "Darling, I've known Boots longer than you have. She isn't that sweet."
There was a high-pitched sound on the other side of the long gallery, beyond the glass cases of pottery and statuettes. It was the squeak of sneaker soles against the waxed floor.
Jo and Blair both jumped like somebody had goosed them, pulling apart and sitting on opposite sides of the bench.
A few seconds later two students in grey Langley sweatshirts appeared, staring wide-eyed at the paintings along the outer walls. They looked young, they looked fresh, they looked awed by everything around them. In other words
"Freshmen," Jo whispered to Blair.
One of the students whistled when she saw "The Huntress".
"Look at this," she whispered to her friend.
"Wow," he said. "That's beautiful."
Blair pinked with pleasure hearing the unsolicited and unexpected praise.
"You like that, huh?" Jo asked them cheerfully.
The freshmen glanced at Jo, nodding warily. Jo was obviously not a freshman, and they were as awed by her, and her beautiful blonde companion, as they were by everything else at prestigious Langley College.
"Friend of mine painted it," Jo continued.
"Really?" asked the girl, impressed.
The boy squinted at the plaque. "'Blair Warner'," he read aloud. "Warner. Warner. Why does that sound familiar?"
"She's that famous debutante one of the ones BZ Becker ruined," said the girl.
"Oh. Right. Well, at least she has her talent to fall back on."
"She sure does," said Jo.
The freshman girl glanced at Jo again, eyes narrowing. There was something so familiar about the pretty, confident brunette. Something so familiar
The girl's eyes widened, her eyebrows rising up under her peaked Langley cap.
"Oh my God!" she exclaimed.
"Shh!" said the boy, looking around nervously. "Do you want to get us kicked out of here our first day on campus?"
"But that's her," said the girl. "That's Jo Polniaczek!"
"Jo who?" asked the boy.
"Jo Polniaczek! Captain of the Lions! You know the Jo-ster!"
"Wow!" The boy's mouth dropped open. "The Jo-ster!"
Jo ducked her head uncomfortably. She was confident as hell just shooting the breeze with the kids; but suddenly being the object of their adoration made her want to wriggle right out of her own skin.
"I don't like this Jo-ster thing," Blair complained quietly to Jo. "And I don't like how fast it seems to be spreading."
Jo shrugged helplessly.
"It's an honor to meet you," the girl told Jo. "My roommate just joined the team. She says you're going to lead the Lions to nationals this year."
"Well, we made it nationals last year," Jo said modestly, "when Petal Von Schuylkill was runnin the team. So nationals ain't exactly anythin new."
"But this year you're going to win nationals," said the girl.
"Well, I mean, we hope so," Jo said. "Gonna give it our best."
The boy looked shyly at the blonde woman sitting next to the Jo-ster. The young woman was buxom and poised and had perfectly chiseled features and notwithstanding her jeans and simple navy blazer, she had that indefinable but unmistakable air of being somebody.
Way out of my league, he thought ruefully. But he couldn't not say anything; he couldn't not try.
He extended his hand to Jo, with a nervous glance at Blair. "I'm, ah, Errol David St. John, of the Philadelphia St. Johns," he told Jo.
Jo shook his hand heartily. "Of course you are," she grinned. She glanced at Blair. "Just once I'd like to meet someone at Langley who says 'Hey, I'm Johnny Plotz from the Bronx'."
"Don't hold your breath," chuckled Blair.
"Oh, I ain't, I ain't."
Since Jo didn't seem disposed to make an introduction "Darling, you're still hopeless about introductions," Blair often sighed Errol darted another glance at Blair. It was rather forward, he knew, but he couldn't resist. He had to meet this pretty blonde. "And you would be ?"
Blair extended one hand. "Blair Warner," she said. She smiled, but it was restrained not one of her radiant smiles. The last thing I need is another freshman following me around like a puppy dog this semester ...
Errol goggled a little bit. He hesitantly shook Blair's hand.
"The Blair Warner?" he asked.
"The one and only," Jo told him cheerfully, amused at how star-struck the boy was. "Impoverished heiress and painter extraordinaire."
"I don't know about extraordinaire," Blair demurred with uncharacteristic modesty. "A painter, anyway."
"And she might not be totally impoverished," said Jo. "Her attorney's workin on that."
"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry." It's gauche to discuss one's financial state, Blair always said. The way Jo had pieced it together from Blair's tutorials, if you were broke, you could talk about money twenty-four-seven, but if you had a lot of loot, you never discussed it.
The freshman girl had sidled closer to the boy, with a somewhat proprietary air.
"I'm Slade Werther," said the girl, extending a hand to Blair. "Of the Philadelphia Werthers. My father owns several textile plants that provided cloth to Warner Textiles. My father was sorry to lose that contract. He liked your father."
"That's kind of you to say," Blair said graciously to Slade.
"It must have been terrible, losing everything to BZ Becker," Slade continued sympathetically. "My father calls him a filthy pretender."
"Sounds about right," Jo said drily.
Blair nudged Jo.
"What?" asked Jo. "He is a filthy pretender. Ruinin families that have been runnin New York for hundreds of years. I mean, maybe the families weren't perfect but they gave freakin millions to charities, they built hospitals and libraries. What's Becker ever done except bein a total snake and havin a psycho daughter?"
Blair gave Jo a look.
What? Jo telegraphed.
We don't air our problems in front of little freshmen, darling.
Oh. Sorry, babe.
Slade slipped an arm through one of Errol's arms. Subtly she pulled him closer. Slade was rather star-struck by Blair; but Errol was a little too star-struck for Slade's taste.
"BZ Becker has an odious reputation everywhere," Errol said to Jo and Blair. "No one will weep when someone finally puts him in his place." Errol glanced over his shoulder at "The Huntress". "Did you really paint that?" he asked Blair.
"Guilty," she said lightly.
"My uncle has a gallery in Manhattan," he said. "I'm sure he'd be interested in acquiring this piece."
Blair shook her head. "That's very flattering," she said, "but I donated it to the Langley collection."
Errol raised his eyebrows. "That was very generous of you. Especially considering, er " He trailed off, blushing.
"Especially considering Becker had just ruined her family and she coulda really used some dough," Jo finished for him. "Yeah. Blair is crazy generous that way. She's a giver."
Blair stood up.
"Well," she said, "it's been lovely to meet both of you, Errol, Slade. You mustn't be strangers. We must have you to luncheon some time."
"We?" asked Slade.
"Our gang," Jo said hastily. For cryin out loud, she thought, Blair still can't help talkin about us like we're a married couple! It was sweet as hell but dangerous as hell too. "We room with a bunch of friends at River Rock; it's, like, a big house on the Hudson. There's always room for a coupla more at the table. The more the merrier, that's our motto!
"Who do you room with?" Errol asked curiously. Then he blushed again as Slade nudged him in the side. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me."
"Not at all," said Blair. "We room with our dearest old chums from Eastland, and with some of my old friends and Jo's teammates, and with, well " How the hell do I describe Boots? she wondered. Let alone Mizu! "It's sort of a hodge-podge," she finished a bit lamely. "We're a very eclectic group."
"Is it a sorority?" asked Slade, sounding intrigued.
"Sorority? Don't let Alec hear you say that!" howled Jo.
"Alec?" asked Slade. "Do you mean Lord Nethridge?" She turned to Blair. "I know it's very rude of me, but I can't help asking "
"No," Blair said wearily. "Alec and I were never engaged."
"I'm sorry. Everyone must ask you that."
"They do. My mother wanted the engagement and she used to talk about it as a fait accompli, but Alec and I will never be more than friends. Dear friends. Brother and sister, really."
"He's a good egg," said Jo.
"Wow." Errol shook his head. "I can't believe it's our first day on campus and we're standing here talking to the Blair Warner and the Jo-ster."
"Jo doesn't actually go by that," Blair said sweetly. "Jo-ster, I mean. She prefers Jo. Just plain old Jo."
"And Blair doesn't actually go by Blair," said Jo. "She prefers Blair-meister."
"Really?" asked Slade, surprised. The brunette looked serious but Blair looked annoyed.
"No. Not really," Blair said.
Jo laughed. She wanted to wrap her arms around Blair and kiss the stuffing out of her, but as that would only freak out the freshman and, probably, make the front page of the Langley Lighthouse, if not the Peekskill Press and the New York Times, Jo exerted incredible self-discipline and merely stood platonically at Blair's side.
"Nice to meet ya," said Jo, shaking Errol's hand, and then Slade's hand, with great enthusiasm. They seem like good kids. And they don't like the bonkers Becker clan big freakin points in their favor!
Slade was pretty and petite. Errol was handsome behind his thick, heavy-framed glasses. They both exuded a wholesome innocence that Jo realized, with both regret and relief, was forever lost to her.
"Be sure and take us up on that lunch thing," said Jo. "More the merrier. Really. Do you play field hockey?" she asked Slade.
Slade shook her head. "I don't like running. Or throwing things or catching things or basically anything involving sports. I leave that to my roommate."
"What's her name?"
"Becca. Becca Deloit."
"Gotcha." Jo nodded. "She's fast as hell. We call her Flash."
"That's her," Slade agreed.
Errol was smiling at Blair with a sort of moony expression on his youthful face.
"It was very nice to meet you, Miss Warner."
"Blair," she insisted. "I'm just Blair."
"Or Blair-meister," Jo said helpfully.
"Just Blair," the blonde repeated.
Slade pulled Errol closer. "We'll be sure to take you up on luncheon," she said
When they were outside, walking along a relatively deserted path toward the Langley stables, Jo burst out laughing.
"Darling," Blair said quietly, "I love you madly, but sometimes I think you might be a little touched in the head."
"I'm just thinkin about those two kids," Jo explained through her laughter.
"And that's hilariously funny because "
"C'mon. It was cute as hell. It's like, Christ, you'd think we were some kinda movie stars or somethin!"
Blair studied Jo as they walked. The blonde nodded thoughtfully. "This is still new to you," she said. "Enjoy it, darling."
"Is that what that was?"
"Yes, darling. I know you're used to people cheering you on when you're playing, but it's about to spread beyond that. Pretty soon everyone on campus is going to know who you are."
"Yeah?" Jo wriggled a little uneasily.
"It might take some getting used to," Blair continued, "especially considering how much you value your privacy. I'm used to it, of course everyone knowing who I am, looking up to me, hanging on my every word, worshipping me "
"That's my modest girl," teased Jo.
"Well I am. Used to being worshiped, I mean not modest. It's just how I was raised. Everyone knew the Warners," Blair said rather wistfully.
"Everyone still does," Jo said kindly. "Babe About all the shit BZ Becker pulled, ruinin your family Are you really as OK with it as you seem?"
Blair sighed. "I'm not OK with it at all. But there's nothing I can do about it at the moment except salvage whatever Eduardo and I can salvage. And if there's one thing you've taught me this last year," she drew her arm through Jo's, "it's that there are a lot of things more important than money and power."
Jo gently pulled out of Blair's grip; anyone could come tromping around the corner, or pop out from behind the next tree, and it wouldn't do for the two well-known undergraduates to be seen skipping along the path arm-in-arm.
"If I lost every cent in the world," Jo told Blair quietly, "if I lost every friend, everything I own if there was nothin left but you that'd be all I'd need."
Blair's breath caught in her throat.
"But if I had everythin," Jo continued, "but somehow I lost you it'd be like everythin would be nothin, babe."
Blair didn't say anything. She had trouble breathing for a moment, let alone talking. Their feet tread softly on the grassy path; a bird trilled in the woods. When Jo glanced at Blair, she saw that the blonde was so overcome with emotion, she couldn't speak.
Jo pressed Blair's hand quickly, risking the gesture in the silent woods abutting the stables. Blair squeezed Jo's hand in return.
"Jo," said Blair, voice hoarse with emotion, "you're everything. You're everything."
"Hey, now. Let's not get all sappy about it," smiled Jo. She dragged a sleeve across her damp eyes.
They parted at the stables. Blair headed toward the magnificent stone-and-timber-and-marble equestrian complex, where she would saddle and ride Chestnut. Jo headed toward the athletic fields, where she would, under Coach Anderson's direction, run the Lions through their paces.
A few moments later, as Jo descended the steep hill above the playing fields, she cast one quick glance over her shoulder. Way in the distance, Blair was standing at the entrance to the main stable. Her hair was shining golden in the sun. She was looking at Jo.
Blair lifted one hand. Jo waved back.
I love you, Blair Warner, thought Jo. I'll love you forever.
"No, no, Natalie a little to the left. Good. Now no, no, Tootie a little to the right," trilled Mrs. Garrett. The feisty redhead was Mrs. Dante now, but the girls still called her Mrs. Garrett or Mrs. G out of habit. Neither Mrs. Dante, nor her husband, seemed to mind in the least.
Mrs. Garrett stood on the steps of the little gazebo at the back of the River Rock property, hands on her hips, guiding Natalie and Tootie as they tried to hang a banner across the center of the small structure.
Natalie perched anxiously on a stepladder on one side of the gazebo. Tootie stood confidently on a tall kitchen stool on the other side of the gazebo.
Between them the girls held a pale blue banner, slightly sagging and twisted as the young women tried to align it. Navy blue letters on the banner spelled "Happy Anniversary Jo and Blair".
"More to the right," Mrs. Garrett told Tootie. "Yes. Perfect. Natalie a little higher."
"My arms don't go any higher," complained Natalie.
"Nat, just stretch," Tootie said encouragingly.
"I'm stretching, I'm stretching. If I stretch any more I'm going to pull something!"
"Nat just another inch," said Tootie.
"It's not even," said Mrs. Garrett, pursing her lips. "Alec, help Natalie."
Alec detached himself from the pillar against he was lounging, hands in the pockets of his tattered grey flannels. "Aye, aye," he said, with a jaunty little salute. He gallantly helped Natalie down from the stepladder and took her place. "There," he said, lifting the banner. "How is that?"
"Another inch," said Mrs. Garrett. "Yes. Perfect, Alec. Nicely done."
"Hey!" said Tootie.
"And nicely done, too, Tootie," Mrs. Garrett said soothingly. "You've all been a big help."
Once the banner was secured, Alec and Tootie climbed down from their perches. Tootie folded the kitchen stool. Alec folded the stepladder.
"Well," the young noble said, gazing up at the banner, "it looks lovely, but I still don't know that this is a good idea. I mean, what if someone pops in?"
"Pop in? Who's popping in?" asked Natalie. "What have you heard?"
Alec shrugged. "Who can say? But someone always seems to be popping in at River Rock. And do we really want them to see a giant banner wishing our Jo and Blair a 'Happy Anniversary'?"
"Alec, it's nice of you to worry about the girls' reputations," said Mrs. Garrett, "but I think you're being a tad bit overcautious. We're at the very back of the property. Who's going to stroll all the way out here without any warning?"
"Mrs. Garrett's right," said Tootie. "Anyone who'd be out here already knows about Jo and Blair."
"All the same," said Alec, "I don't like it. It's a great, whopping, unequivocal announcement that Jo and Blair are entangled in 'the love that dare not speak its name'."
"Well, as long as you're not gonna be melodramatic," Nat said drily.
"You just never know," said Alec. "What if one of the locals pops in?"
"Locals?" asked Tootie.
"You know. The local country folk. Or some of the local gentry."
"Alec, we're not in 'Jane Eyre' or 'Wuthering Heights'," said Natalie.
"Well, whatever you Yanks call them the neighbors. What if a neighbor pops round?"
"The neighbors have never dropped by, and we've been here almost a year," said Tootie. "Why would they suddenly drop in now?"
"Maybe if the Peekskill 'Welcome Wagon Committee' was really, really behind schedule," cracked Natalie.
"But what if, you know, the vicar drops by or something?" Alec persisted.
"Do we have vicars in Peekskill?" wondered Tootie.
"That's really more of an Agatha Christie thing," Natalie said. "Vicars are always dropping by in her books."
"There is a vicar in Peekskill," said Mrs. Garrett. "A very nice elderly fellow over at the Episcopal church. But I sincerely doubt he's going to break into River Rock and wander back here during the party."
Alec shook his head darkly. "You're the landlady, marm. It's up to you. I just have a very bad feeling about all of this."
Mrs. Garrett patted Alec's cheek fondly. "Well, if anything goes wrong, Alec, you have my permission to give me a big, fat 'I told you so'."
Alec smiled at the redhead. He was exceedingly fond of Mrs. Garrett. "Perish the thought, dear lady. Perish the thought. I'm only thinking of Artemis and Aphrodite."
"Why don't we just post Mizu at the front door during the party," suggested Natalie. "She'll scare anyone away!"
"Meow!" laughed Alec.
"Mizu is a little bit, er, intimidating," Mrs. Garrett said thoughtfully. "How is she adjusting to life at River Rock, girls?"
Tootie shrugged. "I mean, we hardly see her. She and Boots are usually locked away in Boots' room."
"Well I'll tell you where we never see her," said Natalie. "We never see her washing a dish, or beating a carpet, or scrubbing a commode. I don't think she's lifted a finger since she moved in!"
"Not everyone has your domestic skills," said Alec.
"Ha!" Natalie put her hands on her hips. "Leave it to you to defend a fellow loafer!"
"I say, that's unfair!" Alec objected. "Who prepared the oatmeal this morning? And who just helped to hang the banner? And who helped Jo finish roofing the gazebo? I banged my poor thumb with the hammer. Twice!"
"Girls," said Mrs. Garrett, "you have to admit Alec has improved a lot this year when it comes to doing chores."
"I suppose," Nat said grudgingly. "But Boots and Mizu have no defense. If they want to live here, they ought to help with something. Otherwise it's just not fair."
"No one's contesting that, my dear Natalie," said Alec, "but you have to bring them along slowly. Until the St. Clairs were ruined by the Beckers, Boots had servants waiting on her hand-and-foot. And until her father disowned her, Mizu was used to the same royal treatment. It's astonishing the girls can even brush their own teeth and make themselves a decent cuppa!"
"Look, I may not be a famous heiress, but our family had a maid," said Natalie. "And I still had to do chores around the house when I was a kid."
"Like what?" Tootie asked curiously.
"Like I set the table. Every night. And I made my bed. Most of the time."
"Someone alert the Child Labor Department," laughed Alec.
"Well at least I did something," said Natalie.
"But that's what I'm trying to explain," said Alec. "Boots and Mizu didn't. They were raised not to lift a finger. They didn't have the benefit of your liberal-minded parents."
"I didn't have to do chores," mused Tootie. "In our house, it was all about education. Our jobs were to get straight A's and 4.0 GPA's. It wasn't until the musketeers messed up at Eastland and got assigned to hard labor in Mrs. Garrett's kitchen that I learned about chores."
"But you learned," said Nat. "We all learned. Even Blair. And Jacqueline and Petal chip in, and so did Portia before she got married and moved out. So Boots and Mizu are gonna learn too!"
"Of course," said Alec. "But, as I said, you have to bring them along slowly. Exercise a little understanding. Don't insult and abuse them the way you did me."
"Oh poor baby," laughed Tootie. She stood on her tiptoes and ruffled Alec's dark curly hair. "I don't think we did any permanent damage, milord."
"Are you kidding? Did you not hear what I said about bashing my thumb when I was helping Jo build that damned roof?"
"You did that to yourself."
"Because our Jo was being so gruff with me. It was distracting." He sighed. "It's a hard life that I lead."
"Eh, where's my little violin?" asked Jo as she joined them without warning. Her sneakers hadn't made any sound on the lawn. "Where's my little violin," she repeated, "so I can play a bunch of sad, sappy music for milord's complaints?"
Alec laughed. He caught Jo in a bear hug. "My darling, abusive Artemis," he said affectionately.
Jo elbowed him in the ribs and pulled out of his grip. "Hey! Watch the touchin. You know how I freakin can't stand touchin!"
"That's not what Blair says."
"Eh, get bent," crabbed Jo.
"You all saw that right?" Alec asked everyone, eyes sparkling. "How she gouged me with her elbow? That's the thanks I get for helping with the roof."
"You put on, like, two boards," said Jo. "Even Tootie coulda done that."
"Hey!" objected Tootie.
"You know what I mean, Toot."
"I don't believe I do," Tootie said coolly.
"It's just, you know, cause you're still kinda little."
"And here we go again!" complained Tootie. "'Little Tootie'! That's all I ever hear. I'm sixteen! When do I stop being 'Little Tootie'?"
"Since we're all older than you, that would be never," said Jo. "Face it, Stretch you'll always be the kid in our group, even when we're in the old age home!"
"Well I'm not standing for that," Tootie said decisively.
"But what can you do about it?"
"I'm going to find someone younger than me," Tootie said. "Yeah. That's it. I'm going to find someone younger than me and invite them into our group."
"Nah." Jo shook her head. "You can't just invite someone into the gang. It ain't like, like this is a club or somethin. With us you just people kinda "
"It has to happen organically," Alec said helpfully.
"Yeah," Jo nodded.
"But Boots invited Mizu into the group," said Tootie.
"It didn't happen like that," Jo said. "It's not like Boots handed her an engraved invitation. I met Mizu first, when she was bartendin at that disco. And she was a total freakin bitch to me pardon my French. And then she saw Boots and introduced herself, and then she got fired for spendin all her time with Boots. It was, like, a whole thing. You can't plan who becomes part of your circle, you know? It just sorta happens. Even with a creep like Mizu."
"Jo," Mrs. Garrett said reproachfully.
"Well she is. She's an arrogant, useless so-and-so."
"And again I say 'Meow'," said Alec.
"Come on, milord. You tellin me Mizu ain't a creep?"
Alec held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "I'm simply telling you, dear Artemis, that I'm not becoming embroiled in any dispute between you and Mizu. I value my life too much."
"Eh, go soak your head. Some friend you turn out to be! You're s'posed to take my side. I'm your friend. It's the code of the Bronx."
"Ah! The famous code of the Bronx. But I'm not from the Bronx, dear heart. Mine is the code of the Anvistons."
"And how does that go?"
"I'm not actually sure. I'd need to dig it up. Something, I believe, about 'Make sure the serfs rotate the crops; never give a commoner an even break; and there's nothing wrong with the occasional beheading.'"
"I recommend a change of subject," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "Jo what do you think of the banner? Didn't Alec and the girls do a nice job?"
"Yeah," Jo said, "they did. It looks great."
"That's all?" asked Nat. "The banner looks 'great'? I was on a ladder!"
"Jeez, what's everyone so crabby for today?"
"Who's crabby?" asked Natalie. "I just want a little appreciation."
"Me too," said Tootie. "I was on a wobbly kitchen stool."
"Eh, you both did wonderful," said Jo. "Gold stars, and all that. It's a really good banner." She looked critically at the strands of tiny Christmas lights that she and Alec had strung around the roof and eaves of the gazebo. "You test those yet?" Jo asked him.
"They'll be lovely," he said confidently.
"But did ya test them?"
"I haven't quite got round to that yet," Alec confessed.
Jo rolled her eyes. "For cryin out loud that's one of the main, you know, enchantin things for tonight the little lights. If they don't work it's gonna be all screwed up. We gotta test 'em!" She looked around. "Where's the extension cord?"
"I, er, believe it might still possibly be in one of the cupboards in the back hall."
Jo's eyes narrowed. "You tellin me you ain't even got 'em plugged in yet?"
"Artemis, this might have escaped your attention, but I'm not precisely an electrical genius. Thomas Edison would've given me the sack in a trice."
"Well I'm gonna give you the sack in, aw, for Pete's sake." Jo sighed. "Never mind. I'll rig it up in a few minutes. You want somethin done perfect, do it yourself, right? And I want it to be, you know," her voice and her eyes softened, "I want it to be perfect for Blair. I want it to knock her on her ass."
"Talk about romantic!" laughed Tootie.
"Does Blair know about the party?" asked Alec.
Jo shook her head. "Nope. Part of the surprise. She knows we're gonna spend tonight apart, but she has no idea about the party. And I'd like it to stay that way." She gave everyone a hard look.
"Don't look at me," Tootie said innocently. "My lips are sealed."
"Since when?" Jo asked skeptically. "I'm not kiddin, Stretch I really wanna surprise her."
"Well I won't even be here to spoil the surprise. In fact," Tootie glanced at her wristwatch, "I need to jet, darlings." She blew theatrical kisses at her friends. "Curtain up on auditions in half an hour."
"What auditions?" asked Jo.
"You know. I told you guys. I'm going to be Eleanor of Aquitaine in 'The Lion in Winter'."
"But I thought you already got the part. What's with the auditions?"
Tootie waved one hand dismissively. "A mere formality. I mean, they have to hold auditions. Eastland can't just automatically hand me every lead. The other girls have to have a chance."
"But you were tellin us about it, I mean, like you knew for sure you'd be playin old Eleanor."
"Oh I will," Tootie said confidently. "Please. Who else could portray Eleanor's intelligence? Her subtle mind? Her passionate heart?"
"Her big mouth," Nat said drily.
Tootie shrugged, too confident to be insulted in the least. "I always get the lead, but I don't want to make a big thing out of it. I don't want the other girls to feel bad. I'm just going to go in there and smile at everyone and then kill that part."
"And to think," said Jo, "this is the girl that had cripplin stage fright last year!"
"It wasn't stage fright," Nat corrected. "It was Mom-fright."
"Oh. Yeah. Well, just be careful you don't go gettin a swelled head," Jo told Tootie. "Nobody likes a big shot."
Tootie pantomimed throwing a boa over one shoulder. She lifted her chin. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she said in her best Gloria Swanson voice. "It's not my head that got big It was the competition that got small."
"Yeah, well, all kiddin aside, just keep your feet on the ground's all I'm sayin."
Still in character, Tootie snapped her fingers at Alec. "Young man, please drive me to the studio. Now."
Alec gave a long-suffering sigh. "If you mean the Eastland auditorium, then yes, Tootie, I can run you over there, but in future a little advanced notice would be nice. I'm not actually your bloody chauffeur."
"Don't be tiresome, young man. Chop-chop."
"Did Swanson say 'chop-chop' in 'Sunset Boulevard'?" asked Natalie.
"I'm improvising, young woman," Tootie said grandly. "I wouldn't expect you to understand ..."
When Alec and Tootie were far across the lawn, heading into vast field-stone-and-timber Victorian mansion that was River Rock, Mrs. Garrett put one hand on Jo's arm and one hand on Natalie's.
"Girls tell me the truth. How serious is the friction with Mizu?"
"Well " Natalie didn't seem quite sure how to begin.
"She's a freakin snake," Jo said bluntly. "We need to boot her ass back to Florence, or Tokyo, or anywhere outta our home."
"That seems a little extreme," Mrs. Garrett said doubtfully.
"No, Mrs. Garrett; Jo's right on the money," said Nat. "I couldn't have said it better myself. Which is why I let Jo say it."
"But is she that bad?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "I know Mizu's spoiled that goes with the territory when it comes to heiresses; Blair behaved like a condescending brat the first time I met her but don't you think Mizu will come around like Blair and Boots and the Lions did?"
Jo shook her head. "No way. See, Mizu is kinda like me, Mrs. G. but if I was raised all rich and privileged and stuff. She's got this iron will and this real hard head. You can't make her do anythin. And she doesn't wanna do anythin. And all the progress Boots was makin, now she's totally backslidin cause she's copying Mizu."
"Oh, dear." Mrs. Garrett chewed absently at one fingernail.
"Mizu's completely ruining our little Utopia," added Natalie. "When it was just the musketeers and Alec and the Lions, I mean, we don't always get along, sure, and sometimes people attack us and try to murder us, but all that we can handle. But Mizu is just Visualize the snake in the Garden of Eden."
"What Nat said," agreed Jo, nodding. "All that stuff. Ditto."
"But if I ask Mizu to leave, Boots will go with her," mused Mrs. Garrett. "And where on earth will they go? Mizu is disowned, Boots' family is ruined, neither of them seems to have any friends other than us, that is."
"Because we're suckers," said Jo. "About Mizu, I mean. Not about Boots. Boots is OK, she just needs a good influence."
"But what does Mizu do?" Mrs. Garrett persisted. "What is it, specifically, that's so upsetting?"
"She's just, she won't do chores," said Jo. "And she's, like "
"Surly," said Nat.
"Yeah. She's real surly," Jo agreed.
"And snarky," said Natalie. "She's surly and snarky. She's snurly!"
Mrs. Garrett steepled her fingertips against her chin. "Girls, I know that must be frustrating, but in the first place 'snurly' isn't a real word, and in the second place, just because Mizu is difficult is no reason to toss her out onto the cold country lanes of Peekskill."
"Eh, we're not describin it right," said Jo.
"Still," Natalie said, "the cold country lanes of Peekskill, huh?" She mulled that over for a moment. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone. It's not like Mizu's a monster or something."
Jo groaned. "Come on, Nat don't be a jellyfish. Stick to your guns. It's barely even September. The country lanes are still plenty warm."
"But it'll be November before we know it. Think about it, Jo those lanes get pretty cold!"
"Yeah? Well if Mizu got stuck in a snow drift, it couldn't happen to a more deservin crum-bum," Jo said with satisfaction.
Mrs. Garrett shook her head. "This might actually be a very good life lesson for you girls. You just said it yourselves for the most part you all get along with each other. Well life isn't always like that. Sometimes we encounter very difficult people. And we have to learn how to live with them. Peacefully." She waved one finger significantly in Jo's direction.
Jo groaned again. "Sometimes I really, really miss the Bronx."
"And I miss Appleton, Wisconsin," said Mrs. Garrett. "Did I ever tell you girls about the time "
"Yes!" Jo and Natalie said together.
"But you didn't even hear which "
"We know the one, Mrs. G," said Jo. "The time, you know, that thing about the pie contest."
"Or the thing about the cow," Nat said hastily.
"Actually," said Mrs. Garrett, "it's the story about "
"The summer the carnival came to town," Nat said, taking another wild stab in the dark.
"Why, yes," Mrs. Garrett sounded surprised and pleased. "I guess you girls really do listen to me, because that's exactly the story I'm thinking of."
"And we'll take it to heart," promised Jo, although Jeez, I don't think I ever heard that one!
"We'll reflect on it carefully," Natalie added.
"And you see what I'm getting at?" Mrs. Garrett asked. "You understand how it applies to Mizu?"
"Of course," said Nat.
"Absolutely," said Jo. "We get what you mean, Mrs. G."
"Good." Mrs. Garrett nodded. "I'm glad to hear that. So you'll give Mizu another chance."
Jo bit her lip. "If you say so," she said reluctantly.
"Natalie?" asked Mrs. Garrett.
"Sure," Nat said unenthusiastically.
"Wonderful!" Mrs. Garrett stepped back several paces, tilting her head and regarding the gazebo and the anniversary banner strung across it. "Girls, that really does look lovely. And once the lights are lit, well " She smiled tenderly at Jo. "Blair is a very lucky young woman."
"And so am I," Jo said, eyes misting over a bit.
Natalie sighed. I still can't get used to it Jo getting all mushy over Blair. But there it is
"How are you going to get Blair out here tonight?" Natalie asked curiously.
"That part I ain't a hundred percent sure yet," said Jo. "But I'll think of somethin." Jo glanced at her wristwatch, the beautiful watch that her father had found in a pawn shop and given to her when she started Langley a year ago. "There's still plenty of time till Blair gets home. Nat do me a favor? While I'm out here gettin the lights plugged in, can you keep an eye out for Blair? When she comes in, can ya tell her I'm still at practice? I don't want her roamin around River Rock lookin for me, you know? She might stumble into the surprise."
"Consider it done," Natalie said.
"Thanks. I owe you one, Nat."
"Ha! You owe me more than one, Jo Polniaczek." Natalie's eyes sparkled.
"Yeah? How'd ya figure?"
"I'm the one that introduced you to our group. Originally, I mean."
"Yeah?" Jo considered that, casting her mind back four years. "I remember Blondie insultin my jeans And me threatenin her Huh. Yeah, you were OK to me. You were actually nice." Jo chuckled. "I seem to recall you were maybe a little bit afraid of me."
"And how!" Natalie said fervently. "But I had to get to know you better. I said it then, Jo, and I'll say it again you are a breath of fresh air!"
"Yeah. I am, ain't I?" Jo said, grinning her mega-watt smile. In an uncharacteristically friendly manner she caught Natalie in a light headlock, shook her a little bit and then released her. "You ain't so bad yourself, Nat."
"Uh, thank you." Natalie put a hand to her throat. No damage seemed to have been done.
"Not to be persnickety," said Mrs. Garrett, "but I'm actually the one that introduced Jo to your little group. In fact, I'm the one that put Jo and Blair together although I had no idea where it would lead. If you remember, I'm the one that assigned Jo to be Blair's roommate."
"That's true," said Jo.
"Sure, but they never got to room together," objected Natalie. "I mean, not together, together. After we pulled that stunt at the Chugalug, the four of us got stuck living in that same room over the kitchen."
"Huh," Jo said thoughtfully.
"What?" asked Nat.
"I was just thinkin," Jo's cheeks tinged pink, "I wonder, if me and Blondie had ended up roomin together, just the two of us, like what was supposed to happen, I wonder, you know, if we woulda figured out sooner how we felt?"
"Hmm," said Mrs. Garrett. "I have a feeling you would have. And I have a feeling I would have had to make some room reassignments to keep your virtues intact!"
Jo grinned shyly. "I got a feelin Blair woulda gotten ahold of my virtue no matter what room you put me in."
Natalie put her hands over her ears. "La-la-la-la-la," she sang.
"She knew way before I did," said Jo. "Blair knew she was feelin stuff for me. If we were roomin together, alone, she woulda thrown me down on the "
"La-la-la," Natalie sang louder.
"For cryin out loud," said Jo, "Nat, don't be such a baby. You're practically a grown-up now."
"I just don't need to hear the intimate details of your intimate life," said Natalie, keeping her hands firmly over her ears.
"Who's givin intimate details?" Jo demanded. "I was just kinda speculatin. Jeez, how are you supposed to be a doctor if you're such a prude? If your patient has some kinda sex problem, what are you gonna do put your hands over your ears?"
"What do you think, I'm going to be the next Doctor Ruth? I'm going to be a cardiologist. Or a neurologist. I haven't decided yet. But nothing to do with sex. All my patients will be able to keep their pants on which is more than I can say for you and Blair!"
"Now don't tell me you're gonna start that again! Blair hasn't run around the house without pants since, well, since a long time!"
"Girls!" trilled Mrs. Garrett. "Stop bickering! We have a party to finish putting together. Natalie, go watch for Blair. Jo, go get the extension cord."
"Yes, Mrs. G," Jo said meekly.
"Yes, Mrs. Garrett," said Natalie.
"That's more like it," Mrs. Garrett said approvingly. "I'd like to think that someday you girls will be able to resolve your differences without my playing referee."
"Eh, I don't know about that," said Jo. "Let's not be askin for miracles or anythin."
"Face it, Mrs. Garrett," said Natalie, "you're going to be settling our squabbles until we're all old and grey."
"The only problem with that statement," said Mrs. Garrett, patting her bun of flaming red hair, "is that I'm never going to be grey. My motto is 'red till I'm dead'!"
"Hmm. You might not want to say that motto around any of the Young Republicans," suggested Natalie. "They might take it the wrong way."
"All we're sayin," Jo told Mrs. Garrett, "is that there ain't ever gonna be a time we won't need you, no matter how mature we get." She gave her second mother a quick, shy hug. "You're kinda stuck with us, Mrs. G. In a forever kinda way."
"Well," Mrs. Garrett put one plump arm around Natalie's shoulders and one plump arm around Jo's, "that's a fate I think I can live with. In a forever kind of way. 'And that's the way it is'."
Blair rode Chestnut through Langley's sunny, green, late-summer woods, sometimes pushing her beloved horse into a canter, sometimes into a mad gallop, and sometimes pulling back on the reins, letting Chestnut trot at a stately pace along the narrow trails of maple and oak and birch.
She didn't encounter any other riders, but that was typical. For a prestigious college populated largely by fabulously wealthy overachievers, Langley boasted surprisingly few equestrian students.
Blair was one of the few students who boarded and frequently rode a horse. Most others, like Alec, boarded horses at Langley because it was what one did; they weren't particularly interested in riding, however, and rarely made an appearance at the stables, let alone on the trails
The young heiress loved the feeling of flying briskly through the woods on Chestnut's back. She visited Chestnut almost every day, brushing and watering him and talking to him even when she didn't ride. The stable hands all knew Blair by sight, and were quick to mention any changes or irregularities in Chestnut's eating habits or behavior.
"Never seed a girl loves a horse so much," one hand remarked approvingly to another one evening after Blair had left. "Or, wait a sec I did. That Taylor flick, you know 'National Velvet' "
"Well, boy," Blair said fondly as she finished brushing Chestnut's glossy coat, "I suppose I'll see you in a few days. I'm taking your momma Jo for a special surprise this weekend. Yes I am, boy. Yes I am."
Chestnut snorted a trifle coolly, as if he understood exactly what Blair was saying and didn't fully approve. Chestnut had unbent so far during the last year as to allow Jo to sometimes ride on his back, clinging precariously to Blair.
But Chestnut was still somewhat standoffish with the Bronx girl; it seemed clear that he would shed no equine tears should the brunette suddenly drop out of Blair's life. Blair had been absent all summer, and although Chestnut was magnificently cared for while she was in Italy, the horse had missed her and he seemed to sense that the Jo person had something to do with Blair's absence
Blair laughed and patted Chestnut's long, handsome face. It was shadowy in the stables and smelled sweetly of fresh hay. Blair loved stables had since she was a little girl under Eduardo's care on her father's Texas ranch. She felt at ease in them, utterly content.
"You love your momma Jo," Blair cooed to Chestnut. "You can't fool me, boy."
Chestnut snorted dubiously.
"Oh, yes, you do. I know you do. And momma Jo loves you too even if she doesn't realize it."
Blair extended her palm and the baby carrots on it, held them under Chestnut's mouth. He ignored them for moment, and then deigned to consume them. Blair kissed his nose.
"That's right, Chestnut. Now be a good fellow while mommy's away this weekend "
Blair walked directly from the stables to the Langley College Library. Classes hadn't started so she didn't have anything to study yet, but she wanted to reserve a study carrel.
The reason, Blair theorized, that her grades had been so dismal last fall was because she couldn't study around Jo. When Blair was near Jo, nothing seemed to matter but the beautiful brunette everything Jo said, everything Jo did, even the adorably nerdy way Jo looked when she got lost in a textbook, or the way her chest rose and fell gently when she dozed off Everything about Jo was entrancing.
Having taken last semester off, Blair was ready to tackle classes with a vengeance. She was determined to do her best this time hence the library carrel. She would retreat to it to study whenever Jo was at field hockey practice or working at the Campus Grill.
Without any distractions, Blair planned to do almost as well as Jo academically. Not quite as well as Jo, because, as Blair was the first to admit, she would never be as academically ambitious and competitive as her lover, and there was no way she could ever out-grind her adorable nerd
A bashful young man at the information desk directed Blair to the second floor when she asked where she could reserve a carrel. Blair favored him with one of her most dazzling, toothiest smiles, a reward for his obvious adulation.
Obvious adulation was, however, in short supply at the Library Services Desk on the second floor. A short, grim-faced woman with an iron-grey bun of hair presided; she was barely tall enough to peer over the varnished counter.
She glared up at the heiress, fixing Blair with steely grey eyes.
"Yes?" she demanded crisply.
Blair smiled charmingly. "Good afternoon. My name is Blair Warner."
The tiny woman's sour mouth pursed, became, if possible, even more sour.
"Irrelevant," the woman said coldly. "This is the Library Services Desk. If you require a service, simply state what service you require."
Blair deepened her smile. Her cheeks dimpled angelically. It had been a sport to Blair, since she was very young, winning over difficult people.
"I'd like to reserve a library carrel," Blair said engagingly. If she had spoken that winningly to the young man at the information desk, he probably would have fainted.
The Library Services woman was unimpressed. She was, if anything, annoyed.
"Miss Warner, this is not the Miss America audition. This is the Library Services Desk. There is no necessity for you to make a simpering fool of yourself."
What a witch! thought Blair. I haven't met anything this bitter since Ah! Something clicked. This was the arrogant little creature who'd tried to make Jo's life a living hell when Jo lived on campus last year
"Why, my goodness," said Blair, "aren't you Miss Pritt?"
Miss Pritt's answer was a very slight, frosty nod of her iron-grey bun.
"But you're the portress at Parker House," said Blair, confused.
Miss Pritt drew herself up to her full albeit very slight height and squared her small shoulders. "I have been promoted," she said importantly, "from the position of portress to Director of Library Services a role, I must say, to which I am much better suited in light of my degree in Library Science."
"Well, congratulations," Blair said enthusiastically. She flashed another dazzling smile and executed a patented Blair Warner hair flip. She didn't flip her hair much these days not since she'd become engaged to Jo but it didn't do to fall completely out of practice. "You know, I always thought your talents were wasted," Blair continued. "You were obviously cut out for much better things than overseeing a dormitory. Although you did that extremely well."
The faintest ghost of a smile touched Miss Pritt's thin lips. She nodded almost imperceptibly. That was probably, Blair reflected, about as friendly as the old bat got.
"You said that your require a carrel?" asked Miss Pritt. Behind the counter she laid efficient hands upon a particular ledger, opened it and flipped to a blank page.
"Yes," said Blair. "Something very remote, if you can arrange it. You see, I have a lot of studying to do this semester, and I want to be disturbed as little as possible. Something in the Classics section, perhaps. I'd imagine no one ever goes to the Classics section."
Miss Pritt darted a steely glance at Blair. "I was a Classics major," Miss Pritt said icily.
Crud, thought Blair. Put my foot in that one!
But without skipping a beat, "Of course," said Blair, "I can believe that you appreciate Classic studies but most of the kids today? They just don't have the proper appreciation. I love Classics myself. So if you have any carrels there "
"Hmph." Somewhat mollified, Miss Pritt thumbed the pages of her ledger. "Yes. Yes, there are several carrels in the Classics stacks. They are on the seventh floor, in the very back. I trust," she gazed hard at Blair, "I trust you are not one of those foolish, superstitious young women who are afraid of out-of-the-way places?"
"Me? Of course not," Blair said confidently.
"Because once I assign your carrel, that will be your carrel for the year. I do not change carrels. Not under any circumstances. You will like it or you will lump it."
"I'm sure I'll love it," said Blair, cheeks dimpling again.
"Well. We shall see."
There was something so severely Victorian about Miss Pritt that Blair half expected the woman to enter Blair's name into the ledger using a quill pen and ink from a bottle. But Miss Pritt took an ordinary ball-point pen from a drawer and wrote 'Blair Warner' and then 'Carrel 42' on one of the blank lines.
"Student ID," Miss Pritt said crisply.
Blair handed over her ID card. It bore her best ID photo ever face perfectly bronzed from a summer under a Florentine sun; smile dazzling without being too toothy; blonde hair streaked with tendrils of an even paler shade, also thanks to the Florentine sun .
Miss Pritt copied Blair's student ID number next to her name, then returned the ID card to Blair.
"Carrel 42 is now your carrel, Miss Warner, until one year from today. The cleaning staff will, of course, dust it and polish it, but they will not touch any of your books or papers. You are responsible for keeping it hygienic. You must not leave cups of coffee or soda, or any food, in your carrel. Such infractions will result in fines and after four such incidents your carrel privileges will be revoked."
"Of course," Blair said charmingly. "Do you mean to tell me people actually leave coffee and food in their carrels?"
"Sadly, yes. It is sloppy, it is repellent, but there are some students who seem to lack all common sense." Miss Pritt was so disgusted by said students that her slight frame and her little iron-grey bun of hair trembled as she spoke.
"Well, I won't leave anything in my cubicle," Blair promised. "Apart from everything else, I'd be afraid of attracting rats."
Miss Pritt glared at Blair. The thin lips compressed into a tight little line. "Miss Warner, there are not, nor have their ever been, rodents in the Langley College Library."
"Of course not. Of course not, Miss Pritt," Blair said soothingly. But, Ha! she thought. There are rats everywhere even at Langley. Jo had told her that. Jo had seen them in the store room at the Campus Grill; in the alley behind the Grill, near the dumpsters; even running late at night between the Parker House dining hall and the woods beyond.
Rats are part of civilization, Jo had told Blair once. Anywhere there's trash and stockpiles of food, there's rats. They just know how to hide good, specially where there's richies and snobbos around
The ubiquity of rodents was only one of many unpleasant truths that Blair was learning to see and accept since she'd become Jo's lover. With Jo at her side Blair was seeing the world through new eyes. It wasn't always pretty, seeing the world as it was but it was real
Miss Pritt literally quivered with indignation at the thought of rats in the sacred precincts of the college library. Blair felt sorry for the old sourpuss. It must be awful to be so bitter and unhappy
"I'm sorry," Blair said sincerely. "It was an unfortunate joke."
"Very unfortunate," Miss Pritt said with feeling. "Good afternoon, Miss Warner." She closed the ledger with a loud snap.
"Miss Pritt, I really am "
"Good afternoon, Miss Warner," Miss Pritt repeated in a tone that ended all conversation
Blair took a spiraling iron staircase and two airless, narrow old elevators up to the seventh floor Classics section. Classics were tucked away under the eaves. The stacks were dark and gloomy and musty. Very little light filtered through the tiny windows, the glass panes dusty and bubbled and blurry with age.
Blair's carrel was private indeed, wedged at the very back of the stacks, but it was large and broad. There would be plenty of room for all of her books and notebooks and pens and pencils once she purchased them, and room to spread out while she studied. The carrel smelt of lemon-scented polish. A dull, tarnished plaque affixed to one panel read "Carrel 42".
Blair sat down in the wooden chair. It creaked. The creak sounded very loud in this out-of-the-way, gloomy corner up at the top of the library. Blair shifted uneasily in the chair. It creaked again. It was so quiet up here Too quiet. You could almost, thought Blair, hear a ladybug's footsteps up here. You could almost hear a moth beat its wings
It had seemed like such a good idea, reserving a secluded carrel where she could study uninterrupted. But actually sitting there, the silence pressing against her eardrums like cotton, Blair felt bored and listless and not a little uneasy
It'll be better, she told herself, when my books are here, when I'm focused on my studies. And I'll bring a plant up here. Maybe a little flower pot. Something from Jo's little garden at River Rock. Sure. That will really cheer things up, she told herself. And if doesn't, too damn bad for me. I've got to do well this year. For myself, and for Jo
As Blair strolled back to the Langley Art Center, where her red Chevy truck was parked, she reflected that more than anything in the world, she wanted Jo to be proud of her.
Blair had never in her life wanted anyone to be proud of her, except, of course, her parents, who sometimes seemed proud of her, but were for the most part so entangled in their own lives that Blair was merely background noise, an often inconvenient, often overlooked and ignored presence.
Although her parents' inattention hurt, Blair contented herself with dazzling everyone else she encountered which presented little difficulty for the beautiful child. She enchanted people without much effort; she wrapped them all around her pinky finger with the greatest of ease. The prickliest of curmudgeons melted when Blair Warner flashed her dimples.
She dazzled people; and everyone she placed under her spell seemed to make up, at least a little bit, for her inability to capture her parents' attention. But proud? Aside from her parents, and her surrogate mother Mrs. Garrett, Blair had never given a damn if anyone was proud of her.
Until now. Until Jo. Jo's opinion mattered so much. It mattered more than anyone's. Jo was her soul mate. Jo was her fiancée, her one and only love. If she ever disappointed Jo, well, Blair thought that she would want to disappear, to fade away
Blair opened the driver's side door, climbed into the cab of her truck and slammed the door shut. She pushed the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine growled. Blair loved her truck. Not half as much as she loved Chestnut, of course; not a quarter as much as she loved Jo; but she was very fond of it.
She'd bought the truck in the summer of '83, and drove it up to Langley a year ago with a mountain of Gucci luggage in the flatbed. She'd pulled Chestnut behind in his trailer; Blair had hauled her beloved horse from Fort Worth to Peekskill in just under three days. Eduardo had followed in his big brute of an old truck, just in case Blair or Chestnut needed his help. Eduardo warm, kindly, generous Eduardo.
I have to call him, thought Blair as she drove past the Langley Science Complex, see how he's coming along with the finances, and with Mona's defense, and just how he's doing
Eduardo was not a young man. Blair's surrogate father was in his seventies. And when Blair had spoken to him after returning from Italy, he hadn't sounded well. He was run down, no doubt, she thought, from pushing himself so hard.
I ask too much of him, Blair thought. We'll hire someone else to puzzle out my finances. And to prepare Mona's defense, in case she needs it. Even with the Amsterdam Avenue rents, and my allowance, Jo and I are stretched thin, but to hell with it. We'll think of something. We can't push Eduardo into a stroke
Langley's liberal arts building flashed past as Blair nudged the accelerator.
She turned left and braked slightly as she drove down Residential Row.
This was moving day, hundreds of students, especially freshmen, all trying to move in at once, and the street was lined on both sides with parked and idling cars. The walkways crawled with parents and students huffing-and-puffing as they carried suitcases, trunks, plastic milk crates filled with LPs, guitar cases, futons, beanbag chairs, end tables, paintings and lamps.
Greek Row, lined with handsome sororities on the south side and fraternities on the north side, wasn't quite as chaotic. The sorority sisters and fraternity brothers had all lived her last year, and were seasoned and relatively orderly as they moved in. They wouldn't be welcoming naïve, clueless freshmen until Rush Week started.
Many Greeks did a double-take as they recognized Blair Warner, the Blair Warner, driving past behind the wheel of a Chevy truck. Rallying from their surprise, students waved and smiled, trying to catch her attention. Blair smiled cheerfully and waved back.
"Warnsie's back," one student told another excitedly as Blair glided past. Blair smiled to herself. Warnsie! It was Boots' pet nickname for Blair, and it had spread like wildfire along Greek Row when Boots St. Clair was the president of Gamma Gamma, the most prestigious sorority on Greek Row.
Boots had been booted out of Gamma Gamma when her family was ruined last spring not that Boots had cried over it. She'd been planning to step down after Natalie informed the naïve debutante that she was president of a famously restrictive sorority that somehow never seemed to admit students that weren't of the Anglo and Protestant persuasion.
"I thought that was weird, how Debbie Washington and Lauren Weismann got blackballed when they rushed," Boots had told Natalie, light (finally) dawning. "They were so sweet, and smart, and funny. I just thought maybe they rubbed one of the girls the wrong way."
"They didn't rub anyone the wrong way not per se," Natalie had told Boots while they were sitting at Blair's bedside at Manhattan Memorial. "Debbie's color rubbed them the wrong way. And Lauren's religion."
"Well that just plain rotten," Boots had said with spirit. "I'm going to march right in there tonight and resign!"
But there had been no need to resign. BZ Becker had ruined the St. Clairs, had ruined all the powerful ancient families of New York. Boots had been instantly and summarily voted out as Gamma Gamma president, landing on the doorstep of River Rock even sooner than anyone had expected
Boots, Blair thought, frowning. Boots. Boots, Boots, Boots. Even with Mizu installed as her lover, Boots still had a crush on Jo. And Jo, although she hated to talk about it, still had a little crush on Boots
A pretty girl with an angelic smile and perfectly waved copper hair flagged down Blair's truck. Blair slowed and then stopped the truck, rolling her window down all the way.
"Blair Warner, as I live and breathe," the girl said pleasantly. "Are you back in school this semester?"
"I'm back, Harriet," Blair agreed. "To stay, this time."
"Well thank God!"
Harriet Coopersill wore white slacks and a navy polo shirt and white tennis shoes and a single strand of pearls. It was an outfit of fetching simplicity, and, Blair knew, judging the outfit to a nicety, had cost upward of several thousand dollars. Despite their wealth, the Coopersills were a minor-minor New York family too minor, even to have been involved in BZ Becker's plot against the gods of New York.
"Listen," said Harriet, "we want you to pledge this year. You turned us down last year, but we won't take 'no' for an answer this year."
Blair smiled, remembering how the sororities had flocked around her last autumn, each trying to score the coup of the century in convincing the Blair Warner to join their house.
"I shouldn't think anyone would want me now," Blair laughed. "Not after Becker knocked the Warners off their pedestal."
Harriet shook her head. "The Warners might be down, but they're not out. Word is, your father is plotting some type of revenge."
Blair's eyebrows lifted. News to me, she thought. Of course, she hadn't heard from her father since he fled to Tokyo last February ...
"Anyway," Harriet continued, "the Warner name is still worth any amount of gold or diamonds or stock. Rich or poor, the Warners are New York."
"Well That's nice to hear," Blair said doubtfully.
"We won't take 'no' for an answer," Harriet said again. "You are pledging Upsilon Upsilon and that's final!"
"Harriet, that's lovely, but I'm very happy out at River Rock," said Blair.
"You can't possibly mean that. River Rock! From what I hear it's 'Voyage of the Damned' out there! That peculiar Jacqueline Messerschmitt, and Petal Von Schuylkill's gone off the rails, and Boots was always a nut, and they say Portia's married some midget and gone off to cut up cadavers." Harriet shivered. "I know they're practically royalty but they're so strange. And now I hear there's some Asian girl running around there. Could that possibly be true? Blair, you can't possibly prefer that weird coterie of ruined souls to living with some of your dearest old chums. Margo is joining us this year, and Nancy, and Muffy you remember her from Dalton?"
"Dalton was a long time ago. It's sort of a blur now," said Blair.
Margo, she thought the girl who had viscously insulted Jo when Jo first went to Eastland. Blair had pushed a good gooey slice of pie in Margo's face for insulting Jo.
Nancy. A whiny girl always mooning over her cheating boyfriend.
What would I have done, wondered Blair, if I never met Jo, if Jo never fell in love with me, if she hadn't taught me to see the inanity and bigotry of my world? Would I be like this like Harriet? A snob with nothing on my mind but money and prestige and the next sorority rush?
"You can't stay in that creepy old place for another semester," Harriet said firmly. "You need to be with people who understand you."
Blair suppressed a shudder. It made her feel a little sick that this girl thought of Blair as a kindred spirit. Blair smiled the biggest, brightest phony smile that she could muster.
"That's so sweet, Harriet. But I really am very happy where I am."
"Well don't think I'll give up," Harriet said cheerfully, "because I shan't. We're going to woo you, Blair Warner. We're going to wine you and dine you. You will join Upsilon Upsilon." Harriet fluttered her fingers in a funny little gesture the Upsilon Upsilon secret signal, Blair supposed.
"Take care," Blair said noncommittally.
She tapped the gas pedal and drove away as fast as safety and propriety would permit.
"It just all seems so, so stupid!" said Blair. "So brainless! Especially now, with my parents on the other side of the world, our finances in disarray, poor old Vivienne dead, Mona maybe going to trial " Blair was so angry her throat closed up. She couldn't speak.
Those horrible, bigoted things she said, about Mizu being from Asia, about Jacqueline being odd, even about Boots!
"Shh. It's OK, babe," said Jo. "Don't pop a vein, huh?"
Blair was sitting on the bench in front of her vanity in the bathroom. She had been brushing her long blonde hair as she described her encounter with Harriet to Jo. Blair wore her mauve lace panties and her mauve lace bra. She was so indignant her tanned body was flushed.
While sympathizing with Blair's angry tirade, Jo found herself distracted, again and again, by Blair's gorgeous near-nudity. Not to mention her own near-nudity; Jo was wearing her thigh-grazing field hockey shorts and her sports bra
Blair turned away from her small mirror, waving her gold-backed hairbrush a little wildly.
"They're such snobs! Such vapid, heartless snobs! I can't believe I ever associated with them. Any of them!"
"Yeah, but, I mean, that's all over," Jo said soothingly. "You're with us now on the 'Voyage of the Damned'." She grinned her endearing, crooked grin.
Blair couldn't help smiling back. She chuckled.
"Jo," she said fondly, "you can always make me laugh."
"Not always," Jo said modestly. "But, you know, I try."
"The worst part," said Blair, looking down at the floor, "is I didn't really say anything. I didn't defend our friends. I just wanted to get out of there."
"Eh, what the hell can you say to snobs like that?" asked Jo. "They think what they think. Best to let it go and just stay away from Greek Row."
"If Harriet Coopersill were here right now," said Blair, "I'd take this hairbrush and shove it "
"Hey, hey now, calm down babe," Jo said hastily. "Jeez. I've never seen you like this!"
Jo had been leaning against the bathtub's broad mahogany surround. She crossed slowly to her fiancée and knelt down next to her.
"Blair," Jo took Blair's empty hand, "don't let those jerks get to you." Jo gazed into Blair's eyes. Earnest blue-green eyes gazed into warm milk-chocolate eyes. "You are the kindest, best-hearted person I ever met," said Jo. "Except your sister Meg, maybe, but she's gonna be a nun, for cryin out loud. Don't worry what other people are like. Just be you, babe. That's all you gotta be."
Blair smiled at her lover. She set the hairbrush on the vanity. She took both of Jo's hands, held them gently, leaned down and kissed the soft, slightly calloused palms.
"Do you know how much I love your hands?" Blair asked.
Jo blushed. "Aw for Pete's sake."
"Well I do," said Blair. She kissed the palms again. "You have the hands of a princess."
"For cryin out loud!"
"I love your fingers." Blair kissed the slender, strong fingers. "You have a surgeon's hands. A pianist's hands."
"Nah I'm just a humble, everyday, brilliant, genius mechanic-type," said Jo, grinning shyly.
"Your hands are magic," Blair said quietly. "The way you can take anything apart; fix it; put it back together." She looked meaningfully at Jo.
Jo's mouth was suddenly very dry. She tried to swallow. How does Blair do that? We been together a year, but sometimes I feel like a goofy kid, like we just got together
"Uh Why do I get the feelin you're tryin to tell me something?" Jo asked.
"I know you want us to spend tonight apart," said Blair, "and I'm all for it. You convinced me. But would it be cheating if we, if right now, this minute, you carried me to our bed and made love to me?"
Jo tilted her head, eyes dancing. Blair's audacity never failed to amaze her. "Of course it would be cheating," Jo said. "The whole idea is we're not supposed to be together at all tonight."
"But Jo Will you do it anyway?"
"Of course. You think I'm made of stone or somethin?"
Jo stood up slowly. She gently gathered Blair into her arms. Jo grunted softly as she found her balance. Blair had put on some weight in Italy, more muscle than fat, and Jo was all for it. Blair had lost so much weight after Dina stabbed her last spring. Jo would rather Blair were a zeppelin than that she were ever so thin again
Blair laid her head against Jo's shoulder. Jo loved the feeling of Blair's long, soft hair spilling across her shoulder and chest. Jo walked slowly into the bedroom, and then tenderly deposited Blair on the white coverlet of their large bed.
Blair stretched out on her back, hair flowing over the pillows. She arched her back slightly, which pushed her breasts forward in a way that Jo found extremely interesting.
Jo licked her lips. "You know, babe," she said quietly, "you don't have to seduce me. I'm a sure thing tonight."
"But I like seducing you, darling." Blair arched her back a little more.
Jo slipped out of her field hockey shorts. She kicked them into a corner of the room.
Blair lifted one dark eyebrow. Her breath caught in her throat a bit, gazing at the dark tangle of hair between her lover's legs. "Jo are you going to practice without underwear now? Is there something I should know?"
Jo grinned mischievously. "I wore panties to practice," she told Blair. "Took 'em off when I got home."
"You knew," laughed Blair. "You knew I would seduce you!"
"Let's just say," Jo unclasped her sports bra, threw it into the corner with her shorts, "that I know my fiancée pretty damn well."
Jo climbed onto the bed, on her hands and knees like a lithe panther. "I didn't know for sure you'd seduce me, Blair," she placed her hands on her lover's hips, "but let's just say I hoped you would."
"Come here," whispered Blair. She placed her hands on Jo's hips, pulling the brunette to her. Blair felt Jo's thatch of soft hair brushing against her naked hip.
Blair placed leisurely kisses on Jo's forehead, cheek and jaw, her nose, her lips. She gently pressed her tongue into Jo's mouth. Jo caught her tongue, flicking it with her own tongue. Jo slid her hands slowly up and down Blair's derriere.
"Let's lose these," murmured Jo, slowly pulling Blair's panties down.
"Mmn," Blair agreed.
Blair's lacey mauve panties joined Jo's clothes in the corner, followed a moment later by her lacey bra.
Jo leaned on one elbow, regarding her fiancée with a loving gaze. Slowly she trailed one finger from the tip of Blair's nose down to one of her feet.
"I love everythin about you," Jo whispered. "You are the most beautiful woman in the world."
Blair blushed. "I can't be," she said, "because you are."
"Let's just agree that we're both hot," smiled Jo. "But I was actually talkin, you know, about inside." She touched the hollow between Blair's large, beautiful breasts.
"So was I," said Blair. "Jo You have no idea Before I met you I was so awful."
Jo shook her head. "Nah. You couldn't a been that bad. Mrs. G was already in your life. She was coaxin some of the snob outta you before I even met you."
"True," Blair mused.
"But Blair, I don't think you get," Jo kissed Blair's tip-tilted nose, "how sweet you are, I mean, just deep down how kind you are. That snob stuff, it's just what you saw growin up, it's just what you copied. Just a bad upbringin. Just surface stuff. Down deep," she kissed Blair's eyes, "you were always kind."
"I'd like to think so," Blair whispered.
"You were. You are." Jo pulled Blair closer. "Just like there's a side of me There's always been a part of me so soft Real vulnerable. I always pushed it down. I hadda push it down cause if you're soft for a second in the Bronx You know?"
"Yes, Jo. I know. I'm learning, anyway."
"I always felt like I needed to front with my folks. They were always freakin fightin with each other. It was a house full of fightin. I hadda show 'em, you know, not to worry about me. That I was tough. I could take it. And then out in the neighborhood. Christ. You show you ain't a hardass, next thing you know you're pullin a knife outta your gut."
Blair shivered. She moved closer to her soul mate.
"I've heard you and Jesse talk," whispered Blair. "She said You've been stabbed. You've been shot."
"And that's bein a hardass," said Jo, chuckling darkly. "Imagine if I hadn't been."
Jo twisted slightly to the right, angling her hip toward Blair. "You see that, the white line there? That's from the blade of a Bronx Barbarian."
Blair touched the pale scar.
"Just a scratch, really," said Jo. She twisted to the left. "See that dark mark, right there, on my glute?"
"Your what?" asked Blair, baffled.
"My ass, babe. See that dark mark?"
"That one?" Blair touched it tentatively.
"Bullet's still in there," said Jo.
Blair pressed the dark mark harder. "I always thought this was a birthmark. There's a bullet in there?"
"I'm engaged to a woman with a bullet in her butt?"
"Who shot you, darling?"
Jo shrugged. "That's a story for another time, babe. Ow! Hey!"
"Sorry," Blair said contritely. "I was just trying to see if I could feel it."
"You can't. It's deep in there. They can't get it without totally friggin up my glute. At least, the doctors at the Arthur Avenue ER can't. Maybe someday I'll get a real actual non-quack type to take it out. Maybe Portia or somethin, huh? I think I'd trust her with my glute. She's real precise and stuff."
Jo turned back to Blair, gently touching the dark, puckered scar over Blair's navel. "It doesn't hurt anymore, does it?" she asked tenderly.
"Sometimes," said Blair. "It's not medical. The doctors say It's a 'phantom' pain. It's in my head."
"Who can freakin blame you?" asked Jo. She leaned down and kissed the dark scar.
"I hate it," Blair said bitterly. "I know it's vain and superficial, but I can't stand having a blemish."
"It's a badge of honor," said Jo, kissing the scar again. "It's the 'I survived an attack by batshit Dina Becker' badge of honor."
Blair laughed. "And there you go again," she said, "making me feel better. Helping me see that something so superficial isn't the end of the world."
"But it's not just superficial," Jo objected. "Dina freakin She violated you, babe. You got every right to be hurt, on every level. That stays with you. I understand."
"And now you're being earnest," complained Blair.
"Sorry." Jo grinned up at Blair. "Enough about our wounds and scars. Blair," she stroked Blair's generous thighs, "let's make love."
"Hear, hear," Blair said approvingly.
"So Any requests, beautiful, since it is our anniversary?"
Blair raked Jo's lean body with her warm brown eyes.
"Yes, darling as a matter of fact, I do have a request. I want to go down on you."
Jo blushed. "Right, ah, now?"
"Yes, darling Right, ah, now."
Blair's hands tightened on Jo's torso. She pulled her lover up the length of her body.
Blair settled back against the pillows, smiling as she stared directly at the dark thatch of hair between Jo's legs. Blair could scent Jo's excitement, that sweet, salty, musky scent that was Jo's unique fragrance when she was aroused.
"Don't be shy, Joey," murmured Blair. She put her hands on Jo's hips, pulling Jo closer, pressing her lips to Jo's damp sex.
Jo groaned. She leaned down, running her hands through Blair's hair, gripping Blair's shoulders.
Blair's tongue flicked over Jo's clitoris, making the brunette gasp, then gently flicked Jo's wet nether lips, before pressing inside her lover.
Jo gripped Blair's shoulders harder. The brunette began moving her hips in a tight, rhythmic rocking motion.
Blair smiled to herself as her tongue darted in and out of her fiancée, both teasing and pleasuring her lover. Jo's groan deepened, became almost a growl.
"Babe that oh Blair " Jo murmured. She rocked harder.
Blair loved how Jo tasted. She could never get enough. She lay back, sinking into the pillows, pulling Jo closer, pressing her tongue deeper into Jo. Her fingernails dug into Jo's hips but Jo was beyond noticing or caring about such slight pain.
Whenever Blair made love to her, Jo's mind shut off. There were no thoughts, only sensations.
Jo's eyes were closed It was a beautiful darkness There was an electric, tingling pleasure between her legs, inside herself One of Blair's hands had moved up her body, was gently touching her left breast, her nipple
When Jo came, every muscle in her body stiffened, and she shouted it was like a war whoop it reminded Blair of the very first time she brought Jo to orgasm. Jo went limp, sliding down Blair's body, falling across her lover, sweating and panting.
Jo trembled. She kissed Blair's stomach, hungrily, hands sliding up to cup Blair's heavy breasts.
Ever ladylike, Blair dabbed at her face with one of the white handkerchiefs she miraculously produced whenever the occasion required.
"My turn," murmured Jo. She kissed her way up Blair's torso, to Blair's beautiful breasts, kissing them and suckling at them until Blair's eyes closed and she moaned feverishly.
"I want to touch you, Blair," whispered Jo. "I want to touch you everywhere "
In her more intense moments, Blair was a woman of few words.
"Do it," she said tersely.
"Do what, babe?"
"Touch me. All over "
"Ha!" said Tootie. "Pay up, Nat."
Natalie glanced at her watch. "Now hold on there, Ramsey. According to my watch, they have two more minutes."
"There's no way they're going to make it. Come on. Fork over the five dollars, Green."
"They've got two minutes, Tootie. Anything can happen in two minutes."
It was night, and in the fragrant darkness they stood near the gazebo, which sparkled with white lights. Under the twinkling lights friends and family milled about, talking and laughing.
"You're just a sore loser," Tootie told Nat.
"Sore loser my eye! I'm not paying until the time is officially up."
"Forget it, Natalie," said Alec. He and his white tuxedo materialized out of the darkness, striding toward them with a tray of cocktails. "They're not going to make it."
"How can you be so sure?" asked Natalie. "O ye of little faith."
"I was just in the kitchen, my dear," said Alec, handing Natalie a glass of Coca-Cola, "and I heard the most appalling shriek from the third floor. So either Jo is making passionate love to Blair, or, in the immortal words of one Eliza Doolittle, 'She done 'er in'!" He handed a glass of ginger ale to Tootie.
"I rest my case," Tootie said smugly. "That five dollars is payable in singles or a five, by the way."
"How could they?" Natalie demanded of the universe at large. "Jo said she and Blair were going to keep apart tonight. They're supposed to be recreating their first night as a couple a night they spent alone!"
"Well the night is still young," observed Alec. "I surmise that the 'alone' part is going to happen after the party is over. For now Artemis and Aphrodite seem to be very much together."
Tootie shook her head. "Nat, Nat, Nat. Gullible Nat. Don't you realize by now that those two can't keep their hands off each other?"
"Tootie! That's no way to talk," objected Natalie.
The young actress rolled her eyes. "And here we go again. 'Little Tootie'. 'Little Tootie' always with the 'Little Tootie'. I'm sixteen, Natalie. Sixteen!" She extended one hand. "Now where's my five bucks?"
Nat sighed. She rummaged in her sensible blue clutch bag. "Sodom and Gomorrah," she muttered. "I'm living in Sodom and Gomorrah ..."
After they showered they dressed each other. Jo lingered over Blair's silk stockings and garters in part because she loved Blair's legs, in part because garters were something of a mystery to her.
"Like this, darling," Blair said gently. "And yes fasten it there "
When they were fully dressed and made up they stood in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom, arms around each other's waists.
Blair wore her white dress and lavender wrap. Jo wore her blue silk pants suit. Their hair was loose and lovely, their mouths touched with lip gloss.
"Wow," grinned Jo. "Couple of red-hot dames huh?"
"Darling," Blair said reproachfully.
"So, OK I'm a red-hot dame, you're a classic beauty."
Blair nodded, satisfied with the description.
"I think I like dressin you almost as much as I like takin your clothes off," said Jo. She kissed Blair's hair.
"Don't muss me," Blair scolded gently.
"I won't much." Jo kissed Blair's mouth, the lightest brush of her lips. "So," Jo led Blair from the bedroom into the sitting room, "shall we?"
"Where are our reservations?" asked Blair.
"Reservations?" Jo opened the door of their suite, stepped aside so that Blair could precede her into the hallway.
"Darling you did make reservations, didn't you?"
"We won't need reservations," Jo assured her.
"We aren't going to Ma Maison, are we?" Blair asked. "Because I think we're still banned there, after Rose and had our little scrap last year."
"Little scrap? Pop and I thought you were gonna tear each other's hair out!"
"Jo Don't exaggerate."
"And you told the mâitre d' to 'blow it out his crankcase'. His crankcase!" Jo laughed so hard a few tears ran down her face.
"Are you quite finished?" Blair asked when Jo calmed down.
"I guess so. Huhn. Crankcase. I was already rubbin off on you, Warner."
"And look at the results, darling banned from Ma Maison!"
"To hell with Ma Maison," Jo said recklessly. "Ma Maison can kiss my Polish ass."
Blair patted Jo's cheek affectionately. "And to think you're mine all mine."
"You did luck out," Jo agreed.
Jo switched off the light in their sitting room and closed the door. She linked her arm through Blair's and walked beside her down the hall.
Their suite was at the top and back of the living quarters, to give them some modicum of privacy. It had been, they hazarded, part of the servants' wing, based on how narrow and plain the corridor was. Based on the relatively generous proportion of their chamber, they suspected it had been the butler's suite.
As they moved toward the front of the house, the corridors grew wider, the decorative touches more elaborate. Jo escorted Blair down the grand front staircase with great dignity and affection.
"I feel like Scarlet O'Hara," Blair said dreamily.
"Before or after the war?"
"Before. The barbecue at Twelve Oaks."
"Frankly, my dear," said Jo, twirling an imaginary mustache, "I don't give a damn."
When they reached the foyer, with its black-and-white marble tiles and fading vintage wallpaper, Jo kissed Blair's hand.
"Miss Warner, ah do declare, you ah the belle of the ball."
"You are such a dork, darling."
"Ah do declare, yes, ah sure am!"
Jo twirled Blair around a few times, until Blair was breathless and a little dizzy.
"Do you know that you are never dull?"
"Glad to hear it!" Jo pulled the heiress close and kissed her. "So, you're thinkin you might, like, keep me around another year?"
"Another year or twenty," Blair conceded.
"We'll play it by ear."
"Fair enough. Fair enough. Come on, babe." Jo led Blair toward a hallway that led into the depths of the house.
"Where are we going?" asked Blair, mystified.
"There's somethin I want you to see. Out back."
"Then why didn't we take the back staircase, my darling nitwit?"
"Because Jo Polniaczek doesn't take her beloved fiancée down back staircases not on our anniversary, anyhow. Nothin but class for you tonight, babe."
"Nothing but class Which is why you're taking me to the dark, chilly backyard?"
"Aw, it ain't chilly," said Jo. "But if it is, I'll get you a coat. Whatever you want tonight, babe." Jo glanced at Blair with such intense, naked love that Blair's heart skipped a beat. "Anythin, Blair. It's your night."
"It's our night," Blair said huskily. She pressed Jo's hand.
"Remember when we all went to eat at that Italian place in Manhattan?" Jo asked dreamily.
"Yeah. That's the place. I didn't, I mean, I didn't understand yet what my feelins for you meant. But when you think back, it's kinda like we were already datin. You remember how you ordered for me? And put my napkin on my lap?"
"Pagliacci's has probably never seen such barbarism before or since," Blair said fondly. "That was your first fancy restaurant, darling or wasn't it?"
"It was," Jo nodded. "And I was starvin, which didn't exactly help my mood."
Blair laughed. "I remember!"
"The way, you know, we sat together, and you were bossin me around, and bein so mean to me it was like we were already an old married couple! And even though you flirted with that bearded creep "
"Whoever. The bearded creep. But I know now that was just to make me jealous like the blue-eyed creep on the train. All in all, that meal was one of our greatest times together ever."
"Until Natalie caught her father cheating on her mother!" Blair said drily.
"Oh. Yeah. See, I always forget that part. I think I block it out. I just remember you and me."
At the back door, Jo pulled a blue silk handkerchief from her pocket.
"Close your eyes, babe."
"Jo what are you doing?"
"I'm just gonna blindfold you for a minute."
"Jo!" Blair sounded both shocked and intrigued.
"It ain't anythin kinky," Jo said hastily. "It's just, I got a surprise out back and I wanna be sure you're really surprised."
Blair closed her eyes and tilted her head back. "Proceed," she said graciously.
Jo folded the blue kerchief and gently tied it over Blair's eyes. "There. That ain't too tight?"
"No, Jo. It's perfectly fine."
"And you can't see anythin?"
Jo took her lover's hand.
"Yeah? I mean, yes?"
"You know I trust you completely."
Jo felt all warm and gushy inside. Who'd ever think I could be such a sap? she thought wonderingly. "Yeah? You do? You trust me like that?"
"Yes. But darling, please don't let me trip over a tree root or a planter or anything."
"Don't worry, babe. I won't," Jo said sincerely.
"Because I don't want a black eye for our anniversary."
"No worries. I'll treat your ass like it's made of fine china."
"Not just my ass, Jo. All of me."
Jo unfastened the back door and pushed it open. She carefully guided Blair as they descended the stone steps, and then as they followed the stepping stones across the vast lawn.
"Jo," said Blair after a few moments, "where are we going?"
"You're not going to bump me off, are you darling? Bury me in the woods? Push me off the bluff into the Hudson?"
"Now why would I possibly do that," asked Jo, "when Eduardo still hasn't figured out your assets?"
"That's what you get for askin silly questions, babe. Just be patient. We're almost there."
"Almost here." Jo stopped Blair with a gentle hand. Delicately she removed the silk kerchief from her fiancée's eyes
"Happy Anniversary, Blair," Jo said quietly.
The little gazebo was awash in lovely twinkling white lights; Tiki torches burned around its perimeter. And on and around the gazebo were people that Blair loved Mrs. Garrett and her husband Drake; Natalie; Tootie; Alec and Jacqueline; Petal; Portia and her husband Gerald; Boots and Mizu
Well, thought Blair, I don't love Boots and Mizu. But they're part of River Rock now. And they're here.
Mona was there too, Natalie's feisty grandmother, the woman who had saved Blair's life last February. And wonder of all wonders, Charlie and Rose were there too.
"Happy Anniversary Jo and Blair," read the banner stretched across the gazebo.
"Portia and Gerald came up from Johns Hopkins," Blair whispered wonderingly to Jo. "And Mona and your parents came up from New York."
"Of course. They love us, babe. They all love us."
Alec clanked his Scotch glass with a spoon and the various soft conversations died down.
"A toast!" Alec called, "A toast to the happy couple!"
Mild little Gerald put two fingers in his mouth and gave vent to a surprisingly shrill whistle.
"It has been my good fortune," said Alec, "to know Artemis and Aphrodite otherwise known as Jo and Blair in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health "
"Alec shut up," said Natalie. "We need a musketeer to make this toast."
"Right on," said Tootie. "And on behalf of all of the musketeers, including Mrs. Garrett, we want to wish Jo and Blair a very happy first anniversary!"
"And we hope someday you can have a real anniversary," said Natalie. "A wedding anniversary. Because, I'm probably the biggest skeptic when it comes to you two crazy kids, but, I've gotta say, you've worn me down. If you two can still stand being together after a whole year, you must be made for each other!"
Gerald whistled again.
Jo slipped an arm around Blair's waist. Blair leaned against her.
Boots snapped a photo of the happy couple, all but blinding them with the flash.
"For cryin out loud," complained Jo. Little purple-and-green spots swam in front of her eyes.
"It's for posterity," explained Boots, waving her Polaroid camera. "I found it in the junk room, and it works. Don't you want to be able to show your grandchildren what you looked like before Blair becomes all wrinkled and horrible?"
"If I can say something," said Mrs. Garrett, "I'd like to toast the happy couple too. Girls I've known you for quite a few years now. You're like daughters to me. And I never thought two of my girls would fall in love with each other. But you're such fine human beings " Her eyes glistened. "And so lovely together It's a hard world, but I know you'll find a way to be happy in it." She lifted her wine glass. "Jo. Blair. To you."
A murmur of "Aw" flowed through the party
"I'd like to say a few words," said Mona. "Girls you're like the granddaughters I never had."
"Hey!" objected Natalie.
"You're the granddaughter I have," Mona told Natalie, "so don't get all in a twist, my little vnooshka. You're the granddaughter I have; Tootie and Jo and Blair are the granddaughters I didn't have, but now they're part of our family now and forever. Jo, Blair, you remind me of those beautiful girls in my village; they were so lovely, I can still see them, in my mind's eye, going to draw water together. They didn't make it through the war; so many didn't make it through the war. Life is so fragile, my girls. Grab every minute and enjoy it. Drink it to the dregs, my girls."
"Mona, you darling old bat, what a downer!" complained Alec.
"Hey, put a cork in it, milord!" called Jo. "We know what she meant. It was beautiful!"
"Thank you, Jo," said Mona. "But his lordship is right. I get a little maudlin sometimes. A little. So now I've said my piece, I yield the floor to someone younger and less maudlin."
"Well I haven't known Jo for very long," said Jacqueline in her staccato, patrician tones, "and Blair and I only crossed paths at society events, but in the last year I've come to know and respect both of them. Jo is not only an astonishing team captain, she's just the noblest person I know. And Blair is the better for loving her; and Jo is the better for loving Blair. So 'cheers' my friends. Cheers and many happy returns of this happy day!"
Everyone cheered and drank.
"I've known Blair since we were in diapers, and Jo is probably the person I admire most in the world," Petal said quietly. Since the Von Schuylkills had been ruined by the Beckers, Petal had lost a lot of her heartiness. Her assurance had drained away and she was, for the most part, a quiet shell of her former hearty self. "I don't pretend to understand whatever is between Jo and Blair, but I know it's beautiful, and simple and true. Here's mud in your eye, girls." She lifted her glass. Everyone drank again.
"Well I've known Blair forever, and I adore Jo," said Portia. "I'm sorry that's not very original. That's what everyone else seems to be saying tonight, but that's how it is. Jo is new to our world but she's brought so much freshness into it, so much life "
"Blown away the damned cobwebs," interjected Jacqueline.
"Exactly, Jackrabbit," Portia said approvingly. "And I wish more people understood the physiology of lesbianism, and the mechanics of lesbian sex."
Natalie spit out her Coca-Cola.
"Because from a purely dispassionate, scientific standpoint," Portia swept on, "lesbian lovemaking is far superior to heterosexual encounters. You see "
"Dear, that was beautiful," Gerald interrupted, leaning up to kiss his bride's cheek.
"Did I say something wrong?" Portia asked.
"No, dear," he said reassuringly. "That was very sound medical information. It's just, being a party, there's only so much clinical information our fellow guests want to hear."
"Of course," said Portia. "Thank you, dear."
"Not at all," he said affectionately.
Charlie cleared his throat. "Well, uh, that isn't exactly the act I wanted to follow," he said, "but I just gotta say a coupla words. Jo, you're my daughter. You'll always be my daughter. I gave you a pretty rough time last year, I know, but you stuck to your guns. What can I say, kid? You were a wonderful girl, and now you've grown into a pretty OK woman. And Blair, I guess you're gonna be my new daughter. I don't know how the hell we're gonna explain this on Arthur Avenue but welcome to the family."
Tears splashed down Blair's face. She sniffled. She was too moved even to whisk out a handkerchief. She let the tears roll down her face and slightly smudge her light foundation.
Jo tightened her grip around her fiancée's waist. Jo's eyes glistened with unshed tears.
Rose cleared her throat. "Jo, Blair I don't have anything to say except I'm trying to understand. And I love you."
There was a pause and then a lukewarm smattering of applause. There seemed to be a general consensus that Rose's toast was anticlimactic.
"Boo!" called Alec. "Come on, Mrs. P you can do better than that!"
"Leave the woman alone!" called Mona. "Don't be such a wiseacre! She's trying, isn't she?"
Blair turned to Jo and kissed her cheek.
A soft "Aw" rippled through the crowd again.
There was a blinding flash as Boots snapped another photo with her Polaroid camera.
"Boots," complained Jo, "I think that's enough photos."
"But what about posterity? What about your grandchildren?"
"Eh, we'll draw 'em a picture."
"Darling I can't believe you arranged this," Blair whispered. "An anniversary party. As if, as if "
"It's a night where we don't gotta hide or pretend," Jo said softly.
"I'll never forget this, Jo. You're the best friend, girlfriend, fiancée ever."
Jo brushed a lock of blonde hair back from Blair's forehead. "Love you forever and back, babe."
"Someday we will have an anniversary party," said Blair. "A real anniversary party."
"Blair, this is real. If this is all we can ever have, that's all I need."
They gazed dreamily into each other's eyes
"God's teeth, Jo kiss her!" called Alec. "Don't just moon over her like a lovesick calf!"
"Leave them alone," said Jacqueline. She sighed. "Aren't they romantic ?"
Someone pressed a white wine spritzer with a twist into Blair's hand, and Alec gave Jo a glass of Scotch. There were more toasts, there was more laughter, and Jo and Blair went to each guest in turn, thanking them for coming, asking after their health
"Well I hope you're happy," Natalie told Jo and Blair. "You cost me five dollars, coming down here so late! Five dollars! You were supposed to preserve your chastity tonight. You were supposed to keep it G-rated!"
"What can I say?" murmured Jo, still gazing lovingly at Blair. "The lady was willing."
"More than willing," murmured Blair
Another blinding flash.
"Boots, what the freak?" complained Jo. "I thought I asked ya to put that thing away."
"I couldn't help it," said Boots. "You had the cutest look on your face."
"How about now?" asked Jo, glaring.
Boots sighed. "So much for posterity," she said, slipping the Polaroid camera into her large handbag
It was a warm night, but when it finally grew chilly they all retired to the music room all except Boots and Mizu, who slipped up to their suite. In the music room Drake mixed more drinks for the guests and Alec played a mélange of classics and show tunes, Beethoven and Chopin, Gershwin and Berlin, Rodgers and Hart. Tootie sang sentimental ballads and cheerful crowd-pleasers from her and Alec's summer stint at Il Caffé Jazz Americano.
When he'd drunk too much Scotch Alec played "Barbara Allen". Blair sang the words to the tragic folk song in her rich mezzo-soprano. When the song finished everyone had tears in their eyes, especially Alec, who was thinking of his Great Aunt Vivienne, so recently deceased.
"Come on, milord," Jacqueline told him fondly, "I'll walk you to your room and tuck you in ..."
"I can't believe you're both here," Jo told her parents wonderingly. "I didn't know if you'd come. You don't have any idea how much this means. You don't have any idea."
"Eh, let's not make a big deal out of it," Charlie said, feeling a little uncomfortable. Course I'm here, he thought. Where else would I be? What a chump I was, thinkin this thing with Blair was some schoolgirl crush! Can't believe I froze the kids out like I did. Never again. Never freakin again
"It is a big deal, Pop," Jo said. She gave her father a quick hug. "You're aces."
"I'm your father, that's all. What am I gonna do disown you? What kinda crum-bum would I be? And anyhow," he pressed Blair's arm, "how can I object to such a beautiful daughter-in-law? She classes up the whole family."
"I don't know," said Blair, smiling warmly at Charlie. "I think the Polniaczeks have plenty of class all on their own."
"Now don't give him a swelled head," warned Rose. "He already thinks plenty well of himself as it is."
Blair turned to Rose, embracing her. "Rose Thank you for being here."
"Of course." Rose returned Blair's hug, but stepped out of the blonde's arms as soon as good manners permitted. Rose had spent hours at Blair's bedside when the girl was stabbed; she had grown to admire and even love the young heiress. Blair wasn't the controlling snob Rose had always thought she was. But all the same
I still can't get past it, Rose thought miserably. I want to so much! But My Jo, loving a woman. It's not natural If only If only they could just be friends
"So Jess and Pauly couldn't make it?" Jo asked her father.
"Nah." Charlie tossed a shelled peanut into the air, opened his mouth, caught the peanut and swallowed it whole.
"Charlie," whispered Rose, looking around anxiously, "for crying out loud, you're not a circus seal. Show some decorum."
"What? I'm just eatin here. What am I doin now?"
"Don't throw your food up in the air and catch it."
"Ma," laughed Jo, "Pop's fine. This ain't exactly Buckinham Palace."
Rose darted a glance at Blair.
"We're very casual here," Blair said reassuringly. "Please. We just want everyone to be themselves."
"Super," grinned Charlie. He tossed another peanut into the air, caught and swallowed it. "But anyhow, lemme tell you why Jess and Pauly couldn't make it," he told Jo.
"What is it? They OK?" Jo asked, concerned.
"Yeah, they're great. They couldn't make it tonight on account of they've got to study. Can you beat that? The Largo screw-up and that little juvenile delinquent "
"Well, Jesse was a little juvenile delinquent. She was always gettin you in trouble."
"I got myself in trouble just fine," Jo said firmly.
"Not sayin you didn't, but Jesse sure egged ya on! But look, what I'm sayin, I'm really impressed. Those two are gettin their act together. Go figure blowin off a road-trip and a party to study!" He punched Blair lightly on the shoulder. "And I hear you're gonna be back in classes, beautiful."
"I enrolled today," Blair confirmed.
"Gonna study business, right? Bein the Warner heiress and all."
"Charlie!" Rose swatted Charlie's arm with her clutch bag. "You know the Warners lost everything last spring."
"Rose, d'you mind not hittin me? For once? And you complain about how I behave! Look, I know somethin about money, bein a senior runner, and I'm tellin ya there's no way all the Warner loot is gone. I don't care how crafty that BZ Becker is; David Warner was no slouch."
"Daddy did have a certain flair," Blair agreed.
"Damn right," nodded Charlie. "I've been studyin him. He was a friggin financial genius. Becker couldn't've gotten everythin."
"Mother took her jewels to Zurich," said Blair. "And she has bank accounts there. And Daddy took a lot of cash to Tokyo."
Charlie waved aside jewels and bank accounts and cash. "Chump change," he said bluntly.
"Charlie!" Rose looked mortified.
"I don't mind, Rose," said Blair. "I want to hear this. It might help Eduardo; he's trying to piece together what I've lost and what, beside the allowance from my grandfathers, will be still be mine when I'm twenty-one."
"Well it's like this," said Charlie. "I been takin this business course Tuesday and Thursday nights, right? And the instructor's a big fan of real ruthless, take-no-prisoners tycoons, like your father."
"They discussed Daddy in a business class?" Blair felt oddly moved. As horrible as he can be He certainly made a mark
"Yeah, sure. The guy's brilliant Blair. You must know that. And one of your father's strategies was bein a real generous guy on paper, anyhow. He was always givin people gifts. Copper mines, cattle ranches, pig farms, timber "
"We know the drill," Jo said darkly. "Blair got audited a couple years ago, on account of all the crazy stuff David Warner put in her name!"
"Eduardo's looking into that," Blair told Charlie. "He's trying to find assets that Daddy put in my name, or mother's. BZ Becker might have missed them."
Charlie shook his head. "All due respect, Blair, do you think Becker would miss stuff in your name, or Monica's? He'd of gone after that just like anything in your father's name, or the company name. What I'm tellin ya is your father put assets in lots of people's names."
"Like whom?" Blair asked curiously.
"Lots of relatives living and dead. Servants. Pets."
"Warner gave assets to his pets?" Jo asked incredulously.
"Not permanently," said Blair, catching Charlie's drift. "Just long enough to confuse his business rivals and the IRS and then he probably moved them under another name."
"Exactly," said Charlie. "So your family could have stuff out there, property, stocks, mineral rights, money, under all kinds of names. Anything your father didn't have time to switch before he fled the country."
"But Eduardo would know that right?" Jo asked Blair. "He's already checkin into that."
Blair shook her head. "I don't think so," she said thoughtfully. "Eduardo was just telling me how much Daddy apparently did without taking Eduardo into his confidence. Daddy has no ethics, you see. And Eduardo does." Blair put a hand on Charlie's arm. "Your instructor was sure about that? Daddy put things under the names of dead relatives, and pets, and servants?"
"That's what the professor says. He knows someone who knows someone who worked in your father's Manhattan office."
Jo snorted. Manhattan office! Office! What a way to describe the towering stone and steel and glass skyscraper at the tip of Manhattan that had, until recently, been the Warner Building!
"Your teacher 'knows someone who knows someone'? Sounds pretty thin," Jo complained. "That's like hearsay twice removed or somethin." And I don't want Blair gettin her hopes up over nothin.
"It sounds like Daddy, though," said Blair. She gently squeezed Charlie's arm. "Thank you. That's truly helpful. I'm going to ask Eduardo to expand his investigation."
Charlie shrugged modestly as Blair smiled up at him.
Christ, she's a beauty, he thought. There was something goddess-like about Blair movie-star goddess, ancient Greek goddess she was so regal and yet so approachable once you knew her
"Just don't go gettin all excited, though," Jo cautioned Blair. "I mean, who knows if this is gonna lead to anythin?"
Blair turned to Jo, fondly touching her lover's face. "Darling," Blair said, "I've already written off my inheritance. I know we might never see a penny. But if there's any way we can recoup any of it we have to try. There's graduate school to think of; and Chestnut's upkeep; and our friends."
Jo cupped Blair's face. "Leave it to you to be thinkin about your horse and our friends! So as long as you're feelin level-headed about it "
"I couldn't be more level-headed."
"OK then." Jo kissed Blair, a light peck on the mouth.
Charlie coughed. He turned away. Rose sighed and shaded her eyes.
Jo laughed. "All right, no need for any heart attacks or whatever. Just kissin my impoverished fiancée."
"Impoverished That sounds so romantic," Blair said dreamily.
Jo took Blair's hand. "It kinda is, huh? Romantic. Like somethin outta Dickens. We're the noble young heroines makin our way in the hard, cold world, until the presto-surprise resolution in the final chapter."
"The third act," Tootie corrected, joining them. "In the theater we call it the deus ex machina it's like the hand of God suddenly zaps everything and kapow! Unexpectedly everyone's problems are solved."
"Well, we could use one of those," said Jo. "Where can we get one?"
"Please 'the hard, cold world'?" asked Natalie, joining them. She gestured expansively, indicating the vast music room with its sea foam-blue walls and comfortable old furniture and musical instruments. "Does this look like a 'hard, cold world'?"
"Figure of speech, Nat," said Jo.
"If you want to hear about the hard, cold world," said Mona, slipping one spindly old arm around Natalie's shoulders and another around Tootie's, "I can tell you all about it. Scene: A field in a small Russian village. Dramatis persona: A beautiful young woman with dimples to die for which is to say, me."
Natalie rolled her eyes. "Gramma, you have to stop spending time with Tootie. She's making you all, all "
"All theatrical," suggested Jo.
"Exactly," said Natalie. "All theatrical."
"I've always been a little bit theatrical, vnooshka," said Mona, pinching one of Natalie's plump cheeks.
"Ow! Gramma that hurts."
"Please! Always so sensitive, Natalie. We've got to toughen you up a little bit yes?"
"No," Natalie said decisively. "I'm very happy to be sensitive, marshmallowy Natalie Green."
Mona shrugged. "Suit yourself, dear. Me, I like a little armor against the world."
"Speaking of armor against the world," Blair said quietly, "have you heard any more from the District Attorney's office?"
Mona grimaced. "They're playing it cagey, very cagey, my dear. They won't say, once for all, that they aren't going to charge me, but they still haven't charged me yet."
"It's ridiculous," Jo said indignantly. "You were saving Blair's life! What were you s'posed to do make Dina a freakin sandwich? Course you had to hit her. You hadda."
"Darling," Blair said, slipping an arm around Jo' waist. "Calm down."
"I'm perfectly freakin calm! I never been calmer!"
"Is that why the vein in your temple is doing the mambo?" Nat deadpanned.
"It ain't funny, Nat!" said Jo, whirling on the younger girl. "Those jackasses at the DA's office could send Mona away for a long time. A long freakin time. If BZ Becker has his way she'll be playin a harp before she gets out!"
"Well she's my grandmother," said Natalie, flushing. "Do you think I don't care? I just don't want to dwell on it. It's too scary to think about."
"Girls," Mona said severely, "stop your squabbling! It's my problem and it's well in hand."
"But Gramma "
"Tut! Not another word, Natalie Green! No long faces. There was a nightclub full of witnesses, and Blair's friend Eduardo has prepared a defense in case I should need it, and I am not worried. Not a bit of it! And I won't have you pulling your hair out over nothing!"
Natalie sighed. "Gramma "
"What part of 'tut' is giving you a problem, vnooshka?"
"Mona," Jo began, but
"Jo Polniaczek, what I just told Natalie double for you!" Mona said with spirit. "I won't be coddled!"
Jo sighed. "No one wants to coddle you. We just, you know, kinda love you and stuff."
"If you love me, you'll drop the subject," Mona said with an air of finality that no one wanted to challenge
Later, leaning against the mantle with her arm firmly around Blair's waist, very buzzed on good Scotch, Jo watched the spirited little woman laughing and talking with Drake and Mrs. Garrett.
Mona's so damn tiny, thought Jo. So strong in spirit but so little.
Mona wore a simple brown dress with a modest ruffle near the collar; it looked like it had been in fashion around 1935.
She looks like a wise little gnome, thought Jo. Kinda like Yoda Yeah. With those big eyes and that little cap of silver hair Course, Yoda's bald, come to think of it
"Penny for your thoughts," Blair whispered to Jo.
"Just thinkin about Yoda," Jo murmured.
Blair groaned. "Jo Our anniversary, and you're thinking about Yoda? It's just as well, I suppose, that we're spending tonight apart." She glanced at Rose and Charlie; Rose was sitting in an easy chair, and Charlie was leaning against the arm of it, and they were talking easily. They were laughing.
"Ma and Pop are havin a good time," Jo observed. "Kinda nice to see."
"Are they staying over?" asked Blair.
Jo shook her head. "They gotta work tomorrow mornin. Or," she looked at the clock between two of the long French windows, "this mornin, I should say."
"How are they getting back to the city?"
"Train. They sprang for tickets. Pop got another raise."
"I'll drive them to the station," said Blair.
"Babe, you don't gotta do that. Drake said he'd drive 'em."
"Well that's very nice," said Blair, "but Drake has had several boiler makers, whereas I have had one white wine spritzer and a lot of Perrier. And they're my in-laws."
Jo grinned. She pulled Blair closer. "Say that again."
"Well they are. Almost. They're going to be my in-laws."
"I love how that sounds," said Jo.
"So do I, darling." Blair leaned her head against Jo's. "It's still hard for her, isn't it?"
"Ma? Yeah. I figure, maybe she'll be comfortable with us bein together by, I don't know, our golden weddin anniversary."
"But she's here."
"I know. And I love her like hell for it."
"Me too," said Blair.
Jo brought Blair's hand to her mouth, kissed it tenderly.
"So where are you sleeping tonight?" Blair asked curiously.
Jo shrugged. "Looks like it's gonna be a sleepin bag. I can't seem to find the tenth bedroom. Guess I'll crash in here. Good as anywhere else. Whenever the crowd clears out."
"You won't be scared?"
"I don't know. Being in here, in the dark, all alone."
"Jeez, what is there to be scared of? We got a ghost no one told me about or somethin? I mean, I'll miss you, babe." She kissed Blair's hand again. "But I won't be scared."
In time, Natalie and Tootie went upstairs, Mona in tow. Mona would bunk in with Natalie.
Portia and Gerald left; they were spending the night at the Fireside Inn and then driving back down to Baltimore the next day.
"We have a lovely couple of cadavers waiting for us at Johns Hopkins," Portia said cheerfully.
Petal, who had kept mainly to herself, melted upstairs quietly after Portia and Gerald left.
Drake and Mrs. Garrett followed soon after.
"Good night girls," Mrs. Garrett said affectionately, kissing first Jo, then Blair. "Happy Anniversary!"
"Thank you Mrs. Garrett."
"Thank you Mrs. G "
Blair drove her truck to the Peekskill Train Station at 300 Railroad Avenue. Rose sat next to Blair; Charlie somehow crammed his big frame between Rose and the passenger door.
Blair loved Rose and Charlie but she still wasn't fully comfortable with them so she snapped on the truck's radio to avoid awkward silences. She spun the tuner to an oldies station, something she figured they could all agree on. As she guided the truck along Peekskill's dark, narrow roads the Platters sang "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes".
"Does does Jo usually drink that much?" Rose asked without preamble. "I mean, I don't want to pry or anything, but "
"For Pete's sake, Rosie," said Charlie. "Jo's twenty now. She can get lit once in a while if she wants. Christ; your sister's lit every day."
"Charlie that isn't true," said Rose, sounding shocked.
"Eh, gimme a break. Evelyn's got a problem and you know it."
"Well this isn't the time or place to discuss my sister. I asked a question about Jo."
Blair turned smoothly onto Railroad Avenue.
She drives real well, thought Charlie. Who'd have figured?
"Jo doesn't usually drink that much," Blair told Rose. "But Alec introduced Jo to good Scotch this summer."
"Jo doesn't She isn't drinking it all the time, is she?"
Blair shook her head. "No, Rose. Jo hardly ever drinks alcohol now that she's back in training. It's all milk and water and juice and some strange, horrible-looking vegetable drink that Portia invented when she was a Lion. It smells terrible. Jo is forbidden to kiss me after she drinks it."
Charlie laughed. Rose pursed her lips.
"Jo looks good," Rose said, almost grudgingly. "I guess you both had a good summer."
"We did. It was a beautiful summer."
"And everything worked out OK with Eddie?"
"Yes. He's a sweet boy."
What does Jo tell Rose, wondered Blair, and what does she keep to herself? It sounds like she and Rose have hardly talked at all since we got back. Jo's so private
"How is your Have you healed all right?" Rose asked Blair.
"Yes," Blair said rather curtly. She still disliked talking about her wound, disliked even thinking about it.
"I'm sorry," said Rose.
"I can't think why. It's not your fault I was stabbed," Blair said calmly.
"I'm sorry I mentioned it," Rose clarified.
Of course you are, thought Blair. Or are you? Rose was hard to read sometimes. Was she being consciously passive-aggressive? Unconsciously passive-aggressive? Genuinely concerned? Or some combination thereof?
"Rose," Blair said gently as she nosed the truck into the deserted parking lot of the train station, "Jo and I are both fine. She's not drinking too much, and my wound has healed."
"A mother worries," said Rose. "It goes with the territory."
"For Christ's sake," grumbled Charlie, "leave the girl alone, Rosie. What is this, the Spanish Inquisition at one in the mornin?"
"It's all right," Blair said as she pulled into an empty parking space near the station steps. "I'm just I'm not used to a mother who really cares," she said quietly.
What the hell? she thought as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Could I possibly sound more self-pitying?
But Rose was touched. She hugged Blair awkwardly. "I forget," Rose said. "I forget about how you were raised "
When Blair returned to River Rock, after she parked her truck and locked the garage doors, she wandered through the dim corridors of her home.
It was almost eerily quiet. Everyone seemed to be asleep in their far-flung bedrooms and suites.
Even the kitchen was deserted, a rare event at River Rock. Usually someone was in the kitchen, fixing a meal or a snack, studying, gossiping something.
Blair went to the coffee pot. It was house rule there was always fresh, hot coffee in the kitchen. Blair poured herself a cup and spooned in a generous portion of sugar. She sipped the coffee as she made her way to the music room
Jo was asleep, lying face-down on one of the divans and snoring like a motor boat.
She set her coffee cup on the mantle. She went to her lover, crouched down and kissed Jo's cheek.
Jo stirred, made a strange gargling sound in her throat. But she didn't wake.
Blair turned Jo onto her back.
Jo was still fully dressed in her blue silk pantsuit. She had pulled a dark blue sleeping bag that smelled of mothballs and cedar half across her, but mostly the sleeping bag was sagging off the divan, crumpled on the floor.
Blair unbuttoned Jo's silk jacket and blouse and trousers. She undressed her lover, stripping her down to her silky bra and panties.
My Jo, she thought, appreciatively regarding her fiancée's lean, muscular body, the body that Blair had grown to know so well. She knew the freckles on Jo's shoulders, and now she knew what that pale scar was from, and that dark mark on Jo's butt.
But that's all surface, thought Blair. There's still so much to learn, so many layers.
Blair adjusted the sleeping bag, covering Jo, pulling the sleeping bag up to Jo's chin. It's going to be chilly tonight, thought Blair.
She leaned down and kissed Jo's closed eyelids.
"Mmph," mumbled Jo.
"Yes, darling 'Mmph'" Blair whispered, smiling.
Jo turned away, facing the back of the divan.
Blair sat for a few moments, stroking Jo's dark hair. Finally she kissed the back of Jo's head and went upstairs, to their suite at the back and top of the house.
Blair pulled her dress off and her underclothes and dropped them here and there, heedlessly. She yawned enormously as she climbed into the big bed.
A few hours ago she couldn't have believed it possible that she could drop into a deep sleep without Jo present. It had been so long, so many months, since they'd slept apart.
But now, after the party, fun as it was, she felt exhausted. The sips of coffee hadn't helped. All she wanted to do was sleep.
She pulled the white coverlet up under her chin. She stretched luxuriously. It was strange, being in bed without Jo And decidedly lonely But there was a lovely lot of room to stretch her long legs and curl her toes Blair yawned again.
A year ago tonight, thought Blair, I was lying in my bedroom in my mother's penthouse. I was looking up at the canopy and I couldn't sleep and then I cried. Because I couldn't imagine how it could ever work out, being in love with a girl.
That's when I first really understood that I loved Jo and that our being together was impossible.
But here we are. Here we are! Battered and wounded but somehow on top. Because we're together. The golden girls of Langley College: Blair Warner and Jo Polniaczek
Blair smiled dreamily. She rolled onto her side and curled up like a child. She missed the feeling of Jo spooning with her, missed Jo's beautiful hands on her hips, but morning would be here soon. When Blair woke she would go directly to Jo, and bring her breakfast, and ravish her on the music room divan
Downstairs Jo mumbled and twisted from side to side within the sleeping bag. She was having a nightmare.
She and Blair were standing on the edge of the bluff overlooking the Hudson.
The beautiful little gazebo was on fire. Flames licked the slender columns and the octagonal roof; paint was burning and peeling and curling away in blackened strips.
Across the lawn, River Rock was on fire. Flames blazed behind the many windows. There was a horrible crystalline cracking sound River Rock's windows shattering in the heat. Clouds of dark smoke billowed from inside. In the distance The sound of screams
Jo clutched Blair's hand. They both stood stupidly on the bluff. Jo felt as if her feet were encased in concrete. She couldn't move a step. She had never felt so hopeless.
There was a dark fleck on Blair's white dress, just above her navel. It grew larger, and larger. It was a dark, angry red. The stain spread rapidly across the front of Blair's dress.
"It's like Manderley," said Blair. "It's like Manderley again ..."
By great force of will, Jo reached toward Blair, tried to pull her wounded lover closer.
But Blair shimmered as if she were made of gossamer and she was gone.
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